Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

February 2003

In the News:

Students Find Huge Cephalopod Fossil - A group of students from the University of Arkansas have discovered the largest cephalopod fossil of its type along a drainage ditch in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The students were looking for spiral-shelled ammonoid fossils when they came across a huge bulge in the shale outcropping they were working on. Digging around it they discovered the fossilized remains of a straight-shelled cephalopod called a nautiloid. The animal would have resembled a squid with a shell. The shell on the fossil creature in Fayetteville measured nine feet in length. Walt Manger, a university geology professor who is an expert in ancient cephalopods, was skeptical about the find until he saw it. Nautiloids do not usually grow this large. Manger thinks this is an example of a pathological giant that grew extremely large because of a parasitic condition. It is estimated that the find is some 325 million years old.

Four-Winged Flying Dino - The fossilized remains of a dinosaur with four feathered wings has been found by scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in China. The creature, known as a Microraptor, was about three feet long and lived around 130 million years ago. The animal probably could not fly but was capable of gliding short distances like a flying squirrel. Scientists were amazed to find the remains of feathers attached to both the arms and feet of the ancient creature. Many researchers claim this strengthens the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Strange Patterns Not Due to Aliens - Scientists have decided that strange patterns of circles and stripes found in the soil on arctic plains is not the work of aliens, but mother nature. The patterns are so regular that it seems like they have to been the work of intelligent beings, but Mark A. Kessler, a University of California geologist, says its has to do with the long seasons of deep cold and the heaving and contraction of the water-logged, frozen soil. Depending on the ratio of soil and rock different patterns appear. On the island of Spitsbergen, the ground movement causes the stones to form circles. In other places they look like stepping stones. Kessler's study on the phenomenon will appear in the journal Science.

Einstein Right About Speed of Gravity - Two scientists have proved that Einstein was right that the speed of gravity is the same as the speed of light. Edward B. Fomalout of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Sergei Kopeikin of the University of Missouri took advantage of a rare planetary alignment to check Einstein's work. To do this the two measured the amount that light from a star that was deflected by the gravity of Jupiter as Jupiter passed in front of the star. The Fomalout/Kopeikin estimate of the speed of gravity should be accurate to within 20 percent. Scientists find it important to test Einstein's predications as much of our modern physics is based in his work.

Mysterious Hole in Minnesota Lake - Scientists are puzzled as to why in the middle of North Long Lake, in northern Minnesota, a hole forms in the thick ice. The hole, nearly a half-mile long, is kept open by warm water beneath it. What researchers don't understand is what keeps the water under this small part of the lake temperate. Divers exploring its 20-foot depth with instruments could find no sign of currents or seismic activity. The hole, which first appeared last winter, has become a danger to snowmobiles. More than a dozen machines have disappeared in its depths and one driver died.


What's New at the Museum:

Man-Eating Plants - Long a feature in ghost stories around the campfire and sci-fi thrillers in the theater, does the infamous Man-eating Plant actual exists? - Man-eating Plants


Ask the Curator:

Jackalope - Every year my family goes to Las Vegas and every year I see postcards featuring an animal called a jackalope. In one souvenir shop I even saw a stuffed jackalope...I have no clue whether it was real or not. Does such a thing exist? Thanks - Anonymous.

The jackalope is one of those legends that almost people living in an certain area know is a hoax, but are reluctant to admit it. In many cases we don't know the source of such legends, but in the instance we do. Douglas Herrick, who just died last month at age 82, came up with the long running joke in 1932 when he and his brother returned from hunting one day. They tossed a dead jackrabbit they'd shot on to the floor and it accidentally slid up against a pair of deer horns. The combination looked so strange Douglas decided to mount the rabbit like that (with the horns) and the jackalope was born.

Though Douglas Herrick made a number of jackalopes for sale, his brother Ralph and Ralph's son Jim made many thousands of them. By 1965 the mythical creature had become so popular that the state of Wyoming trademarked the name. In 1985 Gov. Ed Herschler pronounced that Wyoming was the animal's official home. In addition to postcards you can also purchase a jackalope hunting license and jackalope milk.


Moon Hoax- I saw a Fox special on TV that was on the topic of whether the moon landing had been a hoax. I have to say that before seeing the show I'd probably given no thought to the possibility of it being fake. However, I found some of the arguments to prove a hoax were well researched and explained, and had (as far as I know) legitimate scientific basis. I wondered if you had any info that might support or go against the moon-landing-hoax theories? - Anonymous

I personally have no doubt that NASA traveled to the moon. There were just too many people involved (thousands) to make a workable conspiracy. There are also too many arguments and counter-arguments in this story to include here, but I will try and cover a few of the big ones:

1)In the pictures that astronauts took even though the sky is black there are no stars - Just because the sky is black on the moon doesn't mean that the astronauts were there during the night. They were there in the lunar morning and the Sun was up lighting everything up brightly. With the cameras adjusted to handle the bright surface of the moon faint objects, like the stars, would just not be picked up. It would be the same as if you adjusted a camera here on Earth to take pictures during a bright day, then tried to take pictures with the same settings in the the middle of the night. There would not be enough light to record anything on the film.

2)The flag on the stand seems to wave even though there is no wind - A piece of cloth will wave in a vacuum when you move it back and forth (as the astronauts did when setting up the pole). After the pole is set up, though, the flag stops moving. It is crinkled a bit because the pole it is hanging from is just a bit shorter than the flag, and that might make it look like it's waving in a still shot, but a look at the moving video images reveal that the flag does not move after the pole has been set.

3)The van Allen Radiation Belts would have killed the astronauts - There is indeed a radiation belt around the Earth and prolonged exposure would have been deadly. Because the astronauts passed through them so quickly (about an hour) their exposure was at a minimum. The hull of the spacecraft also gave them some protection.

One of the best arguments for the the astronauts actually being there is the dust. Look at the dust thrown up by the wheels off the lunar rover during some of the video shots in later missions. It does not linger in the air, but falls immediately. This is only possible in a vacuum.

For more complete discussion on this see Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy page.


In History:

Devil's Footprints - On the night of February 7th, 1855, something strange was afoot in the area of Devonshire, England. The snowfall was heavy that night and the next morning residents awoke to find strange footprints around their properties. The footprints, which appeared to come from a small, hoofed, biped, with a 8-and-a-half-inch stride, zigged-zagged around the area. The trail, almost 100 miles long, went over housetops, along narrow walls and over rivers. Nobody could tell what animal had made the strange prints and some speculated that in might have been the devil himself.


In the Sky:

Moon Illusion - Mid-month will be a good time to observe the "Moon Illusion" as the full moon will be rising in the early evening. The "Moon Illusion" is the effect that makes the moon appear bigger at the horizon than when it is high in the sky. For a full explanation of this phenomenon check our Moon Illusion page.



UFO Hits Car - A Wilmington, South Carolina, woman says her car collided with a UFO the size of a walnut last month. According to the newspaper Daily Record, the UFO seemed to fall from the sky at high speed and hit the woman's car, a Toyota Avalon, creating a large dent. The impact made a loud noise that startled the passengers in the vehicle, but nobody was hurt. The driver, Linda Moore, speculated that the object might have been an asteroid. The "UFO" was not recovered.


On the Tube:

Currently we are only able to give accurate times and dates for these programs in the United States. Check local listings in other locations.

The Search for Khan's Tomb - Legend has it that after Genghis Khan's funeral, 2,000 servants were killed by 800 soldiers, who were in turn killed by a handful of generals to preserve the secrecy of the tomb site. Now, archaeologists believe they have discovered this hidden treasure. On the Discovery Channel: Feb 03 10:00 PM, Feb 04 1:00 AM, Feb 08 6:00 PM; ET.

Ancient Earthquakes: Sunken Cities - Search for clues to the demise of Alexandria and Cleopatra's palace with a team of geologists, historians and archaeologists. Investigate the cataclysmic events that drowned these cities as computer graphics bring this lost world to life. On the Discovery Channel: Feb 12 2003 8:00 PM, Feb 12 2003 11:00 PM; ET.

The Great Siberian Explosion - In 1908, a huge fiery ball struck ground in Siberia with enough force to toss people 10 feet in the air, affect the weather for weeks, and illuminate dark skies thousands of miles away. A scientist ventures to explain what happened that night. On the Discovery Channel: Feb 19 2003 10:00 PM, Feb 20 2003 1:00 AM, Feb 22 2003 12:00 PM; ET.

Return to Area 51 - Area 51 is a super-secret testing ground located in the remote Nevada desert. Explore new evidence shows that the Air Force not only tested planes here in the past, but the site serves as a final resting place for failed experimental planes. On the Discovery Channel: Feb 20 2003 9:00 PM Feb 21 2003 12:00 AM Feb 22 2003 3:00 PM; ET.

In Search of the Holy Grail - What is the Holy Grail? Our team has shortened the list to four intriguing items to explore. A glass bowl from England, an ancient cup from Wales, a small stone, papal chalice in Spain, and an intricately engraved silver chalice from ancient Antioch On the TCL: Feb 18 2003 10:00 PM, Feb 19 2003 1:00 AM; ET.

Bermuda Triangle Solved? - With over a million square miles of ocean and sky that seems to defy explanation, The Bermuda Triangle is one of the greatest modern mysteries. Explore the science behind the fiction and finally unravel the mystery of this area. On the TCL: Feb 13 2003 10:00 PM, Feb 14 2003 1:00 AM; ET.

Skeletons of Roman Ashkelon - Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Ashkelon in Israel made a sinister find: the skeletons of one hundred newborn babies, thrown into the sewers beneath a Roman bathhouse. Explore this two thousand-year-old murder mystery of sex and infanticide. On the TCL: Feb 04 2003 10:00 PM, Feb 05 2003 1:00 AM, Feb 27 2003 8:00 PM, Feb 28 2003 12:00 AM, Feb 28 2003 4:00 AM, Feb 28 2003 8:00 AM, Feb 28 2003 12:00 PM, Feb 28 2003 4:00 PM; ET.

Hitler's A-Bomb - On the night of February 28, 1943, a group of Norwegian raiders--fewer than a dozen men-- set out on a covert mission to sabotage the Nazi-controlled Norsk Hydro factory in Telemark, Norway. Their target--the production cells of heavy water, a vital component in the development of Hitler's atomic bomb. Their bold mission successfully set back Hitler's atomic program by many months and allowed the Allies more time to build their own and win the race for the atomic bomb.. On the The History Channel: February 09 8:00 PM,February 10 12:00 AM; ET.



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