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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

November 2012

In the News:

Giant Eye Identified - Experts have determined that a huge eyeball found by a Florida beachcomber belongs not to a giant squid, but a swordfish. The finder of the softball-sized eyeball reported it to police and it was taken to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for identification. Experts believe that because of its size, color and structure, the eyeball is from a swordfish that was hooked by a fisherman off the coast. Angular cuts around the eyeball suggest it was removed by a sharp knife, then probably thrown overboard washing up on the sands at Pompano Beach, Florida. Swordfish, which can grow up to a half-ton in size, are regularly found off the coast of Florida this time of year.

Sound Barrier Broken Again - Famed Pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight on October 14, 1947, repeated his performance in an F-15 on the 65th anniversary of this historic event. Yeager, 89, riding in the back seat, took the controls from the pilot over the Mojave Desert to follow the same course he had more than six decades ago, flying at a speed of Mach 1.3. "We had to keep it below Mach 1.4. If you want to go Mach 2, you start breaking glasses and cracking roofs," he laughed. Yeager then buzzed the control tower, at Nellis AFB. Yeager's original record breaking flight used an experimental rocket-propelled Bell X1 aircraft dropped from a B-29 bomber at an altitude of 45,000 feet.

Scientists Working on Star-Trek-Like Engine - University of Alabama-Huntsville engineers working with NASA, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are trying to build an "Impulse Engine" to drive a ship through space at unprecedented speeds. The terminology sounds like something out of the iconic series Star Trek, but the engine is real and will use fusion to generate the necessary power. "Star Trek fans love it, especially when we call the concept an impulse drive, which is what it is," laughed Ross Cortez, a Ph.D. candidate on the team. Even more strangely the fuel used by the engine is deuterium and Li6 (an isotope of the metal lithium) in a crystal structure which the scientists have named dilithium crystals just like the critical engine component of the fictional starship Enterprise. The design calls for a powerful magnetic field to squeeze the dilithium until the atoms fuse, releasing the energy needed to drive the ship forward. Though there are still many technical problems to solve before the fusion impulse engine becomes practical, researchers hope that it might be able to power a spaceship from Earth to Mars in just three months in 2030, when the two planets are only 51.4 million miles apart.

Planet Found with Four Suns - A pair of "citizen scientists" participating in the Yale-lead Planets Hunters program have discovered a new exo-planet. It is the first planet identified through the "crowd sourced" program that makes data from NASA's Kepler spacecraft available to the public. The planet wasn't just an ordinary one, either, but the first one found to have four suns. The planet, designated PH1, is thought to be a gas giant about the size of Neptune that orbits a pair stars once every 137 days. In turn the planet and the two central suns are orbited by another pair of stars. Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano, who discovered the planet lurking in the Kepler data, are amateur astronomers.

Marine Reptile had "Teeth that Would Make a T. Rex Whimper" - A new giant, marine reptile from the Jurassic-era ocean has been identified by scientists. Named Pliosaurus funkei, the creature was 40 feet (12 meters) in length and had a huge 6.5-foot-long (2 m) skull. It lived about 145 million years ago. Though remains of the creature were first found in Svalbard, Norway in 2006, it took a number of years of painstaking analysis to confirm that it was a previously unknown species. Scientists estimate that this fearsome predator had a bite about four times as powerful as Tyrannosaurus rex. "They were the top predators of the sea," said Patrick Druckenmiller, a paleontologist at the University of Alaska Museum. "They had teeth that would have made a T. rex whimper."


Science Quote of the Month - "It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young." ~ Konrad Lorenz


What's New at the Museum:

Flawed Beauty - In 1990 an international team of engineers, mathematicians, and historians met on the Azores Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Their task was to figure out how to save an 800-year-old historic building that was close to collapsing. The structure was then tilted by 5.5 degrees to one side. If something wasn't done soon, the world famous Leaning Tower of Pisa would come crashing to the ground. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Germ or Virus? - Is there a difference between a germ and a virus? - John

If we use the dictionary the pertinent definition for the word "germ" is "microorganism" (Especially a microorganism that causes illness). A microorganism is a microscopic, living organism often composed of one or just a few cells. Bacteria like Vibrio cholera, which causes Cholera would fall into this category. Also a fungus like Trichophyton rubrum, which causes athletes foot would also quality, as would a protozoa like the Entamoeba histolytica amoeba which causes a type of dysentery.

Cleary a virus is not exactly the same thing as germ which includes all these other types of organisms. However, you could argue that a virus, like a bacteria, or a protozoa is a type of germ.

So should a virus be considered a germ? There are certainly microscopic and many varieties of them can make us sick. But does a virus qualify as a microscopic living organism? Well, the problem is that not all scientists can agree that viruses are actually alive. Generally for something to be living in scientific terms it needs to have seven different properties. One of the most important of these properties is the ability to reproduce. All the microorganisms we named above, bacteria, fungus, protozoa (and a few we didn't list) can reproduce themselves. A virus can certainly reproduce too, but only by invading the body of a living host cell and stealing the use of its reproduction machinery.

For this reason the scientific community has gone back and forth on this issue whether viruses are alive for many years. Some scientists make the case for viruses being living things, others argue that they are not.

In the 19th century when viruses where first identified by scientists they figured that they must be the most diminutive members of the family of life. They clearly seemed to act like bacteria, but they were just much, much smaller.

It wasn't until 1935 that a researcher named Wendell M. Stanley was able to crystallize the tobacco mosaic virus and take a close look at it. Stanley realized that though the virus contained complex biochemicals it couldn't carry out the normal metabolic functions that most living organisms did. Since metabolism (which is the chemical reactions necessary to sustain life) is one of the seven qualities of a living organism, Stanley made the case the viruses were simply inert chemicals.

Not all scientists are comfortable with this however, and argue that viruses really span the region between the living and the non-living. Alone they are just packages of inert chemicals. When they enter a cell, however, suddenly they take on many of the characteristics of a living organism. A few researchers like to compare virus to vampires: like the legendary nosferatu viruses are dead, unless they use living cells and drain them of their energy.

So is a virus a germ? The truth is you can make the case that it is or it not depending on your whether you think viruses are alive.

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


In History:

The Horror of the Heights - In the November 1913 issue of the magazine The Strand, famed author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned a fictional story entitled The Horror of the Heights. In the story creatures that lived in the upper atmosphere attacked and killed pilots. The story expresses in fictional terms one of the early theories about UFOs: that they were creatures living in the sky. Though it is no longer considered a likely possibility, Conan Doyle's story reminds us of some of mankind early attempts to explain these mysterious "flying saucer" sightings.


In the Sky:

Leonid Meteor Shower - Between midnight and dawn on Saturday, November 17, should be the best time to view the Leonid meteor shower. The moon will set just after sunrise that night leaving dark skies that should make for good viewing. The shower is named after the constellation Leo the Lion where the shooting stars appear to come from.



Italian Scientists Get Jail for Failing to Predict Earthquake - Six scientists were sentenced six years in jail after they failed to predict an earthquake that flattened the Italian town of L'Aquila. The group was also fined $12 million. The 6.3 earthquake that occurred in 2009 killed 309 people and left 40,000 homeless. Only six days before the group of scientists had announced that the tremors that were shaking the town were probably decreasing the chances of a devastating quake as they were relieving stress in the earth's crust. Supporters of the scientists point out that earthquake prediction is not an exact science and the verdict is likely to discourage other scientists from sharing their expertise to the determent of the public.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Mystery of Easter Island - A team of scientists and volunteers test a theory on how the ancient stone statues were moved, using a 15-ton replica. On PBS: November 7, 2012 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Ultimate Mars Challenge - In its search for life beyond Earth, NASA employs a "sky crane" maneuver to land the Curiosity rover on Mars. November 14, 2012 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

America's Doomsday Plan - On Doomsday, what will the U.S. do to safeguard the President, the military and government officials? America's Doomsday Plan goes behind the scenes to reveal the secret plans and facilities standing by, 24/7, to ensure the homeland survives disaster. On The Discovery Channel: Nov 04, 10:00 pm; Nov 05, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

Breaking Code, Broken Genius - The story of the last eighteen months of the life of Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, whose brilliance at breaking Nazi codes saved thousands of British lives and made him a hero, until his own people turned their backs on him. On The Science Channel: Nov 09, 9:00 pm; Nov 10, 12:00 am; Nov 11, 4:00 am; ET/PT.

Titan: A Place Like Home? - Titan, Saturn's moon, along with Earth, Mars and Venus is one of only four astral bodies in the Solar System to have an atmosphere. Titan's is very similar to that of Earth 4 billion yrs. ago as life began. Could Titan hold the key to the origins of Life? On The Science Channel: Nov 07, 8:00 pm; Nov 07, 11:00 pm; Nov 09, 3:00 am; ET/PT.

America's Book Of Secrets: The White House - An inside look at the secret protocols, elite security and hidden history of the world's most public of private residences. What is the most secret room in the White House and what makes it so powerful? What secret visitors have been to the White House--invited or not? What kind of background checks are needed to work at the White House? What security measures go into effect if the White House is under attack? For over 200 years, the White House has functioned as a Presidential residence, Executive Office and national command center. But more guarded than the White House itself--are its secrets. Secrets that have remained untold...until now. On The History Channel: Nov. 11 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Area 51 Declassified: - It's the most famous military installation in the world, yet it doesn't officially exist. Area 51-- a site for covert Cold War operations-- has long been a magnet for crackpots, conspiracy theorists, and the overly curious. While there may not be truth to the rumors that Area 51 is a haven for UFO's and extraterrestrials, it's clear that our government has been up to something in Area 51 for decades, and it turns out there is a kernel of truth to even some of the wildest speculation. Underground tunnels? Hidden enemy aircraft? Secret government UFO files? Now, after years of silence, for the first time Area 51 insiders spill their secrets and reveal what's really been going on inside the most secretive place on earth. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov. 18 8PM; ET/PT.

Space Dive: - As Felix Baumgartner broke the world record for a free fall jump from higher than 120,000 feet in space—becoming the first person to free fall while breaking the sound barrier—the National Geographic Channel and BBC detailed every second with more than 20 cameras. The footage will be combined with exclusive behind-the-scenes access following Baumgartner's four-year metamorphosis from an elite BASE jumper to an extreme altitude specialist who can think and act like an an astronaut. On The National Geographic Channel: Nov. 11 7PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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