Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

March 2008

In the News:

Siberia Asteroid Smaller - The asteroid that exploded over Siberia in 1908 flattening almost a thousand square miles of land might not have been as large as once thought. Mark Boslough, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories, estimated that blast was only between a quarter and a third as powerful as the previously figures of 10 to 20 megatons. Boslough used computer simulation to make his estimates. His figures show that the asteroid exploded high in the air creating a fireball that did not touch the ground. A shock wave, though, flattened trees for many miles around. Boslough's work suggests that smaller asteroids can be more dangerous than previously thought. This is significant as it is estimated that smaller asteroids hit the earth three times more often that larger asteroids.

Tiny Pterodactyl - We usually think of pterodactyls as huge, monstrous, bat-like flying reptiles with wing spans up to the size of a small plane, but scientists in China have found the fossils of a smaller version with dimensions similar to that of a sparrow. Nemicolopterus Crypticus was small, had no teeth and sported strangely curved toes that make scientists think it lived in trees. The discovery was reported by Xiaolin Wang of the Chinese Academy of Science, in last month's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

King Penguins in Trouble Because of Global Warming - Scientists are concerned that global warming may lead to the extinction of the King Penguin. A study by French scientists in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences shows that king penguin chicks are less likely to survive in years with warm sea surface temperatures, than cold. The researchers believe this is due to a decline in Antarctic fish stocks, which the penguins feed on, during warm years. Scientists predict that a 0.47 degree F increase in the temperature of the Southern Ocean would reduce penguin numbers by 9%, and cause the population to collapse. The report concludes, "Our findings suggest that king penguin populations are at heavy extinction risk under the current global warming predictions."

Big, Mean Frog - In Madagascar scientists have found the fossil of a frog the size of a bowling ball that sported heavy armor and teeth. The creatures, that lived among dinosaurs 70 million years ago, has been named Beelzebufo ampinga. The animal weighed 10 pounds, measured 16 inches long and may have dined on dinosaur eggs according to paleontologist David Krause at New York's Stony Brook University, who study was published by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That's makes it the biggest known frog of all time and much larger than the current champion, the Goliath frog of West Africa, which can reach 7 pounds. Scientists are puzzled how the Beelzebufo wound up in Madagascar when its closest relative is a South American horned frog. Since frogs cannot cross large bodies of salt water this suggests a land bridge existed between the two locations much later scientists had previously thought.

Height Goes Back to Ancestors - A study published in this month's Current Anthropology suggests your height is a clue to where you ancient ancestors lived. Though height within ethic groups, and even within families, varies quite a bit, body size seems to be related to the region and lifestyle of the ancestors of your ethnic group. In general groups that lived in the tundra, savanna, desert and other open habitat areas tend to be the tallest, while groups that lived in island or island-like communities are the smallest. Scientists speculate humans evolution in crowded areas favored reproductive age at a smaller size because of high competition for limited resources. Human with less competition could afford to grow taller before reaching adulthood.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science is a great game. It is inspiring and refreshing. The playing field is the universe itself." - Isidor Isaac Rabi, U. S. physicist.

What's New at the Museum:

Who Dunnit to the Dinosaurs? - They reigned over the earth for more than 100 million years and suddenly, mysteriously disappeared. What caused the demise of this ubiquitous group of reptiles which included some of the largest animals to ever walk the planet? > Full Story

Teachers Resources - Check out our new page of helpful UnMuseum materials for the classroom. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

The BIG CRUNCH -What is the Big Crunch and when will it occur? - Madison

The "Big Crunch" is one of several theories about how the universe will end. Probably everybody is now familiar with the leading theory about how the universe started, the so called "Big Bang." According to the Big Bang theory, at the beginning of the universe all matter and energy was compressed into an infinity small point with infinite density and temperature. Then followed a period of rapid inflation and expansion (the Bang). Matter in the universe cooled and coalesced into stars, planets and galaxies. The expansion continues today as each of the local groups of galaxies, including ours, grows further apart from each other.

For many years scientists pondered what would happen at the end of the universe. While the expansion continues, gravity is trying to reverse the process and pull all matter back together. Scientists figured that either gravity would be too weak and the expansion would continue forever while just getting slower and slower, or gravity would be strong enough to bring all the matter and energy back together in a "Big Crunch."

Scientists also speculated if the universe did come back into a "Big Crunch" it might precipitate another "Big Bang" which would create another universe. Ours, they suggested, might be just one in an unending series of universes.

Initial measurements suggested the amount of gravity and the speed of the expansion were very nearly balanced. This meant that scientists had to impatiently wait for decades until better technology was available so that more accurate studies could be made and they could find out what the fate of the universe was.

In one of those moments that proved that Sir Arthur Eddington was right when he said "not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine," the results came back showing that the expansion wasn't slowing at all. It was - much to the shock of almost everybody - accelerating. Scientists have decided that the reason for the acceleration must be something they've dubbed "dark energy," but they have almost no idea what this energy might be and how it works.

If the expansion continues at the current rate the universe may end in "The Big Rip." At some point about 50 billion years in the future the expansion will become so great that everything will be ripped apart. Galaxies will fly apart as individual solar systems go their own way. Later stars will lose their planets and eventually everything down to the subatomic level will be torn asunder.

Although a "Big Crunch" seems unlikely due to this most recent finding, because scientists know almost nothing about what "dark energy" is, they can't rule out that it might suddenly reverse and cause a rapid collapse of the universe. When this might happen is also a mystery. If there is a Big Crunch, the universe would end as all matter was sucked into black holes, then the black holes were pulled together to create a single massive black hole. Scientists have no idea whether this singularity might lead to a new universe and a new expansion or not.

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


In History:

Alligators in the Bronx - Though many people have heard stories about alligators in the sewers of New York, not many are familiar with their appearance on the Bronx river - an area not normally associated the reptiles' natural habitat. In March of 1935 (and also in June of 1932 and 1937) both live and dead alligators were found on the banks of the river. How they got there is still unknown.


In the Sky:

Look for Mercury - If you've never seen the planet Mercury in the sky, this March may be your best opportunity. On March 3rd Mercury will be at its greatest western elongation, 27 degrees from the Sun. It will also be less than 3 degrees from the bright planet Venus in the southeastern pre-dawn sky making it easy to find.



Fireball in the Northwest - On the evening of February 19th, residents of the Northwestern part of the United States were surprised to see a fireball streak through the sky. The object, thought to be a meteorite, was seen by several pilots and caught on a security camera. Though the meteorite looked close to many observers, this tends to be an optical illusion. It appears that the object exploded before it reached the ground. To view a video of the tape check:


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova:  Saved By the Sun - Is it time to take solar energy seriously? Tuesday. March18 at 8 pm

Dinosaurs: Return To Life? - Dinosaurs: Return to Life follows scientists who are using the latest technology and amazing advances in genetic research to revive the possibility of creating a living breathing dinosaur, but in a different way than we ever imagined..; On Discovery Channel. Mar 01, 9:00 pm; Mar 02, 1:00 am; Mar 02, 11:00 am, 6PM; ET/PT.

Giant Squid: Caught on Camera - The first photographs ever of the giant squid - one of the world's largest and most mysterious sea creatures. On the Discovery Channel. Mar 02, 8:00 pm; Mar 03, 12:00 am pm; ET/PT

T-Rex: Warrior or Wimp? - Since the discovery of the first T-Rex skeleton in 1905, this famous dinosaur has been billed a supreme predator, a six-ton Tyrant Lizard King. The dinosaur?s mouth, filled with huge spiky teeth, led scientists to conclude it must have been a killer. On Science Channel. Mar 02, 9:00 pm; Mar 03, 12:00 am; Mar 03, 4:00 am; Mar 03, 10:00 am; ET/PT

Quest for the Lost Ark - The existence and location of the Ark of the Covenant has remained one of the most enduring mysteries in archaeology. Professor Tudor Parfitt from London's School of Oriental and African Studies will reveal where he believes the Ark is. Parfitt is well-known for discovering that the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe is one of the lost tribes of Israel. Follow this global quest-detective as he decodes ancient texts and pieces together clues. Ultimately he builds a picture of what he thinks the Ark looks like and where it is. The journey takes viewers through Israelite wars, Philistine shrines, Solomon's Temple and Africa to the final, critical clue which led Parfitt to its current location. On The History Channel. Sunday, March 02 08:00 PM; Monday, March 03 12:00 AM, ET/PT.

Journey to 10,000 BC - Discover the thrilling real story of life on earth in prehistoric times. Viewers will go back in time to when early humans are just starting to inhabit North America and huge climate fluctuations cause a mini-Ice Age. The saber tooth cat, the giant ground sloth and the woolly mammoth are suddenly becoming extinct. How does man survive? Travel to early archaeological sites in North America and watch as scientists uncover fossilized bones, ancient homes and weapons of stone. State-of-the-art green-screen computer animation re-creates the great mammoth hunts of the time. On The History Channel. Sunday, March 09 08:00 PM; Monday, March 10 12:00 AM; Saturday, March 15 10:00 PM; Sunday, March 16 02:00 AM; ET/PT.



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