The Early Permian dissorophid Cacops displays its fearsome dentition as it preys on the hapless reptile Captorhinus. (Credit Illustration by Brian Engh (


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

November/December 2017

In the News:

Ancient Amphibians had Mouthful of Teeth Ready to Grab You - The idea of being bitten by a nearly toothless modern frog or salamander sounds laughable, but their ancient ancestors had a full array of teeth, large fangs and thousands of tiny hook-like structures called denticles on the roofs of their mouths that would snare prey. In research published online in a recent issue of PeerJ, an open access journal, Professor Robert Reisz, Distinguished Professor of Paleontology at UTM, explains that the presence of such an extensive field of teeth provides clues to how the intriguing feeding mechanism seen in modern amphibians was also likely used by their ancient ancestors. They were ideally suited for holding on to prey, such as insects or smaller tetrapods, may have facilitated a method of swallowing prey items via retraction of the eyeballs into the mouth, as some amphibians do today. "Denticles have all of the features of the large teeth that are found on the margin of the mouth," says Reisz. "In examining tetrapod specimens dating back ~289 million years, we discovered that the denticles display essentially all of the main features that are considered to define teeth, including enamel and dentine, pulp cavity and peridontia." Reisz and his graduate students suggest that the next big question relates to evolutionary changes to the overall abundance of teeth: if these ancient amphibians had an astonishing number of teeth, why have most modern amphibians reduced or entirely lost their teeth?

Patch Gets Rid of "Love Handles" (At Least in Mice) - Researchers have devised a medicated skin patch that can turn energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat locally while raising the body's overall metabolism. The patch could be used to burn off pockets of unwanted fat such as "love handles" and treat metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes Humans have two types of fat. White fat stores excess energy in large triglyceride droplets. Brown fat has smaller droplets and a high number of mitochondria that burn fat to produce heat. Newborns have a relative abundance of brown fat, which protects against exposure to cold temperatures. But by adulthood, most brown fat is lost. For years, researchers have been searching for therapies that can transform an adult's white fat into brown fat--a process named browning--which can happen naturally when the body is exposed to cold temperatures--as a treatment for obesity and diabetes. The new therapy, so far only shown work in mice, uses a drug encased in nanoparticles and introduced into the body by a patch. The patch allow the drug to be targeted to a particular section of the body rather than exposing the medicine to the while which decrease undesirable side effects.

Quantum Computer Will Expose All Our Secrets - The era of fully fledged quantum computers threatens to destroy internet security as we know it. Researchers are in a race against time to prepare new cryptographic techniques before the arrival of quantum computers, as cryptographers Tanja Lange (Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands) and Daniel J. Bernstein (University of Illinois at Chicago, USA) describe today in the journal Nature. The expectation is that quantum computers will be built some time after 2025. Such computers make use of quantum-mechanical properties and can therefore solve some particular problems much faster than our current computers. This will be useful for calculating models for weather forecasts or developing new medicine. However, these operations also affect protection of data using RSA and ECC. With today's technologies these systems will not be broken in a hundred years but a quantum computer will break these within days if not hours. "An attacker can record our secure communication today and break it with a quantum computer years later. All of today's secrets will be lost," warns Lange. This concerns private data, bank and health records, but also state secrets. Lange saw the importance of alternative systems already back in 2006 and is busy with creating awareness and developing new systems. "Fairly recently we're seeing an uptake of post-quantum cryptography in the security agencies, e.g., the NSA, and companies start demanding solutions."

Suicide Molecules Kill Any Cancer Cell - Small RNA molecules originally developed as a tool to study gene function trigger a mechanism hidden in every cell that forces the cell to commit suicide, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study, the first to identify molecules to trigger a fail-safe mechanism that may protect us from cancer. The mechanism -- RNA suicide molecules -- can potentially be developed into a novel form of cancer therapy, the study authors said and cancer cells treated with the RNA molecules never become resistant to them because they simultaneously eliminate multiple genes that cancer cells need for survival. "It's like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time," said Northwestern scientist and lead study author Marcus Peter. "You cannot survive." Peter and his team discovered sequences in the human genome that when converted into small double-stranded RNA molecules trigger what they believe to be an ancient kill switch in cells to prevent cancer. He has been searching for the phantom molecules with this activity for eight years. "We think this is how multicellular organisms eliminated cancer before the development of the adaptive immune system, which is about 500 million years old," he said. "It could be a fail safe that forces rogue cells to commit suicide. We believe it is active in every cell protecting us from cancer."

Evolution in Your Back Garden -- Great Tits May be Adapting Their Beaks to Birdfeeders - A British enthusiasm for feeding birds may have caused UK great tits to have evolved longer beaks than their European counterparts, according to new research. Using genetic and historical data, the research team also found that the differences in beak length had occurred within a relatively short time frame. This led them to speculate that there may be a link with the relatively recent practice of putting out food for garden birds. The findings are part of a long term study being carried out on populations of great tits in Wytham Woods, and in Oosterhout and Veluwe, in the Netherlands. The team screened DNA from more than 3000 birds to search for genetic differences between the British and the Dutch populations. These differences indicate where natural selection might be at work. Between the 1970s and the present day, beak length has got longer among the British birds. That's a really short time period in which to see this sort of difference emerging," says Professor Jon Slate, of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield. "We now know that this increase in beak length, and the difference in beak length between birds in Britain and mainland Europe, is down to genes that have evolved by natural selection." The team also found that birds with genetic variants for longer beaks were more frequent visitors to the feeders than those birds which did not have that genetic variation.


Science Quote of the Month - “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” - Isaac Asimov


What's New at the Museum:

Christmas Electric: A History of Holiday Lights: Today one can hardly find a street in North America during the month of December where the majority of houses are not lit up with a dazzling display of hundreds or even thousands tiny electric lights. Where did these traditions come from and when did Christmas become electric? (An encore of our orginal story) - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this?

Ask the Curator:

Hindenburg Memory - Not a question, just a note since you mention the Hindenburg: I saw it as it flew over my school's playground in mid-Manhattan about an hour before it burned. We were at recess and thrilled to see it. - Ghislaine J.

Thanks for sharing that memory with us. I sure it was an exciting sight. The Hindenburg was scheduled to land earlier that day on May 6th, 1937, but was delayed by thunderstorms over the Lakehurst, NJ, landing site, so the Captain, Max Pruss, took the ship up over Manhatten and down the Jersey shore to give the passengers something to look at while the weather cleared. The flight caused people to pour out into the streets to catch sight of the gigantic airship.

The Hindenburg, as you probably know, was the largest object ever to fly. At 803 feet long it was a big as a skyscraper laid on its side and just short of the length of the ill-fated Titanic. In fact, with a diameter of over 135 feet, The Hindenburg is almost as wide as some modern adverting blimps are long. For example, the Direct TV blimp is 178 feet long. Now anybody who has seen one of these blimps up close knows that these are still pretty big objects. Standing next to one just imagine an airship who's width is almost as big as the distance from the tip of the blimp's nose to its tail. The mind boggles.

I got a chance to get a feeling of the size of The Hindenburg while filming a documentary for the travel channel a few years ago. The crew and I got were allowed to film inside Hanger #1 at the "Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst" which is now what the Navel Air Station at Lakehurst, New Jersey is now called. The hanger, just a short distance from the place where the airship crashed and burned, is just big enough that on previous trips The Hindenburg was able to snuggle inside. Walking around the hanger, with its massive doors and towering ceiling, you can really get a sense for the size of the massive airship. More than three times the length of the largest airliner in operation today, the Boeing 747-800.

Thanks again for sharing that memory. For readers who want more information on the fate of The Hindenburg, check our page on the disaster or check my experince at Lakehurst while filiming the documentary.

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


In History:

Tut's Tomb Found - In November of 1922, Howard Carter's team excavated 11 steps and exposed the sealed doorway to Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt. Carter saw that the seal-impressions suggested that the tomb belonged to somebody of high standing, but didn't understand until later that it belonged to Tutankhamun. Carter cabled his patron, Lord Carnarvon, "At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact recovered same for your arrival congratulations." The tomb opened fully on November 24, after the arrival of Lord Carnarvon from England.


In the Sky:

November Meteor Shower - The Leonids will peak during the night of November 17 and into the early morning of November 18. The meteors will seem to emerge from the constellation Leo, therefore the name. This shower occurs when the Earth passes through the debris trail left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. Expect to see 20 meteors an hour at the peak.



Town Hall Find Priceless Rodin in the Corner - Officials from Madison, New Jersey, were surprised to discover a bust of NapoleonTown Hall Find Priceless Rodin in the Corner that had sat in the corner of their town all for over half a century was a sculpture by the famed artist Auguste Rodin and worth about $4,000,000. The discovery was made by 22-year-old Mallory Mortillaro, who had been hired as an archivist by the Hartley Dodge Foundation, which oversees the hall's artworks. Mortillaro examined the bust and found the artist's name chiseled on the back. The find was later confirmed by art expert Jérôme Le Blay, formerly of the Rodin Museum in Paris. "People are curators their entire lives and don't end up finding a blue whale in a boat. That's what (Mortillaro) did," said Nicolas Platt, the foundation's president. The bust, the only known political or military figure ever sculpted by Rodin, will be on loan to Philadelphia Museum of Art, for the centenary of the artist's death.


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

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2017. All Rights Reserved.


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