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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

July 2010

In the News:

Ancients Discovered Rubber Too - It looks like the ancients discovered how to use rubber almost 3,500 years before Charles Goodyear patented the modern vulcanization method in 1844. Two MIT researchers, Dorothy Hosler, an archaeologist and Michael Tarkanian a technical instructor, believe pre-Hispanic peoples not only used rubber, but discovered the chemical processing necessary to change its properties. The Mesoamericans used the natural latex from the native Castilla elastica tree to make sandal soles, game balls, and handles to axe heads. Without modification, however, the natural latex becomes brittle as it dries. To counteract this the ancients added juice from the morning glory species Ipomoea alba. The juice causes the polymer molecules to cross-link making the rubber elastic. Tarkanian and Hosler built their own rubber processing plant back at MIT and noted that by varying the amount of morning-glory vine juice in the mix, different kinds of rubber could be created.

Dogs Have Lost the Nack - A study shows that dogs fail general intelligence tests that wolves and wild dingos (a wild dog found in Australia) are successful at. Researchers set up a glass barrier between the test animal and food. The animal could get to the food by discovering doors in the fence. Dingos and wolves found the reward very quickly, while the dogs were just frustrated. "Wolves will outperform dogs on any problem-solving tasks that are non-social," said lead author of the study, Bradley Smith. "Dogs are great at social tasks -- communicating with humans, using humans as tools, learning from humans via observation -- whereas wolves are much better at general problem solving. " The researchers believe that domestication has caused dogs to lose some of their problem-solving skills. Now due to their dependence on humans, dogs look to us to help solve their problems.

Dinosaur Era Marine Reptiles Not Cold Blooded - A study published in the journal Science suggests that marine reptiles from the dinosaur era were warm-blooded. French geochemists examined oxygen isotopes found in the teeth of prehistoric animals and found that both modern fish and ancient fish had a similar composition of the isotope reflecting the water temperature in which they lived. Marine reptiles like the mosasaur and plesiosaur had a different composition, however, which seems to indicate that their body temperatures were steady no matter how cold the water was. The marine reptiles' bodies averaged about 102 degrees Fahrenheit, similar to the temperature of many warm-blooded animals today.

Universe May Not Be As Dark as Once Thought - Research by two astronomers in the Physics Department at Durham University suggest that the current model of the universe, that it is largely made up of dark energy and matter, may be wrong. The two scientists, graduate student Utane Sawangwit and Professor Tom Shanks, think that the information gathered by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite may have errors. The information provided by the satellite about the universe's Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation has lead to the conclusion that most of the universe is unseen "dark" energy and matter. The size of ripples in the CMB are critical to this prediction. However, Sawangwit and Shanks have found evidence that the ripples may be larger than originally thought. In that case, there may be less, or even no dark energy or matter and this would change the standard model of the universe as we know it. Prof. Shanks admits "Odds are that the standard model with its enigmatic dark energy and dark matter will survive - but more tests are needed."

Mystery Sarcophagus Found in Italy - In ancient, abandoned city of Gabii, Italy, archaeologists have encountered a mystery worthy of Indiana Jones: a 1,000-pound lead coffin. The Romans rarely used coffins and when they did they were made of wood, not metal. A lead coffin like this is almost unheard of and it is likely that whoever is inside of this sarcophagus was of great importance. The coffin will be transported to the American Academy in Rome, where scientists will try to figure out what is inside without damaging it or opening it. Nicola Terrenato, the University of Michigan professor of classical studies who leads the project said, ""It's a sheet of lead folded onto itself an inch thick," he said. "A thousand pounds of metal is an enormous amount of wealth in this era. To waste so much of it in a burial is pretty unusual." There is some speculation the person might have been a gladiator or a bishop. "It's hard to predict what's inside, because it's the only example of its kind in the area," Terrenato stated. "I'm trying to keep my hopes within reason."


Science Quote of the Month - "A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God. " ~ Alan Perlis


What's New at the Museum:

Under an Iron Sky - Anybody who regularly follows "From the Curator's Office" knows I'm a fan of Steampunk and interested in the movement toward alternative ways of making films.. Recently I've stumbled across a motion picture project that seems to encompass both. Iron Sky is a Finnish/German production slated to debut in 2011 that features an invasion of Earth from Nazis who have spend the last 73 years hiding on the far side of the moon. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Death Ray for Sale? - This is the link to "death ray tubes." These are a workable model of a death ray gun, you can buy it for 350 US$ and it works for carving rock. It does exist and as seen in the site united nuclear.. So are lots of other sci-fi inventions… And they do work too.. You get warnings to not direct them toward humans… They will melt... - Agnar Kiil

The "Death Ray" offered by United Nuclear, is not the death ray as was once envisioned by the mysterious inventor Nikola Tesla in the 1930's that has garnered so much press over the years. That weapon was better known as a charged particle beam. Tesla designed a device that would send a beam of particles out at high speed and saw it as a defensive weapon that would ensure peace. He claimed such a device would be able to "bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation's border…"

Though no nations at the time acted on Tesla's idea, during the cold war both the Soviet Union and the United States experimented with charged particle weapons, but could not make them practical.

The "Death Ray" on the United Nuclear site is actually an infrared laser (Infrared means the light the laser is generating is of frequency too low to be visible to the human eye). Lasers, of course, have become common devices found in such everyday objects such as DVD players, supermarket checkout terminals and screen pointers. The ones offered by United Nuclear, of course, are of considerably more power. A laser pointer uses about 1 mill watt of power, where the United Nuclear infrared laser can be bought with a power supply of up to 100 watts. This is enough to cut thin metal and crack rock. Commercial sealed CO2 lasers, however, can often be found at powers of 3000 watts or more and can be used to cut carbon steel as thick as a ˝ inch.

Even lasers with power levels less than a watt can be dangerous, however, if directed into a human eye. The light the laser puts out is "coherent" with all the light particles (or photons) going in the same direction, at the same frequency in the same phase. This results in the beam focusing a lot of energy into a very small space causing the target to heat up and burn or melt. Even a fairly low powered laser that enters an eye will be concentrated on the retina causing damage and potential blindness. For this reason engineers and scientists working with lasers always wear eye protection.

As powerful as lasers are, the military up to this point, has not found them to be effective weapons. The amount of power they require limits their mobility, especially compared with traditional weapons like bombs and rockets. Lasers have still been used on the battlefield, however, to guide traditional weapons to their targets. First a laser is pointed toward a target, say a tank. Then the laser light reflected back from the tank can be used to guide a rocket or bomb accurately to its destination.

The U.S. military has not completely given up on lasers, however, and has recently has some success with electric lasers that are small enough to fit into a truck and have an output of over 100 kilowatt. With this much power they hope they will be able to use them in the future to zap incoming rockets or mortars.

About the site itself: United Nuclear seems like a fascinating place to purchase off-beat science items and reminds me a lot of Edmund Scientific, a similar company in operation near where I grew up. Although Edmund is now only a catalog and web business, when I was in High School it had a showroom complete with a demonstration area for lasers and other cool science products. My high school science teacher advised us geeks that this was a good place to take a girl for a cheap date.

I see that United Nuclear has a showroom in Laingsburg, Michigan, and if anybody living in the area has a girl friend who is into death rays, it sounds like you might want to take her there for an inexpensive outing.


In History:

Adamski and the Moon Base - In July of 1951 Fate magazine did an interview with George Adamski of Palomar Gardens, California. Adamski reported that he had photographed a number of flying saucers near the moon through his six-inch telescope. "I have taken all my pictures at night by the light of the moon because often I had noticed that a good number of ships I saw moving through space appeared headed for the moon. Some of them seemed to land on the moon, close to the rim; while others passed over the rim and disappeared behind it." Adamski went on to speculate that these interplanetary visitors were using the moon as a base. He went on in later years to make even more outlandish claims and eventually wrote a book about his contact with aliens called Inside the Space Ships. Adamski died in 1965 amid claims that his stories were either frauds or the ravings of a deluded man.


In the Sky:

New Comet in Sky - The beginning of this month would be a great time to look for Comet McNaught if you haven't caught the cosmic visitor so far in June. By early July it should be visible both just after sunset and before sunrise. The newly discovered comet has gotten surprisingly bright and should be visible to the naked eye at this time in a dark sky away from an urban setting. Of course, a pair of binocular will be helpful, especially in suburban skies. Expect to find it very low above the north-northwest horizon in the evening and very low above the north-northeast horizon in the morning. The comet might appear as a dim and diffuse, circular patch of light with a bit of faint green. The comet will be making its closest approach to the sun on July 2nd.



Teenager finds Ichthyosaur - While working in his school's vegetable garden in Queensland, Australia, a teenager came across the remains of a 100-million-year Ichthyosaur. The marine reptile was a contemporary of the dinosaurs and could grow to be 13 feet in length. When student Raymond Hodgson first dug up the fossil, he said he didn't think much of it, but groundsman, Ben Smith, saw it. Smith, whose hobby is paleontology, recognized it as a fossil. The location where the fossil was found was once covered by a Cretaceous Sea and fossils of extinct marine reptiles are often found in the area.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Who Killed the Red Baron? - Forensic experts investigate the most famous aviation mystery of World War I. On PBS: Tuesday, July 27 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Moose Attack! - At over 7 feet tall and weighing almost a ton, the moose is one of the largest land animals in North America. As towns and cities expand into moose habitat, these powerful and aggressive creatures are coming into dangerous conflict with people. On The Discovery Channel: July 09, 8:00 pm &11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Large, Dangerous, Rocket Ships 2010 - In Lucerne Valley, California, the premier event in high powered rocketry gathers 500 of the most fearless and hardcore of all amateur rocket builders from every corner of the country. On The Science Channel: Jul 05, 9:00 pm,Jul 05, 10:00 pm,Jul 06, 12:00 am,Jul 06, 1:00 am,Jul 07, 4:00 am,Jul 07, 5:00 am,Jul 10, 10:00 pm,Jul 11, 1:00 am,Jul 12, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

The Truth Behind the Lost Ark - Down through the ages, the Ark of the Covenant inspired terror and obsession. Can science explain its legendary powers or why it disappeared? On The National Geographic Channel: July 02, 10:00 pm; ET/PT.

Explorer: Journey to an Alien Moon - Scientists are developing robots to probe into icy waters on Jupiters moon Europa. We see how an autonomous underwater vehicle would fare on the real mission in temperatures of minus 260 degrees and searing radiation. Read more: On The National Geographic Channel: July 06, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

The Hunt for Hitler- NGC uses forensic science and eyewitness insight to explore the mysterious disappearance of Adolf Hitler's body after his suicide and discover why Soviet leader Joseph Stalin concealed Hitler's remains for decades. On The National Geographic Channel: July 10th, 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Truth Behind Bigfoot - Join a team of experts as they use advanced scientific analysis to investigate the Bigfoot phenomenon to reveal what's science, and what's science fiction. On The National Geographic Channel: July 25th 07:00 AM; ET/PT.

Afraid of the Dark - Go back to a time before the invention of artificial light and experience a world petrified in the pitch of darkness...when fear ruled the night. Throughout the ages, real and imagined terror existed in the absence of light, and nighttime was anything but relaxing. Our predecessors cowered in caves to keep from being eaten alive. During the Middle Ages, brutal bandits went on the prowl and roadside ditches became death traps. Also in years past, the devil, werewolves and vampires were staunchly believed to stalk the night. With no artificial light, the black night sky of Galileo's gaze could illuminate every star without a telescope. This chilling special explores all the reasons why the dark was so feared throughout the eras. It takes you around the globe to places where real night still exits, and examines our modern-day fear factor when the lights go out during blackouts. On The History Channel: July 6th 8:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Lost Pyramid - Travel to Egypt and join a team of archaeologists who have uncovered what evidence reveals is the lost fourth pyramid of Giza. Radjedef, son of the great Khufu, would stamp his supremacy by erecting the highest pyramid ever built, towering some 60 feet above Khufu's Great Pyramid of Giza. However, Radjedef's pyramid was forgotten and almost buried beneath the encroaching desert sands and its significance to the three great pyramids was lost. State-of-the-art CGI demonstrates how all four pyramids were connected. Interwoven through the exciting finds of this new excavation is the story of the most powerful, prolific, and arguably, the most cruel and debauched of all Egypt's dynasties. On The History Channel: July 10th 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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