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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

February 2010

In the News:

Statistics Help Find Fraudulent Art - Dan Rockmore of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and two colleagues have discovered a way of identifying fake paintings through statistics. The group first takes a painting, not knowing if it is real or fake, and applies random mathematical functions until they can successfully recreate a portion of the painting. They then apply the same set of functions acting as a "filter" to both a genuine picture by the same artist and a known fake of this same picture. If the filter performs badly at reconstructing the genuine image, then can conclude that the first painting was also a fake. To check there method the scientists applied their system to the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the famous Dutch Renaissance painter, and they were successfully able to distinguish several authentic drawings from a set of well-known reproductions.

Alligators' Lung Works Like Birds - New research, published in the journal Science, indicates that alligators use a one-way path for breathing similar to birds and unlike mammals. The airflow through bird's lungs is one-way operating in a loop. This is more efficient that the mammal arrangement where air is pulled in through the lungs and out through the lungs in the same path. Researchers assumed that birds could do this because of a feature called air sacks. Because alligators don't have these nobody ever checked the air flow in their lungs. However, C.G. Farmer of the University of Utah and co-author of the article, noticed that birds and alligators have some other features in common and decided to do some testing. In the study live alligators (fitted with flow meters called thermistors) were tested as well as several dead alligators. The tests al showed the unidirectional flow of air. The fact that both alligators and birds have this feature suggests that their common ancestor, archosaurs, may have had it too and might explain why archosaurs were so successful in the low oxygen atmosphere Earth had during their heyday.

Pyramids Not Built by Slaves - Recently discovered tombs add more evidence that the builders of the Egyptian pyramids were not slaves as claimed by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. A site near the Gaza pyramids first stumbled on by a tourist in 1990 has been excavated and has revealed the tombs of many of the labors who build the ancient structures. Researchers have found evidence that these paid workers from the north and south of the country and were part of the Egyptian lower class. They were apparently so respected for their work, however, that those who died during construction were given the honor of being buried near near the sacred pyramids they had constructed for their pharaohs. "No way would they have been buried so honorably if they were slaves," said Egypt's archaeology chief Zahi Hawass. Records found show that the workers, which numbered around 10,000 ate fairly well with 21 cattle and 23 sheep sent to them daily from the surrounding farms.

Chinese Dino Venomous - Scientists have found a carnivorous dinosaur in China that likely used venom to subdue its prey. Examinations of the remains of Sinornithosaurus, whose name means "Chinese bird lizard," show that it had two long teeth connected to a space than might have housed a gland containing venom. "Its front teeth are so long and fanglike that the animal appears to be saber-toothed," said the team, leader Enpu Gong, a geologist at Northeastern University in Liaoning, China. Scientists believe the fangs had a groove running from the gland to the tip of the tooth. When Sinornithosaurus sank its fangs into prey the poison would be injected. The system worked very much like that of the modern day cobra. The finding is the best evidence yet that some dinosaurs were venomous.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish - New research suggests that dolphins are second only to humans in intelligence. A recent study of dolphin brains using MIR show that they are four to five times larger for their body size when compared to other animals. "If we use relative brain size as a metric of 'intelligence' then one would have to conclude that dolphins are second in intelligence to modern humans," said Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University. The studies also show that various features of the dolphin's part of the brain involved in higher-order thinking and processing of emotional information are particularly large. Also behavioral studies conducted by experts demonstrate that dolphins exhibit exceptional skills tha are usually only associated with humans. All this leads Marino to believe that marine park shows, "dolphin-assisted therapy" facilities and other forms of captivity "are potentially psychologically harmful to dolphins and present a misinformed picture of their natural intellectual capacities."


Science Quote of the Month - "The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them." ~William Lawrence Bragg


What's New at the Museum:

The Mystery of Quantum Physics (Part 1) - The mystery at the heart of quantum physics strikes directly at our perception of whether the universe and everything in it, including ourselves, is real. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Silencing the Bang - How does a gun silencer stop the loud sound of a gunpowder explosion? - John

As exotic as a gun silencer (or to use the more official term "suppressor") seems, it really is very similar in many ways to something we see every day: a car muffler. Both were invented by Hiram Maxim in the beginning of the 20th century. Maxim was a clever inventor who also created the first modern machine gun and tried his hand at building flying machines.

In both cases a silencer or muffler needs to take a high pressure shock wave that to our ears is a loud "bang" and lower the pressure before it gets to us. This is done by allowing the gasses inside the gun barrel (or exhaust pipe in the case of a car) to expand in a closed container.

A basic silencer that is screwed on to the end of a gun can be as simple as a large, empty can with holes at each end to allow the bullet to pass through. As the bullet travels through the silencer, the gas behind it expands into the can and the pressure is lowered. More sophisticated silencers may also have "baffles" that further suppress the sound by adding additional smaller chambers near the final exit hole.

Some of these devices also utilize water, liquid, a gel or grease inside to cool the hot gases and which will further decrease the pressure and sound. This is an effective approach, but often these materials are partly vaporized each time the weapon is fired and must be replenished after a limited number of shots. Some disposable silencers are designed to only work for a handful for rounds before they lose their effectiveness.

While silencers can lower the sound of high pressure gas coming out of the barrel of a gun, there are other sounds a weapon makes that it has little effect on. In particular, if supersonic rounds are used the bullet will break the sound barrier with a loud crack after it leaves the front of the silencer. For this reason sub-sonic rounds are often used with silenced weapons, but this reduces the range and effectiveness of the bullet.

While we often picture silencers as always being screwed onto the end of a gun, some are built right into the weapon. Many are not as effective as often seen in the movies and may not even lower the volume of a gunshot enough that the marksman can avoid wearing hearing protection. However, in many cases it is not necessary to lower the sound of the shot as much as change the character of it so that it is not easily identifiable as a gunshot. In an urban setting this allows the sound of the shot to blend it with the ambient noise.

In many countries and jurisdictions silencers are highly regulated. They are legal to own in the United States in most places, but require an expensive permit.


Art Challenge:

Alchemy Art - Last fall we challenged readers to create their own art works based on books. David Reyes was kind enough to send us the results of his endeavor, a book on Alchemy. He writes:

"These are the pics of the alchemy book I made. I used my print program to alter the lettering to look handwritten and made the frogbox, the crystal pendant, and included the tiny glass bottle to go with it. I did some research and discovered that the frog was a symbol of regeneration. The pendant is typical of the "Viewing crystals" of the era, and the bottle is to hold the philosophers stone, which is actually a liquid. But the old alchemists were working with mercury, and hydrocloric and sulfuric acids mixed together... which was the reason so many alchemists had short lives."

Click on the thumbnails to take a closer look.

In History:

An Early Champ - In February of 1880 a group of Vermont men saw something strange in the waters of the long, deep lake the separates their state from New York. According to a report in the Newport Express and Standard from February 14th, was a creature "covered with scales which glistened like the precious metals in the sun." The account turns out to be one of the earliest reports of "Champ" the legendary lake monster in Lake Champlain. Many others would follow.

In the Sky:

See an Asteroid - With a pair of binoculars or a small telescope you should be able to locate the asteroid Vesa this month. On February 18 it will be the closet object visible to the star Algieba. Algiebra is the star that marks the neck of the constellation Leo the Lion. Leo's head is formed as a backwards question mark. His foot is the bright star Regulus. In the early evening of the 18th Leo will appear in the eastern sky.


ISS Moves into the 21st Century - Astronauts on the International Space Station finally have internet access. The connection was made last month by hooking an onboard laptop computer to a desktop computer at Mission Control. Access is available whenever there is a solid high-speed communication link between the two. Astronaut Timothy "TJ" Creamer celebrated by posting the first live Twitter post truly from space. "Hello Twitterverse!" he wrote. "We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station -- the 1st live tweet from Space! :) More soon, send your ?s" Hopefully residents of the ISS are using their online time well by browsing www.unmuseum.org.

On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Ghosts of Machu Picchu - Why did the Incas abandon their city in the clouds? On PBS: Tuesday, February 2 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Extreme Cave Diving - A team of intrepid scientists journey into one of Earth's most dangerous and beautiful underwater frontiers. On PBS: Tuesday, February 9 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Sci Fi Science: How to Build a Flying Saucer - Defying gravity and hurtling through space: the flying saucer is the ultimate science fiction vehicle. Using cutting-edge research and theoretical physics, Dr. Michio Kaku reveals how one day we could all be using the aliens' favorite mode of transport. On The Science Channel: Feb 09, 10:00 pm; Feb 10, 1:00 am; Feb 11, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

What on Earth is Wrong With Gravity? - Gravity makes everything else possible. It is the key ingredient to understanding the entire cosmos. Dr. Brian cox, is the one and only Hollywood physicist, he just can't figure it out! On The Science Channel: Feb 09, 9:00 pm; Feb 10, 12:00 am; Feb 11, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

Radioactive Paradise - A team of scientists, historians and divers embark on a scientific journey to Bikini Atoll to see the effects of 23 atmospheric atomic test blasts. With the help of a high-tech submersible, the Pagoo, they explore Bikini's underwater ship graveyard. On The Science Channel: Feb 03, 3:00 am; Feb 08, 8:00 pm; Feb 08, 11:00 pm; Feb 10, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Holy Grail in America - In 1898, a Minnesota farmer clearing trees from his field uproots a large stone covered with mysterious runes. Now known as the Kensington Rune Stone, it details a journey of land acquisition and murder--in the year 1362. Thought by some to be a hoax, new evidence suggests it could be real, and a clue that the Knights Templar discovered America 100 years before Columbus, perhaps bringing with them history's greatest treasure...The Holy Grail. See how symbols on the Rune Stone match Templar ruins all over Europe. History tells us the Templar were massacred on Friday the 13th, but that a Templar fleet allegedly containing treasure was last seen off Scotland in the late 1300s. Stones with similar markings as the Rune stone have been found on islands across the Atlantic Ocean, as well as in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Is it possible the Templar were leaving clues to an incredible journey to the New World? On The History Channel: Saturday, February 06 08:00 PM; Sunday, February 07 12:00 AM ; ET/PT.

The Real Wolfman - Follow veteran criminal profiler George Deuchar and renowned cryptozoologist, Ken Gerhardt as they investigate the legend of the notorious Wolfman. Between the years of 1764 and 1767, the small French hamlet of Gevaudan was plagued by a mysterious beast that attacked and killed 102 villagers. The victims (mostly women and children) were all maliciously mauled and decapitated. All bore the bite marks of a non-human creature, and even more bizarre, many victims were found undressed and sexually assaulted. For centuries, the true identify of this mysterious "wolfman" has remained a mystery. Digging deeply into the mythology of Werewolves, they uncover reported paranormal transformations, diseases that make men look and act like animals, strange but true stories of children raised by wolves, and the truth about wolfsbane and silver bullets. Their modern-day forensic investigation leads them to the horrific truth behind the Werewolf murders. On The History Channel: Saturday, February 13 10:00 PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2010. All Rights Reserved.


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