QUESTION: Why don't astronauts see very many stars when they go into space?

ANSWER: They all say the same thing: Space is black.Astronaut Eugene Cernan fumblingly tried to explain it: "The Earth is surrounded by blackness though you are looking through sunlight. There is only light if the sunlight has something to shine on. When the sun shines though space it's black. All because the light doesn't strike anything. The light doesn't strike anything so all you see is black."

The real explanation is somewhat simpler: It's hard to see stars through heavy sunglasses. The windows of the capsules were tinted. So were the space suit visors when the astronauts walked around the moon. They could still see the major stars, but not the faint ones. Without tinting, they'd have been dazzled by the brilliance of the Earth, the moon and the sun. Film has the same problem: It can't capture something bright and something dim in the same frame. Eventually, though, telescopes with clear (and powerful) lenses will be placed in orbit, aimed away from the distracting brillance of sunlight, and will provide a spectacular view of deep space.

QUESTION: Why do people still get advanced academic degrees and pursue careers in the field of geography even though we already know where everything is?

ANSWER: Geographers now study such things as why so many barns are painted red. Or - we're looking at an article here in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers - "Cattle and Sheep in Spain." Here's another that looks equally riveting: "Spatial Associations of Midtropospheric Circulation and Upper Mississippi River Basin Hydrology."

Geographers have been a little defensive ever since the blank spots in places like Darkest Africa got filled in. They hate being regarded as little more than cartographers, and boldly plunge into the turf of political science, economics and history. Instead of maps they often use flow-charts, graphs, branching-trees, two-dimensional scales, standard deviations and, for gosh sakes, LISTS. There has, in fact, been a boom in the field in the past decade as geographers take advantage of new "remote sensing" technologies - such as satellite-based radar and multispectral scanners - to make better maps than ever. And as with all academic fields, specialization is rampant: biogeography, urban geography, geomorphology, historical geography, biblical geography, Native American geography, etc.

Isaiah Bowman, a Harvard geologist, said in 1936 that no one should ask, "`Is this just pure geography or am I spilling over into sociology or history?' Damn these boundary fellows who think the Lord created `subjects' . . . Simon-pure geography is a blind man feeling the elephant's tail."

Harvard, unheeding, phased out geography in 1947-51. In more recent years Michigan, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and Columbia have axed their departments. But still, every year up to 9,000 students get a bachelor's degree in geography, about 750 more get master's and 175 earn doctorates. Mary Lynne Bird, executive director of the American Geographical Society, told us, "Geography is a heightened and analytical consideration of places."

Still, you have to kind of long for the day when a guy in a pith helmet could stumble around with a compass and keep a journal with lines like, "Emerging from the dense forest, I saw, 30 miles away to the north-northeast, a jagged granitic rise that I think I will call Mount Bodacious."

QUESTION: Why are so many barns painted red?

ANSWER: Early American farmers (according to a geography professor at the University of Northern Iowa) made a durable paint out of skim milk and iron oxide, a reddish substance that comes from "paintrock," prevalent in all 13 original colonies. Though many farmers stopped keeping dairy cows and thus stopped making paint out of milk, the tradition of red barns continued.

Got a question? Write to us. Join the party. Get with the new crusade of Information Retrieval. Write to Why Things Are, c/o Tropic Magazine, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami Fla. 33132.