Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

June 2002

In the News:

Amorphophallus titanum Blooms in London - The biggest, smelliest flower in the world put in an appearance at London's Kew Gardens early in May. The plant, a rare Amorphophallus titanum blooms infrequently outside its native Sumatra. This is only the fifth time that one has bloomed at Kew since 1889. The flower which reaches over nine feet in height and smells like a mixture of rotting flesh and excrement, has been given the nickname "corpse flower" because of its pungent odor. The smell attracts bees which are trapped in the flower until they are covered with pollen. Then they are released to fertilize other plants.

New Pyramid Found in Egypt - Archaeologists have added one more to the count of 109 known pyramids in Egypt. The structure found at Saqqara, just south of Cairo, is an estimated at 4,500-years-old and belonged to an unknown Queen. The discovery was made by a Swiss team working on the tomb of the 4th dynasty pharaoh Redjedef. While excavating sand around the Redjedef tomb they accidentally happened on another pyramid which measured approximately 25 feet square. The Swiss archaeologists investigated the pyramid finding in it four chambers located some 15 feet underground. The tomb was empty, however, undoubtedly the work of ancient tomb robbers.

Dark Energy to Replace "Big Bang?"- Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt has a new theory about the beginning of the universe that might displace the current accepted theory known as the "Big Bang." In Steinhardt's theory things did not start in a huge explosion that created the ever expanding universe we see today. Instead a gravitationally self-repulsive energy, known as dark energy, has been responsible for controlling the expansion of the universe. Sometimes dark energy pushes the universe apart, sometimes it slows the expansion down or reverses it. Under this theory the universe might be much older than imagined since the expansion would wax and wane in cycles lasting for trillions of years.

Why is Mars South Pole Dry? - Scientists think they now understand why the poles on the planet Mars are so different from each other. Probes to the red planet have discovered that the northern polar cap is mostly made of water, while the southern cap is mostly made of frozen carbon-dioxcide. Mark Richardson of the California Institute of Technology and John Wilson of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University have determined that wind circulation patterns on the planet tend to keep all the water in the north, leaving the south pole dry. The difference is because of the higher elevation in the south (an average of three miles higher than the north) changes the air flow pattern.

Many Small Galaxies Hold Dark Matter - Astronomers have found evidence of swarms of dark, miniature galaxies surrounding ordinary galaxies. The report in the Astrophysical Journal boosts the theory that as much of 70 percent of the universe is composed of cold, dark matter. The scientists took advantage of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing to detect how light from distant, visible galaxies was bent by the smaller, darker galaxies on its way to Earth. The study was conducted by Neal Dalal of the University of California and Christopher Kochanek of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.


What's New at the Museum:

The Death of King Tut: Was it Murder? - The famous boy-king died just as he was becoming a man, leaving no heir. Some Egyptologists think it was murder. Are they right? - The Death of King Tut


Ask the Curator:

Man Eating Plants - Are there really man eating plants? - Anonymous

There are legends of man eating plants, but so far none is yet known to science. The largest carnivorous plant is the Nepenthes. It has long (thirty feet), thick vines with traps that are used to capture and digest small animals. Though small birds and rodents have been seen as occasional victims, more often the plant's prey is tiny frogs or smaller animals.

Perhaps the strangest looking carnivorous plant is the Venus Flytrap. This plant has leaf lobes that look like months with teeth. Flies are attracted to the leaf by chemicals that the plant secretes. When a fly enters the trap the "mouth" closes quickly and the insect is held inside until it is digested.

This area is a potential new page for the website, so if any readers have information on reports of man-eating-plants or references to folklore on the subject, send the curator a email about it. Thanks.


"Wormholes" in Space - I've heard of wormholes almost from the first time I picked up a science fiction book, but somewhere along the line I missed hearing the explanation of what they are. As near as I can guess they have something to do with either FTL travel, or connections between alternate universes. - Conrad

A wormhole is a short cut created between two parts of the universe. If you can imagine our universe as a two dimensional surface and folded back on itself - like a piece of paper - the "wormhole" would be a hole poked through the back-to-back sheets connecting what would otherwise be two distant points. Science fiction writers love them because traveling through a wormhole gives you a way to get across the universe without breaking the laws of physics that limit spaceships to velocities of less than the speed-of-light.

The idea of the wormhole came from Einstein's general theory of relativity. While wormholes can exist in theory, no scientist has yet to observe one. In general they are thought to be so tiny and fleeting that not even a photon of light can slip through before they open and close, let alone a spaceship. Recently, however, a Russian scientist, Sergei Krasnikov of the Pulkovo Observatory in St Petersburg, has calculated that it may be possible for large, stable wormholes to exist under certain conditions.

Wormholes, if you could travel through them, might not only be useful as short cuts through space, but might also allow for travel through time or to other universes. It is important to point out, however, that making a wormhole, even a tiny one, seems well beyond our current technical abilities.


In History:

Eagle Snatches Girl - According to reports, on June 5, 1932 a five year old girl was snatched from her home in Leka, Norway, by a gigantic eagle. The eagle carried the 42 pound girl to a ledge more than a mile away from where it had picked her up. The girl was later rescued without injury. Though most reports of an Eagle carrying something as heavy as a human being are dismissed by science, zoologist Hartvig Huitfelt-Kaas spent a month investigating the incident immediately after it happened and declared the story "completely reliable."


In the Sky:

Catch the Young Crescent Moon - On Tuesday, June 11, look for a very young, crescent Moon in the sky. At this point our natural satellite is only slightly more than a day old and can be seen in the very early evening. Look for it 30 minutes after sunset in the west-northwest just 4 degrees (8 moon diameters) above the horizon.



Mice Pave the Way for Mars Mission - The Mars Society said it intends to send a crew of mice into orbit for two months so it can observe the results of a generation of the rodents raised under Mars-like gravity. The spacecraft, which would probably be rotated like a centrifuge to simulate the gravity of Mars (about one-third that of our planet), would be returned to Earth where teams of scientists would study the mice and their offspring to see how life is affected by reduced gravity. The flight, scheduled for 2005, depends on the Society finding the necessary funds. The mission might cost as little as $2 million if the mouse-spacecraft can hitch its way into orbit on a rocket already carrying another payload.


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.

To the Moon - When President John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s, not a single person in the nascent US space agency had a clue as to how this would be accomplished. See how they did it. On PBS's Nova June 25 at 8 pm; ET.

Unfolding Universe - A team of astronomers and scientists try to pinpoint the location of a strange presence hidden deep in the core of the galaxy. What they find in this mysterious realm harbors clues to the origin of the world and a future course to the galaxy and universe.; On the Discovery Channel: Jun 3 9:00 PM, and 12:00 AM; Jun 8 5:00 PM; Jun 13 10:00 PM and1:00 AM; Jun 16 4:00 PM; ET.

Chasing Giants: On the Trail of the Giant Squid - Ageless tales of sea monsters include reports of an eight-legged beast with eyes the size of volleyballs - the Giant Squid. New Zealand scientist Steve O'Shea attempts to track this elusive creature and to provide the first image of the animal alive. On the Discovery Channel: Jun 16 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM; ET.

Three Minutes to Impact - Examine ancient craters on the Earth's surface for clues to the chilling possibility of future comet collisions. Delve into scientific efforts to patrol the skies and develop plans to deflect incoming comets and asteroids before they destroy planet Earth. On the Discovery Channel: Jun 16 8:00 PM and 12:00 AM ; ET.

Monsters of the Lake - For years, eyewitnesses have reported sightings of a mysterious creature in Loch Ness. Photographs of this underwater monster have been presented as proof of its existence. Scientists believe the pictures are merely optical illusions. On the Discovery Channel: Jun 27 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM, Jun 29 6:00 PM ; ET.

Back from the Dead - Scientists and explorers search for horrific legendary creatures, including the cadborosauras, a huge Canadian sea serpent, the Yowie, a Bigfoot-like creature of Australia, and the Tasmanian Tiger, a marsupial wolf that feeds like a vampire. On TLC: Jun 25 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; Jun 29 3:00 PM; ET.

Abominable Snowman - Search for the legendary abominable snowman of the Himalayas. Travel to unexplored areas of Bhutan, the remote kingdom between India and Nepal. Hear eyewitness testimony and examine remains analyzed by a world expert on DNA. On TLC: Jun 25 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM; ET.

Alligators in the Sewers - Deep in the sewer system of New York City, workers have been confronted with colonies of alligators. Stories like this have been reported since the 1930s, but there is no evidence of gators. A reptile expert explains the actual life cycle of alligators. On TLC: Jun 18 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM; Jun 22 4:00 PM; ET.

Science and the Swastika - This four-part miniseries reveals a record of stunning scientific achievements by the Nazis, from the first computer to discovering a link between smoking and cancer. However, these milestones were achieved through questionable means. Nazi science changed the way we live today, but at what price? On the History Channel: Tuesday-Friday, June 4-7 at 9pm/7C.

History Undercover Roswell: Final Declassification - In 1947, a strange object fell from the sky near Roswell, New Mexico and controversy brewed over what it really was. In November 2001, a team of experts convened at the National Archives for an exclusive first look at the top-secret government files of the UFO incident. On the History Channel: June 13 8:00 PM; June 14 12:00 AM; ET.



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