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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

November 2011

In the News:

Study Suggests Uranus Was Wacked Twice - Scientists have always been puzzled about the strange tilt of Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun. It's a whopping 98 degrees off of the orbital plane (Earth is only 23 degrees off the plane). Scientists have long speculated that an ancient collision with an object twice the size of Earth might have caused the tilt. A single collision, however, can't explain how Uranus's moons also got knocked into nearly identical tilt as their mother planet. Now a new computer study show that a series of collisions with Earth-sized objects may be responsible. "The formation history of Uranus and Neptune is one of the most important open problems in planetary science," said lead author Alessandro Morbidelli, who works at the Observatory of Cote d'Azur in Nice, France. "Having shown that giant collisions had to happen frequently on these planets is an important piece of information on the way to understanding their origin." Other astronomers are skeptical of the idea as they see no place in the solar system for these multiple bodies to form.

Did a Kraken of the Ancient Seas Leave These Bones? - Paleontologist Mark McMenamin, of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, thinks that the death of nine school-bus-sized ichthyosaurs in an ancient sea now exposed in the Nevada desert maybe the work of a giant, 100 foot-long, extinct Kraken that lived about that about 215 million years ago. The way the fossils are laid out reminded McMenamin of an octopus midden. A midden is a pile of debris used by an octopus to hide the entrance of a den. McMenamin 's research shows the ichthyosaurs all died at different times eliminating the possibility that their deaths were part of a single catastrophe. He also believes that the water they died in was too deep for them simply have been stranded on a sandbar or tidal flat. Finally the fossils are laid out in a peculiar pattern "with individual pieces nesting in a fitted fashion as if they were part of a puzzle," according to McMenamin. He thinks that the giant Kraken, perhaps twice the size of a modern Giant Squid, might have killed the ichthyosaurs and then brought them back to its den for dinner. Other scientists are skeptical as there is no direct evidence for the kraken, except the mysterious death of the ichthyosaurs.

What Makes a Supervolcano Go Off? - For years scientists have wondered what makes a supervolcano erupt. Unlike their normal sized brethren these monster volcanoes, which can devastate a whole continent, don't seem to be triggered by an internal mechanism. Now a new study suggests that such eruptions are caused by what is happening over the volcano, not inside it. The theory is that as the magma chamber expands a huge dome of rock is created above the volcano. Eventually as the chamber swells the dome starts to thin and crack like "the top of baking bread as it expands", explained co-author Patricia Gregg, a post-doc at Oregon State University. When the cracks get deep enough the dome collapses and the pressure in the magma chamber, which has been building for tens of thousands of years is released in a titanic eruption. "Huge amounts of material are expelled, devastating the environment and creating a gas cloud that covers the globe for years," said Gregg. Fortunately such eruptions only occur once every 100,000 years or so.

Deep, Deep Worm - Belgian biologist Gaetan Borgonie has discovered a new species living in a rock fracture nearly a mile underground, in a gold mine in South Africa. "Halicephalobus mephisto," which is Greek for "he who loves not the light" is a nematode worm that thrives deeper in the earth than any other known animal. While single cell bacteria are known to inhabit the first miles of the Earth's crust in large numbers, more complex creatures were thought to only survive near the surface. Borgonie, along with Tullis Onstott of Princeton University, had a hunch this was wrong and used their own money to make a number of visits to the Beatrix gold mine. Borgonie was rewarded when one of his samples showed a nematode worm crawling across the slide. "She laid 12 eggs before dying," noted Borgonie.

Cyclops Shark for Real - The video of a one-eyed shark, looking more like a cartoon character than a real animal, went viral last month. Skeptics argued that it was just a hoax, but scientists from the Interdisciplinary Center of Marine Sciences in La Paz, Mexico, have studied the specimen and have determined it was a real 22-inch-long dusky shark fetus with a single, functioning eye that's on the front off its head. Apparently the shark was found in the womb of its mother when the female shark was caught by sport fishermen in the Gulf of California. All of the shark's siblings appeared normal. Since no adult shark has ever been caught with a single eye it seems likely that the abnormality is a huge disadvantage for a shark that is likely to lead to a short life.


Science Quote of the Month - "Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination." - John Dewey


What's New at the Museum:

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus - When King Mausolus died in 353 BC the queen decided to build him a tomb that would be a wonder of the world. She succeeded. >Full Story

The Grand Canyon - Despite being more than a mile to the bottom the Grand Canyon isn't the deepest gorge in the world, but it certainly is the most spectacular. The first in our series on natural wonders. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Without the Moon - My question is a hypothetical one: what if, for whatever reason, the moon would suddenly be gone? Would it gravely affect life on Earth? I understand life would probably not have started if it weren't for the tides caused by the Moon, but are humans still depending on tides, directly or indirectly? And what about the weather in a Moonless world? - Johan W.

As you noted, if Earth had never acquired the moon our planet would be very different place. In fact, it might not have intelligent life, or perhaps no life at all. The moon was created when a Mars-sized body struck the Earth about 30 million years ago after the Earth itself formed. This caused a huge amount of the Earth's crust to be blown into orbit. Eventually it coalesced into a single, large body that was an unusually large moon given the size of its mother planet. The fact that a large portion of Earth's crust found its way into orbit may be responsible for us having the multi-plate tectonics that have created our continents (Because the moon's gravitational forces help keep the Earth's guts warm and moving). Without continents we might find ourselves living on a "waterworld" with no land. This might not mean there wouldn't be any life, but without dry land fire and other technologies might not have developed limiting the expansion of civilization.

The sun would still give the oceans tides, but they would be weak. Without the moons helping to "mix" Earth's oceans life might not have appeared, or it might have developed much more slowly. Also the moon's tides have also been responsible for slowing the Earth's rotation. Without this we would probably have shorter days and typical wind speeds of over 200 mph.

So if there was not moon from the beginning, the Earth would look like a much different place. But suppose, as in your question, it just suddenly disappeared someday. Would we notice?

The changes would be more subtle, but still significant. The moons tides create moving stream of water in the oceans which can affect our weather. These tides carry much heat away from the equator and up towards the poles. Without them we would expect the lower latitudes to be much warmer, which might change weather patterns. For example, without the moon we might find that the Pacific Ocean's El Niņo winds might simply go away or change. We might also expect to see some rain-soaked lands turn into deserts or visa versa. Undoubtedly this would also affect storm patterns across the globe.

The gravity of the moon also causes the ocean levels to be higher near the equator, and lower toward the poles. If the moon suddenly vanished we would find coastlines changing as water moved from lower latitudes to higher ones. Your beach front condo might suddenly be miles from the ocean.

We might find a number of animals unhappy with the sudden loss of the moon. Many creatures along the shore are highly affected by tides and depend on them. A number of nocturnal creatures are adapted to operate on moonlight so we would probably see these die out to be replaced with other species adapted to just starlight.

Humans have also benefited from moonlight, but with our invention of electric lights the loss of lunar illumination, might only be a minor annoyance. Even in our modern world, however, certain human patterns, like conception, seem still to be linked to the phases of the moon. Perhaps these are just psychological, but they are still real.

Humans, of course, need to take into account the movement of tides in ship navigation, so without the moon, this would change. There is some technology now that uses tides to generate electricity (by driving turbines as water moves in and out of a bay) and these would become much less efficient if the weak tides associated with the sun were the only forces moving the ocean. The lack of large tides would also impact at least one popular sport and, as one scientist put it "The surfing would suck."

So we would see quite a few significant changes to the Earth's environment, with no moon, but they won't necessary be catastrophic. And course there is an upside: we wouldn't have to worry about werewolves.


In History:

Ball Lightning Bewilderment - In an article in the November of 1930 edition of Nature, British scientist Alexander Russell recounted his experience with the strange phenomenon of ball lightning. "Many years ago I saw two globes of lightning. They were reddish-yellow in color, and appeared to be rotating. One of them struck a building and burst with a loud report, causing the inhabitants to open the windows and look out to see what had happened, but as there was no trace of anything they looked bewildered. The other drifted slowly away."


In the Sky:

Leonid Meteor Shower - November gives us the Leonids meteor shower from the 15th to 20th. The shower will reach its peak on the 18th but the Moon will be in its Last Quarter causing some interference with viewing. Look for the meteors to appear from the constellation Leo.

Jupiter in Reverse - If you have been watching Jupiter notice that it appears to being going backwards in the sky this month. This illusion is called "retrograde motion" and is caused interaction of both Earth and Jupiter as they move along in their orbits. When the ancients believed that everything went around a motionless Earth, this effect was extremely hard to explain.



Blueberry Bagel Eating Bigfoots - A woman in rural Michigan claims she has a group of bigfoot creatures living around her house and that she has been feeding them, among other things, blueberry bagels. Robin Lynn Pfeifer, a 47-year-old resident of Newaygo County, north of Grand Rapids, discovered the creatures when her family moved onto a 10-acre rural property back in November 2009. She believes there is a group of ten of them in the area ranging in height from 6 to 9 feet with colors of black, beige and white. She says the look like humans, but with hairy coats and broad noses. Many are skeptical of Pfeifer claims observing that she has failed to produce any hard evidence such as photographs, samples of hair or scat.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos - Acclaimed physicist Brian Greene reveals a mind-boggling reality beneath the surface of our everyday world. On PBS: 11/2, 11/9, 11/16 and 11/23, at 9pm; ET/PT.

The Mentalists - Follow the top mental athletes on their quest to become the next World Memory Champion. Intense training and extraordinary abilities to memorize decks of cards and thousands of numbers lead them to the ultimate challenge, the World Memory Championship. On The Science Channel: Nov 11, 10:00 pm; Nov 12, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

Nefertiti: Mummy Queen Mystery - Nefertiti, the most famous and beautiful of Egyptian queens, disappeared without any mention of what became of her, or where her mummy ended up. Zahi Hawass will undertake a new investigation, using DNA testing and medical imaging to solve her mystery. On The Science Channel: Nov 04, 9:00 pm; Nov 05, 12:00 am; Nov 06, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

The Truth Behind: The Loch Ness Monster - For centuries, people have reported sightings of a strange creature lurking within the gloomy waters of Scotlands infamous Loch, but are these accounts true or are they just another myth or giant hoax? Despite years of investigation and countless eyewitness testimonies, the riddle of this legendary brute has continued. Now, dive into the depths of this controversy using a mix of science, eye witness testimony, zoology, and psychological testing. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov. 3 10:00 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. The importance of the discovery is comparable to finding Tut's treasure. To solve the mystery of where the gold came from, to whom it belonged and why it was buried, historians take us on a journey back into the Dark Ages. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov 7 08:00 PM &11:00 PM; ET/PT.

Hunt for the Giant Squid - With their enormous, unblinking eyes and massive tentacles, giant squid have been hailed as the holy grail of ocean exploration: no one has ever been able to film them. Now, investigators go on a hunt using specially developed 'starlight' cameras to penetrate the darkness of the oceans abyss in a quest to unravel the mysteries of these elusive creatures. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov 8 09:00 PM; ET/PT.

Salem: Unmasking the Devil - Was the most famous witch trial in the English-speaking world actually the result of a cynical plot and power play? This chilling possibility sends author and historian Katherine Howe back to the site of her ancestors execution during the Salem witch trials. The very latest clues unearthed may indicate that an embattled Puritan minister fomented fear and distrust to hold onto his congregation. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov 10 09:00 PM; ET/PT.



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Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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