Aleins smiling at the Hubble Space Telescope? (Courtesy NASA)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


March 2015

In the News:

Are Aliens Giving Us a Giant Smiley Face? - The Hubble Space telescope had spotted what appears to be an emoticon of a smiling face in space. What the picture actually shows are two galaxies (the eyes) surrounded by a strange effect called "gravitation lensing." Gravitational lensing is the result of light passing near an object with high gravity which can stretch and distort it. In this case the gravity is provided by galactic cluster SDSS J1038+4849. The light has been stretched into an arc that appears as the face's mouth and outer edge of its head.

Submarine on Titan - NASA has unveiled a design for a robotic submarine that would explore the seas of Saturn's moon Titan. Building such a robot would be a challenge as Titan's seas are not composed of water, but liquid methane with an estimated temperature as low as -298 degrees Fahrenheit. These low temperature make engineering such a craft extremely difficult. It is likely it would be powered by a radioisotope generator that converts the heat produced by radioactive pellets into electricity. The robot would probably be sent to Kracken Mare, the largest of Titan's polar seas. The Mare has a depth of up to 525 feet and the submarine would probably take samples at different levels and also analyze sediment off the bottom. Though the mission has no definite timeline the concept of exploring an alien sea seems extremely enticing to astronomers.

No Big Bang? - Some headlines are suggesting that a new theory indicates that the big bang at the beginning of the universe did not actually happen. This is actually a misunderstanding of the work by Saurya Das from the University of Lethbridge in Canada and Ahmed Farag Ali from Egypt's Benha University. The pair created a new model of the universe where they applied quantum corrections to terms in Einstein's theory of general relativity. With this correction the numbers suggest that the universe had no beginning and will have no end. However, it does not eliminate the big bang. It simply suggests that the bang did not start as an infinitely dense single point known as a singularity and that the universe, in some form existed forever before that point.

New Insulating Material: Water - One enterprising Hungarian inventor believes he has found a way to reduce heating costs in a home: build the walls out of water. Matyas Gutai's idea is to have the wall of a building be composed of tanks of water (in his demonstration unit he created them using two glass panes with the space between filled with liquid). The water absorbs heat during hot spells and distributes it out during cold periods. A monitoring system checks the temperature and pumps it where it is needed. Excess heat can be transferred to a storage tank in the foundations and then sent back up to the walls later when it gets colder. The system reduces the need for external energy so it is carbon friendly. The wall of such a house can be much thinner than those for similar energy efficient designs.

Mystery of Holes in Skull Solved - For many years a skull has sat in a glass cabinets in the Cathedral of Otranto. The skull is one of many there but it is the only one that has sixteen perfect round, conical holes drilled into its cranium. Now researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy, think they have solved the mystery. The skulls are part of a group of martyrs killed in the 15th century. "The perfectly cupped shape of the incomplete perforations leads(us) to hypothesize the use of a particular type of trepan, with semi-lunar shaped blade or rounded bit; a tool of this type could not produce bone discs, but only bone powder," observed Gino Fornaciari, professor of history of medicine and paleopathology. It is likely that such bone powder would be used as an ingredient in pharmacological preparations as it was believed that the bodies of martyrs had healing powers.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination." - Bertrand Russell


What's New at the Museum:

Wonders of the Solar System: Enceladus - A Liquid Ocean in the Strangest Place. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Genetic Memory - I'm a big fan of the Assassin's Creed series, which says that inside our DNA we carry genetic memories; the memories of our ancestors. Is this based in a true thing? Is genetic memory real? - Jonathan

In the game the Assassin's Creed a machine called the Animus is supposed to be able to tap into hidden memories in a person's DNA and let them play out their ancestors past as waking "dreams." But do we really carry anything like these genetic memories in our DNA?

The famous, early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, suggested that such a thing did exist. He called it racial memory. Jung thought that feelings, patterns of thought, and fragments of experience could be transmitted from generation to generation in humans creating a "collective unconscious" we all share.

In Jung's thinking these "memories" deeply influence people's minds and behavior. An often cited example is fear of snakes. Most people have a fear of snakes, even though they haven't personally had a bad experience with them. One way to explain this fear is that earlier generations of humans have had bad incidents with snakes and this memory is passed down to their children.

If Jung's racial memory is true, how might it work? It seems the most likely suggestion is that somehow these memories are incorporated into our genome over long period of time so that these memories are carried in our DNA.

While Jung's idea of "collective unconscious" has been a popular idea with writers and those with a new age bend, most scientists are skeptical that such a mechanism exists in DNA. Do we fear snakes because of an instinct encoded in our genes, or because we were taught to fear them by instruction or example?

Even if it did work Jung's racial memories do exist they seem much too vague (like a general fear of snakes) to create the "waking dreams" seen in the Assassin's Creed game.

Recently scientist have done intriguing work with something known as epigenetics. It was believed until recently that genes controlled only what was passed down from parent to child and the behavior of the parent would not affect those genes. New studies, however, suggest that what a parent does can change how that gene is expressed in the following generations. In one experiment scientists used a strain of mice known for having a gene that gave them fat bodies and yellowish color. However, by giving a mother mouse a healthier diet they could cause the gene not to be expressed in the next generation giving them sleeker bodies and a normal brown color.

As interesting as it is that some of these "genetic memories" can indeed be passed down from parent to child, they still fall far short of the type of memories found the game and the Animus machine in the story, I'm afraid, will ever be a myth.

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In History:

Castle Bravo Accident - On March 1st, 1954, at the Bikini Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean, the United States tested a hydrogen bomb code-named Bravo. The yield greatly exceeded predictions causing fallout that contaminated many residents of the islands in the area, and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, causing an international incident. It was the largest bomb ever tested by the United States (15 megatons) and the accidental contamination eventually led to a ban on above ground nuclear weapons tests. It also help inspire Japanese filmmakers to create Godzilla. For the full story see our video.

In the Sky:

A March Conjunction - A conjunction is an astronomical term that refers to two celestial objects appearing close to each other in the sky. This month the planet Saturn with have a conjunction with the moon. They will be closest on Thu, 12 Mar 2015 at 04:36 EDT. Look for the moon that evening and the bright object nearby will be Saturn.


Transplanting a Human Head - Sergio Canavero, a doctor from the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, is thinking about transplanting a human head. According to New Scientist, Canavero will announce his project in June at the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons' annual meeting. Although successful head transplants have been done in animals as early as 1970, such an operation in humans would carry immense medical and ethical concerns. The biggest problem would be to get the two spinal cords to fuse and Canavero would rely on a substance called polyethylene glycol to encourage that to happen. Many doctors are dubious about such a project, however, considering too far out to even comment on.


Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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