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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

July 2012

In the News:

Birds May Limit Insect Size - 300 million years ago dragon flies like Meganeura grew to have wingspans a couple of feet across. Why are dragonflies, and all other insects, so much smaller today? The theory has been that high levels of oxygen in the air back then (30% as opposed to just %20 today) allowed for insect gigantism in that era. Matthew Clapham and Jered Karr from the University of California, Santa Cruz, have now found addition evidence for this by comparing size of insects as found in fossils with the amount of oxygen in the air during the same period. The two track very well with the bugs getting bigger or smaller verses the amount of oxygen available all the way until things reached the Cretaceous period. At that point the oxygen goes up but the insects stay the same. Why? The scientists think that the rise of birds at about this time is the explanation. The smaller insects could out maneuver these early avian dinosaurs, but larger insects just wound up as dinner.

Dinosaurs Slimmer than Thought? - A new method developed by biologists at the University of Manchester, using lasers to calculate body mass, suggests that many dinosaurs may have been slimmer than originally thought. The laser scans the mounted fossil skeleton of a dinosaur and the information is used to calculate the minimum amount of skin needed to contain the bones. By doing this with contemporary animals (like reindeer, polar bears, and elephants) scientists came up with a formula that takes the skin size and generates an estimated weight. The researchers tested a Brachiosaur skeleton at Berlin's Museum of Natural History and found that it probably weighed only 23 tons instead of the original long-held estimate of 80 tons. Since similar techniques have been used to estimate other dinosaurs' mass in the past, there may be a lot of dinosaurs in museums with too high weight estimates. While some experts believe there may be some problems with the laser technique (particularly if the skeletons have been wrongly mounted or if the bones have been deformed ) the fact that it virtually eliminates subjective calculations will make it a popular technique.

Spitting Mice Help Distribute Seed - A new study says that a plant called the "sweet mignonette" uses tasty berries to attract mice, but then unleashes a toxic "mustard oil bomb" that forces the rodent diners to spit the seeds. This clever mechanism allows the plant to distribute its seed over the mouse's range. The paper, published in Current Biology, reports on the first seed spitting found in rodents. According to co-author Denise Dearing, who is a professor of biology at the University of Utah, the seeds have " more of a punch than Grey Poupon." According to the paper the plant ultimately benefits, since the spitting mice helps to distribute the seeds in ideal locations. "We don't know what the chemical cue is that causes the mouse to spit out the seed," Dearing said. "(The mice) somehow know that crushing the seed activates the toxins."

Underwater UFO is Strange Rock - Swedish researchers have been exploring a strange underwater formation that people had labeled a UFO parked at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The dome shaped object appears to be a natural, geological formation. "It's not obviously an alien spacecraft. It's not made of metal," said Peter Lindberg, the leader of the Ocean Explorer team. The group used a robot camera, sonar and deep sea divers to check out the object. Though it is definitely a rock, it still has some unsolved mysteries. Scientists cannot explain why the object is not covered with silt, as most objects on the bottom of the sea are. Also the object "appears to have construction lines and boxes drawn on it," Lindberg said. "There are also straight edges." Finally the rock appears to be on a pillar which is holding the 200 foot wide object off the bottom. "The pillar is eight meters high," he added. Lindberg finally conceded that it could be an alien space ship -- if the aliens made their saucer out of rock. "Who says they had to use metal?" he joked. "This trip has raised a lot of questions."

Deadly Asteroid Will Miss Earth - A large asteroid that some scientists were concerned might collide with Earth in 2040 now appears will miss our planet. The rock designated "2011 AG5" was discovered in January 2011 and measures approximately 460 feet in diameter. This is large enough do damage to an area at least 100 miles wide if it hit out planet. Observatories monitored 2011 AG5 for nine months before it was too far away to see and then used the data to plot a more exact course. Presentations at a recent conference seem to agree that the chances of it missing our planet in 28 years when the asteroid returns is around 99%. Astronomers will get an even better picture of the hazard posed by 2011 AG5 when they are able to observe it again in 2023


Science Quote of the Month - "Hypotheses like professors, when they are seen not to work any longer in the laboratory, should disappear." - Henry Edward Armstrong


What's New at the Museum:

Anzio Annie: The Gun that Held 50,000 Men Hostage - This gigantic Nazi cannon terrorized American soldiers in 1944 for three months as they were penned in on a small Italian beach head. >Full Story

Hagia Sophia: The Place of Holy Wisdom - Before it became a famed Islamic Mosque this wonder of the medieval world was the largest cathedral on the planet for almost a thousand years. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Wormhole Wonders - I've always been curious about the possibility of wormholes in space. If a wormhole existed, how would it affect space travel? - Anonymous.

Let's start by defining what a wormhole is for those people not familiar with the term. Way back in 1957 theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler coined the term to describe a theoretical shortcut between two distant parts of the universe. If you think of the universe as a flat sheet of paper it might be possible to fold the paper over on itself so the rear surfaces touch. A hole poked through the sheet at that point would create a way to travel between two distant areas quickly.

While the universe is not flat and two dimensional, like the sheet of paper, this example does give us a way to visualize how it would work. The existence of a type of wormhole that could do this called an Einstein-Rosen bridge was first suggested by Albert Einstein and his colleague Nathan Rosen in 1935. Wheeler later showed that this particular type of wormhole would not be stable long enough before it collapsed for anything, even a photon, to get through it, however.

In 1988 physicist Kip Thorne, however, proposed that you could build a wormhole that would be stable using exotic matter that would have an anti-gravitational effect that would force the wormhole to remain open (Such a wormhole that stays open so things can go through it is known as a traversable wormhole).

Traversable wormholes have become a favorite of science-fiction writers who need to find a mechanism to move spaceships from one location to another across the vast distances of interstellar space in less than a human lifetime. In fact, it was Carl Sagan, the astronomer who wrote the bestseller Contact (later made into a movie) who need such a plot device and pushed Thorne into devising his scheme using exotic matter. A naturally occurring wormhole was also made a part of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine which made it possible for the characters to travel to a distance part of the galaxy in the blink of an eye.

In theory a wormhole could be used not just to link to parts of the same universe however, but also two completely different universes.

Perhaps the strangest thing possible to do with a wormhole is to turn it into a time machine. According to Einstein's theory of relativity anything that is accelerated is subject to time dilation. In other words time slows down for it. While the effect of this is too tiny for us to notice when we take a transcontinental flight, if you were able to fly a spaceship to another star and back again at near the speed of light, you would find that something like a year had passed for you on board the spaceship, but ten years had passed for those who stayed home on planet Earth.

If you could create a wormhole and leave one end on Earth and take the other with you on that spaceship the end left at home would age more than the one that you took with you. This difference would mean that anything that entered that mouth of the wormhole on the older end would emerge at the young end in the past (though it would be impossible to go back further in time than when the wormhole had been created).

If we could build wormholes could we use them for interstellar travel like in the movies? Yes. We could even use them to travel into the past. Here's the bad news, however. Nobody has ever observed a naturally occurring wormhole and building them seems well beyond our engineering capability for the foreseeable future. Indeed it might not be possible at all. It isn't even known if the type of exotic matter required for Thorne's wormhole even exists.

Don't despair, however. When Einstein first came up with the concept of a black hole it was thought to be just a theoretical concept not actually occurring in nature. Now we have pretty good evidence that black holes actually exist and may explain many of the things we observe in the universe.

Even if we haven't seen any wormholes, it hasn't stopped scientists from imagining what a wormhole would look-like if we could build one. They suggest it might look like a mirrored sphere, except instead of reflecting our world it would actually be showing the location at the other side of the hole. Here's a link to some videos that researchers at Tübingen University created to show what a wormhole would look like that connected their campus to a beach in France. Try it out!


Have a question? Click here to send it to us.


In History:

Cashed UFO Pieces - In July of 1947 Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Exon was working at Wright Patterson where rumors had it that the remains of a flying saucer and its alien crew had been flown after they had crashed in New Mexico. Though the Air Force denies that it has ever recovered a UFO, Exon said that he had seen material from the ship that was "very thin, but awfully strong and couldn't be dented with heavy hammers." According to Exon investigators thought that "the pieces were from space." Was Exon being honest or just having some fun with an old legend?


In the Sky:

Catch Mercury This Month - If you've never seen the planet Mercury July might be a good time to find it. It is now on the opposite side of the Sun. Expect to see it in the western sky, low on the horizon, just after sunset this month.



Couple Sues Over Bad Psychic Tip - A couple is suing the police and several major news organizations after their lives were turned upside down by a psychic's tip. The case started on June 6, 2011, when the psychic called police and told them about a vision he/she had of dozens of dismembered bodies near a ranch house about an hour outside of Houston, Texas. Over the next few days the Texas Department of Public Safety, the FBI, and the Texas Rangers were on the scene with shovels and cadaver dogs while news helicopters circled above. It all turned out to be a national embarrassment as nothing was found. The police refused to apologize, however, saying that a tip about mass murders cannot be ignored even when it comes from a self-proclaimed psychic. The couple who rented the ranch say authorities and news organizations recklessly disregarded and caused irreparable damages to the couple's reputation and good name.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Fabric: What Is Space? - The Fabric of the Cosmos, Hour 1: Surprising clues indicate that space is very much something and not nothing. On PBS: July 11 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

NOVA: The Elegant Universe: Pt 1 Einstein's Dream - Combining the laws of the universe in one theory that explains it all is the Holy Grail of physics. On PBS: July 11at 9 pm; 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: July 02, 9:00 pm & 12am; July 04, 4:00 am; July 9, 7:00am; ET/PT.

Large, Dangerous, Rocket Ships 2011 - Hosted by Kari Byron from the Mythbusters, 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 to Argonia, Kansas. On The Science Channel: July 03, 10:00 pm; July 4, 01:00 am; July 5, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron - James Camerons epic 1997 film Titanic won 11 Oscars and grossed well over a billion dollars worldwide. Now, on an empty sound stage, in the shadow of a massive 42-foot replica of the Titanic and other props from the blockbuster film, Cameron brings together some the worlds leading Titanic experts, including engineers, naval architects, artists and historians, to solve the lingering mysteries of why and how the unsinkable ship sank.. On The National Geographic Channel: July 4 7:00 PM; ET/PT.

Comic Store Heroes - Midtown Comics in New York City is the largest retailer of comic books, graphic novels, Manga (or Japanese comics) and related collectibles in the country, if not the world, and it has the alternate universes its customers crave. Follow the lives of staffers Gerry, Thor and Alex as they deal with all manner of geek and enthusiast customers while simultaneously planning their mega-booth for New York Comic Con, their biggest day of the year. On The National Geographic Channel: July 13 8:00 PM; ET/PT.

Down to the Earth's Core - Save blasting off to outer space. Its time to rocket down. Using computer imagery, travel from just below the earths crust, with its earthquakes and volcanoes, through breathtaking caverns filled with giant crystals and into giant molten metal tornadoes before reaching the earths core. On The National Geographic Channel: July 19 7:00 PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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