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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

November 2013

In the News:

Fashion that also Guards Privacy - Worried about losing your privacy to facial surveillance systems like Facebook's auto-tagging feature? Simone C. Niquille, a student at the Sanberg Instituut in Amsterdam, may have the product you need. Realface Glamoflage are T-shirts with the faces of celebrity such as Michael Jackson, Barrack Obama and Brittney Spears, embedded on them. Niquille designed the shirts with the idea that the multiple faces would confound any facial recognition system. "I was interested in creating a tool for privacy protection that wouldn't require much time to think in the morning, an accessory that would seamlessly fit in your existing everyday. No adaption period needed," Niquille said. If you are interested the T-shirts, they can be custom printed for around $65 dollars. Check out http://realface.s-c-n.biz/

Site of Old Massacre Found in Sweden - Researchers in Sweden have found the remains of what they think is an ancient massacre. On the island of Öland, off the southeast coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea, archeologist have discovered the remains of a 1,500-year-old fort filled with bodies. The human remains seem belonging to a people who met a sudden death. "I think they were surprised," Helene Wilhelmson, an osteologist at Lund University said. She explained that two of bodies were found lying close to each other near a the door as if they were running out to escape when they were killed. The location is also surprisingly undisturbed. " I don't think anyone dared to go near it for a very long time," added Wilhelmson. "It's more of a frozen moment than you normally see in archaeology," Wilhelmson also added. "It's like Pompeii. Something terrible happened and everything just stopped." As they work to excavate the site, scientists are entering the locations of the bodies and artifacts into a computer system that will eventually create a 3D visualization of the fort. This will better help them understand what may have happened there.

New Expedition to Solve Earheart Mystery - Starting in August of 2014 a 30-day expedition sponsored by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) will visit the tiny Pacific island of Nikumaroro. TIGHAR believes that the isle might be there final resting place of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, her navigator, Fred Noonan, and their twin-engined Lockheed Electra. Earhart had been attempting an around the world flight when the plane ran out of fuel somewhere over the Pacific on July 2, 1937. TIGHAR thinks that Earhart made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro some 350 miles southeast of their target destination. On Nikumaroro they survived as castaways "for a matter of weeks, possibly more," said Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR. "The plan for Niku VIII is built on the hard data gathered and the hard lessons learned during the previous expeditions carried out in 2010 and 2012," said Gillespie. The team will be equipped with high definition video, still cameras, mechanical arms and recovery baskets mounted on subs that will search the area around the island to a depth of more than 3000 feet looking for evidence of the plane.

Mosquito Preserved as Rare Fossil - It isn't quite time to buy tickets for a real Jurassic Park yet, but scientists have found blood from an animal preserved in the body of a blood sucking, ancient mosquito. The little insect came to its end about 46 million years ago shortly after making a blood meal out of some unknown animal. It fell into a lake and was fossilized in by sediments deposited at the bottom which later turned into shale. "The chances that such an insect would be preserved in shale is almost infinitesimally small," said Dale Greenwalt, a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. (Usually small insect fossils are only preserved in amber). Greenwalt saw the fossil when it was given to the museum and recognized its rarity. He and his collaborators use bismuth, a heavy metal, to bombard the sample and vaporize chemicals found in the fossil. These chemicals were then analyzed by a mass spectrometer to see what was inside the insect without damaging the priceless artifact. They were able to detect some of the components found in blood. While this is far from extracting DNA to rebuild extinct animals, it does demonstrate that complex organic molecules, besides DNA, can be preserved in a fossil for a long time. It also shows that blood-filled mosquitoes were already feeding at that time, which means that they might have been around even earlier and could have fed on dinosaurs.

Controversial Skill Found - A prehistoric, hominid skull found in the European nation of Georgia has created some controversy. The almost complete skull, estimated to be 1.8 million-year-old is by all accounts an important discovery. The finders, writing in the journal Science, have suggested that it is close enough in its features to belong to the species Homo erectus. In fact, they also suggest that other finds that were previously believed to be new species, like Homo ergaster, Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis might actually be Homo erectus too. This has ruffled some feathers in the scientific community as few researchers in the field concur. At the moment the find is simply labeled "Skull 5". Scientists will continue to look for other remains at the site in Dmanisi, Georgia, that might help in settling the issue.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science never solves a problem without creating ten more." - George Bernard Shaw


What's New at the Museum:

The Day the U.S. Air Force Almost Nuked North Carolina - On the morning of January 23rd, 1961, First Lt. Adam Mattocks climbed aboard his B-52G Stratofortress bomber for a routine training mission. What would follow over the next twenty-four hours, however, would be anything but routine. At the end Mattocks would be the survivor of one of the most serious nuclear weapons accidents ever and part of North Carolina would have come unbelievably close to being turned into smoldering, burned out, radiation-poisoned, death zone. - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

A Million Mile-Per-Hour Wind - How do the Voyager spacecraft survive the (according to NASA) "250,000 to one million per hour" solar winds while traversing the heliopause? Shouldn't they be obliterated? - Maureen

Well, the first thing we should do is define what the solar wind is. It isn't quite like the wind we experience here on the surface of the Earth.

The solar wind consists of charged particles of the sun that have some gotten so much kinetic energy (from heat of the sun's corona) that they can escape from the sun's strong gravity. These particles are mostly subatomic elements (pieces of atoms) like electrons or protons. Depending on the activity around the sun the particles, as you noted, can pick up considerable speed.

On earth our wind consists of air, which is molecules of gas (about 80% percent of air is nitrogen and most of the rest is oxygen). The air we have here on the surface is very dense because it is under pressure. The pressure comes from the thickness of the atmosphere above us which extends upward for around a hundred miles. This causes the air to press against you if you are standing at sea level at around 14.7 pounds per square inch. You don't really notice this, however, because it comes at you equally from every direction.

How much the wind pushes against you (its force) isn't just a function of the speed of the wind, it is also involves the density of the air. The lower the density of the air, the less the wind pushes against you.

Now if you were standing on Earth and you were hit by a million mile per hour wind, there wouldn't be much left of you. That kind of pressure applied to your body would tear it apart. Even a shock wave of pressure (let's say from an explosion) traveling at a few hundreds of miles an hour can be very damaging and knock down a building.

However, there is a big difference between the density of the air at sea level and the density of the solar wind in space. In fact it's round a trillion to one difference. To get an idea of what this means imagine a box one inch square filled with air at the pressure it is at sea level. To get that air down to the density of the solar wind you would have to extend that box so it was still was one inch in height and depth, but almost 16 million miles long, while still containing the same amount of air.

So while the solar wind can go whipping by at a million miles per hour, the density is so, so low that it effectively creates no pressure on something like the Voyager spacecraft. Yes, the probe carries sensitive instruments that can detect the wind, but if you were out there with the spacecraft you would be unable to feel any pressure against your hand if you were able to hold it out in the solar wind.

In fact, the further the solar wind gets from the sun, the slower it goes. This means that the Voyagers at the edge of the solar system experience much less solar wind than say the Apollo spacecraft that carried the astronauts to the moon. The heliopause, which one of the Voyager spacecraft just crossed, is actually the boundary where the solar wind is so far from the sun that slows to a complete stop, blocked by the interstellar medium (which is really the result of solar winds from surrounding stars).

This might lead you to ask the question, "What happened to Voyager when it hit the interstellar medium?" Well, the answer is "not much," because it, like the solar wind, has an extremely low density.

Just because the solar wind is has little density, however, doesn't mean that it can't have a big effect on the solar system. Most of the effect it has, however, is due to the electrical charge of the particles. A good solar flare can send a shock wave of highly charged particles close to the earth that can damage the electronics inside satellites and upset radio transmissions.

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


In History:

The Return of the King - November 4th 1922 marks the day that a digger working for British archeologist Howard Carter stumbled across a step carved into a rock in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt. It led the uncovering of the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen. The location of tomb had been lost for over a millennia. As the tomb with all its riches turned out to be intact, it was one of the most significant and celebrated archeological finds in modern history. To read more about King Tut and the curse his tomb supposedly had, check our article here.


In the Sky:

November Comet - The end of November comes with a chance to see a comet. ISON will come closest to the sun on November 28th but be too near our star for safe viewing. You can start looking for it, however, a week or so before Thanksgiving in the pre-dawn hours, but expect it to be the brightest and easiest to find a week or so afterwards. How bright will it get? It's very hard to say. Early reports had it light up the sky as bright as a full moon, but as time has gone by the comet seems to be outgassing less material making it less visible. In fact there is even a chance it could disintegrate completely as it goes by the sun on Thanksgiving.



Yeti Mystery Solved by DNA? - Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics at Oxford University, may have unlocked the mystery of the Yeti (sometimes known as the Abominable Snowman). Last year he put out a call for people to submit hair or other tissue samples from "cryptids." He got about 30 items to test. Two of them supposedly were associated with the Yeti and turned out to be a genetic match for an extinct polar bear from Norway. It is thought that the bear had died out at least 40,000 years ago. Sykes is skeptical that the polar bear is still around, however. "I don't think it means there are ancient polar bears wandering around the Himalayas," he commented He does think there is a possibility that there might be a subspecies of brown bear in the High Himalayas that has descended from the ancestor of the polar bear. Sykes says he has submitted the DNA results for publication in a peer-reviewed science journal.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Cold Case JFK - Can modern forensic science uncover fresh clues about the assassination of JFK? On PBS November 13 at 9 PM ET/PT

Nova: At the Edge of Space- Can scientists unravel the mystery of sprites, a phenomenon that lurks between Earth and space? On PBS November 20 at 8 PM ET/PT

Nova: Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday?- Will future asteroids trigger massive extinctions—or be mined for precious minerals? On PBS November 20 at 9 PM ET/PT

Parallel Universe- The strange notion of parallel universes is gaining strength in the scientific community and may solve our most basic questions about the universe, including the origins of the Big Bang itself. On the Science Channel: Nov. 1st 10:00AM; ET/PT.

Beyond the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman: Nothingness- Can there be such a thing as nothing? Scientists are looking for answers in the mind-bending science of Quantum Mechanics. Their work may uncover what our cosmos is made of, how it came from nothing and when it might collapse into an empty void again. On the Science Channel: Nov. 4th 9:00 PM; ET/PT.

Seven Signs of the Apocalypse Seven Signs of the Apocalypse - We will be struck by deadly plagues, famines and earthquakes... The sky will turn dark and oceans will turn to blood... And the antichrist will emerge to fight the final battle between good and evil. Could this all be true? Experts decode this powerful prophecy and come to a startling conclusion: there is now scientific evidence that many of these catastrophes could, in fact, be occurring. A star falling from the sky could be one of thousands of rogue asteroids that may be approaching earth. The plague foretold in the Bible could be a deadly strain of avian virus that researchers fear could kill millions. Oceans turning blood red could be triggered by microorganisms that release dangerous neurotoxins that have the same effect as nerve gas. To reveal the ultimate truth behind the prophecy, this investigation will turn to the past to reveal why the prophecy was written, and why it keeps such a powerful hold on our imagination today. On the History Channel: November 7, 9:00 PM ET/PT.

Rogue Waves Rogue Waves- Join us for the amazing story of one of nature's most terrifying forces. With striking visuals from ships in storm-tossed seas, the special presents dramatic tales of rogue wave disasters throughout history, and explores the astonishing scientific discoveries surrounding this deadly phenomenon. Aided by mind-blowing CGI footage from the motion picture Poseidon by Wolfgang Petersen, director of The Perfect Storm, we reveal the awesome power of this ocean menace as it really is--a monster rising from the deep! On the History Channel: November 7, 11:00 PM; ET/PT.

Mystery Bear of the Arctic - In April 2006, an American sports hunter shot and killed a mysterious bear in the arctic which unleashes a scientific investigation and a criminal inquiry into the exact nature of its identity. On the National Geographic Channel: Nov. 17th 6PM; ET/PT.


Science over the Edge Archives

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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