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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2012

In the News:

T-Rex Packs on Some Pounds - A new study suggests that that the Tyrannosaurus Rex might have been 30 percent larger than has been estimated in the past. Scientists scanned the fossilized skeletons of several of the animals, including Chicago Field Museum's "Sue," one of the most complete T-Rexs ever found, into a computer. To this computer model that added flesh creating several body types from extremely skinny to plump. "These models range from the severely undernourished through the overly obese, but they are purposely chosen extremes that bound biologically realistic values," said study co-author Vivian Allen of the Royal Veterinary College. Estimates in the past have used scale models or extrapolations from other living animals with very different body plans. These methods were subject to many errors, however, that should be eliminated with the computerized estimates. The new calculations show the Sue, who was thought to weight around 14,000 pounds probably actually weighed 18,000 pounds, even with one of the slimmer body types. Another surprising result of the study is that the animals may have gained as much as 3,950 pounds annually during their fast-growing teenage years.

Why Do We Have Any Hair? - Some scientists have wondered why humans, among all the primates, lost their hair. Others wonder about why we have any at all: we retain a coating of vellus hair or "peach fuzz" over much of our skin. Now a new study suggests that we keep this fine hair because it helps ward off parasites. In the study Isabelle Dean and Michael Siva-Jothy from the University of Sheffield created a rectangles bounded by Vaseline on the skin of their volunteers. One rectangle was shaved, the other was not. When a bedbug was placed on the rectangles, the test subjects more rapidly felt something crawling on them in the unshaved areas. Also the bedbug took longer to find a good spot to feed on the unshaved area. One theory is that we lost our heavy fur pelts because in provided too many places for parasites to hide. It appears that we have retained the little hair we do have for to warn us of the same parasites.

T-Rex: The Hunter - In the long running battle between palaeontologists about whether Tyrannosaurus rex was a ruthless hunter or shameless scavenger, the hunter side has just struck another blow. A new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, takes a look at all the dinosaurs that were alive at the time of T-Rex, in the Late Cretaceous, and decides that if he was only a scavenger, T-Rex wouldn't have survived. It looked at the type of dinosaurs in the environment, their sizes and act ivies and concludes that by the time T-Rex lumbered to a kill that some smaller carnivore had made, that animal would have been stripped of most of its useful meat. "Given the distribution of carcasses and the potential competition with other carnivorous dinosaurs, it is extremely unlikely that an adult T- rex could use scavenging as a long-term sustainable foraging strategy," the study says. So the authors conclude that T-rex must have done at least some of its own killing.

Pigeon Math - Most people would think that pigeons aren't particularly brainy, but a recent study indicates that, in fact, they are math geniuses. Well, at least as smart as rhesus monkeys. In the study, published in a recent edition of the journal, Science, researchers were able to show that pigeons could order numbers like 1, 2 and 3. They could also be trained to take a pair of numbers and put them in ascending order. For example when presented with images containing 8 or 5 symbols, they would peck at the objects representing 5 first. The researchers suspect that this level of ability may be widely spread throughout the avian world as Alex, an African grey parrot used in research, seemed to have similar skills. These numeric abilities seem to be on par with a number of primates. The next thing researchers would like to find out is if these math skills somehow evolved independently in birds and primates, or if all the animals in the evolutionary tree in between also have similar capabilities, and that is going to mean a lot more animal testing.

Beethoven's Music Changed by His Hearing Loss - Scientists in the Netherlands have taken a look at that progression of Beethoven's works and determined that his continuing hear loss affected how he wrote music. Beethoven first complained of not being able to hear higher notes and voices in 1801 when he was 30 years old. By his death in 1827 it is believed that he had become completely deaf. The researchers divided his string quartets in groups based on when they were written and determined that as the composer lost his ability to hear higher notes he stopped putting them in his music. Instead he used more middle and low-frequency notes, which he could hear better when he listened to the music. It wasn't until Beethoven was completely deaf, and couldn't hear any of the performed work, that the high notes returned to his works.


Science Quote of the Month - "In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last." - Hugh Walpole


What's New at the Museum:

The Nostalgic BBS - For almost two decades, from the late 70's through the mid 90's, a subculture flourished throughout most of the United States and parts of Europe and Asia. It involved thousands of mostly young, technically-oriented people exploring the capabilities of the newly developed personal computer to allow communication and socialization in ways never seen before >Full Story

The Northern Lights- In Norse mythology the Valkyries would come galloping across the night sky upon their horses equipped with helmets, spears and armor that would glow and shimmer in the darkness. These lights, colored red, blue, violet and green, would spread in curtains from horizon to horizon, amazing the mortals below. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

The Filthy Facts - What is dirt made of? - John

By dirt I assume you are referring not just to that stuff that we find under our fingernails, but to that stuff that's under our feet when we step outside our houses into the back yard. If so, then more technical word for this material is soil.

Though the exact ingredients change from location to location, soil is about 45% minerals, 25% water, 25% air, and 5% organic material. The mineral portion is simply rock that has been broken and crushed down to tiny particles over time. There are a number of different processes that help break a large boulder down into gains. The most obvious of these is water. In a climate where the temperature drops below zero at night for part of the year, water from rain or snow can work its way into tiny cracks in the rock. When the temperature goes down the water turns to ice and expands, cracking the rock. This widens the fissures allowing more water into the rock so that the process is repeated over and over again.

Plants can also break rock apart. Even in rock newly created from cooling volcanic lava, certain plants can find a foothold by locating nutrient-bearing water in pores in the rock. The plant's roots support a fungus called mycorrhiza that generates chemicals that break up the rock. As the roots grow they can also mechanically widen the pores to cracks, furthering the process.

Both water and wind can also act to erode rock and break it down by scraping tiny particles against it like sandpaper. These broken up gains of rock are known as "parent material" (With the parent being the original rock).

Although organic material only composes about 5% of soil, it's one of the most important parts and absolutely necessary for plants to grow. A single shovel full of topsoil can contain billions of tiny plants, animals and microorganisms. These include bacteria, fungi, and protozoa that can eat the minerals and convert them to nutrients that plants can use.

Soil has definite layers. Starting at ground level we have the area where surface plants and animals live. When living material dies up here it is attacked by bacteria and broken down and turns into humus. Humus is simply organic material that has reached a point where it can be broken down no further and will remain just as it is for centuries.

The next level is known as topsoil and this is where most of the organic material in the soil, dead and alive is. Much of the topsoil is in the form of the aforementioned humus.

The level below that is subsoil. The subsoil has much less organic matter than topsoil, but plenty of nutrients and water, so plants shoot their roots down to this level to get these and pull them back up to the surface.

Weathered parent material is the next level. This has almost no organic material at all and is composed of minerals broken down into small particles. The parent material that created this isn't necessary the same as the bedrock below this level as wind and water may have displaced the granulated minerals from distant locations.

The lowest level is solid bedrock. The distance from the surface to the bedrock varies a lot from location to location, but on average it is about eight inches. It takes about a thousand years for a half inch of soil to develop in nature, but this is dependent of many factors like climate and the hardness of the parent rock material, as well as whether soil itself is eroded away by water and wind.


In History:

Sister Thedra's Bad Prediction - In January of 1953 Dorothy Martin, who would later take the name Sister Thedra, said she started getting messages from aliens via a phenomenon known as "automatic writing" where the receiving person's hand operates a pen or pencil not under their conscious control. The messages warned her that the world would end on December 21st, 1954, when a gigantic tsunami that would wipe out Chicago. Only Thedra and her followers would be evacuated by aliens and survive. Of course this didn't happen, but the movement provided the opportunity for three Minnesota sociologists to study Thedra's followers and write the book When Prophecy Fails. Perhaps those predicting the end of the world in December of 2012 might want to dig up a copy.


In the Sky:

Quadrantids - The Quadrantids meteor shower can be seen after midnight on the morning of January 4 this year. It's one of the year's most active usually producing 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Viewing will be best after 3AM when the moon sets. The forecast says that the finest viewing will occur in eastern North America, the North Atlantic Ocean and western Europe. The good way to view a shower is to place a blanket on the ground and look up so you can see as much of the sky as possible.



Space Junk Hits Africa - In Namibia authorities were puzzling over some strange sphere shaped pieces of metal that apparently came crashing down from space. Part of an alien flying saucer? Well, not really, but they did fall out of orbit. The objects turned out to be "Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels" ( COPVs). These are tanks used in to hold gases under pressure in a space environment. The ones found in Africa were about 14 inches in diameter and welded together. The tanks are also wrapped with super strong carbon fiber or Kevlar which explains why they survived a fierily reentry. Similar COPVs have been found in Australia and Brazil. So far nobody knows what agency launched the mission responsible for the African space junk.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Deadliest Volcanoes - From Japan's Mt. Fuji to Yellowstone's buried supervolcano, how can we best prepare for the most lethal eruptions? On PBS: January 4 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

NOVA: Bombing Hitler's Dams - Experts recreate the daring feat of "dambuster" pilots who used bouncing bombs to destroy two key German dams in WWII.On PBS Channel: January 11 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

NOVA: 3D Spies of WWII - With 3D graphics, NOVA reveals how the Allies used special aerial photos to deal a dire blow to the Nazi rocket program. On The PBS: January 18 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Aliens and the Creation of Man - Why are humans so different from every other species on Earth? Did we evolve from ape--or is our intelligence the result of contact with an otherworldly source? Could unexplained advances in human evolution be the work of interstellar beings? 10,000-year-old petroglyphs link our ancient ancestors with star beings. Might evidence of alien contact help unlock the mystery of the Creation of Man? On The History Channel: Jan 03, 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Hitler's Secret Weapon - As the Second World War began to draw to a close, the scientists and designers of Hitler's Germany were employed in a frantic race to create new ideas that would turn the tide of the conflict. They developed some of the most sophisticated and advanced weaponry of the age - the so-called Wunderwaffen or Wonder Weapons. From missiles and enormous tanks, to the biggest gun ever built and the prototype of a plane capable of launching a suicide bombing raid on the skyscrapers of New York On The National Geographic Channel: Jan 1, 03:00 PM & 8:00PM; Jan 2, 3AM; ET/PT.

The Truth Behind: Zombies- The Truth Behind Zombies explores the origin of zombies, their religious roots and whether mutated virus strains could cause devastation of zombie proportions. With commentary from zombie enthusiasts and cult experts, virologists and mathematical epidemiologists, this unique show separates the truths from the fiction that surrounds one of popular cultures most tangible monsters.. On The National Geographic Channel: Jan 13, 2:00 PM & 9PM; Jan 14 1:00AM; ET/PT.

The World Heritage Special: Wild Russia : Kamchatka - A land of fire and ice, the volcanic peninsula of Kamchatka lies in Russia’s far east. With the land constantly being reworked by eruptions and landslides, this far-flung part of the country is dangerous, but incredibly fertile. Heading right into this magical land, this stunning film follows soaring golden eagles, scavenging wolverines, young red foxes and local brown bears partial to a dip in a natural hot spring On The National Geographic Channel: Jan 4, 1:00 PM & 8PM; Jan 5 12AM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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