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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

December 2010

In the News:

Planet from another Galaxy Discovered - A world orbiting the star HIP 13044 has become the first planet found that originated in a galaxy beyond our own. The star and its planet were once part of a dwarf galaxy that was absorbed by our Milky Way galaxy billions of years ago. The planet, according to a report in the journal Science is slightly bigger than Jupiter and has a year just 16 days long. HIP 13044 is an old star that was once like our sun, but has since swelled up into a red giant star and then shrunk back down to its present size. Most planets are burned up when a star becomes a red giant, but this one managed to survive.

Dwarf galaxies, like the one HIP 13044 belonged to, are thought to be poor in certain heavier elements like oxygen, carbon and iron. Stars without these elements seem to form less planets and it was thought that star from such galaxies might only rarely have worlds orbiting it. It makes it surprising that the discoverers, Johny Setiawan and Rainer Klement, of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, found one so quickly. "Either they were incredibly lucky," says Eric Ford, an astronomer from the University of Florida, "or planets aren't uncommon around stars like these."

Researchers Make Progress on "Telepresence" Screen - Long the darling of science fiction movies, scientists have made progress toward creating color 3-D "holograms" that float in the air. Two years ago researchers led by Nasser Peyghambarian made a break through that allowed them to produce a one color, 3-D object on a screen that did not require special glasses for the viewer to see it. The picture took about four minutes to update, however, so it was far short of real-time motion. Their newest break through can display a 17 inch picture in full-color and can update every two seconds. This is much faster, but still short of the speed and size needed for commercial applications. The team's goal is to produce a screen that would allow" telepresence:" the illusion that someone or something was actually in the room with the viewer. "If you want a true, real-time telepresence you need to go to at least 6-8 feet by 6-8 feet [screen], so that the human person can be demonstrated as they are," according to Peyghambarian. The system works by using a polymer that can send light rays of different colors and intensity off in different angles so that it recreates the light that would reach the viewers eyes if that object or person was actually in the room.

Detecting a Landslide by Listening for It - Researchers in the UK think they have found a way to predict landslides based on sound. Scientists have placed microphones into hillsides before to try and detect the sound of soil moving, but the low frequency signal is too similar to other natural sounds and leds to a lot of false alarms. The new technique uses microphones in steel pipes filled with a granular material and buried in the hillside. If the slope slips the movement of the pipe and the material inside creates a higher frequency sound that is unique and can be used to set off a warning. The system is in testing now and if successful it is hoped that it can reduce the significant number of deaths and large amount property damage associated with landslides around the world.

New Lizard Found on Menu - Researchers in Vietnam have discovered a new species of lizard when they noticed it was on the menu of a local restaurant. Reptile expert Ngo Van Tri of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology noticed that all the lizards in a tank waiting to be served at a diner in southern Vietnam cafe seemed to be female. He contacted Dr. Lee Grismer, an American colleague. Grismer was so interested he flew to Vietnam to have a look. On close examination Grismer decided that the species was previously unknown and apparently reproduces by cloning so there are no males. "It's an entirely new lineage of life that was being eaten and sold in restaurants for food," says Grismer. "But it's something that scientists have missed for hundreds of years." The animal, Leiolepis ngovantrii, may be the hybrid of two other local lizards, but while most hybrids are sterile and cannot reproduce, these lizards do so by cloning themselves. This type of reproduction is rare, but not completely unknown. Certain species of lizards and fish can use parthenogenesis(self-fertilization) when faced with adverse environments caused by pollution or over-hunting.

Did Michelangelo Give David A Secret Weapon? - According to a controversial new theory Michelangelo, when he caved his famous status of David, gave the young warrior a "secret weapon." According to the biblical story David defeated the giant Goliath using a sling. Art historians Sergio Risaliti and Francesco Vossilla suggest that Michelangelo depicted David as holding part of a fustibal, or staff-sling instead of a regular, simple sling. With a simple sling a projectile, like a rock, is placed in a leather cup with two straps. The sling is then spun over the head and one strap is released to let the projectile fly to its target. With a staff sling the straps and cup are attached to the end of a staff which is then whipped over the head to send the projectile to its target. The staff sling gives the user greater range with larger projectiles, but needs more skill to operate. The fustibal was used as a weapon since at least Roman times, and, according to the researchers, would have been known to Michelangelo when he began sculpting David in 1501.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don't know." - Bertrand Russell


What's New at the Museum:

Making of a Christmas Classic - It's the time of year when TV stations reach back into their vaults and pull out holiday classics. There is one film that has a longevity that most Christmas films can only hope for. It's known as Babes in Toyland or March of the Wooden Soldiers.. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

The Cruelest Pirate of Them All - I've recently became interested in piracy. Can you tell me who the cruelest pirate was? - Anonymous.

Before we try an answer who was the cruelest pirate, maybe we should explore why pirates seem to be associated with being barbarous at all. Yes, they were "bad guys" clearly breaking the laws of their time, but did they needlessly inflict pain and suffering? Were they really any crueler than the "good guys?"

The truth is that many seamen became pirates often to escape the difficult conditions on other ships. The British Navy was perhaps one of the fiercest opponents of the pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy (1500AD to 1750AD) and life on a British Naval ship was no picnic. The captain had absolute power on the vessel and could have his men whipped and beaten at his whim. Most regular sailors in the British Navy got only half as much as was paid for seamen on a merchant ship. Of the money they did get, much of was taken away in deductions to pay for the ship's chaplain and/or doctor. Oh, and by the way, the Navy withheld your pay for six months to keep you from deserting the ship.

With pay so low and bad conditions you might wonder why anybody would want to join the British Navy at all. Well, many people didn't. To fill out their ranks ships would send ashore a "press gang" that would, capture men and force them back to the vessel where they would be working away from their families and homes for years at a time. You didn't even need to be a British citizen to have this done to you and the practice of pressing American sailors into service on British Naval ships was one of the causes of the War of 1812.

Let's compare this to conditions on pirate ships. Almost always everyone on a pirate ship was a volunteer. The ships were usually democracies and the crew would elect the captain and the quartermaster who would then appoint the rest of the officers. The pirates would often have a code of conduct and rules agreed to by the crew before the voyage started. The system also had a set of checks and balances to make sure that nobody had too much power. The Captain was often in charge in battle, but at other times the Quartermaster was in charge or could at least veto the Captain's orders.

The pay was better on pirate ships too. Whatever loot was captured was split equally among the crew with responsible officers getting a double share. Some of the money was set aside in a primitive type of insurance policy to make sure that crew members that lost a limb or eye in battle would get compensated.

Pirates were also very equanimous accepting people on the crew from many nationalities and races. Often almost half of pirate crews were often made up from escaped slaves.

So how did pirates get the reputations a being cruel even to one another? Well, often this was a result of public relations. The pirates wanted everybody to think they were tough so that no ship's crew would challenge them in battle. Some of them used the rule "No quarter after first blood" which meant if a ship put up a fight instead of surrendering immediately, the pirates would show no mercy when they won.

Movies and books often pictures pirates as loving a good fight, but the truth is they much preferred it if the ship simply surrendered to them. If it did, the crew and passengers were usually treated well and not killed. However wealthy passengers might find themselves guests of the pirates until a ransom was paid. Any pirate that was foolish enough to have a policy of not taking any prisoners alive would find himself in constant battles as the crews of the merchant ships would then be forced to fight to the bitter end.

Usually when people think of cruel pirates the name Blackbeard comes to mind. Blackbeard, whose real name is thought to be Edward Teach, was well-known pirate that roamed the coast of the Americas in the early 18th century. Blackbeard, who was tall and powerfully built, cultivated a fearsome image to scare his enemies. Many strange stories grew up about Blackbeard after his death, but there is no record that he ever mistreated or murdered his captives. Blackbeard, like almost all pirate Captains, was elected by his crew.

Certainly there were a few pirates that did act in a cruel manner toward their prisoners. One name stands out among these and that's Roche Braziliano. We are not sure of Braziliano's real name and his nickname is translated as "Rock the Brazilian," though Braziliano was actually Dutch. He apparently acquired his name after being exiled to Brazil for an extended length of time.

Braziliano had numerous conflicts with the Spanish and hated them. There are stories of Braziliano taking Spanish prisoners, tying them to a spit set between two fires and roasting alive them like they were pigs. Braziliano's cruelty didn't stop there, however. He was a drunkard and would wander the streets of Port Royal, a notorious pirate haven, assaulting people and threatening them if they refused to have a drink with him.

If these stories are true then indeed Braziliano certainly ranks up there as one of the cruelest pirates of all time.

In History:

Communion with Aliens - On December 26, 1985, writer Whitley Strieber was spending the night with his wife at his remote cabin in upstate New York when he believed he was visited by small, almond-eyed, gray-skinned humanoids from a UFO. Strieber and his wife said that they could not recall the incident consciously, but went through hypnosis to access the memories that had been repressed. Over the next few months Strieber wrote his story down in book form and in January 1987 it was released under the title of Communion and it became one of the most successful books on UFOs ever published. The book was later made into a movie starring Christopher Walken. Critics have claimed that Strieber just made up the story to cash in on the UFO craze, but the author was examined by psychiatrists and took polygraphs. The results showed he was both sane and truthful.


In the Sky:

Lunar Eclipse - This December we will be treated to a total lunar eclipse that will be visible though out much of the world. This is when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon throwing the Moon into shadow. The eclipse starts at on December 21st at 1:32 AM EST in North America and finishes at 5:02 EST. The amount of time the moon is totally in Earth's shadow is 73 minutes from 2:40AM to 3:53AM. During this period some light leaks though to the Moon via Earth's atmosphere and this can turn the lunar surface funny colors like violet, orange and blood red. If you plan on observing the eclipse make sure you adjust the times for your local viewing area (For example the eclipse with start on December 20th at 10:32PM PST on the North American west coast).



Save the Christmas Trees! - Researchers at the North Carolina State University extension service have found that some weird stuff makes for good deer repellant. This is good news for commercial Christmas tree growers who, in deer infested areas, can lose a significant amount of trees to the creatures. Commercial deer repellants are available, but very costly especially when applied at the level of a large farm. Inexpensive, inedible food byproducts -- such as dried blood and egg powder - can be used instead and cost only a fraction of what commercial products do ($18 a pound vs. $2 a pound) while being just as effective. "These products have an unappealing taste, but the decaying smell actually elicits a fear response in the deer and keeps them away from the crops," said Jeff Owen, Christmas tree production specialist.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Arctic Dinosaurs - Trek through Alaska to explore how dinosaurs once thrived in polar regions. On PBS: December 21 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Secrets of the Secret Service - A no holds barred investigation of America's most mysterious law enforcement agency. Classified technology, secret strategies, deception, and human courage combine to provide the best protection possible. On the Discovery Channel: Dec 02, 8:00 pm; Dec 02, 11:00 pm; Dec 04, 5:00 pm; ET/PT.

Finding Amelia - What happened to Amelia Earhart when she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean more than 70 years ago? One man thinks he not only knows the answer but is on the verge of proving it...and finding Amelia. On the Discovery Channel: Dec 11, 8:00 pm; Dec 11, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Hitler's Secret Science - In the crucible of World War II, Germany's most brilliant scientists race to create terrifying new weapons of mass destruction. Before the war is over, Germany will produce many technological firsts that remain the basis for many air and spacecraft today. On the Science Channel: Dec 12, 8:00 pm; Dec 12, 11:00 pm; ET/PT.

Jack the Ripper: New Evidence - London in 1888 was gripped by fear as the bloodthirsty maniac Jack the Ripper was killing and mutilating women. The killer was never caught, but with 21st century police forensic techniques the greatest criminal mystery in history may finally be solved. On the Science Channel: Dec 05, 10:00 pm; Dec 06, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Aliens and the Third Reich - If ancient aliens visited Earth in the remote past, could they have given us advanced technology, past down through human history? And could this technology have helped the Third Reich build mysterious weapons and crafts far beyond the limits of 20th century science? During World War II, there were reports that the Germans built an operational flying saucer, known as the Hanebu, which was said to use mythical technology found in ancient Indian texts. Another craft was rumored to have been constructed with the help of psychics and mediums who claimed to have received detailed blueprints from extraterrestrial beings. Is it possible Hitler's quest for world domination was aided and abetted by ancient extraterrestrial technology that was rediscovered? And could the allegedly rebuilt alien devices developed in Germany have played a role in America's ability to land a man on the moon? On The History Channel: 8PM Dec 16th; ET/PT.

Naked Science: Alien Fireballs - It was a real-life Alien Fireball and one of the best-documented meteorite falls in history. A stunning sphere of fire hurtled toward Earth and was captured by a vast network of specialized technology.On The National Geographic Channel: 10:00 PM on Dec. 2nd; ET/PT.

2012: Countdown to Armageddon - Are we three years from the end of the world? Based on an actual ancient Maya calendar that will end on December 21, 2012, NGC asks, "What truths lie behind the fears?" On The National Geographic Channel: 8:00 PM Dec 6th.; ET/PT.

Hitler's Stealth Fighter - In the final months of World War II, American troops discovered a top-secret facility in Germany with an advanced batwing-shaped jet fighter. On The National Geographic Channel: 9:00 PM Dec 9th; ET/PT.

Legend of the Holy Spear - A priest and a scientist reach back through the mists of legend and time searching for the spear said to have pierced the side of Christ at the crucifixion. On The National Geographic Channel: 11:00 PM Dec 12th, 9:00 PM Dec 14th; ET/PT.

World's Biggest Cave - Much of Vietnam's Mountain River Cave has remained untouched by humans until now. With exclusive footage, NGC reveals, for the first time in history, astounding evidence that this could be the largest cave in the world. On The National Geographic Channel: 10:00 PM Dec 20th; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

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

Copyright Lee Krystek 2010. All Rights Reserved.


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