New study says three prisoners from Alcatraz that escaped in 1962 might just have made it to safety..


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


January 2015

In the News:

Escape from "The Rock" Might Have Been Successful - A new study suggests that three prisoners that escaped from Alcatraz prison in 1962 might have survived their dash to freedom across the cold waters of the San Francisco bay, but only if they left at just the right time. The three are the only inmates that might have successfully escaped from the "The Rock" in the middle of the bay. It is thought that after getting out of their cells they attempted to paddle across the bay in an inflatable raft they'd constructed from raincoats. The three were never heard of again and many people think they may have drowned. Now Dutch scientists using software designed to predict flooding in the bay area, think that as long as the group set sail between 11PM and midnight they could have reached land just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The scientists determined this by reprogramming the model to mimic the tides and currents on that fateful night in '62. The software showed that if they had left sooner than midnight the three would have been swept out to sea by the strong tides resulting in certain death.

Ancient Egyptian Book Gives Spells - Researchers believe they have managed to decipher an ancient handbook of Egyptian magic spells. In their new book professors Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, from Macquarie University and University of Sydney, respectively, describe how the 1,300 years old codex contains instructions on how to cast love spells, exorcise evil spirits and cure disease. "It is a complete 20-page parchment codex, containing the handbook of a ritual practitioner," wrote the professors, and "starts with a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power. These are followed by a number of prescriptions or spells to cure possession by spirits and various ailments, or to bring success in love and business." The book is written in Coptic and is made of bound pages of parchment. It is origin is a mystery as it was procured from an antiquities dealer based in Vienna some 30 or 40 years ago, but the dialect suggests came from Upper Egypt, near the city of Ashmunein/Hermopolis.

Greenpeace Damages Nazca Lines in Stunt - The environmental group Greenpeace are in trouble for a stunt Peruvian authorities claim damaged the famous and ancient Nazca Lines. The lines, some geometric shapes, others drawings of animals, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They average 2000 years old and can best be seen from a plane. The activist group placed plastic sheet letters on the ground reading "Time for Change; The Future is Renewable." The message, which also contained the group's name, was placed in close proximity to a well-known hummingbird drawing. "It's a true slap in the face at everything Peruvians consider sacred," Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo said, adding, "You walk there, and the footprint is going to last hundreds or thousands of years." The group has apologized, but authorities are considering holding them criminally responsible for "attacking archaeological monuments."

The Arrow of Time May Flow Both Ways - Physicists have long wondered why time seems to travel only one direction: forward. After all, the equations of physics work perfectly well in either direction. Why do we always move into the future, however, but never the past? One theory is that it's because of the 2nd law of thermodynamics which states that in a closed system entropy (disorder) can only increase ("things tend to fall apart"). Now two scientists have come up with another theory. Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski from the University of New Brunswick, and Flavio Mercati of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics think that it is actually gravity that is driving time and that time does flow into two different directions starting at the big bang. "If you look at a simple model with a swarm of bees in the middle [which represents the Big Bang] but breaking up in either direction, then you would say there are two arrows of time, pointing in opposite directions from the swarm of bees," says Barbour. "This two-futures situation would exhibit a single, chaotic past in both directions, meaning that there would be essentially two universes, one on either side of this central state. Both sides could sustain observers who would perceive time going in opposite directions. Any intelligent beings there would define their arrow of time as moving away from this central state. They would think we now live in their deepest past."

Guinea fowl Helps with Dinosaur Motion - Scientists have used a guinea fowl, a tank of poppy seeds and a video X-ray machine to figure out how dinosaurs walked. Paleontologists have found many dinosaur tracks preserved in rock, but interpreting them to figure out exactly how the animals walked has not been easy. To get a better idea of how these tracks may have been formed scientists used a guneafowl (a distant descendant of a dinosaurs) and an video X-ray machine to watch how its feet moved as it negotiated a bed of poppy seeds. The poppy seeds took the place of the soft mud that the dinosaurs moved though while making the tracks. By looking at the motion of the foot and the orientations of the seeds after a step, scientists were able to explain how mysterious ridges in the real tracks were formed. "The simulation shows us that as the foot comes out, it comes out in the middle of the track and it pulls sediment upwards while it does so," said study author Peter Falkingham, a research fellow at the University of London's Royal Veterinary College. "So these are actually exit traces from the foot." Scientists hope that this study will help them understand the mechanics of dinosaur motion. "Footprints often get a bit overlooked," Falkingham added. "But as a record of motion, they provide information that bones cannot."


Science Quote of the Month - "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious - the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." - Albert Einstein.


What's New at the Museum:

Wonders of the Solar System: The Asteroid Belt - The planet that never was: Sometimes finding something missing can be as intriguing as discovering something that's there. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

The End of the Universe - Our small Earth and other planets are in space. It's a big area; can you tell me the total size of space? Will it have a beginning and an end? - J.R. (A question from our archives).

One of the fundamental questions scientists have struggled with over the years is the size, shape and destiny of the universe. The prevailing theory is that the universe came into being about 13.7 billion years ago in what has been whimsically called "The Big Bang." It has been expanding (some people use the term "inflating") ever since. Gravity - the force that pulls all forms of matter toward each other - is working against the expansion. For a long time scientists debated over whether there was enough matter in the universe given its size (what we call the density) to bring the expansion to a halt and eventually reverse it. If there isn't, gravity will just slow down the expansion but never stop it. If the universe came back together it would end in a "Big Crunch." If it continued with a slow expansion it would just sort of slowly die out as all energy was expended and evenly distributed through out all of space.

The scientists were blown away when recent observations showed that the universe is unlikely to either be pulled back together or just slowed down. The universe's expansion actually appears to be accelerating, for some unknown reason. Scientists have speculated that is due to an unknown force we can't detect which they have dubbed "dark energy." If this is the case, if the universe is accelerated enough it may end when it is actually ripped apart at the atomic level in some distance future.

The shape of the universe is related to its density because higher density means more gravity. If the density is beyond a certain critical value, space, as seen in four dimensions, will be rolled up into the shape of a ball. If the density is just at the critical value, it will be as if the surface of the ball had been flattened out into a sheet. If the density falls below that critical point, it will be as if the sheet had been bent down on two sides and up on the other two forming a "saddle" shape.

The shape of the universe, in turn, has an impact on theories about how large it is. For example, the observable universe (that is the part we can see) is about 92-94 billion light-years across. If the universe were a closed sphere, however, it could actually be quite a bit smaller than this because light traveling in a "straight line" would eventually follow the curve of the sphere and come back to its starting point. This means that if you used a telescope to look at a distance galaxy, you might be actually be looking at your own galaxy from the other side. It might seem that it would be easy to look at a distant part of space and see if the galaxies there matched up with any galaxies in opposite direction, but an experiment like this is extremely difficult to do. In reality the great distances involved mean that we are seeing the galaxies at different times in their history, so they may not look the same or be in the same position.

Recent data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) NASA launched in 2001 suggests that the shape of the universe - at least the observable universe - is nearly "flat" with a minimum size of around 78 billion light years. However it is more likely that it is quite larger and may indeed be infinite. For comparison the diameter of the orbit of Neptune, our outer most planet, is a little more than one thousandth of a light year wide.

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In History:

ENIAC Birthday - On January 1st, 1946, ENIAC ( Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first American computer was completed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. This primitive thinking machine used 18,000 vacuum tubes to do its calculations. Of those tubes, 2,000 burned out each month of operation and had to be replaced. Though ENIAC was the most brilliant machine of its era and was used by the military to help design the atomic bomb, it processed the equivalent of only 500 FLOPS (Floating Operations Per Second). An iPhone 5 can do about 500 MFLOPS (Million Floating Operations Per Second).

In the Sky:

Five Planets in One Night - January 2015 will be one of the few times you can see all 5 naked eye visible planets in the sky in a single evening. Look for Venus, Mercury and Mars in the southwest sky an hour after sunset. You will need a clear view of the horizon as Mercury will be low in the sky and will be the first to drop below the horizon as the night moves on. About four hours after sunset you will see Jupiter rise in the east. Then several hours before sunrise you can see Saturn appear in the predawn sky.


Old Flying Saucer in Apollo Pics? - A UFO enthusiast pouring over some archival pictures taken on the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 thinks he had found an alien craft in the background. The object appears as three dots together in the sky under high magnification. "The objectů does appear to be some kind of craft, but with a shape unlike anything I have seen before," noted Scott Waring in his UFO blog. "Sure it looks like a triangle, but actually it seems more like three large tubular sections that become one. This is probably a drone keeping an eye on the Apollo 15 mission, perhaps out of curiosity, or perhaps out of fear." Others who have examined the photos point out it could just as well be a speck of dust on the photo or a problem that occurred when the picture was being developed or copied.


Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014

Copyright Lee Krystek 2015. All Rights Reserved.


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