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Are you confounded by one of life’s perpetual mysteries? Do you have a burning question unrelated to your coursework? How many stars are in the sky? Why was Stonehenge built? What is the origin of the word “Hoosier?” ASK THE SEEKER! Read more about what The Seeker provides.

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What is the oldest book in the Bracken Library?
Dear Budding Bibliophile, 

The Seeker has been around libraries long enough to know that often, when we take a book from the shelf, we may feel wry amusement: “How long has this fossil been lying around?” But others may feel reverence for the knowledge passed along to us by authors long departed.  We imagine the hands that held the book, and the students who spent long nights studying over the book. This leads us to wonder which of Bracken Library’s books is the very oldest.

To answer this question The Seeker took advantage of CardCat’s advanced search function, and its simple and convenient filters. We are interested in finding the oldest book in the library, so The Seeker chose “Books” from the Format choices.   Since an old and fragile book would not be part of the General Collection, The Seeker chose “Archives & Special Collections” from the Location choices.   For Publication Year, we chose some random ancient centuries:  900-1500.   Since we want the oldest items at the top of the search results, The Seeker chose “Old to New” from the “Sort By” options.  

Voila! Over 30 titles are returned.  However, the first few have LEAF as part of the call  number: the physical description is “1 detached leaf” -- single sheets of parchment or paper -- which hardly a book makes.  The next few are photocopies of esteemed old texts, what here???  They can be removed from consideration by repeating the CardCat search above while adding "NOT PHOTOCOPY" to the Series search box.  

The Seeker was rewarded with a search that returned 12 results   Finally we see Sermones Gabrielis d’ festiuitatib’ gloriose virginis marie  and  Sermones Gabrielis de festiuitatibus Christi, both published in 1499.  A look at the records for these items confirmed that they are, in fact, books. Specifically, they are collections of sermons and religious writings by the 15th century German philosopher and clergyman Gabriel Biel. 

Understandably, these items are not available for loan – one cannot pluck a 500-year-old book off a shelf and take it home for a few weeks. Nonetheless, Bracken Library is committed to sharing its treasures with users; these books and others can be examined and studied at Archives and Special Collections, located in Room 210 on the Bracken Library’s second floor. Peruse the unit’s web page for information on visiting Archives and Special Collections and contacting the librarians and staff.  Additionally, many items housed in Archives and Special Collections have been digitized and are accessible online through the Digital Media Repository

Answered on 2013-07-08 15:24:35

Are there more stars in the sky or grains of sand on the Earth?
Dear Stargazer, 

Long before many current Ball State students were born, The Seeker encountered Genesis 22:17. In the verse, God blesses Abraham for making a harrowing show of obedience and tells the patriarch his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sand on the shore. The Seeker joins you in wondering how large must be their sum, and which is bigger?

By “stars in the sky,” The Seeker assumes you mean the space above us and the stars we see at night. A review of Bracken Library’s books on stargazing reveals this number is not as limitless as we think. In The Greenwich Guide to Stargazing, Carole Stott concludes, “Most people have the impression that there are millions of stars in the sky … People who live in large cities, with pollution and street lighting, will only see about 300 stars above the horizon at any one time on a clear moonless night.”

So, how many stars would be visible under the best conditions? James Muirden estimated in The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook that only 6,000 stars are detectable from Earth with the naked eye. Further, as no man, woman, or Seeker can be in two places at once, it stands to reason that only half of those detectable stars – 3,000 – could be seen from any point on Earth. The rest would be hidden by the immense bulk of the planet beneath the observer’s feet.

Now, as to grains of sand ... How Products Are Made: An Illustrated Guide to Product Manufacturing says sand is generally defined as particles between 0.063 mm and 2 mm in diameter. If we agree they are more or less spheroid, we can approximate their volume (using the equation V = 4/3 π r2). A single grain of the largest sand would be about 4.19 cubic millimeters. Multiplying the volume of this single grain by 3,000 yields about 12.57 cubic centimeters – a shade more than 2 and a half teaspoons and certainly not equal to all the sand on Earth.

The Seeker hopes you sleep better with this resolution to an ancient question.  The Seeker advises you to rest before moving to other weighty inquiries: if the Rockies will crumble before or after Gibraltar tumbles, or if it is better to rock and roll all night or party every day. 


Cavette, C. (1998). “Sand.” In How Products Are Made: An Illustrated Guide to Product Manufacturing. Retrieved from

Matloff, G.L. (1991). The Urban Astronomer. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Muirden, J. (1983). The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Stott, C. (1989). The Greenwich Guide to Stargazing. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 

Answered on 2013-07-08 16:01:33


Do snakes sneeze?


Dear Snake Charmer,

Snakes have long held a prominent place in legend, religion, and art, through which humans have ascribed to them a number of mostly unflattering qualities - cunning, deceit, and cruelty, to name a few. Feeling under the weather, however, is a characteristic not commonly associated with snakes. Nonetheless, illness and sneezing are parts of the serpentine experience.

The University Libraries have a few guidebooks on keeping snakes as pets. According to Snakes of the United States and Canada: Keeping Them Healthy in Captivity, a sneezy snake could have a respiratory infection, be experiencing an allergic reaction, or be reacting to cigarette smoke. (Rossi & Rossi, 1995) Mattison adds, in Keeping and Breeding Snakes, that sneezing could be a sign of pneumonia. (1989)

Other reptiles sneeze too. In fact, one group of researchers observed that crocodiles exhibit a “sneezing-like behavior” shortly before throwing up. (The crocodiles, not the researchers.) The writers described the sneezes as “brief but clearly identifiable sound(s) made with the mouth partially open followed by an inspiration.” (Andrews, Axelsson, Franklin, & Holmgren, 2000)

So if you spot a sneezing snake, it would be sensible to increase the temperature in his enclosure or aquarium. Consider cleaning and rinsing his home, but don’t hesitate to seek the council of a serpent-specialized vet. And remember to extinguish any smoking cigarettes in the presence of your slithery pet. (Rossi & Rossi, 1995)


Andrews, P.R., Axelsson, M., Franklin, C., & Holmgren, S. (2000). The emetic reflex in a reptile (Crocodylus porosus). Journal of Experimental Biology, 203, 1625-1632. Retrieved from

Mattison, C. (1989). Keeping and breeding snakes. London, England: Blandford.

Rossi, J.V., & Rossi, R. (1995). Snakes of the United States and Canada: Keeping them healthy in captivity. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Answered on 2014-02-12 17:05:51

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