Over the Edge
Roundup of Strange Science for the Month
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
New at the Museum:
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.".
Wonders of the Natural World -
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
Mysterious Picture of the Month - What
is this thing?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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.
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
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.
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
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
May 02, 3:00 am
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.
May 04, 10:00 pm; May 05, 1:00
am; May 06, 5:00 am
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
May 11, 8:00 pm; May 11, 11:00
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
Channel: May 3rd 9:00 pm; 930 pm
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
May 6, 09:00 PM; May
17 10:00 PM
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
May 10 08:00 PM; 11:00
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