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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

November 2010

In the News:

Is Your Pit-Bull Having an Out of Body Experience? - In his new book, Kevin Nelson, a professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, claims that some animals are capable of having spiritual experiences just like humans. "…it is still reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be the spiritual, then we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences." Nelson, author of "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain," points out that since something like an "out of body experience" is probably produced by brain's arousal system and many animals have that same system "there is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat, or primate's brain." The same thing may be true for near-death experiences where people believe they are traveling down a long tunnel. Nelson says the illusion "is caused by the eye's susceptibility to the low blood flow that occurs with fainting or cardiac arrest. As blood flow diminishes, vision fails peripherally first. There is no reason to believe that other animals are any different from us." He added, however, "What they make of the tunnel is another matter."

Dinosaurs Even Bigger Because of Cartilage - Dinosaurs may have been even taller than scientists originally thought according to a new study. "Most estimates of dinosaur height simply stack the limb elements on top of one another without accounting for the soft tissues that were once present in the living animal," said the study's lead author Casey Holliday. The researchers, by analyzing the cartilage present in ostriches and alligators and comparing them to fossilized limbs of different dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus, Brachiosaurus and Triceratops determined that size estimates are probably off by about 10%. They have used a "cartilage correction factor" to determine that while a Tyrannosaurus only gets a modest boost in size, large sauropods, such as Triceratops and Brachiosaurus, may gain a full foot in height. These animals, said Holliday,"had really, really thick cartilage caps -- thicker than 3 to 4 inches."

More Geoglyphs in Peru? - Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, assistant professor at the department of physics of Turin's Polytechnic University, believes she has spotted previously unknown giant geoglyphs in the area of Titicaca Lake in Peru. The Italian scientist used Google satellite maps and an image processing program she developed to find the shapes in the landscape. She believes that the shapes, representing birds, snakes and other animals, were built by Andean communities centuries ago. Peru's Nazca desert plain is already known for similar geoglyphs and lines. Some other scientists are skeptical of Sparavigna interpretations finding the identifications of particular symbols such as birds, snakes, etc. as not convincing. They suggest that the shapes are only an unintended result of earthworks used for farming and irrigation.

Neanderthals May Have Victims of Eruptions - A recent study suggests that Homo sapiens may have inherited the earth instead of Neanderthals because of the chance eruption of some volcanoes. About 40,000 years ago three massive volcanic eruptions devastated Neanderthals'' western Asian and European homelands. This may have caused their demise and allowed Homo sapiens to easily take over their territories according to a team led by archaeologist Liubov Golovanova of the ANO Laboratory of Prehistory in St. Petersburg, Russia. The study focuses on soil, pollen, animal bones and stone tools from a cave in Russia's Caucasus Mountains that was occupied by Neanderthals. Analyses of the soil in the cave found two types of volcanic ash suggesting two separate volcanic eruptions around 45,000 and 40,000 years ago. The pollen found in the cave suggests that conditions were very dry and cold at that time. The event may have created a "volcanic winter" that devastated ecology in the region and wreaked havoc on the Neanderthal population.

Modified Worms Produce Spider Silk - Scientists have modified silkworms to spin a new hybrid of silkworm silk and spider silk. Malcolm Fraser, a scientist from the University of Notre Dame and Randy Lewis from the University of Wyoming, developed the genetically modified silkworms in an effort to combine the silk spinning capacity of the worms with the strength of spider silk. Spiders use silk to build their webs, but do not produce enough for humans to economically turn it into cloth. The new hybrid silk can be produced by the worms in commercial quantities and is stronger and finer than silkworm silk, but not quite as strong as most spider silks. "It would definitely be stronger (than a normal silk shirt)," said Lewis. "But it wouldn't flow like silkworm silk does." The researchers are pleased with these early efforts, however, and hope to be able to tweak the process to make even stronger and softer silk. Some spiders, like Darwin's Bark Spider (Caerostris darwini), produces silk more than 10 times stronger than Kevlar, a fabric commonly found in bulletproof vests. A strong material like that if it could be produced in enough quantities would have a wide variety of applications.


Science Quote of the Month - "It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure." - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon - The city of Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar II, must have been a wonder to the ancient traveler's eyes. "In addition to its size," wrote Herodotus, a Greek historian in 450 BC, "Babylon surpasses in splendor any city in the known world." Strangely, however, one of the city's most spectacular sites is not even mentioned by Herodotus: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Our classic page updated. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

The Fate of the Young Duchess - I have recently been researching the Romanov family out of curiosity. I have heard the legends about Anastasia or one of the other children surviving. I was wondering if it was likely that a Romanov child really did escape the firing squad. Thank you! - Kelsey

Anastaisa at age five in 1906.

What happened to Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, was a mystery through much of the 20th century. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne on March 15, 1917 after a series of governing missteps threw the country into chaos. Nicholas' family - his wife Alexandra, daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie, Anastasia and son Tsarevich along with several personal servants - was moved for safety by the provisional government to a residence in the Ural mountains. In October of 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power and imprisoned the family over several months in different locations. In April of 1918 they were moved to a house in the city of Yekaterinburg. At 2 AM on July 17, they were awoken and told to get their things as they were being moved to a new location. The family and servants were taken to the building's basement, where the Bolsheviks, fearing that the White Army (which was loyal to the throne) would soon take the city, had them executed by gunfire and bayonets.

Anastasia had just turned 17 at the time. She was by all accounts a vivacious and energetic girl with blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair. Growing up she was given to pranks and misbehavior and according to one source "undoubtedly held the record for punishable deeds in her family, for in naughtiness she was a true genius." During World War I she was too young to serve as a nurse, but with her sister Maria visited the nearby military hospital and played games of checkers and billiards with the injured to lift their spirits. One soldier who knew her noted that she had a "laugh like a squirrel."

It isn't clear how the rumor that Anastasia and possibly other members of the family, survived the execution started, but it may have been a result of the Bolsheviks trying to cover up the murders. Since the princesses were of German blood, the German government sent telegrams to Russia demanding their safety. Since this was several days after the murders the demand was too late to save their lives. The Russians, not wanting to upset the Germans, with whom they had just signed a peace treaty, did not acknowledge the executions, but told them that the girls had been moved.

Over the next few decades as many as ten women came forward and claimed they were Anastasia. The most famous of these was Anna Anderson, who said she had faked death by lying still among the bodies of her family and was rescued later by a sympathetic guard. She fought a legal battle with the German government for recognition from 1938 to 1970, but was never accepted as the missing woman. Though Anderson was cremated after her death, in 1994 DNA was obtained from a tissue sample gathered during a hospital stay and compared to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, a known Anastasia relation. The results clearly proved that Anderson was not the missing Duchess.

In the early 1980's the graves of the family were found, but kept secret until after the fall of the Soviet government. The find was officially announced in 1991, but the grave was missing two bodies: That of the son, Tsarevich and one of the sisters, either Maria or Anastasia. This gave hope that perhaps the story of an escape from the execution was true. However, in August of 2007 a Russian archaeologist discovered two burned skeletons at a bonfire site near Yekaterinburg. They were the right age to be Tsarevich and the missing sister. This was later confirmed by DNA, though scientists still disagree on whether the body at the bonfire site was Maria or Anastasia.

This discovery matches records that had been locked away for most of the history of the Soviet Union. A report by Yakov Yurovsky, who was in charge of the execution, to his superiors indicated that all the family and servants were killed that night. Initially the bodies were dumped down a mineshaft, but when rumors started to spread about that as a possible burial location, Yurovsky said that he had the bodies moved and finally buried at a site 12 miles outside the city. Later two of the bodies were removed and destroyed in a bonfire. This was done so that if the burial site was found, the remains there would not match the expected number of bodies leaving some doubt as to whether it really was the Romanov family.

The mystery has finally been solved and the bodies of all four daughters, the former Tsar and his wife and son have been accounted for and confirmed by DNA testing. As much as the story of the young princess escaping death may engaged our imaginations over the years, history has spoken and her life, along with that of her family, was cruelly ended on that cold morning in 1918.

In History:

Rain of Rocks - In November of 1921 the owner of a grain warehouse in Chico, California noted that rocks were falling out of the sky and hitting his building. It seemed like a harmless prank until several months later when the amount and size of the stones increased damaging parts of the structure. According to a local newspaper "Fire Chief C. E. Tovee and Traffic Officer J.J. Corbett had the scare of their lives while prowling about the Charge warehouse in an endeavor to sight the direction from which the rocks come. They had just approached the south end of the warehouse and were looking skyward when a fair-sized boulder struck the wooden wall above them with a mighty force and rebounded to the ground at their feet, leaving a dent where it had struck the timber." At least one investigator noted that the stones seem to fall directly down from the sky. By the end of March the rain of stones ceased and was never explained.


In the Sky:

Mars and Mercury Come Close - This will be a bit of a challenge, but on November 20, if you look hard, you will have a chance to see Mars and Mercury, the 4th and 1st planets in our solar system, in a close encounter. They won't be that close in actual distance, but they will appear close as viewed in the Earth's sky. You will need to have good view of the western horizon just at sunset. You should see two bright dots just for a few minutes before they set. The brighter one is Mercury and the dimmer one is Mars. In this conjunction they will be less than 2 degrees apart in the sky (The full moon is about ½ degree wide).



Titantic Sunk Because of Miscommunication? - A British writer and granddaughter of Charles Lightoller, the most senior officer to have survived the Titanic sinking, claims that the ship's fate was caused by a misinterpretation of orders. Louise Patten in her new book "Good as Gold" states that her grandfather told her grandmother that the helmsman of the Titantic turned the ship the wrong direction when the iceberg was sighted. At the time there were two different steering command systems in place. One for sailing ships and the other for steamships. A command to turn the ship would resulted in opposite movement of the ship's wheel under each of the systems. The First Officer 's "hard a-starboard" order was wrongly interpreted by the Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, who was at the wheel. In panic he followed the sailing ship procedure instead of the steamship procedure, accidently turning the ship into the iceberg. Lightoller kept quiet about the error fearing that if the facts became public the White Star Line would be sued and many of the employees would lose their jobs. Other experts doubt the story, noting that the man at the helm, Hitchins, was very experienced and had been on duty steering the ship for a number of days before the accident.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Secrets of Stonehenge - New archeological finds shed light on the most misunderstood monument of the ancient world. On PBS: November 16 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Nova:Quest for Solomon's Mines - Archeologists seek the truth about the Bible's most famous king and his legendary riches. On PBS: November 23 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Engineering the Impossible - A team of experts probes the mysteries of the Roman Colosseum, the world?s most infamous arena, and perhaps the most elaborate death machine ever devised. On the Discovery Channel: Nov 13, 8:00 pm; Nov 13, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Sci Fi Science: Holodeck - Dr. Michio Kaku believes we can build one of sci-fi's most imaginative creations: Star Trek's Holodeck. He's on a mission to create an imaginary world indistinguishable from the real thing. On the Science Channel: Nov 03, 10:00 pm; Nov 04, 1:00 am; Nov 05, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Moon for Sale - As the world's space powers gear up for what's been dubbed the 'second moon race', there's another, parallel, race to cash in on its resources and potential. Take an off-beat look at Russian, Chinese and American plans to return to the moon by 2020. On the Science Channel: Nov 08, 8:00 pm; Nov 08, 11:00 pm; Nov 10, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

The Apocalypse Code - Sir Isaac Newton is one of the greatest geniuses in history, but few know that he also predicted a shocking new date of the Apocalypse. Though famous for discovering gravity, calculus, and the basic laws of universal motion, Newton possessed a very dark and mysterious side. Thousands of his private papers, only recently made available, reveal a man secretly obsessed with alchemy and Biblical prophecy. On The History Channel: Nov.7 11:00PM; ET/PT.

Nazi Supership - Hitler's "unsinkable ship," the Bismarck, settled on the ocean floor after just nine days at sea. NGC investigates: Who really sank the Bismarck? On The National Geographic Channel: Oct 1st 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Snakes That Fly - Snakes don't just slither to survive - they fly. NGC tracks scientists who create a unique outdoor laboratory in the rain forest to capture 3-D images of snakes nearly bending the rules of nature. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov. 5 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Unlocking the Great Pyramid - A revolutionary theory that the Great Pyramid at Giza was built from the inside out. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov. 10 7:00 PM; ET/PT.

Lost Gold of the Dark Ages - Lost Gold of the Dark Ages chronicles the amazing story of how an amateur metal-detecting enthusiast discovered a gold hoard of more than 1,500 artifacts dating back a millennium, and valued at over $5 million. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov. 15 10:00 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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