Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

July 2007

In the News:

Scientists Recreate Ancient Rome - A group of researchers spearheaded by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia have re-created ancient Rome inside a computer. The project, named "Rome Reborn 1.0" allows virtual time travelers to walk through the ancients streets of the city as if they were there in June 320 A.D.. The computer model allows visitors to navigate with complete freedom, moving up, down, left and right at will. They can enter important public buildings such as the Roman Senate House, the Coliseum, or the Temple of Venus and Rome, the ancient city's largest place of worship. The location and appearance of the buildings is based on archeological data gathered by scientists over the past five centuries. Diane Favro, a founder of the project said, "This amazing model allows us to appreciate individual buildings of ancient Rome within a broad urban context, and thus also to understand how the modern city took shape over time." Video clips and still shots of the model can be viewed at

Dinos Probably Contorted by Death - Fossilized dinosaurs that have died with their mouths wide-open, heads thrown back and tails that curved toward the head may be showing signs of asphyxiation and brain damage. Scientists have long thought that these dinosaurs had died in water and the currents pushed the bones into that position, or that rigor mortis contorted the body. "I'm reading this in the literature and thinking, 'This doesn't make any sense to me as a veterinarian,'" said Cynthia Marshall Faux, a veterinarian-turned-paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies. Faux thinks that animals found in this posture may have suffocated in ash during a volcanic eruption or may have been contorted at death by disease, brain trauma, severe bleeding, thiamine deficiency or poisoning. One interesting observation is that modern animals found in this posture during death are almost those with high metabolic rates, giving support to the idea that dinosaurs were warm blooded animals.

Weapon Found in Whale Dates from 1800's - The tip of a lance over a hundred-years-old was found in the shoulder of a 50-ton bowhead whale caught off the Alaska. The weapon, used to hunt whales around 1890, was launched from a heavy shoulder gun. Finding this object buried deep in the whales blubber allows scientists to get a better fix on how long whales can live. The 3½-inch arrow-shaped projectile is estimated between 115 and 130 years old. Scientists' think that this means the whale was at least 130-years-old. Researchers were unaware of exactly how long a bowhead whale could live, but other species of whale are estimated to be able to survive up to centuries in rare cases.

Ancient People Ate On-the-Run - A new study shows that the ancient residents of Pompeii may have a lot in common with today's families as far as eating fast food goes. According to archaeologist Penelope Allison of the University of Leicester, the majority people in the city ate "on the run." She noticed that may middle-class households in the ancient city lack of tableware and a formal dining or kitchen areas. Instead her examination found plates here and there around the household, such as in the sleeping quarters. "Similar to how children today bring a plate of food to their rooms before watching TV or playing on the computer, my guess is that Roman youths would tote food to certain areas where they possibly engaged in other activities," she said.

Mickey Back to the Future? - In a dig in Uppåkra in Sweden scientists have discovered a thousand year old bronze brooch that looks a lot like it should have been sold at a gift shop in Disney World. The object, which most likely was worn on the clothing of an Iron Age woman, bares a remarkable resemblance to Mickey Mouse. Is this a case of a modern souvenir falling into a time-warp? No, according to archaeologist Jerry Rosengren from Lund University the jewelry most likely supposed to represent a lion. Lions were important symbols to royals and warlords, said Rosengren, especially after Christianity was introduced to the Scandinavia. The broach was likely created by a French artist, who probably never had seen a lion in his entire life and came up with a fantasy version.


What's New at the Museum:

Benedict Arnold: The Father of Our Country? Arnold saved the Revolution once, then he saves it again - before betraying it. (Part 2) >Full Story

Notes from the Curator's Office: The Time Tunnel to Fourth Grade- An obscure 60's SciFi TV show bridges the generation gap. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Before Big Bang - I'm a 60 year old scientist and I have a rock-solid understanding of the concept of entropy, including the idea of life as a temporary bump in the overall decline of order and organization in a system. All I want before I die is to know if there is any credible scientific theory about how the spring originally got wound 14-or-so billion years ago - Bob W.

Let me re-phrase you question as, "What was there before the Big-Bang and where did all the energy it requires come from?" At this point I don't believe there are any "credible" theories to explain this as none of the ideas scientists have about this area can be tested by experimentation. In fact, there is not likely to be anything testable until scientists can first create a Grand Unified theory of everything combining Einstein's General Relativity with Quantum Physics. That quest, which has been pursued by physicists like the Holy Grail for almost a century, so far does not seem near a conclusion.

So the best I can do is to throw out one of the more intriguing ideas floating around cosmology circles these days. This particular model comes out of string theory (One possible candidate for the Grand Unified Theory that says all energy and matter is composed of super-small vibrating loops of strings.) This idea was worked out by Paul Steinhardt (Princeton University) and Neil Turok (Cambridge University). They suggest our universe is part of a much larger universe. The model says that our universe exists on a three dimensional membrane ( or "Brane" in string theory lingo) and there are other branes close to ours, only millimeters away, but invisible.

Every trillion years or so these branes are drawn together and when they collide a huge amount of energy is released making a "Big Bang" that creates a universe on the brane (other universes can be created at other locations of the brane that may collide at other times) This process of collision Steinhardt and Turok named ekpyrosis which is the Greek word for conflagration. In addition to creating a smaller universe, ekpyrosis also pushes the branes apart.

Over the life of the universe some of the big bang energy turns into matter which becomes stars, galaxies and, of course, us. Eventually the energy involved in our universe spreads out as stars burn out and the universe grows cold. According to this idea, however, the branes which still contain the energy, and they are drawn back together again to collide and create another universe in an eternal cycle.

They only problem with this, and alternate theories like it, is that there is no way to test these theories experimentally to know if there is any evidence that they are true. Even if this idea is true, however, we may have just moved the question back a little bit further: What created that greater universe and where did all its energy come from?

Have a question? Click here to send it to the curator.


In History:

Wisconsin Lake Monster - In July of 1892 two boys were fishing along the shore of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when they were startled by the sight of the head of a serpent-like creature rising out of the water only about 75 feet away. According to the boy's story, the monster opened its mouth showing rows of sharp, hook-like teeth. The animal started toward them, but then made a sudden U-turn and headed out into the middle of the lake. The boys said the animal was at least a hundred feet long and three feet around. While this tale appeared in a newspaper at the time, lack of other supporting evidence suggests it was a hoax.


In the Sky:

Color of the Stars - This is a good month to do some star comparisons. Early in the month, just after sunset, look directly overhead and try to locate a bright red-orange star. This is the star Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes. Now look low in the northeastern sky for a bright blue-white star. This is Vega. Why do they have different colors? The color is a direct result of the temperature of the star. Arcturus is a cool star and Vega a hot one. Our own sun gives off a yellowish color and is in between Arcturus and Vega in warmth.



Big Foot Alive and Well in India? - Authorities are searching the jungles of India's remote northeast after a string of reports last month about "bigfoot"-type hairy giants roaming the area. Stories about these mysterious "Mande Burung" (translated as Jungle Man) have been around for decades, but a rash of recent sightings has made government investigate. "A team of wildlife officials and other experts will conduct a study to find out if there is any truth in the locals' claims about these hairy giants," declared a district magistrate in the West Garo Hills region. A local farmer who saw some reported, "The sight was frightening: two adults and two smaller ones, huge and bulky, furry. Their heads looked as if they were wearing caps, and their color was blackish-brown." One local group investigating the claims says it has hair samples of the creature and will send them for DNA testing.


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.

Utah's Dino Graveyard - Follow the excavation and research of a new species of theizinosaur, the most primitive member of a bizarre group of feathered dinosaurs. They are believed to be most closely related to raptors-a group that became that became today's birds. On The Science Channel: Jul 09, 9:00 pm, Jul 10, 12:00 am, Jul 10, 4:00 am, Jul 10, 10:00 am, Jul 14, 4:00 pm, ET/PT.

Starship Orion: The Future of Space Travel - NASA has taken the lead in designing the new space exploration vehicle, ORION, with which man will go back to the Moon; go on to Mars, and beyond. . On The Science Channel: Jul 17, 8:00 pm, Jul 17, 11:00 pm, Jul 18, 3:00 am, Jul 18, 9:00 am, Jul 21, 8:00 pm, Jul 21, 11:00 pm, Jul 22, 3:00 am, Jul 22, 4:00 pm, ET/PT.

King Tut's Mystery Tomb Opened - In the first tomb found in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in 84 years, scientists find 7 coffins, plus a golden infant-size coffin, but one coffin remains sealed. Now, in a Discovery exclusive, they race to reach it, read the markings, and lift the lid... On the Discovery Channel: Jul 15, 8:00 pm, Jul 16, 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen - More powerful than Cleopatra or Nefertiti, Hatshepsut was Egypt's greatest female ruler. And then she disappeared. Egypt's preeminent archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, investigates several mummies that may well be the remains of this powerful queen. On the Discovery Channel: Jul 15, 9:00 pm, Jul 16, 1:00 am, Jul 21, 9:00 pm, Jul 22, 1:00 am ; ET/PT.

The Universe: The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats to Our Planet - Asteroids, comets, gamma ray bursts and the sun all combine to make the Earth a dangerous place to live. NASA's top brass and other scientists are arming themselves with the latest technology to pre-empt an apocalyptic attack. Watch and investigate bizarre, and terrifying apocalyptic scenarios and the ways that scientists are racing against the clock to develop technology to defend our planet. Rating: TVPG On the History Channel: Tuesday, July 03 08:00 PM Wednesday, July 04 12:00 AM; ET/PT.

Rogue Waves - Join us for the amazing story of one of nature's most terrifying forces. With striking visuals from ships in storm-tossed seas, the special presents dramatic tales of rogue wave disasters throughout history, and explores the astonishing scientific discoveries surrounding this deadly phenomenon. Aided by mind-blowing CGI footage from the motion picture Poseidon by Wolfgang Petersen, director of The Perfect Storm, we reveal the awesome power of this ocean menace as it really is--a monster rising from the deep! Rating: TVPG. On the History Channel: Tuesday, July 10 08:00 PM Wednesday, July 11 12:00 AM; ET/PT.



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