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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

October 2012

In the News:

Canary Island Tsunami Not Such a Threat - New computer simulations of the volcanic Canary Island of La Palma suggest that a landslide there would not generate the horrific mega tsunamis that an earlier study predicted. A 2001 paper suggested that the volcano might dump 120 cubic miles of rock into the sea that would generate 80 foot high waves along the U.S. eastern seaboard as well as devastating parts of Europe and Africa's west coast. The new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research suggests that such a large landslide is unlikely. Researchers estimated that a Cumbra Vieja explosion won't cause massive collapse for at least 10,000 years when the volcano will have grown a half-mile taller with steeper slopes. The waves from smaller slides, involving 19 cubic miles of material, would not top 10 to 15 feet long the U.S shore. While the smaller slides don't seem to threaten the U.S., they could still do major damage to other locations, like the Canary Islands and parts of the west coast of Africa.

Dead Army Found in Bog - Experts continue an excavation in a Danish lake where they have uncovered the remains of 200 warriors apparently condemned to death because they lost a battle to an opposing army. The bodies, which have been slowly coming the surface of this peat bog near the town of Alken for the last century, have been extremely well preserved due to the low oxygen content in the lake. It is thought they died roughly 2,000 years ago about the time when Roman soldiers and Germanic tribes were in conflict. Archeologists believe that after losing the battle the warriors were captured and ritually sacrificed by their enemy, though they have few clues about who these people were. "We do not know whether they were local or foreign yet. That is one of the major questions we wish to try to answer with the investigations" said Mads Holst, an archaeology professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, who is helping direct the dig.

Is a Bit of a Psychopath a Good Thing in a President? - A recent study of presidential personality traits suggests that having a bit of a psychopath in you isn't necessary a bad thing. While most of the personality traits of a psychopath lead them to be failures (and end up in prison) one trait they have has been shared by our most successful presidents: fearless dominance. This trait makes people socially and physically bold, as well as emotionally resilient. Researchers took a database of historical presidential personalities and found the leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, who had a high level of fearless dominance did well at the job, while others with low fearless dominance, like Millard Fillmore, didn't fare as well. While a psychopath would not make a good president, certain personality traits they do have might give a leader an edge in certain situations. "Even though the psychopathic personality as a whole shebang is not a good thing to have, this study raises the interesting possibility that at least some traits of this condition -- especially those linked to lack of social and physical apprehensiveness, immunity to stress, and resilience -- might be adaptive in real-world settings." said Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist and lead author of the study.

Giant German Aircraft from WWII Found - Researchers have found the remains of a Messerschmitt 323 "Giant," transport aircraft used in World War II, submerged off the coast of Sardinia. The plane was the largest land-based transport flown by any of the countries involved in WWII. With six engines and a 181-foot wingspan it could carry 12 tons of material or troops - the equivalent of 120 fully equipped soldiers. The plane was slow and easy to shoot down so none of the 200 that were made survived the war. This makes the one found under 200 feet of water historically significant. This particular one was shot down on July 26, 1943 by a Beaufighter fighter. "The plane managed to moor before plunging into waters off the Maddalena islands. Some soldiers escaped on a raft, but most of the troops sank with the aircraft," wrote Cristina Freghieri, a diver and amateur historian who discovered the wreck. Freghieri identified the wreck and with her small team of Italian researchers photographed and explored it. "It was a pure emotional charge to suddenly see the airplane in the veiled blue of the sea. … in all its beauty. My heart skipped a beat," she said.

It Snows on Mars! - Scientists have known for a while that fields of dry ice - frozen carbon dioxide - accumulate on Mars during the winter season. But whether it accumulated like frost or fell from the sky, like snow, was a mystery. New evidence from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, however, shows that blizzards do occur on the Martian surface leaving an extra-terrestrial winter wonderland behind. The probe was able to watch clouds over the polar ice cap at oblique angles using MRO's Mars Climate Sounder instrument. The clouds were composed of carbon dioxide and showed particles extending all the way down to the surface. "These are the first definitive detections of carbon-dioxide snow clouds," said Paul Hayne of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "We firmly establish the clouds are composed of carbon dioxide -- flakes of Martian air -- and they are thick enough to result in snowfall accumulation at the surface."


Science Quote of the Month - "The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them." ~William Lawrence Bragg


What's New at the Museum:

Rise of the Zombies - Vampires have been popular figures in horror since Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897. The root of werewolf folklore can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Zombies, in their current form, however, have only shuffled their stiff-legged corpses onto the silver screen in the last few decades. Where did the zombie myth come from and why are they now so popular? >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Hole Through the Earth - If it were possible to shoot an unstoppable, elevator-sized cannonball vertically into the ground (let's say at the North Pole), it would speed all way out from South Pole. Good. So what if a man decides to make a quick trip to South Pole(from the North Pole) by way of jumping into the hole created, would he defy gravity by surfacing from South Pole's ice (probably continuing into space)? - Cheta Anuonye

Well let's start by saying that this scenario, having a tunnel go from the North Pole to the South Pole is a great thought experiment, but wouldn't really work in reality. Since the core of Earth is molten and semi- molten rock the tunnel that you made below a certain depth would quickly close up as the rock flowed back into position.

But let's say that this isn't a problem and you can actually build a shaft for a distance of 7926 miles from pole to pole, then you jump down into it. What would happen?

Well, of course you would start by falling. But let's back up and figure out why that occurs. The answer is that gravity pulls you downwards. But where does the gravity come from?

Gravity is a force in nature that pulls all matter together. It is the weakest of the basic forces in nature, but also the most tenacious. (If you doubt this, just think about what happens when you use a small magnet to pick up a paperclip. The magnet is tiny when compared to the Earth, yet the magnetic force it has overpowers the entire gravity force of the earth to pull the paperclip away from it. However, the magnetic force does not have the range of gravity and the magnet can only pick up the paperclip if they are very close together).

While you are reading this gravity is pulling your body toward the computer (or cell phone, or tablet depending on what you are using) while your body pulls the computer toward it. However with small objects like this the force of gravity is so low that you can't feel it. It takes a really big object (like planet earth) to create a significant gravity force. The amount of the force is directly the result the mass of the object, so since the moon is only 1/6 the mass of Earth, the gravity of the moon is only 1/6 what it is here on Earth (If you weigh 120 pounds here on Earth you would weight only 20 pounds on the moon).

So the mass of the Earth creates gravity. Let's say that you jump into your tunnel at the North Pole. You are pulled down toward the center of the Earth. As you got closer and closer to the center, however, more and more of the Earth's mass would be above you and less and less below you. The mass above you would start to pull you up, while the mass below continues to pull you down. When you found yourself at the exact center of the planet, with all the mass of it around you equally in all directions, the gravity would cancel out and you would be weightless.

However, by the time you reached the center of the Earth you would have so much speed you would go shooting right though the zero gravity section. As you continued on more and more of the Earth's mass would be behind you, slowing your speed down. Eventually you would stop before you reached the surface and reverse direction.

In fact you would be doomed to spend the rest of your life oscillating back and forth in the tunnel, losing a little speed to air friction as you made each trip until you eventually got stuck at the center of the planet in the zero gravity area.

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


In History:

Another Odd Rain Story from History - According to the Charlotte Chronicle of October 21, 1886, on a patch of ground between two trees in Charlotte, NC, every day for three weeks, between mid and late afternoon, whether the sky was cloudy or clear, it would rain. The phenomenon was seen by an observer from the U.S. Signal Corps, who also reported it to the Monthly Weather Review. Then as suddenly as the strange weather anomaly had started, it disappeared never to be observed again.


In the Sky:

October Meteor Shower - The Orionid meteor shower will peak before sun up on Saturday, October 20, and Sunday, October 21. The best time for viewing for this shower is between midnight and dawn. They will appear to becoming from the vicinity of the constellation Orion which will be in the southern sky.



Mammoth Clone Hopes Spring Eternal - Mammoth fur and bone marrow found by Russia's North-Eastern Federal University during a paleontological research trip to the northeastern province of Yakutia may allow scientists to clone a mammoth. Researchers have looked at this idea in the past without making much progress. The trouble is that while mammoth hair, which has been found before, has DNA that is great for analyzing characteristics about the species; current cloning technics require a living cell. The DNA from this cell could be used to replace the DNA from an elephant egg, and then the egg could be implanted in a female elephant for gestation. Scientists are hopeful that this new find, embedded in the permafrost, may yield that necessary living cell.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: Forensics on Trial - There is a startling gap between the glamorous television world of “CSI” and the gritty reality of the forensic crime lab. With few established scientific standards, no central oversight, and poor regulation of examiners, forensics in the U.S. is in a state of crisis. In "Forensics on Trial", NOVA investigates how modern forensics, including the analysis of fingerprints, bite marks, ballistics, hair, and tool marks, can send innocent men and women to prison—and sometimes even to death row. Shockingly, of more than 250 inmates exonerated by DNA testing over the last decade, more than 50 percent of the wrongful convictions stemmed from invalid or improperly handled forensic science. With the help of vivid recreations of actual trials and cases, NOVA will investigate today’s shaky state of crime science as well as cutting-edge solutions that could help investigators put the real criminals behind bars. On PBS: October 17th at 9pm; 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: October 10th at 9pm; ET/PT.

NOVA: Iceman Murder Mystery - He’s been dead for more than 5,000 years and poked, prodded, and probed by scientists for the last 20. Yet Ötzi the Iceman, the famous mummified corpse pulled from a glacier in the Italian Alps, continues to keep many secrets. Now, through an autopsy like none other, scientists will attempt to unravel mysteries about this ancient mummy, revealing not only the details of Ötzi’s death but also an entire way of life. How did people live during Ötzi’s time, the Copper Age? What did they eat? What diseases did they cope with? Join NOVA as we defrost the ultimate time capsule—the 5,000-year- old man. On PBS: October 24th at 9pm; ET/PT.

Winged Planet - Fly on the backs of birds and see our planet like never before. Witness extreme challenges, hard won rewards and behavior rarely seen from a bird's eye view. Then learn how the filmmakers took this incredible journey using state of the art techniques. On The Discovery Channel: Oct 06, 8:00 pm & 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Morgan Freeman's Through The Wormhole : Can We Resurrect the Dead? - What if death wasn't the end? Resurrecting bodies isn't enough. To truly live again, we must also resurrect our minds. Scientists are developing ways to digitally preserve the contents of our brains. We may rise again as software, embedded in new forms. On The Science Channel: Oct 01, 9:00 pm; Oct 02, 12:00 am; Oct 03, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

Dive to the Bottom of the World - The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has assembled a team of experienced scientists and engineers to explore the 'Challenger Deep' which lies in the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific. At 35,000 feet, it is the deepest place on Earth. On The Science Channel: Oct 05, 9:00 pm; Oct 06, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Seeing Black Holes - Follow the world's greatest scientists as they attempt to understand a phenomenon that Einstein believed could only exist on paper. We now know there are millions of black holes in our galaxy, and they are the scariest things we know least about. On The Science Channel: Oct 10, 9:00 pm; Oct 11, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

What really happened to Amelia Earhart? - What really happened to Amelia Earhart? Was she spying for America when her plane vanished over the Pacific? Was she captured? Could she have survived? On The National Geographic Channel: Oct 2nd 6PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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