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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

April 2011

In the News:

Grain of Salt Camera - German engineers have now found a way to cheaply build cameras that are as small as a grain of salt. The Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration in Berlin, a large German R&D facility, created the cameras by assembling them on a single electronics wafer chip using specialized polymers to bond the parts. The camera will have numerous uses especially in the medical field. Because of their small size the devices will be able to get into and observe spots very deep inside the human body. Because the cameras are built on a chip, up to 25,000 them can be manufactured at one time. This reduces the cost compared to traditional micro cameras which in the past have required expensive, individual, manual manufacturing techniques. This means the new cameras will be cheap enough to be considered disposable.

Older Elephants are Wiser - A study on African Elephants suggests that the older individuals make better leaders for the group. Researchers played lion calls to 58 distinct family groups at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The calls were of either of a group of male lions or a group of female lions. Besides man, lions are the elephant's greatest threat, with the male lions being more dangerous than female lions. The researcher noticed that female elephant's greater than 60 years of age who were leading their herds were more sensitive to the male calls apparently recognizing the increased danger because of their experience. "Our work emphasizes the importance of the knowledge that older individuals may possess, which can ultimately lead to benefits for individuals in groups that have older leaders," said co-author Graeme Shannon of the University of Sussex. This is a pattern that sciences have observed in a number of species including sperm whales, killer whales, broad-winged hawks, ravens and even humans.

Oldest Pterandon Found in Texas? - An amateur fossil hunter may have found the oldest known specimen of the ancient flying reptile Pteranodon in North America. Gary Byrd, who works as a roofing contractor by day, indentified the bones found during the excavation of a culvert in a new subdivision north of Dallas, Texas. "I found a couple parts of a fish, and then when I saw these my initial thought was that they weren't fish," said Byrd, "I kind of knew it was something different - a birdlike thing. It's very rare you find those thin, long bones." Timothy Myers, a paleontologist at Southern Methodist University, examined the find and believes they maybe from a Pteranodon. If he is right at the age of 89 million years it will be the oldest example found in North America by 1 or 2 million years and the second oldest in the world. It is also the only Pteranodon found further south than Kansas. Myers is working hard to make a positive identification. "If it wasn't crushed so badly, it would be possible to determine if it really is Pteranodon," Myers said. "These bones are easily flattened. They are hollow inside, because they have to be lightweight to allow a pterosaur to fly. So they compress like a pancake as they're embedded in layers of rock."

Henry the Eighth had Rare Blood and Bad Genes? - A study suggests that Henry the Eighth, famous for beheading multiple wives, may have suffered from two health problems that could explain his actions. The infamous 16th-century British monarch was known to have health problems late in his life and an inability to produce a healthy male heir. Catarina Whitley, a bioarchaeologist at Southern Methodist University believes that the king may have had a rare blood type, Kell positive. A male that mates with a non-Kell positive female will produce a healthy child the first pregnancy, but often subsequent pregnancies will produce miscarriages or children with severe health problems. Henry's wife, Ann Boleyn, produced a healthy girl child first time around (Queen Elizabeth) but miscarriages from then on. Another of his wives Katherine of Aragon had as many as six pregnancies, but only her fifth led to the birth of a live and health baby, Queen Mary. Whitely also conjectures that Henry suffered from a rare genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome. The syndrome appears at about age 40 and causes heart disease, movement disorders and major psychological symptoms, including paranoia and mental decline, all indicators that Henry had. Although experts have acknowledged the theory is interesting, without genetic evidence there's no way to know for sure whether it is right.

Neanderthals Wore Feathers - Recent research suggests that the Neanderthals collected bird feathers for the specific purpose of decoration. According to a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Neanderthals in northern Italy 44,000 years ago cut the wing bones on birds in such a way designed to remove the feathers. "Cut, peeling and scrape marks are observed exclusively on wings, indicating the intentional removal of large feathers," wrote paleoanthropologist Marco Peresani in the study. Peresani and his colleagues discovered 660 bird bones belonging to 22 different species at Fumane Cave, an old Neanderthal homestead. "The Neanderthals from Fumane removed the remiges, which are the longest and more beautiful feathers," observed Peresani. Most of the species involved were not good food sources and the Neanderthals did not use feathered arrows. This suggests that they were using the colorful feathers for display purposes, indicating that the Neanderthals were more concerned about appearances than people might have thought.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science is an imaginative adventure of the mind seeking truth in a world of mystery" - Sir Cyril Herman Hinshelwood


What's New at the Museum:

The Empire State Building - The beginning of the 20th century was marked by a boom of building activity in the city of New York. One building would soon rise among the rest: it would eventually be 1,454 feet in height with 102 stories and become an icon for the city and the 20th century. Part of our new series on marvels of the modern world. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

The Mythic Snake - What is a "nãga"? - Jacob

There are several meanings to the word, but the one I think you are interested in comes from Asian cultures. There "nãga" refers to a snake, usually a hooded one, like a cobra. Attached to the name is not only living snakes, however, but a large number of stories from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions about mythical snakes.

In these traditions the nãga is often pictured as a huge snake with both serpent and human traits. Often the nãga can shape-shift from one form to another and are many times depicted in drawings with a human upper half and a snake lower half (much like the traditional image of a mermaid with a human upper half and a fish tail).

Unlike the snakes in many western myths which almost always given evil roles, the n?ga of the east is more often pictured as good or at least neutral. They are associated with water and often seen as guardians of springs, wells and rivers. They can also bring rain (which is extremely important as this grows crops to feed people). Their control over water, however, also has negative aspects and the nãga can bring drought and floods if provoked by human disrespect for the environment. Sometimes they are also the guardians of treasure.

The Chinese version of the dragon is in many ways a type of nãga. Both have long sinuous bodies and are associated with water and treasure.

In Cambodia along the Mekong River on certain days mysterious red fireballs appear from the river and rise rapidly into the nighttime sky. The number of fireballs varies, sometimes there are only a few dozen and on other occasions a few thousand. According to local tradition these fireballs are caused by the nãga under the river shooting off fireworks to celebrate the end of the rainy period in October. The spectacle has been greatly promoted by the government in recent years and many towns hold festivals. There is no good scientific explanation for this phenomenon as yet, though some people think it might be related to gases rising from the water. A 2002 television program argued that the fireballs were tracers from gunshots on the other side of the river, but this was met with furious protests from local villagers who prefer the Nãga explanation.

Nãgas appear in the great Sanskrit epic Mahabharata from India, were they take a more negative role. In the story the sage Kasyapa has two wives, Kadru and Vinata. Kadru's children are the nãga, while Vinata's children are the sun god and the bird, or eagle, god, Garuda. Garuda becomes the sworn enemy of the nãga and devours them for food. Often an amulet of Garuda is worn by people to guard against snake bites.

Pictures of nãga are often carved into temples or as a part of other statuary. In addition to the half-human form they are often shown as snakes with multiple heads. Often the heads will form a fan-shape over a person or object as a sign of protection.

In modern popular culture the nãga occasionally pop up in some form in books or games. The pet snake of Voldemort, from the Harry Potter series of books, is named Nagini which is the female version of nãga. Also in the World of Warcraft game there is a race of aquatic snake-people called Naga.

In History:

Mysterious Airship in Europe - April 1913 ended a wave of airship reports throughout Europe that had started in the fall of the previous year. Observers had reported seeing huge cigar-shaped craft with bright searchlights often moving at great speeds even against the wind. These waves of reports were similar in many ways to airship "flaps" in the western hemisphere, the most famous being the supposed mysterious airship that traveled across the United States in 1896 and 1897.


In the Sky:

Lyrid Meteor Shower - April is the month that Earth encounters the Lyrid meteors. This year they will be in the sky from late night April 22nd until dawn April 23rd. This shower can generate up to 100 shooting stars per hours, but more typically will generate from 10 to 20. Normally the best time to see them is a few hours before dawn, however this year the glare from a waning moon will make all but the brighter ones difficult to see. Look for the meteors appearing to come from the constellation Lyra (the harp).



Search for Earhart Continues - The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) hopes to prove that Amelia Earhart, the legendary pilot who disappeared 74 years ago, crash landed on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited, tropical island, rather than going down at sea. The group has found a number of items on the island, but a bone and clumps that may be human feces hold out the hope of using DNA to determine if the items are related to Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan. Unfortunately what appears to be a finger bone has yet to yield clear DNA evidence that it is human. A laboratory test of the clumps found evidence of human DNA, but not enough to connect it with an individual. TIGHAR expects to continue to work along this line, however, hoping the futures developments in DNA testing may give them a more definite conclusion to the three-quarters of a century old aviation mystery.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: The Bible's Buried Secrets - An archeological detective story traces the origins of the Hebrew Bible. On PBS: April 13 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Seeing Black Holes - Follow the world's greatest scientists as they attempt to understand a phenomenon that Einstein believed could only exist on paper. We now know there are millions of black holes in our galaxy, and they are the scariest things we know least about On The Science Channel: Apr 11, 9:00 pm; ET/PT.

Sci Fi Science: Aliens Attack - Sci Fi Science pits scientists, engineers and particle physicists against the most bizarre tabloid accounts of the supernatural to learn the real science behind the crazy headlines. Unreal Stories, Real Science. On The Science Channel: Apr 03, 8:00 pm; Apr 03, 11:00 pm; Apr 05, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Underwater Universe - Throughout history, tidal waves have drowned us, storm surges have sunk cities, and hurricanes and cyclones--fueled by the ocean--have blown away all in their path. Today, science forecasts that the oceans are getting fiercer, rising up to reshape our coastlines and create untold devastation, social unrest and economic crisis. Track the history and evolution of the ocean's seven deadliest zones--locations that throughout history have been the direct causes of human devastation by floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, whirlpools, ice, underwater volcanoes, and shipping graveyards. Using expedition footage, 3D animation, and commentary from leading oceanographers, we'll depict the awesome cosmic and geological fluctuations that make the oceans deadly over time. On The History Channel: 10PM on April 2nd; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Closer Encounters - Reports of encounters with strange beings and sightings of mysterious objects in the sky have occurred throughout history. A 13th century historical book, Otia Imperialia, includes an account of a creature descending from a flying craft over Bristol, England. The log from Christopher Columbus' first voyage to America contains a report of strange lights in the sky. Medieval art pieces depict disc-shaped objects floating in the heavens. Sightings of flying cigar-shaped crafts were reported during the Black Plague. And there were even discussions of extraterrestrial life among America's Founding Fathers. Could these sightings, coming from every part of the world, from biblical times to present day, be evidence that aliens have been with us all along? On The History Channel: 8PM on April 1st; ET/PT.

Finding Jack the Ripper - Could Jack the Ripper have been the world's first trans-Atlantic serial killer? Can 21st century techniques and CGI 3-D autopsies crack this 19th century crime spree, while reversing decades of investigative assumptions?. On The National Geographic Channel: April 3rd 10:00 PM; April 4th 7:00 PM; April 9th 7:00 PM; ET/PT.

Hunt for the Abominable Snowman - Across the Himalayas are stories of the yeti, or abominable snowman. Half man, half ape, the yeti is said to roam only the most remote peaks, where people rarely venture. On The National Geographic Channel: April 4th 9:00 PM ; April 5th 8:00 PM; April 5th 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

Ben Franklin's Pirate Fleet - A lost piece of American history may have been uncovered deep in the sea a shipwreck thought to have belonged to a fleet of American privateers. Is it possible that this ship was on a mission from Benjamin Franklin? On The National Geographic Channel: April 6th10:00 PM; April 7th 7:00 PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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