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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

May 2012

In the News:

Baboons Learn Words - Baboons probably don't read, but that doesn't mean that they don't recognize words. In a study done by Jonathan Grainger, a cognitive psychologist at the National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University in France, baboons got treats if they correctly identified a word as a word on a computer screen. The animals also get rewards if they correctly identified nonsense combinations of letters. The most talented of the primates tested scored 308 words. Overall the animals had a 75% accuracy rate. The study suggests that reading may use of visual systems in the brain that originally evolved to identify objects, since the baboons have no linguistic capacity. The animals could often pick out the words from non-words the first time they had seen them. "It's not just memorizing," Grainger said. "It's picking up what we call these statistical regularities: Certain letter combinations appear more frequently in words than in non-words." He compared the ability to studies that have shown that a pigeon can pick out an oak leaf from other leaves, though no two oak leaves are the same.

Did Viking Find Life on Mars? - A group of scientists that reanalyzed data captured by the Viking Mars probes in 1976 believe that the probes found life on the red planet. The probes had scooped up some Martian soil, and then monitored the gases that escaped looking for some that might have been made by microorganisms. At the time scientists believed that what they found was due to geological, rather than biological processes. This new study took the original data and looked for complexity in the data sets that would be more characteristic of biological source. According to Joseph Miller, a neuropharmacologist and biologist, who was one of the authors, they found such complexity in the old data. "On the basis of what we've done so far, I'd say I'm 99 percent sure there's life there," he said. Other scientists are more skeptical noting that the technique the researchers used is new and has not been proven to be able to differentiate between living and non-living samples in Earth soil.

Scientists to Study Aging on Mt. Everest - A group of scientists are headed to Mount Everest not to study its geology, but to see if climbing at high altitude mimics the effects of aging. The researchers will attach sensors to a team of climbers from The North Face, National Geographic, and Montana State University to monitor problems they may have with sleep, muscle loss, lung fluid regulation. "We can simulate some conditions in oxygen tents and hyperbaric chambers, but only for short periods," says Bruce Johnson, Ph.D., Mayo Clinic physiologist and leader of the scientific expedition. They believe the effects of elevation are similar to the effects of chronic disease and/or aging. Climbers lose muscle at high altitude in the same way that muscle wasting occurs with many chronic diseases. The scientists will track calories and sleep quality in an attempt to find out if weight loss is related to lack of oxygen.

The Return of Moby Dick? - Scientists are intrigued by the appearance of an all-white, male killer whale in the Pacific Ocean off Russia. They have dubbed the animal "Iceberg" and he is part of a 12 member pod of orcas. With a 6 ½ foot high dorsal fin and a length of 16 feet researchers believe he is at least 16 years old. Other all-white orcas have been seen, but this is the first fully grown male. Some of the scientists from universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg that saw "Iceberg" this year will travel back to the area next year to see if they can locate him again. They would like to figure out if he is an albino or if there is some other reason for his unusual white color.

No South Carolina Sea Monster - In March a strange looking creature washed up at Folly Beach, SC. Its strange appearance -a ten foot long lump with tan-brown bony plates with greenish patches - made people think that it might be some kind of unknown sea monster. Dr. Shane Boylan of the South Carolina Aquarium was able to identify the creature as an Atlantic sturgeon, however. These fish can grow up to 15 feet in length. They usually are usually light-silver in color, but the sun apparently caused the bony-plates characteristic of the species to turn brown. This washed up lump may not be the only case of a sturgeon being mistaken for a monster. There has been speculation that the legendary creature in Loch Ness is really an ocean going sturgeon that was trapped in the lake.


Science Quote of the Month - "The wireless telegraph is not difficult to understand. The ordinary telegraph is like a very long cat. You pull the tail in New York, and it meows in Los Angeles. The wireless is the same, only without the cat." -- Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

Victoria Falls: The Smoke that Thunders - On November 17th of 1855 David Livingstone became the first European to see the mighty cataract. Afterward he wrote: "No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.". >Full Story

Seven Wonders of the Natural World - The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World has been around for over a millennium so there is little dispute among people today about what the list should include. The list of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, however, is a modern list. Who is to decide of all the marvels of nature which are the top seven? Should there even be a top seven or perhaps a top ten makes more sense >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

A Theory of Everything - Is a Unified Field Theory possible within our lifetime or will quantum weirdness muddle the whole thing up? - Taziniquejz

First let's start by defining what a "Unified Field Theory" is for those readers who might not be familiar with the term. There are four known fundamental forces in the universe: Gravity, Electromagnetism, the Strong Nuclear Force and the Weak Nuclear Force. The first two most people are familiar with from every day experiences, but the second two are very short range and only work at sub-at atomic distances so we don't see much of them in everyday life. (However if they didn't exist atoms would fly apart and the universe would be very different). In any case, since the 19th century physicists have been trying to build a single theory that integrates together the fields of all these forces. There was good reason to try this as they'd had some success in the past. For example, in the 1800's James Clerk Maxwell was able to take the electrical force and integrate it with magnetism to make electromagnetism.

Albert Einstein, after finishing his General Theory of Relativity (which explains how gravity works) spent pretty much the rest of his life trying to combine gravity with the rest of the forces, but without much success. One of his problems with his approach was that he attempted use classical physics to do it.

As your question suggests some people think quantum physics throws a monkey wrench into the process of creating a Unified Field Theory. Quantum physics is different than classical physics in the nothing is deterministic, only probabilistic (For example you cannot precisely determine were a sub-atomic particle like a photon will be, only were it probably will be). This tended to bother a lot of people, including Einstein who famously said, "God doesn't play dice with the Universe." Einstein, though he helped found quantum physics, was never really comfortable with it and hoped to find a deterministic/classical theory hidden beneath it.

Though there are still a few scientists that hope to find a Unified Field Theory in classical physics, most of them now think that it will actually come out of quantum physics. Much work has been done in this area and it looks like the electromagnetic force can be successfully combined with the weak force to make what's called the "electroweak interaction." In addition the strong force also fits well into the Standard Physics Model laid out in quantum physics.

The odd man out is gravity. The particles that make these forces work have been found for the rest of the forces (for example, in the case of electromagnetism the particle is the photon), but not for gravity. The suspected particle here has been given the provisional name "graviton" but currently our laboratory experiments are not sophisticated enough to detect such a particle, so it still remains theoretical construct.

If a theory of quantum gravity can be found (and proved to be corrrect) we should be well on our way to finally having something that looks like a Unified Field Theory. Scientists are working on several approaches to this. The most popular one is String Theory (which comes in a multitude of various versions). String theory says that all matter is made up of incredibly tiny strings of vibrating energy and the different vibrations produce different particles, like the photon and the electron.

Many scientists think that this may be the final theory of everything and find the math in it quite elegant. However, it is nearly impossible to actually test any version of string theory in a laboratory because the vast amounts of power required to crack open matter to look for the strings is not something with can generate and control today. This lack of a testable hypothesis, according to string theory critics, makes it more of a religion than a science.

Will we be able to resolve this problem in our lifetime? It's hard to say. Einstein thought that he might have a Unified Theory by the end of his life, but that was over half a century ago and we are still working on it. On the other hand sometimes you can go from theory to experimental results unexpectedly quickly. When John Stewart Bell came up with his theorem ("Bell's Theorem") in 1964 he didn't think it would be possible to actually test it with an actual experiment for decades, if ever. Yet, within five years the first lab tests were being run. So who knows? Perhaps there is clever, young physicist out there with an unconventional idea about how to test string theory. If so, a Unified Theory, verified by experiment, might be right around the corner.

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


In History:

Falling Turtle - One of the strangest types of unexplained incidents is the fall of some object or objects from the sky that one might not expect to see dropping from the heavens. There are numerous reports of falls of fish, toads, lizards and other small animals. Probably one of the larger unexplained objects to fall was a fairly large gopher turtle - six by eight inches in size - during a hailstorm in Bovina, Mississippi on May 11th of 1894.


In the Sky:

Annular Eclipse - An annular eclipse will occur on May 20th over parts of China and the Southwest United States. An annular eclipse is caused when the moon gets between the Earth and the Sun blocking the sun's light. It is different than a total eclipse in that the moon is at its furthest distance from Earth making it appear smaller so it does not cover the full disc of the sun. Instead you get a ring of fire in the sky. The path of the eclipse goes through Redding California at 6:29PM and down as far as Lubbock, Texas at 7:21PM. It will pass directly over Reno, Nevada and 6:31 PM, so if you are in a Casino there, make sure you duck outside to see this wonder of nature. WARNING: Just the visible ring is still bright enough to cause eye damage, so to view the eclipse use dark welder's glass, or build a "camera" by poking a pinhole in the side of a cardboard box and watching the image projected inside the box.



Looking for a Living Dinosaur in the Congo - An expedition to find a living dinosaur may get started this June if Stephen McCullah gets his way. McCullah is seeking $27,000 in donations so he and his associates can reach his goal of "categorizing plant and animal species in the vastly unexplored Republic of the Congo." One of McCullah's goals is to see if there is any truth to the legend of Mokèlé-mbèmbé, a dinosaur-like creature said to be up to 35 feet long (11 meters) that supposedly haunts this section of the Congo. They will also be looking for tarantulas "the size of dogs." Though the group has little in the way of scholarly experience they hope to make up for this with youthful enthusiasm. If you want to donate to this expedition check them out on Kickstarter.com.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Great Inca Rebellion - Mass graves and forensic evidence reveal a complex truth about how the Inca Empire fell. On PBS: May 16 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

NOVA: Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor - Hear the story of the secret subs that were involved in the attack on December 7th, 1947. On PBS: May 23 at 9 pm; ET/PT..

Morgan Freeman's Through The Wormhole: Are There More Than 3 Dimensions? - New evidence forces us to consider a truly shocking possibility - is our reality an illusion On The Science Channel: May 02, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Are You Good Or Evil? - Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, David Berkowitz. Were they born bad? Do humans have an innate sense of morality? If so, where does it exist in the brain and how did it get there? Meet the scientists searching for a physical basis behind the moral instinct. On The Science Channel: May 04, 10:00 pm; May 05, 1:00 am; May 06, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

The Hawking Paradox - In 2004, Stephen Hawking admitted to making a mistake. The genius who discovered black holes was claiming that his entire theory about them was wrong. Follow Hawking as he prepares to deliver the paper that he says will prove his doubters wrong. On The Science Channel: May 11, 8:00 pm; May 11, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

James Cameron: Voyage to the Bottom of the Earth - Plunging to the virtually unknown depths of the Mariana Trench, James Camerons DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition takes this National Geographic Explorer deeper and further than any filmmaker or solo explorer has ever gone before. The finish line lies below nearly 36,000 feet of seawater, weighing in at about 16,000 pounds of pressure on every square inch of sub. Now join him, moment by nail-biting moment, on this intimate glimpse inside the mind of a master traveler as he recounts his journey to the bottom of the Earth. On The History Channel: May 3rd 9:00 pm; 930 pm; ET/PT.

Area 51 Declassified - Its the most famous military installation in the world, yet it doesnt officially exist. Area 51-- a site for covert Cold War operations-- has long been a magnet for crackpots, conspiracy theorists, and the overly curious. While there may not be truth to the rumors that Area 51 is a haven for UFOs and extraterrestrials, its clear that our government has been up to something in Area 51 for decades, and it turns out there is a kernel of truth to even some of the wildest speculation. Underground tunnels Hidden enemy aircraft Secret government UFO files Now, after years of silence, for the first time Area 51 insiders spill their secrets and reveal whats really been going on inside the most secretive place on earth. On The National Geographic Channel: May 6, 09:00 PM; May 17 10:00 PM; ET/PT.

Confederate Flying Machine - The history of aviation may never be the same. Forty years before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, frantic inventors and engineers rushed to create steam-powered flying machines that they hoped would decide the fate of the Civil War. Mark Ragan, author and project historian of the Hunley (a Civil War submarine), recently discovered shocking new evidence suggesting that both sides of the conflict were struggling to craft steam-powered flying machines, capable of bombing the enemy. On The National Geographic Channel: May 10 08:00 PM; 11:00 PM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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