Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2014

In the News:

Living Shoes? - You get up to do your morning jog in the year 2050. Before you head out you fetch your shoes out of a jar filled with protocell growing solution, where they have been healing themselves overnight, and slip them on. As you start your run the shoes, much like a living thing, senses how you are striking the pavement and swell in the right places to cushion the impacts on your heels. As you move off the pavement to a dirt trail, they adjust to give you better footing. Something out of science fiction? Not if designer Shamees Aden has her way. At the Wearable Futures event held in London she introduced the idea of running shoes made of protocell materials. Protocells are not really alive individually, but when you put them together as a group they can take on the characteristics of a living thing. They could be designed to sense the pressures on your foot and adjust to cushion them. When are done you would just drop them back into their jar so soak up food and heal for the next day. Don't expect to get them for next Christmas, however, they will probably need several decades of development.

Hubble Finds Europa Geysers - Astronomers are excited by photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope that seem to show plumes of water vapor shooting off from the southern pole of Europa. Europa, a moon of Jupiter, has been long thought to have an underground ocean covered by an icy surface. "The plumes are incredibly exciting, if they are there. They're bringing up material from in the ocean, perhaps there's organic material that will be laying on the surface of the south pole. Those are the things that we want to know about," said James Green, head of NASA's planetary science programs. If confirmed by additional observations the findings will indicate the presence of liquid water on the moon. This could have implications for the possibility of it supporting life. It would also help explain why the moon's surface appears relatively smooth and crater-free.

New Species Found after a Century - Scientists have discovered a new species of miniature tapir that lives in the Amazon rainforest. The creature had remained unidentified as a new species even though a specimen, shot by adventurer and later U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, had been sent back to the U.S. for examination over a century ago. A decade ago paleontologist Mario Cozzuol first suspected there might be a new tapir species, in addition to the four already known, while examining tapir skulls that didn't match those of local species. After years of collecting DNA Cozzuol and associates published a paper in the Journal of Mammology identifying and naming the new species Tapirus kabomani (using name for tapir in the local Paumari language). The 250 pound, mostly nocturnal creature is the fifth tapir species identified and the third in Central and South America. It is about a two-thirds smaller than the other local species which has an average weight of around 700 pounds. The local refer to it as the "little black tapir."

Find Pushes Back Roots of House Cat - Evidence show that cat domestication may go back further that previously thought, at least in China. 5,300-year-old feline bones were excavated from Neolithic village site in Quanhucun, China. The remains were from two separate animals, one of them extremely old suggesting an environment well-sutied to its survival. The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supports the notion that cats began their relationship with humans following the start of agriculture. "This was a very unexpected find," said study coauthor Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. Scientists are surprised that the housecat got its start in the far east. The ancient village, where the cats likely protected the settlements stores against pests, is far beyond the range of the wild version of these cats, the Middle Eastern wildcat Felis silvestris lybica. This leaves scientists wondering just how they got there. Before this the best evidence of domesticated cats was from 4,000 years ago in Egypt.

Why Do Men Have Big Noses? - Ever wonder about why men's noses are bigger than womens? A study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology seems to have the answer. A bigger nose allows any humanoid to get more air and more oxygen. Men on average are larger than women with a greater need for oxygen. It goes beyond just that, though, as the study showed that even in men and women of the same size the man's nose is still about 10% larger. The difference turns out to be the extra muscle mass carried by men compared to women. Men need a bigger nose as the extra oxygen is needed to grow and maintain those muscles. The difference starts around age 11 when puberty kicks in and children's bodies start to take on their adult characteristics. The study also explains why modern humans have smaller noses than Neanderthals. Neanderthals had more muscle tissue and needed larger noses to get the oxygen to maintain that tissue.


Science Quote of the Month - "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." - Carl Sagan


What's New at the Museum:

Rings of Saturn - Of all the wonders of the solar system, none are quite as amazing as the rings of Saturn. Saturn, the second largest planet in our solar system, is not the only world with rings - Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune have some too - but Saturn's are by far the most visible and spectacular. - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Interstellar Travel in an Expanding Universe - We often say that one day it may be possible to visit or even occupy (colonize) another star system. Can this be possible when the universe keeps on expanding, meaning that at any given time, the nearest star is getting even further away? Won't there be this continually expanding distance to consider, which means we should be traveling faster than the rate of expansion to reach the nearest star? - Nanshir

That's a good question and to answer it we have to talk about the structure of the universe on various levels. Let's start with the galactic level. Galaxies are collections of stars that are held together by their respective gravities. Our galaxy, known as the Milky Way, has somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars in it. It is a typical spiral galaxy in the form of a disc about 110,000 light years wide and 10,000 light years thick at the center where it tends to bulge outward.

Within the confines of a galaxy the force of gravity dominates over the universal expansion. This means that within the Milky Way the stars do not move apart and the galaxy stays basically the same size. The stars within our galaxy (like our nearest neighbor Proxima Centauri) do not tend to move away from each other. In fact, they sort of just wander around pushed and pulled by the forces of gravity. For example while Proxima Centauri is our closest neighbor at 4.3 light years today, another star designated Ross 248 (which is currently at a distance of 10.3 light-years) is coming toward us and will pass by us in about 31,000 years at a distance of only 3 light years.

The Andromeda Galaxy: Headed our way... (NASA)

Okay, so let's look at the next level up from our galaxy: the local group of galaxies. Does the space between them always get larger because of the expansion of the universe? Well, not really. Gravity also works between galaxies and they often wander around in their groups. For example, in our local group we are on a collision course with our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy. Don't sweat it though. It won't happen for another 4 billion years (And even when it does the stars of the galaxies don't actually hit each other. The collision mainly changes the shape of the affected galaxies).

It is only after we get beyond the local group of galaxies, and even beyond the local cluster of groups, that we finally see the distance between these collections of galaxies growing because of the universal expansion.

So colonizing other stars in our galaxy will not be a problem at least as far as the expansion of the universe is concerned. We would still have the vast distances between stars to be worried about, however. One way of solving this problem might be to use a "sleeper" ship (where all the passengers would be put in to suspended animation for the flight that might last decades of even centuries).Another solution would be a "generational" ship (where one generation would start the voyage, live out their lives on their spaceship, and the journey would be completed by their children, or grandchildren).

And, of course, if we could find a way to build engines that would "warp" space - like on Star Trek - and defy the speed-of-light, then we might be able to colonize planets by zipping between them on a starship like the Enterprise.

Have a question? Click here to send it to us.

In History:

Nikola Testla's Legacy - On January 7th, 1943, one of the most brilliant, and mysterious, figures of modern science died: Nikola Tesla. Testla, born in 1856, was a Serbian-American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist. He largely responsible for designing the alternating current electrical systems used across the world today to deliver power. Tesla's mind boggling inventions and his knack as a showman in exhibiting his astounding discoveries made him world-famous in the early 20th century. Read more about this forgotten genius on our biography page.


In the Sky:

Quadrantids Meteor Shower - The Quadrantids Meteor Shower will peak on night of the January 2nd and morning of the 3rd this year. The shower is created by dust grains left behind by an extinct comet known as 2003 EH1. Expect the crescent moon to set early in the evening on those nights. This will leave dark skies for viewing the shower which will appear to radiate from the constellation Bootes.



Track UFO in Real-Time on Your Smartphone? - A group of UFO enthusiasts want to build an app for your smartphone app that will detect if there is a UFO in the area so you can see it. The app, named UFO-Track, will monitor the Earth's magnetic field and detect disturbances (which the group believes indicates a UFO in the vicinity). The app then will alert the phone's owner so they can document the sighting. According to their website ( "UFO Track wants to get more eyes on the skies and have people at-the-ready with their cameras and equipment, so that we can verify UFO events with multiple-source, undeniable, verified, quality hard evidence." The app and network is still under construction and interested parties can donate to the startup costs at their website.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes - Could the explosion of Iceland’s ticking time bombs cause cold and famine worldwide? On PBS January 1 at 9 pm ET/PT

Nova: Alien Planets Revealed - Are we alone—and if not, what might the inhabitants of far-flung worlds look like? On PBS January 8 at 9 pm ET/PT

Nova: Zeppelin Terror Attack - Discover how the first civilian bombing unfolded as Germany’s Zeppelins rained fiery terror on London in World War I.On PBS January 15 at 9 pm ET/PT

Dinosaurs: Return to Life? - Dinosaurs: Return to Life follows scientists who are using the latest technology and amazing advances in genetic research to revive the possibility of creating a living breathing dinosaur, but in a different way than we ever imagined. On the Science Channel: Jan 3rd 8:00AM; ET/PT.

How Big Is The Universe?- Set out on a journey to the edge of the greatest map in existence: the map of existence. Cosmology, once a field of theoretical speculation, is now in a Golden Age. Scienctists have found ways to probe the previously invisible secrets of the Cosmos. On the Science Channel: Jan 5th 7:00PM & Jan 6th, 2:00AM ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Aliens and the Third Reich - If ancient aliens visited Earth in the remote past, could they have given us advanced technology, past down through human history? And could this technology have helped the Third Reich build mysterious weapons and crafts far beyond the limits of 20th century science? During World War II, there were reports that the Germans built an operational flying saucer, known as the Hanebu, which was said to use mythical technology found in ancient Indian texts. Another craft was rumored to have been constructed with the help of psychics and mediums who claimed to have received detailed blueprints from extraterrestrial beings. Is it possible Hitler's quest for world domination was aided and abetted by ancient extraterrestrial technology that was rediscovered? And could the allegedly rebuilt alien devices developed in Germany have played a role in America's ability to land a man on the moon? On the History Channel: January 13, 8:00 PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2014. All Rights Reserved.


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