Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

February 2006

In the News:

Chinese Map at Center of Debate - Controversy swirls around a map that is allegedly an 18th century copy of another map almost 600 years old showing that the Chinese beat Columbus to discovering America by 74 years. The map, which shows the North and South American coasts in detail, was bought in 2001 by Chinese lawyer and art collector Liu Gang. He says it is evidence supporting that Chinese explorer Zheng He's seventh voyage in 1418 took him to the west coast of the new world. Gang says he realized the maps significance after reading Gavin Menzies' bestseller "1421: the Year China Discovered America." Critics of the map believe it may be a fake and highlight a number of inconsistencies with it including language that does not fit the style of Ming China. Historical records do show that from 1405 to 1433, Zheng, during the Ming period, led China's imperial Star Fleet on seven epic voyages that took him as far as the east coast of Africa.

Stardust Returned Safely - Last month a mission some seven years in the making was successfully completed when a capsule containing particles from a comet safely landed in the Utah desert. The "Stardust" spacecraft, which was launched in 1999, used a tennis racket-sized collector to catch the dust particles from a comet known as Wild 2. While the mother ship remains in space, the capsule carried the collector back to Earth where it was opened by NASA scientists. Samples are to be shipped to laboratories all over the world for analysis. Researchers hope that the samples will yield clues to how the solar system formed as they are thought to be leftovers from the formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. The return of the capsule safely was an important success for NASA whose Genesis space probe, on a similar mission, carrying back solar wind samples, crashed when its parachutes failed to deploy back in 2004.

Pluto's Moon an Icy Rock - Scientists using the European Southern Observatory have taken a close look at the Pluto's moon, Charon, and determined it is basically an icy rock with no atmosphere. Researchers achieved this observation by watching Charon as it passed in front of a star in July of 2005. Using this method they were also able to determine the density of the moon which is about 1.71 of that of water. The density is similar to that of Pluto's, which lends weight to theories that the planet was hit by another object, which caused a section of it to break off and eventually be trapped as a satellite. The occultation also allowed an accurate measurement of Charon's size which is between 753.75 and 757.5 miles in diameter

Early Air Raids - Researchers think they have solved the mystery of a death that took place some 2 million years ago in Southern Africa. In 1924 the skull of possible human ancestor known as the Taung child was found. The child, part of species designated australopethicus africanus, was originally though to have been killed by leopard or saber-toothed cat. Lee Berger, a paleo-anthropologist at Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand and fellow researcher Ron Clarke have advanced the theory that the child was killed by a large predatory bird. An examination of the skull shows there are ragged cuts in the shallow bones behind the eye sockets. A survey of thousands of monkey remains kill by bird attacks showed a pattern of damage consistent with those found on the australopethicus africanus skull. The bird would swoop down, pierce monkey skulls with their thumb-like back talons, then hover until the animal died. This leads researchers to think that human ancestors did just have to worry about attacks from land animals, but from the skies too.

Ball Robots May Explore Mars - Two scientists are working on robots the shape and size of tennis balls that may someday explore Mars. Penelope Boston, associate professor at New Mexico Tech, and professor Steven Dubowsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are designing the devices so that they are relatively cheap and redundant. That way hundreds could be deployed for the same weight of a single rover and they could be used to explore areas, such as caves, that would be too difficult or dangerous for a traditional rover to go. If a few of the many robots were damaged in exploration they would be replaced by one of the many others that had been deployed. Each robot would have a set of sensing capabilities that might include testing air quality, temperature, humidity, or the ability to look for chemical or biological signatures. The devices would move by "hopping" about the surface. The scientists think that the robots could be deployed on mission to the moon or Mars within the next one or two decades.


What's New at the Museum:

The Mystery of the Rosetta Stone - Part I: - A little more than a century ago the history and culture of Ancient Egypt was a closed book. Nobody could understand the strange pictorial script that these people had left behind all over their fantastic monuments. What would finally provide the key to understanding this language and who figure out how to use it? >Full Story

Chapter Five of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World - Follow the expedition members in our graphic novel version as they try to avoid being eaten by hungry dinosaurs while finding a way to get home. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

High Speed Hijinks - I have several questions concerning the speed of light and the speed of sound that my dad and I were discussing: 1: If you're in a car at night traveling the speed of light and you turn the headlights on will the headlights shine out in front of the car or will they just glow? 2: Let's say me and another guy are in an airplane traveling the speed of man in front of plane the other in back....the man in the back says hello. Will the man in the front hear him? Or say that both men stick their heads out the airplane (let's say it doesn't snap their heads off)....will the man in the front hear the man in the back if he says hello? Thanks - Shannon

An interesting set of questions! Let's talk about them in reverse order.

First, the men with their heads leaning out the window of the plane going faster than the speed of sound: Sound waves are vibrations that move through a medium. The medium can be almost anything, but it has to exist (sound does not travel through a vacuum like you would find in outer space). Different mediums have different speeds that sound will travel through them. For air at sea level this speed is roughly 12 miles a minute. That's why if you see a flash of lightning (The speed of light is so high we can say that the flash of the light reached you almost instantaneously) and then count three seconds - a twelfth of a minute - till the thunder arrives, you know that the strike occurred about a mile away.

If you made a sound while traveling through a medium faster than the speed of sound for that medium, it will only be heard behind you. A real life example is an airplane traveling faster than the speed of sound. You cannot hear it approach because it is traveling faster than the sound waves it is making. Because it is moving faster than sound, the waves tend to "pile up" on the plane and come off as a powerful shock wave streaming behind the plane. This shock wave is what we call a "sonic boom."

For this reason a man sticking his head outside the back of a plane would not be heard by a man with his head out the front of the plane. They are moving too fast for the sound waves to overtake the front of the plane.

For the two men inside the plane conditions are completely different. In this case, the plane is filled with a medium - air - that is traveling the same velocity as the plane. Since the air is not moving relative to the plane or the men, it's exactly the same as if the plane was parked on the ground. The sound moves from one man to the other (it doesn't matter front to back or back to front) at the speed of sound.

The final one we will tackle is the headlights at the speed of light. Technically we can't get a car, spaceship or any object with mass going at the speed of light. It simply requires more energy than there is available in the universe. However, we can talk about a headlight as it approaches the speed of light and such a situation should shed light your question. Light is unlike sound it that it needs no medium to travel though. That's why we can see stars through the vacuum of space (Before Einstein came out with his Special Theory scientists did speculated that there was a medium needed for light which they called "ether"). Light is special in that it travels through vacuum at a particular speed (about 186,000 miles per second) that that speed does not change no matter how fast the source of the light it traveling. Since there is no medium, the speed of the medium is irrelevant. If a stationary observer were to watch a car speeding by at near 90 percent of the speed of light, they would see the light traveling away from the front of the head lights at just 10 percent faster.

The weird part is what the driver of the car would see. From his point of view the light would appear to be speeding away from him at the full speed of light (186,000 mps). How is this possible? Time slows down as you pick up speed. Time would have slowed enough for the driver that when he measures the light speeding away from him it seems to go ten times farther than for the stationary observer, because the clock the driver is using to measure time is going only one tenth as fast.


In History:

The Mermaids of Papua New Guinea - For years people had claimed that mermaids lived off the coast of Papua New Guinea. These merfolk were said to look like people down to their hips and below have a tail ending in a horizontal fin. In February of 1985 an expedition to the area solved the mystery. Underwater photographs of a "mermaid" showed a creature called a dugong. Dugong's are the smallest members of the order Sirenia and relatives of the manatee. These aquatic mammals grow to no more than nine feet in length. Although such creatures don't look much like merfolk when seen by underwater cameras, water and and atmospheric conditions may have altered the creatures appearances from the surface at times making the look more human.


In the Sky:

Orion Guides - Feburary is an excellent time of year to let the constellation Orion, the Hunter, guide you to some night time stars. Orion is easilly recongnized by the three bright stars that form his belt. If you follow a line created by the belt to the SE you will run into Sirius, the brightest nighttime star. Follow the belt in the opposite direction and you will get to Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull. Betelgeuse is the star that makes up Orion's shoulder and Rigel is the brighter of his feet.



Authorities Looking for Malaysian "Bigfoot" - Wildlife authorities in Malaysia are looking for a "Bigfoot" type creature in their southern jungles. The excitement started back in December when some fish farm workers claimed to have spotted three of the ape-like beasts on the edge of a forest in southern Johor state. Shortly after that a member of the indigenous tribe Orang Asli also claimed that he had seen one of the almost mythical ape-men. He described the creature as being hairy and brownish in color and about 12 feet in height. The authorities are taking the claims seriously enough to think about setting up camera traps to capture images of anything roaming the jungles. There has also been a telephone hotline created so members of the public can report encounters they may have had with the animals. Reports of such beasts in Malaysia jungles go back for several decades


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.

NOVA - The Perfect Corpse - Forensic investigators tease secrets from the well-preserved bodies of people buried long ago in peat bogs. On the PBS: February 7 at 8 pm ET/PT

Disappearance of the PX-15 - In 1969, as astronauts walked on the moon, a second mission, the PX-15 Ben Franklin, launched six aquanauts on an historic 30-day drift dive of the gulf stream. Eclipsed by the moonwalk, the story of the earthbound mission is told for the first time. On the Science Channel: FEB 23 @ 09:00 PM; FEB 24 @ 12:00 AM; FEB 24 @ 04:00 AM; FEB 24 @ 10:00 AM; FEB 24 @ 02:00 PM; FEB 25 @ 02:00 PM; ET/PT

Wild and Weird Rockets - The largest amateur rocket competition blasts off in Kansas -- with a chance to break world records and put some of the most unusual rockets into the atmosphere. Can the Aurora hit Mach 2? And can an outhouse really fly? On the Science Channel: FEB 22; @ 10:00 PM FEB 23 @ 01:00 AM; FEB 23 @ 05:00 AM; FEB 23 @ 11:00 AM; FEB 23 @ 03:00 PM; FEB 26 @ 03:00 PM; ET/PT

Mastodon In Your Backyard - The Ultimate Guide - Learn how the mastodon evolved, migrated out of Africa, and survived in the North American forests for roughly 3.7 million years and dozens of climate changes. Explore the controversy among theories explaining how and why this species disappeared. On The Science Channel: FEB 13 @ 08:00 PM FEB 13 @ 11:00 PM; FEB 14 @ 03:00 AM; FEB 14 @ 09:00 AM; FEB 14 @ 01:00 PM; FEB 18 @ 04:00 PM; ET/PT.

Parallel Universe - The strange notion of parallel universes is gaining strength in the scientific community and may solve our most basic questions about the universe, including the origins of the Big Bang itself. On The Science Channel: FEB 07 @ 10:00 PM; FEB 08 @ 01:00 AM; FEB 08 @ 05:00 AM; FEB 08 @ 11:00 AM; FEB 08 @ 03:00 PM; FEB 12 @ 06:00 PM ET/PT.

The Real Da Vinci Code - 'The Da Vinci Code' has been a phenomenal success with millions of readers hooked, but what do historians think of the book? Discover the facts about the Holy Grail and cut through the thicket of mystery that surrounds the subject. On The Discovery Channel: FEB 05 @ 08:00 PM; FEB 05 @ 11:00 PM; FEB 06 @ 04:00 AM; FEB 06 @ 07:00 AM; FEB 06 @ 12:00 PM; FEB 06 @ 03:00 PM ET/PT.

Traveling Sideshow: Shocked and Amazed - From turn of the century dime museums to present day circuses and carnival midways, the sideshow has provided a bounty of remarkable sights and tales. Hear the stories of sideshow performers, including fire eaters and sword swallowers. On The Discovery Channel: JAN 26 @ 07:00 PM; JAN 27 @ 03:00 AM; JAN 27 @ 11:00 AM; FEB 23 @ 10:00 PM; FEB 24 @ 01:00 AM; FEB 24 @ 06:00 AM; FEB 24 @ 09:00 AM; FEB 24 @ 02:00 PM; FEB 24 @ 05:00 PM ET/PT.

Deep Sea UFOs - Join us for a detailed examination of the little-known phenomenon of USOs, or "Unidentified Submerged Objects", an advanced type of UFO that can operate just as efficiently in water as in the atmosphere. These supposed otherworldly vessels have been reported, some believe, as far back as ancient Egypt. Others believe that USOs were reported by Alexander the Great and Christopher Columbus, and might even involve the lost city of Atlantis. Highlights include the 1967 "Shag Harbour Incident", a government-documented USO crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, and a trip to the area around Laguna Cartegena in Puerto Rico, a reported hotbed of USO activity. On History Channel: February 3 @ 6pm ET/PT.

Digging for the Truth: America's Pyramids. - In 1539, Hernando de Soto's Conquistadors landed in Florida in search of new lands and treasure for the Spanish Crown. Three years later, they were run off the continent by Native American warriors that lived on enormous, earthen pyramids along the Mississippi River. Who were these people? And how did they defeat one of the world's most powerful armies? Follow Josh Bernstein as he paddles down the bayous; builds his own earthen pyramid with modern equipment; and scuba-dives the cold, dark waters of Wisconsin to solve the mystery of America's pyramid builders On History Channel: February 5 @ 7pm, ET/PT.



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