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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

October 2013

In the News:

Black Hole Eats Less Than Was Originally Thought - According to a new study published in the journal Science the massive black hole at the center of our galaxy spits out more matter than it sucks in. Using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to take X-ray images, researchers showed that for 1 percent of matter pulled into the massive black hole at Sagittarius A, 99 percent escapes. This effect has puzzled scientists as quasars - galaxies from the early universe with massive central black holes - radiate massive amounts of energy suggesting they are sucking huge amounts of gas. The scientists think that the colder gas that was floating around in the early universe was easier for black holes to capture. The gas around Sagittarius A is hotter and more energetic allowing most of it to get away. Scientists find this important as Q. Daniel Wang, astrophysicist at the University of Massachusetts and an author on the study states, "Understanding how the black hole grows with time and how the black hole ejects matter and energy back into the galaxy has strong implications for understanding how galaxies form and evolve. That, of course, directly affects how stars form and evolve."

Nuclear Accident Nearly Obliterates U.S. City - On January 23rd, 1961, the U.S. Air Force nearly nuked Goldsboro, North Carolina, with a four megaton H-bomb: 250 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. This report comes from a secret declassified document published in the Guardian last month. According to the document the incident occurred when a B-52, carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs broke up during a routine flight. In one of the bombs the safety mechanisms failed and only a single low voltage switch prevented detonation and untold disaster. According to the article had the bomb detonated the result would have been lethal fallout deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as even as far north as New York City. Analyst Parker F Jones, who looked at the incident for the Air Force reported that three of the bombs four safety systems failed "The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52," he concluded. The document on the incident came to light after a freedom of information act request by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser.

Mystery of Israeli Sphinx - Archeologists digging at Tel Hazor in northern Israel have uncovered an Egyptian sphinx statue. The hieroglyphs inscribed on it credits it to King Mycerinus, a pharaoh who ruled in 2500 BC and was responsible for building one of the pyramids at Giza. The sphinx statue is the tenth statue of Egyptian origin to have been found in the Israel site. Archeologists aren't sure why they are there, but speculate that they may have been a good will gesture to the king of Hazor, a Canaan settlement 4,000 years ago. "Maybe this was a gift which the Egyptian king sent to the local king of Hazor. Maybe. To prove it? Impossible," noted Amnon Ben-Tor, the director of the excavation and a professor at Hebrew University, which sponsors the archeological dig.

Voyager Definitely in Interstellar Space - Voyager 1, that plucky little space probe launched to explore the outer solar system in 1977, passed into interstellar space on August 25th, 2012. Scientists had suspected this from earlier readings, but weren't able to confirm it until particles from a solar flare caught up with the probe. The edge of interstellar space is defined as the place where the million-mile-per-hour "solar wind" of particles gives way to the cooler, denser interstellar space, saturated by charged particles from around the galaxy. Counter-intuitively this space beyond the boundary, called the heliopause, is denser with particles - around 80,000 particles per cubic meter - than areas before the boundary, with can run as low as 1,000 particles per square meter. The heliopause is about 11.3 billion miles from the sun according to the probe's instruments. NASA expects Voyager I may be able to continue to report back to Earth until about 2025, when its power will finally give out.

Leaping Lizards! New Species Discovered in California - Ever hear of the yellow-bellied legless lizard named A. stebbinsi? No? That's because it, along with three other new species of legless lizard in California have just been officially discovered. One of the discovers, Theodore Papenfuss, a herpetologist with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, noted, "This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California." The species A. stebbinsi lives in a very restricted area in the dunes west of Los Angeles International Airport. Another of the newly discovered species was found among oil derricks in the San Joaquin Valley, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. The four newly found types bring to a total of five the number of known legless lizard species in California. How do you tell a legless lizard from a snake? Watch the eyes. Snakes don't blink, lizards do.

New Big Hairy Spider - According to the British Tarantula Society Journal a new, large, hairy spider has been documented in northern Sri Lanka. While the new spider, Poecilotheria rajaei, with an 8 inch leg span isn't quite as big as its South American cousin, the 12 inch Goliath bird-eater, they are both a type of tarantula. P. rajaei has an unusual color schemed which differentiates it from similar species: bright yellow and grey markings on its legs and underside, as well as a pink abdominal band. The spider was documented by Ranil Nanayakkara, co-founder of Sri Lanka's Biodiversity Education and Research. He'd been looking for a live specimen since he been shown a dead example in 2009. According to Nanayakkara "They are quite rare. They prefer well-established old trees, but due to deforestation, the number have dwindled and due to lack of suitable habitat, they enter old buildings."


Science Quote of the Month - "The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance - the idea that anything is possible." - Ray Bradbury


What's New at the Museum:

Monster Movie Studio - Get a back stage pass to the Museum's back lot to see how, and also why, monster movies, have been made. - Full Story

Tangled Roots: The True Story of Halloween - Get the history of this scary holiday! - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

The Shape of the Universe - Sir Stephen Hawking once said that if one stands long enough at one spot, he can see the back of his head, due to the curvature of space/time. Of course, this will take billions of years. By the same token, now that Voyager has left our solar system, will it ever come back to Earth having circumnavigated the universe, assuming all things remain equal? - Nanshir

I looked for this quote from Hawking and I haven't found it. However, this type of example has been used by many cosmologists when they are trying to describe the shape of the universe, so it's perfectly believable that Hawking might have used it too.

In this scenario, called a closed universe, the universe curves back on itself like a big sphere. It is said that if you stand somewhere long enough (and with a powerful enough telescope) you could peer deep into space and see you backside (provide you waited long enough). By the same token the voyager spacecraft would eventual comeback to Earth again in some very, very distant future by circumnavigating the universe. (Imagine and ant walking across a basketball. The ant is voyager and the universe is the basketball).

While this example is great tool for college professors to explain the shape of a closed universe to astronomy 101 students, it would never actually work. The most obvious problem is that even if we are in a closed universe, it is expanding and has been ever since the big bang. The furthest parts of the universe are actually moving away from us faster than the speed of light. So if you were standing there looking for the back of your head through a telescope you would never see yourself because the light that bounced off of you carrying your image can never catch up the with the expanding universe (Imaging an ant trying to walk around a huge, rapidly expanding balloon. He can't do it because the balloon expands much faster than he can walk).

Since voyager is going way slower than the speed of light, it hasn't got a chance of actually returning to us through by this method either.

The closed universe, however, is just one of the possible shapes the universe can have. Much of the current evidence actually favors a flat universe, like the top of a table.

Some recent data from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, however, suggests the universe might actually be saddle-shaped. (This might seem like a really odd shape for a universe, but it permits the points along the outer edges to be as distant from each other as possible).

The WMAP was designed to investigate the Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR) left over from the big bang. The CBR can be detected at every direction in space and it was thought to be very uniform. However, WMAP measurements have shown the CBR to be just slightly colder in one direction than another. This might suggest that the universe is indeed saddle-shaped (Another theory is, however, that the difference might have been caused by another universe bumping into ours).

So the question of the shape of the universe isn't really settled yet. One thing we can be sure, however, is that we won't see voyager coming back to us anytime in the near future (unless it is carried by a humongous alien probe like in the 1979 film Star Trek the Motion Picture).

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


In History:

Faster than Sound - On October 14th of 1947, USAF test pilot Charles "Chuck" Yeager flew the experimental rocket plane, the Bell X-1, past the speed of sound. The X-1, which Yeager nicked named "Glamorous Glennis" after his wife, was the first aircraft to exceed that milestone and went as fast as Mach 1.06 during the test.


In the Sky:

Moon a Problem for Meteor Shower - The Orionids, shooting stars appearing to come from the Constellation Orion, will be visible on the night of October 21st. Those attempting to view the shower will have to contend with almost full moon white will cause a glare that will make it hard to see all but brightest meteors.



Little Painting Turns Out to Be Worth Big Bucks - When Robert, Darvell Jr. got a small painting that his Dad had bought in a box of other items for $46 (30) he probably didn't think was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it was. The painting, bought ten years previously, turned out to be by British artist John Constable. It had never been on public display before and is estimated to be worth around $390,000 (250,000). Darvell's father bought the box and its contents in Canterbury, southern England. The picture, which researchers think Constable painted for his father-in-law, isn't much bigger than a standard postcard. Expert Curtis Dowling from British TV show 'Treasure Detectives' spend a year analyzing the paint, canvas and signature track down the history of the artwork. "Rob certainly didn't expect a miracle," said Dowling. "There are so many convincing forged paintings out there that people would first assume it is fake." The now authenticated painting is locked in safely in a bank vault. Darvell is looking into the possibility of having it restored and put on public display.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Making Stuff: Faster - Host David Pogue tries to find out if there are physical limits to how fast we can go. On PBS October 16 at 9 PM ET/PT

Nova: Making Stuff: Wilder - Host David Pogue travels the globe to explore new technologies inspired by nature. On PBS October 23 at 9 PM ET/PT

Nova: Making Stuff: Colder - Host David Pogue asks if cold holds the key to technology that can improve our lives. On PBS October 30 at 9 PM ET/PT

Alien Autopsy - In the summer of 1947, something definitely crashed just outside of the town of Roswell, New Mexico. Was it a flying disk, as originally reported by The Roswell Army Air Field, or as later determined, a weather balloon? On the Science Channel: Oct. 2nd 10:00 PM; Oct. 3rd 1:00 AM; Oct 4th 5:00AM; ET/PT.

The Dinosaur Feather Mystery - How did feathers evolve? New archaeological discoveries lead a journey into the evolutionary history of some fascinating creatures: birds and dinosaurs. Explore the distinction between modern birds and their theropod ancestors. On the Science Channel: Oct. 3rd 8AM;Sept. 5th 12AM; ET/PT.

Swallowed by a Black Hole - In the heart of the Milky Way, 26000 light years away, a rare cataclysmic drama is about to unfold. A cloud of gas three times the size of our planet is travelling 1200 miles per hour right into a super-massive black hole. On the Science Channel: Oct 3rd 4PM 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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