Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2010

In the News:

Is New Exo-planet a Waterworld? - A team of international astronomers has discovered what appears to be a planet made almost entirely of liquid water, with perhaps a small rocky core. The exo-planet, called GJ 1214b, was found by David Charbonneau and colleagues at Harvard University along with researchers in the US, Denmark, Switzerland and France. It orbits a nearby "M dwarf" star that is much smaller than our Sun. The planet is about 2.5 times the diameter of Earth and about 6.5 times Earth's mass with a density almost exactly that of water. It is much closer to its star than the sun is to the Earth, with a much higher temperature. Despite that high temperature, however, the water remains liquid because of the higher gravity (and resulting pressure). Scientists find the idea of a planet with liquid water very interesting because they believe liquid water is a necessary precursor for the development of life. The team is requesting time on the Hubble Telescope to find out more details about this new planet.

Revolutionary Paper Battery May Have Many Applications - Experiments by Yi Cui and scientists at Stanford University show that paper can be used as a cheap and effective option for energy storage. The paper is coated with a mixture of ink, single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and silver nanowires and then sealed. The result is material that could be used as a rechargeable battery or supercapacitor. The material retains its properties even if it is folded or rolled up into a narrow tube, which will allow it to be applied to a wide range of applications. "If I want to paint my wall with a conducting energy-storage device, I can use a brush," Cui says. Scientists cite electric and hybrid cars as possible applications.

More of the Dino Warm/Cold Blooded Debate - The debate over whether dinosaurs were warm or cold blooded has raged for years. Recently a study by Herman Pontzer and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis has added more fuel to the fire. The scientists used a combination of computer modeling techniques and physiology to try and predict the energy cost of dinosaur movement. Earlier research by Pontzer's group discovered there was a strong correlation between leg length and energy requirements in most animals: A longer distance from the hip joint to the ground usually means more energy will be required for movement and it will be more likely the animal will be warm blooded. After studying anatomical models of 14 dinosaurs, they determined dinosaurs as a group would have used more energy than a cold-blooded animal would've been capable of producing. This makes the scientists believe that many dinosaurs were probably athletic, warm-blooded animals.

Recently Found Fragments Open Questions about Shroud of Turin - Fragments of a burial cloth from the time of Jesus discovered in a Jerusalem cemetery known as Akeldama, may cast doubt upon the authenticity of the famed Shroud of Turin. The Shroud of Turin, thought by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus, has been at the center of controversy for decades. Radiocarbon-dating tests in 1988 indicated that the fabric was of medieval origin dating to the 11th or 12th century suggesting the relic was a fraud. The recently found shroud fragments actually known to be from Akeldama during the right period may be further evidence that the Turin relic is a fake. The Shroud of Turin is a single linen cloth with an intricate twill weave, while the recently found fragments are made up of a simpler two-way weave constructed in two pieces: one for the head and one for the body. If the newly found artifacts can be shown to be typical construction for burial cloths from this era, it makes it less likely that the Turin Shroud actually originated from 1st century Jerusalem.

HARPS Finds 32 Planets - An international team announced last month that the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS, installed at European Southern Observatory in Chile has discovered thirty-two exoplanets in the last five years. The device can detect slight wobbles of stars as they respond to tugs from the exoplanets' gravity. The instrument is so sensitive it can detect movements as small as 2.1 mph, a slow walking pace. "HARPS is a unique, extremely high precision instrument that [is] ideal for discovering alien worlds," said Stephane Udry of Geneva University. Currently there are 400 known exoplanets and a HARPS instrument is responsible for discovering 70 of them. The team says they are aware of many additional planets found by the instrument, but the rest need additional observation before they can be formally announced.


Science Quote of the Month - "Anybody who has been seriously engaged is scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: 'Ye must have faith.'" - Max Planck


What's New at the Museum:

A Close Encounter with Ball Lightning - I write a lot about people who have encounters with anomalous things, but rarely do I just stumble across someone in my everyday life that tells me they encountered a rare electrical phenomenon called ball lightning. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Stars or Galaxies? - When I look up at the night sky, how many of those stars are really stars and how many are galaxies? - John

First, let's start with defining the difference between a star and a galaxy, for those not familiar with these terms. A star is a giant ball of hydrogen gas massive enough support a fusion process that generates heat and light. Our local example is the sun. There are also dimmer white and brown dwarf stars and these are usually stars that have burned off enough of their material that they can no longer really support fusion.

A galaxy is a group of stars bound together by their gravity. A galaxy often takes the shape of a flattened, rotating disc (left). The stars are pulled into arms that give the galaxy the appearance of a whirlpool when viewed from above. Not all galaxies have this shape. Scientists speculate that galaxies with other shapes may be the result of a collision between two galaxies. Galaxies typically are composed of billions of stars. Scientists all speculate that most galaxies may have a supermassive black hole at the very center.

On a good, dark night if your vision is exceptional, you might be able to spot some 2,500 stars in the sky with your unaided eyes. However, only a handful of galaxies can be seen without binoculars or a telescope. There is, of course our own galaxy (the Milky Way) and if you live in the Southern hemisphere you may be able to spot the large and small Magellanic Clouds. In addition if you know where to look you might be able to find the great Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) and the Centaurus A Galaxy (NGC5128).

That's at best six compared to twenty-five hundred. And not all of those galaxies can be seen from one location on the Earth.

That, of course, doesn't mean there are not a lot of galaxies in the sky. They are just mostly too dim to be seen without a telescope.

A related question might be, are there more stars in own galaxy that galaxies in the visible universe? Current estimates put the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy at around 100 billion. That's a lot, but it's only a drop in the bucket when compared to the estimated number of visible galaxies: Over seven trillion.

And that's, only those galaxies we can, in principal, see with our telescopes. There may be trillions beyond the reach of our current equipment. In fact, many astronomers suspect the universe, and the number of galaxies, is infinite.


In History:

Cloud-like UFO? - On January 7th, 1970, two men were out skiing in Finland when they noticed a mysterious, glowing, red cloud that approached them. When it got within fifty feet of them they realized it was a domed disc that was generating smoke. The device hovered near them and in the mist they could make out the image of what seemed to be a three-foot tall hominoid figure on the ground beneath the machine. This continued for about 20 seconds, and then the red fog, the humanoid and the object suddenly disappeared. There is no explanation for this strange sighting.


In the Sky:

Quadrantid Meteor Shower - January brings us the Quadrantid Meteor Shower which peaks overnight from January 3 to 4. Look toward the north as soon as it gets dark to see some "shooting stars" as they fall to Earth. The Quadrantid meteor show is named for an extinct constellation was in the region of Hercules, Bootes, and Draco.



Visit Italy on the Cheap - If you always wanted to visit Pompeii, the Roman town preserved by when it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., but couldn't afford the plane ticket, try visiting Google Maps. Google's Street View now gives virtual visitors 360-degree panoramic street-level service though the ancient town. Temples, Statues, amphitheaters, as well as close-up views of houses, bakeries and baths are now available on the search engine's free mapping service. Unlike other computerized virtual tours of ancient sites, the Google's photographic approach provides a realistic experience making the visitor feel as if they were walking down the ancient byways along with other tourists. Give it a try at this link.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor - Dive beneath the surface to discover an untold story of WWII. January 5 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Seven Wonders of Ancient Egypt - The ancient Egyptians showed the world how boundless ambition and vast quantities of human labor could transform rock and stone into the most incredible monuments ever created. Meet the pharaohs, engineers and laborers who built the wonders of Egypt. On The Science Channel: Jan 05, 6:00 pm ET/PT.

The Day the Earth Nearly Died - The Permian mass extinction was the worst disaster ever to hit Earth. It shattered ecological order and changed evolution forever. Now, scientists shed new light on the mystery of the most destructive event in the planet's history. On The Science Channel: Jan 05, 7:00 pm; Jan 06, 2:00 am; ET/PT.

Dive to the Bottom of the World - The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has assembled a team of experienced scientists and engineers to explore the 'Challenger Deep' which lies in the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific. At 35,000 feet, it is the deepest place on Earth. On The Science Channel: Jan 11, 8:00 pm Jan 11, 11:00 pm Jan 12, 4:00 pm Jan 13, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

The Death Star - For decades, scientists have been baffled as to the origins of extraordinarily violent explosions that blast through the universe. Hypernovas, the death of massive stars 20 times the size of the sun, might be the key to one of creation's mysteries. On The Science Channel: Jan 03, 8:00 pm; Jan 03, 11:00 pm; Jan 05, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Sci Fi Science: How to Build a Starship - Hurtling across the galaxy in a starship powered by anti-matter isn't some sci fi writer's impossible dream, as Dr Michio Kaku proves when he reveals his blueprints for a spacecraft that can journey to the stars. Alpha Centaurii is nearer than you think. On The Science Channel: Jan 05, 10:00 pm;Jan 06, 1:00 am;Jan 07, 5:00 am ; ET/PT.

Cosmic Collision - Right now, massive meteors and asteroids are orbiting dangerously close to Earth. Some may even be poised to hit us in the foreseeable future! Where are they? What type of damage will they cause? What can we do stop an asteroid that's headed towards us? On The Discovery Channel: Jan 10, 8:00 pm; Jan 10, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Earth 2100 - Easter Island, the Mayan ruins, and the abandoned pueblos of Chaco Canyon all stand as haunting monuments to extinct civilizations. Each of these societies collapsed because of man-made ecological disasters. Each confronted choices chillingly similar to the ones we face today. Are we living in the last century of our civilization? Many of the world's top scientists say yes, unless we quickly learn the lessons of the past. This two-hour special examines the current path of our modern world. Top U.S. Army, intelligence, and policymakers who have modeled a scenario of the next century say that if we continue on this trajectory, over the next hundred years the "perfect storm" of population growth, resource depletion, climate change, terrorism and disease will converge in an unstable world with catastrophic results. What lessons of the past must we heed to survive? On The History Channel: Thursday, January 07 09:00 PM; Friday, January 08 01:00 AM; Saturday, January 09 05:00 PM ; ET/PT.


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