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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

March 2011

In the News:

Kepler Space Telescope Finds Lots of Possible Planets - NASA has announced that the Kepler telescope has found more than 1,200 extrasolar planet candidates in its first four months of operation. While what the telescope has found are just signals indicating the likelihood of a planet, NASA expects that 80% of them will eventually be fully confirmed. Many of the type of planets Kepler is finding are also smaller and more Earth-like than many of the extrasolar planets found in the past. "We think we're seeing about 200 multi-planet systems," said astronomer Daniel Fabrycky, of the University of California, Santa Cruz. "That really blew us away." Of those 1,200 candidates , 54 seem to reside in life-friendly orbits around their parent stars. If these figures pan out it would seem to increase the possibility of eventually finding a planet with at least a primitive form of life.

Pterosaurs Were Big Boys - A new study by Japanese scientist Tai Kubo suggests that some pterosaurs - flying reptiles from the era of the dinosaurs - may have weighed in at up to 320 pounds. That nearly 10 times heavier than any flying bird today. Kubo used the fossilized footprints left by pterosaurs to estimate their weight. After examining the tracks left by living animals like crocodiles, lizards, tortoises and a frog, he was able to come up with a formula that related the fore and hind limb foot sizes to their weights. He then applied it to fossilized track ways that were thought to be made by pterosaurs. Kubo would eventually like to extend the method to make estimates of the weight of dinosaurs from their foot prints.

Bat Buddies - A recent study has shown that Bechstein's bats can maintain friendships similar to the kind of friendships maintained by humans. The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that the bats, like elephants, dolphins, some carnivores and certain primates, have the ability to maintain long-term friendships in highly dynamic social environments. The study found that these friendships were not based solely on size, age or blood relationship. Study author Gerald Kerth noted that these relationships in many ways mirror human ones. Notwithstanding all of their "daily chaos, the bats are able to maintain long-term relationships," he said. The idea that, these bats, with such tiny brains can maintain friendships calls into question the theory that humans have developed such large brains in order to keep track of social relationships.

Lucy and Friends Walked Upright - An arched fossilized foot bone found in Ethiopia suggests that human ancestors started walking upright at least 3.2 million years ago. The bone belonging to a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis (the same species as the famed Lucy fossil) shows that the hominid's foot had an arch. This would have allowed the foot to provide leverage to push off the ground at the start of a stride and also help absorb the shock when it contacted the ground again. It also means that Australopithecus afarensis was no longer a tree dweller. An older species, Ardipithecus ramidus, a human ancestor from 4.4 million years ago, is known to have a flatter, ape-like feet and probably only walked upright part of the time.

Sun's Unseen Companion in News Again - Scientists continue to argue over the possibility that our Sun has an unseen companion star. Astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette have proposed that a giant planet or small brown dwarf star orbits with the sun far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Its gravitational influence may explain why regularly the inner solar system gets plummeted with asteroids. Matese and Whitmire call their hypothetical object Tyche. As Tyche passes close to the Oort cloud of asteroids, dwarf planets and comets at the edge of the solar system, a few are dislodged and travel on a path toward the sun. In the past one or more of these have hit Earth and they may be responsible for mass extinctions on our planet. Matese and Witmire's theory is similar to one proposed many years ago for an object named Nemesis. The Nemesis theory proposed a star in a different location and of a different type, however. Many scientists are skeptical of both theories noting that such an incredible claim would require an incredible level of proof. Matese and Witmire hope that the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope, which just completed its mission, may have picked up evidence of Tyche's existence and WISE researchers plan to check the data for any sign of the unseen planet/star

Humans Would Ace Neanderthals in Marathon - A study by anthropologist David Raichlen of the University of Arizona and some colleagues suggest that while our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals, had strength on their side, modern humans would easily outrun them in a race. Raichlen used research that suggests that the energy cost of running at a given speed is directly related to the length of certain limb bones. The longer the bones are, the more energy needed to run. Applying this formula to human and Neanderthal skeletons the researchers found that homo sapiens have the edge on endurance and distance running. Scientists speculate that this is because homo sapiens spent thousands of years running down prey on the hot savannahs of Africa, while Neanderthals spent most of their time in colder climates catching animals using different techniques.


Science Quote of the Month - "It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious." - Alfred North Whitehead


What's New at the Museum:

The Headshrinkers of South America - Only one group traditionally practices the art of taking a trophy human head and reducing it in size to that of a man's fist.>Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

The Biggest Bomb - Is there anything more powerful than an H-bomb? What would the effects of an H-bomb be on a metropolitan area such as New York? - Jacobn

The largest H-Bomb ever detonated in history was the Tsar Bomba tested by the Soviet Union on October 30, 1961. It exploded with a force equivalent to 50 megatons of TNT. In theory the bomb's design could have yielded as much as 100 megatons, but was scaled down to limit the fallout. Even as it was the detonation was so powerful that the pilot of the plane that dropped the bomb received a fatal dose of radiation despite being 28 miles away.

Though such power is impressive, a bomb that large is not really a useful military weapon. Because of its size it required a special aircraft to deliver it and it could not be put on top of inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). From a military point of view it made more sense to build many smaller nuclear weapons (perhaps 1 megaton or less). If deployed over a large area they could be much more effective than the one big Tsar Bomba.

Watch our mini-documentary on Tsar Bomba

So what would happen to New York if it were hit by a standard one megaton H-Bomb that might be delivered by an ICBM? Usually such warheads were designed to detonate in the air above the target to get the most bang-for-the-buck. A device exploding 8,000 feet above the ground would create a flash of heat that would set most combustible materials on fire up to a distance of 8.5 miles and most wood ablaze to a distance of over four miles. If you set the bomb off directly over the Empire State Building, Central Park along with any wooden structures in lower Manhattan would be in flames. A blindingly bright fireball would form and anybody seeing it out to a distance of 50 miles (the distance to West Point, New York) would be blinded either temporarily or permanently. Anybody with skin exposed to the flash would suffer extreme burns if they were within about six miles (this includes most of Manhattan along with parts of New Jersey and Staten Island.

The flash would be followed by a shock wave traveling outward at the speed of sound. This would level all buildings, including skyscrapers, within a distance of a little more than a mile. This would be an area the width of the island and from Central Park down to about Greenwich Village. Wooden buildings would be demolished over most of the island. Between the flash, blast wave and following firestorm it is estimated that everybody within a mile and a half of the Empire State Building would be killed. On the rest of Manhattan and much of the surrounding area within about 5 miles of ground zero the casualty rate would be around 50 percent. Interestingly enough the fallout from an air detonation would be a much smaller factor that the heat and the blast as much of the radioactive dust would decay before falling to the ground. (Note that a bomb produced by terrorists would not nearly be as powerful, but might have a greater fallout as it would be exploded close to the ground).

So is there a weapon more powerful than an H-Bomb? In theory an anti-matter bomb would be enormously more potent. While an H-Bomb converts matter to energy with an efficiency of less than one percent, anti-matter coming in contact with matter would turn into energy with 100 percent efficiency. However, anti-matter isn't easy to obtain. In Dan Brown's bestselling book Angels & Demons he suggests anti-matter is stolen from CERN, the European Nuclear Research Center, to create a bomb. However, if all the anti-matter produced by CERN in the last 30 years was preserved and brought together it would only amount to about to 10 billionths of a gram and would have the power of a kitchen match.

There are other agencies with plans to produce anti-matter in larger volumes (like NASA - it would make a great fuel for a spaceship since it is a lot of potential energy in a small package) but the cost of using it to make a bomb would still be far more than building a regular nuclear bomb of the same power. Also for military purposes it is important to have a weapon that can be handled safely and only goes off when you want it too. Since anti-matter will explode whenever it contacts matter, storing it is difficult and should the storage mechanism ever break down a large explosion would result. Even so, the Air Force has expressed some interest in anti-matter, not in order to build an anti-matter bomb itself, but to use anti-matter as a trigger for a regular nuclear bomb.

In History:

Morris K. Jessup - On March 2, 1900, Morris K. Jessup was born in Rockville, Indiana. Jessup, an astronomer and wrote several books in the 1950's on UFOs, including The Case for the UFO, UFO and the Bible, and The Expanding Case for the UFO. Jessup is perhaps best known for his connection with "The Philadelphia Experiment"a supposed incident where a US warship, in a test of an invisibility device during WWII led to a disaster for the crew. Jessup was sent a copy of his own book Case for the UFO, with notes scribbled in by a "Carlos Allende" who claimed knowledge of government secrets including the misguided experiment. Unfortunately, Jessup, depressed over personal problems, committed suicide in 1959. There are those who still believe that he was silenced by government agents because he "knew too much."


In the Sky:

Mercury/ Jupiter Conjunction - If you never seen the planet Mercury this month will be a good time to observe it. Starting on March 8th Mercury can be seen in the western sky early each evening. Each night it will get a little closer to the planet Jupiter (which will be the brightest star-like object in the sky) until it is only two degrees way on March 15 (Your fist held out at arm's length is about 10 degrees wide). After that Mercury will continue to rise, while Jupiter gets lower in the sky. Mercury will appear dimmer as time goes on as less and less of its surface will be in sunlight with each passing day, so catch it early on!



Sea Serpent Art - Check out this sculpture by reader and artist Brian Blacknick. Be careful, there's always a bigger predator around than you! For details on how he created this work see his blog at http://blacknick-sculpture.blogspot.com/2011/02/sea-serpent-sculpt-finished.html


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space: Hour 1 - From Galileo's to today's, telescopes have opened grand vistas onto our galaxy and beyond. On PBS: March 23 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space: Hour 2 - Huge new telescopes are poised to penetrate the enigmas of dark matter and dark energy. On PBS: March 23 at 10 pm on PBS; ET/PT.

Explosions Gone Wrong - Explosions Gone Wrong - Sometimes deadly, always incredible, the biggest and baddest explosions ever caught on video from every corner of the globe. On the Discovery Channel: Mar 05, 10:00 pm; Mar 06, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

Solving History with Olly Steeds Lost City of Gold - Journalist Olly Steeds follows new clues and treks deep into the remote Andes Mountains in search of the legendary city of gold. On The Science Channel: Mar 08, 8:00 pm; Mar 08, 11:00 pm; Mar 10, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Last Mysteries of the Titanic - Academy Award winner James Cameron leads a film team of underwater explorers on a series of historic dives to document the innermost spaces of the world's most famous shipwreck. The team will use four mini-robots and a seafloor-to-satellite data system. On The Science Channel: Mar 10, 8:00 pm; Mar 10, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Aliens and the Third Reich - If ancient aliens visited Earth in the remote past, could they have given us advanced technology, past down through human history? And could this technology have helped the Third Reich build mysterious weapons and crafts far beyond the limits of 20th century science? During World War II, there were reports that the Germans built an operational flying saucer, known as the Hanebu, which was said to use mythical technology found in ancient Indian texts. Another craft was rumored to have been constructed with the help of psychics and mediums who claimed to have received detailed blueprints from extraterrestrial beings. Is it possible Hitler's quest for world domination was aided and abetted by ancient extraterrestrial technology that was rediscovered? And could the allegedly rebuilt alien devices developed in Germany have played a role in America's ability to land a man on the moon? On The History Channel: March 3rd 11PM; ET/PT.

Exploer: Lost Mummies of New Guinea - Nat Geo embarks on an expedition to Papua New Guinea to understand human mummification. Our goal is to find a well-preserved mummy to gain clues into this incredible form of mummification in the tropics. On The National Geographic Channel: March 5th 7:00 PM; ET/PT.

Giant Crystal Cave - Hidden deep beneath the surface of the earth is one of the greatest natural marvels on the planet: a giant crystal cave. NGC follows an international team of scientists to unlock the secrets of the cave. On The National Geographic Channel: March 6th 7:00 PM; ET/PT.

Finding Atlantis - Could the fabled lost city of Atlantis have been located? Using satellite photography, ground-penetrating radar and underwater technology, experts are now surveying marshlands in Spain to look for proof of the ancient city. On The National Geographic Channel: March 13th 9:00 PM; March 15th 8:00 PM & 11PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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