Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2005

In the News:

Mars Rovers Approach Anniversary - The Mars Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, will be celebrating one year on the Martian surface this month. Originally designed to operate for at least ninety days after landing, the rovers have far exceeded scientists' expectations. The rovers have found evidence that at least part of Mars was once covered with shallow water. They continue to look for clues that microbial life once, and maybe continues, to exist somewhere on the planet or below its surface.

Titan Mystifies Scientists - The Cassini spacecraft passed by Saturn's moon Titan for a second time during its voyage last month. The flyby gathered more information on the strange moon, but much of the data puzzled scientists. Titan is one of the few moons in the solar system that has an atmosphere and researchers were surprised to see that the atmosphere was stratified in a dozen distinct layers. They have no idea of what would cause such a structure. Other features they can't explain include a surface feature in the shape of a spiral and another that is a huge semicircle composed of what looks like "tooth-marks." The only thing that scientists are sure of is that Titan's atmosphere is very meteorologically active.

Hubble Dilemma Continues- A scientific panel from the National Academy of Sciences says that NASA's plan to service that Hubble Telescope through a robotic mission is too expensive, risky and time-consuming to be feasible. The final shuttle mission to service the Hubble Telescope was canceled in the wake of the February 2003 Columbia accident and it is expected that the telescope will become inoperable when its its gyroscopes fail in a few years. The recommendations of the panel are not binding, and an NASA will have the final say in how to handle the Hubble. Even if the telescope cannot be saved for scientific work, NASA will be forced to come up with a plan to steer the 13-ton satellite out of orbit and into a safe splash down in the ocean away from populated areas.

Eavesdropping on Aliens Maybe Hard - Overhearing radio signals from an advanced alien civilization may be more difficult than most scientists had appreciated. Researchers at the University of Michigan, Max Plank Institute and the University of New Mexico, have determined that effectively coded messages look a lot like background radio noise. "If you are communicating with maximum efficiency, your signal looks like black body radiation" said a physicist reviewing the group's work. According to scientists, the best chance of detecting an alien broadcast would be if the aliens wanted their signal to be found and they concentrated the transmission into a very narrow, powerful band similar to that of a radio station.

Australian Flash and Boom - Australian scientists think that a bright flash of light followed by a sonic boom along the South Wales Coast on December 6th was the work of a meteorite passing through the Earth's atmosphere. Households along Australia's east coast were awaken by the sound and calls to police and the media followed. Astronomers think the object passed about 12 miles overhead at a speeds of 30-50 kilometers a second, then exploded.


What's New at the Museum:

The Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon - This strange and unique landscape has been carved into haunting, colorful artwork by nature's powerful sculpture chisel, erosion. >Full Story

Classic Graphic Novels - Check out the eighth chapter - Deadly Tentacles - in our classic graphic novel version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. - >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

The Longest Day? - I was told that the story in the Bible, Exodus I believe, about Moses' two sons holding his arms up to continue the daylight because God told Moses that as long as his arms remained raised he would continue the day, could be proven.- Chris M.

The scripture about the extended day comes from the 10th Chapter of Joshua. For nearly 60 years some variation of the story that scientists have found a "missing day" while doing astronomical calculations has been circulated. Unfortunately this story, along with a variation that appeared in the 60's (referencing NASA) is an urban legend. The first known use of this myth was a chapter in a 1936 book Harmony of Science and Scripture written by Harry Rimmer. Rimmer referred to two eminent scientist of the day, Sir Edwin Ball and Prof. C.A. Totten who supposedly had written that evidence for a extra day had been discovered, but nobody can find anything in their writings about this subject.

This story got a boost in the 1970's when a man named Howard Hill published an updated version in his book How to Live Like a King's Kid. The Hill version makes references to NASA using computers to calculate the future position of planets, but having to insert an extra 24 hours to account for a missing day. Hill retold the story numerous times to various audiences and it was later published in several newspapers. As with the earlier Rimmer story, there is no evidence that the account is actually true. None of the facts can be verified. The story got new life again just a few years ago when people started e-mailing it around the internet.

The story itself doesn't really make sense. Any computer program figuring the position of the sun and planets in the past or future would make use of current orbital positions to work forward or backward and find the locations. There is no way for the computer to know that some time would be "missing."

For more on the history of this urban legend check out:



In History:

Onza Mystery Solved - On January 1st, 1986 two deer hunters in Mexico shot a strange looking large cat. It did not look like a puma (mountain lion) but they weren't sure what it was. It turned out to be an Onza. Onzas are an almost legendary animal said to inhabit the highlands in certain parts of Mexico. Often seen by locals, the creature was scoffed at by most scientists. The creature shot by they hunters finally solved the mystery of the Onza. The body of the animal was frozen and later dissected. Examination of the tissue showed that, though it looked different, the Onza was not a species unto itself, but a local variant of the Felis concolor, otherwise known as a puma.


In the Sky:

Saturn Watch - Look for Saturn on January 13. On this day the planet reaches opposition. That means that is is on the opposite side of the sky from the sun. Watch for it to rise at sunset and set at sun rise.



Naga Fireballs - Thousands of people gathered along the Mekong River in northeastern Thailand last October to celebrate Buddhist Lent. At this time of year, in the evening, fireballs of burning gas arise from the river and climb into the sky. Legend has it that the red and pink fireballs come from the underwater city of Muang, which is joining in the celebration. Other myths suggest they are the work of the Paya Naga, a serpentine water monster that lives below the surface. Scientists think that they are the result of gas from decomposing organic matter trapped under the river that spontaneously bubble up and ignite when they hit the atmosphere, but no actual studies have proven this theory.


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.

NOVA: Welcome to Mars - Two rovers roaming the surface of Mars find proof that it was once awash in water. Go to the Web site. On PBS. January 4 at 8 pm.

NOVA: The Boldest Hoax - Who perpetrated Piltdown Man, the greatest scientific fraud of the 20th century? On PBS. January 11 at 8 pm.

Cosmic Odyssey: Alien Planets - Anyone Home? - The search for worlds circling other stars is going well. There are now more planets known beyond the solar system than within it. We look at the people and instruments that make this possible, and follow the parallel quest for extraterrestrial life. On the Science Channel: Jan 04 @ 10:00 PM, Jan 05 @ 01:00 AM, Jan 05 @ 06:00 AM, Jan 05 @ 09:00 AM, Jan 05 @ 02:00 PM, Jan 05 @ 05:00 PM; ET.

Ancient Arsenal: Fire Ships - Sailing the Mediterranean was once a dangerous endeavor. Roaming the seas for 500 years was a vessel that inspired dread—the fireship. Invented by the Byzantines, this battleship was stocked with incendiary firing catapults and a monster flame thrower. On the Science Channel: Jan 06@ 10:00 PM, Jan 07@ 01:00 AM, Jan 07@ 06:00 AM, Jan 07@ 09:00 AM, Jan 07 @ 02:00 PM, Jan 07@ 05:00 PM; ET.

Island of the Pygmy Mammoth- Piece together the world of the mammoth species that evolved, and then became extinct thousands of years ago. The Channel Islands were the breeding ground for the evolutionary laws of giantism and dwarfism that created the smallest mammoth in history. On Science Channel: Jan 10 @ 08:00 PM, Jan 10 @ 11:00 PM, Jan 11 @ 04:00 AM, Jan 11 @ 07:00 AM, Jan 11 @ 12:00 PM, Jan 11 @ 03:00 PM; ET.

Ghosts of the Deep - A team led by Sverke Holstrum hopes to retrieve 200-year-old cargo, worth 250 million dollars, from the wreck of the Spanish galleon known as the Esperanza. Costing $30,000 per day for the equipment and personnel, Holstrum has 60 days to find the ship. On The Science Channel: Jan 15 @ 09:00 PM, Jan 16 @ 12:00 AM, Jan 16 @ 05:00 AM, Jan 16 @ 08:00 AM, Jan 16 @ 01:00 PM, Jan 16 2005 @ 04:00 PM ET/PT.

The Search for Khan's Tomb - Legend has it that after Genghis Khan's funeral, 2,000 servants were killed by 800 soldiers, who were in turn killed by a handful of generals to preserve the secrecy of the tomb site. Now, archaeologists believe they have discovered this hidden treasure. On Science Channel: Jan 17 @ 10:00 PM, Jan 18 @ 01:00 AM, Jan 18 @ 06:00 AM, Jan 18 @ 09:00 AM, Jan 18 @ 02:00 PM, Jan 18 @ 05:00 PM ET/PT.

End of Extinction: Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger - Scientists use DNA from a preserved specimen to clone the Tasmanian tiger, a wolf-like Australian marsupial ruthlessly hunted to extinction by English settlers in the 1900's. Dr. Mike Archer's quest to reverse this wrong draws critics and naysayers. On Science Channel: Jan 30 @ 09:00 PM, Jan 31 @ 12:00 AM, Jan 31 @ 05:00 AM, Jan 31 @ 08:00 AM, Jan 31 @ 01:00 PM, Jan 31 @ 04:00 PM ET/PT.

Sworn to Secrecy. - Join us as we search for the vast Nazi hoard culled from the treasuries of conquered lands and their citizens. We'll see how the Nazis acquired it, and find out where it might be today. Charlton Heston narrates. On History Channel: January 11 @ 6pm ET/PT.



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