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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2013

In the News:

Geyser Theory Proves True - Scientists examining photos from the Cassini space probe operating in the vicinity of Saturn believe they now understand the cause of geysers on the planet moon, Enceladus. Enceladus has a liquid ocean covered by a sheet of ice. At certain times huge geysers of liquid water shoot kilometers into its sky from the south pole. Planetary scientist Matthew Hedman of Cornell University and his colleagues have observed from photos that this activity is at its maximum when the moon is furthest in its orbit from its mother planet. This matches up well with a theory published by Terry Hurford of the Goddard Space Science Center in Maryland in 1977. Hurford believed that gravity from Saturn causes tidal forces inside the planet to crack open the ice near the south pole in a series of "tiger stripes." It is from these rifts that the geysers shoot.

Where's the (Artificial) Beef? - Back in August, London was the host to the unveiling of the first "cultured beef" hamburger. The meat in the dish, cooked up by celebrity chief Richard McGeown and sampled by two journalists, was entirely made by culturing cells from two cows in a lab. The cells were given the proper nutrients and grown into strings of muscle cells, then turned into a patty. The result, according to the tasters, was okay, but not spectacular. It wasn't juicy enough. This probably results from having no fat cells in the mix. The Maastricht University professor in charge of the experiment, Mark Post, will next try to add cultured fats cells to the subsequent patties he creates. While many people see cultured meat as a solution to a world where increasing livestock production has a large downside environmentally, it is unlikely that you will be able to sample a cultured beef hamburger in the near future. This patty cost over $330,000 to produce.

People Who Believe in Psychics Think they Have More Control Over their Lives - A recent study by scientists at The University of Queensland, School of Psychology, Brisbane, Australia, suggests that people who believe in psychics think that they have more control over their lives. In the study participants were asked to read articles that either supported scientific evidence for psychic prediction or denied it. They were then asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with those statements and indicate much control they felt they had over their lives and circumstances. Those that agreed with the existence of psychic abilities thought they had more control over their own lives than those that disagreed. According to the study , "If it is possible to predict what the future holds, then one can exert control. Having insight into what will happen in the future would therefore allow people to control their outcomes in a way that would guarantee personal success and survival."

T-Rex Definitely a Predator - For a while paleontologists have been debating if the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex was actually a predator or maybe just a scavenger that stole his meals from kills already made by other dinosaurs. The answer seems to have come in a new study reporting about a T-Rex tooth embedded in the fossilized tail of a plant eating dinosaur. "It's the Holy Grail for a paleontologist," said study co-author David Burnham, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas. "Not only was the tooth broken off, but the tail had healed around it. That means that Tyrannosaurus rex attacked that other dinosaur." The victim was a hadrosaur from the Cretaceous Period who apparently escaped with survivable injuries and was found fossilized in the Hell Creek formation in South Dakota. If the dinosaur had not survived to heal it could have been argued that the tooth was lost while the T-Rex was eating a dinosaur he had found already dead. "This is the first time we have physical evidence, and without physical evidence for predation, people always said, 'Oh yeah, T-rex could have been a scavenger,'" Burnham noted.

Wolves Help Bears at Yellowstone - A recent study has shown that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990's has actually paid off for the Grizzly bears. In the early 20th century officials pushed wolves out of the park under the unwise policy of "predator control." The result was that without the wolves to contain them, the number of elk increased they began over-browsing berry bushes. This was bad news for the bears which depended upon the berries for a significant portion of their diet. The reintroduction of wolves had reversed this trend and now scientists are finding a larger percentage of berries in bear spore. "Studies like this also point to the need for an ecologically effective number of wolves," said study co-author Robert Beschta, an OSU professor emeritus. "As we learn more about the cascading effects they have on ecosystems, the issue may be more than having just enough individual wolves so they can survive as a species. In some situations, we may wish to consider the numbers necessary to help control over-browsing, allow tree and shrub recovery, and restore ecosystem health."


Science Quote of the Month - "Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue." - Robert K. Merton


What's New at the Museum:

The World's Biggest Bugs - What's the biggest creepy crawly you can expect to find in you sleeping bag this Labor Day weekend on your camping trip? - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Life by Any Other Name... - In science fiction there are sentient, intelligent alien species: Many are air-breathers, but many more are methane-breathing or silicon-based creatures. Scientifically speaking, can there actually be methane-breathing and/or silicon creatures? - David

The first part of your question - "can there be methane-breathing creatures?" - is easy to answer: Yes. And we don't even need to leave the Earth to find them. They are called "methanophiles." One example of them is Methylococcus capsulatus, a bacteria that is often found in soils, landfills, sediments and peat bogs. This little critter was in the news a few years ago because it was the first methane breathing creature to get its genome sequenced. Scientists interested in biotechnology are quite intrigued with Methylococcus capsulatus as a possible mechanism to make useful products or services.

So it isn't inconceivable at all that somewhere out in space you might find creatures - maybe even intelligent ones - that breath methane. In fact, scientists analyzing data from the Cassini spacecraft that has been watching the Saturn moon Titan have suggested there may be methane involved life on its surface. Hydrogen and acetylene have been disappearing from the moon's atmosphere for no good reason. It may be that there is a microbe on the planet breathing in these compounds and breathing out methane.

The question of silicon based life, however, is a little more complicated. Currently all the life we know on Earth (including Methylococcus capsulatus) depends on organic molecules based on carbon. Carbon in many ways is a unique element. Its bonding versatility allows it to form itself into many molecules with differing structures - rings, long chains and multi-ring chains. It can also double-bond itself with some atoms. This allows it to make complex molecules which, in turn, make life possible.

Now, as you mentioned, science fiction stories often picture life that might be based on another element, usually silicon. (Probably the most famous of these is the original Star Trek episode "Devil in the Dark" in which a silicon based life form, called a Horta, finds itself at odds with Captain Kirk).

Silicon in many ways seems like a viable substitute for carbon. It's just below carbon on the periodic table. It can also form many interesting and complex molecules too. However, when we actually look for these we see few of these molecules formed in nature.

If we point our telescope towards the skies and use the observations of the spectra of light to see what elements are prevalent, we find a lot of carbon and not much silicon. Even more important, we can find a lot of complex organic (carbon-based) molecules that form naturally, but very few similar complex molecules based on silicon. This is because the processes that forms heavier elements in the heart of stars favors carbon over silicon. Also many of the structures that carbon so easily forms would be unstable if you had the silicon equivalent. While the largest silicon molecule observed in nature has only had six silicon atoms, there are molecules found in nature that can have thousands of carbon atoms.

Now this does not mean that some kind of silicon life might not be possible, just unlikely. If you could find the right environment, perhaps deep inside a planet with high pressures and temperatures, the possibility of silicon life forming might be much larger.

This raises and interesting idea. Could we make synthetic silicon life under the right conditions in a laboratory? So far this is science fiction, but who knows.

One final thought: Our computers use chips that are silicon based. While computers don't have biological cells, one could argue that if we ever make intelligent computers that can reproduce themselves, perhaps we have indeed created a form of silicon-based life!

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


In History:

First Computer "Debugging" - On September 9, 1947, Grace Hopper, a programmer on the primitive Harvard Mark II computer, and her associates found a moth wedged into Relay #70 on Panel F of the machine. They "debugged" the computer and got it running again while changing the lexicon for future computer users. Though the idea of an engineering problem being termed a "bug" was already in use, its application to computers was new. The log entry for that day has the poor moth taped onto the page and is labeled 'First actual case of a bug found'.


In the Sky:

Conjunction - On September 8th look for a conjunction to take place between the Moon and Venus. Venus and a thin crescent moon will be seen ony about half of a degree apart in the western sky.



Fake Documentary Draws Anger - Discovery Channel is taking a lot of heat for airing a fictional mockumentary on the possibility of giant pre-historic shark still being alive today during their annual shark week this August. The producers of Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives On suggested that the 60-foot monster shark, which was last seen 1.5 million years ago, is still around by using fake footage and false interviews to boost their case. Several months ago Discovery's sister channel, Animal Planet, got in the same boat by arguing the case for mermaids. Wil Wheaton, former star of Star Trek the Next Generation, and a self-declared nerd, complained, "Discovery Channel inspired an entire generation to "explore your world," and it is trusted to be truthful…There is nothing high quality or enlightening about deliberately misleading your audience."


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Ground Zero Supertower - Engineers race to complete 1 World Trade Center as they grapple with the final challenges. On PBS September 11 at 9 PM ET/PT

Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword - A modern-day swordsmith reverse engineers the ultimate weapon of the Middle Ages--a sword both prized and feared. On PBS September 25 at 9 PM ET/PT

America's Most Secret: Structures - This one hour special investigates America's most classified sites and their covert activities. We will explore deep inside our Government's most sensitive, top secret locations. On the Discovery Channel: Sept. 4th 8PM; Sept. 5th 1AM; ET/PT.

Bermuda Triangle: New Evidence - Could methane bubbles, rogue waves or lightning be responsible for the mysteries and conspiracy theories surrounding the Bermuda Triangle? Researchers turn to science to put these theories to the ultimate test. On the Discovery Channel: Sept. 4th 10PM;Sept. 5th 12AM; ET/PT.

If We Had No Moon - Examine what life would be like if a major space collision with the Earth had not created its moon. Each day would last four hours, winds would blow with hurricane force, and Earth would be shrouded in a dense, toxic atmosphere. On the Science Channel: Sept. 5th 3PM 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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