Over the Edge
Roundup of Strange Science for the Month
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Quote of the Month - "The
best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance
- the idea that anything is possible." - Ray
New at the Museum:
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
Picture of the Month - What
is this this?
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
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,
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.
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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.
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.
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.
check local listing for area outside of North America.
Week - Discovery Channel's annual celebration of
the oceans' top predators returns on Sunday August 4th of
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
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.
- 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.
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.
August 2nd 7PM;
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.
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
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