NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) "flying saucer" for putting payloads on Mars. (NASA)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

July 2014

In the News:

NASA Tests "Flying Saucer" - NASA sucessfully tested a "flying saucer" over the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range last month. Unlike those alien vehicles that float through the sky in SciFi films, this saucer is being designed for Mars. The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is for landing heavy payloads on Mars and other planetary surfaces. In its test over Hawaii it was attached below a gigantic helium balloon which carried it about 23 miles above the islands. Then saucer separated from the balloon and using rocket motors climbed into the stratosphere. The rarified air up high there is the closest earthly match to the atmosphere of Mars. From the stratosphere the saucer tested several new braking technologies before eventually parachuting into the sea.

Evidence for the "Lucky Strike" - A team of German scientists have found evidence that the moon was created when a Mars-sized body hit the proto-Earth in the early solar system. The theory, which has been around for a while and looks mathematically sound, suggests that the debris from this crash, thrown into orbit, eventually coalesced into our moon. To help prove this scientist have looked for evidence that the moon was made up from two different bodies with two different amounts of chemical isotopes. Early experiments that used lunar meteorites failed to show this with the moon rocks just looking exactly like Earth rocks. This most recent set of tests, however, used samples from the Apollo 11, 12 and 16 missions and did show the sight differences in the isotopes of oxygen, suggesting the collision theory is true. The tests also suggest that the body that hit the Earth (which has been given the name Theia) was rare kind of meteorite known as an enstatite chondrite. Some scientists have named the collision the "lucky strike" as they believe without it conditions on Earth for life to develop would not have been very favorable.

Pterosaurs Didn't Need Facebook - New evidence shows that Pterosaurs, winged reptiles from the age of the dinosaurs, were very social creatures. Scientists have uncovered a disaster site, described in the journal Current Biology, where eggs, thousands of fossilized pterosaur bones, and pterosaur skulls have been found. The location, near the edge of an ancient lake in what is now northwestern China, appears to be Pterosaur colony. According to study author Xiaolin Wang, "Based on the discoveries, we know that this pterosaur lived together with other pterosaurs and laid its eggs in the bank of the ancient lake, similar (behavior) to that of some modern birds, such as flamingos." The evidence clearly that Pterosaurs did not like to live alone. Adults and youngsters must have lived a crowded space that would have been vibrant with social activity.

"Godzilla" Shark had Teeth on Lips - Scientists have found the remains of a 300-million-year-old shark, which they have dubbed the "Godzilla shark" because of its huge dorsal fin spines and general reptilian appearance. Perhaps the oddest thing about this shark, however, is that it had teeth on its lips. "Unlike a lot of modern sharks, which can fully or partially suck in prey when they open their jaws, these primitive sharks had to ram their jaws into their prey," said John-Paul Hodnett, who discovered the shark in the Monzano Mountains east of Albuquerque. Because of the way the mouth on this shark operated it had a weak 'suck-in' bite noted Hodnett. "So having teeth on the outside of the lip of the shark may of helped in grasping and securing prey in the mouth as they rushed forward for the kill," he added. "To put it simply, the extra teeth on the outside of the mouth gave Godzilla-shark a better bite with the jaws it had."

Great White is Sea Monster Snack - Scientists are wondering what kind of sea monster could gobble-down a 9 foot long Great White Shark. The story started when researchers tagged the shark with a tracker off the coast of Australia. Four months later the tracker was found a couple of miles away on a beach. Data captured on the device showed that the shark had been subject to a rapid rise in temperature along with a sudden, 1,900-foot plunge into the depths. Scientists attribute the rise in temperature to the shark entering another creature's digestive system. But what animal would be able to eat a 9 foot Great White? Godzilla? Another giant Great White? The story is detailed in the Smithsonian Institute's documentary film "Hunt for the Super Predator."


Science Quote of the Month - "Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science." ~ Edwin Powell Hubble


What's New at the Museum:

The Great Red Spot of Jupiter - Long the most well-known feature of our solar system's biggest planet, what is this gigantic, crimson oval and is it about to disappear? Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Many Worlds - On your quantum physics exhibit, you briefly touched on the multiple realities theory. I was wondering if you could go into a bit more detail.- Quinn

Readers unfamiliar with quantum physics may want to visit our page to get some background before reading this answer.

The idea that we may live in a multiverse (multiple-universes) has gotten increasing attention in the last few years. There are several different reasons scientists think that we may live in a multiverse. One multi-verse theory arises out of the idea that the universe is infinite, and therefore everything eventually repeats itself. Another theory is that since laws of physics that make life in our universe possible are improbable, there must be infinite other universes with different laws where life could not arise. However, today we will talk only about multiple universes that arise out of quantum theory, as that was the subject of the original article.

Quantum mechanics is the physics we use to deal with the smallest things in the universe such as electrons, protons and other sub-atomic particles. One characteristic of these particles is that we know that they can exist in "superposition." That is they can be in two or more possible locations or states at the same time.

Scientists have been puzzled by this. We never see this kind of thing in the world of macro objects. (The paper weight on your desk is always in only one location at a time) We also know that whenever one of these particles in superposition is observed (or measured) they seem to suddenly decide to jump into one definite state/location or another. But how do the particles know they are being observed?

On another level, do we even care if they are in superposition or not? After all they are just tiny, little things.

Well, the problem is that we are made up of just tiny things like atoms and molecules. So it seems that is possible that we might be able to exist in two different states/locations at the same time too. Yet, again, we never see this in our full-sized world.

The idea that observation somehow causes the particles to jump into a definite states/locations has bothered a lot of scientists. Why should this happen with an observer? Why is he special? And if the observer is also made of things that can be in superposition too, what does that mean? American physicist Hugh Everett III suggested that rather than these particles collapsing into definite states, maybe instead the universe actually splits. One new universe for each possible state or location that the particle could be in. This gets rid of the whole concern about the particle jumping into a state and the need for it to be observed (or measured) to do that.

This idea of multiple universes, which has gotten the moniker the "Many Worlds Interpretation" (MWI), clears up a lot of problems with quantum mechanics, so many of physicists think it might be right.

However, as one person pointed out, the accuracy of a theory is not determined by polling scientists. However, many people are highly skeptical about MWI. Since there are countless particle collapses going on every second of everyday this easily means that there an infinite universes. Many of them only slightly different than the one we live in. What's more, it implies that if anything could happen, then it does indeed happen in at least one universe. A lot of people think that this is just too crazy to be true.

The peoople that find MWI crazy argue that Occam's Razor (a rule of thumb that suggests the least complicated explanation is the right one explaintation) indicates that MWI must be wrong. Proponents of MWI, however, argue that describing the rules for one particular universe is a lot more complicated than describing the rules for all possible universes and that Occam's Razor actually favors MWI.

Another crazy possibility that comes out of this kind of MWI is that idea of Quantum immortality. The idea that at every point where a person might die, the universe will split into a least two: one with the person alive, the other one with the person dead. Since (barring an afterlife, which if it exists would probably be outside a universe anyway) a person can only consciously experience life, he will only ever find himself in a universe where he survived. This means he will be immortal from this own perspective (though he would be dead in many other versions of the universe). Because there would be at least one universe where that person lived an immensely long life, and that person would, from their own point of view, would experience only that. However, let's note, this effect, if true, would not protect one from growing old and increasingly infirm, so it is not necessarily a good, healthy immortal life.

The controversy surrounding MWI will probably never be resolved until somebody can figure out how to do a scientific experiment that will prove if other quantum universes exist or not. In fact, some people argue that since MWI cannot be tested, it is wild speculation, not science. A few people have suggested an experiment that might prove MWI, but we do not currently have the technology to carry it out.

One rather bizarre way of proving MWI is through a process that has been nicknamed "Quantum Suicide." In this odd approach a brave (or perhaps foolish) physicist creates a gun that has a 50% chance of firing based on some quantum event. When he pulls the trigger it either goes off, or he hears an audible "click." He then uses it to attempt to kill himself multiple times. If the MWI is correct he will (from his own perspective) never succeed and will always only hear the "click." As in quantum immortality his conscious will not continue in any of the worlds where he dies, only in the worlds where he lives, so he will be able to prove, to at least himself, that the MWI is correct. (It should be noted, however, that he leaves a string of dead copies of himself in other universes, each with a bereaved relatives and friends).

The controversy around the MWI has not kept it from showing up in popular culture. Typical of these is the classic Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror" in which Captain Kirk finds himself accidentally transferred to a different universe where the typically good Federation of Planets is replaced by a brutal empire.

So are we living in the MWI of quantum physics? Hopefully some bright physicist will come up with an experiment that we can accurately do that will tell us for sure.

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


In History:

What Happened to Amelia? - July 3rd, 1937 marks the beginning of a huge mystery: What happened to Amelia Earhart? Earhart, a pioneering female aviator, was attempting an around the world trip in her Lockheed Electra airplane with her navigator, Frank Noonan, when the plane disappeared over the Pacific. Numerous books and articles have been written speculating about Earhart's fate. Did she simply crash into the sea after running out of gas? Did she find some remote island to land on? Was she captured by the Japanese and executed as a spy? For more information, check out our page on this enigma.


In the Sky:

Aphelion Comes - On July 4th the Earth with reach aphelion (the furthest point in its orbit from the Sun) though there won't be anything really different about this day for most people. Since this occurs near the start of summer in the Northern hemisphere, however, it shows that our planet's distance to the sun has little to do with the changes in its seasons as a further distance might suggest cooler weather. The seasons are caused by the tilt of the planet with the northern hemisphere getting more direct sunlight on it in the summer. The reverse is true in the southern hemisphere.




Hurricanes with Female Names More Deadly - According to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers have found that storms given women's names are more deadly than their male counterparts. Since 1979 the National Hurricane Center has alternated between male and female names for the storms based on a predetermined list, so it seems odd that there is some kind of pattern. Researchers think, however, that because of social bias people (both men and woman) are less likely to consider a storm dangerous if it has a female name, and are therefore less likely evacuate or take shelter. Researchers did a number of lab experiments to test this hypothesis. In each case the experiment examined the perception of the risk of a storm based on some of its name characteristics like gender, popularity or likability. According to the results the only thing that consistently influenced people's thinking about the storm's danger was its "gender."


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Ghosts of Murdered King- Bronze age bog bodies reveal the strange beliefs of the long-vanished peoples of Europe. On PBS July 2 at 9 pm ET/PT.

Mystery of a Masterpiece - Art experts investigate whether a portrait sold for about $20,000 in 1998 is actually a lost Leonardo worth millions On PBS July 9 at 9 pm ET/PT.

Unearthing Ancient Secret: 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: July 1 12:00PM ET/PT.

Morgan Freeman's Through The Wormhole Season 5: Is Gravity an Illusion?- We feel it every moment of our lives but for physicists, gravity is the longest running unsolved mystery of the universe. Why do all objects that have mass pull on one another? Cutting-edge theories are proposing unexpected answers. On the Science Channel: July 2 10:00 PM; July 3 1:00AM, 6:00PM July 4 5:00AM ET/PT.

Gates of Hell - There are six places on Earth believed to be actual entrances into Hell. They include a volcano in Iceland, a cave in the jungles of Central America, and a lake of fire in Africa. According to ancient myth and Christian legend, each is a passage to a terrifying underworld for the damned. Even today, some believe they are still portals. Eerily, they share striking similarities. We'll visit these six locations, and along the way, reveal how the concept of Hell emerged in history and why it still evokes fear today. On the History Channel: July 1, 8:00 PM ET/PT.

Jesse James' Hidden Treasure - By the time Jesse James was killed in 1882, he'd stolen over a million and a half dollars according to some estimates--gold, coins and cash that could be worth over $50 million today. History often paints James as a clever outlaw who stole money to finance a lavish criminal lifestyle, a man whose sixteen year long crime spree came to a dramatic halt in 1882 when a fellow gang member betrayed him and shot him dead in the back of the head. But now, a treasure hunt may reveal a totally new story. Was Jesse really stealing for himself, or was he actually secreting away large sums of wealth, in order to finance one of the most clandestine secret societies in American history? Follow a team of treasure hunters searching for where he stashed his riches... and a new truth about Jesse James. Their discoveries may not only re-write the history of why Jesse stole, it could also raise new questions about his death. On the History Channel: July 9, 10:00 PMET/PT.


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