Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

Feburary 2014

In the News:

Earthquake Lights Explained - For centuries people have reported seeing strange lights in the sky just prior, or during an earthquake. In recent years these "earthquake lights" have been documented in picture and video. Now a group of scientists believe they know what caused them. According to a study published in Seismological Research Letters the lights are the result of subvertical faults that release stress-induced electrical currents as the ground is ruptured. The stress causes negatively-charged oxygen atoms break up in the rocks, releasing oxygen ions which ionise in the air to form plasma. The study notes "Assuming a plasma-like state, an instability can develop, causing the plasma to 'explode' through the surface, leading to a visible light flash." The team believes that subvertical faults are involved in the earthquake lights because in 97% of the cases they studied the lights appeared near these type of rare faults. "We don't know quite yet why more earthquake light events are related to rift environments than other types of faults," said Robert Thériault, a geologist at the Ministère des Ressources Naturelles of Québec and coauthor on the paper. "But unlike other faults that may dip at a 30-35 degree angle, such as in subduction zones, subvertical faults characterize the rift environments in these cases."

Smart Contact Lens - Google is at it again. They are developing a smart contact lens that that will sit in a diabetic's eyes and measure their glucose levels by checking their tears. If they can make this work it will be vast improvement over current methods of checking glucose levels which require sufferers to prick themselves with small pins many times a day and then swab the blood onto test strips. The prototypes have tiny wireless chips and sensors, sandwiched between two lenses that measure blood sugar levels once per second. Google plans to put an LED lamp inside the lenses that would flash when those levels are off from normal.

Dogs and Wolves Descended from Common Ancestor - For many years scientist have believed that dogs evolved from gray wolves. A new study suggests, however, that both groups are descended from a common wolf-like creature that died out between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago. The researchers generated genome sequences from three gray wolves from different locations: one from China, one from Croatia and one from Israel. Then they compared those to genomes from a basenji, a breed that originated in central Africa, and a dingo from Australia. They found that dogs are more closely related to each other than to wolves, regardless of where they came from. The researchers also think that the genetic overlap seen today between dogs and wolves is due to interbreeding after dogs were domesticated. Scientists are not sure what made the common ancestor of both dogs and wolves go extinct.

Iron Explains Soft Dinio Tissue - In 2005 scientists unearthing a 68-million year old Tyrannosaurus Rex made a startling discovery: Soft tissue. Since it was generally thought that soft tissue degrades in just a few weeks the find was controversial. Now a group of scientist believes they have found an explanation for the tissue preservation: Iron. Iron is an element present in the body, but usually it is locked up to keep it reacting with other molecules. After death though, iron can be liberated and can react with other molecules. "The free radicals cause proteins and cell membranes to tie in knots," said Mary Schweitzer, a molecular paleontologist at North Carolina State University and leader of the study. "They basically act like formaldehyde." Formaldehyde , of course is used to preserve, soft tissue. Now scientists will be looking for signs of soft tissue when they dig up new fossils. "The problem is, for 300 years, we thought, 'Well, the organics are all gone, so why should we look for something that's not going to be there?' and nobody looks," Schweitzer.

Renoir Found in Box, Lost in Court - A Virginia woman, Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, lost her fight to keep a priceless Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) painting she bought in a box of junk from a flea market for $7. The tiny 5½ by 9 inch painting, Paysage Bords de Seine, apparently was given by the artist to his mistress a few weeks after he painted it. It traded hands until it was willed by Herbert L May to the Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland in 1951. Before it could be put on display it was stolen. It is unknown how it came to be in a box in a flea market, but the painting had not been seen publicly since 1926. A lawsuit resulted between the woman and the museum and Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed Fuqua's claim of ownership, noting that a property cannot be sold if it resulted from a theft. The picture is valued at around $100,000.


Science Quote of the Month - "The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage." - Mark Russell


What's New at the Museum:

The Mystery of the Devil's Kettle - At Judge C.R. Magney State Park, the western half of the Brule River disappears into a hole and is never seen again. Where does it go? Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Drifting Away Over the Earth - When I was little, I thought of a situation whereby one can, with the help of a machine, float in the air, letting the Earth run past below him, as the Earth revolves with great speed. But if that was so, then merely jumping up in the street could cause a building (or a mast, billboard, tree, etc.) to hit him, as it's fixed on the speeding Earth. Then I came to realize that the Earth moves with everything on it and in its -spheres. - I'm sure you get the picture now- Now, my question is: since the higher a man goes above sea level, the lesser the gravity and the pull, can one vertically float miles above (say, in Poland,) and then vertically descend, dropping in Germany? About how many miles would he go before the Earth starts moving away from the spot whereon he rose? - Cheta

So, basically you are asking, "How far do you have to go up in the air before the rotation of the Earth starts moving it under you and carrying you away from where you started?"

Well, the simple answer is, it never does, or it does immediately, depending on how you approach the problem. Let me explain.

Newton's first law of motion is "Every object in motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it." So when you are standing on the Earth you being carried in a easternly direction at about 1000 miles per hour (if you're standing near the equator). You don't notice this because everything around you - the ground, the buildings and the air - are moving with you. (In much the same way as when you are on an airliner moving at 400 mph everything around you seems still because it's all moving at the same speed in the same direction.)

Now another thing that Newton tells us is that when we are moving we will continue in a straight line unless another force is applied. So you might ask how come we follow the curve of the earth as we move, instead of flying into space?

The answer, of course, is gravity. It pulls us down and keeps us stuck to the earth forcing us to follow a curving path. But suppose you had a personal anti-gravity device you could switch on that would negate this force? (And let's also suppose that there was no atmosphere with wind to blow you about). Well, the moment you switched it on you would find yourself floating away because you would be headed off on a straight line while the surface of the earth followed a curve.

But as Newton's first law tells us our movements does not change unless an outside force is applied. So even as you rose above the earth you would still be traveling at the same speed (let says a 1000 miles per hour) that you were standing on the surface. In fact, you would continue moving on that straight line for the rest of eternity unless you were acted on by some other force. So the answer seems to be that you would never "slow down" so that Earth would drift beneath you. However, things are just a bit more complicated than that.

Once you switched on your ant-gravity device it would appear that you were drifting away into the sky, but what would actually be happening is that the ground, following the curve of the earth, would be falling away from you. You would be the one traveling on a straight line. As you started to move away immediately the angle that you would consider to be "straight down" would start changing. This effect would grow slowly so you would need to be a great height before you would start to notice it. It would appear that you were slowly drifting backwards (westward) although you actual speed would not have changed.

So you see you can make a case that in never does, or does immediately depending on how you think about it. In reality if you were to try this with a balloon the direction and speed of the wind would be a far greater factor in how you moved that any effect from the rotation of earth.

Have a question? Click here to send it to us.

In History:

Hand Held Calculator Premieres - On Feburary 1st of 1972, the first hand-held, electronic scientific calculator was introduced by Hewlett Packard. The HP-35 calculator cost $395 and could do trigonometrical, exponential, and logarithmic functions. Now, of course, you can get an app on your smart phone that will do the same thing for free.


In the Sky:

This Moon Goes to the Dogs... - Feburary 14th isn't just Valentines Day, it's also the night of the "Wolf Moon." Traditionally the name "Wolf Moon" is given to the second full moon of winter. Apparently the name comes from the habit of hungry wolves looking at the moon howling about the lack of food in the cold winter months this time of year.



Bigfoot Killer Offers Proof - Rick Dyer, the big foot hunter who claimed he bagged the beast in 2012 says he will finally offer solid proof of owning a sasquatch corpse. "Every test that you can possibly imagine was performed on this body -- from DNA tests to 3D optical scans to body scans," Dyer told station KSAT. "It is the real deal. It's Bigfoot and Bigfoot's here, and I shot it and now I'm proving it to the world." Dyer also has said he has shown the body to more than a hundred people. "We wanted to get people's reactions, make them believers, and we did it to over a 130 people," Dyer said. "We definitely made them believers." Skeptics still doubt Dyer claims, but this has not prevented him from planning to take the corpse on a tour across North American where he will charge people for seeing the supposed sasquatches remains.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Roman Catacomb Mystery - Who or what killed hundreds of people hidden in a burial chamber nearly 2,000 years ago? On PBS February 5 at 9 pm ET/PT

Nova: Mystery of Easter Island - A team of scientists and volunteers test a theory on how the ancient stone statues were moved, using a 15-ton replica. On PBS February 19 at 9 pm ET/PT

Did God Create Evolution? - Is life the product of evolution or is it thanks to the guiding hand of God? Believers in Intelligent Design argue complex life could not have evolved randomly. Was life created by evolution, by God or both?. On the Science Channel: Feb 3th 8:00PM; ET/PT.

Swallowed by a Black Hole - In the heart of the Milky Way, 26000 light years away, a rare cataclysmic drama is about to unfold. A cloud of gas three times the size of our planet is travelling 1200 miles per hour right into a super-massive black hole. On the Science Channel: Feb 4th 8:00AM; ET/PT.

Pirate Island- Haven, graveyard, legend and lore. History was made and lies buried on Pirate Island -- the coral ringed Isle Saint Marie off the coast of Madagascar that sheltered the world's most ruthless 18th century pirates. This real "Treasure Island" was home for pirates like Captain Kidd, who continue to capture our modern day imagination, and sailed from this very real place in history. This two-hour special voyages with underwater explorer Barry Clifford as he dives for treasure on sunken pirate ships and reveals secrets on land of hidden pirate tunnels, forbidden graveyards and mysterious symbols. Interlaced with reenactments of the pirates' lives and exploits in the busy shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, Pirate Island offers a wealth of modern-day adventure. On the History Channel: February 5, 8:00 PM ET/PT.

Gates of Hell - There are six places on Earth believed to be actual entrances into Hell. They include a volcano in Iceland, a cave in the jungles of Central America, and a lake of fire in Africa. According to ancient myth and Christian legend, each is a passage to a terrifying underworld for the damned. Even today, some believe they are still portals. Eerily, they share striking similarities. We'll visit these six locations, and along the way, reveal how the concept of Hell emerged in history and why it still evokes fear today. On the History Channel: February 6, 8:00 PM ET/PT.

Hunting Hitler?s Stolen Treasures: The Monuments Men - NGC presents the true story of an unlikely World War II ?band of brothers.? The unsuspecting group of scholars, academics, historians and architects headed to the front lines of the bloodiest war in history to rescue thousands of years' worth of European art and culture from Nazi-occupied Europe. Through extensive archive sources and photographs, journals and letter excerpts, along with the personal accounts from surviving family members, this special sheds light on the remarkable story. On the National Geographic Channel: January 13, 8:00 PM; ET/PT.


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