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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2010

In the News:

Cobra May Have Not Brought Queen of Nile to Her End - Christopher Schäfer, a German historian and professor at the University of Trier, claims that Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, died from swallowing a lethal drug cocktail and not, as tradition has it, from a snake bite. Schäfer, author of a best-selling book in Germany, "Cleopatra," believes that death from the bite of an Egyptian cobra (also known as an asp) would have been too painful and unpredictable for her to use as a suicide tool. "The Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing about 200 years after Cleopatra's demise, stated that she died a quiet and pain-free death, which is not compatible with a cobra bite. Indeed, the snake's venom would have caused a painful and disfiguring death," Schäfer has stated. The Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C. after her lover, Marc Antony, killed himself after losing the Battle of Actium. Schaefer points out that the Egyptians' had an extensive knowledge of poisons. "Ancient papyri show that the Egyptians knew about poisons, and one papyrus says Cleopatra actually tested them," he notes. Schäfer thinks the Queen chose a drug cocktail that would cause a rather painless death within a few hours. Not all authorities agree with Schäfer noting the she could have made her death painless by taking a high dose of opium as a sedative before letting allowing the cobra to bite her.

Strange Object Found Near Distant Star - Scientists are baffled by a new object they have found orbiting a star about 500 light years away in the constellation Scorpius. The object appears to be about 300 times farther out from its star than the Earth is from the Sun and 8 times more massive that the planet Jupiter. It seems too far away from its star to be a planet, and too small to be a failed star in a binary solar system. "There is no theory for how a true planet can form at 300 AU (AU is short for an astronomical unit, which is the distance from the Earth to the Sun) It's not really a lack of imagination. It's a lack of physics," says California Institute of Technology astronomer John Johnson. Some have suggested the object, designated 1RXS J160929.1-210524 b, formed closer to its star originally, but was then ejected outward after a close gravitational encounter with another, yet unfound, planet.

Ancient Temple Comes with IKEA-like Instructions - Italian archeologists have found an ancient Greek-like temple along with the instructions needed to build it. The remains of the 6th century BC temple were found at Torre Satriano, near the southern city of Potenza, in Italy. The archeologists noticed that various pieces of the temple were emblazoned with coded symbols depicting how the various sections fitted together. So far researchers have uncovered a hundred inscribed fragments, all related to a roof assembly system. Also many ornamental features of the structure are extremely similar to the same parts on another temple found at a neighboring town suggesting that the builders employed the same molds. This leads the archeologists to believe that the popularity of such structures with the local population at the time might have caused a builder to mass produce them.

Torosaurus is Really Triceratrops - Even paleontologists make mistakes. Two dinosaurs are now one since researchers discovered that the animals previously known as Triceratops and Torosaurus are actually the same species. For over a 100 years it was thought that Torosaurus was a unique species having a larger frill on its head (also with two holes) than that of Triceratops. Now Montana State University paleontologists John Scannella and Jack Horner say that Torosaurus fossils are just Triceratops at different growth stages. They point out that the mistake was easy to make as paleontologist just can't watch a Triceratops grow up. Scannella said. "We have to put together the story based on fossils. In order to get the complete story, you need to have a large sample of fossils from many individuals representing different growth stages." Thanks to a huge number of dinosaur remains at the Hell Creek Formation the scientists were able to study hundreds of specimens from Triceratops at different stages of growth and make a careful examination of the surface textures and shape changes that showed that the the two animals really were the same species.

Stonehenge had Wooden Twin - Scientists have discovered a new ring about ½ mile from the famed Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England. The recently discovered ring was made of wood and was probably constructed around the same time as the stone circle about 4,500 years ago. Researchers think it was a round, timber structure with two entrances. "This is probably the first major ceremonial monument that has been found in the past 50 years or so," said Vince Gaffney, a professor from the University of Birmingham, who is leading the archaeological dig. "It will completely change the way we think about the landscape around Stonehenge." The recent discovery was made by a team of archaeologists from the University of Birmingham and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna, who are working on a project to map the landscape around Stonehenge.

Science Quote of the Month - "Anybody who has been seriously engaged is scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: 'Ye must have faith.'" ~ Max Planck


What's New at the Museum:

Khufu's Pyramid - It's 756 feet long on each side, 450 feet high and is composed of 2,300,000 blocks of stone. Until the 19th century it was the tallest building in the world and, at the age of 4,500 years, it is the only one of the famous "Seven Wonders" that still stands. Even today it is remains the most massive building on Earth. It is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, at Giza, Egypt. An update of our classic page. >Full Story

Crop Circles - For over three decades the southern English countryside has been the site of a strange phenomenon that has baffled observers and spawned countless news stories and more than a few books. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Big Birds of Death - Are there any real accounts of large birds of prey attacking or carrying off people? - Gary S.

As to the first part of your question, there are certainly examples of eagles and hawks attacking human beings that violated their territory. Get a little too close to a nest and you could find yourself on the wrong end of some very sharp talons. One sad example of this happened in Mendocino County, CA, in 1895. According to the New York Times two brothers, age 13 and 11, were climbing a mountain to find a Bald Eagle's nest when the creature suddenly attacked them. The boys escaped, but the younger was badly injured and lost his sight to the eagle's talons and beak.

However, the question about whether an eagle or other large bird has ever attacked a person (with the intent of eating them) and managed to fly off with them is a more complicated question. There are certainly a number of reports of large birds attacking and carrying off small children. For example, in August of 1881 the New York Times reported that an eagle with a seven-foot wingspan swooped down and tried to carry off a 2-year-old boy. Witnesses said that it might have succeeded if the child's clothes had not torn, allowing him to escape.

More recently in 1977 ten-year-old Marlon Lowe was playing with friends near his home in Illinois when two large birds - thought to be condors with wingspans from eight to ten feet across according to witnesses - swept down on the children. One of the birds picked up Marlon by the straps of his sleeveless shirt and carried him into the air. His screams brought his parents outside to see him lifted to the height of two feet for a distance of about 40 feet before the creature let him go.

In both of these accounts, the monster birds did not get far with their human burdens, but there are other stories where the avian giants were more successful. The best documented of these occurred in Leka, Norway, on June 5, 1932 when Svanhild Hansen, a five-year-old, forty-pound girl, was picked up by a huge eagle and carried more than a mile to a high ledge. She was found there safe and asleep by a rescue party. With the exception of a few scratches, she was unharmed. Zoologist Hartvig Huitfeldt-Kaas was so interested in the story he spent a month at the time investigating it and pronounced it "completely reliable."

There are also many less well document stories including the sad tale of five-year-old Marie Delex from the French Alps in 1838. The girl was playing with friends when she was picked up by a large eagle and carried away. The eagle's nest was checked, but only piles of goat and sheep bones were found. Two months later her horribly mutilated remains were discovered by a local shepherd on a rock several miles from where she had disappeared.

In May of 1904 the New York Times published the story of 18-month old girl in England that was apparently picked up by an eagle while she played just outside her parent's cottage door. Searchers at first assumed that the girl had been kidnapped, but a game warden found her body in a rocky crevasse at the crest of a hill. The girl's eyes had been plucked out and part of her cheek was missing.

Despite many stories though the years like these modern experts are skeptical. Mike Jacobson, an eagle management specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been quoted as saying, "There used to be stories about eagles carrying off babies and little kids, and none of that has ever been documented. They can pick up and carry four or five pounds, maximum, and actually fly off with it.They can lift a little more and hop it along, but they can't carry it off."

That's from a dead stop, however. An eagle already in motion can lift much more. "On a wide-open beach, I have no doubt that an eagle with a full head of steam could pick up a six- or eight-pound dog and just keep on going," says biologist and predatory bird expert Ronald Clarke. "If it landed to kill a ten-pounder, and then tried to pick up and fly from a dead stop, could it get off the ground? Probably not."

An eagle swooping down on animal on the side of mountain and then carrying it to a lower altitude, might be even able to carry more weight as such a maneuver requires only a downward glide (See a video of an eagle doing this with a small goat http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3n4qPpL8T0&feature=related).

Of course, there are always sightings of giant unknown birds - like those in the American Indian thunderbird legend - whose huge wingspans that might be able to carry very heavy loads. However, most experts doubt these stories, if for no other reason, then legions of bird watchers in the United States that could hardly miss noticing a bird with a twelve-foot-plus wingspan.

If not today, then scientists tell us that certainly in the past there were eagles and other large birds that could kill a child and fly away with them. The Haast's Eagle of New Zealand is only known from fossil remains, but it is estimated they weighed as much as 40 pounds and were still living at the time that New Zealand was first populated by humans about 750 years ago. The evidence about Haast's seems to match legendary stories told by Maori people of New Zealand about a bird so powerful it could sweep down and kill a small child. With a lift capacity of as much as ¾ of their weight, they could undoubtedly have flown off with the victim too.


In History:

Globster Controversy - In August of 1960 a strange carcass washed ashore on a desolate beach in northwestern Tasmania. The "Globster" (a term coined by cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson) had no eyes, or head or even bones. Its exterior skin was at the same time "creamy," "rubbery" and "hairy." Unfortunately, no through investigation was made of the creature for almost two years until the Australian government, under pressure from the press, was forced to send an expedition to look at it. All that could be said at that point, however, was that "it is not possible to specifically identify it from our investigations so far, but our investigations lead us to believe that the so-called monster is a decomposing portion of a large marine animal. It is not inconsistent with blubber." Those that believed the creature was something other than a dead whale complained that the government had "to say it was nothing new to cover up the fact that they hadn't done anything about it before…"


In the Sky:

Don't Worry About Mars This Month - This month we will cover something in the night sky NOT to look for! Emails have been flying around the internet saying:

Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will cultivate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons.


Share this with your friends as NO ONE ALIVE TODAY will ever see it again.

Despite these hoax emails Mars will not be particularly close this month. The email actually refers to something that happened back in 2003 when Mars was at a close approach, but even then the difference was mostly visible only through a telescope. It was never so close that it would look like Earth had two moons.

What is going on this month is that the trio of Venus, Mars, and Saturn will appear to be very close together in the sky during all of the first two weeks of August this year and this will be something worth seeing. Look for them in the western sky after sunset.



SETI Chance Is a Million to One -Two scientists have estimated that the chances that the new Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope will be able to detect radio signals from other intelligent life are one million to one. Researchers involved in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have been looking for potential alien signals for over a half-century without accomplishment. The SKA, when complete in 2022, will be their most sensitive piece of equipment yet and their best chance of success. Duncan Forgan, at the University of Edinburgh, and Bob Nichol, at the University of Portsmouth decided to see if they could calculate the probability of the SKA picking up an alien signal by building a computer model of the galaxy using the latest data on, such things as, stellar evolution, planetary system formation and habitable zones for planets. They estimated that with the best-case scenario there could be 10,000 intelligent civilizations in the galaxy. This may sound like a lot, but with the milky-way galaxy composed of billions of stars, the chances of any one of these civilizations being close enough for the SKA to detect (within about 326 light years) is low. The pair also believes that civilizations are only "radio loud" for the first 100 years or so after they have discovered radio communications and that more advanced civilizations could be more difficult to find.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: The Four-Winged Dinosaur - Surprising fossils from northeastern China spur a debate over how birds evolved.n China spur a debate over how birds evolved. (Encore event also available on Hulu.com) On PBS: Tuesday, August 24 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Lizard Kings - Meet the monitors, the largest, fiercest, and craftiest lizards on Earth. (Encore event also available on Hulu.com) On PBS: Tuesday August 17, 8:00 pm; ET/PT.

Shark Week - Discovery hosts its annual Shark Week: Six nights of jaw-dropping shark specials. Begins August 1 at 8 PM ; ET/PT. Includes:

Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa - Witness the awesome power of great white sharks hurtling themselves out of the water to attack their prey. Among the most spectacular predatory events in nature, only great whites of South Africa's False Bay engage in this mighty display. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 01, 8:00 pm; Aug 01, 11:00 pm; Aug 04, 7:00 pm; Aug 05, 2:00 am; ET/PT.

10 Deadliest Sharks - Learn about the horn shark, lemon shark, grey reef shark, hammerhead, blue shark, mako, oceanic white-tip, tiger shark, great white, and the bull shark. Find out how and where they attack their prey, and what makes them a premier killer in it's habitat. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 06, 8:00 pm; Aug 06, 9:00 pm; Aug 06, 11:00 pm; Aug 07, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Tomb Builders: Secrets of the Valley of the Kings - Over 20 pharaoh tombs rest in this famous funerary valley. Follow the work of Dr. Kent Weeks as he maps the entire valley of dynastic tombs, profiles the pharaohs, and tells the story of how each tomb was constructed. On the Science Channel: Aug 03, 8:00 pm; Aug 03, 11:00 pm; Aug 05, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Egypt's Mystery Chamber - We return to Egypt to solve the riddle of KV63. Evidence tells us that though built as a tomb, it was never used as one. It's a funerary cache, where embalmers hid for eternity the tools and results of a mummification - perhaps that of King Tut himself. On the Science Channel: Aug 03, 10:00 pm; Aug 04, 1:00 am; Aug 05, 5:00 am; Aug 05, 8:00 pm; Aug 05, 11:00 pm; Aug 07, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Morgan Freeman's Through the Wormhole Is There a Creator? - Did our Universe come into being by chance or was it created by a God? The latest science shows that the four forces governing our universe are finely tuned, so much so that it has led many to believe that something must have calibrated them. On the Science Channel: Aug 04, 10:00 pm; Aug 05, 1:00 am; Aug 06, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Remaking the Shroud - Armed with compelling new scientific and historical evidence, experts attempt to re-create the Shroud of Turin in order to determine whether it is an ingenious human creation. On The National Geographic Channel: Aug 3rd 8:00 PM & 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

Decoding Bible Relics - Extraordinary finds have been made in the Holy Land - Decoding Bible Relics distinguishes authentic artifact from sophisticated fake. On The National Geographic Channel: Aug 8th 7:00 PM; ET/PT.

Secret History of the Atom Bomb - NGC delves into the tumultuous history of the atom bomb filled with deception, twists and danger that even Hollywood couldn't make up. On The National Geographic Channel: Aug 12 9:00 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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