Astronomers have used the Hubble to find the "heart" of the Crab Nebula. (NASA/ESA)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


August 2016

In the News:

Heart of Crab Nebula Observed - Astronomers have used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to find the heart of the Crab Nebula. The Nebula is the remains of a large star that exploded as a supernova in 1054 and was observed by Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Native American observers. The crushed core of that exploded star is pulsar or "neutron star" only a few miles wide and spinning around 30 times per second. "The density of a neutron star can be approximated by stuffing a herd of 50 million elephants into a thimble," said Frank Summers, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. "By studying and following the emission of the Crab, we get a ringside seat for understanding how young neutron stars and supernova remnants develop," Summers said.

Philistine Burial Site Found - Archaeologists have unearthed a Philistine cemetery at a site in southern Israel. It's the first burial ground of these ancient, biblical people that ever has been found. "This cemetery is going to teach us a whole lot about the Philistines that we've never known before," said Daniel Master, professor of archaeology at Wheaton College and co-director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. "We've learned about their houses, we've learned about what they ate and we learned about who they traded with, but now we're seeing the people themselves." The cemetery is about 3,000 years old and scientists have found, buried with the people their own jugs, storage jars, bowls and in some cases weapons. The Philistines are perhaps best known for the biblical story of Goliath in the books of Samuel. Goliath, a giant challenged a young David to individual combat near the Valley of Elah.

Zapping the Brain to See Better - Zapping somebody's brain with electricity can improve their vision according to a new study. However, there are some caveats on this: First the electrical stimulation must occur over the visual processing centers of the brain. Second, the improvement only lasts for about two hours. Finally it only seems to help about 70% of the test subjects, though those with the worse vision, show the best improvement. The scientists stimulated the brains of 20 subjects for 20 minutes, then used various visual acuity tasks to test their vision. On a standard eye chart people's vision improved by being able to see one to two letters more, on average, though the results varied by person. Scientists hope this work may lead better methods to treat people with severe eye disorders.

Planet Found in Triple Star System - Scientists have found a really odd planetary arrangement in another solar system where there is a planet with three suns. HD 131399Ab is the first planet discovered in a stable orbit in a triple-star system. Before this discovery scientists had assumed that because of unstable gravity in such a system any planet being quickly hurled out. "If the planet was further away from the most massive star in the system, it would be kicked out of the system," said Daniel Apai of the University of Arizona. "Our computer simulations have shown that this type of orbit can be stable, but if you change things around just a little bit, it can become unstable very quickly." The planet is in the Centaurus constellation, about 320 light-years from Earth, and was found using the SPHERE instrument mounted on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. It is a large planet with an estimated mass of four times the largest planet in our solar system: Jupiter.

Amber Preserves Ancient Wings - A 99-million year old chunk of amber is telling scientists a whole lot about early birds. The amber (fossilized tree sap) trapped two small bird wings from the middle of the Cretaceous period. While fossilized feathers have been found in stone, the amber allows the preservation of soft tissue associated with skeletal remains. It even retained the original coloring from pale dots on the undersides to darker browns elsewhere. The bird, probably an enantiornithine hatchling - an early group that had teeth and clawed wings - was smaller than a hummingbird. Enantiornithines went extinct with the dinosaurs, but the fossil shows that the structures and arrangements of the feathers were similar to modern birds. A team of researchers led by Lida Xing, a paleontologist at the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, recovered the amber and published an article on it in the June's issue of Nature Communications.

Science Quote of the Month - "There may be babblers, wholly ignorant of mathematics, who dare to condemn my hypothesis, upon the authority of some part of the Bible twisted to suit their purpose. I value them not, and scorn their unfounded judgment." - Nicolaus Copernicus


What's New at the Museum:

Notes from the Curators Office: A Visit to Chichen Itza - Probably one of the most famous and most easily accessible ancient sites in the Western Hemisphere is the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. A few years ago I listed it as one of the ten mysterious locations I wanted to visit during my life. So a few months back I decided to take the plunge and hopped on a jet for the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula with the idea of having a little adventure at this "Wonder of the World." Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Fate of the Mars Born - My question is about something that is always popping up in Sci Fi stories, and NOW it could actually happen at some point in the future: Assuming we eventually colonize mars, would a human being who is born and raised on mars be taller and thinner than a human being that is born and raised on earth? And, biologically speaking, what could be some of the other differences be between a Mars-born and an Earth-born?

This is an interesting and complex questions that nobody has any definite answers for at this point. We haven't been able to do a lot of experiments with animals in low gravity situations, so there isn't a lot of data to work with, just speculation. Science fiction writers have often speculated that humans born and raised on Mars would be taller and thinner than their cousins on Earth. The idea is that since Mars has roughly 1/3 the gravity of Earth (because of its smaller size) their bones would grow longer and they would need less strength (and therefore less muscle) to move around and do things making them thinner.

There is some evidence that this might be true. We know that astronauts, living for an extended time aboard the ISS get taller. The mechanism that causes this is similar to the change in height many of us experience every day.

When we lay down to sleep the pressure is taken off our spinal columns and the discs (sort of shock absorbers for our body) between each of the vertebrae swell a bit. After we get up in the morning and stand up pressure on the discs over the course of the day causes the discs to lose water and compress a small amount. A typical person can lose a ˝ inch of height over the course of a day.

An astronaut during an extended stay in the ISS never experiences anything but micro-gravity so his discs continue to swell and he may find himself 2 inches taller in orbit, than he was on Earth. NASA needs to design their spacesuits with this expansion in mind.

A child born on Mars would not be growing up in micro-gravity, but he would be permanently living on a world with a much lower gravity and it seems likely he or she would might find their discs more permanently swollen than they would be on Earth.

Also while our genes often play a part in how tall we grow, our bodies also respond to environmental cues like gravity too. Bones in a low gravity situation might grow longer and thinner. We know that astronauts on the ISS living in micro-gravity for any length of time lose bone mass making them more prone to fractures when they return to Earth. It isn't quite clear how this would play out for someone growing up under low gravity on Mars but lighter, thinner bones might be the result.

There are other factors that might play into their height beyond gravity too. For example, people here on Earth living in developed nations have been growing taller though the last few centuries. This is mostly because they have been getting more and higher quality food during childhood leading allowing them to reach their full growth potential. Would a Martian colony, however, be able to produce sufficient high quality food to allow its space born members to reach their full potential? A struggling Mars colony might find its children shorter than their Earth counterparts, not taller.

One thing we are certain off, however, is that children born and raised on Mars would have an extremely difficult time relocating to Earth. Since their bodies would be adapted to the lower gravity they would not have the muscles necessary to move around easily on Earth at three times the gravity. It would be like an Earth resident taking a visit to a planet with three times the mass of Earth. If he weighed 180 pounds on our planet during his visit he would suddenly be forced to carry around a 540 pound body. An extremely difficult burden! It's likely if you were born on Mars you would never be able to visit your ancestral home world.

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In History:

Monkey Trial Defendant - John Thomas Scopes was born on August 3rd, 1900 and would become a central figure and defendant in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Scopes was a high-school teacher in Tennessee when he agree to stand-trial in a test-case that would challenge the Butler Act that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state's schools. On appeal, his guilty verdict was thrown out on a technicality. Later Scopes would earn a master's degree in geology, and go to work for Gulf Oil as a geologist.


In the Sky:

Perseids Meteor Shower - The Perseids meteor shower will peak on the night of August 11 and the morning of August 12. Best viewing will be after midnight when the moon sets. Meteors will look like they came from the constellation Perseus, but can appear anywhere in the sky. The shower is debris from comet Swift-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1862. The Perseids are considered one of the best showers to view as it produces a large number of bright meteors.



New Type of "Extinct" Meteorite Found - Geologists in Sweden have discovered what they refer to an "extinct" meteorite. The piece of black rock embedded within a 470-million-year old limestone slab is thought to be of a type of meteorite never before seen and one that does not rain down on Earth anymore (therefore "extinct"). "The chromium isotopes are the nail in the coffin. This is really, really strong confirmation that this is something completely different than what is known among meteorites on Earth today," said Birger Schmitz, a geologist from Lund University in Sweden, who was the lead author of a paper about the meteor in Nature Communications. The rock was found by Swedish miners in a quarry with slabs destined to be made into floor panels. It is believed that a billion years ago, two asteroids between Jupiter and Mars collided and some of the remains crashed in Earth's ancient oceans were they were buried in sediment and compressed into the limestone.



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

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