Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2002

In the News:

Mars Once Wetter Than Earth- According to research published last month in the journal Science, the planet Mars, though dry and dusty now, was covered by vast oceans which gave it more water per square mile than Earth. Vladimir A. Krasnopolsky of Catholic University of America and Paul D. Feldman of Johns Hopkins University discovered that the Martian astmosphere has molecular hydrogen, or H2, in its upper reaches. The H2, they beleive, comes from a chemical reaction that split the hydrogen from water, H20, and allowed the lighter hydrogen to escape to the atmosphere. According to their theory the planet during its early history had enough water for an ocean about a mile deep. Most of the water, though, was chemically bound to the rocks and soils of the planet which was rich in iron. Over a 300 million year period, the water reacted with the iron, releasing molecular hydrogen to the atmosphere in a process called hydrodynamic escape. The iron-water reaction also gave Mars its rusty-red color.

Moon to Solve Earth's Energy Problems? - Prof. David Criswell of the University of Houston's Institute for Space Systems has proposed a way to solve the world's energy problems by constructing power plants on the moon. The idea was one of a number presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union last month. Under Criswell's plan, lunar solar panels would capture the sun's rays and send them onto Earth as concentrated microwave beams. The microwave energy beam, which could pass through rain and clouds, would be sent back to "rectennas" on Earth, where it would be converted into electricity. The beam would be about 20 percent the intensity of the noontime sunlight and would be extremely safe, but might generate local radio interference. Some scientists are concerned that such a system in the wrong hands might be converted into a new type of weapon that could be used to attack Earth from space. Criswell is confident, however, that enough safeguards could be built into the system to prevent it from being turned to such malicious uses.

Evidence for the Human Soul? - A study published last month in the British medical journal Lancelet hints that there may be scientific evidence for the existence of the human soul. A team of Dutch doctors conducted a study of 344 heart attack survivors and found that 12 percent of them experienced "emotions, visions, or lucid thoughts" while they were unconscious with no signs of pulse, breathing or brain activity. The subjects were considered "clinically dead" at the time. This is the largest study to-date of the "near-death experience." While this might hint of the existence of a "soul" that continues to work independently of the brain, observers expect there will be extensive debate in the scientific community on what the results of the study mean.

Eakin's Art Secret - Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Mark Tucker and Charles Falco, a surface scientist at the University of Arizona believe they have discovered evidence that the celebrated American painter Thomas Eakins traced many of his paintings from photographs. The scientists used a method called infrared reflectography to examine pencil lines underneath the paint of Eakins' pictures. The lines appeared to be traced and match perfectly photographs the team found in the Eakins' estate. It seems likely that artist traced the photographs by projecting the images onto his canvas using a primitive, slide projector-like instrument called a magic lantern.

Eakins was probably not alone in using such techniques. Artist David Hockney, who works with Falco, recently authored Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, a book in which he suggests that the introduction of such optical approaches in the 15th century led to an increase in realism in art.

Scientists Say "Killer" Quakes May Have Ended Ancient Civilizations - Amos Nur, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University has proposed that "killer" earthquakes may have caused the collapse of numerous civilizations throughout human history. Nur aired his theory at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union last month. Nur was studying the end of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean, where cities including Troy, Mycenae and Knossos were wiped out around 1200 B.C. when he developed his theory. While it has been suggested that a mysterious group of pirates caused the destruction, Nur believes that an "earthquake storm" may have been responsible for the disappearance of so many large cities between 1225 and 1175 B.C.

Other scientists at the meeting suggest that civilizations as diverse as the Harappan of India's Indus River Valley and the Mayan Classic Period in central America might also have been victims of earthquakes. Critics, skeptical that a single event could destroy a thriving civilization, have dubbed the earthquake hypothesis the "Godzilla Attacks Babylon" theory of human cultural decline.

Glenn Miller's Mysterious Death Resolved - The mystery of what happened to American big band leader Glenn Miller may have been solved. On December 15, 1944, Miller's plane left an airbase in southeast England headed to Paris. The plane was never seen again. A British television documentary team think they have solved the mystery, though. The believe that a flight of 139 Lancaster bombers returning that night from an canceled mission dumped their bombs into the English Channel - and accidentally on top of Miller's plane. Fred Shaw, a navigator on one of the Lancasters, said he saw the bombs hit a small plane beneath him. Shaw, recorded in an amateur film interview before his death several years ago said, "I had never seen a bombing before so I crawled from my navigator seat and put my head in the observation blister. I saw a small high-wing monoplane, a Noorduyn Norseman, underneath." Miller was in a Noorduyn Norseman. Shaw saw the small plane crash. His claims were dismissed when he first made them, but recent research into the flight path of Miller's plane has led researchers to conclude it would have passed directly under the returning bomber flight.


What's New at the Museum:

The UnMuseum's Universe Theater - Use this new page to browse through our Flash Animation productions which range from Science Shorts to Mini-Documentaries and Just for Fun. - The Universe Theater

Zeep and Meep's First Movie - Follow Zeep and Meep, our two extraterrestrial visitors from the LGM comic strip, as they make an alien abduction. A flash movie. - First Movie


Ask the Curator:

BigFoot Photos - Do you think there will ever be positive photographic proof of bigfoot? - Colin

Probably not. Now that we have developed the ability to manipulate photos and video with computers to create almost any convincing image we want, no photograph will be generally accepted as proof of such controversial claims as bigfoot, the abominable snowman, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.. It is too easy to produce hoax images which can fool the best photographic experts. Also even if the image itself is not manipulated, the ability of a modern special effects house to produce a convincing bigfoot costume will always create some doubt. The only evidence that will be generally accepted in the future is an actual specimen, dead or alive, that can be examined by multiple independent, scientific teams to ensure authenticity.

Ten Percent Brain - I read an article which said that an average person only uses around 10 % of their brain. Are there any organizations devoted to exploring areas of the brain we do not use and trying to understand whether we can train ourselves to harness this much wasted asset we all can't live without? - Anonymous

While referred to countless times in various publications the "fact" that we only use 10 percent of our brain is a myth. Modern PET scans show that we use all of our brain, but not all parts of it at the same time (the same way we use our hand muscles a lot , but our legs muscles very little, while sitting and typing at a computer). Where the 10 percent myth comes from is hard to say, but it may date back to debates in the early 1800's between people who thought brain functions were localized into specific areas and others who thought the brain acted as a whole. It may also have been a misinterpretation of the work of Karl Spencer Lashley in the early 20th century. Lashley noticed that removing a large portion of a rat's brain surgically didn't effect certain types of simple learning. However, Lashley only tried a limited set of tests and it is likely that the part of the rat's brain he removed might have handled other untested tasks.

Several famous people reportedly said that we only use ten percent of our brain (including Albert Einstein and anthropologist Margaret Mead) but most of these people, while they may have had fine brains themselves, were not neuroscientists and did not have access to the results from modern PET scan studies.

Some of the confusion may be attributed to a misunderstanding of the structure of the brain. While we have some 100 billion neuron cells in our brains that actually do the thinking, there are 10 to 50 times as many glial cells in our head that support them by insulating axons, cleaning up cellular debris, regulating chemicals, etc.. This means that while a large portion of the cells in the brain do not actually do information processing, all them contribute as a whole to make the brain work.

There are innumerable organizations dedicated to improving our minds (including the UnMuseum) and people can continue to learn throughout their lives, but there is no physical evidence to suggest a huge, secret, untapped potential that can only be accessed by specially trained individuals.


In History:

Early Flying Saucer - On an evening in January, 1878, John Martin was out hunting some six miles south of Denison, Texas, when he spotted an object moving quickly across the sky. Martin described the object later as a "large saucer" making his report one of the earliest known "flying saucer" reports in the world. The term "flying saucer" itself, however, is generally thought to have been coined by a reporter who interviewed pilot Kenneth Arnold after he said he'd seen flying disc-like objects in 1947.


In the Sky:

Sun is Close - On January 2nd the Earth reaches perihelion (its closest approach to the sun). At that point our planet will only be 91,402,460 miles from our star.

Four to View - On January 6th four planets will be visable in the sky at the same time for a careful observer to see. One hour after sunset Mercury can seen in the SW just above the horizon. At the same time, Jupiter and Saturn will appear as the two brightest objects on the eastern side of the sky. Mars, which has been growing steadily dimmer recently, will be a redish dot about halfway up in the SSW.



Lake Monster Video on Web - has posted a video from a viewer that reportedly shows "Champ," the monster that supposedly inhabits Lake Champlain. The Lake is located on the border between upper New York state and Vermont. The video, taken last spring, shows a hump in the water that seems to be about fifty feet long and moves rapidly along the surface. Is it really a lake monster? Take a look yourself by going to


On the Tube:

Currently we are only able to give accurate times and dates for these programs in the United States. Check local listings in other locations.

History Alive: UFOs - The History Alive series on the History Channel takes a look at UFOs. Episodes of interest are: UFOs vs. the Government January 02 9:00 PM , January 03 1:00 AM, January 06 3:00 PM; Testing the Evidence January 03 9:00 PM, January 04 1:00 AM, January 06 4:00 PM-5:00 PM; Extraterrestrials January 04 9:00 PM, January 05 1:00 AM, January 06 5:00 PM.

The Pirate Ships - Sail the high seas on a swift, agile, and deadly pirate ship as it strikes fear in the hearts of swabbies everywhere. Part of the History Channel's Great Ships series. January 12 3:00 PM.

Neanderthals on Trial -In 1856, bones of an unrecognizable hominid turned up in Germany's Neander Valley. Despite a century and a half of study and debate, Neanderthals remain an enigma. Were they our ancestors, or an evolutionary dead-end? Nova on PBS January 22 8 PM.

Beast of the Amazon: Dead or Alive? - Researcher David Oren ventures into the heart of the Brazilian Amazon to prove the existence of an ancient beast believed to be descended from the extinct ground sloth. Jan 3 10:00 PM, Jan 3 2:00 AM, Jan 5 7:00 PM. On the Discover Channel.

Hidden History with Terry Jones - Monty Python veteran Terry Jones brings his inimitable wit to breathing lighthearted humor into ancient history. Episodes: Hidden History of Egypt with Terry Jones Jan 20 9:00 PM, Jan 20 1:00 AM, Jan 26 4:00 PM, Jan 30 8:00 PM, Jan 30 12:00 AM; and Hidden History of the Roman Empire with Terry Jones Jan 20 10:00 PM, Jan 20 2:00 AM, Jan 26 5:00 PM, Jan 30 9:00 PM, Jan 30 1:00 AM. On the Discover Channel.

Mysteries of the Pyramids - Discover the many puzzling and astonishing features of pyramids around the world. Jan 20 8:00 PM; Jan 20 12:00 AM. On the Discover Channel.

Pyramid of Doom, The: An Ancient Murder Mystery - Excavations at an ancient pyramid in Peru reveal some 70 skeletons grotesquely splayed across a mud plaza in positions of sudden, violent death. An archaeological team reveals a dark side of one of antiquity's most brilliant civilizations. Jan 3 10:00 PM, Jan 3 1:00 AM. On TLC.

Ancient Ancestors: Princess and the Pauper - The discovery of thousands of skeletons in the heart of London astonished archaeologists. It looks like hundreds of people were struck down by something deadly and dumped in a mass pauper's grave, along with the body of a young Roman in a sarcophagus. Jan 3 9:00 PM, Jan 3 12:00 AM. On TLC.

Forgotten Secrets - Ancient civilizations appear to be linked by astonishing similarities in their understanding of the heavens. Evidence points beyond coincidence to the existence of an earlier civilization that spread their knowledge world-wide. Jan 13 10:00 PM, Jan 13 1:00 AM, Jan 19 7:00 PM, Jan 24 9:00 PM, Jan 24 12:00 AM. On TLC.

The Secret of Stonehenge - Delve into the mysteries of Stonehenge, the monolith constructed during the same period as Egypt's pyramids. Jan 18 9:00 PM, Jan 18 12:00 AM. On TLC.



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