Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

March 2007

In the News:

Most Colossal of Colossal Squids is Caught - New Zealand fishermen have pulled in what may well be the largest colossal squid ever snagged. The fishermen were catching Patagonian toothfish when a squid that was eating one was pulled from the deep, according to a member of the crew. The creature is estimated to be 39 feet in length and weighs around 1,000 pounds. Little is known about Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, the Colossal squid, but they are thought to be able to descend as deep as 6,500 feet where they act as aggressive hunters. They are also believed to be slightly larger and heavier than the more well-known Giant squid. This specimen was frozen and transported to New Zealand's national museum to be preserved for scientific study.

"Hobbit" was Human - Scientists at Florida State University studying the "Hobbit" skeleton found on in Indonesia have declared it a new species closely related to Homo sapiens, but not itself human. A three-dimensional computer reconstruction of the brain showed that the skull was not of an abnormal man but that of a human-like species whose growth was on a smaller scale. Scientists skeptical about the existence of a group of hobbit-sized humans have argued that the skeleton represented a man ill with microcephaly, a virus which stunts the development of the brain. The new species -- Homo Floresiensis -- measured 3.6 feet in height.

Tornados Could Strike Cities - Scientists are concerned that a major tornado striking an urban area could cause death and destruction on a "Hurricane Katrina scale." A new study shows that there is no reason that tornados shouldn't touch down in big cities. "Fortunately 99.9 percent of tornadoes are happening in open areas," said tornado researcher Joshua Wurman of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo. in a quote from Discovery News. Wurman and his colleagues who have studied the potential for disaster in the Chicago area have published an article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society with their concerns. Although the group looked at Chicago in detail, their observations probably also extend to other major cities in the Midwest including Dallas, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Atlanta and Houston. Areas particularly in danger include the very densely populated older neighborhoods of wood frame houses in these cities. "We actually think that new apartment buildings are probably modestly resistant to these things," noted Wurman, "but who knows what will happen if it's hit by a 300 mph wind?"

Italian Police Find Looted Art Treasures - Italian police foiled an attempt to sell looted marble reliefs showing gladiators and other ancient art work to collectors in Switzerland. The objects were found buried in the garden of a house by a special squad of police designated to deal with illegal art transactions. The reliefs are 2,000 years old and were looted from a nearby tomb. "Under Italian law, those who found the panels would have earned a quarter of their commercial value had they delivered them to the archaeological superintendency. Now they will have to be happy with a trial," noted prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri of the Italian police.

Chimps use Spears for Hunting - A group of scientists observed a female chimps using spear-like devices to kill a small animals so they could eat them. Researchers are surprised by this as they have been aware that chimpanzes have used tools in the past, but never in the context of hunting. The scientists, led by Iowa State University anthropology professor Jill Pruetz, saw chimps spears several bushbabies in Fongoli, Senegal, during observations made from March 2005 to July 2006. Scientists noted that the practice seemed most common among adolescent females who might be finding it difficult to compete for food against physically superior males. "In a million years I never would've predicted that I would've seen [hunting]," said Pruetz "I'm going to plug along and see what unfolds."


What's New at the Museum:

Did the Nazis Build an Atomic Bomb? - In some secret, hidden laboratory did scientsts succeed in building an nuclear weapon for Hitler? >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

End of Magnetism? - If the earth's magnetic field collapsed would there still be magnets? - Anonymous

Magnetism is one of those funny things we see everyday - use everyday - but never know how it works. As it turns out, it is the result of moving electric charges. Almost everybody has done the experiment of wrapping a wire around an iron nail in a spiral pattern, then connecting the wires to a battery to product a crude electromagnet. The current flowing though the wire (in the form of electrons) creates the magnetic field. This field then influences the iron nail to become a magnet also, adding to the strength of the effect, though it would work even without the nail.

If you need a moving electric charge to make a magnetic field, how do permanent magnets work? After all there is no battery involved and no apparent electric charge. Well there actually is, however, a moving electric charge at the atomic level. The electrons orbit around the nucleus of each atom in the material. The electrons also have a quantum-mechanical property called "spin" which looks like a moving electrical charge. These two effects produce a tiny magnetic field for each atom.

In most materials the magnetic fields of each atom are aligned in no particular order so they cancel each other out. In some special materials, however, the fields line up (or can be made to line up) in a particular pattern so that their strength adds up. That's why the nail in the electromagnet experiment above becomes a magnet when exposed to a magnetic field. The field created by the moving electric charges in the wire lines up the nail's fields properly and then those fields can add their own strength to the overall effect.

If you want to see this at home take a paper clip and hang it from a permanent magnet. The paper clip isn't a magnet in itself, but will become a temporary magnet in the presence of a magnetic field. You can then hang a second paper clip from the first one and it will also become a magnet because of the field of the one before it. It is easy to construct a whole chain of paper clips this way. Detach the first one from the permanent magnet, however, and the whole chain falls apart as each of the magnetic fields fall apart one after another.

For centuries scientists have puzzled about why Earth has a strong magnetic field. (The magnetic field of Venus is barely detectable.) They still don't understand the details, but they do know that the outer core of the Earth is mostly molten iron that moves in a convection pattern due to heat at the core. This movement, along with the Earth's spin seems to make the Earth into a big electromagnet. The magnetic field of our planet isn't as stable as we might think, however. There is evidence that the poles of this gigantic magnet have moved, changed intensity, and even reversed many times in past.

If the magnetic field of the Earth went away would we still have magnets? Yes, because each magnet generates its own magnetic field independently. The Earth is just a big version of our experiment with the wire and the nail. A collapse in the Earth's magnetic field, however, would mean that compasses (which are just little magnets in the form of pointers that align with the Earth's magnetic field) would not point the right direction. This would cause problem not only for humans who depend on compasses for navigation, but also for animals that have developed internal compasses in their bodies for use in migration.

Fortunately, though the Earth's magnetic field has weakened in the past 150 years, it looks like it will many centuries before a full collapse and reversal. In fact it may be just as likely that nothing will happen at all in the near future and the original orientation will regain its strength.


In History:

Hairy Colorado Bipeds - On the evening of March 28, 1987, a resident of Green Mountain Fall, Colorado, looked out his window to observe several hairy, two footed creatures "running down the road in front of my house…" After the story hit the newspapers in the area, other residents claimed they had also seen the beings. People who found tracks of these creatures and followed them, often through snow, claimed they disappeared into thin air. No explanation for these reports has ever been found.


In the Sky:

Lunar Eclipse - On Saturday March 3rd observers in the Eastern United States will have a chance to see the end of a Lunar Eclipse as the moon passes through the shadow of the Earth. The moon will rise in a total eclipse which begins at 5:44PM EST. The total eclipse will end at 6:58 PM EST, but the moon will continue to glow a ruddy color for sometime as longer, redder wavelengths of light bend around the earth more sharply to illuminate the lunar surface.



ESP Lab Closed - After 28 years of operation the extrasensory perception lab at Princeton University will be closing down. The lab, officially referred to as the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory has studied ESP and telekinesis. The research has embarrassed university officials and gotten little support from the scientific community. The lab's founder, Robert G. Jahn, said the lab was closing because of aging equipment and dwindling finances. "If people don't believe us after all the results we've produced, then they never will," Jahn, 76, former dean of Princeton's engineering school and an emeritus professor, told The New York Times. Princeton University had no official comment on the lab's closure.


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: Mystery of the Megaflood - What unleashed a catastrophic flood that scarred thousands of square miles in the American Northwest? On PBS: March 20 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Deep Space One - Deep Space One was a groundbreaking NASA mission that tested new technologies, including ion propulsion engines and automated pilot systems. Venture on a technological journey as scientists explain how the new systems will propel future missions. On The Science Channel: MAR 03 2007 @ 09:00 PM MAR 04 2007 @ 12:00 AM MAR 04 2007 @ 04:00 AM MAR 04 2007 @ 05:00 PM; ET/PT.

Mammals Vs. Dinos: The Age of Gigantism - Mammals vs Dinos begins with a look the first dinosaurs and mammals nearly 200 million years ago and the long evolutionary competition between the two groups. Through computer-generated animations, we see dinosaurs evolving into giant creatures. On The Science Channel: MAR 11 2007 @ 09:00 PM MAR 12 2007 @ 12:00 AM MAR 12 2007 @ 04:00 AM MAR 12 2007 @ 10:00 AM MAR 17 2007 @ 06:00 PM, ET/PT.

King Tut's Mystery Tomb Opened - In the first tomb found in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in 84 years, scientists find seven coffins, plus a golden infant-size coffin. One coffin remains sealed and the race is on to read the markings and lift the lid. On The Science Channel: MAR 12 2007 @ 06:00 PM MAR 19 2007 @ 09:00 PM MAR 20 2007 @ 12:00 AM MAR 20 2007 @ 04:00 AM MAR 20 2007 @ 10:00 AM MAR 24 2007 @ 04:00 PM, ET/PT.

Pre-Human: Riddle of the Skull - In 2002, a team of scientists uncovered a hominid skull seven million years old, possibly the remains of the earliest known human ancestor. Follow each step of the quest to unveil the truth about this skull and the origins of mankind. On The Science Channel: MAR 05 2007 @ 07:00 PM MAR 26 2007 @ 08:00 PM MAR 26 2007 @ 11:00 PM MAR 27 2007 @ 03:00 AM MAR 27 2007 @ 09:00 AM MAR 31 2007 @ 03:00 PM; ET/PT.

Noah's Ark: The True Story - Search for the truth behind the story of Noah and his ark. Find out how Noah could have built such a structure and whether or not a great flood took place on the earth. The search for remains of the ark continues today. On the Discovery Channel: MAR 04 2007 @ 08:00 PM MAR 05 2007 @ 12:00 AM MAR 08 2007 @ 08:00 PM MAR 09 2007 @ 12:00 AM; ET/PT.

Secret History of the Freemasons - An unprecedented inside look into one of the world's most mysterious organizations- the Freemasons. Their inner workings, history, and secrets will be uncovered and centuries old rituals are filmed for the first time ever. On the Discovery Channel: MAR 04 2007 @ 06:00 PM MAR 22 2007 @ 09:00 PM MAR 23 2007 @ 01:00 AM; ET/PT.

Decoding The Past: The Real Sorcerer's Stone. - Today, the sorcerer's stone is seen as fiction off the pages of Harry Potter, but in the Middle Ages the quest for the sorcerer's stone was second only to that of the Holy Grail. The stone was actually said to have the power to transform base metals into gold and grant long life--even immortality. The ingredients were hidden in bizarrely coded manuscripts by alchemists who lived within their own secret society. The processes needed to combine them could be dangerous--even deadly. Today, we owe most of our modern lab equipment and experimental techniques to the efforts of these alchemists. Was their search for immortality really on sound scientific ground and did some, as is still rumored, actually succeed?On History Channel: Thursday, March 12 11:00 PM, March 13 03:00 AM ET/PT.




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Copyright Lee Krystek 2007. All Rights Reserved.