Over the Edge
Roundup of Strange Science for the Month
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
Science Quote of the Month -
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon
the shoulders of giants" - Isaac Newton
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
Mysterious Picture of the Month - What
is this thing?
Ariel's Family - Please, can you tell
me more about mermaids? I've become fascinated with them,
especially about sightings of mermaids. Thanks! -Mermaid
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
Daryl Hannah portrayed an exceptionally beautiful
mermaid in the 1984 movie Splash.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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;
On the Discovery Channel
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
Jan 06, 8:00 pm; Jan 06, 11:00 pm; Jan 08, 1:00 pm; Jan 12, 9:00 am;
On the Science Channel
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?
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
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
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
Channel: Jan 18th 10:00 PM; ET/PT.
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