Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2008

In the News:

Dino Fossil Gives Unprecedented Insight - Scientists are celebrating the amazing discovery of one of the finest and rarest dinosaur specimens ever unearthed - a partially intact dino mummy found in the Hell Creek Formation Badlands of North Dakota by 16-year-old fossil hunter Tyler Lyson. The fossilized include not just bones, but fossilized soft tissues like skin, tendons and ligaments. Most importantly, it was the first-ever find of a dinosaur where the skin "envelope" had not collapsed onto the skeleton. This has allowed scientists to calculate muscle volume and mass for the first time. Scientists are even hoping that some of the original chemical makeup of the skin can eventually be recovered from the fossil giving them an invaluable insight the biology of these long dead creatures.

Scientists Threaten Rats - Scientists are planning to drive the rats off of "Rat Island" which is part of the Aleutian chain, off the coast of Alaska. Rats first came to the island in 1780 after a rodent-infested Japanese ship ran aground. They have killed of all the bird life by eating eggs out of this nests creating a avian "dead zone." Scientists plan to reverse this by dropping a form of rat poison onto the uninhabited island that will thin their blood causing the rodents to bleed to death. If the project is successful "Rat Island" will be the largest isle ever cleared of rats. Rats are an particularity invasive alien species and are thought to be responsible for between 40 percent and 60 percent of all seabirds and reptile extinctions. Under favorable conditions a pair of rats can produce more than 5,000 descendants in one year.

Captain Kidd's Ship Found - The remains of a ship once captained by the pirate William Kidd have been found off the tiny Dominican Republic island of Catalina by an underwater archaeology team from Indiana University. The Quedagh Merchant, a ship abandoned by the Kidd in 1699, was located by scientists in the crystal clear waters, apparently previously undiscovered and unmolested by vandals. "When I first looked down and saw it, I couldn't believe everybody missed it for 300 years," said Charles Beeker, one of the team members. "I've been on thousands of wrecks and this is one of the first where it's been untouched by looters." The Dominican government has contracted the university to study the wreckage and convert area into an underwater preserve, where it will be accessible to divers and snorkelers.

Giant Scorpion would have Dwarfed a Man - A fossil found trapped in 390-million-year-old rock suggests that there once roamed a species of scorpion on Earth that was eight feet in length. Although only the claw of this gigantic creature has been found, comparisons to other similar species suggest it was the largest of its type. It also provides more evidence that some of these creatures were a lot larger in the past than today. "We have known for some time that the fossil record yields monster millipedes, super-sized scorpions, colossal cockroaches, and jumbo dragonflies. But we never realized until now just how big some of these ancient creepy-crawlies were," said Simon Braddy, a University of Bristol paleontologist and one the researchers involved in the discovery. The fossil was found in a quarry near Prum, Germany, which had probably been part of an ancient swamp. The remains were part of a species of Eurypterids, or ancient sea scorpions, are believed to be ancestors of today's scorpions and possibly all arachnids including spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks.

"T-Rex of the Ocean" Found in Norway - Scientists have found the fossils of what appears to be a new species of extinct plesiosaur on the remote on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. The teeth, skull fragments and vertebrae of a reptile recovered allow the researches to estimate that he creature was nearly 40 feet long. Some scientists are calling the 150-million-year-old short-necked plesiosaur, which was the size of a bus and had teeth like cucumbers, the "Tyrannosaurus Rex of the oceans."


Science Quote of the Month - "Science is what you know. Philosophy is what you don't know." - Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)


What's New at the Museum:

Surprising Science - Check out our new hall with stories of amazing inventions, mysterious geniuses and little known technology > Full Story

Notes from the Curators: Mad Scientists' Club - The tale of seven crazy propellor-head kids and the man who invented them. >Full Story

New Feature: Navigation Bar- Check out our new Navigation Bar feature on the left-hand side of most UnMuseum pages. Select from the areas here to find other great Museum pages.

Ask the Curator:

Expansion of Universe vs. Speed of Light - I read "K-Pax IV," a fictional book, and an alien character suggested that light only travels because the universe is expanding. She suggests that light cannot exceed the speed of light because that's the speed of the expanding universe and if the light exceeds that speed then it's going out of the universe's bounds. Is this somewhat true or completely fictional? - Melqui

In reviewing the literature on this subject I see no credible theories that connect the expansion of the universe, as we know it, to the speed of light. Usually when we talk about the "expansion of the universe" we are referring to the way things in the universe get farther away from each other over the course of time. This started with the "Big Bang" and continues today. Recently this speed was measured to be about 71 (km/s)/megaparsec. That means that if two objects in the universe are a megaparsec apart (3261.5 light years) they will be moving away from each other at 71 kilometers a second.

This speed is well below that of light so there doesn't seem to be a direct connection. In addition, the effect is additive so that at great distances - billions of megaparsecs apart - two objects can actually be moving away from each other at more that the speed of light. This would seem to defy Einstein's Theory, but remember that the movement of these objects is because they are just being carried along by the expansion of space, not because the objects themselves have been accelerated.

There is also recent evidence that the rate that the universe is expanding is increasing for some unknown reason. This is also unlike that speed of light which almost all scientists believe is a constant. Even the few people that suggest light speed may not be a constant speculate that it is slowing down, not speeding up.

Some future theory may find a connection between the speed of light and the expansion of the universe, but it is not obvious at point in time. Still, we do not know everything about the universe - in fact we do not even know what we don't know - so there is always the possibility of new discovery over the horizon that would change everything.

Have a question? Click here to send it to the curator.


In History:

Spring Loaded Criminal - In January of 1838 the Lord Mayor of London formed a vigilance committee to bring a bizarre criminal to justice. For months a figure referred to as "Spring Heeled Jack" had been terrorizing the city attacking women and grabbing newspaper headlines. Witnesses was said he was thin, strong with fiery eyes and could spit blue flame from his mouth. He always escaped the law through the use of springs on the heels of his boots that allowed him to make enormous jumps. Despite a citywide dragnet, this mysterious marauder was never brought to justice.


In the Sky:

Mercury Visible - January 22nd is an excellent day to try get a view of the difficult to find planet Mercury. Look in the southwest sky just after sunset.



Fireballs Mistaken for Flying Saucer - Residents along the coast of Canada and the Northeastern United States were startled last month by the appearance of "orange flares" in the even sky on December 10th. Calls to the police about the fireballs included reports ranging from flying saucers to crashing aircraft. Authorities are sure the sightings can be attributed to the booster stage of a rocket that had lifted a spy satellite into orbit earlier that day. "It wasn't a flying saucer, or an aircraft or green men or nothing," commented The Royal Canadian Mounted Police media relations spokesman Sgt. Derek Strong.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova:  Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold - Starting in the 1600s, scientists investigate the nature of cold through theory and sometimes-explosive experiments. On PBS. January 8 at 8 pm

Walking with Prehistoric Beasts - Repeat of this excellent story of non-dinosaur prehistoric animals aired in a marathon. Episodes: The New Dawn - Land of the Giants - Mammoth Journey - Land of the Giants; On Discovery Channel. Starting Jan 6th, 6PM ET/PT.

The Mystery of the Human Hobbit - It was the most striking scientific discovery of last year. An entirely new species of mini-human found on an island in Indonesia. Is the hobbit a new species that transforms our view of evolution, or is it simply a very small, modern human being? On the Discovery Channel. Jan 07, 8:00 pm; Jan 08, 12:00 am. ET/PT

Robosapiens - Robots may soon be a part of every household. Robots with emotions, robots that speak, play sports, fight crime and help astronauts in space. Find out just how smart a machine can be made, and who wil be in control. On Science Channel. Jan 03, 8:00 pm; Jan 03, 11:00 pm; Jan 04, 3:00 am; Jan 04, 9:00 am; Jan 05, 12:00 pm.

Prophets Of Science Fiction - Examine the strange lives of the visionaries of science fiction. The secrets of their uncanny ability to foretell the future are revealed. On Science Channel. Jan 10, 8:00 pm; Jan 10, 11:00 pm; Jan 11, 3:00 am; Jan 11, 9:00 am; Jan 12, 12:00 pm.

Science of Star Wars War, Weapons and The Force - From the Future Force Warrior to the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, more fighters are equipped with Storm Trooper-like gear. Find out how laser blasters are being tested by the US military for use as directed energy. On Science Channel. Jan 12, 6:00 pm; Jan 12, 7:00 pm; Jan 12, 8:00 pm; Jan 12, 11:00 pm; Jan 13, 2:00 am; Jan 13, 3:00 am.

Mysteries of the Moon- For thousands of years, mankind has found comfort in its presence. It's been a lantern for nighttime travelers, a timekeeper for farmers, and a location finder for sailors at sea. For some cultures, it's even been a god. It's the only cosmic body ever visited by human beings. From afar, the Moon's luminance has captivated us since the beginning of time. And a closer look at the beacon in the dark sky reveals an ever-present source of myth, intrigue, controversy and unsolved mysteries. The field of science may cast an empirical light on some things about the Universe, but lunar experts are the first to admit they don't have all the answers when it comes to our Moon. This episode explores the theories behind Lunar Transient Phenomena that have left scientists stumped for centuries; takes to the Canadian waters to see how the Moon effects our planet through tides; and dusts off some age-old myths and weighs arguments that without our Moon, humanity may not even exist. On The History Channel. January 01 09:00 PM; Wednesday, January 02 01:00 AM ET/PT.

Ancient Marvels Episode: Ancient Computer? - Journey back in time for an eye-opening look at the amazing ancient roots of technologies we like to think of as modern. New research suggests that many of the inventions of the last 200 years may, in fact, have already been known to the ancients. In this hour, we explore the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient machine that was discovered deep in the Aegean Sea. Could it perhaps have been an ancient computer? Could Archimedes have had a hand in its creation? On The History Channel. Saturday, Thursday, January 10 10:00 PM; Friday, January 11 02:00 AM.



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