Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

April 2006

In the News:

Not as Extinct as Originally Thought - Scientists have discovered a squirrel-like rodent that was thought to be extinct for almost 11 million years. The Laonastes aenigmamus, or Laotian rock rat, which is from a family that had thought to have died out during the early Oligocene to late Miocene eras, is a nocturnal mammal that inhabits a remote Laotian jungle. According to a report in the journal Science, Scientists had originally thought that the animal was simply a new species until they compared it with skeleton of extinct creatures. Researchers have yet to observe a living Laonastes aenigmamus and have only been able to examine a dead specimen killed by local hunters.

Enceladus May be Best Hope of Life - Scientists are excited by the discovery of what appears to "geyser" of water coming off the surface of Saturn's frozen moon Enceladus. The geyser appears to be associated with an unexplained "hot spot" on the surface of the planet. Since the existence of liquid water, along with a heat source and organic chemicals, are considered essential for the existence life as we know it, researchers suspect that the Enceladus may be the best candidate for life in out solar system beyond Earth. The hotspot and geysers were observed by the Cassini probe when it passed close to the moon last year and the result of those observations have been published in the Journal Science last month. Scientists hope that it may be possible to extend the Cassini mission past its planned end date of 2008 and bring it back to pass within 50 kilometers of Enceladus and directly though the geyser.

Sarcophagus Sports Iliad Pictures - Construction workers found a limestone coffin in a tomb near the village of Kouklia, Cyprus, last month that is covered with colorful painting depicting scenes from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The stories were very popular with the Greeks. The scenes depicted on the sarcophagus include the escape from the blinded Cyclop's cave by hiding under the bellies of a flock of sheep and the battle between Greeks and Trojans at Troy. While the decorations of this 500 B.C. coffin are not unusual, the subject matter of the images and the vivid colors used are unlike most others that have been found. Archeologists think that the inclusion of these scenes means that the owner of the coffin was somebody important. Perhaps, scientist speculate, the occupant was a famous warrior.

More Dangerous than Originally Thought - Mount Vesuvius, the Italian volcano that buried Pompeii, has the potential to do much more damage than during that famous 79 A.D. disaster, according to U.S. and Italian scientists. The scientists examined the remains of an eruption some 4,000 years ago and discovered that the volcano apparently has the ability to create a pyroclastic surge would cause total devastation to a distance of over 6 miles. "Now we know that Pompeii doesn't represent the worst- case scenario anymore," said one researcher. It was thought that an eruption of the volcano might threaten 600,000 lives and 18 towns located in the four mile stretch between the volcano and the sea. This new evidence, however, indicates that least three million people live in the surrounding area could be endangered by a large Vesuvius eruption.

Sperm Whales Steal Lunch - Scientists studying Sperm whales in the Gulf of Alaska have come to realize that the whales are zeroing in on the sound of fishing trawler engines to locate the boats and steal their catch. According to the researchers, the whales listen for the sound of the boats motors being turned on and off as fishermen haul in their longlines. They then swim in and eat the sablefish caught on those lines. Estimates suggest there are some 90 Sperm whale in the Gulf engaged in the practice of fish stealing and some have been at it for twenty years. Scientist have some suggestions for the fishermen wanting to avoid the losses. They think it may be necessary to fish earlier or later in the season, haul in the lines without changing engine speed, or make decoy noises to draw the animals away from the boats.


What's New at the Museum:

The Lost Continent: Atlantis (Updated Page) - The idea of a lost, but highly advanced civilization has captured the interest of people for centuries. Perhaps the most compelling of these tales is the story of Atlantis. The story appears again and again in books, television shows and movies. Where did the story originate and is any of it true? >Full Story

Chapter Six of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World - Follow the expedition members in our graphic novel as they find themselves caught in a bizarre war between ape and man. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Floating Cannonballs - A person in a cannon-ball position (arms and legs tucked in a circle) will sink to the bottom of a swimming pool, but will float effortlessly back to the top when she extends her arms and legs in a vertical position. Are you aware of any objects (the heavier, the better) I can use in an experiment to demonstrate that an object in one position will sink in water, but by merely changing its position (not adding any air), will float back to the top? - Anonymous

I wish I could help you, but the problem is that the position of an object doesn't change its buoyancy. Buoyancy is controlled by the density (that is the mass and volume it takes up) of the object. If the object has a higher density than water, it sinks. If it has a lower density, it floats. These states are called positive and negative buoyancy.

The human body is mostly H2O so it has a density very close to that of water. The amount of air in your lungs usually is enough to tip the balance to above or below. If you cannonball into a pool with your lungs full of air, the initial momentum of the fall will carry to the bottom, but as long as you don't exhale you will rise back up whether you spread your limbs out or not. Usually people like to come back up to the surface face first, however, so they can breath, so they manipulate their arms and legs to bring them up in that position. If you remained in the cannonball orientation you would float back up, but you'd find yourself with your back out of the water and your face below because in that position your lungs, which are filled with air, would be closest to the surface. This position would be very similar to the "dead man's float" or "survival float."

One might try to argue that in the case of an opened topped container, like a boat, position does matter. Obviously a boat if turned on its side will take on water until it sinks. As the water pours into the boat, however, it is displacing, or removing, the air making the boat denser. When enough water is displaced the total boat would have a density greater than water and would sink. This would be the same as pushing the air out of your lungs which would give your body negative buoyancy so you would sink.

In History:

Nessie's Less Famous Cousin - Loch Ness isn't the only Scottish lake with a monster. On April 3rd, 1971, Ewen Gillies, a local resident, spotted a strange creature at Loch Morar located about seventy miles to the southwest of Loch Ness. The creature was a half mile distance and appeared to be about thirty feet long with a neck sticking out of the water three or four feet. The animal appeared to have black shiny skin with two or three humps and moved over the water with an up and down motion. Gillies attempted to take to take pictures, but they did not turn out. Reports of the Loch Morar monster , nick-named Morag, has a history running back into the 19th century.


In the Sky:

3-D Saturn - If you have a telescope this might be an ideal time to take a look at the planet Saturn. In early April, Saturn's rings are tipped 20 degrees from edge-on, giving you an extremely good view that won't be duplicated for many years. Because of the Earths position relative to Saturn, sunlight will be striking it from a side angle causing the planet to cast a shadow on its rings giving them a 3-D effect. During the first few weeks of this month Saturn can be found high in the SSE sky.



Whales Sing With Syntax - According to a study published last month in the "Journal of the Acoustical Society of America" the songs of the humpback whale contain elements similar to that of human language. "For example, a text consists of paragraphs; a paragraph consists of sentences, a sentence consists of clauses, etc.," said Ryuji Suzuki, lead researcher for the study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They are at different levels of hierarchy, or layers. In terms of humpback songs, a song session consists of songs; a song consists of themes; a theme consists of phrases; a phrase consists of units." While scientists do not think that whales have their own language, they seem to have something like a syntax. Syntax is the grammatical arrangement of words within sentences.


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 - Voyage to the Mystery Moon - NASA and the European Space Agency dispatch a two-part mission to study Saturn and its enigmatic satellite, Titan.. On the PBS: April 4 at 8 pm ET/PT

NOVA - Hunt for the Supertwister - Tornado-chasing scientists with an eye to better forecasting risk their lives to plumb the secrets of nature's most terrifying killer On the PBS: April 11 at 8 pm ET/PT

America's Tsunami: Are We Next - On December 26, 2004 the world's deadliest Tsunami hit the coast of Thailand. Now a team of leading scientists investigates what happened as they search for clues to discover if this massive wave will strike the same place twice or hit closer to home. On The Discovery Channel: APR 06 @ 09:00 PM; APR 07 @ 01:00 AM; ET/PT

America's Volcanoes: Sitting on a Powder Keg Mount St. Helens - On May 18th, 1980 the most active volcano in the continental United States exploded. Journey into the past to experience one of nature's most memorable natural disasters and find out whether recent activity means another explosion is in the near future. On The Discovery Channel: APR 09 @ 08:00 PM; APR 10 @ 12:00 AM; APR 13 @ 09:00 PM; APR 14 @ 01:00 AM; ET/PT

The Mystery of the Parthenon - Dominating the skyline of Athens is the ancient Acropolis—once the center of the Greek civilization. Trace the history of the Temple of the Parthenon, from its history of design and construction, to the men involved in its destruction. On The Science Channel: APR 29 @ 10:00 PM; APR 30 @ 01:00 AM; APR 30 @ 05:00 AM; APR 30 @ 12:00 PM; ET/PT.

Lost Civilization of the Amazon - In 1542, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana claimed to have found farming villages and huge walled cities along the Rio Negro river in the Amazon basin. No evidence was ever found of these civilizations until recently, in Bolivia's Mojos Plains. On The Science Channel: APR 10 @ 10:00 PM; APR 11 @ 01:00 AM; APR 11 @ 05:00 AM; APR 11 @ 11:00 AM; APR 11 @ 03:00 PM; APR 15 @ 06:00 PM; ET/PT.

Seven Wonders of Ancient Egypt - The ancient Egyptians showed the world how boundless ambition and vast quantities of human labor could transform rock and stone into the most incredible monuments ever created. Meet the pharaohs, engineers and laborers who built the wonders of Egypt. On The Science Channel: APR 09 @ 10:00 PM; APR 10 @ 01:00 AM; APR 10 @ 05:00 AM; APR 10 @ 11:00 AM; APR 10 @ 03:00 PM; APR 16 @ 09:00 AM; ET/PT.

Tomb Builders: Secrets of the Valley of the Kings - Over twenty Pharaoh tombs rest in this famous funerary valley. Follow the work of Dr. Kent Weeks as he maps the entire valley of dynastic tombs, profiles each of the Pharaohs, and tells the story of how each tomb was constructed. On The Science Channel: APR 09 @ 09:00 PM; APR 10 @ 12:00 AM; APR 10 @ 04:00 AM; APR 10 @ 10:00 AM; APR 10 @ 02:00 PM; APR 15 @ 09:00 AM; ET/PT.

Comets: Prophets of Doom - Comets--these celestial travelers have forever filled us with fear and wonder. Lurking in the furthest reaches of our solar system, they come close to Earth as they orbit our Sun. Could something as destructive as comets hold the key to life? Are the building blocks of carbon-based life forms frozen inside? Might they contain information about the creation of our solar system? At the conclusion of two spectacular NASA missions that sent spaceships to rendezvous with these mysterious objects, we examine the scientific and historical record of comets, including man's reaction to them. Did a comet lead the Wise Men to Bethlehem? Did they foretell the death of kings, the destruction of civilizations? How did Halley's Comet provide Isaac Newton with the clues for his theories of gravity? Finally, what comprises this "dirty snowball" and how can we protect ourselves if headed on a collision-course with one? On History Channel: April 5 @ 8pm, ET/PT.



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