Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

December 2013

In the News:

New Silicon Supercapacitor - A breakthrough in capacitors may mean that in a few years batteries will be a thing of the past for mobile devices like smart phones. A group of scientists at Vanderbilt University have made a capacitor for storing power out of silicon. "If you ask experts about making a supercapacitor out of silicon, they will tell you it is a crazy idea," said assistant professor of mechanical engineering Cary Pint, a participant in the experiment. Capacitors differ from batteries because they can be recharged more times and absorb power faster. However, they are usually made of carbon. If they could be made of silicon, however, they would be of much more use to the electronics industry. The Vanderbilt researchers created a silicon capacitor, but covered it in a thin layer of carbon to protect it from the air. When the device was baked to seal it, the carbon unexpectedly turned into graphene which increased the amount of energy the capacitor could store by a 100. While the breakthrough is not yet ready for commercial use, researchers believe it will soon lead to devices that no longer need batteries

High School Student Finds Baby Dino - A new baby Parasaurolophus dinosaur skeleton has just gone on display at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, CA. What unusual about this dinosaur isn't just that it's so young, but that it was found by a high school student back in 2009. Kevin Terris was part of a group of students from The Webb Schools who attended a field dig with staff from the museum. He noticed a little sliver of bone sticking out from under a boulder and alerted the staff who found a Parasaurolophus skull on the other side. Since the part Terris had seen turned out to be toes, it seemed likely that the entire skeleton was in between. It took a year to get permits to remove the specimen (which weighed 800 pounds encased in rock) which was airlifted out of the backcountry by helicopter. An examination of the fossil found that though the dinosaur was over six feet long, it was less than a year old.

Pocket Drone - PD-100 Black Hornet Personal Reconnaissance System looks like a tiny toy helicopter, but is actually used by the military. Although it has been just announced to the public, the device, which weighs only 0.56 ounces (16 grams) has been in use by British troops in Afghanistan in a variety of missions. It is carried into the field by a soldier in a case which only weighs 3 pounds. The case carries two drones and control unit with video screen that allows the operator to see what the drone sees with its on board camera. It can be used for scouting routes, checking for possible enemy ambushes and peeking over the walls of nearby compounds. With its small size it is nearly invisible at a distance of only 30 feet.

T-Rex's Oldest Ancestor Found - The recently announced Lythronax argestes, or "Gore King of the Southwest," is now the oldest of the tyrannosaurid family, the line that eventually led to the "King " of the dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex. The specimen unearthed in 2009, is 24 feet in length, weighed about 2.75 tons and lived in Laramidia, a split-off of North America that ran from Alaska, down to Mexico. Thought this particular creature was a juvenile it is thought that even the adults were still quite a bit shorter than T-Rex. The "Gore King" lived about 80 million years ago which pushes the tyrannosaurid clan back much farther than previously thought. It also suggests that there are a lot more tyrannosaurid species out there to be found.

Printing a Heart - It is possible that a 3-D printed heart maybe ready to go into a human body within a decade according to Stuart Williams, executive and scientific director of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in Louisville, Ky. Three dimensional printing of organs works by laying down living cells layer by layer in the same way a 3-D printers lay down plastic or metal to make inanimate objects. This method has already been used to make small chunks of organs like livers and kidneys. Williams suggests parts of the heart will be printed as subassemblies, then put together to complete the organ. The method will also take advantage of the self-organizing ability of cells to create the smallest part of the organ (like small blood vessels) with are too tiny for the printer to create.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science increases our power in proportion as it lowers our pride." - Claude Bernard


What's New at the Museum:

AKA Santa Claus - Every December 24th millions of people are visited by a short, fat guy in a red suit. Where did he come from, why does he do it, and how does he accomplish this seemingly impossible task? (An encore of our classic article) - Full Story

Video: The Day the Air Force Almost Nuked North Carolina - A short documentary on a "broken arrow" incident were a training accident almost resulted in H-bomb detonation on U.S. soil. - Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Power From a Thunderbolt - Could a power company use lightning rods to collect electricity?- John

The idea that you might be able to harvest electrical energy from lightning is one that scientists have found intriguing for many years. Anybody who has seen the 1985 hit movie Back to the Future knows that Doc Brown was able to use a bolt from a thunderstorm to power his DeLorean/time machine and send Marty McFly back to his own era.

Doc Brown had one advantage in using lightning that most scientists don't, however. Because of his time machine he knew exactly when and where the lightning was going to strike. That's one of the major problems with trying to harness this source of power. We don't know exactly where lightning is going to hit, or how powerful the bolt will be.

This hadn't stopped scientist from trying to make it work. After all a lighting strike can carry a lot of power. As much as five billion Joules of energy which would be enough, by some estimates, to power a single household for a month.

One idea is to build a series of tall towers in an area that has frequent thunderstorms in the hopes that they will get struck on a regular basis. A sort of a "lightning farm." The best place for something like this would be Florida or the Pacific Coast as those locations get the most lightning strikes per square mile.

Even with towers in those locations, however, strikes probably would not be regular enough to make the system economical. However, it might be possible to get lightning to strike on cue using a laser. Scientists have been successful in using a high-powered laser with a short pulse to create what's known as a laser-Induced plasma channel. The idea is that the laser heats the air so much that ionizes the gases to form plasma. The plasma conducts electricity much more easily than the surrounding air so an electrical charge will travel down the laser's path.

Most of the development of this had been by the military. Imagine being able to direct an artificial lightning bolt via laser to an enemy target. It might be able to disable enemy weapons or detonate munitions at a distance. Using smaller electrical charges (like those in a Taser) you might be able to build a stun gun like those seen on Star Trek.

A commercial application of the technology, however, might be to use the laser to create a path from the lightning farm up into thunderclouds to initiate a lightning strike directly onto your power collection equipment.

Of course this brings a new concern. Can you really build a tough enough system to withstand the surge of five billion Joules of energy? An Illinois inventor named Steve LeRoy came up with an idea of how to make it work and demonstrated it using an artificial lightning bolt that lit up a 60-watt light bulb for 20 minutes. In 2007, an alternative energy company called Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. (AEHI) tested his design. The idea was that a lightning tower would capture the bolt and some of the energy would be sent to a capacitor with the rest just being shunted off into the ground. After working with the idea for a while the company's CEO, Donald Gillispie, concluded that they "couldn't make it work," although "given enough time and money, you could probably scale this thing up... it's not black magic; it's truly math and science, and it could happen."

So maybe getting power from lightning still might be possible. Some experts, however, question whether such a system will ever be practical. Martin A. Uman, co-director of the Lightning Research Laboratory at the University of Florida noted that while a single lightning strike is fast and bright, only a small portion of the energy it actually has reaches the ground. "The energy is in the thunderstorm," he explained. "A typical little thunderstorm is like an atomic bomb's worth of energy. But trying to get the energy from the bottom of the lightning is hopeless."

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In History:

Enter the Atomic Age - December 2nd, 1942, marks the day the first sustained atomic chain reaction was achieved. Enrico Fermi and other Manhattan Project researchers constructed an "atomic pile" consisting of 80 tons of graphite blocks embedded with uranium dioxide beneath the stadium seats at the University of Chicago . When they removed the cadmium coated control rods neutrons were allowed to flow between the radioactive elements to create a sustained atomic reaction. What was learned during this 28 minute experiment would eventually give rise to the atomic bomb and nuclear power reactors.


In the Sky:

Catch the Geminids - The night of December 13/14 will be the best time to catch the Geminids meteor shower. Though you can see shooting stars from this shower for days before and afterward, the shower will reach its peak that night with 50-80 visible per hour. The shower gets its name because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini.



Solved: Mystery of the Moving Mummy Statue - The staff and visitors of the British Manchester Museum have been puzzled as how an ancient Egyptian statue in a locked display case managed to spin around by itself to face the wrong way on a regular basis. The statue, which had been with the museum for 80 years, would mysteriously move during the day. The staff installed a camera to see if anybody was touching it and were astounded when the statue appeared to move without anybody in the vicinity. A pleather of theories poured in to explain the mystery ranging from dead spirits to magnetic rock. The mystery was settled when expert Steve Gosling placed a three-axis sensor under the statue and found that vibrations (footsteps, trucks going by outside) combined with the slippery glass surface the statue was sitting on was enough to cause it to turn. The bottom of the statue, which was not perfectly flat but had a bump in it, was the reason it tended to spin rather the move randomly over the shelf.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Building the Great Cathedrals - How did medieval engineers construct magnificent skyscrapers of glass and stone? On PBS December 25 at 9 pm ET/PT

Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes- Could the explosion of Icelandís ticking time bombs cause cold and famine worldwide? On PBS January 1 at 9 pm ET/PT

Dinosaurs: Return to Life - Dinosaurs: Return to Life follows scientists who are using the latest technology and amazing advances in genetic research to revive the possibility of creating a living breathing dinosaur, but in a different way than we ever imagined. On the Science Channel: Dec.4th 8:00AM; ET/PT.

Journey to the Center of the Earth - The vast heat flowing from the center of the Earth has changed history and shaped our world. This is the story of how life on Earth is governed by the hidden monster that lies 4000 miles beneath our feet - the fiery core of the planet. On the Science Channel: Dec. 5th 6:00AM; ET/PT.

Alien Mummies - Combining high-end drama reconstruction, scientific tests and expert testimony, we uncover a series of elaborate hoaxes, natural phenomenon and unidentified creatures as we explore manís eternal fascination with extra-terrestrial beings On the Science Channel: Dec. 6th 8:00PM & 11:00PM ET/PT.

President's Book of Secrets - Moments after the President of the United States is sworn into office he gains access to "The Nuclear Football," a briefcase that contains the most volatile top-secret information in the world--America's nuclear launch codes. The Football is a high profile national secret, but it's only one of many pieces in the classified arsenal at the President's disposal once he assumes the role of Commander in Chief. Journey inside White House history to unveil staggering information about secrets known only to the President, from top-secret intelligence and classified events to covert codes and future technologies. On the History Channel: December 1, 8:00 PM; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens Aliens and Dinosaurs - Angkor Wat, Cambodia, is the world's largest ancient religious temple. Within its megalithic ruins, researches have discovered a depiction of a species of dinosaur--a stegosaurus. But how could the ancients have had knowledge of animals that mainstream science says died out millions of years ago? Why are dinosaurs extinct? Did an alien race of beings kill off the dinosaurs to make room for humankind? On the History Channel: December 2, 9:00 PM; ET/PT.


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Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.


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