Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

February 2005

In the News:

Huygens Finds Weird World - The Huygens probe landed on Saturn's moon, Titan, last month and sent back a series of spectacular pictures. The photo's show the remote moon has rain, rivers and erosion. The rain on Titan is not in the form of water, however, but methane. Methane, which is a highly flammable and toxic gas here on Earth, is in liquid form on Titan because of the extremely low temperatures there (290 Fahrenheit degrees below zero as reported by Huygens). Other unusual things discovered there by the probe were the presence of hot springs composed of liquid methane and evidence of volcanos that spout not lava, but water ice and ammonia. Because of the large amount of methane on the surface one scientist observed, "There's no source of oxygen available [on the surface], which is a good thing or Titan would have exploded a long time ago."

A Cretaceous Duck? - Scientists have discovered the remains of a bird from the Cretaceous period that most closely resembles an Anatidae. Anatidaes are a classification of birds that includes ducks, chickens, emus and ostriches. The animal, named Vegavis iaii, is clearly a waterfowl and implies birds were much more advanced during the Cretaceous period than most scientist had previously thought. It calls into question the theory that birds diversified and multiplied only after the dinosaurs went extinct. Scientists thought the dinosaurs left many niches in the habitat vacant that the birds could then fill.

Plans to Scrap Current Calendar - A scientist has proposed scrapping our current calendar system, established in 1582, and creating a new one that would feature a "leap week" every five or six years. Richard Conn Henry, a professor at John Hopkins came up with the plan after it occurred to him that reworking the assignments for his class each year would be totally unnecessary if the same day of the week fell on the same day of the month each year. Henry thinks such a streamlined calendar would save businesses a lot of money.

Henry isn't the only one trying to reform our calendar. Irv Bromberg, a professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Toronto wants to replace it with a "Orbital Date" similar to the "Star Date" devised by writers on the television show "Star Trek." The calendar, named Symmetry 454, would place the leap days at the end of the year.

Shroud of Turin Older than Thought - The Shroud of Turin, thought by many to have been the burial cloth of Jesus, appears to be older than the date established by the radiocarbon tests that led scientist to label the holy relic a fake. According to an article published this month in Thermochimica Acta, a chemistry peer- reviewed scientific journal, the samples used in the 1988 carbon dating tests may have come from section of the Shroud repaired in medieval times. New microchemical tests give the age of the Shroud as between 1,300 and 3,000 years old. The tests look for the presence of vanillin in the cloth. Vanillin results from the decomposition of lignin, a chemical compound of plant material used in shroud. The less vanillin found in the material, the older it is. The radiocarbon samples have vanillin levels consistent with the date of a major repair on the shroud, while the vanillin levels in most of the shroud show that the original portion is much older.

Leonardo da Vinci's Hidden Workshop is Found - The hidden room where Leonardo da Vinci might have painted the Mona Lisa has been discovered in an old friary in Florence, Italy. The finding was announced at a press conference last month by a team of researchers from Italy's Military Geographical Institute. The workshop contains frescoes that bear a resemblance with other examples of Leonardo's work. "The workshop has been long sought. It was always there, all we had to do was look," said Roberto Manescalchi, one of the researchers who made the discovery. The researchers first discovered a staircase dating back to 1430. The staircase led to five rooms used by Leonardo and his pupils starting in 1499.


What's New at the Museum:

Tsunami: Deadly Waves - On December 26, 2004, a wall of water as high as 30 feet crashed into shorelines along the Indian Ocean from Africa to Australia washing away whole coastal towns and villages. With a death toll of more than 200,000, it is perhaps the largest natural disaster in the history of man. What caused these huge waves and where will they strike next? >Full Story

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


Ask the Curator:

Secret Government Storage - I was watching Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Holy Grail, and in the end of the movie it shows the grail being tucked away into a giant, anonymous warehouse. I'm not interested in the grail but I am curious if you know where the government might tuck something interesting away. Who would be responsible for that sort of duty? - Anonymous

The motion picture you are probably thinking of is Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's the Ark which is put in the warehouse in that movie, not the Grail (The Holy Grail is the object of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third movie in the series. At the end of the picture the Grail falls down a crack in the ground during an earthquake and disappears). In the first movie the Ark is boxed up and hidden in a huge warehouse stacked with thousand of other crates. By the way, the warehouse pictured never existed, but is actually a very realistic matte painting. The figure of the man, the cart and the crate containing the Ark were filmed separately and then put into the image.

Who keeps secret government stuff is dependent on which agency of the government acquired the secret. Despite people's idea that the government is one big monolithic agency it is actually made up of many smaller agencies who often don't share information very well. In Raiders it appears that the "government officials" shown are probably part of a military intelligence unit under the control of the Army. If that was the case, they could store the secret object at any number of warehouses at any number of military bases depending on which unit might have been studying the object. If the military considered the ark a weapon it might have taken it to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in Maryland, to test its capabilities. During W.W.II any secret weapon captured from the enemy would have been there where it could be compared with United States military hardware. After testing was done the object would probably find it's way to the Aberdeen Ordnance Museum, though it could not be put in the public display until it was declassified.

Most of the branches of government have museums associated with them where they can store and display historic items they own once they are done with them. For example, the National Security Agency, which deals with breaking and making codes and cyphers, has a museum near its headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, where you can view former secret devices like a German Enigma coding machine from W.W.II. The museum is a great place to visit and is free.

The Aberdeen Ordnance Museum is also free and well worth a stop if you are traveling through that part of Maryland. It contains guns, bombs, shells, artillery and rockets. There is even a tank that resembles the one featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade which brings us full circle.


In History:

Mysterious Airship - On February 4th, 1897, people at Inavale, Nebraska, claimed they got a close up view of a mysterious flying object. According to the Omaha Daily Bee witnesses said the object was shaped like a cone and had "two sets of wings on a side, with a large fan-shaped rudder." This sighting of this object was part of a flap of airship sightings across the United States in 1896 and 1897.


In the Sky:

Mercury Comes Back - Mercury is behind the sun now, but on February 25 the closest planet to our star will emerge and again be visible in our evening sky. Look for it 30 minutes after sunset low in the sky in between the west and west-southwest. As the days go by it will become dimmer, but higher off the horizon.



Archaeologists Fascinated by Toilets - Archaeologists are sifting through the contents of 150-year-old toilets to get a better understanding of the everyday life for the people who settled New Zealand in the 19th century. The work is part of a five week program to collect and document information from historic sites. The old toilets, locally referred to as "dunnies," are a good source of archaeological material as they were also used for trash disposal. "You would be surprised what people used to throw down their dunnies," observed one archaeologist.


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: The Viking Deception - Is the Vinland Map, purportedly showing the New World long before Columbus arrived, real or a highly convincing fake? On PBS. February 8 at 8 pm.

NOVA: A Daring Flight - In 1909, Louis Bleriot undertakes a heroic first-ever flight across the English Channel. On PBS. February 22 at 8 pm

Giant of the Hidden Valley - The exceptionally well-preserved skeleton of the baluchiterium, one of the largest mammals, was found in Northern Pakistan. The discovery led to renewed interest in this forgotten prehistoric beast who comes back to life through CGI. On the Science Channel: Feb 01 @ 04:00 AM, Feb 01 @ 07:00 AM, Feb 01 @ 12:00 PM, Feb 01 @ 03:00 PM; ET.

Fireballs From Space - Asteroids and comets roar across the solar system threatening to smash into distant planets and occasionally the Earth. Probes like Deep Impact are watching these dangerous space rocks. Some probes are attempting to land on these alien terrains. On the Science Channel: Feb 01 @ 09:00 PM, Feb 02 @ 12:00 AM, Feb 02 @ 05:00 AM, Feb 02 @ 08:00 AM, Feb 02 @ 01:00 PM, Feb 02 @ 04:00 PM; ET.

If We Had No Moon- Examine what life would be like if a major space collision with the Earth had not created its moon. Each day would last four hours, winds would blow with hurricane force, and Earth would be shrouded in a dense, toxic atmosphere. On Science Channel: Feb 08 @ 09:00 PM, Feb 09 @ 12:00 AM, Feb 09 @ 05:00 AM, Feb 09 @ 08:00 AM, Feb 09 @ 01:00 PM, Feb 09 @ 04:00 PM ; ET.

Inside the Bermuda Triangle - Examine the myths and the reality of the most bizarre stretch of water in the world. Plane crashes, boating mishaps and unexplained disappearances have been reported in the Bermuda Triangle for fifty years. Scientists use technology to investigate. On The Science Channel: Feb 20 @ 09:00 PM, Feb 21 @ 12:00 AM, Feb 21 @ 05:00 AM, Feb 21 @ 08:00 AM, Feb 21 @ 01:00 PM, Feb 21 @ 04:00 PM ET/PT.

Building the Great Pyramid - Of the many myths surrounding the construction of the Great Pyramid, none is more difficult to eradicate than the belief that it was built by slaves. Find out the truth as to how and why this extraordinary human monument was made. On Science Channel: Feb 24 @ 10:00 PM Feb 25 @ 01:00 AM, Feb 25 @ 06:00 AM, Feb 25 @ 09:00 AM, Feb 25 @ 02:00 PM, Feb 25 @ 05:00 PM ET/PT.

he Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon - Is there a prophetic, highly accurate code locked within the Bible that outlines past and future events? Does the Code contain hidden messages about people such as Napoleon, Einstein, and Hitler, and key world events like WWII, the Kennedy brothers' assassinations, and 9/11? More frightening are references to future events--including Earth's impending end. We take a balanced look through the eyes of Code supporters and critics and let viewers determine its accuracy in predicting the future. On History Channel: February 6 @ 7pm ET/PT.



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