Archaeologist Howard Carter examines Tut's mummy and the mysterious other-worldly knife.


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


July 2016

In the News:

King Tut had an Out-of-this-World Knife - X-ray analysis of a blade buried with Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen shows that it was made from iron that came from outer space. The weapon, described by discovering archeologist Howard Carters as "a highly ornamented gold dagger with crystal knob," was made from meteoric iron. "Meteoric iron is clearly indicated by the presence of a high percentages of nickel," researcher Daniela Comelli, from the department of Physics of Milan Polytechnic. Comelli and a team of scientists, from Milan Polytechnic, Pisa University and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, gave their results in an article in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science. The team used non-invasive, portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to make the determination. "The nickel and cobalt ratio in the dagger blade is consistent with that of iron meteorites that have preserved the primitive chondritic ratio during planetary differentiation in the early solar system," Comelli said. The knife is now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Sunken City is Not What It Seems - A set of underwater features off the Ionian island of Zakynthos which were originally thought to be the remains of a sunken city, now appear to be natural in origin. A paper published by a team from the University of East Anglia and the University of Athens in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology suggests that the features that look like circular column bases and paved floors are actually gases that escaped from the sea floor and turned into rock. "The disk and doughnut morphology, which looked a bit like circular column bases, is typical of mineralization at hydrocarbon seeps - seen both in modern seafloor and palaeo settings," said Julian Andrews, from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences. Andrews also noted that no pottery fragments or other tools, which should have been found in an ancient city, were present. The main gas which is escaping from the sea floor is methane. "Microbes in the sediment use the carbon in methane as fuel. Microbe-driven oxidation of the methane then changes the chemistry of the sediment forming a kind of natural cement, known to geologists as concretion," Andrews said. Andrew also noted that it was important to review underwater stonework to see it really what it appears to be.

Gotthard Base Tunnel Finished - Last month the longest rail tunnel in the world, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, opened. The tunnel, which runs 35 miles (57 km) under the Alps has been under construction since 1999. The tunnel shortens the train trip from Zurich to Milan to only two hours and 40 minutes, about an hour less than the current time. The tunnel cost 12 billion Swiss francs ($12 billion or 11 billion euros) to build and will open to full traffic in December. The tunnel supplements the original 9 mile Gotthard Tunnel opened in 1882. The new tunnel allows trains to avoid climbing into the Alps at all, but instead go through the "base" of the mountains.

New Praying Mantis Named for Justice - Ilomantis ginsburgae, a newly identified species of praying mantis from Madagascar, has been named for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Why? They both wear frilly collars. In the case of Ginsburg, that's simply a fashion choice. For the mantis it's a series of prominent neck plates. This insect, collected in 1967, but not identified as a new species till this year, is also unique because it is the first to be classified based on its female genitalia. In the past, biologists have used male genitalia to classify a species. "Developing new characteristics, especially from female specimens, helps us not only test the validity of species, but makes identification much easier," said study co-author Gavin Svenson, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "Many praying mantis species have males and females that look very different. If a person finds one sex, they may only be able to identify the specimen if their specimen's sex matches what is known from previous research. Our work reduces this impediment by characterizing both sexes for praying mantis species."

Biggest Yet "Tatoonie" Planet Is Found - After several years of work scientists have been able to confirm the existence of the largest planet yet found orbiting in a binary star system. Kepler-1647 b is about the size of Jupiter and orbits in a solar system with two stars: one slightly smaller than our sun and one slightly larger. Such planets are are called circumbinary planets (or sometimes "Tatoonie" planets after the doubled sunned home of Luke Skywalker from Star Wars) and are found by observing the dips in a star's light as the planets transit the star. "But finding circumbinary planets is much harder than finding planets around single stars," said SDSU astronomer William Welsh, one of the paper's coauthors. "The transits are not regularly spaced in time and they can vary in duration and even depth." The planet is the largest circumbinary ever found. "It's a bit curious that this biggest planet took so long to confirm, since it is easier to find big planets than small ones," said SDSU astronomer Jerome Orosz, another coauthor on the study. "It took so long to confirm because its orbital period is so long."

Science Quote of the Month - "Great scientific discoveries have been made by men seeking to verify quite erroneous theories about the nature of things." ~ Aldous Huxley


What's New at the Museum:

Building the Trans-Continental Railroad - As the middle of the 19th century loomed, there was no good, efficient way to cross North America from coast-to-coast. An overland trip using horses and wagons across the Great Plains was long, arduous and dangerous. Going by ship meant a six-month trip around South American's Cape Horn, risking storms and ship wrecks. A combination of the two, a ship to the Isthmus of Panama with a land crossing there of the jungle and another voyage to San Francisco, was fraught with the possibility of contracting malaria or yellow fever. What was needed was to build a railroad across America, but that seemed an impossibility. > Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Behind Wonder Door Number Two - Which is the Second Wonder? - Purity

By wonders, I assume you are talking about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This is the first and probably most famous list of wonders, though people have come up with others like The Seven Wonders of the Modern World, The Seven Wonders of the Natural World, The Seven Wonders of the Solar System and The Seven Wonders of the Medieval World.

Most of the rest of the lists of wonders are collections people came up within the last century or so. Usually some organization will create the list (The Seven Wonders of the Natural World came from CNN) and decide what should be on it.

The list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, however, stretches back for a least two millennia into antiquity. It was a Greek invention. The Greeks loved lists of things and like many ancients thought seven was a magical number. Exactly why they thought seven was so special isn't clear, but it could be because it was the number you got when you counted the sun, moon and five known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (Uranus wasn't discovered until 1781 after the telescope had been invented).

Because the list was made by the Greeks, the items on the list limited to things they knew about. None are particularly far from the region of Mediterranean Sea.

We tend to think of the list of the seven wonders as a single item, but the truth is that many Greek writers made different versions of the list. Antipater of Sidon, and Philon of Byzantium, drew up two of the most well-known lists. As time went on many of the lists started to agree on six of the seven items. However, the finally item differed. Sometimes it was Walls of the City of Babylon. On others, the Palace of Cyrus, king of Persia.

It wasn't until around the 6th century A.D. that people began to agree on the Lighthouse at Alexandria as the last item.

Because there where many different writers, each with their own list, there is no particular order to the items, other than the Lighthouse at Alexandria being the last added. So, there is no item there is considered "the second wonder." However, if you wanted to order the list chronologically the oldest would be the Great Pyramid at Giza. The second oldest would be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were thought to have been built around 600 B.C. This was followed by the Statue of Zeus (432 B.C.), the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (350 B.C.), The Temple at Ephesus (323 B.C.) and at about the same time, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse at Alexandria around 280 or 270 B.C.). Arranging things that way would make the Hanging Gardens of Babylon the second wonder on the list.

If you had lived in ancient times and had been rich enough to travel the world so see the wonders, you would have had a hard time getting a glimpse of them all. The Colossus of Rhodes only stood for a little over 50 years. While most of the other of the ancient wonders still existed during this period the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were thought to be destroy by an Earthquake sometimes during that same period, so you might have been stuck seeing the ruins, not the actual place.

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In History:

First Zeppelin Takes to the Air - On July 2nd of 1900 the first controlled flight of a Zeppelin, The LZ-1, was made in Germany. Invented by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, it flew for 18 minutes above the Bodensee (Lake Constance) in Germany. Zeppelins differ from blimps because they have a rigid internal structure containing multiple cells of hydrogen or helium gas balloons where a blimp body is just a big gas bag. The LZ-1 was 416 feet (120m) in length and shaped like a cylinder with rounded ends. The era of Zeppelin travel ended in tragedy some three decades later with the crash of Zeppelin's The Hindenburg.


In the Sky:

Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower - The night of July 28th through the morning of July 29th will be the best time to see the Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower. The shower, caused by debris left behind by comets Marsden and Kracht, will best be seen after midnight and will radiate from the constellation Aquarius, though you might see them appear anywhere in the sky. Expect to see 20 meters an hour under best conditions.



Scientists Dress as Polar Bears - Think your job is tough? How you like to put on a polar bear costume and crawl around the Artic in front of a herd of big, nervous muskoxen? This is what scientists have been doing on Wrangel Island in the Arctic. The researchers, funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the National Park Service's Shared Beringian Heritage Program, are interested in how more polar bears hunting on land (with decline of sea ice because of global warming) will effect predator-prey dynamics. With no trained polar bears available for such a study, a costumed scientist seemed like the best simulation. The muskoxen generally fled the area when they spotted the "polar bear" in the vicinity, though sometimes they also acted aggressively. "We believe that once our analyses are complete, we'll come away with much greater insights about the novelty of prey-predator interactions that result from climate change and what this means more broadly across the Arctic," said project leader Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society Arctic Beringia Program and Colorado State University.



Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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Related Links

Great Pyramid

King Tut Curse

Mummy Page

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