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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

April 2013

In the News:

Dolphins Call Each Other Names - A recently released study of dolphins indicates that they are the only creatures on Earth, besides man, that refer to each other with abstract names. Dolphins can apparently call each other by mimicking the distinct whistle of the other dolphin they want to find. "These whistles actually turned out to be names. They're abstract names, which is unheard of in the animal kingdom beyond people," said Randall Wells, one of the study's authors. "Each dolphin produces its own unique signature whistle that describes its individual identity," said a University of St. Andrews press release. "The new study suggests that in fact dolphins are mimicking those they are close to and want to see again." The name calling dolphins studied live in the murky estuary environment of the Gulf of Mexico. "They have to maintain group cohesion and stay in contact with one another and coordinate their activities -- how do you do that when you can't see one another?" noted Wells. The study of what the researchers call "vocal copying" was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B last month.

No Ban On Polar Bear Parts - A U.S. plan to ban the international trade of polar bear parts was voted down last month at an international conference on endangered species. The U.S. is concerned that the shrinking Arctic ice habitat because of global warming could put polar bear populations in a precarious position. The ban was opposed by Canada, home to 16,000 of the 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left in the wild. "The polar bear does not have a small wild population, it does not have a restricted area of distribution and no marked decline has been observed," said Environment Canada in a statement. Canada also points out that polar bear parts are taken in subsistence hunting, not by commercial operations. It is estimated that 800 polar bears are killed by subsistence hunters each year. Hides can sell for between $2,000 and $12,000.

More Evidence that Chicxulub Did in the Dinosaurs - Researchers have found further evidence that supports the theory that the asteroid that crashed into Chicxulub, Mexico, 65 million years ago brought the age of the dinosaurs to the end. Some scientists have questioned the theory as the actual impact date seemed to be as much as 300,000 years before or 180,000 years after the last dinosaurs died. This has led to alternate theories including another meteor impact or massive volcanic eruptions in India. A study published in the journal Science, however, using high-precision radiometric dating analysis of debris kicked up by the impact makes the date no more than 33,000 from the end of the Cretaceous era, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. "We've shown the impact and the mass extinction coincided as much as one can possibly demonstrate with existing dating techniques," researcher Paul Renne, a geochronologist and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California. Scientists caution, however, that the Chicxulib event was just the final blow in a series of event that brought the dinosaurs down.

Mummies had Clogged Arteries Too - At study published in the Lancet medical journal shows that mummies from a number of different ancient cultures with different lifestyles all showed signs of clogged arteries. "The presence of atherosclerosis in premodern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human aging and not associated with any specific diet or lifestyle," the authors state in the paper's conclusion. Some doctor have pointed out that this doesn't mean risk factors for atherosclerosis should be ignored. Many studies have clearly shown that certain lifestyle choices and increase the risk of cardio-vascular disease. "Our study demonstrates... that we are all at risk of atherosclerosis," said author Gregory Thomas. "We should do the very best we can to avoid these risk factors. We cannot expect, however, that avoiding them will prevent atherosclerosis."

Volcanos Responsible for Extinction - A new study in last month's Journal Science points to volcanic eruptions to be the cause of the mass extinction that led to the rise of the dinosaurs. These eruptions, which occurred about 200 million years ago, are known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. They started when the Earth had only one big supercontinent and over the course of 600,000 years they created a rift that became the Atlantic Ocean. The cloud cover from these eruptions and the large amount of greenhouse gases they released, caused rapid climate changes which likely led to the wide-spread extinctions. Scientists had previously suspected the volcanic eruptions might have been connected with the End-Triassic Extinction, but could not, until this study, could not pinpoint the dates of the eruptions close enough to be sure. The recent paper employed a study of the mineral zircon found in the lava flows. Zircon has a large amount of radioactive uranium in it. My measuring the decay rate of the radioactivity scientists could then date the time of the flow very precisely. To confirm these dates researchers also looked evidence of magnetic pole reversal in the flows and fluctuations in sun exposure in certain areas due to the wobble of the planet.


Science Quote of the Month - "Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum mechanics cannot possibly have understood it." - Niels Henrik David Bohr


What's New at the Museum:

Mystery of the Hindenburg - It was the height of luxury and a symbol of the future that came crashing down in flames. Why did the Hindenburg Burn? An update on our classic page. - Full Story

Why Did the Hindenburg Burn? - Our newest video explores the reason the great airship went down in flames. Was it sabotage or a terrible accident? - View Video.

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Big Steam? - In the movie "Wild Wild West" starring Will Smith there was a giant Steam powered spider machine: I already know it was just a special effect but I would still like to know this... Aside from steam-powered ships and locomotives, what is the largest steam-powered vehicle ever made? - David R

Wow! This is a tough question. The best I might be able to do is to suggest a couple of big steam machines that move and see if any of our readers can think of anything bigger.

As you question implied steamships and locomotives were some of the most powerful and heavy objects ever moved by steam. Other devices were relatively light. One of the reasons for this is that steam engines, especially those built in the 19th century, didn't generate a lot of horsepower for the weight of the engine compared to later internal combustion engines. This was fine if what you needed was a stationary source of power. You could just build your steam engine as large as you needed, since it wasn't going anywhere.

The perfect example of a large stationary steam engine was the Corliss Steam Engine built for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. It generated 1,400HP and powered virtually all of the exhibits. Though there would be more powerful engines ( The Ellenroad Ring Mill Engine built in 1917 could produce almost 3000HP) the Centennial engine was well-known and became an icon of the era of steam. It wasn't small, however, and stood 45 feet tall with a 30 foot diameter flywheel. Hardly portable.

A big heavy engine needs to be mounted on something big to be movable which is why powerful steam engines worked so well with ships. One of the biggest of these was the SS United States, an ocean liner launched in 1952 that could develop 240,000HP. It still holds the record for the fastest commercial crossing of the Atlantic.

Rail was also a natural place to use steam because the steel tracks and well-built roadbeds would support a lot of weight for a big locomotive. The largest of these was probably the 1941 Union Pacific Railroad's 4000-class nicknamed "Big Boy" which could generate at least 6,000HP. However, all that weight came with a price. This monster weighted over a million pounds when you included the tender, so it needed the firm footing provided by a track bed to avoid sinking into the ground.

So back to your question: What the biggest steam machine that moves that isn't a loco or a ship? Certainly steam-traction engines might be a possibility. These were steam powered tractors that were popular before gas and diesel tractors became available. Even heavier were steam-rollers which were basically steam traction engines built with big fat wheels used to flatten roadbeds.

Perhaps for a really big and heavy steam machine we need to go back to your inspiration: The Wild, Wild West film from 1999. I'm not thinking about the huge mechanical spider shown in the climax, but the steam powered tank from earlier in the movie.

There were indeed a few attempts to build steam powered tanks in the early 20th century. In 1916 or 1917 a company named Holt built a "Three Wheeled Steam Tank" that was tested at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The monster weighed about 17 tons, so it was probably heavier than most traction engines, but only developed about 150HP, so it was pretty under powered. According to reports it easily became stuck in the mud during testing.

A bigger tank-like device was a contraption built by the Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with Stanley Steamer in 1918. This guy weighed in at 50 tons (around twice as heavy as the other tanks of the era) and had two engines totaling 1,000HP to drive it forward at a maximum speed of 6 mph. This machine was armed with a flamethrower on a turret (which makes me think of the tank from the James Bond film "Dr. No") and four .30 caliber machine guns. Apparently a prototype, christened "America," was shipped to France at the end of World War I, but arrived too late to see any action.

Apparently steam was chosen as the source of power because internal combustion engines of the time couldn't generate enough force to really get something this heavy moving (The 26 ton British tanks of the time used a 105HP engine that could only move them forward at about 3 mph). Steam perhaps isn't the best source of energy for this type of project, however. Working next to a hot boiler in a windowless tank must be awful and there is always the chance of a steam explosion it the machine is pierced by even a small round.

So can anybody think of a bigger steam-powered machine that would qualify as a vehicle? If so, drop us a line and we'll feature a column on it.

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


In History:

The Strange Carcass - In the 1897 issue of American Naturalist there was a story about a strange find in Florida the previous fall: "one arm was lying west of the body, 23 feet long; one stump of arm, west of the body, about four feet; three arms lying south of body and from appearance attached to same, longest one measured over 32 feet, the other arms were three to five feet shorter." What was this odd, many armed thing? Speculation has been for years that it was a colossal octopus of species unknown to science that washed up on the shore after a storm. Despite its appearance a number of scientists argue that the carcass was only that of a whale made unrecognizable because of its advanced decay.


In the Sky:

Lyrid Meteors - The Lyrid meteor shower will peak on the night of April 21-22 this year, though you may still be able to spot some on the following evening. The Lyrids are a modest size shower best observed in the hours before dawn after the moon has set. Look for them to appear to becoming from the North radiating from the constellation Lyra, which gives the shower its name



Researchers Find Monster in Lake - A group of scientists from the Russian Geographical Society report that they've found the remains of a huge creature in Lake Labynkyr in Siberia. The remote lake for centuries has been the source of stories about a monster or "Devil" living in it. "There have been all sorts of hypotheses about what kind of creature it could be: a giant pike, a reptile or an amphibian," said research team geologist Viktor Tverdokhlebov, in the Siberian Times. "We didn't manage to prove or to disprove these versions [but] we managed to find remains of jaws and skeleton of some animal." By using an underwater scanner, the group was able to find a large jawbone and skeleton. However, the team was unable to bring any physical evidence to the surface. They were not the first expedition to report on a monster in the lake. In 1953 a team of geologists claimed they'd seen a large underwater animal the size of killer whale swimming in the water.

Hell Lowers Crime Rates - A study of peoples religious beliefs show that those societies with a stronger belief in an after-life hell have lower crime rates than those with a strong belief in heaven. The paper Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates by Azim F. Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla shows that the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. The two researchers used data collected from 143,197 people in 67 countries between 1981 and 2007. "Once you split religion into different constructs (a belief in hell versus heaven, for example), you begin to see different relationships. In this study, we found two differences that go in opposite directions. If you look at overall religious belief, these separate directions are washed out and you don't see anything. There's no hint of a relationship," said Shariff.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Ancient Computer - A Greek shipwreck holds the remains of an intricate bronze machine that turns out to be the world's first computer. On PBS: April 3 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Australia: Monsters - Some 250 million years ago, some of the largest, most dangerous reptiles ruled this land. Part of a series on the land down under. On PBS: April 24at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Mammals Vs. Dinos: The Age of Gigantism - Mammals vs Dinos begins with a look the first dinosaurs and mammals nearly 200 million years ago and the long evolutionary competition between the two groups. Through computer-generated animations, we see dinosaurs evolving into giant creatures. On The Science Channel: April 5th 7AM; ET/PT.

Search for Noah's Ark - Examine the latest clues and theories that attempt to confirm the biblical account of Noah's ark and the flood. Satellite imagery of mountaintops and underwater geological surveys help dissect the story timeline from God's warning to the receding waters. On National Geographic Channel: April 5th 6PM; ET/PT.

Secret Yellowstone - Life-changing encounters with the natural world await you off-road and beyond the tourist spots in a Yellowstone you've never seen. Get into the two million untouched acres where the bison and bears roam free. On The National Geographic Channel: April 5th 7PM; ET/PT.

Night of Exploration: Mammoth - Back from the Dead - Ten thousand years ago, humans shared the planet with mammoths. They roamed through the heart of Siberia numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Today, that same area is a massive mammoth graveyard, with thousands of skeletons preserved in the frozen tundra ? and a team of scientists want to bring the mammoth back to life. Follow this team on a quest to achieve one of the most audacious undertakings ever: to excavate frozen mammoth tissue in order to clone it. On The National Geographic Channel: April 12th 8PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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