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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

December 2011

In the News:

Ancient Whale Found in Marble - Last month's Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology tells the strange tale of an Italian marble vender named Francioni who found a whale. Not in the Ocean, but in a slab of marble he was cutting. At first he thought it was a dinosaur, but when he contacted the University of Pisa, Giovanni Bianucci, who studies ancient marine life, told him it was an ancient whale of a type called an archaeocete. Bianucci found that the marble came from the Tarfa Valley in Upper Ebypt near the town of Shaikh Fadl. The new species has been named Aegyptocetus tarfa ("Egyptian whale from Tarfa") and is estimated to be around 40 million years old. The largest part of the specimen is a skull 27 inches (68cm) long. Part of the back bone has also been preserved, but the limbs have been lost. Unhealed bite marks suggest that the whale may have met its end because of a shark attack. Though Francioni was going to sell the fossil to a private collector, the city of Pisa intervened and the ancient whales is now on permanent display at the University's Natural History Museum.

Sunstone Legend Might be True - Legend has it that the Vikings navigated on stormy or cloudy days by holding a "sunstone" up to their eyes that revealed the direction of the sun. Now according to an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of researchers has replicated this trick using a type of crystal called an Icelandic spar. Much of the Vikings exploration came in the 8th to 11th centuries before the invention of the magnetic compass, so navigation by the sun was extremely important. The spar is a crystal of calcium carbonate with a special property called birefringence, which means the light entering the crystal is split and travels down two paths giving a double image. The brightness of the image is dependent on the angle the light entered the crystal. By comparing the brightness of the two images the user can locate the position of the sun, even on a cloudy day, within about 5 degrees. Though these sunstones have yet to have been found at a Viking settlement, one was found on the 1592 wreck of an English ship, whose large cannon would have interfered with the accuracy of a magnetic compass.

Nano-sized SUV - Scientists have built a four-wheel-drive vehicle only one nanometer in length, which is less than one billionth the size of a standard SUV. Scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have constructed the vehicle out of carbon and it can drive in a straight path along a copper surface. The vehicle gets its power from electrons that are shot at it from an electron microscope. Scientist hope to use what they learn from this vehicle to figure out how to transport molecules in a nanoparticle machine or factory. James Tour of Rice University in Texas, US, described the miniature SUV as " an important and fundamental milestone in the quest for nanomachines that will one day do useful work."

Ice 10? - In Kurt Vonnegut's famous book, Cat's Cradle, a new form of ice (Ice 9) is invented that destroys the world because it freezes at 114 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius) and transfers this property to the world's oceans. That was only fiction, but scientists Pradeep Kumar and H. Eugene Stanley do believe they have discovered a fourth phase of water other than ice, steam and the regular-old liquid. They think this special form of water occurs under high pressure at low temperatures. Normally liquid water usually freezes into ice at 32 Fahrenheit (0 Celsius), but under high pressure this can fail to happen. Using computer simulations the researchers found that what does happen is that under pressure at 54 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-48 Celsius) the structure of the water seems to become extremely ordered much like ice, even though it stays in a liquid state. This new form of water also seems to be more conductive of heat, just the opposite of what happens when water moves into a normal ice state.

Asteroids Giveth and Taketh Away - It has been accepted that an asteroid strike helped bring the reign of the dinosaurs to an end, but scientists have been wondering if another such impact on the Earth was responsible for the rise of the terrible lizards in the first place. The theory that a giant meteor strike was responsible for the mass extinction at the end of the Triassic era that cleared the way for the dinosaurs has been around for a while, but Paul Olsen and Dennis Kent of Columbia University think they finally have found some evidence. The remains of an asteroid impact crater near Rochechouart, France was re-evaluated recently to be 199 million to 203 million years old. This would make it the perfect suspect for the Triassic-Jurassic extinctions. Though the asteroid seems a bit too small to have done the job all by itself, Olsen and Kent suggest that it may have been accompanied by other asteroids, or was the tipping point in an environment already under assault by volcanic activity.


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:

The Electric Trains of Christmas - Toy electric trains have been identified with the Christmas season for nearly a century. How did these miniatures from the world of transportation become icons of the winter holiday season? >Full Story

Mount Everest - On May 29th, 1953, two men reached the highest peak in the world. A feat that had eluded realization even after the South and North Poles had been conquired. The next in our series on natural wonders. >Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this thing?

Ask the Curator:

Night With the Devil - In the movie Fantasia there is a work called "A Night On Bald Mountain" by Modest Mussorgsky and during the intro it says that the Bald Mountain is a real location and according to tradition, is the gathering place of Satan and is followers. My question is this has there been any sighting of paranormal activity around the mountain? - Ben

The piece you are referring to was written by the innovative Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1867. This work, unfortunately, was never performed before Mussorgsky's death in 1870. In 1881 his friend composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov did an arrangement of it and this premiered in 1886 quickly becoming a favorite of concert goers the world round. Leopold Stokowski also did a new arrangement of it in the early 20th century and this version that is used in the 1940 Disney film.

Many of Mussorgsky's works were inspired by Russian folklore and Night on Bald Mountain is no exception. The use of the word "bald" is a direct translation from the Russian, but in this case it really means "bare" as in a mountain with no trees. The idea stems from the folklore of Eastern Europe in which witches would meet at midnight on bare hilltops to perform unholy rites. As Mussorgsky himself wrote "So far as my memory doesn't deceive me, the witches used to gather on this mountain, gossip, play tricks and await their chief - Satan. On his arrival they, i.e. the witches, formed a circle round the throne on which he sat, in the form of a kid, and sang his praise. When Satan was worked up into a sufficient passion by the witches' praises, he gave the command for the Sabbath, in which he chose for himself the witches who caught his fancy."

Night on Bald Mountain had a long history. In 1858 Mussorgsky started working an Opera called St. John's Eve using elements from Nikolai Gogol's short story St. John's Eve about a Russian peasant who makes a deal with a witch that costs him his immortal sole. The project was never completed, but some of the pieces may have been transferred to The Witch an 1860 opera project by Mussorgsky based on a play by the same name written by Baron Georgy Mengden, a friend of the composer.

It was Mengden's play the first introduced the idea of a witches' Sabbath as the centerpiece of the music. The Witch was never completed, but Mussorgsky used elements of it to compose St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain (the original title of the piece) in 1867. The work was meant to be a "tone poem" which means it is meant to illustrate a poem, story or picture. In this case the music is used to evoke in the listener a picture of a meeting of witches with their master, Satan.

So where is the Bald Mountain at? Lysa Hora is the location identified by Mussorgsky in his notes. Lysa Hora is not so much a mountain as a low hill located inside the boundaries of the Ukrainian capital city Kiev. The name translated into English comes out as "Barren Mount" or "Bald Mount." Though today the hill is fairly wooded, in earlier times much of it had no trees. It is referred to as a meeting place of witches in works by Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov.

In 1872 the Russian Army built a fort on the hill. Later this was converted to a storehouse. Beginning in 1906 the Tsarist government used it as an execution place for over 200 prisoners. Today it is a nature preserve.

There are claims that the place is haunted and people have allegedly had paranormal experiences there, but whether this is because there is something abnormal about the place, or people are simply being affected by its reputation is unknown.

Lysa Hora is just one of a number of "bald" mountains in Eastern Europe that have an evil reputation. Zamkova Hora, also in Kiev, has a similar status. In Germany the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountain range, is also known as a bare mountain where witches meet. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used it in his in his play Faust. The Brocken spectre, an optical illusion that looks a bit like a ghost, but is caused by fog and bright sun behind a person, maybe the one of the reasons that this particular peak has a reputation for paranormal events.

Despite the popularity of the Rimsky-Korsakov version, modern music historians suggest that in "fixing" Mussorgsky's music Rimsky-Korsakov was really changing the character of the work and making it more bland and acceptable to audiences. The original version has now been recorded and it is a quite a bit more of the nightmare that Mussorgsky meant it to be.


In History:

Fate of Flight 19 - December 5th, 1945 marks the anniversary of one of the most well-known mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle: The disappearance of Flight 19. On that date five Avenger bombers took off from the NAS at Ft. Lauderdale never to be seen again. While proponents of the Bermuda Triangle suggest that their disappearance was due to paranormal phenomena, it's more likely their demise was due to compass failure and poor piloting. For more information on this mystery check our video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODwlTDOfvGE


In the Sky:

Take a Shot at Andromeda - December 24th might be an excellent time to see if you can find the great Andromeda Galaxy (AKA M31). It's a new moon so the sky will be very dark. Pretty much everything you see in the sky with your naked eye is a member of our own galaxy. However if you can find M31 you will be looking at something outside our galaxy about 2 million light years away. To start first find the great square of the constellation Pegasus. Then from the top left star, go two stars to the left and up a bit. Then make a 90 degree right hand turn and head upwards passing on small star to a dim smudge that is M31. Though you can see M31 with the naked eye if it's dark enough, binoculars will definitely help. If you have a problem finding the great square, first find the big dipper. Use the two "pointer" stars at the front and draw and imaginary line through them to the star Polaris (AKA the North Star and end of the handle of the little dipper) then go an equal distance on the other side and you will be in the great square.



Canadian Lake Monster On YouTube - Ogopogo, the monster that supposedly inhabits Lake Okanagan, in Canada, put in an appearance on a YouTube video last month. Richard Huls, while visiting the area, saw something in the lake and captured it on his cell phone camera. Some of the monster's supporters claim there is more evidence for Ogopogo in Okanagan than Nessie in Loch Ness, Scotland. Mr. Huls put his video up on YouTube, so you can judge for yourself if it is really the legendary monster: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsuMDVmoM7c&feature=player_embedded



On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

NOVA: What Darwin Never Knew - One hundred and fifty years later, scientists decode nature's greatest mysteries--a two-hour special. On PBS: December 21 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

How Will the World End? - The Mayans predict that time will end on December 21, 2012. But how likely is a global apocalypse from a scientific point of view? When, where and will it happen, if at all? Samuel L. Jackson hosts this CGI spectacular.On The Discovery Channel: Dec 11, 8:00 pm; Dec 12, 1:00 am; ET/PT.

Prophets of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick - Philip K. Dick lived a life straight from the pages of his mind-bending sci-fi stories. His writing inspired Blade Runner and influenced the development of robotics and law enforcement. The troubled sci-fi legend questioned the definition of reality. On The Science Channel: Dec 02, 10:00 pm; Dec 03, 1:00 am; Dec 07, 9:00 pm; Dec 08, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Prophets of Science Fiction: Arthur C. Clarke - Some sci-fi storytellers are content to predict - but Arthur C. Clarke creates. His collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 predicted videophones, iPads, and commercial spaceflight. His sci-fi legacy inspires us to unveil the mysteries of the universe. On The Science Channel: Dec 01, 1:00 am; Dec 02, 5:00 am; ET/PT.

Finding the Next Earth - Join astronomers as they enter the final lap in a race to find a planet capable of sustaining life, a world like ours, the next Earth. See the launch of Frances CoRot and Americas Kepler missions, and the smoking hot worlds they discover. See a controversial and tantalizing discovery of a planet where life could exist in a strange twilight zone, that is, if the planet really exists. Astronomers are working to determine what conditions are necessary for life to exist, and they are building the radical James Webb Space Telescope, a spacecraft that can look at the atmosphere around a planet and reveal whether or not life as we know it actually exists. It could be the greatest discovery in human history and it could change how we see ourselves. On The National Geographic Channel: Dec 1, 09:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Truth Behind: UFOs - UFOs. Everyones heard about them but what are they exactly? The Truth Behind travels to the unofficial UFO capital of the world to investigate. Charting the rise of UFO sightings from the 1940s to the present day, the investigation examines the conspiracy theories, conducts a stakeout in the desert, looks into a recent sighting, and takes a field trip to a crash site in Nevada might unearth some clues. Well hear the experiences of a man whos flown in a real flying saucer and has got the footage to prove it. All to find the Truth Behind UFOs. On The National Geographic Channel: Dec 1, 10:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Truth Behind: The Crystal Skulls- Crystal Skulls mysterious artefacts found around the world that have captured the imagination of new age enthusiasts and esteemed academics alike. One skull in particular has long been the source of controversy and intrigue. The Truth Behind Crystal Skulls looks specifically at the provenance of the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull, claimed to have been discovered in Belize in the early 20th Century. The program answers the questions that continue to mystify its proponents. Is it a contemporary object of art? Is it an ancient Mayan artefact dating to over 3000 years ago? This adventurous documentary finds the answers by delving in to the murky past of the skull and taking us on a journey through the streets of Beijing, the jungle of Belize and the cities of Washington DC and London UK to discover the truth. On The National Geographic Channel: Dec 8, 10:00 PM; ET/PT.



Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011

Copyright Lee Krystek 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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