Some scientists want to see Pluto back on the planetary list.


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

April 2017

In the News:

Could Pluto get Promoted to a Planet Again? - If a couple of scientists have their way Pluto could become a planet again, but not alone. Their new definition would add another 102 planets to our solar system. Kirby Runyon and Alan Stern presented a paper at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference suggesting that basically anything that is round, but not a star or former star, should be called a planet. Such a definition is simpler that the one adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006, but under this rule moons, asteroids and other objects beyond the traditional 9 would join the club. "We don't need to give the IAU the authority to tell us what a planet is," Runyon stated. "To be fair, the IAU serves a great purpose in astronomy and does great stuff, but they don't need to tell planetary geologists what a planet is or isn't." He hopes the public will adopt his definition of a planet, even if the IAU doesn't.

Colossal Statue Excavated in Egypt - A team of archaeologists have been busy removing a giant statue from an excavation in Matariya, part of greater Cairo. Scientists were surprised to find the artifact. "It was in an area that was almost completely investigated," said Dietrich Raue from the University of Leipzig. "We thought [the pit] would be empty without any features... so that was a great surprise." Researchers suspect it depicts Ramses II who ruled for 66 years from 1279 to 1213 BC and was part of Ancient Egypt's 19th dynasty. The statue is thought to be 30 feet high, but it's unclear whether archaeologists will be able to recover all the pieces especially the hips and legs. "I'm rather sure that will be there," Raue explained, "but the problem is we're in the middle of the city, and the bottom part may be very close to the houses. It would be dangerous to excavate closer to the houses, so probably we will not get the bottom part."

A Search and Rescue Cat? - A new article in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science suggests that cats might be much better at sniffing out bombs and missing people than dogs. Dogs have 9 V1R receptor gene variants (in mammals the more you have the better to can discriminate smells) while cats have 30 (Humans only have 2). "Given the importance of olfaction in cat sensory perception, cats could be trained to discriminate between a variety of odors, therefore serving in working roles for detecting specific humans, medical scent detection, bomb sniffing, or drug sniffing," noted Kristyn Vitale Shreve, one of the paper's authors. While most researchers have shied away from cats because of their reputation of being difficult to train, the authors of the paper believe that given the right socialization and rewards cats could become partners in search and rescue missions and other situations that require a keen sense of smell.

"Earth-Like" Planets, May Not Be All That Earth-Like - The discovery of seven rocky planets orbiting in or near the "habitable zone" of star, TRAPPIST-1, last month set off everyone's imaginations. One scientist cautions, however, that the press maybe overselling the possibility of life there. In the case of TRAPPIST-1, notes Elizabeth Tasker, one of the authors of a commentary in Nature, the orbital characteristics of these planet suggest they formed further from the star and migrated closer over time. "They may not be terrestrial planets, but maybe the cores of gas giants because they formed in a similar region to our own solar system," she explained. Similarly, in 2014 the discovery of Gliese 832c which was hailed as a "super-earth" was more likely a "super-Venus" with a massive, crushing, atmosphere. The authors' complain these are oversimplifications and that the term "habitual zone" only means the temperature is right for liquid water on the surface, not that water is there, or that conditions would be suitable for the survival of earth-like creatures. "Our knowledge is far from sufficient to comparatively rank the ability of planets to support life," the authors write. "Unless we want to risk destroying the chance to find out if the Earth is unique, we need to stop pretending that we already know."

Supercharged Plants May Sequester CO2 - Biologists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have been playing with enzymes hoping to supercharge plants so that they pull much more carbon dioxide out of the air and cut down on global warming. Enzymes the plants naturally have only use only 5 to 10 molecules of CO2 per second, but the enzymes developed by the researchers consumed as many as 80 molecules of CO2 per second. "It's as important to bring them together and harmonize them so they can work together as a team," said Tobias Erb, a biologist at the Institute. "For instance, like a soccer team, it's not enough to have good individual players. You need a team to win the championship. So, if you want to fix CO2, you want to have enzymes that work together efficiently." So far the scientists have only tested the enzymes in test tubes, the next step is seeing if they can get them into plants.


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:

Schwerer Gustav: The World's Biggest Gun - Under Hitler the Nazis developed a number of crazy weapons. Some, like the V-1 and V-2 missiles, were harbingers of the future. Others, like the enormous battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz, were the zenith of soon obsolete weapons systems. A few, like the Ratte, a tank the size of a small office building, turned out to be just impossible fantasies. One that was actually built, however, almost defies belief. It's the Schwerer Gustav gun, the biggest artillery piece ever used in combat. - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Time Speeding Up? - Someone just said to me she thinks the last 3 years have aged everyone more than in the past because the actual minute itself (the unit of time) is speeding up. Can this be possible? - Jennifer E.

I suspect your friend is referring to the insertion of "leap seconds" into the calendar in the last few years. If this is the case, it isn't so much that time itself is speeding up, but that the earth's rotation is slowing down.

Of course, how you look at it depends on how you define time. We casually define our days as one rotation of our planet, hours as one 24th the length of that day, minutes as one 60th of the length of that hour and seconds as one 60th the length of that minute. If the Earth rotation slows (which it does due to the pull of the moon and sun's gravity on our oceans which create friction between the water and land) the days get longer by a few fractions of a second each year.

While this tiny difference is unimportant to most people, it is of great concern to scientists who need to measure things carefully down to the thousandths of a second for many scientific experiments. If the length of a second is changing as the earth slows down it can't be used to compare the results of one experiment with a similar one done years earlier. To solve this problem scientists invented the "physics second." A physics second is length that the second was according to the rotation of our planet in 1900. Scientists then use atomic clocks (that measure time as a function of the change of states in the element cesium) to track time without having to refer to the earth rotation. When the atomic clocks slip out of sync with the rotation of the earth by about a second a "leap second" is inserted into the clocks tracking to keep it aligned with the astronomical day.

If you thought of the real value of time as the length of the day, then indeed you might come to the conclusion that time is going faster - after all we are inserting extra fractions of a second into those days so time must have sped up, right? Well, not really. It is probably more accurate to think that time has stayed the same, but our days are getting longer.

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In History:

American Interplanetary Society - On April 4th, 1930, the American Interplanetary Society (originally called the American Rocket Society) was formed by G. Edward Pendray, David Lasser, Laurence Manning. The group contributed greatly to early rocket science and on September 9th, 1934, their ARS-4 rocket was the first in America to break the sound barrier.


In the Sky:

Lyrids Meteor Shower - Staring around April 16th through the 25th, watch the skies for shooting stars from the Lyrids meteor shower. The shower, the remains from the passing of comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, will peak on the evening of April 22nd through the morning of the 23rd. That night has a crescent moon but it shouldn't interfere too much with viewing.



British Police Track UFO Calls - A British police department admitted dispatching officers 8 times in the last couple years to investigate UFO or alien abduction reports. According to the newspaper The Sun, the Lancashire police checked out reports of strange happenings many times in their jurisdiction, but didn't come up with any definite evidence of extraterrestrial involvement. These might, however, point to criminal activity. "Sometimes these calls are not what they may seem so a potential UFO call could be a suspicious light or suspicious movement," said a police spokeman. Lancashire area has long been known for reports of alien activity. A 1995 incident generated 250 calls reporting a UFO flying through the sky at high speed.


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

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2017. All Rights Reserved.


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