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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2011

In the News:

Liquid Water on Mars? - A group of scientists think they have seen evidence of flowing water on the surface of Mars. While trying to create a 3D picture of the surface on a southern section of the planet, researchers noticed that two pictures of an area taken at slightly different times did not match up. The photos from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show dark, narrow, finger-like structures only during the summer months. Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona and his colleagues think that the dark material may be a "brine" (salt water). Satellite scans have already suggested that Mars has water in the form of ice underground. The scientists suggest in an article published in the Journal Science that during the late spring and summer temperatures get high enough that at a number of locations the brine becomes liquid and flows down the rocky slopes. Team member Shane Byrne, said that they "thought long and hard" about possible causes for the streaks and concluded it was most likely to be caused by salt water. To prove their idea one way or the other, however, it may actually be necessary to send a lander to one of the locations and test the material.

A Dark, Dark Planet - Scientists are perplexed by a newly discovered exo-planet found by the Kepler spacecraft. The planet, called TrES-2b, is orbiting a star about 750 light-years away from Earth. The planet's albedo, that is the amount of light it reflects off its surface, is only about 1 percent. This is by far the lowest albedo ever found for a planet. For comparison Jupiter reflects 52 percent of the light it gets and Earth 37 percent. Coal, reflects only 1 to 5 percent depending on the type, so this planet is blacker than most coals. Scientists have been speculating on what might give this planet might be made out of to give it such a low albedo, such as vaporized sodium and potassium or gaseous titanium oxide, but even these dark material do no match the planet's blackness. "There's a good chance it's a chemical we haven't even thought of yet," remarked David Kippling, lead author of the article announcing the discovery in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Building a Mountain out of a Joke - It started in jest, but now many people in the Netherlands are serious about creating a man-made mountain there. The suggestion originated with Thijs Zonneveld, a former athlete and writer for free daily De Pers. Zonneveld complained in a column back in July that his country was too flat. "Flat is ideal for growing beetroot, raising cows or building straight roads, but it's a catastrophe from a sports point-of-view," he wrote. "I want a mountain, a real one. In the Netherlands," he added. Since then the idea has grown into plans for a 2000 meter high (over a mile) man-made peak that would include ski slopes, climbing cliffs, bobsleigh tracks, hiking trails and scenic mountain roads with hairpin turns. "It seems like that my plea -- a joke at first -- has clicked." Zonneveld believes that people want to get excited about a big project like this and companies see a chance to demonstrate some real innovation.

Did the Lotion Kill the Queen? - A flask that once belonged to the Egyptain Queen Hatshepsut seems to contain a highly carcinogenic form of moisturizing lotion which may have led to her death. The vessel, which has an inscription saying it belonged to the Queen, was in the University of Bonn Egyptian Museum for many years and was thought to have held perfume. Researchers analysized the material inside and found it was instead a lotion made from large amounts of palm and nutmeg oil, which are polyunsaturated fats that can relieve certain skin diseases. In addition the formula also included benzopyrene, fragrant and cancer causing hydrocarbon. Benzopyrene has been banned from modern cosmetics because of its danger. It is likely the Hatshepsut had a skin condition and derived some short term relief from the lotion. However experts think in the long term it killed her. "We have known for a long time that Hatshepsut had cancer and maybe even died from it," said Michael Höveler-Müller, one of the museum's curators. "We may now know the actual cause," he added.

Not Just for Handbags Anymore - Some people just see alligators as a source of fancy handbags or boots, but researchers at University of Louisiana have suggested that you could turn excess alligator fat into a biofuel for as little as $2.40 a gallon. About 15 million pounds of alligator fat is dumped into landfills each year when alligator farms harvest their creatures. By using some chemical solvents on the fat and heating it scientists discovered that 61 percent of it becomes a biofuel with 91 percent of the energy of diesel. The current amount of excess alligator fat could be turned into 1.25 million gallons of fuel a year. The details of the process can be found in this last month's edition of Industrial Engineering Chemistry Research.


Science Quote of the Month - "Scientists have shown that the moon is moving away at a tiny yet measurable distance from the earth every year. If you do the math, you can calculate that 85 million years ago the moon was orbiting the earth at a distance of about 35 feet from the earth’s surface. This would explain the death of the dinosaurs. The tallest ones, anyway." ~ UnKnown


What's New at the Museum:

Archimedes and the Burning Mirror - Probably no ancient tale has raised as much controversy as the story of the Greek inventor Archimedes using a giant mirror, or set of mirrors, to set fire to Roman ships. Did it actually happen?>Full Story

The CN Tower - CN Rail decided to build a new tower in the city of Toronto to resolve commnications problems there. During planning they realized they could make it the tallest building in the world. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?


To Read :

Cardboard Rocket - The Museum of UnNatural Mystery Press releases the sequel to the children's favorite "Cardboard Rocket."

Mike, Melissa and Hector's adventures continue. When they find out that their old robot friend, R22-B, is in trouble they take off on a rocket ride into the past to save him. The only problem is that somebody has been tinkering with time and they find their future, as well as that of the planet Earth, may be gone...

Order from Create Space: Cardboard Rocket

Fiction Ages 8 - 13.

Also available through Amazon.com and other find bookstores.


Ask the Curator:

Steam Punk Sub and Plane - Could someone build a steam powered submarine or airplane? - Jacob

Both of these feats have already been done! The first steam powered submarine was the the Ictíneo II built by Spanish inventor Narcís Monturiol Estarrol in 1864 and modified from human to steam power in 1867. The problem with powering any kind of submarine is the most engines burn oxygen and quickly use up the limited air inside a submerged vessel stopping the engine and killing the crew. Estarrol powered his sub, however, by using a chemical reaction between potassium chlorate, zinc and manganese dioxide. This reaction generated enough heat to turn water into steam and drive a turbine engine to push the sub forward. As a bonus the reaction also produced oxygen which allowed the crew to remain underwater to eight hours. Unfortunately this history making boat was destoryed after only 20 demonstration dives when the shipyard that built it scrapped it when Estarrol couldn't pay his bills!

It wasn't until 1913 that anybody tried to use a steam engine on board a submarine again. The British were interested in making their subs fast enough to keep up with the rest of the fleet, so they put a boiler and steam engines into their K-Class subs. The steam engines only worked on the surface, however, and when the boat submerged they had to use standard batteries.

During WW II the German's developed a steam powered sub using the same principals as Estarrol. The boat carried a tank of hydrogen peroxide which when run through a catalyst produces oxygen. The oxygen, burned with diesel created the heat to make steam and drive a turbine. The United States experimented with this idea after WWII, but dropped further development in favor of subs with nuclear power plants.

Now for the airplane. As early as 1842 two enterprising Brits, William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow, patented a design for an "Aerial Steam Carriage" which would carry passengers. The two had more success at publicizing the device using beautiful lithograph advertisements of the plane flying over exotic locations like the Egyptian pyramids (left), than actually getting it into the air, however. The problem they had was that steam engines, compared to the modern internal combustion engine, has a much poorer power to-weight ratio. This is less of a concern with something like a railroad locomotive that stays on the ground, but is a critical factor for an airplane.

In the 19th century, however, internal combustion engines were in their infancy. Though they would eventually have a much better power-to-weight ratio than steam engines this wouldn't be until the 20th century. Also early internal combustion engines tended to be unreliable, stopping without warning. Not something you like to see in an airplane engine.

So inventors worked as best they could with steam engines. Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, also dabbled with aviation and built a massive three and a half ton airplane powered by two 360hp steam engines which he tested on a track near Bexley, England. Unfortunately during a ground test in 1884 the track failed and the machine flew loose. As it was uncontrollable in the air, it immediately crashed and Maxim decided not to rebuild it.

In 1899 there are claims that Gustave Whitehead built and flew a steam-powered airplane near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The plane supposedly got off the ground and crashed into a building. However, there is little historical evidence for this story.

The first clear example of a steam power plane actually achieving a controlled flight was in the 1930's when George D. and William J. Besler converted a Travel Air 2000 aircraft to use a light steam engine. The two brothers started on the project just to see if it could be done and demonstrated some successful flights at the airport in Oakland California. One observer noted the plane, without the roar of an internal combustion engine, was extremely quiet and the pilot could converse with people on the ground from an altitude of 200 feet. It was also capable of very short landings as the propeller could be instantly reversed after the wheels touched the ground to slow the plane. The steam engine also used less flammable type fuel than fuel which saved money and lowered the chances of a fire during a crash.

Despite some enthusiasm for steam-power flight from the press at the time, the plane turned out to be never more than a novelty and an interesting footnote in aviation history.


In History:

Snowman Not Really Abominable - The term "Abominable Snowman" entered the English language by mistake in September of 1921 when Lt. Col. C. K. Howard-Bury saw a number of strange footprints on the north side of Mt. Everest. He asked a local Sherpa what they were from and he wrote down their answer as metoh-kangmi which was later translated by a newspaper man as "Abominable Snowman." Apparently, though, the guide had actually used the term meh-teh which really means "manlike thing that is not a man."


In the Sky:

Visions of Jupiter - This is a good month to check out the planet Jupiter, if you haven't looked at it lately. Jupiter, named for the Roman king of the Gods, is of course the largest planet in our solar system and will be easily visible in the night sky. It will be rising about 2 hours after sunset and should appear in the constellation Aries. On September 15 and 16 the Moon will appear next to Jupiter in the night sky.



Crashed Flying Saucer at the Bottom of the Ocean? - Swedish researcher Peter Lindberg's exploration team has stumbled across an interesting anomaly under 300 feet of water in the sea between Finland and Sweden. While using sonar to look for the century-old shipwreck, they came across what appears to be a perfectly round object that some people have suggested is a downed flying saucer. According to Lindberg the thing is a "large circle, about 60 feet in diameter. You see a lot of weird stuff in this job, but during my 18 years as a professional I have never seen anything like this. The shape is completely round." There are also what appears to be gouges along the bottom leading towards the object suggesting it has moved. (Proponents of the UFO theory argue that these scrapes were made when the craft crashed). There is really no evidence that the object is extra-terrestrial and its round shape may be just an illusion caused by the limited resolution of the sonar. Since this type of research is very expensive and the object isn't what Lindberg's team was looking for, they will not be doing any follow up on the anomaly leaving it for others to explore or speculate about.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Smartest Machine on Earth: Jeopardy! - Jeopardy challenges even the best human minds. Can a computer win the game? On PBS: Sept. 14 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Curiosity: Parallel Universes: Are They Real? - Morgan Freeman investigates if there could be more than one version of reality - and more than one ?you'. As scientists unravel this possibility, an astounding one emerges: these parallel worlds could determine the destiny of the entire universe.On The Discovery Channel: Sep 04, 8:00 pm; Sep 04, 11:00 pm; Sep 11, 9:00 am; ET/PT.

Jack the Ripper in America - The greatest serial killer in history has never been named. But what if we are looking in the wrong place? In the 1890s a series of murders took place across the United States, and incredible new evidence may reveal the true identity of Jack the Ripper. On Discovery Channel: Sep 08, 8:00 pm; Sep 09, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

Exorcists: The True Story - In a 2000 poll, "The Exorcist" was voted the scariest movie of all time. A diary discovered in 1979 tells the disturbing story of possession and exorcism of a 14-year-old boy in the 1950s that inspired the author of this harrowing tale. On The Discovery Channel: Sep 08, 10:00 pm; Sep 09, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

What Really Killed the Dinosaurs - Until recently, most scientists thought they knew what killed off the dinosaurs - a giant meteorite crashing into Earth. But a small and vociferous group of scientists believes there is increasing evidence that the 'impact' theory could be wrong. On The Science Channel: Sep 06, 8:00 pm; Sep 06, 11:00 pm; Sep 08, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Aliens and Ancient Engineers - Might the tools and technology of ancient builders have come from distant galaxies? Evidence suggests that an ancient mountaintop fortress in Peru was constructed with laser-like tools... temples at Vijayanagara India were built to harness cosmic energy... and an acoustic chamber in Malta enabled interplanetary communication. If the ancient builders did use advanced technology, could it prove that aliens visited Earth thousands of years ago? On The History Channel: Sept. 1st 10PM; ET/PT.

Jurassic C.S.I.: In the Flesh - In the quest to cover a dinosaur model with scientifically accurate skin, Dr. Phil Manning employs forensic analysis on the incredibly rare fossilized skin of a baby titanosaur. On The National Geographic Channel: Sept. 9th 8:00 PM; Sept. 9th 11:00 PM; Sept. 16th 8:00 PM; Sept. 16th 11:00 PM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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