The Sea of Sand on Mars. (Courtsey NASA)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


November 2014

In the News:

Mars Probe Photographs Sea of Sand - NASA's Curiosity rover completed a 778 Martian day drive last month reaching the base of its destination, Mount Sharp. At the base of the 3.5 mile-high mountain in the center of Gale Crater the rover photographed what looks like choppy waves on a sea, but is actually ripples of wind-blown sand and dust. Scientists think a close survey of the mountain's rocky layers will provide valuable information about the planet's geological history and the planet's ancient environment.

Wreck Not the Santa Maria - A group of experts from the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, has decided that the wreck found off the Haiti discovered last year by underwater explorer Barry Clifford is not the Santa Maria. The Santa Maria sunk off the coast of Haiti in 1492 and Clifford's team was sure they had discovered its remains. However, the bronze and copper fasteners found at the site suggest that the ship was built in the late 17th or 18th centuries. Ships from the era that the Santa Maria was built used fasteners of iron or wood. Also the experts believe that historic accounts, like Columbus' journal, show that the wreck was too far from the shore to be that of the Columbus' famous flagship.

New Material May Make Space Elevator a Reality - A group of scientists at Penn State University have found a way to transform benzene -(a liquid) under compression to form an ultra-thin "diamond nanothread." This thread would be , according to John Badding, head of the team, "extraordinarily stiff, extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily useful." The scientists found that when they compressed the benzene much more slowly than had been done before, instead of the molecules linking together in a disorganized way, as expected, they instead formed an orderly polymer. The resulting material is the strongest and stiffest known to science and very lightweight. "One of our wildest dreams for the nanomaterials we are developing is that they could be used to make the super-strong, lightweight cables that would make possible the construction of a "space elevator" which so far has existed only as a science-fiction idea," Badding said.

Study Suggests Lots of Aliens, but Few Contacts - A new study suggests that there may be over 3,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in our Milky Way Galaxy, but our chances of hearing from them are very low. This is because our galaxy, with a width of than 100,000 light-years in diameter, is so large. Estimates were made based on NASA's Kepler space telescope and other planet finding observatories. "On average, you'd expect the civilizations to be separated by at least 1,000 light-years in the Milky Way," said Michael Garrett, head of the Dutch astronomy research foundation. "That's a large distance, and for communication purposes you need to allow for twice the travel distance, so you're talking about civilizations that have to be around for at least a few thousand years in order to have the opportunity to talk to each other." He added, "We don't really know the time scales in which civilizations persist."

Dinosaur to Bird Evolution Very Slow - A study in the journal Current Biology suggests that birds didn't evolve from dinosaurs quickly, but over millions of years as birdlike features such as wings and feathers slowly developed. "It's basically impossible to draw a line on the tree between dinosaurs and birds," said study author Steve Brusatte, of the University of Edinburgh. After the bird body arose, he noted, "something was unlocked, and began to evolve at a supercharged rate." The study, based on feathered dinosaur fossils that have been appearing over the past two decades in places like China, suggests there was no single "missing-link" between the two groups. The study looked at more than 850 body features in 150 extinct species of birds and their closest dinosaur relatives allowing scientists to construct a complete family tree. This tree shows that bird features evolved very slowly over about 150 million years and that the earliest birds would have very hard to tell from their dinosaur cousins.


Science Quote of the Month - "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." - Arthur C. Clarke


What's New at the Museum:

Wonders of the Solar System: The Surface of the Sun - The sun is the heart of the solar system and almost all life on earth gets its energy from the radiation coming from its 10,000 degree surface. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Best Pirates of the 18th Century - Who were the most successful/famous pirates of the 18th century? - Matthew

If you had included the 17th century in your question the answer would have been easy: Sir Henry Morgan. Morgan was born in Wales in 1635. In his teens he joined a pirate crew from Tortuga and swore an oath as a member of the "Brethren of the Coast." After a successful trip, Morgan and some friends decided to outfit their own ship. Morgan was elected captain and his first raid was a great success. Many more followed. Morgan became a vice admiral in the buccaneer fleet and quickly became very famous and rich.

Morgan was smart enough to ally himself with the English as a privateer (A pirate that only attacks ships of nations that his sponsor is at war with and splits the booty with the crown) which meant that when he was ready to give up his pirate career he could retire and live safely in English controlled territory.

In may book, the fact that he survived to leisurely retirement makes Morgan perhaps the most successfully pirate of all time. Few of his colleagues had that pleasure.

If we are dealing with the 18th century pirates, however, we need to perhaps assign the titles of "most famous" and "most successful" to two different rogues.

It is an easy argument to make that the most famous pirate of the era was Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard, early in his career, recognized that to be a successful pirate, you had to be a terrifying pirate. One that was so feared that ships would surrender at the very sound of your name. If you could manage this, you could avoid many battles.

Blackbeard was a big man, with a naturally scowling face, long, thick black hair and beard, and wild, deep-set eyes. To further heighten his terrifying presence, Blackbeard would go into battle with lighted tapers in his hair. These belched black smoke, making Blackbeard appear to his enemies as some kind of demon.

Since Blackbeard has shown up in numerous books, TV shows and movies (ranging from 1952's very serious Blackbeard the Pirate, to Disney's 1968 comic effort Blackbeard's Ghost) it's really hard to argue the he shouldn't get the title of most famous pirate.

While Blackbeard, even today, is probably the best known pirate name from that era, he wasn't the most successful one of that century. That accolade belong to Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts.

Roberts and his crew attacked ships off the Americas and West Africa between 1719 and 1722. While was only in the business for less than four years, he captured more ships than any other pirate during the famed "Golden Age of Piracy."

He was born Bartholomew Roberts in Wales in 1682 and grew up to be an honest seaman, but in 1719, his ship was captured by pirate Howell Davis and Roberts was forced to join the crew. While he was first reluctant, he soon came to see the advantages of piracy and went at it with a vengeance. He came to the conclusion:

In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour. In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two at choking? No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.

He turned out to be such a good pirate that when Davis was killed a few months after Robert's joined the crew, his fellow pirates elected him the new captain. In his short career he captured 470 ships. Unfortunately, for him, he was killed in a clash with the Royal navy off the coast of Africa in 1722 when his crew was too drunk to put up a good fight.

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In History:

Edison's Lamp - This month in 1879 Thomas Edison applied for a patent for his electric lamp. It became one of his most successful business ventures, but did he really invent it? Check out our page.


In the Sky:

November Leonids - The night of November 17/18 will be the best time to catch the Leonid meteor shower, though a few shooting stars will be visible as early as the November 13th and as last as the 21st. The Leonid's appear to be coming from the constellation Leo. There are some other smaller showers visible at the same time, so if you want to figure out if you seen a Leonid meteor, trace it backwards to see if it came from Leo.



Witch Burnings - The spirit of Salem, Massachusetts, is not dead. In the East African country of Tanzania seven people were killed last month following accusations of witchcraft. The victims, many of whom were elderly, were burned alive or hacked to death with machetes. It isn't clear what caused the attacks, but over 20 people have been arrested in the murders. Though witch hunts are mostly gone in the United States and Europe they continue in some areas of India, Africa and South America.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Bigger Than T. Rex - Meet Spinosaurus—the lost killer of the Cretaceous and the world's largest predator ever. November 5 at 9 pm on PBS ET/PT.

Nova: Emperor's Ghost Army - Explore the buried clay warriors, chariots, and bronze weapons of China's first emperor. November 12 at 9 pm on PBS ET/PT.

Nova: Killer Landslides - Explore the forces behind deadly landslides—and the danger zones for the next big one. November 19 at 9 pm on PBS ET/PT.

The Science of Interstellar - Matthew McConaughey narrates this behind-the-scenes look at the epic voyage to deep space depicted in the movie Interstellar. Director Christopher Nolan worked with top physicists to create a realistic trip to distant solar systems. On The Discovery Channel: Nov.6th 11PM ET/PT.

Adrift: 47 Days with Sharks - The inspiring true story of Louis Zamperini and a small group of fellow American airmen. During a routine search mission over the Pacific in WWII, their plane crashed into shark infested waters, leaving them struggling to survive for 47 days. On the Discovery Channel: Nov. 11 9AM ET/PT.

America Unearthed: Mystery of the Serpents - In Ohio, a massive mound in the shape of a serpent snakes it's way across the landscape and no one knows who built or why. Thousands of miles away, a similar serpent mound of unknown origins slinks across the landscape of Loch Nell. Could there be a connection between the two sites? As Scott Wolter investigates, he discovers evidence that both sites were constructed using the same type of archaeoastronomy. Not only that, but a number of other animal shapes have been constructed as effigies across the Midwest. In a search for answers, he discovers there could be a connection between all the sites and one of America's biggest pre-Columbian mysteries--what led to the disappearance of the people of Cahokia, America's largest city in pre-Columbian times. On The History Channel: Nov.6th 10PM ET/PT.


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