This artist's illustration shows a giant cloud of hydrogen streaming off a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 97 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet is tiny compared to its star, a red dwarf named GJ 3470. CREDIT NASA, ESA, and D. Player/STScI


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

January/Feburary 2019

In the News:

The Disappearing Planet - In their quest to learn more about faraway planets beyond our own solar system, astronomers discovered that a medium-sized planet roughly the size of Neptune, GJ 3470b, is evaporating at a rate 100 times faster than a previously discovered planet of similar size, GJ 436b. The findings, published today in the journal of Astronomy & Astrophysics, advance astronomers' knowledge about how planets evolve. "This is the smoking gun that planets can lose a significant fraction of their entire mass. GJ 3470b is losing more of its mass than any other planet we seen so far; in only a few billion years from now, half of the planet may be gone," said David Sing, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University and an author of the study. The study is part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury (PanCET) program, led by Sing, which aims to measure the atmospheres of 20 exoplanets in ultraviolet, optical and infrared light, as they orbit their stars. PanCET is the largest exoplanet observation program to be run with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. One particular issue of interest to astronomers is how planets lose their mass through evaporation. Planets such as "super" Earths and "hot" Jupiters orbit closer to their stars and are therefore hotter, causing the outermost layer of their atmospheres to be blown away by evaporation. In this study, Hubble found that exoplanet GJ 3470b had lost significantly more mass and had a noticeably smaller exosphere than the first Neptune-sized exoplanet studied, GJ 436b, due to its lower density and receipt of a stronger radiation blast from its host star.

First-Ever Look At Complete Skeleton Of Thylacoleo, Australia's Extinct 'Marsupial Lion' - Thyalacoleo carnifex, the "marsupial lion" of Pleistocene Australia, was an adept hunter that got around with the help of a strong tail, according to a study released December 12, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Roderick T. Wells of Flinders University and Aaron B. Camens of the South Australia Museum, Adelaide. These insights come after newly-discovered remains, including one nearly complete fossil specimen, allowed these researchers to reconstruct this animal's entire skeleton for the first time. A marsupial predator with an estimated weight of over 100kg, Thylacoleo was unlike any living animal, and paleontologists have long tried to interpret its lifestyle from incomplete remains. The new fossils, discovered in Komatsu Cave in Naracoorte and Flight Star Cave in the Nullarbor Plain, include the first known remains of the tail and collarbone of this animal. The authors used this new information to re-assess the biomechanics of Thylacoleo, and by comparing its anatomy to living marsupials, reach new conclusions about the biology and behavior of the "marsupial lion". The authors add: "The extinct marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex has intrigued scientists since it was first described in 1859 from skull and jaw fragments collected at Lake Colongulac in Victoria Australia and sent to Sir Richard Owen at the British Museum. Although Australia's largest marsupial carnivore it retains many features indicative of its diprotodont herbivore ancestry and its niche has been a matter of considerable debate for more than 150yrs. Recent cave finds have for the first time enabled a description and reconstruction of the complete skeleton including the hitherto unrecognised tail and clavicles. In this study, Wells and Camens compare the Thylacoleo skeleton with those of range of extant Australian arboreal and terrestrial marsupials in which behaviour and locomotion is well documented. They conclude that the nearest structural and functional analogue to Thylacoleo is to be found in the unrelated and much smaller Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, a scavenger /hunter. They draw attention to the prevalence of all age classes within individual cave deposits as suggestive of a high degree of sociality. Those ancestral features Thylacoleo shares with arboreal forms are equally well suited to climbing or grasping a prey. They conclude that Thylacoleo is a scavenger, ambush predator of large prey."

3D-Printed Reconstructions Provide Clues To Ancient Site - Part of the ancient archaeological site of Tiwanaku, Bolivia, believed by Incans to be where the world was created has been reconstructed using 3D printed models of fragments of an ancient building. The results are presented in a study published in the open access journal Heritage Science. Researchers at UC Berkeley, USA, created accurate, 3D-printed miniature models of architectural fragments to reconstruct the Pumapunku building in the Tiwanaku site. Considered to be an architectural wonder of its time (AD 500-950), Pumapunku has been ransacked over the last 500 years to a point where none of the remaining 150 blocks that comprised the original building remain in their original place. Dr Alexei Vranich, the corresponding author said: "A major challenge here is that the majority of the stones of Pumapunku are too large to move and that field notes from previous research by others present us with complex and cumbersome data that is difficult to visualize. The intent of our project was to translate that data into something that both our hands and our minds could grasp. Printing miniature 3D models of the stones allowed us to quickly handle and refit the blocks to try and recreate the structure. Dr Vranich said: "One particularly interesting realization was that smashed doorways of different sizes that lay scattered around the site were aligned in a manner that would create a "mirror" effect; the impression of looking into infinity, when, in fact, the viewer was looking into a single room. This may relate to the Incans belief that this is the site where the world was created and could also suggest that the building was used as a ritual space." The authors printed 3D models of a total of 140 pieces of andesite and 17 slabs of sandstone based on measurements compiled by various scholars over the past century and a half of the height, length and width of the blocks found at the site of Tiwanaku. Once modelled on the computer and then made solid with a 3d printer, the authors then physically manipulated the blocks to reconstruct the site, trying out different ways in which they may fit together.

A Painless Adhesive - Pulling off a Band-Aid may soon get a lot less painful. Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Xi'an Jiaotong University in China have developed a new type of adhesive that can strongly adhere wet materials -- such as hydrogel and living tissue -- and be easily detached with a specific frequency of light. The adhesives could be used to attach and painlessly detach wound dressings, transdermal drug delivery devices, and wearable robotics. The paper is published in Advanced Materials. "Strong adhesion usually requires covalent bonds, physical interactions, or a combination of both," said Yang Gao, first author of the paper and researcher at Xi'an Jiaotong University. "Adhesion through covalent bonds is hard to remove and adhesion through physical interactions usually requires solvents, which can be time-consuming and environmentally harmful. Our method of using light to trigger detachment is non-invasive and painless." The adhesive uses an aqueous solution of polymer chains spread between two, non-sticky materials -- like jam between two slices of bread. On their own, the two materials adhere poorly together but the polymer chains act as a molecular suture, stitching the two materials together by forming a network with the two preexisting polymer networks. This process is known as topological entanglement. When exposed to ultra-violet light, the network of stitches dissolves, separating the two materials.

UA-Led OSIRIS-Rex Discovers Water On Asteroid, Confirms Bennu As Excellent Mission Target - From August through early December, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft aimed three of its science instruments toward Bennu and began making the mission's first observations of the asteroid. During this period, the spacecraft traveled the last 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km) of its outbound journey to arrive at a spot 12 miles (19 km) from Bennu on Dec. 3. The science obtained from these initial observations confirmed many of the mission team's ground-based observations of Bennu and revealed several new surprises. Team members of the mission, which is led by the University of Arizona, presented the results at the Annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, or AGU, in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 10. In a key finding for the mission's science investigation, data obtained from the spacecraft's two spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as "hydroxyls." The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, the rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu's parent body, a much larger asteroid. "This finding may provide an important link between what we think happened in space with asteroids like Bennu and what we see in the meteorites that scientists study in the lab," said Ellen Howell, senior research scientist at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) and a member of the mission's spectral analysis group. "It is very exciting to see these hydrated minerals distributed across Bennu's surface, because it suggests they are an intrinsic part of Bennu's composition, not just sprinkled on its surface by an impactor." "The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics," said Amy Simon, OVIRS Deputy Instrument Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.


Science Quote of the Month - "It is strange that only extraordinary men make the discoveries, which later appear so easy and simple." - Georg C. Lichtenberg


What's New at the Museum:

The Submarine and the Sea Monster - There are enough tales of giant sea creatures from sailors over the centuries to fill many books, rarely do we get an account of a sea monster from the crew of a submarine. According legend, however, we get just a story from the Captain of the German submersible UB-85 after it was supposedly attacked by a sea monster in 1918. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this?

Ask the Curator:

Tesla's "Death Beam" - I'm wondering about Tesla's Death Ray. Did anyone ever try to build one after his death? Was it ever proven as a viable weapon? - Frank

Nikola Tesla, the almost forgotten genius of electricity, hated war and for years searched for a way to put an end to it. In 1934, at age 78, Tesla thought he had found it. He had an idea for a death beam based on sending a concentrated stream of charged particles though the air. The beam would carry tremendous energy and would disrupt or melt whatever it hit. The weapon, he thought, could be used to down any hostile airplane approaching a country's borders. The beam could only be sent in a straight line and would not follow the curve of the earth, so it only had a range of only a couple of hundred miles. Because of this, Tesla felt that his invention could be used only as a defensive weapon to prevent aggression.

He failed to get much interest in it until he wrote a technical paper entitled "New Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-Dispersive Energy Through Natural Media" and mailed it to a number of Allied nations including the United States, Canada, England, France, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. According to him the weapon would be "capable of destroying 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 250 miles." The nation that showed the greatest interest in it was the Soviet Union, which tested one stage of the weapon in 1939 and sent Tesla a check for $25,000.

Tesla's design was clever. One the problems with a charged particle weapon is that the particles need to be accelerated in a vacuum, but then must be able to emerge from the weapon into the atmosphere to make the beam. To keep the interior of the weapon a vacuum Tesla devised a gateway for the particles that consisted of a blast of high-speed air blowing across the weapon's barrel. The blowing air helped maintain the vacuum, but would not hinder the beam.

Despite this, experts say his exact design appears unworkable. However, after his death some of his papers appeared to have gone missing and then, during the "cold war" both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to developed "charged particle" weapons similar in principal to Tesla's designs. Conspiracy theorists suggest this is more than a coincidence. Later a similar weapon was designed to be put aboard a rocket as part of the SDI ("Star Wars") program to down approaching missiles, but the idea was never implemented. Currently one company is experimenting with a charged particle beam weapon code named MEDUSA which they hope can be used to defend against planes and light tanks. So far, however, no charged particle weapon seems to have made it into the standard defense inventory of any nation.

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In History:

World's First Subway Train - On January 10th of 1863 the first subway passenger railroad opened in London. The Metropolitan was four miles long has a trip that took 33 minutes and featured seven stations between Farringdon St. and Paddington. It had six steam locomotives each with four carriages which left 15 minutes apart and on a typical day carried 30,000 passengers. The line was the invention of Charles Pearson who wanted to relieve congestion in the city.


In the Sky:

Total Lunar Eclipse - The night of January 21st look for a total lunar eclipse as the Moon passes completely through the Earth's dark shadow, or umbra. You should see the Moon gradually get darker and then take on a rusty, blood red color. The eclipse should be visible throughout much of the world including North America, South America, the eastern Pacific Ocean, western Atlantic Ocean, extreme western Europe, and extreme western Africa.



UFO or Butterfly? - A google maps user noticed something odd on a "street view" photograph taken at Big Cypress National Preserve, in southern Florida. The object looks like an oblong, multi-colored airship. Because the picture is stitched together with others, only part of it can be viewed. Proponents of the flying saucer theory point out that the photo was taken just outside of the famed "Bermuda Triangle" an area often associated with mysterious disappear aces and going ons. Critics suggest, however, it's the wing of a butterfly caught in the picture where it was stitched together with others.



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

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