Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2002

In the News:

NASA to Use "Interplanetary Superhighways" for Future Missions - NASA is planning to utilize natural "interplanetary superhighways" in order to cut the cost and resources needed for future missions, the agency announced last month. The highways are a matrix of paths that run throughout the entire solar system that take advantage of the gravitational relationships between the planets and their moons. A spacecraft, by following a trajectory along which the gravitational forces between members of the solar system cancel each other out, could reach its destination using a very small amount of fuel. The key to following these "highways" is a set of calculations developed by Martin Lo of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Using a branch of mathematics called chaos theory, Lo calculated the locations of the highway, by mapping all possible paths through the regions of space where the gravity of solar system bodies were in balance.

Meteor Dent in Nebraska? - Wakefield Dort Jr., a retired University of Kansas geology professor, is arguing that a mile wide "dent" in the middle of Nebraska is actually a meteor crater made between 3,000 and 500 years ago. Dort presented a paper on his theory at a meeting of the Meteoritical Society help in Los Angeles where he pointed out that there is a Pawnee Indian legend tells of a "thundering cloud" that left behind "children of black stone" which might seem to back up this theory. Also, an examination of the ground in the area shows a layer of crushed glass below the surface with a layer of gray soil underneath. Such features are often found at meteor impact sites.

Many scientists are skeptical of Dort's crater theory saying that other natural forces may have created the glass he found. Dort says he hopes his paper spurs other scientists to do field tests on the site that might prove him right.

New Big-Crested Pterosaur Found - Brazilian researchers Alexander Kellner and Diogenes de Almeida Campos have described a previously unknown type of pterosaur (a winged reptile that lived at the time of the dinosaurs) in an article last month in the journal Science. They have designated the animal Thalassodromeus sethi, meaning "sea runner" and "Seth," (the ancient Egyptian god of chaos). The animal, which lived 110 million years ago, had a head that was 4 feet long (on a body six feet long) mostly due to its large thin crest that looked something like a giant spearhead. The reptile also had a wingspan of nearly 15 feet. The Thalassodromeus is thought to have searched for food by gliding low over the water with its lower jaw skimming the surface, so it could instantly grab any fish it found.

Giant Squid Found Dead - A dead, giant squid washed ashore on a Tasmanian beach last month. At first authorities thought that the 50-foot-long monster might be a previously unknown species, but Steve O'Shea, a squid specialist with New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, after looking at photos of the squid, said it appears to be a damaged specimen of an already known species. The animal, which in life would have weighted 250 kilograms and lived at depths of 1,600 feet below the ocean's surface, will be put on display at the Tasmanian Museum.

Asteroid Considered as Collision Threat in 2019 - Astronomers are continuing to watch a newly discovered 1.2-mile-wide asteroid which they thought might have been on a collision course with Earth. The space rock, known as 2002 NT7, is traveling a trajectory that scientists originally thought might allow it to hit our planet on February 1, 2019. As they have studied it's movements, however, that have determined there will be no collision in 2019, though a February 1, 2060 crash has not been ruled out yet.

Scientist Suggests Laser Defense Against Asteroid - If 2002 NT7 is on a collision course with Earth (see previous story) a Russian scientist, Boris Kartogin, has suggested that giant lasers may be used to destroy it. ``Defenses for the Earth can be designed,'' said Kartogin at a news conference. Katogin, general director at rocket producer Energomash, suggests that 10 to 12 platforms in Earth's orbit armed with powerful, chemical lasers, should be capable of destroying an asteroid. Katogin admits that such powerful chemical lasers are not yet available, but says there is great interest in the international community in creating them.


What's New at the Museum:

Virtual Cyclorama: The Museum That Never Was (Updated) - The Paleozoic Museum at Central Park in New York City that was never built has been part of our cyclorama exhibit for sometime, but recently we uncovered new information that has allowed us to portray it more accurately than ever before. Take a visit to our updated page about the Museum that Never Was (Select the Paleozoic Museum from the Cyclorama page) - Virtual Cyclorama


Ask the Curator:

Great Pyramid Construction - They say that the Great Pyramid consists of 2.3 million stones and took 20 years to build. This means that it took only 4.2 minutes to lay each stone. That's Impossible! - Anonymous

I was wondering about your theory on the Egyptian Pyramids, did they get extra-terrestial help? - Alana

As mammoth a project as building the Great Pyramid was, it certainly was within the capability of Egyptian engineers (without the help of aliens) in the space of a few decades. While there were millions of blocks to be cut and put in place it is important to remember that the Egyptians had a huge amount of laborers to work on the project especially during the months when the Nile river flooded and no farming could be done. While the average time to place a block was only about 4 minutes (2 if you have them working only during daylight hours) it was likely that there were many teams placing the blocks on different parts of the structure at the same time. Fifteen teams would give each one a half-hour to place and fit their block. There was also plenty of room for them to work without bumping into each other on the lower levels of the pyramid where most of the blocks were placed. Also remember that there were probably many other teams who were responsible for cutting the blocks, getting them to the site and getting them up the ramp to the teams placing the blocks.

A study in 1999 by a group of engineers (June 1999 Civil Engineering Magazine) estimated that the structure could have been built with primative tools in as little as a decade with an average workforce of 13,200 and peak of 40,000 workers. In either case, one decade or two, it is a tribute to the organization of the ancient Egyptian people.


Living in a Vacuum - Arthur C. Clarke proposed an idea in one of his short stories, and later in "2001, a Space Odyssey". The character in the story opens the hatch on the airlock and floats across in the vacuum of space to another hatch in another spacecraft, closes the hatch and survives unharmed as soon as air is restored to his environment. Could you please explain whether or not this is possible? Lots of people would like to know. Thanks. - Henry

Not only did Clarke use the vacuum trick in those stories, but he also portrayed the rescue of a whole crew from spaceship to spaceship without benefit of spacesuits in his novel Earthlight. However, in presentations by other writers, like the 1990 film Total Recall, we see people's eyes popping and heads exploding when exposed to pressures as low as the atmosphere of Mars. Which is correct?

We went to the people who ought to know: NASA. According to their studies a de-pressurization of the human body will not do any permanent damage - if the person does not try to hold their breath. If the person tries to hold their breath then they could rupture a lung, which would be fatal.

Otherwise the body is rather tough and can resist some internal pressure and will not explode, nor will the blood immediately boil. Somebody exposed to a vacuum for any length of time might swell to twice his normal volume, however.

If no lung is ruptured a person might survive as long as 90 seconds in a full vacuum, be re-pressurized and experience no major damage. However, studies show that as soon as the subject exhausts the oxygen in their blood they will lose consciousness. This takes about 10 to 15 seconds. After that somebody else would have to help them get re-pressurized.

Clarke in, in the film 2001 and the book Earthlight, has his characters hyperventilate (enriching their bloodstream with extra oxygen) before entering the vacuum. This might significantly extend the time before they lose consciousness.

In 1966 a NASA employee, testing a leaking spacesuit in a lab, did get exposed a vacuum. He fainted after about 15 seconds, but recovered with no problems even after a half minute of exposure.


In History:

Loch Monster - On August 27, 1930, the Northern Chronicle published one of the earliest reports of a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. Three local men fishing in the Loch reported seeing "a commotion about 600 yards up the loch." Spray there was thrown to a "considerable height." The object approached the boat as close as 300 yards and rocked it violently. The fishermen perceived that they were looking at some kind of creature whose visible portion was twenty feet in length and seemed to be moving at about 15 knots. One of the men reported that it was "without a doubt a living creature."


On the Screen:

Signs - M. Night Shyamalan directs Mel Gibson in a spooky film about a farmer that has crop circles suddenly appearing in his fields. Is it aliens trying to contact him, or something/one else? PG-13, for some frightening moments. Touchstone Pictures (In one of those strange coincidences the movie was filmed on location near the UnMuseum's offices)


In the Sky:

Meteor Shower - The Perseids meteor shower occurs this month on August 11 and 12. Best viewing will be in the early hours of the following days (Monday and Tuesday morning) when activity is heaviest and the moon is down. The shower is caused by our planet crossing the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle which has left a cloud of tiny dust particles in its wake.



Poe Author of Beale Papers? - The Beale Papers purport to lead to a hidden underground vault filled with a multi-million dollar treasure in gold. Was Edgar Allan Poe the author of this strange work? He was a known hoaxer and wrote a short story very similar in nature to the Beale mystery. Check out this site by Robert Ward - The Last Haunting of Edgar Allan Poe - and read the arguments supporting this theory: The Last Haunting of Edgar Allan Poe


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.

Secrets of Lost Empires - PBS's Nova repeats its series on ancient technology around the world. Roman Bath: August 6 at 8 pm China Bridge: August 13 at 8 pm; ET.

Crop Circles: In Search of a Sign - For twenty years, crop circles appeared with increasing frequency in crops around the world. Hoaxers stepped forward, but how could they create so many complex circles? Follow scientists, astronomers, and archaeologists as they examine crop circles. On TCL: Aug 6 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; Aug 10 3:00 PM ; ET.

Mysteries of Easter Island - Seek answers to the mysteries surrounding one of the most isolated locations on Earth. The massive stones of Easter Island have been linked to ancient Peruvians and extraterrestrials. Delve deep into the speculation surrounding their origin. On TCL: Aug 15 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; ET.

Secrets of the Buried Armies - In 1990, construction workers stumbled upon one of the most lavish mausoleums ever constructed. Over 8,000 silk-clad, life-size sculptures of soldiers accompanied Imperial Emperor Jing Di into the afterlife. Meet the ruler behind this palatial tribute. On TCL: Aug 15 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM ; ET.

Journey Through the Valley of the Kings - Travel through the 3,500-year history of Egypt's ancient resting place of the most powerful rulers the world has ever known. Computer graphics and 3-D reconstructions reveal a subterranean labyrinth of tombs housing untold wealth. On TCL: Aug 22 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM ; ET.

What Killed the Mega Beasts? - For 65 million years, fantastic creatures roamed the prehistoric world. At the end of the last Ice Age, hundreds of species disappeared. Find out what caused the demise of the 17-foot-tall sloths, the woolly mammoths, and the Australian marsupial lion. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 18 8:00 PM, 10:00 PMand 12:00 AM; Aug 25 5:00 PM; Aug 26 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; ET.

When Dinosaurs Roamed America - Follow dinosaur evolution. State of the art computer animation, live-action backgrounds and the latest scientific finds show how dinosaurs lived and died in our backyards. Go inside dinosaurs to see the latest known about their anatomy and physiology. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 25 7:00 PM; ET.

The Moby Dick: True Story - Learn the true account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale, one of the most well-known marine disasters of the nineteenth century. Its enduring infamy is largely a result of Herman Melville's literary classic - Moby Dick. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 22 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM; ET.

The Mutter Museum: Strange Medical Mysteries - Tour one of the most unusual and enlightening medical museums in the world. Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter contributed his personal collection of strange specimens, creating the foundation of a truly harrowing exhibit. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 14 8:00 PM and 11:00 PM; Aug 17 12:00 PM; ET.

Dawn of the Dinosaurs - The plant-eaters of the Triassic fade into extinction as the age of dinosaurs brings predators like coelophysis to the food chain. But giant sauropods, cynodonts and reptilian predators alike are threatened when lightning sparks a wildfire. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 12 2002 8:00 and 11:00 PM; ET.



Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2002. All Rights Reserved.