Over the Edge
Roundup of Strange Science for the Month
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.
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.
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."
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,'"
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
Quote of the Month - "Most
institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution
of science makes skepticism a virtue." - Robert
New at the Museum:
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
Picture of the Month - What
is this this?
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
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
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!
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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'.
- 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
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
check local listing for area outside of North America.
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
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
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.
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;
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
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