Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

March 2009

In the News:

Triceratops Butt Heads - Scientists believe that the dinosaur triceratops used the three horns on its head in the same way big horn sheep do today in head-to-head encounters. Andrew Farke, of the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, Calif., and a team of researchers looked at 400 skull bones from 50 different Triceratops skeletons and compared them to bones from the Centrosaurus. The triceratops showed 10 times as many gashes and healed injuries in their bony frills compared to their single horned relatives. It is unclear why the animals were fighting. In modern species where there is a competition for mates the male horns are much bigger than females, but this seems not the case for triceratops. Researchers speculate that the creature might have been fiercely territorial. Although much of the damage to the skulls were done by other triceratops, scientists still think that the horns were also used in defense against such predatory dinosaurs as T-Rex.

"Living Fossil" is a Father - Henry, the tuatara (a lizard-like creature from New Zealand) is now a dad at age 110. Tuataras, an endangered species, are the only living descendants of an order related to dinosaurs that lived some 200 million years ago. For this reason scientists at Southland Museum in New Zealand were very anxious to have Henry mate with Mildred, an 80 year-old female. This seemed unlike as Henry was a nasty, irritable fellow who didn't seem to get along with other tuataras. About six years ago, however, veterinarians noticed a lump in Henry's nether regions was a cancerous tumor. It was removed and Henry's attitude improved. In July Mildred gave birth to 11 eggs, the last of which just successfully hatched last month. "Eleven out of eleven," said curator Lindsay Hazley. "Bloody brilliant. We had a champagne breakfast to celebrate." It is hopefully that Henry, who may live to 200, will soon show an interest in one of the other three females with whom he now lives.

Monster Snake Bigger than Hollywood Fantasies - Scientists in Colombia have found the remains of prehistoric snake believed to be largest ever to have lived on the Earth. Titanoboa cerrejonensis would have weighed 2,500 pounds, (1140 kilograms) and measured over 42 feet in length (13 meters) when it was alive around 59 million-years ago. Geologist David Polly, who assisted with the size estimate, said "At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to about your hips. The size is pretty amazing." Because the snake would have been cold-blooded and relied on the temperature of the environment it lived in for warmth, scientists estimate the earth had to be around 10 degrees warmer than it is today, an average of 91 degrees Fahrenheit, to support such an enormous body. According to Jonathan Bloch, who co-led the expedition, "Truly enormous snakes really spark people's imagination, but reality has exceeded the fantasies of Hollywood. The snake that tried to eat Jennifer Lopez in the movie 'Anaconda' was not as big as the one we found."

Baby Chimps' IQ Higher than Humans - Orphaned baby chimps given attentive, nurturing care from human surrogate mothers did better than human babies at IQ tests. In a study published in the latest issue of Developmental Psychobiology researchers used two groups of baby chimps and gave them either standard care (food and health care) while the other got the same plus social and emotional nurturing from the human caretakers. At the age of nine months both groups were given IQ tests similar to that used for human children. The group with the extra care score better than those with standard care and better than the average for human babies at the same age. Scientists will continue to monitor the group of apes, but say it may be hard to judge at what age the average human intelligence finally exceeds that of the apes because of the different way each species interacts with their environment.

New Da Vinci Portrait Found - A portrait showing Leonardo da Vinci in middle age has been discovered in the private collection of an aristocratic family from Acerenza. Experts believe it may be a self-portrait based on an inscription written in the typical Leonardo's reverse handwriting which reads 'Pinxit mea.' The picture shows a man different than his usual depictions having long blond hair and piercing blue eyes. Researchers think that the painting was a gift to a powerful Florentine family, the Segnis, that lived in Acerenza around the 16th century. The only other known work da Vinci did of himself was "Self Portrait in Red Chalk" which portrays the artist as an old bearded man with a slightly aquiline nose.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men." - Jean Rostand


What's New at the Museum:

Big Snakes - What's the largest snake in the world? Well, it was once Titanoboa cerrejonensis, a 45 foot long, 3 foot wide, monster. > Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Have Laser Gun, Will Travel - Hey, you know laser guns? Could they even exist? - J. Smith

Laser guns have long been a popular device used in Science Fiction literature. Probably the first story to describe something that appears to be laser cannon was H.G. Well's heat-ray from the 1898 book War of the Worlds. When actual lasers first became available in the early 1960's weapons seemed like a natural application. Several Sci-fi TV shows from the period including Lost in Space and the pilot for Star Trek, featured characters using laser pistols.

The problem that real weapons designers soon found themselves confronted with was the how much energy was needed to power such a weapon. A laser capable of projecting enough energy to due significant damage could not be powered with battery small enough to be carried by a man. The same was true for more powerful laser cannons that might be mounted on a truck or a tank. The power source was too heavy to really make the weapon easily mobile, especially if you consider a laser's effectiveness when compared to more conventional and cheaper rockets, bullets or bombs.

Even so lasers have become a major part of the military's inventory. Usually they are used to guide missiles or bombs to their targets. The target is "painted" with a laser beam by an observer and the bomb or missile then flies to the laser light reflected off the target.

The military hasn't given up on using laser for more than just guiding weapons, however. Currently there is joint development program by the U.S. and Israel on a device known as the Tactical High-Energy Laser or THEL. THEL is designed to knock out airborne weapons from a fixed location or mobile platform (like a truck or tank). Critics argue that counter measures, such as equipping the target with a mirror-like surface to reflect the laser, will make the system ineffective.

The U.S. Air Force is also experimenting with a plane based chemical laser system that would vaporize a ground target. This might be more advantageous in some situation than using a missile or bomb as it avoids damage to the places immediately adjacent to the target.

Lasers may actually turn out to be more useful in the end as non-lethal weapons. The U.S. military has been working on a low powered laser gun that could be carried by a man that would temporary blind his opponents.

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


In History:

Early Airship Report - The earliest known report of an "airship" appears in the March 29, 1880 issue of the Santa Fe Weekly New Mexican. The article reports that on the evening of the 26th several people at Galisteo Junction saw a large balloon carrying passengers headed for New York City. Though this newspaper story was likely a hoax, it anticipated hundreds of stories that would appear in newspapers across the United States in a few decades as people reported seeing an airship as a part of the great flap of 1896 -1897. Though often connected with later UFO and alien stories, these reports actually involved dirigibles with human pilots and crew.


In the Sky:

Check out Saturn - This month might be a good time to observe Saturn. The ringed planet is currently in opposition - that means it's directly on the opposite side of Earth from Sun - and will be visible in the constellation Leo all night long. It is also the brightest it will appear this year.



Study Predicts Earth-Like Civilizations - A study published recently in the International Journal of Astrobiology researchers using computer model created a virtual galaxy with billions of stars and planets and concluded our Milky Way may hosted between 361 38,000 intelligent civilizations. Duncan Forgan, a doctoral candidate at the university who led the study, said "I half-expected these events to disallow the rise of intelligence, and yet civilizations seemed to flourish." Forgan admits the results are an educated guess, since there are still many unanswered questions about how life formed on Earth that could effect their calculations.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Hudson Plane Crash - Inside story of Flight 1589. How does a plane lose both engines over a city, and crash lands without a single death? New footage and exclusive interviews with crew, survivors, and rescuers tell the amazing story of survival. On Discovery Channel. Mar 04, 10:00 pm; Mar 05, 2:00 am; Mar 08, 11:00 am.

Mysterious Hanging Coffins of China - China's leading explorers have been trying to save the last vestiges of a society that buried their dead in coffins hanging off the side of limestone cliffs. Pollution, encroaching urbanization and graverobbers threaten to destroy these artifacts. On the Science Channel. Mar 09, 10:00 pm; Mar 10, 1:00 am; Mar 10, 5:00 pm; Mar 11, 5:00 am; ET/PT

What Time Is It? - There is an aspect of our daily lives that is so familiar, it gives a rhythm to the world around us. Prof Brian Cox once again pushes scientific knowledge to the limits of our imagination to ask "What time is it?" On the Science Channel. Mar 01, 9:00 pm; Mar 02, 12:00 am; Mar 03, 4:00 am; ET/PT

Quest for the Goblin Shark - A team of scientists search Tokyo Submarine Canyon,1,000 meters deep and 40 kilometers long, for the Goblin Shark. An illusive ancient creature that has never been caught on camera. This fearsome species has been in the ocean for a hundred milllion years! On the Science Channel. Mar 08, 9:00 pm; Mar 09, 12:00 am; Mar 10, 4:00 am; ET/PT

Seven Signs of the Apocalypse - The Seven Signs are clear: We will be struck by deadly plagues, famines and earthquakes... The sky will turn dark and oceans will turn to blood... And the antichrist will emerge to fight the final battle between good and evil. Could this all be true? Experts decode this powerful prophecy and come to a startling conclusion: there is now scientific evidence that many of these catastrophes could, in fact, be occurring. On The History Channel. Sunday, March 01 10:00 PM; Monday, March 02 02:00 AM; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens - What if life on Earth began in outer space? Millions of people accept the theory that intelligent life forms visited Earth thousands of years ago and were worshiped as gods by primitive man. Are monuments like Stonehenge and Easter Island the last remains of an ancient alien visitation? On The History Channel. Sunday, March 08 08:00 PM; Monday, March 09 12:00 AM; Saturday, March 14 08:00 PM; Sunday, March 15 12:00 AM; ET/PT.



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