Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2003

In the News:

Watchdog Says that Ministry withheld UFO Report - Ann Abraham, a British government parliamentary watchdog, ruled that the British Ministry of Defense "withheld three documents relating to reported sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena in 1980 -- the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident." A ministry spokesperson countered saying that the files were not deliberately withheld and were available to anyone who asked.

The incident occurred in late December 1980 when U.S. military officers investigating what they thought might be a crashed plane saw a triangular "strange glowing object" in the woods near their base. According to recently released reports about the incident "the object was described as being metallic in appearance and triangular in shape, approximately two to three meters (seven to 10 feet) across the base and approximately two meters (seven feet) high." Skeptics think the witnesses were actually seeing the light from a nearby lighthouse, but the report adds that the next day three depressions seven feet in diameter were found in the grass and that readings of beta and gamma radiation at the location were 10 times higher than normal.

African Stonehenge? - A South African scientist thinks he has found an ancient observatory in Zimbabwe which was similar in function to England's Stonehenge. The Great Enclosure at the archaeological site of Great Zimbabwe was thought to be a palace when it was in use 800 years ago, but Richard Wade of the Nkwe Ridge Observatory thinks the ring of crumbling stone was used to track the moon, sun, planets and stars. Several of the stone monoliths, according to Wade, line up with certain bright stars in the constellation Orion as they rise on the morning of the winter solstice. Wade also suggests that a mysterious tower at the site was probably built to observe a supernova that occurred around 1300 AD. Wade has written his ideas into a paper which has been submitted to the journals Science and Scientific American.

"Ski Trails" Found on Mars - Scientists are wondering what created 250 mile long "ski" trails that are visible near the South Pole of Mars. The images derived by the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter on the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft show broad, sweeping lines cutting through a region of the southern ice cap of the fourth planet. "There shouldn't be anything but meteorites up there," said Zane Crawford, a graduate student at the University of Colorado who presented the observations to a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The tracks are not on steep terrain which makes it unlikely they could have been caused by Martians on a ski trip. Scientists have speculated that the trails may be somehow related to the prevailing winds, but the exact cause of the features may not be known until an astronaut/geologist takes field trip to the region and digs a trench to study the underlying sediments.

Bigfoot Hoaxer Dead - Ray L. Wallace, whose family claims he was responsible for hoaxes that started the legend of "Bigfoot," died at age 84 last month. According to friends and family Wallace used 16-inch feet-shaped wood carvings to create tracks near a Humboldt County, California, construction site in 1958. A bulldozer operator found them and The Humboldt Times coined the term "Bigfoot" for the creature that made them in a front-page story about the incident. Wallace was also involved in perhaps what is considered that best proof that "Bigfoot" exists: The Patterson Film. In 1967 Roger Patterson filmed an ape-like creature walking away from him near Bluff Creek, California. Wallace said he told Patterson where to try and find the animal and skeptics suspect he may have had someone in an ape suit waiting there for Patterson to film.

Study Says Mummy Curse is Bunk - A medicine scholar at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has completed a study which purportedly shows that the curse of King Tut never really existed. Mark Nelson selected 44 Westerners in Egypt at the time the tomb was discovered for inclusion in the study. Twenty-five of the group were potentially exposed to the curse either because they were at the breaking of the sacred seals in the tomb on February 17, 1923, or at the opening of the sarcophagus on February 3, 1926, or at the opening of the coffins on October 10, 1926 or the examination of the mummy on November 11, 1926. The study, which was published in the December issue of the British Medical Journal showed that exposure had no effect on the length of survival.

Newspapers in the decades following the opening of the tomb speculated that the deaths of some of those connected with the discovery, most importantly Lord Carnarvon who financed the expedition and died shortly after the find, were caused by a mysterious curse put on the tomb to protect the King's mummy.


What's New at the Museum:

What Happened to the "Lost" Ark? - It's perhaps the most famous relic in history: The ancient Israelite's Ark of the Covenant. What was it and where did it go to? - What Happened to the "Lost" Ark?


Ask the Curator:

World Biggest Web - What was the worlds biggest single spider web and how big was the spider?

I couldn't find any records for the largest single example of a spider web, but I can tell you that the golden silk spider, Nephila, which lives in along the Gulf Coast of Alabama and northern Florida commonly builds webs as wide as the doors on a garage. The female of the species, which is larger than the male, can be three inches across if its legs are stretched out.

A cousin of the golden silk spider, the golden orb spider, which lives in tropical areas from Africa to Northern Australia and the South Pacific islands, has been known to build webs that are eighteen feet high and over six feet wide. This spider's silk is pound for pound is stronger than steel. South Sea Islanders have been known to trick the spiders into building them fishing nets by creating a circle of bamboo and leaving it in the forest. By morning a spider will often have build a web across it and then it can be used for catching fish. The females of the Golden Orb can have a leg span of eight inches with a body length of two and a half inches.

You might think that the world's largest spiders would build the biggest webs, but they don't. The largest spiders are the tarantulas of the South American rain forests. Some of these can have a leg span of 10 inches, a body length of 4 inches and weight of over 4 ounces.


Spores in Tombs - I would like to know more about the microorganisms that were found in the ancient Egyptian pyramids. Were all the microorganisms found Pathogenic and how did they survive the harsh conditions inside the pyramids.

As far as I'm aware the question of microorganisms in ancient Egyptian pyramids has not been widely explored. However, several scientists have looked into the possibility of a biological agent being preserved in the rock tombs like that of King Tut or on objects that have come out of a tomb. One of the first people to look at this was Dr. Ezzeddin Taha, of Cairo University. Dr. Taha studied the health records of museum workers and archaeologists and determined that many had been infected with the fungus Aspergillus niger which can cause fever, fatigue, inflammation and rashes. He speculated that they had picked up the fungus by entering tombs or handling objects that had come out of tombs.

In 1993 Dr. Nicoloa Di Paolo found the toxic fungus Aspergillus ochraceus at some Egyptian archaeological sites. It can damage the kidneys and liver, but it is unknown if it is fatal.

In 1999 the German microbiologist Gotthard Kramer found Aspergillus flavus on some mummies. Infection with this agent can lead to organ failure and death and is particularly dangerous to someone with a weakened immune system.

In all these cases the organism would survive in the tomb as a spore. Spores have a hardened outside shell that allow the organisms to survive for long periods under very harsh conditions (high or low temperature and without water). Scientists even speculate that spores may allow life to be transferred through outer space riding on meteorites.


In History:

Underwater Lights - On an evening in January of 1880 the crew of the steamship Shahihehan, which was cruising in the Indian Ocean, saw a strange sight: Illumination in the water that looked like spokes rotating on a giant wheel. The Captain was so surprised by what he saw he stopped his ship to observe it.

This phenomenon has been observed many times since, especially in the Indian Ocean. Most observers agree that the glow comes from tiny bioluminescent organisms in the water, but what causes these creatures to release their light in such an organized pattern is unknown.


In the Sky:

Dog Star - Thursday, January 30, is a good day to spot the star Sirius which is nicknamed "The Dog Star" because of it's location in the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog. Look for it in the southeast an hour after sunset. Sirius will be the brightest star in the sky, but don't mix it up with the planet Jupiter which rises at about the same time, but is a magnitude brighter and located in the east-northeast.



It's Raining Fish - Tiny fish rained down on the village of Korona in northern Greece last month. Villagers found the fish on the banks of Lake Doirani, which lies on border with Macedonia. According to a weather expert at the University of Salonica, in northern Greece, the fish were probably picked up off the lake by a mini-tornado that appeared in conjunction with a thunderstorm.


On the Tube:

Currently we are only able to give accurate times and dates for these programs in the United States. Check local listings in other locations.

NOVA: Ancient Creature of the Deep - Meet the coelacanth, a bizarre fish and "living fossil" that has changed little in its 400 million years on Earth.. On PBS: Jan 21 at 8:00 PM; ET.

Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science - The legend of a North American Ape species known as Sasquatch, Bigfoot and Yeti has been around since recorded time. Even today, sighting and physical evidence is gathered on a regular basis. Is this creature fact or fiction? On the Discovery Channel: Jan 09 9:00 PM; Jan 10 12:00 AM; Jan 11 3:00 PM; ET.

Nostradamus: A Skeptical Inquiry - Experts use forensic techniques to translate and verify what Nostradamus "really" predicted. Fact is separated from fiction as it relates to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. On the Discovery Channel: Jan 09 10:00 PM; Jan 10 1:00 AM; Jan 11 4:00 PM; ET.

Building the Impossible: The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - Learn the historical background of each of the Seven Wonders of the World using information from ancient sources, modern investigations of the remains and computer animation. Uncover the mysteries of the cities and civilizations to which they belonged. On the Discovery Channel: Jan 27 9:00 PM; Jan 28 12:00 AM; Feb 01 5:00 PM; ET.

Archaeological Mysteries - Take a journey far back in time to explore some of the world's greatest archaeological mysteries including remnants of a floating stone city in Micronesia, sandstone dwellings in canyon cliffs in New Mexico and huge patterned lines in the Nazca desert. On the TCL: Jan 30 10:00 PM; Jan 31 1:00 AM; ET.

Mysteries of Stonehenge - Experts believe that Stonehenge took half a millennium to bring to completion. It required the ingenuity to transport the heavy stones over land and sea for hundreds of miles without our modern tools and equipment. Explore how and why it was constructed. On the TCL: Jan 30 9:00 PM; Jan 31 12:00 AM; ET.

Trail of the Vikings - Journey to English soil and find the date of the last Viking army to set down foot, and then follow their greatest voyage to America. Learn about their culture and adventures. On the TCL: Jan 14 10:00 PM; Jan 15 1:00 AM; Jan 16 10:00 PM; Jan 17 1:00 AM; Jan 19 7:00 PM; ET.

Secrets of the Ancient World: The Enduring Mystery of Stonehenge - For 5,000 years, the sacred site of Stonehenge has stood on the plain of Salisbury, England, silent witness to a myriad of mysteries. Who built the prehistoric stone circle? Druids? Merlin the Magician? Was it an altar for human sacrifice, or landing pad for UFOs? Experts, anthropologists, and astronomers assess the mystery. On the The History Channel: Jan 09 8:00 PM; Jan 10 12:00 AM; January 12 7:00 PM; ET.

History Undercover The Nazi Plan to Bomb New York - Aviation historian David Myhra has been investigating secret German aircraft projects for more than 20 years, and has uncovered evidence of a diabolical Nazi plan to deliver a radioactive bomb to New York. In late 1944, the "Amerika Bomber" project was planned, and three aerospace designers--Wernher von Braun, Eugen Sanger, and Reimar Horton--each had a different solution. On the The History Channel: Jan 21 8:00 PM; Jan22 12:00 AM; ET.



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