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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

October 2010

In the News:

Tractor Beam for Bacteria? - Physicists at the Australian National University may have taken the first steps in building a working "Tractor Beam" as seen in the Star Trek TV and movies series. So far, the device can only move very tiny glass particles a few feet across a table top experiment, but it is a leap beyond such experiments in the past which could only manipulate items a hundred times smaller. The device uses a laser beam with a hollow core. The tiny glass particles float in the hollow section pushed toward the center by the laser-heated air. By putting lasers at either end of the "tube" created by the beam, a little bit of additional laser-light can be leaked into the center heating the air there and pushing the particles in one direction or another. While this technique probably won't be effective for moving spaceships like in the movies, it might be used for such jobs as manipulating dangerous microorganisms "hands free" in biomedical facilities.

Spider Makes Silk Stronger Than Kelvar - Scientists have discovered that a species of spider living in the jungles of Madagascar that uses a type of silk for its web that is stronger than the Kelvar used in bullet proof vests. Caerostris darwini, (Darwin's bark spider) is an inch-wide arachnid that can build webs that can cover as much as 30-square-feet and can be anchored in midair from 80-foot-long lines. These webs, which are the largest in the world, put a lot of strain on the lines so the spider has had to develop exceptionally strong silk. Such stresses are magnified even more by the struggles of trapped prey. According to University of Puerto Rico zoologist Igni Agnarsson in Public Library of Science, the silk must "absorb massive kinetic energy before breaking," and are "10 times better than Kevlar." Agnarsson and Slovenian Academy of Sciences biologist Matja˛ Kuntner discovered the spider in 2008. It is similar to Caerostris species found in Africa, but has evolved in its own direction since the island split from mainland Africa 165 million years ago.

Water May Give Moon Observatories Trouble - For a half-century scientists have speculated that the moon would be a perfect place to put large telescopes. After all, it has cloudless sky and a tiny amount seismic activity. The recent discovery of water on the moon's surface, however, may spell trouble for plans to locate observatories there. "Last year, scientists discovered a fine dew of water covering the moon," said astronomer Zhao Hua, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "This water vaporizes in sunlight and is then broken down by ultraviolet radiation, forming hydrogen and hydroxyl molecules." Scientists have found there are a lot more hydroxyl molecules floating around the moon than previously thought. Enough to possibly cause interference with any scopes located on the lunar surface. China is planning an unmanned moon lander equipped with a solar-powered ultraviolet telescope which will launch in 2013 and the hydroxyl molecules may contaminate observations at certain wavelengths.

Scientists Find Dinosaur with Feathers and Weird Shark-Like Fin - Scientists have found a new dinosaur with a weird fin on its back. Concavenator corcovatus, a theropod dinosaur, had a pair of vertebrae that were five times longer than all its others. This would have created a triangular fin which protruded midway along its back. "We've no idea what it is for," said Francisco Ortega of the National University of Distance Education in Madrid. Ortega and his team found the skeleton in Las Hoyas, Spain. Other species of theropods had head crests and sails on their backs which may have been used for display and some scientists speculate might be the case here. Ortega thinks that the bones may have supported a hump of fat that stored energy. The dinosaur may also have had bird-like feathers since its forearm bones have knob-like holes that could have held feather quills. If this is the case, it pushes back the emergence of theropods with bird-like feathers by about 50 million years.

Three "Lost" Amphibians are Found - Scientists have announced that three species of amphibians thought to be extinct for decades have been rediscovered. The creatures were found as a result of "The Search for the Lost Frogs" campaign by Conservation International and the Amphibious Specialty Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The effort was to see if 100 "missing" amphibian species were really extinct. Several specimens of the cave splayfoot salamander were found in caverns only accessible only via a pothole in Mexico's Hidalgo province. The Mount Nimba reed frog, which had not be seen since 1967 was found in a swampy field in the Ivory Coast. The Omaniundu reed frog hadn't been seen since 1979, but it was located in a flooded forest near a tributary to the Congo River. "These rediscovered animals are the lucky ones - many other species we have been looking for have probably gone for good," said Robin Moore, who organized the search.


Science Quote of the Month - "Whenever science makes a discovery, the devil grabs it while the angels are debating the best way to use it." ~Alan Valentine.


What's New at the Museum:

Notes from the Curator's Office: The Music of the Coils - Some great Halloween fun in a geeky, scientific and dangerous sort of way. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Dragon Vs. Drake - What is the difference between a dragon and a drake? - Anonymous

Let's first start by defining the word dragon. As most people might know it's a legendary creature with many reptilian characteristics. Dragons are often depicted covered in scales with a lizard-like or snake-like body. Sometimes they breath fire and the number of feet they can have vary from none to four or even more. Sometimes they are also shown as flying creatures with bat-like wings.

Dragons, or dragon-like creatures, have been found in folklore traditions around the world, though they often differ in many details. For example, dragons in the Chinese culture are depicted as good, wise, magical creatures with long snake-like bodies and no wings. This is very much different from the dragon pictured in European traditions. Dragons in the western countries are often shown as malevolent monsters happy to eat sheep, goats, children and the occasional maiden. European dragons also are often shown jealously guarding treasure.

The actual word dragon goes back to the ancient Greeks. The Greeks thought that snake and dragon-like creatures had sharp, penetrating vision so from a root word meaning sharp-eyed, they came up with the name drako (which referred to both dragons and large snakes). From The Greeks the Romans took the word and modified a bit to draco. As the Romans marched all over Europe they carried the word with them and in English it became drake and in French dragon.

So you see that the words in the beginning really had the same meaning. However, over time the word dragon became the more popular term and started to be used to refer to any creature from any tradition around the world that seemed to fit the bill. The term drake, however, still only refers to the European type maiden-eating-treasure-guarding version of the dragon.

In recent years authors compiling fictional bestiaries and people creating rules for role-playing games have given the term drake new meanings. For example, some define a drake as a dragon without wings, or as a young immature dragon. These are newly created definitions, however, and do not really represent the original meaning of the word.

Drake and dragon aren't the only terms used for these mythical beasts. The old German word wurm, originally meaning serpent, is used for dragons that appear in Germanic mythology. In old English this became the word wyrm and is used in the reference to the story of a wingless dragon in England called the Lambton Worm. The word wyvern also comes from this root and is often used to refer to a dragon with wings and only two legs.

Why are dragons legends found all over the world? When dinosaur (which look as much like a legendary dragon as any real animal could) bones were first discovered and revealed to be giant reptiles someone suggested that humans had some kind of racial memory of these creatures that was translated into the dragon legend. Dinosaurs, however, lived so many years before anything even remotely human was walking on the planet it seems unlikely we continue to have even an innate memory of them. It is more likely that the fossils themselves have inspired the creation of dragon tales as people stumbled across them over the centuries.

Another idea had been forwarded by anthropologist David E. Jones. Jones has suggested that humans have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats and birds of prey. His hypothesis is that mythical dragons combine all these features of these real animals and perhaps represent the worst of all our fears.


In History:

Spooky Rain - In October of 1886 in Aiken, South Carolina, rain fell from morning until late at night on two graves in the Aiken town cemetery. Rain was not seen anywhere else and there were no clouds in the sky. This strange event was witnessed by hundreds of observers and no explanation has ever been found.


In the Sky:

Jupiter's Month- The Orionid meteor shower, which peaks on the 21st, will be washed out by a nearly full moon. Instead use the end of the month as a good time to check out the planet Jupiter. By mid-October Venus will be invisible behind the sun and Mars will be difficult to see. This should make Jupiter stand out very clearly as the brightest object in the night sky. It is also the largest planet in our solar system and fifth out from the sun. If you have a small telescope, or very good binoculars you should be able to see some of the Jupiter's larger moons as they orbit the planet.



Mummies Can't Sign Consent Forms - Should King Tut have the same privacy rights as a living person can expect from doctors? This is an issue raised by anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann of the University of Zurich in a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics. "The human body, alive or dead, has a moral value," says Rühli, who works with mummies himself. According to Rühli no matter how old a body is, the benefits of research must be balanced against the potential rights and desires of the deceased individual. Sųren Holm, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, agrees, especially in cases where the individuals are identifiable. "In a certain sense these people still have a life," he observes. "We still talk about them. There are pieces of research that could affect their reputation." Rühli notes. "I try to treat mummies like patients. I don't like it if researchers make fun out of them, or show them to gruesome effect." Rühli thinks scientists should take personal responsibility for the rights of the remains. "If a researcher is planning to work on a mummy, I would like to see that he thinks about it."


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Building the Great Cathedrals - How did medieval engineers construct magnificent skyscrapers of glass and stone? On PBS: October 19 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Bad Universe: Alien Attack - Fearless junk science detractor Phil Plait explores what it would take for a deadly alien visitation to happen on Earth, as well as answer that age old question: Are we alone? On the Discovery Channel: Oct 06, 10:00 pm; Oct 07, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

Sci Fi Science: Destroy the Death Star - Dr. Michio Kaku brings physics to bear on the most iconic scene in sci fi and designs a star fighter that could blow up a moon-sized Death Star On the Science Channel: Oct 06, 10:00 pm; Oct 07, 1:00 am; Oct 08, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Dangerous, Rocket Ships 2010 - Hosted by Kari Byron from the Mythbusters, the premier event in high powered rocketry gathers 500 of the most fearless and hardcore of all amateur rocket builders from every corner of the country to Lucerne Valley, Ca. On the Science Channel: Oct 09, 10:00 pm; Oct 10, 1:00 am; Oct 11, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Alien Storms - From the chaos on the outer planets, to the broiling heat of earth's closest neighbor, radical weather is the norm in the solar system. We have extremes here on earth, but they pale in comparison to the fastest, wettest, and most brutal alien storms. On the Science Channel: Oct 10, 8:00 pm; Oct 10, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Closer Encounters - Reports of encounters with strange beings and sightings of mysterious objects in the sky have occurred throughout history. A 13th century historical book, Otia Imperialia, includes an account of a creature descending from a flying craft over Bristol, England. The log from Christopher Columbus' first voyage to America contains a report of strange lights in the sky. Medieval art pieces depict disc-shaped objects floating in the heavens. Sightings of flying cigar-shaped crafts were reported during the Black Plague. And there were even discussions of extraterrestrial life among America's Founding Fathers. Could these sightings, coming from every part of the world, from biblical times to present day, be evidence that aliens have been with us all along? On The History Channel: Oct 14, 9:00 pm; ET/PT.

Death by Dragon - At eight feet long and weighing 150 pounds, the Komodo dragon is the world's biggest lizard, lethal enough to kill with one bite. On The National Geographic Channel: Oct 1st 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Making History: Hitler - Go behind the scenes as three graphic designers accomplish high-tech movie techniques with modest home-made contraptions, and in doing so bring Adolf Hitler back from the grave. On The National Geographic Channel: Oct 5 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Into the Lost Crystal Caves - NGC goes inside one of the greatest natural marvels on the planet - a giant crystal cave described as Superman's fortress, with magnificent crystals up to 36 feet long and weighing 55 tons. On The National Geographic Channel: Oct 10 8:00 PM & 11:00 PM; Oct 14 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Explorer: Easter Island Underworld - A team of National Geographic explorers undertakes a groundbreaking expedition: to map a vast cave system that became the last refuge of the people who carved these iconic statues. On The National Geographic Channel: Oct 16 7:00 PM; 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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