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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

June 2011

In the News:

Explaining Wrong Way Planets - Astronomers have long wondered why one out of four Jupiter-sized exoplanets found seem to orbit their stars in the "wrong" direction: opposite to the rotation of their stars. Astrophysicists at Northwestern University think they have found a possible solution. In their theory the gravity of a large planet, or brown dwarf star further out in the same system caused the inner planet to change its orbit from circular to elongated. As it did this it also lost angular momentum and its orbit became inclined to that of the star. In some cases this inclination would be extreme enough to cause the planet to "flip over." The gravitational interaction and the loss of orbital energy also explains how the large planet's orbits shrunk and they got so close to their parent stars. The team was able to successfully model this interaction on a computer.

Silk Shooting Tarantulas - According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology tarantulas are capable of shooting silk from their feet to catch themselves from fatal falls. In an experiment researchers from the University of Newcastle, U.K., slowly tilted a glass tank to a vertical position as the spider held on, and then shook it slightly, until the spider slipped. Afterward they found evidence of "footprints" of spider silk from all four pairs of legs of the tarantulas. An examination of the feet also found "little spigots" on the feet where the silk emerged from. If these finding hold up, the fictional "Spiderman" of the comics, who shoots silk from his hands and feet, might have some validation in reality.

Too Many Dinosaurs? - Well-known paleontologist Jack Horner thinks too many new dinosaurs are on the books which are actually just duplicates of already known animals. According to an article in the May 13th issue of Science Magazine, one-third of all known dinosaur species may never have existed. Many dinosaurs of the same species look different at different ages, and according to Horner, this has often led researchers in the wrong direction. The temptation to declare a new species is huge given the fame and money that can be connected with it. Horner supports a rigorous set of procedures for studying dinosaur fossils that he calls the Unified Frame of Reference (UFR) and thinks that if it is implemented worldwide will eliminate at least 50 dinosaur species in a few years.

Unbound Rouge Planets Abound - The joint Japanese/New Zealand Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) project thinks it has spotted 10 Jupiter-sized worlds floating out in space unbounded to any star. This is not totally unexpected as current solar system formation models suggest that some worlds get ejected due to gravitational interactions. The number of them, however, is startling: they seem to outnumber the stars by a ratio of 2 to 1. The group uses equipment that watches 50 million stars within the Milky Way. When the light from one star is magnified for a period of time the astronomers know that another object is passing in front of it and that object's gravity is focusing the light in an effect called gravitational micro-lensing. The length of the effect suggests the size of the object. Objects that take less than two days to pass in front of a star are thought to be gas giant planets. The astronomers then checked the position of these planets to confirm that there were no possible host stars within 10 astronomical units (about 930 million miles) of the planet making it likely they are rouges without a solar system.

Electronics Helps Man Regain Control of Legs - A man paralyzed from the chest down has been given the ability to stand and walk by using electronic implants in his spinal cord. Rob Summers, 25-year old former athlete worked with experts at Louisville's Frazier Rehab Institute and UCLA, to restore some motion in his legs. He can now push himself to a standing position and bear weight for 20 minutes at a time, and can move with support on a treadmill. The electronic stimulation which involves16 electrodes placed on key parts of the spinal cord, bypasses the brain and is controlled by a portable stimulation unit is strapped to Summer's hip. He has also regained control of his bowels and bladder, and sexual function. Mr. Summers was injured in a hit-and-run accident 5 years ago.


Science Quote of the Month -"Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary." - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

Notes from the Curator's Office: Of Automatons and Automata - We might call them robots today, but automata - mechanical puppets - have a history the go back far beyond invention of the modern term. The ancients were fascinated with machines that looked and moved like animals and people. >Full Story

The Zuiderzee and Delta Works of the Netherlands - At the beginning of the 20th century the Dutch started on a series of immense projects to enlarge and secure their land against the sea. A new chapter in our series on Wonders of the Modern World. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Warp Factor One Plus - Two objects move apart each at just over the speed of light. Can they observe each other? - Dave B.

I take your question to be "If I hopped on one spaceship and my friend jumped in another and both took off going faster that the speed of light in opposite directions, could we look behind us and see each other?" The short answer is no. The light coming from your friend's rocket would never catch up to you, so you would never see him. However, things are a little more complex than that.

This is an interesting "thought experiment" of the type that Einstein would use to explore questions in relativity. (One of his thought experiments was "If I rode a bike near the speed of light, what would I see?").

From a practical point of view you couldn't actually do it. Nothing with "rest mass" (which is pretty much anything you need to build a spaceship out of) can go faster, or even as fast as the speed of light, which is a sizzling 186,000 miles a second in the vacuum of space. Things get more and more massive as you accelerate them and you would need more energy than is available in the universe to accelerate a spaceship to the speed of light.

What would you see if you were on a rocketship, or Einstein's bike just approaching the speed of light, however? Would the beam from the bike's headlight slow down to a crawl?

No, from the rider's point of view the light of the beam would still move away from him at the speed of light! That's because while the speed of light is a constant, time isn't. Time would slow down for the rider so that when he measured the speed of his headlight, it would still seem to be going at 186,000 miles a second away from him.

As you approached the speed of light the world behind you would seem to turn shades of red. This is because as you move really fast the light waves coming from behind you are stretched out - a phenomenon known as the Doppler Effect (it's the same one that causes a car horn to appear to lower its pitch as the car passes by you).

Although it is impossible to build spaceships that go at the speed of light, you can actually observe what would happen when you look at the stars with a big telescope. Space is expanding a carrying all the stars and galaxies (collections of stars) along with it. This means the father a galaxy is from us the faster it is moving away from us. In turn the farther a galaxy is away from us the more its light will be "red-shifted" by the Doppler effect (In fact astronomers use the amount of the "red-shift" to tell how far an object is away from Earth). Galaxies very, very far away from us appear to be going near the speed of light. Because they are simply being carried along as space expands, the rules about acceleration to the speed of light do not apply here. As they start to move away from us faster than the speed of light the light waves arriving from them get longer and longer and redder and redder until they simply disappear.

In History:

New England Sea Serpent Strikes Again - On June 16th, 1826, the American sailing ship Silas Richards was cruising near St. Georges Bank off of Cape Cod when its captain, Henry Holdredge and a passenger, William Warburton, saw a strange sight. It appeared to be an enormous, many-humped, snake-like, sea serpent slowly swimming toward the vessel. When Warburton alerted the rest of the passengers, however, many didn't bother to come to the rail considering it a hoax. This incident appears to be one of a number of unexplained sightings of what would eventually be called "The Gloucester Sea Serpent."


In the Sky:

June's Draconid Meteors - Right at the end of the month, June 30, will be peak of the June Draconid meteor shower. Watch the sky in the direction of the handle of the Big Dipper. This shower is very irregular and can produce between 10 and 100 per hour. The shooting stars are the debris left by comet Pons-Winnecke.



Area 51 Revelations - A new book, "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base," by Annie Jacobsen suggests that the connection between aliens and the famous testing grounds in Nevada was cultivated by authorities to hide espionage activities at the base. According to Jacobsen the alleged flying saucer crash in Roswell, N.M. in 1947 - which was actually a ruse by a foreign power - provided the inspiration. The saucers often reported over area 51 were actually A-12 recon aircraft in testing, part of the "Oxcart" project.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Musical Minds - Oliver Sacks explores how the power of music can make the brain come alive. On PBS: June 15 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

NOVA: What Are Dreams? - Psychologists and brain scientists have new answers to an age-old question. On PBS: June 29 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Killing bin Laden - An intimate account of the bin Laden operation - from the time the crucial intelligence was gathered through the burial at sea. Explore the details of how the operation was planned and executed, and see through the eyes of the highly-trained Seal Team 6. On The Discovery Channel: Jun 04, 8:00 pm; Jun 04, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Is Seeing Believing? - Research into the inner workings of our senses is opening up an exciting new world. The more we understand about our senses and how they work, the more we are learning to harness their remarkable powers - the possibilities for the future are limitless.On The Science Channel: Jun 06, 10:00 pm; Jun 07, 1:00 am; Jun 08, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Unearthing Ancient Secrets: Egypt's Mystery Tomb - When the tomb of King Tut was found in 1922, many believed the Valley of the Kings had given up all it's secrets. Now, archaeologists have found a new tomb just a few metres away. We will follow the experts as they discover just what, or who, lies inside. On The Science Channel: Jun 09, 10:00 pm; Jun 10, 1:00 am; Jun 11, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Seeing Black Holes - Follow the world's greatest scientists as they attempt to understand a phenomenon that Einstein believed could only exist on paper. We now know there are millions of black holes in our galaxy, and they are the scariest things we know least about. On The Science Channel: Jun 06, 9:00 pm; Jun 07, 12:00 am; Jun 08, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

Known Universe: Biggest Cosmic Blasts - Volcanic eruptions aren't unique to Earth they are common throughout the solar system. Eruptions are capable of both destruction and creation, and we'll see their astonishing effects on humans and entire galaxies. On The National Geographic Channel: June 2 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Naked Science: Tsunami From Outer Space - A group of scientists believe a large meteor crashed as few as 500 years ago and produced a mega-tsunami that battered Australia's coastline. On The National Geographic Channel: June 9 8:00 PM; June 9 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

Lost Gold of the Dark Ages - Lost Gold of the Dark Ages chronicles the amazing story of how an amateur metal-detecting enthusiast discovered a gold hoard of more than 1,500 artifacts dating back a millennium, and valued at over $5 million On The National Geographic Channel: June 14 7:00 PM; ET/PT.

Finding Atlantis - Could the fabled lost city of Atlantis have been located? Using satellite photography, ground-penetrating radar and underwater technology, experts are now surveying marshlands in Spain to look for proof of the ancient city. On The National Geographic Channel: June 14 8:00 PM; June 14 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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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