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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2010

In the News:

Pets Helped Make Modern Man - Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Penn State University says that without our animal friends, we'd still be living in trees ourselves. She argues that the uniquely human trait of taking in and employing animals has spurred on human tool-making and the use of language. These in turn have made humans successful. Shipman admits that primitive people taking in animals at first seems strange. "On the face of it, you are wasting your resources. So this is a very weird behavior," she notes. However, as man used his tools to become a predator he eventually took in animals who also knew how to help him hunt -- like wolves and other canines. Others animals like goats, cows and horses he domesticated to provid milk, hair, hides and meat. Shipman argues that managing or tracking all of these animals required technology, knowledge and ways to convey information boosting language and communications skills humans might otherwise never have gained.

Ligar Birth Brings Fine - A zoo owner in Taiwan is facing a $1,600 fine for allowing the breeding of Ligars - the hybrid offspring of a male lion and a female tiger. Two of the creatures were born at the World Snake King Education Farm, but one died shortly after birth. The breeding of these strange animals has been controversial with critics of the practice arguing that the animals are unnatural man-made creations with health problems caused by the crossbreeding. Ligars are the largest big cats in the world because their combination of genes seems to short-circuit natural growth limitations. The zoo owner claims he never intended to create ligars. "The pregnancy of the tigress caught me totally unprepared," said Huang Kuo-nan, owner of the animal farm. "The lion and the tigress have been kept in the same cage since they were cubs more than six years ago, and nothing happened." Even so he will still be fined for breeding wildlife without prior approval according to a Tainan county government agent. For more on hybrid animals see out page on the Humanzee.

Remains of John the Baptist Found? - Bulgarian archaeologists think they may have found the remains of the Biblical figure John the Baptist. They have unearthed a reliquary full of human remains at a 5th century monastery located on Sveti Ivan island, just off the coast of Bulgaria near the town of Sozopol. The container is marked with the date June 24th which is the day Christian's celebrate the birth of the biblical figure. When questioned about what the Church thinks of the find Fabrizio Bisconti, superintendent of the Vatican Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology announced that the commission "will wait until a more thorough study has been conducted, including anthropological analysis, before it will express an opinion on the finding." Skeptics of the find point out that in the middle-ages there was fierce competition between churches for early Christian relics and the bone fragments of a human skull, hand and tooth found inside the alabaster jar might well be forgeries.

One Hundred Dinosaurs in Central Park - Two scientists have calculated that up to 100 dinosaurs could comfortably live in a space the size of New York City's Central Park. James Farlow of Indiana-Purdue University along with Dan Coroian and John Foster have determined that a square kilometer of land could support "an upper limit of a few hundred animals across all taxa and size classes, and up to a few tens of individuals of large subadults and adults." To make their calculations the scientists looked at the theoretical energy needs of a given community of dinosaurs along with how the landscape could have met those needs. The researchers used data from the Morrison Formation in Utah, where numerous dinosaurs lived starting around 150 million years ago through the end of the Jurassic Period. What is still unknown, however, is whether these dinosaurs were cold-blooded or warm-blooded. The scientists made their estimate assuming cold-blooded creatures. If the animals were warm-blooded (like mammals) their energy needed would be significantly higher and the resulting population significantly lower.

"Lens" Increases Wind Power - Yuji Oyha, a professor at Kyushu University in Japan has come up with a novel proposal for a new type of wind turbine that is more efficient at producing power. Wind is considered to be an important to contributor to eco friendly "green power" so Oyha's invention - which looks like a giant bicycle rim that surrounds the turbine's turning fan blades- is a very welcome development. Oyha believes the rim, which he likens to the lens of a magnifying glass, can double or triple the efficiency of the turbine. So far the design is still conceptual and Oyha is looking for a partner who would be interested in developing them for the commercial market.

Science Quote of the Month - "Science is simply common sense at its best that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic. " ~ Thomas Henry Huxley, English biologist

What's New at the Museum:

The Mysterious Treasure of the Copper Scroll - The scroll labeled 3Q15 was an anomaly. It was unlike its companion manuscripts in almost every way. It was not made of leather or papyrus, but a sheet of almost pure copper. The contents were not literary or doctrinal in nature. It was simply a list with 64 entries that described where to find a unique and fabulous treasure of incalculable value. Not just an intellectual treasure, but one composed of gold and silver. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Holy Legends - I've heard several legends about the Holy Grail, and I was wondering if there's any evidence of an actual Holy Grail. If there is, that what can it do? Can it grant immortal life like in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?"

It seems likely that there was once a "Holy Grail." Despite some naysayers there seems to be good evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and a Passover supper attended by him and his disciples just before his crucifixion. It was at this dinner that the sacrament of communion was established using wine and bread. Wine certainly implies that a cup was used (though perhaps a larger communal one - more like a bowl - than we might normally think of a cup today).

After that, though, the story gets a very fuzzy. There is not much in the Bible about a Grail and there is no real significance attached to the cup in that holy set of scripture. Most of the legend of the Grail seems to be connected with an individual named Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a rich, follower of Jesus that took possession of his body after the crucifixion. With the help of another follower named Nicodemus, he prepared the body of Jesus to be placed in his own (Joseph's) tomb. During this process, the legend says that he used the grail to catch some of Jesus's blood.

However, the story about Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail doesn't appear in any document we know about until the Robert de Boron wrote his poem Joseph d'Arimathe around the 12th century. The poem says that Joseph was imprisoned for his burial of Jesus's body and the Grail sustained him during this period. He later left the middle-east and traveled to Britain taking the Grail with him. From the Boron story came a whole wealth of Grail fictional literature emerged having to do with King Arthur and his knights and their seach for the Grail.

Boron's poem was clearly a work of fiction, but later writers seem to have taken it at face value. In a history of Glastonbury Abbey written around 1350 AD claims were made that Joseph came to Britain bringing the cup with him and it was at the Abbey.

As for the remarkable powers of the cup, one of the earliest references to this seems to be in the story of The Fisher King written by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes around 1190 AD. Here the Grail seems to have the strange power to keep people alive with them only eating a small mass-wafer (like they would serve during the sacrament of Holy Communion) a day as long as it is served in the cup. However, the Grail clearly does not have the full healing powers in this story as is often described in later tales.

The power of the Holy Grail to heal and give eternal life might actually be connected with pagan stories that pre-dated Christianity in Europe. In many of these stories special lakes or pools had the power to grant eternal life if one drank or bathed in them (One version of this story is the Fountain of Youth). As the myths evolved the pool changed into a bowl (symbolic of a pool) and this legend was later probably mixed with the legend of the Grail when Christianity was brought to Europe.

The Grail story has also been mixed in with the history of the Knights Templar, a order of knights sworn to protect pilgrams to the holy land. In the story the Knights find the Grail and transport it back to Europe. There is no historical record to support this story however.

Another completely separate story has the Grail left in the house of St Mark where the Last Supper took place. Mark then takes it to Rome where it was used as the Papal Chalice until it was moved out of Rome in 3rd century during a period of persecution. From there it went to a Spanish soldier and onto Spanish monks who hid it during the Muslim occupation of Spain during the 6th century. For a while it was held in the treasury of several Spanish Kings until it was given to the Cathedral of Valencia, where it remains today.

So is the Holy Grail actually in a church in Valencia, Spain? Some people might think so. However, there are a number of bowls that are reputed to be "the one, true grail." Another contender for the title is Nanteos Cup. For many years the cup was kept at the Nanteos Mansion near Aberystwyth in Wales. Legend connects this bowl with the story of the Grail held at Glastonbury Abbey. According to the story, monks fleeing Thomas Cromwell's persecution took the cup with them. The monks were hidden by the Powells at Nanteos. When the last monk died the bowl was passed to the Lord Powell and kept by the family ever since. An recent examination of the cup by experts, however, revealed that it is typical of mazer bowls, a type of medieval vessel, probably created in the 14th century - far too recent to be the real Grail. However, there are stories that people have been healed after drinking from the vessel and the current owner of the cup, Fiona Mirylees, still sends water that has been in the cup to people with life threatening illnesses.

When the script was written for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade they combined many of these myths. Where is the real Grail? Well, I suspect that after the Last Supper everybody was so concerned with the events that followed that nobody bothered with the cup and it simply disappeared into the mists of history.


In History:

Apollo 11 Aliens - In September, 1969, the supermarket tabloid, National Bulletin, reported that during the first Apollo landing on the moon the previous July, astronauts had observed alien spaceships. According to the story NASA had managed to edit the radio transmissions so that the news media was unaware. The National Bulletin reported, however, that they had been slipped a copy of the tape before it got edited. A look into the story by Stuart Nixon of the National Investigations committee on Aerial Phenomena, however, revealed that the transcript of the tape contained many factual errors, and that the newspaper, when questioned, could not produce any supporting documentation including the original tape, or even the reporter who wrote the account.


In the Sky:

Shine on Harvest Moon - On September 23 be sure and catch the Harvest Moon. The Harvest Moon is the full moon which closest in time to the Autumn Equinox (the first day of Fall). The equinox this year will be on September 22 in North America and September 23 for most of the rest of the world. On that day the Sun will rise directly in the East and set directly in the West. The Harvest Moon usually glows an orange or yellow color when it rises because the seasonal tilt of the earth causes the moon to be seen through the maximum amount of atmosphere changing its shade.



A Star Hustler Dies - Star Hustler Jack Horkheimer died on August 20th at age 72. Horkheimer executive director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium and host of the popular and long running show Star Gazer (originally named Star Hustler) on PBS. The show ran for 31 seasons starting in 1972. The five minutes show, which guided viewers on significant astronomical events for the upcoming week sky, was initially run on PBS affiliated stations just before signoff, but later with 24-hours scheduling moved to spots between longer shows. The episodes opened up with Horkheimer appearing to be sitting on the rings of Saturn courtesy of a green screen while Isao Tomita's electronic rendition of Claude Debussy's Arabesque No. 1 was played. Horkheimer was known for his enthusiastic presentation and his opening line on the show "Greetings, greetings, fellow star gazers!" and, his signature closing line "Keep looking up!" His show introduced many people to the joy of star gazing and he will be sorely missed.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Astrospies - An elite corps of secret U.S. astronauts is trained to gather intelligence on the Soviets during the Cold War. (Encore event also available on Hulu.com) On PBS: October 5 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Earth: The Movie - A landmark feature film from the makers of Life and Planet Earth, Earth: the Movie captures the spectacle, wonder and majesty of our world, and the creatures - great and small - who inhabit it. On the Discovery Channel: Sep 12, 8:00 pm; Sep 12, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking:I s Time Travel Possible? - Hawking explores the world's favorite scientific 'what if?' warping the very fabric of time and space as he goes. From killing your grandfather to riding a black hole. On the Discovery Channel: Sep 11, 9:00 pm; Sep 12, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Invisible Worlds: Off the Scale - Our world is alive with creatures that we can't see, acting in ways that have more influence on humans than we might think. Using thermal imaging to see through vegetation, ultra-low-light color imaging helps us see in the dark. On the Discovery Channel: Sep 11, 10:00 pm; Sep 12, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

When Yellowstone Erupts - A super volcano lies beneath the beauty of Yellowstone Park. Scientists are challenged with predicting when the next super-eruption might take place and describing what will happen if this cataclysmic event occurs. On the Science Channel: Sep 02, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

Search for the Amazon Headshrinkers - NGC has exclusive U.S. access to 45-year-old archive footage captured by explorer Edmundo Bielawski, purportedly the only known footage that shows the process of an actual -- recently deceased -- human head being shrunk. On The National Geographic Channel: Sept 7th 9:00 PM; Sept 11th 10:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Truth Behind the Ark - As told in the Bible, Noah built an ark to hold two of all living creatures in preparation for a catastrophic flood. But what can science tell us about the ark? On The National Geographic Channel: Sept 18th 10:00 PM; ET/PT.

Nazi Secret Weapons - Just prior to the end of WWII, the German military secretly undertook a massive push to design miracle weapons - colossal tanks, the world's first guided missiles and long-range bombers that could attack New York On The National Geographic Channel: Sept 19th 8:00 PM; Sept 19th 11:00; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2010. All Rights Reserved.


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