Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

April 2008

In the News:

Squid Beaks and Artificial Knees - What's the connection between a giant squid and fixing your grandfather's bad knee? It could be a material called chitin. For years scientists have wondered how a squid, which has no bones, can use its beak to cut though hard materials, without harming its own mouth. One scientist likened it to embedding a razor blade in Jell-O, then trying to use the blade for cutting by holding the Jell-O. The base of the blade would destroy the Jell-O, because the Jell-O is too soft. Scientists at the University of California found that squids solve this problem by gradually changing the density of their beaks from the cutting edges which are ultra hard, to the base which is soft. Scientists believe a similar technique could improve artificial joints, which must be soft to connect to living tissue, but hard to resist abrasion as the joint moves.

Arthur C. Clarke Dies - On March 19th, famed science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke died. Clarke, age 90, was one of the group or writers, also including Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, who were sometimes referred to as the "big three" of 20th century science fiction due to their influence on the genre. Clarke, the last surviving member of this elite group, had won numerous Nebula and Hugo awards, and in 1986 was named a Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Probably Clarke's best known work was "2001: A Space Odyssey" which he developed with director Stanley Kubrick in 1969 into an iconic film and book. Clarke is also credited with the idea of the geosynchronous communication satellite. Originally a citizen of Britain, Clarke died in Sri Lanka, which had been his adopted home since the 1950s. For more information about Clarke's life see our biography on him.

Disagreement Holds Up Nazi Treasure Hunt - A hunt for buried Nazi treasure was called off after the partners running the excavation had a disagreement. Christian Hanisch and Heinz-Peter Haustein were looking for the famed Amber Room, an interior made of gold and amber that the Nazis had looted from a palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. The excavation near the town of Deutschneudorf, Germany, had been going on for several weeks when the partners had a disagreement over how it should proceed. Hanisch, who says his farther was one of the Wehrmacht soldiers who helped bury the loot, pinpointed the location to dig but alleges that the excavation has not been in the area he indicated. Haustein, who is also mayor of the town, told Germany's Bild newspaper that geophysicists will now re-evaluate the situation and that digging may resume in the future.

DNA Roots - According to research published in the journal PLoS One, 95% of Native Americans (North, South and Central) can trace their ancestors back to one of six women who probably immigrated to the Americas 18,000 to 21,000 years ago. It is thought these women were part of a group of people that entered the western hemisphere though a land bridge that has since disappeared. Scientists used DNA found in the cell's mitochondria which is passed down only through a person's mother to distinguish the heritage lines. By looking at the mutations in the DNA and using a formula to estimate how often they occurred, researchers were able to calculate when a gene lines leds back to a single person. While most scientists are impressed by the study, some warn that the speed at which mutations occur is dependent on multiple conditions and future research may show that the time estimates involved may be significantly off.I

Distant Star Goes Up with a Bang - It hardly seems like news since it happened 7.5 billion years ago, but a star about half away across the universe has exploded. What makes it relevant today is that the light and other radiation from that titanic explosion finally reached Earth. On Friday, March 23rd,it was observed by NASA's Swift satellite. Scientists believe that this star, which was roughly 40 times larger than the sun, is the most powerful explosion ever observed. It was so bright that for an hour it could have been seen with the naked eye, if anybody had been looking for it. At the distance of 7.6 billion light years it easily breaks the record of distant-objects-that-could-be-observed-by-the-naked-eye which was previously only at 2.5 million light years.


Science Quote of the Month - "Science increases our power in proportion as it lowers our pride." - Claude Bernard (1813-78)


What's New at the Museum:

The Eerie Crystal Skulls-The movie" Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" highlights these strange, archaeological oddities. Were they created in ancient times for paranormal purposes or are they modern fakes? > Full Story

War of the Worlds Part V- The conclusion to our newest graphic novel >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

The Zapotec's Little Tunnels - I've heard of tunnels found in buildings from the Zapotec empire, somewhere in Central or South America. These tunnels, as I have heard, were too small for adults or normal-sized children to enter, but still had little staircases carved into them, and ceremonial-type items were found in them. I can't find much information on them- are they real? Are people still trying to explore them? Any idea what they were used for? Many thanks - Tango.

The Zapotec Empire of central American (now Mexico) existed from about 500 BC to 700 AD, and reached peak population of around 16,500 around 500 AD. At this point in time they abandoned their old capital and built a new one, Monte Albán, atop a high plateau in the valley of Oaxaca. Beneath the central plaza of this city runs a labyrinth of small tunnels. The tunnels, many only a foot high, are - as you note - too small for adults and most children. Some appear to have steps and are connected chambers containing artifacts like human skeletons and funerary objects. Despite Monte Albán being one of the most studied archeological sites in the Americans, the reason behind the tunnels is unknown, but ideas have been proposed ranging from water drainage to a transportation system for diminutive aliens. One explanation seems to be that the tubes were used for sighting the different positions of the sun, moon and stars as they moved across the sky, but the existence of the chambers snd artifacts seems to also suggest a ritual connection.

This, by far, is not the only mystery about Monte Albán. On the north side of the site is an area called "The Gallery of Dancers" with many stone tablets carved with reliefs of human figures in contorted positions. Nobody is exactly sure what these figures mean, except that they are not really dancers. The leading theory is that they may be human sacrifices.

Perhaps we could understand more about the city and its strange features if we could read the Zapotec hieroglyphics that cover city walls. While the language is still spoken in Mexico, the meanings of the glyphs have been lost and only a handful are now known. Without a key, like the Rosetta Stone which allowed Egyptian script to be deciphered, the translation of these texts may never be known. For a look at the plaza and the tunnels check:

Additional pictures can be seen here including the entrance to a tunnel that might have been used to site the planet Venus:


In History:

Brown Mountain Lights - The Brown Mountain "Ghost" lights of North Carolina are famous. For many years these lights appeared to have no explaination. In April,1922, George Mansfield, of the Geological Survey, spent a week at the location studying each sighting. He attributed 44 percent of the lights to cars, 33 percent to trains, 10 percent to stationary lights and 10 percent to brush fires. This left only 3 percent unexplained. Not everybody who has seen these mysterious lights, however, accepts his explainations.


In the Sky:

Lyrid Shower - A few hours before dawn on Sunday April 22nd and Monday April 23rd will be a great time to catch the Lyrid Meteor Shower. Expect to see about 5 to 20 meteors an hour coming out of the constellation Vega. The show is caused every year when the Earth plows through the dusty trail left behind by Comet Thatcher. The bits left behind hit Earth's atmosphere at nearly 110,000 mph.



Hexapus Found at Sea Life Centre - Scientists have found a mutant octopus with only six arms and they have dubbed the creature a "hexapus." The animal had come to the Blackpool Sea Life Centre in northwest England from a local zoo and it wasn't until he attached himself to the glass wall of aquarium that staff noticed that "Henry" was missing two limbs. Usually octopi can regrow missing limbs if they lose one, but the fact that Henry has not and appears to have no stumps indicates to the staff that the missing limbs are the result of a birth defect.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

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. Tuesday, April 1 at 8 pm

Nova:  Cracking the Maya Code - The story behind the centuries-long decipherment of ancient Maya hieroglyphs. Tuesday, April 8 at 8 pm

Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science - The legend of a North American Ape species known as Sasquatch, Bigfoot and Yeti has been around since recorded time. Even today, sighting and physical evidence are gathered on a regular basis. Is this creature fact or fiction? On Discovery Channel. Apr 05, 9:00 pm; Apr 06, 1:00 am; Apr 25, 1:00 pm; ET/PT.

Egypt's Ten Greatest Discoveries - Dr Zahi Hawass and a team of leading archaeologists have selected the ten most important discoveries in Egypt. From major battles, to mega-construction, the discoveries uncover the amazing stories of the lives of kings, queens and ordinary people. On the Discovery Channel. Apr 06, 8:00 pm; Apr 07, 12:00 am; ET/PT

Most Of Our Universe Is Missing - We can only account for four percent of our universe. Join us as we visit the world's most powerful telescopes, fly through outer space, and travel inside the deepest mines to find the other 96% of what makes the universe home. On Science Channel. Apr 11, 9:00 pm; Apr 12, 1:00 am; Apr 08, 8:00 pm; Apr 08, 11:00 pm; Apr 09, 3:00 am; Apr 09, 9:00 am; Apr 13, 4:00 pm; Apr 15, 4:00 pm; May 01, 4:00 pm; ET/PT

Riddle of the Polar Sky - Join a quest to unravel the mystery of the Aurora Borealis. Scientists and citizens working on the most current scientific theories live in six months of extended darkness. On Science Channel. Apr 15, 8:00 pm; Apr 15, 11:00 pm; Apr 16, 3:00 am; Apr 16, 9:00 am; Apr 18, 4:00 pm; Apr 20, 4:00 pm; May 07, 4:00 pm; ET/PT

Decoding The Past: Doomsday 2012: The End of Days - There are prophecies and oracles from around the world that all seem to point to December 21, 2012 as doomsday. The ancient Mayan Calendar, the medieval predictions of Merlin, the Book of Revelation and the Chinese oracle of the I Ching all point to this specific date as the end of civilization. A new technology called "The Web-Bot Project" makes massive scans of the internet as a means of forecasting the future... and has turned up the same dreaded date: 2012. Skeptics point to a long history of "Failed Doomsdays", but many oracles of doom throughout history have a disturbingly accurate track record. As the year 2012 ticks ever closer we'll speculate if there are any reasons to believe these doomsayers. On The History Channel. April 05 10:00 PM; Sunday, April 06 02:00 AM , ET/PT.



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