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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

February 2011

In the News:

Scientists Plan to Make Mammoth Live Again - According to a report in the Japan's Daily Yomiuri, scientists are planning use advanced cloning techniques to bring the ancient, extinct mammoth back to life. The international team, led by Prof. Akira Iritani, a professor emeritus from Kyoto University, will get the necessary DNA from the carcass of a mammoth preserved in a Russian research laboratory. The nuclei of mammoth cells will then be inserted into an elephant's egg and the egg implanted into a female elephant with the hope that the animal will birth a baby mammoth. Researchers have tried to obtain the DNA from a frozen mammoth before, but ice crystals had damaged the cell nuclei so they were unusable. The group plans to use a new technique developed by Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama of Kobe's Riken Center for Developmental Biology to retrieve the DNA. In 2008 Wakayama successfully cloned a mouse from cells that had been kept in deep-freeze for 16 years.

Study Investigates Climate/History Connection - A recent study is trying to link past climate changes with events in human history. The study, which covers the last 2.500 years in Western Europe tries to create a detailed picture of how climate change and society have been linked. Researchers compiled a database of more than 9,000 pieces of wood dating back over 25 centuries. Samples came from both living trees and wooden artifacts. By measuring the size of annual growth rings in the wood, the researchers were able to determine temperature and precipitation levels on a year-by-year basis. Several intriguing patterns have emerged from the study. For example, for decades before the onset of epidemic of Black Death in 1347, the area experienced wetter summers and a major cold snap. Also during the 17th a century a dip in temperature coincided with the Thirty Years War. "It's not that there was a war because it was cold," explained Ulf Büntgen, one of the study's authors. "But the conditions were not helpful. Society was already affected a lot by this political turmoil, and they got additional suffering from cold summer temperatures."

Oldest Human Teeth Found in Israeli Cave - Scientists in Israel have found human teeth that may date back 400,000 years making them the oldest human remains ever found. The teeth were found in 2006 in a cave, but the scientists, taking extra time to confirm their suspicions, have only recently published the results of their work. Avi Gopher, of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology, one of the authors of the paper, said "The teeth are scattered through the layers of the cave, some in the deeper part, that is to say from 400,000 years and through all kinds of other layers that can be up to 200,000 years. The oldest are 400,000 years old." Such results call into question the assumption that modern humans first evolved in Africa. "It is accepted at the moment that the earliest Homo sapiens that we know is in east Africa and is 200,000 years old -- or a little less. We don't know of anywhere else where anyone claims to have an earlier Homo sapiens," added Gopher. Scientists continue to excavate the cave looking for further evidence.

Supermassive Black Hole found in Dwarf Galaxy - Astronomers have found a supermassive black hole at the heart of a nearby dwarf galaxy and this defies conventional wisdom about how galaxies form. Supermassive black holes have often been found at the heart of large galaxies and scientists have wondered which came first: The black hole or the galaxy around it. Consensus has favored the idea that they formed together, but the discovery of a black hole at the center of Henize 2-10, a small galaxy located about 30 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Pixes, seems to suggest that the black holes came first. "This is a very strange galaxy in which to find a supermassive black hole," said astronomer Amy Reines, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. "Normally, supermassive black holes are found in much larger, much more massive galaxies that have bulges." The paper suggests scientists need to do some more homework in this area. "We really need to go and look for more examples like this. It does suggest that it's at least possible that the black hole formed before the galaxy," said Reines.

King Tut's Tomb to Remain Open for Now - According to Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, King Tut's tomb will be remain open to visitor's for the foreseeable future. There had been recent reports that the tomb would be closed by year's end. Currently the number of visitors to the tomb has been limited to 1,000 a day because of concerns that the increased humidity caused by so many tourists was damaging the delicate paintings on the walls. Hawass has announced plans to built exact replicas of the most popular tombs in the coming years to limit the wear and tear on the originals.


Science Quote of the Month - "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." - Richard Feynman


What's New at the Museum:

The Statue of Zeus - It was a work of art worthy of the King of the Gods and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.>Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Too Read :

Cardboard Submarine Trailer - We're getting ready in the Spring to publish the sequel to our juvenile fiction thriller Cardboard Submarine and in celebration we've released a new trailer for the original book.

Ask the Curator:

A Burning Question - Why can aluminum dust burn but a block of aluminum will not? - John

It does seem strange that if I put a match to a small pile of aluminum powder I can get an energetic fire, (in fact powdered aluminum is used in rocket fuel and fireworks) but if that same aluminum is in the form of a block I can hold a match to it all day without anything much happening. Why?

Then again, perhaps it's not quite as strange as we might think. Anybody who has ever attempted to light a camp fire knows that despite wood being very burnable, it is almost impossible to take a large branch, stick a match to it, and get it to burn. However if you take your knife out and carve tiny pieces off the branch until you have a little pile of shavings, you can put a match to it and it will start burning without any problem.

The reason in both the case of aluminum and the wood is that a fire needs three things to burn: Heat, Fuel and Oxygen. Our match provides the heat and the wood or aluminum is the fuel. The missing ingredient is an adequate amount of oxygen.

Of course air is about 20% oxygen. The problem is that the oxygen can only participate in the burning if enough of it can get close enough to the fuel to react with it. It needs a large surface area, in comparison to the volume, to make that contact. Let's look at an example.

A cube of aluminum one inch square has a volume of 1 cubic inch. (1x1x1). The surface area follows the formula of 6L^2 where L is the length of any one side. So the surface area of the one inch cube is 6 square inches.

Suppose we break up our cube into smaller cubes each with the sides a tenth of an inch long. This gives us 10x10x10 = 1000 cubes which still have the same volume of the original cube (1 cubic inch). Each of the smaller cubes would have a surface area of 0.06 inches. If we take this figure a multiple it by the number of small cubes we have we get 60 square inches. So if the aluminum cube is in one piece it has a surface area of just 6 square inches. If we break it up into a 1000 pieces, the surface area jumps to 60 square inches, though the volume has not changed one bit. The more surface area that is available, the better contact the aluminum has with oxygen in the air and the better it will burn.

Since the particles in powdered aluminum are much smaller than one tenth of an inch the surface area of one cubic inch of the stuff is enormous compared to the original solid cube and it burns extremely well.

And, of course, the same thing is true of wood. Take a one inch square block of wood and it is very difficult to get it to burn with a match. Take that same block and turn it into sawdust and it can be lit with a match quite readily. Take that same saw dust, put it into the air as a cloud, so that all sides of particles have the maximum amount of contact with the oxygen in the air and it will actually explode.

Every once in a while you hear about a grain silo exploding. Grain by itself will burn well, but is not explosive. When the grain is poured into a silo, and a cloud of grain dust fills the air then even a small spark can trigger a massive explosion.

So the lesson here is that the smaller the size of the particles, the more readily anything, aluminum, wood or even coffee creamer, burns. Check out what happened when Mythbusters took some powered creamer, blew it up into the air to make a cloud, then lit it.

In History:

Gigantic Spectral Figure - On February 23, 1905, according to the newspaper Advertiser, two men in Wales, one of them an influential farmer, saw a "gigantic human form rising over a hedgerow. Then a ball of fire appeared above and a long ray of light pierced the figure, which vanished." The sighting was one of a series of unexplained religiously oriented phenomena experienced by people in the region at the beginning of the 20th century.


In the Sky:

Check out Orion Nebula - February might be a really great time to check out the Orion Nebula. To find this cloud of interstellar dust find the three bright stars in a row of Orion's belt. From the belt hangs a sword and midway down the sword there is a glowing fuzzy area that is the nebula. The Orion Nebula is an example of a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. In good conditions the nebula can be seen with the naked eye, but a pair of binoculars is very helpful. Especially if you want see the four bright stars in the nebula known as the trapezium.



Little Girl Finds Supernova - A 10-year-old Canadian girl has become the youngest person on record to discovery a supernova. Stars several times bigger than the sun end their lives in titanic explosions called supernovas. Amateur astronomers often find them by photographing the sky and then comparing the photo with older ones showing the same area. Kathryn Aurora Gray of Fredericton, New Brunswick, found the exploding star while checking pictures taken by David Lane an amateur astronomer. Kathryn will share the credit with her father, Paul Gray and Lane. Gray said his daughter found the exploding star while examining the fourth of 52 images Lane had sent to them. "Kathryn pointed to the screen and said: 'Is this one?' I said yup, that looks pretty good," Paul Gray told the Toronto Star.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: How Does the Brain Work? - Investigate the psychology of magic tricks, magnetic wands that treat depression, artificial intelligence, and more. On PBS: February 2 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Smartest Machine on Earth - Jeopardy! challenges even the best human minds. Can a computer win the game? On PBS: February 9 at 10 pm on PBS; 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, 8:00 pm; Feb 03, 11:00 pm; Feb 05, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Killer Lakes - When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2002 molten lava plunged down the hillside and poured into nearby Lake Kivu. Had the eruption spread to the volcanic faults under the lake it could have unleashed lake overturn.On The Science Channel: Feb 03, 9:00 pm; Feb 04, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Modern Marvels: Strange Weapons - Modern arsenals have become much more sophisticated than bullets and bombs. Discover microwave-like rays that make the enemy flee when they feel the heat and laser weapons, mounted on trucks and airplanes that can blow missiles out of the sky. Some of the newest non-lethal weapons include a B.B. machine gun that can fire 150 pain-causing pellets a second and a flashing device nicknamed "the pukelight" that may make you lose your lunch. Finally examine ancient weapons that include a cutlery set containing hidden pistols and Ninja hand claws that would put the X-Men's Wolverine to shame. On The History Channel: Feb 5th 11PM; ET/PT.

Modern Marvels: Mad Electricity - Nikola Tesla's bizarre vision of the future brought him failure, but his genius electrified the world. Travel to Niagara Falls, where in 1893, Tesla installed his new system of Alternating Electrical Current known as AC--the same power we use today. Uncover the forgotten ruins of Tesla's dream experiment---a huge tower on Long Island Sound he hoped would wirelessly power the world. Radar, death rays, invisibility devices and earthquake machines: Tesla claimed to have created them all. More than 100 years ago Tesla foresaw the need for alternative energies like geothermal and solar. On The History Channel: Feb 18th 8PM; ET/PT.

Naked Science: The Book That Can't Be Read - The mysterious and centuries-old Voynich Manuscript was written by an unknown author, illustrated with bizarre, puzzling pictures and composed in a language that even the best cryptographers can't decode.On The National Geographic Channel: Feb 3rd 8:00 PM & 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

Explorer: How to Build a Beating Heart - EXPLORER delves into the science of tissue engineering and shows how scientists are beginning to harness the bodys natural powers to grow skin, muscle, body parts and vital organs, even hearts. On The National Geographic Channel: Feb 12th 7:00 PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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