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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2009

In the News:

Space Elevator Getting Closer? - Microsoft headquarters in Redmond hosted a conference on space elevator technology last month. The space elevator is a proposal to make access to orbit cheaper, safer and easier by running a cable from an Earth station to a counterweight in orbit 33,000 miles above the surface. A cab would climb the cable to carring people and goods into orbit. One of the technologies required to make the system work is a strong, light cable. In fact, one more than 30 times stronger than aramid fiber, currently the world's strongest. As part of the conference NASA offered a $2 million prize if anyone can come up with something that just five times stronger than the aramid fiber. A team from Japan entered a first-ever carbon nano-tube ribbon in the contest, but it failed to pass the test. Still space elevator enthusiasts are optimistic. "It's very, very difficult - but there's a big difference between difficult and impossible," observed Michael Laien, president of Bremerton-based Liftport, and an attendee of the conference. "So I think we are getting closer every day."

Cave System Found Under Egyptian Pyramids - British explorer Andrew Collins claims to have found the lost underworld of the pharaohs. According to Collins he has discovered a vast cave system under the pyramid field at Giza in Egypt. "There is untouched archaeology down there, as well as a delicate ecosystem that includes colonies of bats and a species of spider which we have tentatively identified as the white widow," said Collins. He thinks the caves, which are tens of thousands of years old, may have both inspired the ancient Egyptian's belief in an underworld. Collins, said he located the entrance to this mysterious underworld after reading the memoirs of a 19th century diplomat and explorer, Henry Salt" In his memoirs, British consul general Henry Salt recounts how he investigated an underground system of 'catacombs' at Giza in 1817 in the company of Italian explorer Giovanni Caviglia," Collins noted.

Egyptian Tombs Could be Gone in 150 Years - The tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings will disappear within a century and a half if they continue remain open to tourists, the head of antiquities, Zahi Hawass, has said. "The tombs (in the Valley of the Kings and nearby Valley of the Queens) which are open to visitors are facing severe damage to both colors and the engravings," Hawass said. "The levels of humidity and fungus are increasing because of the breath of visitors and this means that the tombs could disappear between 150 and 500 years." Hawass said the government has decided "to close some tombs definitively to tourists and replace them by identical replicas, including those of Tutenkhamun, Nefertiti and Seti I." Other tombs are being fitted with new ventilation systems, or are having the number of visitors allowed through strictly limited.

Giant Pandas in Trouble - Experts at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are concerned that the giant panda could be extinct in just two to three generations if rapid economic development continues in their habitat. The area the animals are living in is being split up into ever smaller pieces, preventing the animals from moving freely as they seek mates. This in turn could endanger their gene pool. "If the panda cannot mate with those from other habitats, it may face extinction within two to three generations," said Fan Zhiyong, Beijing-based species director for WWF. "We have to act now." Experts are concerned that lack of range may lead to inbreeding that may reduce the panda's resistance to diseases and lower their ability to reproduce. There are about 1,590 pandas living in the wild in China.

Pterosaurs Unlike Anything Else - A study, based on a well-preserved pterosaur with soft tissues, shows that the creatures were very much different than almost any animal alive today. According to the paper, published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, pterosaurs were warm-blooded insect eaters that lived in trees and had sophisticated flying skills. Among other things these flying reptiles had a complex membrane located between the animal's body and each of its fingers. The membrane was composed of up to three layers with distinct structural fibers. The fibers were oriented in different directions, forming a reticular pattern. "We conclude that this pterosaur might have been able to adjust the wing membrane during flight in order to enhance flight capability," noted one of the study authors.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." - Henri Poincaré, 1905


What's New at the Museum:

Notes From the Curator's Office: An Art Project for a Favorite Novel - A do-it-yourself way to commemorate your favorite book or movie and add a conversation piece to your home. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Vital Vitamins - What is a "vitamin", and how can sunlight make vitamin D? - John

A vitamin is an organic compound needed by a human or animal in tiny amounts in order to stay healthy. Usually a compound is only called a vitamin when the animal is unable to make it by itself, but must get it by eating it. This means that some compounds are vitamins for some animals but not really for others. For example, vitamin D is not really a vitamin in the human diet because we create it ourselves when sunlight hits our skin. It is a vitamin for most fish, however, who must get it by eating algae (Or by eating other fish who have eaten algae). The algae in turn create when they float in shallow waters under the sun.

For many years scientists suspected that certain foods contained tiny amounts of some substances needed for health, but they didn't know what those substances were. For example, in 1749, the Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered that citrus foods helped prevent scurvy, a particularly deadly disease often suffered by sailors who did not get fresh fruit in their diet. As it turns out the sailors were not getting vitamin C - otherwise known as ascorbic acid - which is found in the fruits. Though Lind didn't exactly know what the missing ingredient was, he recommended eating lemons and limes to avoid scurvy, an idea which was adopted by the British Royal Navy and led to their nickname "Limies".

In 1881, Russian doctor Nikolai Lunin did an experiment where he gave one group of mice milk and the other group an artificial mixture of all the separate parts of milk known at that time: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and salts. The mice that got the regular milk were fine, but those which got just the parts got sick and died. This told Lunin that there was something in the milk that science was unaware of that was needed for the mice to stay healthy. The first scientist to extract one of these micronutrients was Japanese researcher Umetaro Suzuki in 1910. He named his discovery aberic acid. It would later become known as vitamin B1.

A couple more facts about vitamins:

-The world "vitamin" is a blend of the words "vital" and "amine" where amine is a specific sort of organic compound. However, as other vitamins were found, not all turned out to be amines, but the name stuck.

-Often an animals will have to eat the vitamins they need every day because their bodies will not store the vitamins for any length of time.

Vitamin D is produced photo-chemically when ultra-violet light interacts with the substance 7-dehydrocholesterol. In the case of humans the creation of the Vitamin D takes place in the epidermis, the top layer of our skin, when light from the sun penetrates it and hits the 7-dehydrocholesterol our bodies put there. How much and how quickly you make your Vitamin D depends on how much sun light you get and the color of your skin. People with darker skin produce it more slowly than people with lighter skin.

For mammals with fur, who can't get sunlight to their skin at all, the Vitamin D is synthesized in oily secretions that are deposited onto the fur. As those oils sit on the fur and are exposed to the sun, the vitamin D is created. The animal then must lick the oils off and swallow them to get the Vitamin D into their systems.


Book Review - Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life by Paul Davies - Penguin Press.

This book has been out for a while, but just read it and highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in quantum physics and cosmology. Paul Davies, the award winning physicist, looks at why our universe seems "fine-tuned" to create life. The best part of the book isn't really Davies' conclusions on the subject, but the careful and very readable way he gives the reader a layman's overview on the current state of physics knowledge/research. He explains subjects like quantum physics and sub-atomic particles and covers many competing ideas about the nature of reality. Are we living in one of zillions of nearly identical universes or in a universe simulation running on some cosmic computer? Davies looks at all these possibilities, and eventually lays out his own thinking for the reader. You may or may not agree with his conclusions, but masterful way of enumerating all the possibilities should not be missed.


In History:

Fall of Ice - On September 2, 1958, in Madison Township, New Jersey, a seventy pound block of ice fell through roof of Dominick Bacigalupo's house, through the ceiling of the kitchen, onto the floor where it broke up in three pieces. There were no storms in the area at the time and the meteorology department of a nearby University said atmospheric conditions could have not created the block. Aviation officials claimed the planes in the area could not have been responsible for the fall, either. The cause to this day remains unknown.


In the Sky:

Bye, Bye Rings - Say goodbye to Saturn's rings. Those of you with small telescopes may have been noticing that Saturn's rings have been shrinking as they turn more and more edge on toward Earth. On September 4th they will disappear completely. Unfortunately because Saturn's close position to the sun, you won't be able to see a ring-less Saturn. As the mouth progresses though, Saturn will become more visible. The rings will return slowly, though we will be seeing their northern face rather than their southern face.



Florida Muck Monster - People in West Palm Beach, Florida, are trying to figure out what species a mysterious creature that had been seen lurking under the surface of the Lake Worth Lagoon is. The creature, dubbed the "The elusive muck monster" by workers of LagoonKeepers, leaves a wake, but doesn't break the the surface of the water. According to a report by WPTV news Thomas Reinert, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Marine Biologist, examined video taken by LagoonKeepers and said: "This appears to be one animal moving in this direction…nothing's breaking the surface. Typically dolphins break the surface, sea turtles, manatee, a large school of fish, if it were a shark at that level you would see a fin." Greg Reynolds of LagoonKeepers joked "Maybe Nessie's vacationing in South Florida!"


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Is There Life on Mars? - The decades-long search for life on the Red Planet heats up with the discovery of frozen water. On PBS. Tuesday, September 1 at 8 pm ET/PT.

NOVA: Mystery of the Megavolcano - Researchers unearth clues to the greatest volcanic eruption of the last 100,000 years. On PBS. Tuesday, September 8 at 8 pm ET/PT.

Supermassive Black Holes - Scientists have discovered something even more powerful than black holes - supermassive black holes. Far from being agents of destruction, these giant black holes are now believed to be the seeds from which all galaxies grow On The Science Channel. Sep 01, 9:00 pm; Sep 02, 12:00 am; Sep 02, 4:00 pm; Sep 03, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

Starship Orion: The Future of Space Travel - NASA has taken the lead in designing Orion, the new space exploration vehicle. Orion will take humans back to the moon, go on to Mars and beyond. On The Science Channel. Sep 08, 9:00 pm; Sep 09, 12:00 am; Sep 09, 4:00 pm; Sep 10, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

Search for Second Earth - Two teams of planet hunters are leading the hunt for another Earth. 209 exoplanets so far found outside of our solarsystem have be explored, but none have turned out to be capable of supporting life. That's all about to change. On The Science Channel. Sep 04, 4:00 pm; Sep 08, 10:00 pm; Sep 09, 1:00 am; Sep 09, 5:00 pm; Sep 10, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

That's Impossible Episode: Death Rays & Energy Weapons - Everyone is familiar with the amazing force field and energy weapons from sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek, but are we just a few years away from having that technology at our fingertips? We'll investigate new, top-secret military weaponry and recent inventions like a new airplane mounted laser cannons from Northrop Grumman that can shoot down enemy planes and shoot nuclear missiles out of the sky. On The History Channel. Tuesday, September 01 08:00 PM; Wednesday, September 02 12:00 AM; ET/PT.

The Universe : The Day the Moon Was Gone - Without the moon, Earth would be a very different and desolate place today--four hours of sunlight with pitch-black nights, steady 100-mph winds spawning giant hurricanes that last for months, and virtually no complex life forms, much less humans. Safe to say, we probably owe our very existence to the moon. But what if it suddenly disappeared? Solar gravity redirects ocean water that floods coastal spots around the globe. Sea currents shift, resulting in freakish weather patterns. Eventually, earth's axis begins fluctuating wildly and climate change grows more extreme. The poles are tropical jungles and parts of the equator become frigid wastelands. Human evolution starts churning in unpredictable ways or ends completely. Without the moon, the Earth is a very different place. On The History Channel. Tuesday September 08 08:00 PM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2009. All Rights Reserved.


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