Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

March 2014

In the News:

Supernatural or Subconscious? - A group of scientists think they can explain some psychic abilities without the need to rely on supernatural phenomena. In a test done at the University of Melbourne researchers showed subjects pairs of color photographs one after another with a small break in between. Some of the pairs were identical. Others had minor changes. Then the subjects were asked if a change had occurred, and if so, what that change was. According to the paper published in PLoS-ONE, "In this study we have provided direct behavioral evidence that observers can regularly detect when a change has occurred without necessarily being able to identify what has changed…." This means people can "know without knowing." The scientists think that this ability by which people can sense changes they are not aware of perceiving may explain reports of psychic powers.

New Egyptian Pyramid Identified - Near the ancient settlement of Edfu, Egypt, archeologists have uncovered a 4,600 year-old step pyramid. Unlike the great pyramid, which was built a few decades later, this pyramid, which measures 60 by 61 feet at the base, had no internal chambers was not meant as a tomb. It is similar to six other pyramids that have been found in southern and central Egypt. In fact, archeologists aren't exactly sure what the purpose of this pyramid may have been. One theory is that it may have been a symbolic monument of a royal cult that asserted the king's power in the southern provinces. This recently excavated pyramid seems extremely similar to the other six suggesting that they all had the same purpose. Results of the excavation were presented at a symposium of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities.

New Fusion Milestone - For the last 50 years, or so, it seems like they have always been saying that fusion power plants are just 20 years away. Despite this apparent lack of progress, researchers think that they have hit a significant milestone. At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California scientists say they have finally produced a fusion reaction that yielded more energy than went into making it. "Really for the first time anywhere, we've gotten more energy out of this fuel than was put into the fuel. And that's quite unique. And that's kind of a major turning point, in a lot of our minds" said lead physicist Omar Hurricane. The researchers used 192 lasers aimed at a pea-sized gold cylinder filled with deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen). X-rays produced by the lasers hitting the gold crushed the hydrogen under tremendous pressures until the isotopes fused and released energy. Despite this success researchers are still significantly far away from another important milestone they refer to as "ignition," where the total energy output exceeds total input put into the gold cylinder, not just into the hydrogen fuel within it.

Oldest "Steak Knife" Teeth Found - Scientists have found that a pre-dinosaur reptile, the Dimetrodon, was the first known animal to sport serrated "steak knife" teeth. The ancient reptile was about 13 feet long, lived from 299 to 251 million years ago, had a turtle-like head and a large "sail" fin on its back. "The steak knife configuration of these teeth and the architecture of the skull suggest Dimetrodon was able to grab and rip and dismember large prey," said study co-author Robert Reisz, a University of Toronto Mississauga biologist. Reisz and graduate student Kirstin Brink used a scanning electron microscope, to observe the fossil teeth very closely. In addition to the serration they also spotted cusps -- teeth with raised points on the crown - which are found in mammals. This suggests that the Dimetrodon, which some people mistake for a dinosaur, might actually be an ancestor of mammals like us.

Mystery of Mars Stone Solved - NASA scientists were able to solve the mystery of a "jelly doughnut" rock that appeared out of nowhere on Mars. The Opportunity rover had photographed the area where the rock suddenly appeared just a few days before and the rock was not there. Then new pictures showed a 1.5 inch long stone, nicknamed "Pinnacle Island," with a peculiar shape and color had appeared. Where had it come from? Was it a strange Martian creature that crawled in to view? Was it dropped by malicious aliens perhaps? No, the researchers determined that the rock had been part of a larger stone that had been run over by the rover's wheel and broken into pieces. "Once we moved Opportunity a short distance, after inspecting Pinnacle Island, we could see directly uphill an overturned rock that has the same unusual appearance," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy principal directory of Opportunity. "We drove over it. We can see the track. That's where Pinnacle Island came from."


Science Quote of the Month - "It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young." - Konrad Lorenz


What's New at the Museum:

Olympus Mons: The Mega-Volcano - In 2013 scientists announced a startling discovery: At the bottom of the Pacific Ocean they had discovered a gigantic volcano that was the largest on Earth. As massive as this volcano is, however, it is only the second largest one in our solar system. That particular accolade belongs to the volcano Olympus Mons on the planet Mars. Full story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - Who is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Elmo on Fire - Is St. Elmo's Fire a symbol related to "The Masonic Order"? - Janie L.

St. Elmo's fire itself is an electrical effect that occurs during bad weather. It is often appears as bright blue or violet glow on high objects like a ship's mast or church steeple d during storms.

The effect can be caused by high voltage differentials are present between clouds and the ground during thunderstorms. As the voltages approach 1000 volts per centimeter along an object, the air molecules ionize (gain an electrical charge) and turn into a plasma which glows. Where St. Elmo's fire appears on the surface of an object depends a lot on its geometry. Sharp points lower the required voltage making likely that objects, like lightning rods, will glow at their tips.

St. Elmo's Fire has been known to appear on flag poles, spires, chimneys, aircraft wings and even the horns of cattle. One theory holds that the airship Hindenburg was the victim of St. Elmo's Fire coupled with a gas leak.

What does that have to do with the Masons? Not all that much that I can find. Although a fair number of Masons lodges use the name of St. Elmo, St. Elmo's fire does not appear as a symbol in any of the Masonic sources I have access to. However, since the Masons are a secret society, the reference may be buried out of public sight.

This, however, does led us to a vague, possible connection. There is a secret club known as the St. Elmo's Society. It does not appear to be related to the masons, but is a Yale club very similar to the more famous Skull and Bones. It was founded in 1889 as an independent club for seniors within the nationally chartered fraternity, Delta Phi, Omicron Chapter. St. Elmo's split with the national fraternity in 1925. The Society still operates to day and some of its former members include John Ashcroft, the former United States Attorney General, and actress Allison Williams of the HBO series Girls.

If have any other readers who know of any other connection between St. Elmo's Fire and the Masons, drop us a line.

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

In History:

King Tut's Finder Dies - On March 2, 1939, the discoverer of King Tutankhamen's tomb, Howard Carter died. Carter spend many years unsuccessfully looking for the resting place of the little known pharaoh, but his persistence paid off on November 4th of 1922 when one of this crew discovered a set of steps leading to the long lost tomb. It turned out to be the only Egyptian King's resting place that had not been plundered in ancient times. Was that because of a curse? Check our page on it.


In the Sky:

Vernal vs. Autumnal - The 20th marks the March Equinox. On this day at 16:57 UTC. the Sun will shine directly above the equator and give nearly equal amounts of day and night throughout the world. This day is also known as the spring or vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere it's the fall or autumnal equinox.



More to "Found" Renoir Painting - Reader Ghislanie Jackson points out that there is more to the "Renoir found at a flea market" story than we reported last month. A Virginia woman, Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, maintained the she had bought the tiny painting, perhaps worth as much as $75,000 for $7 at a flea market in 2009. However, her brother has disputed her story, saying that he had seen the painting around family home numerous times before his sister supposedly bought it. He believes that it may have been given to his mother who was an artist who specialized in reproducing paintings from Renoir and other masters. He said he asked his mother several times about the painting's origins, but she would not tell him. In any case, the painting cannot be sold as it was found to have been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951. The museum was able to reclaim it and plans to have a special unveiling of the painting sometime in March.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Cold Case JFK - Can modern forensic science uncover fresh clues about the assassination of JFK? On PBS March 26 at 9 pm ET/PT

Nova: Wild Predator Invasion - Can we return apex predators to their natural environments without endangering humans? On PBS April 2 at 9 pm ET/PT

Monster Squid: The Giant is Real - Mankind finally confronts the creature of the deep as the Discovery Channel reveals the first ever footage of the giant squid where it lives. On the Discovery Channel: March 2 7:00PM & 11:00PM; ET/PT.

Loch Ness: The Original Cyptid - Jeremy Wade is on a mission to track down the famous monster of Loch Ness, but can he succeed where so many have failed? The journey will take him from the depths of Loch Ness to the volcanoes of Iceland, all in pursuit of the mother of all monsters. On the Discovery Channel: March 2 9:00AM & March 3 1:00AM; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Mysterious Relic- Sacred bones... Golden hats... And fragments of sacred objects thought to possess healing properties. All around the world, archaeologists have uncovered mysterious relics revered by ancient cultures for thousands of years. Now on display in museums, temples and churches, millions of people travel great distances just to be in their presence. What is it about these ancient objects that draws people to them? Could the truth of mankind's origins be found in the fabric, metal, stone and bones of our distant past? And could these mysterious relics really provide us with the ability to access divine or otherworldly power? On the History Channel: March 1, 9:00 PM ET/PT.

Quest for the Lost Ark - The existence and location of the Ark of the Covenant has remained one of the most enduring mysteries in archaeology. Professor Tudor Parfitt from London's School of Oriental and African Studies will reveal where he believes the Ark is. Parfitt is well-known for discovering that the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe is one of the lost tribes of Israel. Follow this global quest-detective as he decodes ancient texts and pieces together clues. Ultimately he builds a picture of what he thinks the Ark looks like and where it is. The journey takes viewers through Israelite wars, Philistine shrines, Solomon's Temple and Africa to the final, critical clue which led Parfitt to its current location. On the History Channel: March 12, 8:00 PM ET/PT.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey - NGC presents it's new version of the classic science series originally hosted by the late Carl Sagan. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the renowned astrophysicist at the helm of this new program which will present the wonders of the universe. The series kicks off with a Simulcast Event on Sunday March 9 at 9PM On the National Geographic Channel.


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Related Links

Great Pyramid

King Tut Curse

Mummy Page

Rosetta Stone

Lost Ark

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