Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

April 2007

In the News:

Yellowstone Caldera on the Move - A new study shows that the central caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano rose 7 inches over the years 2005 and 2006. This is the fastest rise ever recorded at that location and is probably due to increased pressures of the magma and water underneath the ground. Robert Smith, an author of the study said, "I don't believe this is evidence for an impending volcanic eruption, but it would be prudent to keep monitoring the volcano." The caldera at Yellowstone has been studied by scientists for several decades and has both risen and fallen over that time period. Yellowstone is a location of one of the few so-called "supervolcano" on the earth. A supervolcano explosion could cover a continent-sized area with ash should it ever go off.

Mars South Pole Holds Ice - A new survey by a The Mars Express probe shows that the South Pole on that planet has enough frozen water to cover the whole planet with an ocean approximately 36 feet deep. "The south polar layered deposits of Mars cover an area bigger than Texas. The amount of water they contain has been estimated before, but never with the level of confidence this radar makes possible," said study investigator Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Express is using the Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSIS) to create virtual slices through the layered Martian surface to a depth of up to 2.3 miles. Scientists believe that layered deposits at the poles currently hold most of the known water on Mars.

Small Genome May Mean Fast Dinosaurs - A study, published Nature, suggests that dinosaurs had a relatively small genome. A genome is an animal's genetic information, including DNA and RNA. Scientists have estimated the genome size this by examining fossil remains of bone and measuring the cell sizes in the bone. It is thought that a small cell size means that the genome inside is also small. Animals with small genomes are generally also thought to be more active than those with large genomes. "There is a widely held idea that metabolic rate...may limit genome size, since maintaining a high metabolism would be most effective with smaller cell sizes," notes Andrew Shedlock, who contributed to the study. If this is true then movies like Jurassic Park that portray dinosaurs as quick, active animals are scientifically accurate.

Scientists Try to Quell Mud Volcano - Scientists trying to calm a "Mud Volcano" by dropping chains of concrete balls down its throat may have had some success. The "volcano," located near Surabaya, Indonesia, started spewing toxic sludge in May of 2006 after an local firm drilled an exploratory gas well nearby. The mud has swamped homes and threatened a nearby railway. Scientists have dropped 374 chains, each composed four concrete balls, into the crater hoping to slow the flow. For thirty minutes last month the flow slowed to a trickle, then started again. It is unknown if this was related the chains so far dropped into the crater. Some of the scientists claim the overall flow has lessoned and hope that an additional 500 chains may cut the spewing mud by up to 70 percent.

New Horned Dino Found - Scientists unveiled a newly found dinosaur that had horns over its eyebrows that were more than a yard in length. The 20 foot-long albertaceratops nesmoi lived about 78 million years ago and resembled the more famous triceratops. Triceratops lived approximately 10 million years after albertaceratops, however, and belonged to a completely different subfamily. The find is significant because it links early dinosaurs with a diverse group of horned dinosaurs that evolved later. Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, published an article in this month's Journal of Paleontology announcing the discovery. He found the creature six years ago in southern Alberta, Canada, while working as a graduate student.

What's New at the Museum:

The Antikythera Mechanism - A mechanical computer that existed two-thousand years before the age of electronics. Who built it? >Full Story

Notes from the Curator's Office: The Haunted Church of Gravity Hill - Is this tale a mystery or just a myth? >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Quantum Physics Weirdness - I noticed on your site that quantum physics is mentioned often. I was wondering if you could explain its origins and why it's considered more reliable than the physics used prior to its emergence? (If that is so) - Robert D.

Quantum Mechanics is one of the two great physics theories of the 20th century that replaced classical (Newtonian) physics. The other was General Relativity. Interestingly both were fathered by the same man: Albert Einstein. While he loved the one child the other was disliked. Einstein never felt comfortable with Quantum Physics.

General Relativity is mostly used to describe how the world of big things work: The movement of planets, stars, rockets, etc. Everything down to about the size of an atom. Below that size scientists almost always use quantum physics to do their calculations. Both were needed as classical physics created by Issac Newton in 17th century couldn't predict how the things worked when dealing with extremely large objects (like planets and stars) or extremely small objects (like photons and electrons).

While the rules of general relativity seem to make some kind of sense to us, the rules involved with quantum physics are bizarre and challenge our understanding of reality. Little in this realm is for certain. Everything is based on the probability of something happening. This is one of the reasons Einstein disliked it. He has often been quoted as saying, "He [God] does not play dice" with the universe.

One illustration of the strangeness of quantum theory is the dual nature of light. Is light a particle or a wave? The experiment that scientists used to find this out is called the double-slit experiment. A barrier with two narrow slits is placed between a light source and a screen. If light is a stream of particles we could expect to see each particle pass through one slit or the other and create two separate lines of light on the screen behind it. This isn't what occurs, however. We see a pattern of light and dark lines all across the screen. This, known as an interference pattern, is the result of waves of light passing through the two slits, then interacting as they hit the screen with the wave crests reinforcing each other to make the light lines and the wave troughs making the dark lines.

So I guess light is a wave them, huh? If you close one of slits, though, suddenly light starts behaving like a particle again. We see it piling up behind the open slit. Well, maybe light only behaves like a wave when a lot of light particles are moving together. Unfortunately this is not the case. When the double slit experiment is performed sending only one photon (light particle) though the barrier at a time the photon doesn't show up behind the slits. It can show up anywhere on the screen. In fact, as you send more and more photons though the experiment one at a time the interference pattern slowly builds up, just as before. Does that mean that each individual photon is a wave that interferes with itself? Yep. Does this mean that the photon passed through both slits at the same time? Indeed, this seems to be the case.

When scientists have placed photon detectors at each slit to see which side the photon goes though a strange thing happens. Suddenly the interference pattern disappears and there are just two lines of light one behind each slit. The detector has somehow forced the photon to stop behaving as a wave and act like a particle again. Even if the detector is placed on the opposite side of the barrier, after the photon passes though the slits, the photon still acts like a particle. How did it know that there was going to be a photon detector on the opposite side of the barrier so it would behave like a particle and not a wave when it passed though the barrier?

In the end, light is both a wave and a particle at the same time. If you think that doesn't make sense, you are right. However, that doesn't change the fact that it is true. If you can explain why all this happens and support your ideas with experimental proof, you're probably on your way to a Nobel prize.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Quantum Physics weirdness. As you get deeper and deeper into it what you find seems to make less and less common sense. You might try to argue that scientists simply have gotten the thing wrong except that quantum theory is one of the most successful theories of all time and is used in the design of such everyday things as TVs and cell phones. Experiments show that not just light is both a particle and a wave, so are electrons, protons and atoms. These maybe small things too, but remember we are just made of atoms. At some level are we just waves too?

Scientists have grappled to figure out what this means in the real world. Some interpretations include the ideas like "nothing is real until it is observed" or that there are countless "multiple universes" each differing just slightly from the one next to it. There isn't room here to discuss all the ramifications of quantum theory, so I'm going to give you a couple links that may help. Prepare to see the world in a different light after reading these, or at least have an awful headache: and


In History:

Flying Humanoid - On April 14, 1897, newspaper accounts record that one-hundred citizens of Mount Vernon, Illinois, including the Mayor, saw something that resembled "a huge man swimming through the air with an electric light on this back." The incident is part of a larger flap that occurred across the United States that year involving the supposed sighting of a flying machine. This report is unusual however, in that in concerns a flying humanoid shape, rather than a cigar-shaped aircraft.


In the Sky:

Meteor Shower- About 3AM on April 22nd will be the best time to catch the Lyrid Meteor shower this year. Look toward the east about 60 degrees above the horizon near the star Vega. Because the moon will be full only a few days before the shower, it may not be the Lyrids' best show. However, this shower has the distinction of being the oldest known with observation records going back in ancient China 2600 years ago.



Former Canadian Official Wants Alien Technology to Combat Global Warming - Former Canadian defense minister Paul Hellyer is demanding that governments around the world use the information they have gleaned through alien contact to solve the problem of global warming. According to the newspaper the Ottawa Citizen, Hellyner, 83, said that UFOs would have traveled vast distances to reach Earth, and so they must be equipped with advanced propulsion systems or used exceptional fuels. Such technology, he thinks, should be used to solve pressing environmental problems on earth. "We need to persuade governments to come clean on what they know. Some of us suspect they know quite a lot, and it might be enough to save our planet if applied quickly enough," he said. In 2005 Hellyer stated that he believed the reason that NASA was returning to the moon was to use that story as a cover for fighting alien invaders.


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.

Kings of Camouflage - Meet the cuttlefish, one of the brainiest, most bizarre animals in the ocean. On PBS: April 3 at 8 pm; ET/PT.

Secrets of the Deep - For the first time ever, advanced computer graphics will light the infinite vistas of the ocean. The largest habitat on earth has remained impentrable, until now. On The Science Channel: APR 05 2007 @ 09:00 PM APR 06 2007 @ 12:00 AM APR 06 2007 @ 04:00 AM APR 06 2007 @ 10:00 AM APR 07 2007 @ 01:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Stuff of Light - This is the story of the extraordinary discovery of what light actually is, and how mankind learned to control light and use it for his own ends with potentially devastating consequences. On The Science Channel: APR 08 2007 @ 10:00 PM APR 09 2007 @ 01:00 AM APR 09 2007 @ 05:00 AM APR 09 2007 @ 11:00 AM , ET/PT.

What Really Killed the Dinosaurs - Until recently, most scientists thought they knew what killed off the dinosaurs - a giant meteorite crashing into Earth. But a small and vociferous group of scientists believes there is increasing evidence that the 'impact' theory could be wrong. On The Science Channel: APR 15 2007 @ 09:00 PM APR 16 2007 @ 12:00 AM APR 16 2007 @ 04:00 AM APR 16 2007 @ 10:00 AM , ET/PT.

Krakatoa: Volcano of Destruction - More than 30,000 people were killed when Krakatoa erupted in 1883. In 1927, another volcano began rising in its place. Based on survivors' stories and observations, scientists are looking into what damage the reborn volcano will do when it erupts again. On The Science Channel: APR 19 2007 @ 09:00 PM APR 20 2007 @ 12:00 AM APR 20 2007 @ 04:00 AM APR 20 2007 @ 10:00 AM APR 21 2007 @ 01:00 PM ; ET/PT.

Iceberg That Sank the Titanic - The dramatic story of the most famous iceberg in history casts a very different light on the familiar Titanic legend. Where it came from and the surprising and moving details of its 4000 mile trek, are revealed amid the stunning landscapes of the north. On the Discovery Channel: APR 07 2007 @ 08:00 PM APR 08 2007 @ 12:00 AM; ET/PT.

Rogue Nature: Squid - Mexican fishermen call the Humbolt squid the "Red Devil" and tell tales of squid who pull fishermen from their boats and kill them. To get to the bottom of this legend, Dave dons a chain mail suit and scuba gear to catch these predators in action On the Discovery Channel: APR 17 2007 @ 10:00 PM APR 18 2007 @ 02:00 AM APR 20 2007 @ 08:00 PM APR 21 2007 @ 12:00 AM APR 28 2007 @ 05:00 PM ; ET/PT.

Meteors: Fire in the Sky - Meteors, comets, and asteroids cross the solar system to offer clues about our planet and universe. Can they destroy civilizations? Did they wipe out the dinosaurs? Have they brought life to our planet? And when will the next one hit? Aided by elaborate animation and live-action footage, we learn what these mysterious space rocks really are and imagine what likely happened 65-million years ago, when an object plowed into the Yucatan Peninsula. We see how certain spectacular meteor falls advanced our understanding of what they are and the danger that they pose. We talk to leading experts--astronomers and geologists including David Levy and Carolyn Shoemaker, co-discoverers of the Shoemaker-Levy comet that fell into Jupiter in 1994. And we talk to NASA scientists about recent missions to asteroids and comets and speculate on ways to move Earth-threatening asteroids and comets out of our way. Because it isn't a question of if but when the next deadly impact will take place.On History Channel: April 10 08:00 PM, April 11 12:00 AM; ET/PT.




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