pop up description layer
UFO Mysteries
Space & Time
7 Wonders
Surprising Science
Troubled History
Index/Site Map

Custom Search

E-mail this page link to a friend
Enter friend's e-mail:

Requires javascript

Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2011

In the News:

Stem Cell Therapy Heals Monkey's Spinal Injury - Japanese researchers have successfully used stem cells to help a marmoset monkey recover from a serious spinal injury. This marks the first time this has been done in primates. The monkey had been paralyzed from the neck down and on the ninth day after the injury he was injected with induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Within two weeks the animal started moving its limbs and has recovered 80% of its forefoot gripping strength. The group had successfully done a similar experiment with a mouse earlier. It is hoped that this work will pave the way for the recovery of injuries of humans from damaged spinal cords. The researchers were led by Professor Hideyuki Okano of Tokyo's Keio University.

Research Explains Similar Embryo Development Stage - Two recent papers in the journal Nature explain why even advanced species, like humans, look very similar to other animals, like fish and birds, during certain periods of embryonic development. All species follow an "hourglass" type pattern where they look very different at the beginning and the end, but very similar toward the center of development. That is because the center, called the "phylotypic period," is when the most ancient genes and widely shared genes are expressed. During this period mammal, fish, bird and reptile embryos look very similar with a tail and folded neck. It is also during this period when the basic body plan of the creature is laid out. As development continues the structures become different for each species. In a fish, the neck fold becomes gills, in humans it becomes a jaw. The two groups which authored the papers came to similar conclusions using different techniques: one tracked the development of the Zebra fish while the other worked with fruit flies.

Vikings Brought Back Woman from North America - An analysis of genes found in modern Icelanders suggests that some of them have a female ancestor that came back from the new world with the Vikings around 1000 A.D.. According to Spain's CSIC scientific research institute about 80 people from a total of different four families in Iceland have a type of DNA normally only associated with Native Americans or East Asians lineages. "It was thought at first that (the DNA) came from recently established Asian families in Iceland," said CSIC researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox. "But when family genealogy was studied, it was discovered that the four families were descended from ancestors who lived between 1710 and 1740 from the same region of southern Iceland." According to Lalueza-Fox because the island was virtually isolated from the 10th century, the most likely hypothesis to explain this is that these genes correspond to a Native American woman who was brought back from America by the Vikings around the year 1000. The researchers are sure that the ancestor was female because the DNA is mitochondrial which is only passed down through mothers. The discovery helps bolster the theory that the Icelanders visited North America several centuries before Columbus.

T-Rex Built for Speed - For years scientists have debated how fast the gigantic, meat-eating dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Rex could run. A new study in The Anatomical Record suggests that the T-Rex was built for speed and may have been the fastest animal in its eco-system. Scientists compared the T-Rex's tail structure to that of modern reptiles like crocodiles and Komodo dragons. The biggest muscles in the tail, the caudofemoralis, for these animals is attached to upper leg bones. This muscle provides the "power stroke" to the leg allowing for fast forward movement. Scientists observed that the shape of the T-Rex's tail and the position of the ribs allows for much bigger caudofemoralis muscles than almost any other creature. Researcher Scott Persons, of the University of Alberta, believes the size of these muscles have been underestimated in the past by as much as 45%. Parsons is still unclear at about what T. rex's exact top speed was, but he thinks it could run down all other animals in its ecosystem.

Ball Lightning All in the Head? - Two researchers, Alexander Kendl and Joseph Peer at the University of Innsbruck, think that Ball Lightning may all be in the viewer's head. Ball lightning, the appearance of a glowing sphere of light that floats through the air usually during a thunderstorm, has puzzled scientists for many years. Kendl and Peer think that the vision of this phenomena may be induced because of electromagnetic pulses emitted by lightning discharges that affect the vision center of the viewer's brain. It may be similar to Magnetophosphenes (luminous shapes) that appear to people undergoing transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) - a technique used to stimulate brain activity using magnetic pulses. Kendl and Peer think that a person up to 300 feet away from long-duration (one to two second long) repetitive lightning discharge would receive about the same strength of electromagnetic pulse as a TMS subject. While the two admit that their theory might not cover all reports of the phenomenon, they believe that "lightning electromagnetic pulse induced transcranial magnetic stimulation of phosphenes in the visual cortex is concluded to be a plausible interpretation of a large class of reports on luminous perceptions during thunderstorms."


Science Quote of the Month - “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants" - Isaac Newton


What's New at the Museum:

Notes from the Curator's Office: A Bit of Steampunk Magic - Anybody who reads my column knows that I'm a fan of Steampunk and a fan of Magic. Imagine my excitement when I found a family of magicians combining these two things into a single spectacular show. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Ariel's Family - Please, can you tell me more about mermaids? I've become fascinated with them, especially about sightings of mermaids. Thanks! -Mermaid lover

Stories of creatures with a top half that looks like a woman and the bottom half the looks like a fish, go back for thousands of years. Perhaps they first appear around 1000 BC when the Assyrian goddess Atargatis, upset after a love affair gone bad, changes herself into a fish/woman and takes up residence in a local lake. Later stories include the Greek legend of Thessalonike, sister of Alexander the Great, who was turned into a mermaid when she died. Whenever she met a ship she would ask, "Is King Alexander alive?" A sailor with any sense of personal safety knew the right answer was "He lives and reigns and conquers the world" because any other reply would send the mermaid into an rage provoking a storm that would threaten the ship.

Actress Daryl Hannah portrayed an exceptionally beautiful mermaid in the 1984 movie Splash.

Mermaids were often portrayed as extremely beautiful, but troublesome beings. They would often use their female charms, particularly their voices, to lure sailors off a safe course and onto a rocky reef. A mermaid might also try to tempt a sailor to lean over the side of his ship were she could grab him, pull him underwater and drown him. In one tale a Scottish Lord hears a woman in the lake. He runs to her rescue, but is stopped by a servant who warns she is a mermaid. The mermaid then declares to the nobleman that she would have seized him and drowned him if the servant had not intervened.

Even when they didn't go out of their way to cause problems, mermaids were still considered worrying and just seeing one was a bad omen. Observing a mermaid might be a warning that a bad storm was on the way.

Still, in some mermaid tales the creatures turn out to be good. Probably the most famous mermaid story is Hans Christian Andersen's 1836 work The Little Mermaid which is responsible for much of the modern lure surrounding the creatures. In the story a pretty, young mermaid spies a human prince aboard a ship, rescues him when he nearly drowns and gives up her life in the sea to become human in an attempt to gain his love. This story was interpreted into an extremely successful film by Disney in 1989.

The word itself comes from the old English word for sea, mere, and woman, maid. There is an equivalent term for a male creature, merman. The mermen of legend, however, are said to have little interest in humans and are quite ugly.

Through the years there have been many reports of the sighting of mermaids. In 1614, English explorer John Smith wrote that he saw a mermaid in the Caribbean. "Her long green hair imparted to her an original character by no means unattractive." He also said he'd "begun to experience the first effects of love," before the creature dove and revealed the fishy parts of her anatomy.

Columbus also reported seeing mermaids off the Dominican Republic in 1493. He was less impressed than Smith writing that he saw some "female forms" that "rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented."

In 1610 Capt. Richard Whitbourne also claimed he saw a mermaid in Newfoundland's St. James harbor.

What were these sailors seeing? One theory has it that they may have observed some kind of aquatic animal. One possibility in warmer climates would be the manatee (sometimes referred to as a "Sea Cow"). These creatures live along the coast and in rivers in the equatorial regions like Florida, South America and West Africa. They measure up to twelve feet long, weight up to 3,000 pounds and dine on aquatic plants. They are air breathing mammals adapted to the water and move about using flippers and a large tail fin.

Most people would think it would take a very lonely sailor to mistake one of these creatures for a beautiful woman, but manatee expert James Powell, a biologist with the Wildlife Trust in St. Petersburg, has observed "there have been times when they come up out of the water and the light has been such that they did look like the head of a person." To someone who had been indoctrinated with tales of mermaids, at a distance the mistake might not be that hard to make. "If you were expecting to see a mermaid," he notes, "you'd see this back and tail come up with no dorsal fin" just like in the stories.

The fact that people now recognize mermaids as fully fictional creatures may explain why they are rarely reported these days. People today expect to see manatees, not the alluring half women/half fish people that lonely sailors longed for in the past. Still, an occasional report does surface. The Israeli town of Kiryat Yam had several reports of a mermaid along its beach in 2009 and posted a one million dollar reward for to the first person to photograph the creature. One witness, Shlomo Cohen, said, "I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail."

An exceptionally ugly fake mermaid.

Despite the publicity generated by the sightings, so far the reward has remained unclaimed, so perhaps this is a simple tourist scam. Indeed, many reports of mermaids in the past have been hoaxes. The most famous was the "FeeJee Mermaid" first displayed to the public by showman P.T. Barnum in the 1840's. The creature, which was small and ugly, was simply faked by stitching together the tail of a fish with the torso of a monkey. More recent examples of mermaid hoaxes came after the tragic Tsunami that hit in December of 2004. People posted photographs on the internet reportedly showing these creatures washed ashore. It is more likely, however, that the pictures were simply the work of a jokester.

In History:

End UFO Investigation and Start Debunking - January of 1953 marks that date on which the "Robertson panel" changed UFO history. Up to that point the Air Force had been taking UFO sightings seriously and was actually studying and investigating them under the several project titles, the last being "Project Blue Book." After looking at the activities of the project up to that point, the panel concluded the study was a "great waste of effort" and that the project should switch from being a true investigation to a "debunking" campaign designed to reduce the public's interest in "flying saucers." The panel also concluded civilian groups interested in UFOs should be watched as they could be used for "subversive purposes."


In the Sky:

Quadrantid Meteor Shower - On the evening of January 3rd through to the morning of the 4th, the Quadrantid meteor shower will light up the sky with as many as 90 meteors an hour. The meteors appear when the Earth passes through the debris path of comet 2003 EH1. They will appear to be coming from a region of space between Bootes and Hercules that was once occupied by constellation Quadrans Muralis, and that is the the Quadrantid shower got its name.



Invisibility Cloak on the Way? - At least two different groups are preparing papers on experiments about making objects invisible. In the past, scientists have been able to successfully shield microscopic objects from electromagnetic waves that were not in the visible spectrum. These new experiments, however, involve hiding a macroscopic object (something big enough to be seen by the human eye) at light wavelengths that would normally be visible. The papers are being vetted by peer reviewed academic journals now and if they are accepted, perhaps we are on our way to producing a true invisibility cloak like Harry Potter has.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor - The stealth attack of Pearl Harbor by Japanese midget submarines is a little-known story of WWII. On PBS: January 4 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Nova Science Now: Can We Live Forever? - Explore artificial organs, suspended animation, genes that impact aging, and lifelike avatars. On PBS: January 26 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Secrets of the Secret Service - A no holds barred investigation of America's most mysterious law enforcement agency. Classified technology, secret strategies, deception, and human courage combine to provide the best protection possible. On the Discovery Channel: Jan 06, 8:00 pm; Jan 06, 11:00 pm; Jan 08, 1:00 pm; Jan 12, 9:00 am; ET/PT.

Unearthing Ancient Secrets: King Tut's Mysterious Death - Two former FBI agents take on their coldest case yet: the death of Tutankhamun. Using cutting edge science they spend almost four years investigating. Will a CT scan of his mummy finally reveal a cause of death? Was Tut murdered? On the Science Channel: Jan 06, 8:00 pm; Jan 06, 11:00 pm; Jan 08, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

The Templar Code - For nearly two centuries, the Knights Templar were the medieval world's most powerful order, a fearsome and unstoppable Crusader militia. Then came accusations of unspeakable crimes. Who were the Templars, really? How did they become so powerful, so fast, and why did they fall just as quickly? We explore the Templar's origin, how they lived, trained, fought and became a medieval world power, and the suspicious circumstances behind their sudden downfall. Plus, we reveal why these warriors, dead for seven centuries, and their treasure still populate Hollywood blockbusters. On The History Channel: Jan 7th 9PM; ET/PT.

Brad Meltzer's Decoded: Confederate Gold - Best-selling author Brad Meltzer and his team dig into one of the Civil War's most enduring legends: that millions of dollars' worth of missing gold and silver from the Confederate treasury are still buried in secret hiding places across America. According the legend, the only way to find that buried treasure is to decode cryptic signs and symbols left behind by a shadowy Confederate group known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. On The History Channel: Jan 13, 9PM; ET/PT.

Nazi Secret Weapons - Just prior to the end of WWII, the German military secretly undertook a massive push to design miracle weapons - colossal tanks, the world's first guided missiles and long-range bombers that could attack New York. On The National Geographic Channel: Jan 3rd 8:00 PM and 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

American Serengeti - Scientists take on the project of rebuilding the great American plains. To restore the American Serengeti, conservationists must reintroduce populations of iconic American species, some on the brink of extinction. On The National Geographic Channel: Jan 6th 8:00 PM; ET/PT.

Medieval Fight Book - Violent, secretive, spiritual and packed full of knowledge, an obscure and mysterious manuscript called the Fight Book realistically depicts the bloody side of Europe in the Middle Ages. On The National Geographic Channel: Jan 18th 10:00 PM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011

Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


Related Links

Great Pyramid

King Tut Curse

Mummy Page

Rosetta Stone

Lost Ark

Making Mummies

Make a Fruit Mummy

Odd Archeology