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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

June 2009

In the News:

Venom or Toxic Bacteria? - For years scientists thought that the Komodo Dragon did not poison its victims, but that its fearsome bite infected the animal with septic bacteria that slowly weakened and killed it. A recent study by led by Dr. Bryan Fry from the University of Melbourne, however, showed that the Dragon does have venomous glands in its mouth. The venom keeps the victim's blood from clotting at the wound leading to a drop in blood pressure. The loss of blood and the lower the blood pressure weaken the animal and cause it to eventually stop moving so the giant lizard can safely approach and finish it. Fry believes that this specialized bite and venom shortens the contact the dragon has with its victim allowing it to take much larger prey than might otherwise be expected.

Cat-sized Primate Significant Fossil - According to an international team of scientists a 47-million-year-old primate fossil the size ancient "small cat" may be a highly significant clue in the evolution of man. The fossil, dubbed "Ida," lived about the time primates split into two groups: the line that would produce humans and monkeys, and the line which would become primates like lemurs. "This is the most complete primate fossil before human burial," stated Dr. Jorn Hurum, of the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo, who led the study of the bones. "And it's not a few million years old; it's 47 million years old." The fossil was found in 1983 in the Messel Pit, near Frankfurt, Germany, but, because it had been broken into two sections, its importance was not immediately recognized. According to Hurum he nicknamed the fossil after his young daughter, Ida . The fossil was officially named Darwinius masillae, in honor of the anniversary of evolutionary scientists Charles Darwin's 200th birthday.

Island "Hobbits" New Species - Scientists have been bitterly arguing over whether tiny human remains found on the remote Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 --Homo floresiensis -- is a new species or just regular old homosapians who suffered from some disease that made them small. A recent study in the British journal Nature supports the idea that the small hominids were actually a new species. The researchers by analyzing the hobbit's foot showed that it has both human and chimp-like components. This suggest to the authors "that the ancestor of H. floresiensis was not Homo erectus but instead some other, more primitive, hominin whose dispersal into southeast Asia is still undocumented."

Meteorite Hit Created Dangerous Gas - Recent experiments by the Yasuhito Sekine of the University of Tokyo and a team of researchers has shown that the giant asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago not only vaporized rock and ocean water and left a smoldering crater in the Earth almost 75 miles wide, but likely generated huge amounts of carbon monoxide. The sudden spike in the gas may have been enough to cause a large rise in global temperatures, and trigger the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. The researchers simulated the impact by firing small pieces of metal into samples of calcite, commonly found in the shallow seas of the Cretaceous period. The tests vaporized the samples, producing about twice as much carbon monoxide (CO) as carbon dioxide (CO2).

DNA Could Tell if Lincoln was Already Dying - The board of a small Philadelphia museum denied a request from a historical researcher that might have proved Abraham Lincoln was dying of cancer when he was assassinated. The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library decided not to loan Dr. John Sotos a scrap of a pillow that was soaked with the dying 16th President's blood. Sotos thinks that DNA from the strip could determine if Lincoln suffered from a rare genetic disease called multiple endocrine neoplasia type 2B. If the President did have the disease it could explain his long limbs, bumps on his lips and problems with constipation. It would also certainly mean that Lincoln was dying of thyroid cancer. Board members opposed the doctor's request, fearing that removing even a few strands of thread for DNA testing would damage the relic. Sotos thinks that the information gained, however, would give insight into the President's thinking. "He probably knew something was horribly wrong. If Lincoln was dying, certainly he recognized it because he was a smart and observant man ... but he would not have told a soul."


Science Quote of the Month - "Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it." ~Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

Relaunch: Science Today- Our page of breaking science news stories gets an update with more news categories and articles! Check it out: > Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Using Magnets for Traveling Through Space - I'm wondering if it's possible to use the principles of magnetism for travel (besides Maglev). For example, could a ship with a highly focused electromagnet aim and pull itself to a planet's magnetic field, or to the heavy metal core of an asteroid? Could this same idea be used to create a flying car, by pushing or pulling off more than one point at the same time? Thanks - Maxwell

While magnets and magnetic forces are very important in present and future transportation designs, the type of arrangement you suggest - focusing a magnetic field toward a distant object to pull yourself toward it seems an unlikely mechanism to be used. The problem is that magnetic fields lose their strength very quickly over long distances. So if you attempted to build a ship using this principal to pull yourself toward to a distant object you would need an impractically large magnetic field requiring a tremendous amount of energy. You would also have the problem that your engine would be attracting every piece of ferrite material (those attracted to a magnet) within miles -the wrenches in you tool kit, you belt buckle, other ships near you etc... You vessel would soon be covered with loose ferrite objects.

A train using Maglev does not have this same difficulty. The train uses magnetism to float just above its rails (often less than an inch) so that distance is not a problem. By changing the poles on the magnets involved the train can be not only pushed upward by the magnetic field but also down the track to give the vehicle forward speed.

A magnetic flying car might be workable, but only if it was levitating above a special magnetic road. Like the Maglev train it would be limited to "flying" just a few inches above the ground.

Of course many engines used in transportation now use magnets to operate. Almost every electric motor uses magnetic fields to generate movement and some advanced space probes use magnetic fields to shoot particles out the of the back of the probe at high speeds to push the device forward.

The only example of a magnetic transportation system that I could find that was similar to your design was a satellite engine being developed in conjunction with NASA. While details of the design are limited, the engine would interact with Earth magnetic field to allow satellites to maneuver while in orbit. Last year a model of the engine exploded during testing, but the inventors of the engine think they have worked out the bugs and are hopeful that they will be able to try a test in space in the next few years.


In History:

Unidentified Submarine Objects - On June 18, 1845 the crew of the brig Victoria were cruising the eastern Mediterranean Sea when they observed three bright, luminous objects come out of the sea and fly into the sky. One observer said the objects were five times the size of the moon, with "sail-like or streamer-like" appendages. The objects were seen from both land and sea for between 10 and 20 minutes. No explanation for these reports is known.


In the Sky:

Planet Parade - If you haven't checked the night sky to look for planets recently, this might be a good month, but you will have to get up early. Jupiter is the brightest object in the morning sky as it moves through the constellation Aquarius. Mars is also visible in the morning in Aries. It will be in conjunction with Venus and the Moon on June 20th. Both Mercury and Venus will be visible just before the sun comes up with Mercury easier to see later in the month. Saturn is the only planet that will be visible the whole night, Look for it in the constellation Leo.



E.T. Search Going for a Decade - Last month marks 10 years for University of California at Berkeley's SETI@home. SETI, of course, stands for the "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence." Anyone who wants to participate can download software to their home computers. During idle times the computer will then process signals that have been received from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and looks for any signs of intelligent communication in the data. So far, no extraterrestrial signals have been found, but currently there are 140,000 participants in the project looking for a sign that we are not alone. Chief scientist Dan Werthimer says he realizes that this is like "looking for needle in a haystack" but explains, "we're in this for the long haulů. As long as we have some way to increase the sensitivity of our radio detectors or the frequency range, or the part of the sky we're looking at, we'll still be doing something worthwhile." People interested in joining the project can go to http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Bone Diggers - Deep inside an Australian cave, paleontologists discover the fossils of extinct giant animals. On PBS. Tuesday, June 16 at 8 pm ET/PT.

Angels vs. Demons: Fact or Fiction? - A hard-hitting yet witty look at the cutting-edge science and historical reality behind the best-selling novel Angels and Demons. It's a battle of fact vs. fiction in a world of antimatter, theology, conspiracies, symbolism and cults. On Discovery Channel. Jun 05, 8:00 pm; Jun 05, 11:00 pm; ET/PT

Horror Movies - Effects that Scare - Nar makes a movie camera out of a block of magnesium at Panavision, investigates the science behind crime-scene blood spatter on Showtime's Dexter, meets Lola the leading digital plastic surgeon in Hollywood and an indie filmmaker demonstrates DIY effects! (Part of the Science of the Movies Series) On the Science Channel. Jun 09, 9:00 pm; Jun 10, 12:00 am; Jun 10, 4:00 pm; Jun 11, 4:00 am; ET/PT

Dinosaurs: Return to Life? - Dinosaurs: Return to Life follows scientists who are using the latest technology and amazing advances in genetic research to revive the possibility of creating a living breathing dinosaur, but in a different way than we ever imagined. On the Science Channel. Jun 08, 8:00 pm; Jun 08, 11:00 pm; Jun 09, 3:00 pm; Jun 10, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

What Really Killed the Dinosaurs- Until recently, most scientists thought they knew what killed off the dinosaurs - a giant meteorite crashing into Earth. But a small and vociferous group of scientists believes there is increasing evidence that the 'impact' theory could be wrong. On The Science Channel. Jun 08, 9:00 pm Jun 09, 12:00 am Jun 09, 4:00 pm Jun 10, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

Seven Signs of the Apocalypse - The Seven Signs are clear: We will be struck by deadly plagues, famines and earthquakes... The sky will turn dark and oceans will turn to blood... And the antichrist will emerge to fight the final battle between good and evil. Could this all be true? Experts decode this powerful prophecy and come to a startling conclusion: there is now scientific evidence that many of these catastrophes could, in fact, be occurring. A star falling from the sky could be one of thousands of rogue asteroids that may be approaching earth. The plague foretold in the Bible could be a deadly strain of avian virus that researchers fear could kill millions. Oceans turning blood red could be triggered by microorganisms that release dangerous neurotoxins that have the same effect as nerve gas. To reveal the ultimate truth behind the prophecy, this investigation will turn to the past to reveal why the prophecy was written, and why it keeps such a powerful hold on our imagination today. On The History Channel. Tuesday, June 09 08:00 PM; Wednesday, June 10 12:00 AM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2008. All Rights Reserved.


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