A Sky Tran pod departs a pick up point in this artist's concept picture. (Photo courtesy of www.skytran.us.)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month


November 2015

In the News:

Sky Pod Transportation Not Quite Ready - The news media was abuzz about the futuristic transportation system designed by Sky Tran being demonstrated in Israel last month. Those reports, as it turned out, were premature. Sky Tran's Israel based partner, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) confirmed that the test track has yet to be finished and thinks early 2016 is a more likely date. The system uses futuristic pods running under a MagLev monorail track to transport people around dense urban areas. The pods only holds two people and acts like automated taxis delivering their customers under computer control directly from the boarding point to destination station with no stops in between. Though there was no demo last month IAI noted that "work on the Test Track (a.k.a. "Technology Demonstration System One or TDS1) in Tel Aviv is proceeding fine."

It Prevents Explosions and is Good for the Environment! - An additive that can be put into potentially explosive fuels like gasoline and jet fuel may prevent explosions. As a bonus it may also allow the fuel to burn cleaner too. A team, lead by Julie Kornfield, professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, found that by adding a long chain polymer to the fuel they could prevent the liquid from turning into a deadly explosive mist during an impact. Instead, the fuel will create rain sized droplets with are much less likely to explode. The group, inspired by the 9-11 terrorist attack looked for a way to keep airplane fuel from exploding so that aircraft could not be used as potential bombs by hijackers. "Our dream was that if word got out to terrorists that fuel wouldn't explode, maybe they wouldn't be that motivated," said Kornfield. A paper on the discovery is in the Journal Science.

Mummy Resistant to Drugs - An 11th-century mummy's feces was found to contain bacteria with gene mutations responsible for many antibiotic-resistant genes that would have made treatment with antibiotics -- such as tetracycline, quinolones fosfomycin, chloramphenicol, and vancomycin -- useless. This is surprising discovery as most scientists assumed that these genes arose with the use of modern antibiotics in the last century. The mummy was found in Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, was brought to Italy in the second half of the 19th century. This discovery may have an impact on scientists working with the problem of antibiotic resistance.

Would You Rather Be Able to Climb Trees or Throw a Baseball? - A new study shows that humans most likely gave up the ability to climb trees easily to be good at throwing rocks. "Tree climbing requires large, powerful muscles with different demands on force production and perhaps reduces the range of motion at the shoulder and precludes the kind of throw that a baseball pitcher does," said co-author Madhusudhan Venkadesan, an assistant professor at the National Center for Biological Sciences in India. In prehistoric times the ability to accurately throw a rock or a spear might have been the difference between starving and eating lunch. Chimps and other primates never developed this ability. Despite slinging poop at the occasional zoo visitor, most chimps can only throw about 20 miles per hour, a fraction of the speed of even a human little league pitcher. The scientists used high-speed, 3-D imagery to study 20 people as they threw a baseball. The results of the tests showed that human ability to throw mostly comes from body features that enable elastic energy storage and release at the shoulder.

Mammals Once Regrew Their Limbs - Scientists have been fascinated with the salamander's ability to regrow, limbs, tails and even organs if they lose them. A recent study suggests that this ability in the past was wide-spread beyond these amphibians and even extended to some primitive mammals. "The fossil record shows that the form of limb development of modern salamanders and the high regenerative capacities are not something salamander-specific, but instead were much more widespread and may even represent the primitive condition for all four-legged vertebrates" noted lead study author Nadia Fröbisch. Though scientists are still a long way from creating a pill that might help you regrow a lost foot, the knowledge that regeneration capabilities were carried in our mammal ancestors may help with future medical advances.


Science Quote of the Month - "Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler." - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

From the Curator's Office: Racing a Ferrari - I'm a major fan of the British automotive TV show "Top Gear." Although the long running show is no longer in production (and the stars, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are moving onto a project for Amazon.com), I've been fascinated with the supercars the trio tested out on their racetrack and when the opportunity came along for me to do something similar, I took it. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Very, Very Cold - Is it possible to attain 0° Kelvin? -Feloxi

Zero on the Kelvin temperature scale is often referred to as absolute zero. To get an idea of what absolute zero is, we first need to know a little bit about heat and temperature. All atoms and molecules "vibrate" with thermal energy. The more vibration, the more heat the atom or molecule has. As the atoms and molecules of a material are cooled, the vibration slows down and the energy decreases. The point at which all heat energy has been removed from a material is called absolute zero. This is approximately -459.67 °F on the Fahrenheit scale or 0° on the Kelvin scale.

According to the third law of Thermodynamics you can never completely achieve absolute zero but only approach it, but scientists have come darn close. In September of 2003 scientists at MIT managed to get a small group of sodium atoms down to 240 millionths of a degree above absolute zero. Larger objects are harder to cool, but another group at MIT managed to get a mirror about the size of a dime down to just 0.8 °K above absolute zero. They did this by shooting laser pulses at it to "trap" and "damp" the molecular motion.

These laboratory temperatures are just a bit colder than any reported in nature. The coldest known place is about 5,000 light years away from Earth in the Boomerang Nebula located in the constellation Centaurus. Astronomers think the temperatures there run around 1°K. If you ever visit it, better bring a jacket.

Scientists are very interested in the behavior of objects very close to absolute zero. It may give them the chance to observe quantum physics effects that normally are too small to see because the are lost in the heat motion of the material. Just a final note: There is also something called a negative temperature (less then absolute zero on the Kelvin scale) but negative temperatures are actually hotter then absolute zero.

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In History:

First H-Bomb Blast - On November 1st, 1952, the first United States tested the world's first thermonuclear device at the a Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific. The hydrogen bomb, named "Ivy Mike," destroyed the island and created an underwater crater a 6240-ft wide and 164-ft deep. The explosion was the equivalent of 10.4 million tons of TNT. Nine months later the USSR tested their own H-bomb.

In the Sky:

Leonid Meteor Shower - The Leonid meteor shower is will reach its peak during the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 18th. The shower is the result of debris from the Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Expected to see 10 to 15 meteors per hour with this comet.



Strange Observations Raises the Possibility of Alien Civilization - An odd set of observational data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has a few scientists wondering if it has spotted a giant alien artifact. Kepler is designed to detect planets orbiting distant stars by watching for the dimming of the star as the planet crosses between that star and the telescope (This is known as the planet's transit). The way that the light dims and the length of the dimming will indicate how big the planet is. While observing KIC 8462852, a star about 1,500 light years away, however, Kepler saw a very odd pattern of dimming. In fact some in the planet hunting community have admitted it seems "bizarre." The only natural explanation that anybody has been able to come up with that seems to work is a clump of comets. There is another, even more implausible explaination that some people have been speculating about: A giant alien artifact the size of a planet. Astronomers stress that this is an extremely unlikely senario, though it is a tantalizing one. Andrew Siemion, the head of the University of California-Berkeley's SETI Group has put in requests to use some of the world premier telescopes to get to the bottom of the mystery.



Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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