Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

June 2006

In the News:

Dolphins Use Names - A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that bottlenose dolphins can call each other by name. If so, they are the only other species besides man capable of recognizing each other by a moniker. To make sure that the marine mammals just weren't responding to the calls of close relatives, researchers used computers to synthesize the calls removing inflections and other vocal cues. In addition to responding to their own names, scientists found that two dolphins may refer to a third's name during their communications. While the researchers are now sure that the animals use these "signature whistles" to refer to each other, they stop short of saying that dolphins have a human-like language.

Geronimo's Skull at Yale? - Did members of the Yale's secret skull and crossbones society steal the famous Native American leader Geronimo's skull? This has long been a legend around Yale University, but was given little credence until recently when a professor discovered a letter written by alumni in 1918. "The skull of the worthy Geronimo the Terrible, exhumed from its tomb at Fort Sill by your club... is now safe inside the (Tomb)…" the letter, written by Winter Mead, says. The remains of Geronimo were supposed to have been buried at Fort Sill in 1909. Some scholars are skeptical of this claim, but Harlyn Geronimo, a descendent for the famous warrior, is seeking to sue the U.S. army for holding the remains and letting them be removed.

Find May be Alchemy Tool - Scientists excavating at the remains of a British Cistercian abbey have found a cone shaped container 8 inches tall and 6 inches across at the base. It is thought that the container might have been used by alchemists in an attempt to turn base metal into gold. The device, known as an alembic, had a pipe running out of its top and down to a condenser. Alchemy is considered by many researchers as the forerunner to the science of chemistry. According to the theories of Aristotle it was possible to convert cheaper metals to the desirable gold by the process of "transmutation." It had been thought that certain Cistercians, as with other monks, did experiments in alchemy. Though there are no traces of chemicals left on the alembic to prove that it was used in an attempt to make gold, the fact that it was found near a urinal may support the idea. Urine and quicksilver were considered important ingredients for alchemy.

Remains of Cook's Endeavour Found? - Scientists think they may have found the remains of the ship of one of the most well-known explorers in the world: Captain James Cook. Cook, considered by historians as one of the greatest navigators of all time, took an epic journey sailing the Pacific Ocean and mapping the coasts of New Zealand and eastern Australia in the late 1700's. His ship the "Endeavour" was later renamed "Lord Sandwich" and was sunk on purpose along with 12 other British ships in an attempt to close Newport Harbor in 1778 during the Revolutionary War. Researchers with the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project have found the remains of four of those ships at the bottom of Narragansett Bay, but they cannot be positive which one, if any of them, are the Endeavour. They are now trying to determine where the other ships are and if there is any way to tie one of them to Captain Cook's voyage.

Man Not Responsible for Missing Mammoths - A study published in the journal Nature indicates that humans were not responsible for the extinction of the great mammoths as had been suggested. Scientists radiocarbon dated over 600 bones from bison, wapiti, moose, humans, wild horses, and mammoths that had been recovered from Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The results indicate that certain species had already died out, or were in decline, before humans arrived in North America. The study cites climate change as the most likely culprit for the deaths of the large animals. Samples of preserved pollen show that sedge, upon which these animals fed, disappeared as the climate warmed and was replaced by grasses which is a food more useful to wapiti and bison, which then became the dominant species.


What's New at the Museum:

UnMuseum Library - Our newst hall leads you to our free on-line graphic novels and some links to classic literature across the web . >Full Story

The Lost World: Chapter Seven - The conclusion to our graphic novel presentation of the Aurthur Conan Doyle classic. >Full Story

From The Curator's Office: A Close Encounter of the Snake Kind - Would somebody be road kill today? >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Making Gold - How is gold formed and why does gold turn up on turbine blades? Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Regards - Diana

After the big bang the universe consisted of lot of hydrogen and helium. No gold. No lead. In fact, no metals of any kind. It was only when the first generation of stars were born that metals began to form deep within their fusion furnaces. Under the intense pressure and heat caused by the gravity of a star the light hydrogen atoms are fused together to form heavier helium. If the star is of medium size (such as our sun) or larger, the fusion can also create heavier elements including heavy metals like gold and lead. The lighter atoms in a fusion reaction have slightly more mass then the resulting heavier atoms and the mass that is lost is turned into energy according to Einstein's famous formula E=mc2. This energy is what makes a star give off heat and light and is the same process at the heart of a Hydrogen Bomb.

This means that almost everything you see around you - your watch, the computer you're are reading this on, the gold ring you're are wearing, and even yourself - were formed in some distant past in the depth of a star. As the late Dr. Carl Sagan was found of saying, we are all "star stuff."

Eventually this material was scattered about the galaxy and became part of new stars and solar systems. Rocky planets like our own Earth are formed mostly of these heavier materials. Gold is one of the more uncommon metals that was generated in the stars. Although it is scattered widely throughout the planet and can be found almost anywhere, it is almost never concentrated enough to make it worth recovering. For example, it is estimated that a cubic kilometer of sea water contains 6 kilograms of pure gold, but nobody has figured out an economic way of getting at it.

Sometimes by natural processes gold is concentrated into "seams" or "veins" and this is what miners are looking for. Because gold is highly soluble compared to other minerals it is almost always the last to crystallize out as water disappears and the first to dissolve when water returns. This has a concentrating effect. The vein a miner finds is usually the remains of an underground flow of water that carried a highly concentrated solution of gold.

As the water disappeared the material crystallized into nearly pure gold. As to the appearance of gold on turbine blades: I have been unable to find any reference to this, however, since gold is so highly soluble in water, it could be that turbine blades operating a river, or ocean or with steam, could somehow cause the some of the gold in solution to be deposited on the blades. A similar issue happens with copper deposits and certain types of power plants if there is copper present in the water being used. What the mechanism for this effect is I don't know, but perhaps one of our knowledgeable readers can help us out.


In History:

Eagle Abduction - Can an eagle carry away a child? Legends and folklore are full of such tales, though modern science says that it is impossible. One such story occurred in June of 1932 when Svanhild Hansen, a 42 pound, five year-old little girl from Leka, Norway, was supposedly abducted by an Eagle that carried her more than a mile to a high ledge. The girl, with the exception of a few scratches was unharmed. Zoologist Hartvig Huitfeldt-Kass, who investigated the story at the time, decided it was "completely reliable."


In the Sky:

Finding Mercury - Early in June is a great time to observe the solar system's innermost plant: Mercury. Find a location with a clear view of the west-northwestern horizon and watch where the sun sets. Come back with binoculars 30 to 45 minutes and look for a peach-colored dot in the twilight sky just above where the sun went down.



British Government Says "There Are No Aliens" - The British Ministry of Defense will release a secret report from 2000 stating there is no credible evidence that "UFOs" are anything but natural phenomena like meteors or unusual atmospheric conditions. "No evidence exists to suggest that the phenomena seen are hostile or under any type of control, other than that of natural physical forces," the report said, according to quotes from the BBC. The 400-page commentary, "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defense Region," is being released under freedom of information laws and will be available on the Ministry of Defense (MOD) website.


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 - Kaboom! - Explore the science of explosions—from fireworks to building demolitions. On the PBS: June 6 at 8 pm ET/PT

Mount St. Helen's: Forecast for Disaster - Scientists are using new robotic probes to monitor the core of Mount St. Helen's. Over the past several months the volcano has emitted smoke plumes and spewed molten lava. With the probes scientists hope to predict the next eruption before it strikes. On the Science Channel: JUN 05 @ 09:00 PM; JUN 06 @ 12:00 AM; JUN 06 @ 04:00 AM; JUN 06 @ 10:00 AM; JUN 06 @ 02:00 PM; JUN 10 @ 05:00 PM; ET/PT

When Yellowstone Erupts - A super volcano lies beneath the beauty of Yellowstone Park. Scientists are challenged with predicting when the next super-eruption might take place and describing what will happen if this cataclysmic event occurs. On the Science Channel: JUN 05 @ 08:00 PM; JUN 05 @ 11:00 PM; JUN 06 @ 03:00 AM; JUN 06 @ 09:00 AM; JUN 06 @ 01:00 PM; JUN 10 @ 04:00 PM; ET/PT

Most of Our Universe is Missing - We can only account for four percent of our universe. Join us as we visit the worlds 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 The Science Channel: JUN 13 @ 09:00 PM; JUN 14 @ 12:00 AM; JUN 14 @ 04:00 AM; JUN 14 @ 10:00 AM; JUN 14 @ 02:00 PM; JUN 18 @ 05:00 PM; ET/PT.

Coolest Science Museums - Coolest Science Museums explores the coolest exhibits at five of the top science centers in the United States. On The Science Channel: JUN 23 @ 09:00 PM; JUN 24 @ 12:00 AM; JUN 24 @ 04:00 AM; JUN 24 @ 11:00 AM; ET/PT.

Egypt's New Tomb Revealed - A new tomb is found in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, with 28 jars and 7 coffins and only Discovery is inside. What lies sealed inside the jars? Are there mummies in the coffins? And, if so, are they tied to King Tut's tomb? The answer may change history... On The Discovery Channel: JUN 22 @ 09:00 PM; JUN 23 @ 01:00 AM; ET/PT.

Building the Great Pyramid - Of the many myths surrounding the construction of the Great Pyramid, none is more difficult to eradicate than the belief that it was built by slaves. Find out the truth as to how and why this extraordinary human monument was made. On The Discovery Channel: JUN 04 @ 08:00 PM; JUN 05 @ 12:00 AM; JUN 22 @ 08:00 PM; JUN 23 @ 12:00 AM; ET/PT.

Secret Allied Aircraft of WWII - At WWII's outset, US and UK military aircraft designs were woefully behind Germany's and Japan's technologically superior planes. But the genius and ingenuity of innovators on both sides of the Atlantic closed the gap. For America, it was a handful of visionaries and their teams; for Great Britain, a creative and thoughtful spirit emanated from the top leadership on down. In this hour, we recount the untold stories of their cutting-edge designs and solutions, some of which proved decades ahead of their time. On History Channel: June 2 @ 6pm ET/PT.

UFO Files: Russian Roswell - Welcome to the remote, top-secret military base Kapustin Yar, the Soviet "Area 51"--where the wreckage from no fewer than eight UFO crash incidents and their occupants were transported and studied between 1945 and `91. We expose this never-before-seen installation through interviews, on-camera tours, dramatic reenactments, and extensive recreations. We also explore the many Russian UFO crashes over the decades and show the ways in which Soviet UFO research scientists at Kapustin Yar used and processed the wreckage...and the alien bodies. Join us as we investigate the facts and myths surrounding Kapustin Yar, as well as the many UFO crashes that still circulate in the lore and consciousness of the Russian people. On History Channel: June 5 @ 8pm ET/PT.

Ancient Marvels Japan's Mysterious Pyramids - Most historians and archaeologists maintain that civilization as we know it began about 5,000 years ago with the emergence of the earliest Egyptian dynasty. But, a small yet persuasive number of scientists believes that a highly advanced civilization, nearly twice as old, flourished during the last Ice Age. Solid evidence of this 10,000-year-old civilization is difficult to produce, but some feel a recent discovery off the coast of a tiny Japanese island, Yonaguni, may be the proof they seek. On History Channel: June 8 @ 8pm ET/PT.



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