Some little-known facts about Kansas

These remarks were short-listed from the Science Cabaret. Quite a while ago I offered them to the Kansas Board of Tourism to use as an endorsement for our state, free of charge. I am still waiting for a response.

Kansas occupies the exact geographical center of the continental United States. And on the maps they show us in grade school, the US is at the center of the world. This is somewhat inconvenient for the Russians, whose country is split in half – sometimes to go just a little distance from east to west, you have to travel all the way across the world in the opposite direction – but hey, we paid for the map. In cosmological terms, astronomers tell us that if you look up at the stars, all the galaxies in the sky are flying away from us at tremendous speeds. Put all this information together and you discover that Kansas lies at the navel of the universe. At least until a tornado comes, carries us away, and dumps us someplace else.

People are proud of this location but you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. You have to remember we didn’t choose to live there. A long time ago when the government drew Kansas on a map, that’s where they stuck us. We would have preferred to be closer to one ocean or the other, but nobody asked. Somebody has to live at the center of the universe, and it just happens to be us. Anyway, we have lots of other things to be proud of. Right at the moment I can’t think of any, but ask me again in a couple of weeks. I’ll do some research.

This explains a lot about Kansas. For example, why we get lots of aliens. Imagine you’re zooming across the galaxy, at thousands of times the speed of light, experiencing extensions of time and your bladder. At some point you need a rest stop. We’re conveniently located, we have good coffee, and clean restrooms. And excellent steak, the cheapest in the universe. So aliens drop in all the time. About 25 percent of Kansans claim to have been abducted by aliens. They’re not trying to hurt us. It’s a mistake, they think we’re fast food. If nobody’s at home when they come by, they take one of your cows instead.

Some more little-known facts about Kansas: the state flower is the sunflower, the bird the Meadowlark, and our state song is “Home on the Range.” We learn it in the first grade, and it goes like this:

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play…

When they teach us this song you think, is this really about Kansas? Sure, we have a lot of deer; if you live in the outer suburbs they come right into your yard. Your dogs think they’re toys you’ve brought home, just for their enjoyment. In deer season, people shoot them. But you have to be careful. It’s easy to mistake your neighbors’ lawn ornaments for a deer, and people are quite sensitive about having their lawn ornaments shot to pieces. In deer season it is not unusual to see statues of the Virgin Mary, garden gnomes, and bird feeders dressed in fluorescent orange hunting jackets.

One odd thing about the song is that we know that the plural form of deer is deer. Nobody, even in Kansas, puts an –s on deer. But antelopes… We’re not so sure about that one. “Antelopes” sounds fine to me. So in the song, they’re either talking about one specific deer and one specific antelope, or a bunch of deer and that one particular antelope.

Try as I might, I have never seen that animal. And I’ve looked for it, believe me. Every time I drive through my state, I keep a sharp eye out. But I’ve never seen the antelope. And where are the buffalo that are supposedly roaming around all over the place? Your teacher says, “We killed them all.” Doesn’t seem like nice behavior towards an animal featured prominently in your state song, right there in the first line, but there you have it.

And the song neglects some of the other prominent species in our state. Right now, for example, Kansas is up to its neck in llamas. Everywhere you go these days, somebody’s started a llama farm. I don’t think you can milk one, and their eggs are inedible, but a llama must be good for something. Whatever it is, we should consider changing the state song. For example,

Oh give me a home where the buffalo (used to) roam
And the deer and the camelids play…

The song goes on to say,

…Where seldom is heard
a discouraging word
and the skies are not cloudy all day.

Here, we’re talking outright lies. I’ve heard a lot of discouraging words in my time – most, it is true, from foreigners from places like Paris and New York, but every once in a while a native will rip you with a criticism. And we do have clouds. There is the tall and majestic variety, which look like clipper ships, or six-packs of beer, or Snoopy on his Sopwith Camel, and other times they’re low and grey, hiding tornadoes and hail and all sorts of other unpleasant things.

Or perhaps I’ve misinterpreted this line. Maybe the intent is, “all day long.” To be even clearer, the phrase might mean something like: “All right, we have clouds, but they never stay in the sky all day long, because eventually the wind pushes them into Missouri.” In any case, you have to admit, the original is either a lie or is highly ambiguous.

The state motto is Ad astra per aspera, which is interesting because the number of Latin speakers in Kansas is approximately the same as the number of ancient Romans. If you say it really fast, with a Kansas twang, it sounds like “a disaster for aspirin,” but now we have Google Translate and it’s easily cleared up. Run the motto through the website and you discover it means, “To the stars with difficulty.”

They got that right. It’s difficult for anybody to get to the stars, but it’s a special challenge in Kansas. We don’t have any mountains. If you climb a mountain the stars are still far away, but they’re just a little bit closer. States with mountains have an unfair advantage when it comes to going to the stars.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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