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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

June 2010

In the News:

Ancient Lead Important for Nuclear Experiments - Scientists at Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) will be using lead found in a Roman vessel sunken 2,000 years ago off the coast of Sardinia in an sensitive experiment to detect extremely rare nuclear processes. Because the load of lead has been sitting on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea for 2000 years it has lost almost all of a small portion of radioactive lead isotope found in freshly mined lead. The INFN experiment depends on removing all natural sources of radiation from the experimental set up. For this reason, it will be conducted in a tunnel deep below Gran Sasso mountain in central Italy to provide shielding from cosmic rays. To prevent low levels of radiation from the surrounding rocks from interfering with the tests the experiment is also lined with lead. Recently mined lead, however, itself is a source of low level radiation. Only lead mined thousands of years ago is completely inert and therefore extremely valuable to scientists. The INIF team expects their experiment to come on line in a couple of years and will be used to try and detect an extremely rare nuclear process predicted by theory, but so far undiscovered, known as neutrinoless double beta decay.

Mars Fossils May be Easier to Find Than First Thought - Mars scientists are excited because a recent discovery here on earth raises the chances of finding fossils on Mars. Much of Mars is covered with beds of gypsum. Gypsum, also known as calcium sulfate, has always been considered too soft and water-soluble to preserve fossils. Under the urging of astrobiology experts, however, Bill Schopf, a paleobiologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, checked terrestrial samples of gypsum that formed six million years ago when the Mediterranean Sea went dry. He found it full of the microscopic remains of algae and phytoplanktons. "It came as a surprise to me," said Schopf. "There's been almost no work ever done here on Earth looking for fossils in gypsum because we all assumed that there wouldn't be anything in there and we were wrong." Orbiting spacecraft have discovered large deposits of gypsum on Mars which may turn out to be prime locations to check for ancient microscopic fossils.

Plasma Rocket Might Go to Asteroid - NASA is considering using a new type of engine for a new mission to visit an asteroid. The electrically powered Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine is being developed for testing on the International Space Station. In addition to the primary engine that is being assembled, a backup is also being put together in case the first one is damaged before it has been successfully installed. If the original is installed on the space station without incident this will leave NASA with an extra engine and the space agency is contemplating using it to power a scientific probe to an asteroid. The engine works by using radio waves to ionize a propellant - such as argon, xenon or hydrogen - and the resulting hot plasma with then is directed out the back of the spacecraft by magnetic fields. In theory, the engine should be much more efficient than current chemical rockets and would allow a flight to Mars in just 39 to 45 days. Using the plasma engine to power an asteroid probe would be a powerful demonstration of the technology.

Beavers Produce New Record Dam - In a remote area of northern Alberta, Canada, a scientist has discovered the world largest beaver dam. The dam, 2,800 feet long, surpasses the former record holder in Montana. Jean Thie used satellite imagery and Google Earth software to find the dam which is located on the southern edge of Wood Buffalo National Park. Thie, who discovered the dam by accident while tracking melting permafrost, thinks that that several generations of beavers are responsible for the construction. Rangers who flew over the area noted that the beavers are working on two smaller dams on each side of the main one. Within a decade these three structures could merge to produce a new dam almost a kilometer in length. Mike Keizer, spokesman for the park, noted "It's a unique phenomenon. Beaver dams are among the few animal-made structures visible from space."

Study Says All Life Has Common Ancestor - A recent statistical study suggests that all life on earth had a common ancestor. This has long been one of the central pillars of evolutionary theory, but recently some microbiologists have suggested the perhaps life arouse in multiple places and then the microscopic creatures some swapped DNA, as is sometimes seen nature. To test which possibility was more likely Douglas Theobald, a biochemist at Brandeis University, performed computer simulations to evaluate how likely various evolutionary scenarios were to have created certain proteins shared by all life. He found that statistically it was at least 102,860 times more probable that all life had a single common ancestor rather than multiple ancestors. The study appears in the May 13 issue of Nature. "In one sense, we are not surprised at the answer, but we are very pleased that the unity of life passed a formal test," said David Penny, a theoretical biologist and Allan Wilson Centre researcher at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.


Science Quote of the Month - "The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he's one who asks the right questions. " ~ Claude LÚvi-Strauss


What's New at the Museum:

Hitler's Super Tank - Hitler was in love with big, technological weapons. Mighty battleships, supersonic rockets and jet aircraft were just a few of the advanced devices the Third Reich put onto the battlefield during World War II. One planned weapon that didn't make it into action, however, was the Landkreuzer P-1000 "Ratte." A true rolling fortress it was far heavier and more powerful than any other tank considered by any other country before, during or after the war. If this super tank had been built, how might it have affected the conflict? >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?


Ask the Curator:

Dudleytown Hauntings - I was wondering what the Curator's thought was on the stories of the Dudleytown hauntings in Connecticut . Could Dudleytown be haunted by the spirits of the old town that once resided there? - Tim A.

I have to admit that I have no special knowledge of the Dudleytown legend. However, it is a fascinating story and thanks for suggesting we talk about it here in Ask the Curator. Let me go over the account so that anybody not familiar with the tale will know what we're talking about.

The legend of Dudleytown supposedly starts in 1510 when Edmund Dudley was beheaded for plotting to overthrow the King of England. The story has it that a curse was placed on his family. In 1747 brothers Abiel and Barzillai Dudley, supposedly Edmund's descendants, settled in the area giving the town its name. The location was too rocky and dark for farming so the town people made a business out of making charcoal from the abundant trees. The town prospered for while, but then, according to the legend, things turned bad.

As the story goes it all started when one of the Dudley brothers when insane. Then there were a series of unfortunate accidents and mysterious deaths. A woman was struck by lightning while sitting on her porch. People got sick, children disappeared and houses burned down. Finally, in despair, the villagers abandoned the town. Soon the dark woods closed in around it and now only the ever present owls inhabit the area. According to the legend most other animals avoid it.

So is the place really haunted? Well, if you talk to Dudleytown's neighbors they will tell you it is all a bunch of hokum and the legend has caused all kinds of problems for them. A number of years ago some of the property owners in the area formed an association - Dark Entry Forest, Inc. - purchased the land designated the location a nature preserve. For many years it was possible to visit the location without a problem. However, after the 1999 release of the movie The Blair Witch Project the area was inundated by thrill seeking teenagers and paranormal investigators. Now The Blair Witch Project was supposed to have taken place in Maryland, but the location in the film, a dark woods, was so similar to Dudleytown that people in Connecticut decided this local location was a good place to try and have a Blair Witch type adventure. The problems this caused - like late night drinking parties and theft from the historic ruins - forced Dark Entry Forest, Inc. to close the location to visitors.

(Dudleytown isn't the only historic site to have problems caused by it supposed haunted connections - See The Haunted Church of Gravity Hill )

Teenagers continued to find their way into the town, however. In one incident, perhaps even a little bit like the Blair Witch movie, a group of five teens found themselves so lost that at 1:30 in the morning they had to call 911 to get rescued. Fortunately, instead of losing their lives, as in the film, they each just got a $77 ticket from the Connecticut State Police for trespassing.

Some argue that the association is just trying to down play the ghostly history to avoid any more paranormal mayhem, but at least one author agrees with them that the legend is all bunk. The Rev. Gary P. Dudley, of Texas, became interested in the story because of the connection with his name. After researching the historical records he wrote The Legend of Dudleytown: Solving Legends through Genealogical and Historical Research (Heritage Books, 2001). In his book Dudley argues that most of the stories associated with the town are complete fiction or have been twisted to fit the legend. For example, the wife of Dr. William Clarke, who owned a vacation home on the site, supposedly went mad and killed herself when she was left alone there one night. Dudley found that Mrs. Clarke did indeed commit suicide, but that occurred in New York City, not in Dudleytown.

So is Dudleytown really haunted? Well, according to people who have visited the site the surrounding hills and heavy forest certainly make it dark and gloomy location worthy of a haunting. However, spooky places do not necessary mean there are spooks (Check The Science of Ghosts and Hauntings).

If you want to see what Rev. Dudley has to say about it, buy his book or visit his website at http://www.legendofdudleytown.com/


In History:

Dark Humanoid Figure - On June 18, 1953, three residents of Houston saw a strange entity during the early morning hours. As they watched a huge shadow fell across the lawn of their apartment building. They reported it belong to a "figure of a man, dressed in gray or black-fitting clothes." The group could not agree on if he had wings or a cape. After a quarter of an hour he seemed to vanish and a loud "swoosh" was hear as a rocket-shaped object launched into the sky and headed northeast. No explanation for this even is known.


In the Sky:

Shooting Stars from Lyra - The Lyrid meteor shower will reach its peak this month from June 15 to 16. With the moon just past its new stage (appearing as a thin crescent) that will set in the early evening, the sky should be dark enough to provide good viewing for most of the night. The Lyrids only generate about 10 meteors per hour so it is best to try and observe them at their peak. The shooting stars will appear to be coming from the constellation Lyra (the lyre or harp), which will appear in the east soon after sunset. The meteor shower is courtesy of Comet Thatcher and is the result of tiny dust particles left in the comet's trail that hit Earth's atmosphere and burn up.



Giant Oarfish Found on Swedish Coast - A rare Giant Oarfish, also known as the "giant herring" or "king of herrings" has been found dead on a Sweden's western coast. The creature, which had a length of almost 12 feet, was the first of this size found in Sweden since 1879. The Oarfish's strange, long narrow body can grow up to 40 feet in length and may be the source of some sea monster tales. The animal is rarely seen as its natural habitat is the deep sea, and only a very few individuals come to the surface, usually because they are near death. "Down at the water, there was something big floating. At first we thought it was a big piece of plastic. But then we saw an eye. I went down to check and saw that it was this extremely strange fish," Kurt Ove Eriksson, the passer-by who found the specimen, told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Alien From Earth - Do the remains of a tiny hobbit-like creature found on the island of Flores belong to a new human species? On PBS: Tuesday, June 15 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: The Spy Factory - Examine the high-tech eavesdropping carried out by the National Security Agency and the pitfalls of surveillance in an age of terrorism. On PBS: Tuesday, Juine 29 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Pig Bomb - Pig Bomb reveals a little known animal invasion - Wild pigs are reproducing out of control in the USA. But it's not only their numbers that are increasing, the individual animals are getting bigger, and they are also becoming more aggressive On The Discovery Channel: Jun 06, 8:00 pm; Jun 06, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Morgan Freeman's Through the Wormhole - Did our Universe come into being by chance or was it created by a God? The latest science shows that the four forces governing our universe are finely tuned, so much so that it has led many to believe that something must have calibrated them. On The Science Channel: May 06, 9:00 pm; Jun 09, 10:00 pm; Jun 10, 1:00 am; Jun 11, 5:00 am; Jun 13, 9:00 pm; ET/PT.

Jack the Ripper: New Evidence - London in 1888 was gripped by fear as the bloodthirsty maniac Jack the Ripper was killing and mutilating women. The killer was never caught, but with 21st century police forensic techniques the greatest criminal mystery in history may finally be solved. On The Science Channel: Jun 07, 8:00 pm; Jun 07, 11:00 pm; Jun 09, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Creating Synthetic Life - For the first time in history, synthetic life has been created. Exclusive behind the scenes footage reveals the story behind Dr Craig Venter?s seven year journey to success, and the incredible implications for the future. On The Science Channel: Jun 03, 8:00 pm; Jun 03, 10:00 pm; Jun 04, 12:00 am; Jun 05, 3:00 am; Jun 05, 5:00 am; Jun 06, 1:00 pm ET/PT.

Egypt Unwrapped: The Real Cleopatra - New clues unearthed about the life of Cleopatra, including 3-D models that bring to life what she actually may have looked like On The National Geographic Channel: June 5th, 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM; ET/PT.

Paranatural: Chupacabra - New evidence in Texas may help scientists get to the bottom of the Chupacabra mystery. On The National Geographic Channel: June 5th 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM; June 7th 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM; and 11:00 PM to midnight; ET/PT.

CIA Secret Experiments - NGC's CIA Secret Experiments examines the launch of a highly classified, top secret research program during the Cold War that contaminated entire American cities with bacteria, exposing millions to germ warfare. On The National Geographic Channel: June 8th 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM and 11:00 PM to midnight; ET/PT.

Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers - NGC has exclusive U.S. access to 45-year-old archive footage captured by explorer Edmundo Bielawski, purportedly the only known footage that shows the process of an actual -- recently deceased -- human head being shrunk. On The National Geographic Channel: June 12th 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM 11:00 PM to 12:00 AM; June 14 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM; ET/PT.

Hitler's Stealth Fighter - In the final months of World War II, American troops discovered a top-secret facility in Germany with an advanced batwing-shaped jet fighter. On The National Geographic Channel: June 13th 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2010. All Rights Reserved.


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