Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

February 2008

In the News:

Younger Moon - A recent study of lunar rocks brought back to Earth by the astronauts has determined that the moon is much younger than previously thought. A study by Matthew Touboul of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, and his colleagues using radiometric dating shows our nearest celestial neighbor is thirty million years younger than earlier estimates. The team discovered a different way of using the radiometric method that achieved more accurate results. The new data gathered also suggests the moon was formed differently that the most current popular theory. The current theory is that a "proto-Earth" was hit by a Mars-sized "impactor" in ancient times. Part of the impactor spun off to becomes the moon. Touboul's analysis of the lunar rocks shows that are essentially the same as earth rocks suggesting that after the earth was hit, more of it found its way into orbit to form the moon that did the "impactor."

Hatshepsut Identification May Still be up in - According to story in the Associated Press, Egyptian scientists' announcement in the press a few months ago that they had used DNA to confirm the identity of the mummy female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut may have been premature. The finding, which was highlighted in the Discovery Channel's "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen" special, has so far not made it way into a peer-reviewed scientific publications. Part of the delay has been caused by the use of Egypt's new ancient-DNA lab. While the lab enables Egyptian scientists to analyze DNA without foreign help, getting the results is still a long process and the technicians involved are new at the procedure. Most of the analysis of the supposed Hatshepsut mummy initially was done with CT scans, which give less reliable results, compared to DNA. Final results may still be months ahead.

Neanderthals Died of Cold - A new theory says that modern humans survived when Neanderthals died because modern humans had developed the skill to sew and make complex clothing. Ian Gilligan, a postgraduate researcher from the Australian National University, suggests that the disappearance of Neanderthals 35,000 to 30,000 years ago coincides with the peak of the ice ages when temperatures dropped to extreme lows. He argues, in last month's issue of the journal World Archaeology, that earlier in the ice ages Neanderthals were more tolerant of the cold and just needed simple clothing while modern humans were forced to create complex clothing to survive. When the temperatures plunged at a time called the "glacial maximum" Neanderthals couldn't adapt quickly enough to make protective clothing and died out.

Roman "Superglue" - Romans used a form of "superglue" that still sticks today. Scientists at Rheinischen Landes Museum in Bonn, Germany, discovered the glue on a legionnaire's battle helmet. It had been used to mount silver laurel leaves on the headpiece. The glue was found accidentally while researchers were examining the helmet. They were amazed to find that it was still effective after 2,000 years of exposure to moisture. The formula for the glue seems to include bitumen, bark pitch and animal grease, though scientists have yet to figure out all the ingredients in the right proportions to recreate the material.

Mona Lisa Identified - Veit Probst, director of the Heidelberg University Library, thinks a book in the library's collection forever solves a puzzle that has had historian scratching their heads for centuries: The identity of the woman in Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. At various times researchers and historians have claimed that person pictured was Leonardo's mother, a noblewoman, prostitute or even the artist himself in disguise. Evidence to the contrary was found by manuscript expert Armin Schlechter while looking at book containing letters of the Roman orator, Cicero. The book was owned by Agostino Vespucci, a Florentine city official and acquaintance of the painter. In the margins Vespucci notes that Leonardo was working on three paintings the time, including a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of the wealthy Florentine silk merchant, was named as the subject of the painting by the 16th century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari, but art experts have always been suspicious of this as Varari sometimes used unreliable sources. This new evidence, according to Probst, vindicates Vasari and closes the case on the mysterious identity of the woman with the famous smile.

Science Quote of the Month - "Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science." - Edwin Powell Hubble

What's New at the Museum:

Hoax Journalism - As strange as it seems these tabloids go back to long standing tradition in American culture involving authors as noteworthy as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe. > Full Story

War of the Worlds: Trapped! - Installment four in our new graphic novel. >Full Story

Ask the Curator:

Up a Well - If a person is in a deep well in the daytime and he looks straight up will he be able to see the stars? - M. Matthews

The notion that you can see the stars during daylight hours from the bottom of a deep well or chimney has been around a long time. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle mentions it as does the 19th century author Charles Dickens. However, any theoretical or practical evidence for this seems lacking. The British astronomer Rev. W.F.A. Ellison tried it from the bottom of a bottom of a colliery 900 feet below the surface and found the he wasn't struck by the sight of stars, but the brilliant blue of the sky when compared the darkened tube he was looking up through.

We cannot see the stars in the sky during the day because of the sunlight is scattering off gas molecules in the air, sending light in all directions - including into our eyes. (Blue is scattered more than the other colors so that is why the sky is blue). The light radiating this way during day is much brighter than most stars. A few extremely bright stars, like Sirius, are visible in the day if you know where to look, though they do not stand out against the day sky like they do at night. If you were at the bottom of a well shaft, and Sirius was directly overhead during the day, the well shaft might reduce the glare from the sun enough to make the star more visible. It would not, however, allow you to see the fainter stars and the real world chance of Sirius being exactly over your shaft would be extremely small.

Similarly planets, like Venus, can be seen in the daylight and viewing them from a well or chimney might reduce the Sun's glare and make them more visible, but you could probably get the same effect by using the cardboard cylinder from a roll of paper towels that you hold up to your eye.

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


In History:

Mystery Airship in Nebraska - On February 4th 1897, witnesses in Inavale, Nebraska, reported seeing a cone-shaped flying object with "two sets of wings on a side, with a large fan-shaped rudder." Over the next few weeks similar reports would appear though out the state, and also in nearby Kansas. All of these accounts are part of a larger "flap" of sightings that seemed to sweep the United States starting in Sacramento in late 1896. While many of the reports of a "mystery airship" were either hoaxes or cases mistaken identity, some of them are still unexplained.


In the Sky:

Total Lunar Eclipse - On February 20, 2008, the eastern half of the United States will be treated to a total lunar eclipse as the shadow of the earth crosses the lunar surface. The eclipse starts at 8:43PM Eastern time and becomes total at 10:01PM. The western half of the United States will see the eclipse already in progress when the moon rises that evening.



Big Texas UFO - Texans in the area of Stephenville observed what looked like a UFO in early January. Witnesses described an enormous object with flashing strobe lights that was totally silent. A pilot who saw it said he estimated the UFO was a half-mile wide and a mile long, and was "bigger than a Wal-Mart." There were also reports that two fighter jets chased the ship, which sped away at supersonic speeds. The local paper, the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, says that about 40 people observed the object. Initially the Air Force denied that it had any planes flying that night, but later admitted that ten F-16 fighter jets were conducting training flights in the area the even of January 8, when most of the sightings occurred.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova:  The Mummy Who Would Be King - Could a mummy exhibited for 140 years at an obscure museum in Niagara Falls be the remains of a long-lost Egyptian pharaoh? (Repeat) On PBS. February 5 at 8 pm

Dinosaurs: Return To Life? - In the film, Jurassic Park Four, scientists are once again recreating dinosaurs through genetic engineering. We'll learn why the dream of recreating the dinosaur genome is coming closer to reality.; On Discovery Channel. Feb 17, 9:00 pm; Feb 18, 1:00 am; Feb 25, 9:00 pm; Feb 26, 1:00 am, 6PM; ET/PT.

Triassic Giant - Ichthyosaurs were swimming, air breathing creatures that resembled whales and dolphins. A team excavates the giant fossil from a riverbank in British Columbia that is believed to be the largest Triassic ichthyosaur ever found. On the Discovery Channel. Feb 17, 10:00 pm Feb 17, 11:00 pm Feb 18, 2:00 am Feb 23, 5:00 pm ET/PT

Tank on the Moon - During the 1960s, the US and the Soviet Union were engaged in a feverish competition to see which nation would be the first to set foot on the moon. The winner of this race is history, but a secret chapter is now unfolding. On Science Channel. Feb 12, 10:00 pm; Feb 13, 1:00 am; Feb 13, 5:00 am; Feb 13, 11:00 am; Feb 17, 6:00 pm; ET/PT

Global Warming: What You Need to Know, with Tom Brokaw - Travel to Patagonia where glacial ice caves are receding. Journey to the Amazon for clear evidence that the jungle may be drying out, vastly reducing the Earth's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Tom Brokaw separates fact from fiction. On Science Channel. Feb 17, 9:00 pm Feb 18, 12:00 am Feb 18, 4:00 am Feb 18, 10:00 am, ET/PT.

MonsterQuest Episode: Giant Squid Found? - Is the legend of the Kraken, a tentacled beast as large as a whale, based on myth or a real creature? Take an expedition to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico where fishermen regularly claim to encounter large schools of giant squid. Watch as squid expert Scott Cassel uses lures with built-in cameras in an attempt to video a Kraken-sized squid 1,000 feet below the ocean. What Cassel and his team discover will make history. One-part history, one-part science and one part monster, discover the truth behind legendary creatures. On The History Channel. February 13 09:00 PM; February 14 01:00 AM.



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