MAVEN arrives at Mars. (Courtsey NASA)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


October 2014

In the News:

MAVEN Arrives Over Mars - Last month NASA's MAVEN space probe enter orbit around the planet Mars. The spacecraft, after a 10-month journey to the red planet, will be exploring the planet's upper atmosphere in hope of answering such questions as why Mars is so cold and dry. "Where did the water go? Where did the CO2 (carbon dioxide) go from that early environment?" wonders MAVEN's lead scientist Bruce Jakosky, with the University of Colorado. "It can go two places -- down in the crust or up to the top of the atmosphere where it can be lost to space." MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, will be measuring the atmosphere now looking for clues to what processes have been taking place on Mars for previous millions of years. "By looking today, we can understand the processes ... and extrapolate backwards in time," says Jakosky.

A Dinosaur that Feared Nothing - They keep finding bigger and bigger dinosaurs: In an article in Scientific Reports researchers described finding one of the largest land animals of all time. "Dreadnoughtus schrani was astoundingly huge," said Kenneth Lacovara, PhD, an associate professor in Drexel University's College of Arts and Sciences, whose team found the dinosaur's fossil skeleton in Argentina. "It weighed as much as a dozen African elephants or more than seven T. rex. Shockingly, skeletal evidence shows that when this 65-ton specimen died, it was not yet full grown. It is by far the best example we have of any of the most giant creatures to ever walk the planet." The Dreadnoughtus, which means "fears nothing" lived 77 million years ago and was 85 feet (26 m) long. It was one of a class of supersized sauropod dinosaurs (those with four legs, long tails and long necks) named the titanosaurs. The remains that Lacovara's team found is the one of the most complete set of titanosaur skeletons ever discovered with more than 45% of it bones recovered. Scientists think the herbivore had a huge appetite. "Every day is about taking in enough calories to nourish this house-sized body. I imagine their day consists largely of standing in one place," Lacovara said. "You have this 37-foot-long neck balanced by a 30-foot-long tail in the back. Without moving your legs, you have access to a giant feeding envelope of trees and fern leaves."

Close Asteroid Pass - On September 7th a 60 foot wide asteroid whizzed past our planet at less than one tenth the distance from Earth to the Moon. Though it missed, asteroids of similar size have done significant damage to our planet. One that entered the Earth's atmosphere over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk last year and exploded with the force of about 30 nuclear bombs in a blast that injured about 1,500 people. This rock, named 2014 RC, was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on August 31st. Although the asteroid was not visible to the naked eye as it swept by it, did give astronomers and scientists a chance to study it. NASA hopes someday to develop methods to divert dangerous asteroids away from our planet.

Lizard Study May Help Us Regrow Limbs - Researchers at Arizona State University have been studying lizards called green anoles trying to figure out how they manage to regrow lost limbs. The scientists have identified 326 genes used in the process. It turns out that 302 of them are very similar to those in mammals. The researchers think that because of this we may be able to switch on these genes to allow the regrowth of needed tissues in humans. The research isn't just applicable to limbs, however, but might allow the regrowth of the spinal cord which would restore movement to people with spinal cord injuries. Even if full regrowth of a limb is not possible, the research will be valuable in helping doctors come up with methods that will heal wounds more effectively.

Sugar Battery Outperforms Lithium - Scientists have demonstrated a sugar 'biobattery' that can convert chemical energy stored in sugar into electricity. "We are the first to demonstrate the complex oxidation of the biobattery's sugar, so we achieve a near-theoretical energy conversion yield that no one else has reported," said Y H Percival Zhang, chief science officer of Cell-Free BioInnovations (CFB) at Virginia Tech. While the idea of a sugar battery is not new, the group was the first to make one so efficient that it can store 15 times more energy and run for 10 times longer than a similarly-sized lithium-ion battery. In addition, the materials used such a battery are environmentally would be environmentally friendly and cheaper.


Science Quote of the Month - "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts." - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

Gozilla: Monster of Monsters - In 1954 Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was pondering the recent, accidental exposure of some fishermen to radiation from an American H-bomb test when suddenly he had an idea for a film. It would feature an aquatic, lizard-like creature grown to gigantic proportions by atomic radiation. His beloved skyscraper high creation would eventually be featured in over 30 films and be adorned by monster movie fans around the world. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

El Dorado and Lost Gold - I would like to know if there WERE any "Lost Cities of Gold", like the fabled El Dorado, ever discovered or if they were just tales the natives told to the better-equipped Spaniards to get rid of them. - David R.

Ironically the term "El Dorado" originally referred to not to a city, but to a man. Translated it means "the gilded one" and is the result of an ancient ritual done by a people that lived in the Andes mountains in what is now part of Colombia. The new king of this people as part of his coronation rites would dust himself in gold and head out into the middle of the local lake where he would throw gold and valuable jewels into the water to appease the god who lived there. This ritual ended before the Spanish arrived, but they were still fascinated by the story and somehow came to believe that if there was so much gold involved, it must mean there was a rich, golden city somewhere in the area. Somehow this city came to be called as El Dorado.

El Dorado spawned a lot of expeditions that cost a lot of lives. In 1617 Sir Walter Raleigh, the Englishman, though he knew where it was and mounted an expedition. Raleigh stayed at the base camp while he sent his son, Watt, into the jungle to look it. Unfortunately Watt's party found the Spanish instead of the city and in the resulting clash the younger Raleigh was killed. The father himself, heartbroken, returned to England where the King had him beheaded for making trouble with the Spanish.

So there is no truth to the El Dorado story. The Spanish did find the lake involved in the original tale, Lake Guatavita, and managed to drain part of it in 1545 and found gold pieces along the edge. Some people still think there maybe gold in its depths, but the government banned treasure hunters from hunting in lake in 1965.

El Dorado, however, was just one of the stories of enormous hoards of gold hidden in the new world. In North America the Spanish found themselves searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola. According to legend these towns were filled with gold and gems. The search had come to naught till 1539 when a Franciscan priest, Friar Marcos de Niza, reported to the authorities that he had seen one of the golden cities while wandering in what we now call New Mexico. He reported he had seen from a distance, but was afraid to approach as the Zuni Indian inhabitants might kill him.

In 1541 Francisco Vazquez de Coronado led and expedition into the area to find this city. Unfortunately he only located an unimpressive adobe pueblo that didn't seem to match the description given by the priest. The expedition was a financial disaster leaving its backers in heavy debt. Experts are divided on what exactly the priest saw, and whether he saw anything at all, but was just spinning a tall tale.

Finally there is the legend of the lost gold of the Incas. In this case it's not a city, but a cache fabulous treasures hidden deep in the mountains of central Ecuador that the native Americans manage to keep hidden from Spanish conquistadors. The story started in the 16th century with the Inca king Atahualpa. Atahualpa was captured by Spanish commander Francisco Pizarro, who held him for ransom. The agreed upon payment was a room full of gold. Pizarro, for some reason, however, had Atahualpa put to death before the final and largest payment was made. The story had it that the King's people instead buried the treasure in a secret mountain cave.

A half century after the king's death a Spaniard named Valverde supposedly became very wealthy after finding the hoard. In 1886 Barth Blake, a treasure hunter, also claimed he found the cave. "There are thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft, the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine," he wrote. According to the story Blake took as much as he could carry and headed back to civilization to raise money for a full expedition. Unfortunately he disappeared on a ship head to New York, perhaps thrown overboard, by those that stole the gold he had on him.

Of all these gold tales, probably the last one, the story of Atahualpa's ransom, has the most chance of being real. We know that the cashe actually existed, because Spanish records show that a large shipment was on its way from Ecuador when the king was executed. What happened to the gold, however, is an open question. Most scholars think that it was probably looted centuries ago, but there is no way of knowing for sure and some believe that a cave full of gold is still somewhere out there waiting to be found.

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In History:

First Home Nuc - This month in 1955 the the first domestic microwave oven was sold by the company Tappan. Though Raytheon demonstrated their "Radarange," earlier in 1947, it was designed for use in commercial kitchens, not homes. The Tappen unit, using technology licensed from Raytheon, was a 220-volt more compact wall-unit the size of a conventional oven with 500 or 800 watt power levels. Because of its high price ( $1,300) however, it wasn't a very popular product.


In the Sky:

Orionids in a Dark Sky - The night of October 20 - 21st will be your chance to see the Orionid meteor shower. This year appears promising for a good show as it will almost be a new moon and the sky will be dark. Watch for shooting stars seeming to radiate from the constellation Orion. The Orionids come from debris left by Comet Halley.



Optimistic and Pessimistic Canines - Just as some people are optimists and others are pessimists, researchers think dogs can show these same personality characteristics too. In a study just published journal PLOS One, scientists taught a number of dogs to associate one tone with a delicious bowl filled with milk and another tone with an uninteresting bowl of water. They then played a tone with halfway between the two and watched how the animals reacted. Those that were excited (hoping for a bowl of milk) were termed optimists and those with a more guarded reaction were pessimists. The scientists think knowing this difference in dog personalities might be helpful in selecting dogs for different jobs. "A pessimistic dog that avoids risks would be better as a guide dog while an optimistic, persistent dog would be more suited to detecting drugs or explosives," stated Dr. Melissa Starling, one of the researchers.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Building Pharaoh's Chariot - A team uncovers the advanced engineering behind an ancient Egyptian war machine. On PBS Oct. 1st at 9 pm ET/PT.

Nova: Why Planes Vanish - Can new technology prevent aircraft like Flight MH370 from disappearing without a trace? On PBS Oct. 8th at 9 pm ET/PT.

Nova: Ben Franklin's Balloons - Experts recreate the French's daring first manned flights, which Franklin had chronicled. On PBS Oct. 22nd at 9 pm ET/PT.

Lost Book of Nostradamus - In 1994, Italian journalist Enza Massa was at the Italian National Library in Rome when she stumbled upon an unusual find. It was a manuscript dating to 1629, titled: Nostradamus Vatinicia Code. Michel de Notredame, the author's name, was on the inside in indelible ink. The book contains cryptic and bizarre images along with over eighty watercolor paintings by the master visionary himself. Follow the investigative trail of how the manuscript was found in the archives and exactly how it got there. New insight is given into the life of Nostradamus and his relationship with Pope Urban VIII, who knew about this manuscript and in whose possession it was for many years.. On The History Channel: Oct. 6th at 9:00PM ET/PT.

Bigfoot: The New Evidence: Russian Bigfoot - The show travels to Russia, the world's largest country, to gather evidence on Russia's Bigfoot, the Almasty. In the south, they learn of Zana, the so called 'Neanderthal Wild Woman' of the late 1800s's, and takes samples from her descendants. On the National Channel: Oct 2nd 6:00 PM ET/PT.


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