Plesiosurs swam through the water like penguins.


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


January 2016

In the News:

Plesiosaurs Flew though the Water Like Penguins - A recent study concludes that Plesiosaurs, marine reptiles with four flippers and saucer shaped bodies that lived when the dinosaurs did, moved though the water much like penguins by using their flippers to "fly" underwater. Scientists used computer simulations based on the anatomy of a Meyerasaurus (a type of plesiosaur from 180 million years ago) to find the best swimming strategy the creature's body. They concluded the fastest forward speed was achieved by flapping the two front flippers up and down similar to the method used by penguins and sea turtles. "What was unexpected was that no matter what motion we simulated for the back flippers, they could not substantially contribute to the plesiosaur's forward motion," said Georgia Institute of Technology computer science professor Greg Turk who worked on the study. The paper was published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

New Planet in Our Solar System? - Does our solar system have a new planet? Researchers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array think they may have found a "super Earth" on the edge of our solar system. The team was observing the Alpha Centauri star system, when they saw a fast-moving object pass through the field of view. Its brightness and speed eliminated it from being a star. Instead they believe it is a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) orbiting somewhere between 10 billion and 2 trillion miles from the sun (at least more than twice the distance of Pluto). Many in the science community are skeptical of the super Earth idea as the chance of the team stumbling across a planet with the small field of view there using seems unlikely. Most skeptics suggest that it may be a much smaller, icy body more similar to Pluto. Further observations may reveal the truth.

Ninja Shark - A newly discovered species of shark with jet-black skin, bulbous eyes, and special cells that allow it to glow in the dark has been given the common name "Ninja Lanternshark." Researcher Vicky Vásquez said the name came to mind after she described the shark's capabilities to her 8-year-old cousins. The shark, which is about a foot and a half long, uses it's dark skin and ability to glow slightly in the dark, to camouflage it at the deep, dark ocean depths at which it lives. This helps the shark sneak up on small fish or shrimp while also eluding larger predators. "We don't know a lot about lanternsharks. They don't get much recognition compared to a great white," says Vásquez, who is a graduate student at the Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC) in California. "So when it came to this shark I wanted to give it an interesting story."

Harder Than a Diamond - Researchers at North Carolina State University have created a substance harder than diamonds. Q-carbon, created by blasting a thin sheet of carbon film with a 200-nanosecond laser burst heating it to 6,740 degrees Fahrenheit, is 60 percent harder than diamonds because of tighter bonds between the atoms in material's structure. Q-carbon is a new solid phase of carbon (a different way of arranging carbon atoms) previously unknown. The other two known arrangements are graphite and diamond. The laser technique is relatively fast, allowing the production of a carat of the material in about 15 minutes.



Science Quote of the Month - "It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious." - Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)


What's New at the Museum:

The Great Eastern - It was the largest ship of its era. So massive it was renamed the Leviathan for its 1858 launch. Though the vessel was a failure at the Far East passenger trade that it was designed for, it later achieved great success as it laid the first fully effective underwater Atlantic cable while operating under its proper name, The Great Eastern. > Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Black Hole Collisions - Black holes devour everything in their path, even light, but what would happen if 2 black holes suddenly met each other? - Damien

This is a question that scientists have been pondering for a while now. It is inevitable that somewhere in the universe two black holes will eventually meet and merge. However, it is unlikely to be "sudden" as the distances between them are vast and because of the tremendous gravity of these objects have they would start to have gravitational effects on each other millions of years before they actually came in contact.

In fact, scientists are waiting with bated breath for two very large black holes in a quasar named PG 1302-102 to collide so they can see what happens. Well, bated breath might be an exaggeration as these holes, though they are the closest that we know about - only about a light week apart - are still about 100,000 years away from coming in physical contact with each other.

The prediction is when they do, there will be a tremendous, violent release of energy. Fortunately, PG 1302-102 is 3.5 billion light-years away from us (technically they have already collided, but we won't see the results for a 100,000 years or so) and we won't feel much of the effects of the explosion. What scientists are hoping to be able to detect from such a collision, however, are gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves - ripples in space and time - are predicted by Einstein's theory of relativity, but have not yet been found, though scientists are working on building devices that might detect them. The hope is that somewhere in the universe two black holes with collide and we will be able to detect these waves as they radiate out from the event.

Though it will be a long wait before the pair of holes at PG 1302-102 send us any waves, scientists may have noticed something while watching them that may help identify other pairs of holes a lot closer to collision.

The holes are located in a quasar. A quasar is a galaxy which is radiating a lot of energy. This energy comes from matter being accelerated to high speeds as it is sucked into the holes. Normally the energy from a quasar varies randomly over time getting brighter and dimmer. At PG 1302-102, however, it follows a pattern of getting brighter and dimmer every five years. This is due to the interaction of the two holes as the smaller one orbits the larger one. Scientists think the speed of the variation will be a good indication of how close the holes are to colliding. The closer they get, the shorter the interval of brightening and dimming should be. If they find a quasar where that interval is very short, it may mean that two holes are on the verge of collision and may help scientists get ready to detect those gravitational waves they have been looking for.

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In History:

First Moon Shot - On January 2, 1839, Louis Daguerre, a French pioneering photographer, took the first photograph of the moon using silver-plated copper sheet. This first photograph of the lunar surface was lost when in March of that year, however, a fire broke out in Daguerre's laboratory burning it to the ground. The earliest surviving photograph of the moon was taken by John Adams Whipple in 1851.

In the Sky:

Quadrantids Meteor Shower - The Quadrantids shower is expected to have up to 40 meteors per hour at its peak. The result of dust grains left in the trail of an extinct comet known as 2003 EH1, the shower appears annually from January 1-5. The peak this year will be on the night of the 3rd running through morning of the 4th. The best time and place to see the shower will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will appear to come from the constellation Bootes.



Who is Under the Mona Lisa - Is there another portrait hiding beneath the surface of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, Mona Lisa? Pascal Cotte, co-founder of Lumiere Technology, a Paris-based company which relies on multispectral imaging to digitize artworks, thinks so. "We can now analyze exactly what is happening inside the layers of the paint and we can peel like an onion all the layers of the painting. We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting," Cotte has stated. Using a method called Layer Amplification that projects intense light onto the painting and measures the reflections, Cotte has reconstructed what was between the layers of the paint. He thinks it a portrait of another woman who is not gazing at the viewer, but looks off to one side.



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

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