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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2013

In the News:

Astronomers Puzzled by New Radio Bursts - In 2007, astronomers detected a burst of radio noise coming from space. The origin of the blast, lasting about a second, was totally unknown. What caused it? Did it come from somewhere inside our galaxy or from half-way across the universe? Now, as detailed in a new paper in Science, astronomers using the giant Parkes radio telescope in Australia have tracked four more of these bursts. By checking these signals and seeing if certain frequencies have been delayed in arrival by collisions with loose electrons floating in space, scientists can get an estimate about how far the bursts have traveled. All four bursts look like they have come from a great distance: between 5 and 10 billion light-years away which is a good distance to the edge of the visible universe. Astronomers still aren't sure what generates the bursts. They will need to develop a system that can warn of an incoming burst and get a telescope turned to look at it in a short amount of time before it fades away. Whatever they are, however, there seems to be an awful lot of them as the new study estimates there are as many as 10,000 of these blasts are going off every day all over the skies.

Mystery Skull in Australia - Scientists from the Australian National University have been puzzling out the possibilities of a skull sent to them by police. At first the skull, nicknamed "Taree" after where it was found, was thought to be the remains from a recent murder victim. An examination of Taree with a carbon-14 age test, however, indicates that the skull is that of a white man born around 1650. As the earliest historically recorded white man to visit Australia was Captain James Cook in 1770, this, as Cassie Mercer, an Australian historical researcher, put it "may be a tragic yet fascinating clue to the little-known history of early interactions between First Australians and the outside world." There is no need at this junction to re-write the history book quite yet, however. A second scenario with the carbon-14 might put the birth date of the subject to around 1780 and 1790. There is always aldo the outside chance that the skull was part of a private collection of relics brought to Australia that somehow got lost.

A Blue Exo-Planet Where it Rains Glass - NASA scientists for the first time have been able to establish the color of a planet orbiting a star other than our own sun. HD 189733b is a gas giant planet circling a star 63 light years away. This type of planet is often referred to as a "hot Jupiter" because it is similar in size to our planet Jupiter, but very close to its star. In the case of HD 189733b, it is only 2.9 million miles from its star, only one tenth the distance between our sun and its closest planet, Mercury. Because the planet is so close to its star NASA thinks that it is "gravitationally locked" so that one side always is in daylight with a temperature of 2,000 degrees. This should cause winds to race to the nighttime side at 4,500 mph. Though the distance to the planet is so great that light from it and its star cannot be separated, scientists were able to detect the color of the planet by watching when the planet passed behind its star and seeing what frequencies of light disappeared. The planet is too close to its star and too hot to have oceans, like Earth, so scientists think that the blue comes from an atmosphere containing high clouds laced with silicate particles. NASA says. "Silicates condensing in the heat could form very small drops of glass that scatter blue light more than red light" so it appears that on this very strange planet it rains glass.

Mars Once Had a Thick Atmosphere - According to a finding from NASA's Curiosity Rover on Mars, the planet once had a thick atmosphere - perhaps even thicker than Earth's. The rover samples gases on the planet and that is compared to gasses found trapped in ancient Mars meteorites that have been found on Earth. This gives NASA scientists and idea about how the atmosphere has changed over time. At some point in the distant past, however, most of the thick atmosphere was lost, probably due to the solar wind. "On Earth, our magnetic field protects us, it shields us from the solar wind particles. Without Earth's magnetic field, we would have no atmosphere and there would be no life on this planet. Everything would be wiped out -- especially when you go back 4 billion years. The solar wind was at least 100 times stronger then than it is today. It was a young sun with a very intense radiation," stated Chris Webster, manager of the Planetary Sciences Instruments Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a full planetary magnetic field, so its atmosphere was blown away.

Priceless Paintings Burned - Seven masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan have most likely been destroyed by a Romanian mother trying to protect her art thief son. Radu Dogaru, head of a ring of thieves that broke into the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, last year, had left the paintings with his mother Olga Dogaru in her home after he was arrested. She moved them to an abandoned house and later buried them in the cemetery in the village of Caracliu. Finally, when police began checking the cemetery, she claims she removed them and burned them in her stove. Officials were hoping that the story was not true, but an examination of ashes from the stove shows traces of paint, canvas and nails. The paintings were estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.


Science Quote of the Month - "The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance - the idea that anything is possible." - Ray Bradbury


What's New at the Museum:

The Magic of Ray Harryhausen - In May of this year a pioneer in film industry died at the age of 92. Ray Harryhausen brought to life hundreds of monsters and fantasy characters and in the process influenced a whole generation of movie makers from George Lucas to Tim Burton. - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Nuke vs. Asteroid - I read somewhere that the reason a nuclear bomb causes so much damage is that it superheats the surrounding air which expands very rapidly to create the blast. I also read that a way to stop large asteroids hitting the earth would be to use a nuclear missile to either blow it up or use the blast to move its orbit. How would this work in the vacuum of space? - Mike

The idea of using nuclear weapons to blow up an incoming asteroid to save the Earth has long been a theme of science fiction movies, short stories and books. However, when the scientists at NASA that were charged with coming up with a scheme to deal with an incoming space rock were initially very concerned about the ramifications of such a strategy. The problem is that many asteroids are not so much a single large rock as a loose collection of boulders clinging together based on their slight gravitational attraction to each other. Scientists were concerned that if an asteroid large enough to end all life on our planet (say 6.2 miles or 10 kilometers across or bigger) was hit with a nuclear tipped missile it might simply fracture into several different pieces, all bound for Earth. The effect of these separate smaller impacts on Earth might be even worse than a single large impact.

For this reason they thought the idea of using something other than nuclear weapons to nudge the asteroid off course might be the way to go. For example, using a robot spaceship to push the asteroid onto a new course. Or having a spaceship fly alongside the asteroid and use a laser to vaporize bits of the asteroid. The parts that were vaporized would be turned into gas which would expand and push the asteroid in the opposite direction. Even painting the asteroid with a reflective color on one side, so the sunlight reflected off it (imparting a slight nudge to it) instead of being absorbed might be enough to change its direction over time.

The problem with all of the above solutions, however, is that they take time. You would have to know that the asteroid was going to hit Earth several years in advance for these low power pushes to change the asteroid's course. If you suddenly learned only a few weeks in advance that a collision was going to take place, you'd need to take a more direct approach.

NASA found that the most effective way to handle a last minute encounter with an incoming space rock was employing one or more nuclear weapons. They considered using surface explosions, delayed surface explosions, subsurface explosions and standoff explosions. The best solution was standoff explosions where a nuclear device is actually not detonated on the asteroid, but at some distance. The method was deemed the least likely to split the asteroid into smaller, and perhaps more dangerous, pieces.

Since, as you point out, that shock wave from a nuclear blast can't effectively cross that vacuum of space, how would such a method work? Well, the destructive force of a nuke doesn't just come from the shock wave. It also destroys with heat. If you look at some of the old atomic test bomb movies where they filmed a house in the path of a nuclear blast you will see the first thing that arrives at the building when the device goes off is an intense wave of electromagnetic radiation, including light (especially infrared light which is heat). The outside wall of the building starts smoking and catches on fire. Then a few seconds later the blast wave hits and actually knocks the building down.

In space you wouldn't get the blast wave because there isn't any air to transmit it. However you do get the infrared light and other electromagnetic radiation. This will vaporize the top layer of the asteroid in the direction facing the blast. The expanding gas from the vaporization will push the asteroid off course. Since the vaporization is widely distributed across the face of the asteroid the push is unlikely to cause a split.

The best part of this scheme is if it turns out that one standoff blast isn't enough, you can immediately try another and another until you pushed the asteroid far enough in one direction to miss the Earth.

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


In History:

Atomic Letter - On August 2nd 1939 Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd wrote a letter to then President Roosevelt warning him of the possibility that a bomb of immense power could be constructed using uranium fission. The letter urged the President to also consider the possibility that Nazi Germany might be attempting to create such a weapon. The letter would eventually lead to the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic bomb, Trinity, tested on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico.


In the Sky:

The Perseids - Look for the Perseids Meteor Shower the night of the 11th and 12th. Viewing will be good in the early morning hours as the moon sets around midnight. The meteors will appear to come from the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 11PM.



Brits Power Cell Phone with Urine - Scientists at the University of Bristol and Bristol Robotics Laboratory have created a fuel cell that runs on human urine. "The beauty of this fuel source is that we are not relying on the erratic nature of the wind or the sun; we are actually reusing waste to create energy," said engineer Loannis Leropoulos. "One product that we can be sure of an unending supply is our own urine." The microbial fuel cell (MFC) can generate enough electricity to enable text messaging, web browsing and to make a brief phone call. The device uses bacteria to break down chemicals in urine that builds up a small amount of electrical charge which is stored on a capacitor. Currently the device is the size of a car battery, but the researchers hope to downsize it to something that can be carried around easily.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Shark Week - Discovery Channel's annual celebration of the oceans' top predators returns on Sunday August 4th of special interest:

Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives - A search for a massive killer Great White shark responsible for a rash of fatalities off the coast of South Africa. One controversial scientist believes that the shark responsible could be Megalodon, a 60-foot relative of the Great White that is one of the largest and most powerful predators in history. Our oceans remain 95% unexplored, and this massive prehistoric predator has always been shrouded in secrecy, but after a rash of newly discovered evidence, authorities are forced to investigate and hunt for the predator long thought to be extinct. A crew of scientists and shark experts examine evidence and fearlessly seek answers to the many questions surrounding one of the last great mysteries of the deep ocean while creating the largest chum slick in history. On the Discovery Channel August 4, at 9PM ET/PT

Alien Sharks of the Deep - This special follows American and Japanese scientists as they descend into the deepest and darkest unexplored oceans on earth in search of some of the more incredible and bizarre sharks on the planet, from the Goblin shark to the elusive, giant Megamouth shark. On the Discovery Channel August 8, at 10PM ET/PT.

Sharkpocalypse - Following one of the most fatal years of shark encounters closely followed by the media, SHARKPOCALYPSE examines the alarming trend of sharks moving in closer to shorelines and debates whether there is a connection between declining shark populations and the increase in shark attacks. Hosted by Andy Casagrande and Devon Massyn, SHARKPOCALYPSE gets you up close and personal with the Great White invasion.On the Discovery Channel August 8, at 9PM ET/PT.

Mysteries of the Deep - Explore the most beguiling parts of the sea, the very depths which have never been seen and which we know very little about. On The Science Channel: August 2nd 7PM; ET/PT.

Secret History of Gold - Gold's appeal and value span time and cultures, but there is a little-known secret to the story of gold. Most of the gold mined throughout history remains in circulation today -- even the gold closest to your heart may have dark origins. From the Amazon jungle to the markets of Dubai, NGC re-visits the underbelly of the modern gold trade with a treasure hunter and an illegal miner to expose its volatile history. On the National Geographic Channel August 2nd at 7PM ET/PT.

CIA Secret Experiments - At the height of the Cold War, the CIA launched a highly classified, top secret research program that exposed Americans to biological agents, hallucinogenic drugs and psychological techniques aimed at mastering the art of mind control. Entire cities in America were contaminated with bacteria, exposing millions to germ warfare. NGC's CIA Secret Experiments examines what happened, shedding light on its research to better understand the extent and full reach of its disturbing experiments. On the National Geographic Channel August 4th at 6PM ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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