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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

February 2012

In the News:

Cloak of Silence - Scientists continue to be fascinated with the idea of building an invisibility cloak. The most recent success is not with light waves, but sound waves making it a "cloak of silence." The experimental t platform consisted of a flat piece of PVC plastic 15 cm square. Martin Wegener, Nicolas Stenger and Manfred Wilhelm of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, then drilled a series of holes in the sheet in the shape of concentric circles. Those holes were filled with polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) which is more elastic that the PVC. The shape caused and sound waves traveling though the plastic to be bent and directed around the area in the center, then back together, making that location acoustically invisible. Scientists working in the field were impressed that the technique was comparatively simple and worked for a wide swath of sound frequencies from 200-400 Hz. Among other things, the research may lead to ways to shield structures against seismic waves created by earthquakes.

When Dwarf Stars Collide - Scientists have reached the conclusion that at least some supernovas are caused by the collision of two dwarf stars. A Type 1a supernova was thought to be the result of a white dwarf star sucking gas off a companion star until the dwarf had reached a mass of 1.4 that of our sun. At this size, known as the Chandrasekhar limit, the star will collapse on itself initiating a huge explosion. If this were true, than the remnants of these supernovas should show companions stars. Finding a remnant close enough and recent enough to search for such a remaining companion was a difficult chore, but Bradley Schaefer and Ashley Pagnotta of Louisiana State University have found a remnant called SNR 0509-67.5 in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud. A close analysis of the remaining bubble of gas shows no companion which favors a theory that Type 1a supernovas might also be caused when two white dwarfs collide. Understanding how Type 1a supernovas happen is important to scientists because they are considered "standard candles" that generate the same about of light no matter where they occur so they can be used to gauge distances. If Type 1a supernovas are not all the same this will be a real headache for astronomers.

Can Kepler Find Some Moons? - Some scientists are interested in using NASA's Kepler space telescope to find moons around exoplanets. The telescope has already been successful in its mission to locate planets orbiting stars other than our sun. Now David Kipping of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics along with colleagues from other universities want to see if they can use it to find moons around those planets. The Kepler works by watching for a drop in brightness in a star as one of its planets passes in front of it. The scientists suggest that if the drop in brightness is different with each passage of the planet, this would indicate it has a moon that was sometimes to the left or right of the planet, blocking more light. Though the technique could only find moons that are about a tenth the mass of Earth (four times larger than any moon in our solar system) if none of them were found it would still at least tell astronomers that such moon don't exist or are extremely rare. Finding a large moon might also be a good sign for finding intelligent life on other planets as some theories suggest that a planet needs to have a large moon to stabilize it and made it suitable for such an evolutionary process to operate.

Nasty Carnivore is Related to Mammals - A newly discovered fossil found in Brazil turns out to be a creature that was a "mixture between a tiger and a Komodo dragon, if you can imagine that" according to the leader of the team that discovered the animal, Juan Carlos Cisneros. Pampaphoneus biccai, which means "Pampas Killer," lived about 260 million years ago, 30 million years before the dinosaurs appeared. He was at the top of his food chain and considered a hyper-carnivore, getting at least 70% of his food from meat. Despite its reptilian-like features it was more closely related to mammals. The creature was about the size of a large dog with a 13 inch long skull.

Asteroid Zips by Earth - Back on January 25th a bus-sized asteroid zipped past Earth at distance of just 36,750 miles (59,044 kilometers) - less than a fifth the distance to the moon. The asteroid, dubbed 2012 BS1, was small enough (about 7 meters), however, that it would have burned up in our atmosphere if it had actually been on a collision course. "Asteroids this small are hard to spot, and luckily they pose the least concern," stated the organization Asteroid Watch based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Our goal is to find the bigger ones." Astronomers routinely search the skies looking for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a danger to the planet. It is estimated that objects larger than 460 feet (140 m) across can cause widespread devastation at their impact sites.


Science Quote of the Month - "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

Requiem for a Planet: Pluto - For almost three-quarters of a century schoolchildren learned that our solar system had 9 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Then in 2006 this changed. Pluto got demoded and suddenly there are only eight planets. What happened? Why did poor Pluto get kicked out of the planetary club? >Full Story

The Harbor at Rio de Janeiro - On January 1st, 1502, Portuguese explorer Gonšalo Coelho ship's reached a break in the South American seaside that seemed to be the entrance to an enormous river. The bay they found was spectacularly surrounded by huge, oddly shaped mountains that astounded the European explorers. Taking a cue from the date on which they'd found this amazing harbor, they named it the "January River" or Rio de Janeiro. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

In Theaters:

Under the Iron Sky - The independent motion picture, Iron Sky, that we reported on back in a July 2010 article of Notes from the Curator's Office, is debuting at the Berlin Film Festival on February 2nd. The film, under the direction of Timo Vuorensola, uses the legend of World War II German flying saucers to tell a story of space Nazis attacking from the dark side of the moon. To refresh you memory on the legend, visit our page on secret German disc aircraft development.


Ask the Curator:

A Matter of Gravity - If all matter has gravity, does that not mean that matter is giving off energy? - John

Gravity and energy can get intertwined, but they are not the same thing. Perhaps we should start with talking about what gravity actually is.

Einstein's theory of relativity says that gravity is the curvature of space due to the presence of mass or energy. The classic illustration of this is picturing space as a sheet of rubber stretched tightly across a frame. Now imagine a large bowling ball plopped into the middle of the sheet. It sinks into the rubber creating a depression. In the same way objects with mass, like the Earth, deform space. If you were to roll a ping pong ball across the rubber sheet so it just grazed the depression, it would wind up swinging around and around the bowling ball, getting closer and closer, as it lost speed. This is very similar to what can happen with an asteroid caught in Earth's gravity. It can start orbiting the Earth closer and closer until it finally crashes to the ground or is burned up in the atmosphere.

All objects, including the Earth, warp space around them. This warping of space creates gravity.

This illustration shows us that the Earth doesn't really "pull" anything toward it, the object simply follows a path though the fabric of space which has been warped by the presence of something very heavy. (It would be more accurate to say the space is pushing the asteroid making its path curve). The Earth doesn't expend any energy in this process just like the bowling ball doesn't spend energy to pull the ping pong ball towards it.

Now that doesn't mean that most matter doesn't radiate energy. For example, most objects if they have a temperature greater then absolute zero will radiate thermal energy. Think about an iron bar that has been heated until it glows a cherry red. It is radiating energy in the visible spectrum that we can see. Even objects that don't glow visibility can radiate heat in the form of infra-red waves.

Probably the most famous application of this was in 1965 when two scientists in New Jersey were trying to figure out why there was static in their newly built radiometer antenna. The found a hissing sound at 3.5 degrees Kelvin that they could not account for. After some phone calls they figured out that that they were listening to the sound of material left over from the "Big Bang." Over the course of a billions years it had cooled down to radiate heat at just a few degrees about absolute zero. Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson shared a Nobel Prize for their accidental discovery.


In History:

Project Twinkle - On February 16th, of 1949, a "Conference on Aerial Phenomena" was held at Los Alamos, New Mexico. There military officers and scientists tried to find an explanation for fireballs that had appeared in the sky (including two just the pervious December) that did not seem to fit the profile of any kind of natural meteor. These objects appeared as green flares and seemed to be moving too slow to be normal falling stars. The result of this meeting was an attempt to obtain quantitative data on the phenomena by establishing "Project Twinkle." Unfortunately Twinkle ran into funding and personnel problems and was cancelled in 1951 before it could determine the nature of these strange green flares.


In the Sky:

Encounter with Uranus - February is a rare chance to spot the 7th planet from the sun, Uranus. On the 9th Uranus will be just less than half a degree to the planet Venus's left. Venus will be the brightest thing in the sky, so it will be easy to find. You will need a pair of binoculars or a small telescope to spot Uranus, however. It will appear as a greenish dot. Uranus was the first planet discovered in the sky since ancient times. Sir William Herschel found it on March 13, 1781, though he initially thought it was a comet.



Giant Triangular UFO? - Pictures recently captured by NASA's STEREO-B spacecraft had some UFO enthusiasts thinking that a giant triangular shaped spaceship was on its way to visit Earth. NASA was able to identify the shape as an internal reflection in the lens of the spacecraft's telescope, however. Support for this explanation is that the triangle appears in the photos at the same time Venus also enters the camera's field of vision and it tracks with the triangle on opposite side across the camera's plane.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Ice Age Death Trap - Racing against developers, experts uncover a site in the Rockies packed with fossil mammoths and other extinct beasts On PBS: February 1 at 9:00 pm; ET/PT.

The Universe: Mysteries of the Moon - For thousands of years, mankind has found comfort in its presence. It's been a lantern for nighttime travelers, a timekeeper for farmers, and a location finder for sailors at sea. For some cultures, it's even been a god. It's the only cosmic body ever visited by human beings. From afar, the Moon's luminance has captivated us since the beginning of time. And a closer look at the beacon in the dark sky reveals an ever-present source of myth, intrigue, controversy and unsolved mysteries. The field of science may cast an empirical light on some things about the Universe, but lunar experts are the first to admit they don't have all the answers when it comes to our Moon. This episode explores the theories behind Lunar Transient Phenomena that have left scientists stumped for centuries; takes to the Canadian waters to see how the Moon effects our planet through tides; and dusts off some age-old myths and weighs arguments that without our Moon, humanity may not even exist. On The History 2 Channel: February 7, 10:00 PM; ET/PT.

Black Box UFO Secrets - Reveals for the first time the cockpit and control tower audio recordings of pilot and astronaut confrontations and sightings of unidentified flying objects high in our skies. From a detailed account of one of the very the first reported pilot case, the Arnold case in 1947, to recent recordings over New England and Texas, to NASA recordings and video from 2005, this special features interviews with pilots, witness and experts, including UCLA's Joseph Nagy, actor Ed Asner, and pilot/UFO researcher Don Berliner. On The History 2 Channel: February 3, 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

The 400 Million Dollar Emerald - Some say its the largest emerald ever found, weighing in at 840 pounds and containing roughly 180,000 carats. Unearthed in Brazil in 2001, the Bahia emerald has an incredible history that fits its massive size: It spent months in a submerged bank vault in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and was even posted on eBay with a buy it now price of $75 million. On The National Geographic Channel: February 1 08:00 PM and 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

When Rome Ruled: The Real Caligula - Demonized by ancient sources and portrayed throughout history as a cruel madman -- was Emperor Caligula really insane or just the product of a mad world? He inherited a vast empire, unimaginable wealth and the love of his people, but Caligula's reign descended into paranoia, depravity and full-blown insanity. Using dramatic re-enactments along with expert testimony from a forensic psychologist, NGC investigates: Is there a medical explanation behind his terrifying mind?. On The National Geographic Channel: February 9 10:00 PM; ET/PT.

Hunt for the Giant Squid - With their enormous, unblinking eyes and massive tentacles, giant squid have been hailed as the holy grail of ocean exploration: no one has ever been able to film them. Now, investigators go on a hunt using specially developed 'starlight' cameras to penetrate the darkness of the oceans abyss in a quest to unravel the mysteries of these elusive creatures. On The National Geographic Channel: February 23 08:00 PM and 11:00 PM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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