Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

January 2009

In the News:

Stone Age Art Found - Archaeologists in Russia have uncovered an "extraordinary" set of Stone Age artworks buried in buried in a series of pits at Zaraysk, an site 100 miles southeast of Moscow. The objects were carefully placed in the pits, surround by colored sand and covered with mammoth bones as a part of what scientists speculate was a hunting ritual. The object found includes the likenesses of three overlapping mammoths carved onto mammoth rib and statuettes two female figures. The objects are estimated to be 21,000-22,000-year-old. According to a quote from the published article in the December issue of the magazine Antiquities, the site easily rivals others in the area "in terms of the splendor and variety of its art."

Dinosaurs Were Empty-Headed - A new study suggests that although a Tyrannosaurus rex's head may have weighed more than 1,100 pounds much of it was filled with empty air. In fact it turns out that most dinos possessed more air cavities in their heads than scientists had previously thought. Much of this space was in the form of the same type of sinuses cavities that people have and can lead to sinus headaches and infections. "Dinosaurs likely suffered from nasty sinus infections," according to one of the authors, Lawrence Witmer. The study, published in The Anatomical Record, concluded that the heads of predatory dinosaur had large olfactory areas with an airway that extended from the nostrils to the throat, in addition to the many sinus cavities. The air spaces helped make the skull bones but still very strong. Plant-eating dinosaurs also had hollow spaces in their heads, but they were organized more as twisting passages that may have added as part of a radiator to cool the animal as it breathed. Scientists reached their conclusions by using a CT scanner to image the skulls of two planet eating and two predatory dinosaurs.

Molten Plume Leads to Massive Extinction - About 250 million years ago a massive extinction - called the Permian-Triassic - came to Earth killing about 90 percent of life on our planet. Yukio Suzuki, of the University of Tokyo, has a new theory about what caused this catastrophe. According to Suzuki it all started 15 million years earlier when a plume of super-hot material from the Earth's outer core began rising through the mantle. This disrupted the planet's magnetic field exposing the surface to a lot of cosmic radiation. The radiation broke nitrogen in the atmosphere into ions that caused clouds to cover the planet. This in turn led to a cooling of the planet and a dropping of the sea levels as ice built up on the continents. Five million years later the plumes reached the surface erupting as a series of supervolcanoes and ten million years later an even larger supervolcano was set off and the clouds from its eruption blanketed the earth leading to even further cooling of the climate and massive extinction at the Permian-Triassic boundary. Suzuki believes that one giant plume caused all these events and the extinction, though other scientists have not been persuaded that all these items are connected.

New da Vinci Sketches? - Scientists at the Louvre Museum in Paris and restoration and research experts from the Museums of France have found sketches on the back of a Leonardo da Vinci painting may have been drawn by the master artist himself. Art experts while studying the painting "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne" found several barely visible drawings on the back of it: a horse's head, a partial skull, and a sketch of the infant Jesus with a lamb. To get a better image of the drawing scientists photographed them with an infrared reflectographic camera. Experts say the style of the sketches resembles that of da Vinci, but more through examinations will need to be done before they can confirm the drawing are his.mc2 Proved Correct

Thousand of New Species Found in Mekong Delta - According to a report from the World Wildlife Fund the Mekong Delta region in South Asia is a "biological treasure trove" where more than a thousand new species have been found in a decade. Some of the new discoveries include a hot pink cyanide-producing "dragon millipede,"a spider with a foot-long legspan, and the Laotian rock rat which has been thought extinct for centuries. The rock rat was first seen a scientist visiting an outdoor restaurant who startled to see the creature among the nearby wildlife. The World Wildlife fund is extremely concerned about the Mekong Delta region as it is under pressure from development of the timber and mining industries. The river already has 150 dams along its length with another 150 planned. These may disrupt the eco system killing off species scientists don't even know exist in this unique and biologically sensitive area.


Science Quote of the Month - "The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them." ~William Lawrence Bragg


What's New at the Museum:

The Case of the Humanzee - In his 2006 book NEXT, the late author Michael Crichton, tells the story of a scientist who crosses his own genes with a chimpanzee to create a human/ape hybrid: A Humanzee. Is such a thing possible? Has it already been done? > Full Story



Ask the Curator:

Tension on the Surface - I often see drops of water hanging but not falling. Gravity is pulling on them, so what's holding them up? - John

The effect you are referring to is known as surface tension. Surface tension is responsible for many of the strange things we see liquids do, but are so familiar we don't usually even think about them. Surface tension is caused by forces in nature that pull the tiny particles that make up substances (molecules) together. A general name for these is intermolecular forces and they are only effective at a very short range. So short that the molecules have to be practically touching for them to take effect.

Intermolecular forces tend to pull molecules of the same substance together more strongly than molecules of substances of different types. This is what causes water to form into beads on a waxed surface. The wax does not attract the water molecules as much as other water molecules do, so they pull themselves together into a sphere shape which allows the most volume of water with the smallest surface area letting the water molecules to get as close to each other as they can. Because gravity is also acting on the water sphere, however, it tends to flatten out a bit forming into a bead.

What does this have to do with hanging water? Let's take the example of a droplet hanging from a leaking facet. The water forms into half sphere to get as close as possible to each other. Even though the metal of the facet doesn't attract the water molecules as much as other water molecules do, there is still enough attraction to counteract gravity and keep the half sphere from falling or turning into a full sphere.

As more water from the leak flows into the droplet, however, it gets bigger and heavier until it weighs so much that the surface tension of the droplet to the facet isn't enough to keep it attached. The droplet becomes elongated with less and less of the water touching the metal. As less and less of the water touches the metal the surface tension drops even more until the droplet falls free.

One in the air the droplet, now free from the attraction to the facet, can form into a perfect sphere to minimize the distance between the water molecules. Rain drops, contrary to popular belief, are spheres. They only appear to be shaped with an elongated tail because that's the way our eyes see them as they zoom by us on the way to the ground.

Surface tension also explains why water droplets on wax paper pull together when brought close to each other. Again the water molecules are trying to get as close to each other as they can by minimizing the outside area and maximize the volume. Surface tension also explains how a bug like the water strider can walk on the surface of a pond. The bug so light his weight is not enough to push the water molecules apart so his foot can sink in.

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


In History:

Ancient Astronauts - On January 5, 1973, the NBC television network aired a TV special called, Chariots of the Gods? based on the book of the same title by Swiss author Erich Von Daniken. Von Daniken book and its sequels suggested that earth had been visited by aliens in ancient times and were often mistaken for gods. Public interest in the idea of "ancient astronauts" was strong through much of the 70's, but faded in the 1980's. Von Daniken, now age 73, has written 26 books which have been translated into more than 20 languages, and sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. In 2003 he opened a theme park based on his ideas called Mystery Park located in Interlaken, Switzerland. Unfortunately it closed for lack of attendance in November of 2006.


In the Sky:

Jupiter and Mecury Together Again - Early January will be an excellent time to see the smallest and largest planets in the solar system appearing next to each other in the night sky. Jupiter (the largest - 5th from the sun) and Mercury (smallest - next to the sun) will be visable right after sunset in the southwest sky very close to the horizon. Venus (5th in size, 2nd from the sun) will also be visible in the same direction, higher off the horizon. In brightness they range from Venus at the top of the scale to Mercury as the least brightest.



Military Plane Design Based on UFO? - UFO researcher William Louis (Bill) McDonald claims that his late friend, John Andrews, Lockheed engineer and Chief model kit designer for the Testor Corporation, had told him that many of the design elements used in secret military aircraft were learned from examining the UFO that had supposedly crashed near Roswell, NM, in 1947. Andrews in turn supposedly learned this from Ben Rich who ran the famous Lockheed "Skunk Works" project from 1975 to 1991. According to McDonald the inward canted vertical stabilizers of the F-19, the HAVE BLUE, and the SR-71 matched the 30 degree inward cant of the recovered Roswell spacecraft. McDonald decided not to release this information until Andrews had died. Rich died in 1995. With both parties dead it will be hard to confirm any part of this story.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Arctic Passage - Ice Survivor - Explorer Roald Amundsen finally cracks the Northwest Passage. On PBS. January 13 at 8 pm.

Where's My Robot? - The documentary is based on the belief in the 1980's that by the next century personal robots would be available and be an accepted part of society. Wallace investigates why it did not become a reality and whether it will in the future. On the Science Channel. Jan 11, 9:00 pm; Jan 12, 12:00 am; Jan 13, 4:00 am; ET/PT

Robosapiens - Robots may soon be a part of every household. There will be 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 will be in control. On the Science Channel. Jan 11, 8:00 pm; Jan 11, 11:00 pm; Jan 13, 3:00 am; ET/PT

Exploring Einstein: Life of a Genius - Albert Einstein's physics theories led to the creation of the nuclear bomb, space travel, and an understanding of our universe. In the later part of his life Einstein tried to disprove his theories as they clashed with his personal beliefs. On the Science Channel. Jan 15, 8:00 pm; Jan 15, 11:00 pm; Jan 16, 3:00 pm; Jan 17, 3:00 am; ET/PT

Earth's Black Hole - Explore the wonders and mysteries of the Black Holes in our universe. Is it possible that areas on earth might, in fact, show black hole like tendencies? We take a hard scientific look at an area known as the Bermuda Triangle to see if there are indeed any similarities between the supposed forces in the triangle and the destructive force of a black hole. From a research boat trip through the triangle to interviews with scientists at the US Geological Survey, Harvard University, and the UK's Cardiff University, we go far beyond the event horizon to explore the dangers in this area and what relation they might indeed have with its counterpoint in space. On The History Channel. Tuesday, January 06 08:00 PM; Wednesday, January 07 12:00 AM; Sunday, January 11 10:00 AM; ET/PT.



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