Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2005

In the News:

Treasure Found At Pompeii - Italian archaeologists digging just outside of the ancient ruins of Pompeii have recovered a 20 piece silver dinning service weighing four kilos (nine pounds). The scientists think that during the eruption that destroyed the city someone fleeing placed the goods there expecting to be able to claim them later. The set, which had been placed in a basket, must have had great value to the owner as they risked their life to take the objects with them. At a certain point the owner was forced to leave them behind about 600 meters beyond Pompeii's walls. The objects were found on the way to the wharf, one of the only safe ways to leave the city.

Brain "Mastermind" Located - Researchers have found a part of the brain that seems to act as a "mastermind" controlling the mind when "multitasking" activity is going on. The section of the brain, located in the prefrontal cortex (on the left-hand front side, just above the temple), was found to become active when both audio and visual events were going on. The researchers had subjects listen to short, novel melodies and look at changing geometric shapes on a computer screen. When these were done separately only the parts of the brain responsible for audio or visual processing showed activity on a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan. When done together the "mastermind" portion of the brain activated indicating that it seem to be coordinating the two functions.

Chinese Elephants Going Tuskless - Scientists are predicting that more male Asian elephants in China will be born without the potential to grow tusks because poaching. Poachers, who kill elephants to get a hold of the valuable ivory in their tusks, have had a major impact on elephant populations. China now has only 260 elephants. The study suggests that since elephants that do not develop tusk or have small tusks are not the target of poaching, they live to grow up and pass their gene onto the next generation. "The larger tusks the male elephant has, the more likely it will be shot by poachers," said Zhang,an associate professor of zoology at Beijing Normal University. "Therefore, the ones without tusks survive, preserving the tuskless gene in the species."

Parrot Understands Concept of Zero? - An African gray parrot named Alex may have shown that the species is capable of understanding the concept of "zero." The bird, began using the word "none" when presented with an absence of objects during come numerical tests. Alex was taught that "none" means "lack of information" several years ago. Though zero and none are not identical, it seem like that parrot has expanded the defination to include the numerical concept. If further tests show that the parrot really understands arithmetical zero, he will be the first non-primate to grasp the concept, and the first animal to do so without training.

Mars Was Always Cold - Theories that Mars may have standing water over much of its life has been contradicted by a new study showing the planet has been frozen for billions of years. Benjamin Weiss and David Shuster, former graduate students at the California Institute of Technology, examined the Mars meteorite ALH84001 which was blasted off the surface of the planet 11 to 15 million years ago. By determining the amount of the gas argon that the rock contained they were able to estimate the temperature the meteorite had been at for most of its life. Rocks lose argon at a rate dependant on the temperature they are at. “The small amount of argon loss that has apparently taken place in these meteorites is remarkable. Any way we look at it, these rocks have been cold for a very long time," Shuster remarked. The researchers added that this does not mean life cannot have developed on Mars in small areas warmed by geothermal activity. It does suggest surface features indicating the presence and flow of liquid water formed over relatively short amount of time.


What's New at the Museum:

Arthur Conan-Doyle's The Lost World - The first chapter in a new series of Graphic Classic Novels. Join us each month as our intrepid explorers find a land of danger and wonders where dinosaurs still live. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

A Planet By Any Other Name... - Out of the nine planets in our solar system, eight have names based on Greek and Roman mythology. But what about Earth? What was Earth named in different ancient cultures? – Katie

The word Earth goes back to the Anglo-Saxon word “Erda” or “Erdaz” which means ground or soil. As the word was passed to Old English it became “Eorthe” or “Erthe.” In German it became “Erde.”

Other ancient languages have different words. In Latin it was the word “Terra” (which is still a word used to mean ground and Earth in English today). In Norwegian it is “Jorda,” Icelandic: “Jord” and Greek: “Era.” You could probably make the case that to be consistent we should be calling the Earth “Gaia” which is the name of the Greek goddess who symbolized Mother Earth. Other mother Earth goddesses that might have been appropriate names include the Iroquois name “Etenoha” and the Lakota name “Maka.”

Or course, even today Earth is only our planet name in English. Although English is the international language for professional astronomy other languages use a variety of distinct terms for Earth and the other planets in everyday speech. For a list check out


In History:

Big Hairy Biped - Some of the weirder stories in the history of the unexplained include HBs (Hairy Bipeds). Some of these stories sound alot like "Big Foot" but occur in areas not usually known for such reports. In August of 1976 a woman was sitting on her farmhouse porch near Lincoln, Nebraska, when she saw a large hairy figure silhouetted against the evening sky 300 yards away. The figure made its way towards her knocking over a wire fence. The woman lost sight of it, but hair was found on the fence the next day. The hair was brought to the state Game and Parks Commission but it was never analyzed.


In the Sky:

Closer, but Bigger? - On August 19 if the moon seems a little bit bigger and closer, well it is! As the moon rises an optical illusion makes it seem bigger than it is while overhead. However, on this day it will actually be slightly closer (and a tiny bit bigger) than it has been at any time that it has been full all year, though the difference in size should not be really noticable to the naked eye.



Tourists Will Search for Monster - A ferry about to begin running on Scotland's Loch Ness will give tourists the chance to search for the lake’s legendary monster during the 30 mile journey. One of the operators of the Loch Ness Express, told newspaper, The Scotsman, that the ship will have airplane-style seats with seat-back screens linked to sonar so that if the Loch Ness monster should swim by during the 80 minute trip, passengers might be able to see it.


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.

Hiroshima: The First Weapon of Mass Destruction- At 8:15am on August 6th, 1945 the first experimental atom bomb, nicknamed 'Little Boy' was released from the Enola Gay at a height of six miles over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Viewers see what it meant to be struck by a nuclear bomb and survive. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 06 @ 08:00 PM; Aug 06 @ 11:00 PM; Aug 07 @ 09:00 PM; Aug 08 @ 12:00 AM ET/PT

The Real Da Vinci Code - 'The Da Vinci Code' has been a phenomenal success with millions of readers hooked, but what do historians think of the book? Discover the facts about the Holy Grail and cut through the thicket of mystery that surrounds the subject. On the Discovery Channel: Aug 13 @ 08:00 PM; Aug 13 @ 11:00 PM; Aug 14 @ 05:00 PM ET/PT

Island of the Pygmy Mammoth - Piece together the world of the mammoth species that evolved, and then became extinct thousands of years ago. The Channel Islands were the breeding ground for the evolutionary laws of giantism and dwarfism that created the smallest mammoth in history. On Science Channel: Aug 29 @ 08:00 PM; Aug 29 @ 11:00 PM; Aug 30 @ 03:00 AM; Aug 30 @ 09:00 AM; Aug 30 @ 01:00 PM ET/PT.

What Really Killed the Dinosaurs - Until recently, most scientists thought they knew what killed off the dinosaurs - a giant meteorite crashing into Earth. But a small and vociferous group of scientists believes there is increasing evidence that the 'impact' theory could be wrong. On The Science Channel: Aug 22 @ 08:00 PM; Aug 22 @ 11:00 PM; Aug 23 @ 03:00 AM; Aug 23 @ 09:00 AM; Aug 23 @ 01:00 PM; Aug 27 @ 04:00 PM ET/PT.

The Search for Khan's Tomb - Legend has it that after Genghis Khan's funeral, 2,000 servants were killed by 800 soldiers, who were in turn killed by a handful of generals to preserve the secrecy of the tomb site. Now, archaeologists believe they have discovered this hidden treasure. On Science Channel: Aug 15 @ 10:00 PM; Aug 16 @ 01:00 AM; Aug 16 @ 05:00 AM; Aug 16 @ 11:00 AM; Aug 16 @ 03:00 PM; Aug 20 @ 06:00 PM ET/PT.

Triassic Giant - Ichthyosaurs were swimming, air breathing creatures that resembled whales and dolphins. A team excavates the giant fossil from a riverbank in British Columbia that is believed to be the largest Triassic Ichthyosaur ever found. On Science Channel: Aug 08 @ 08:00 PM; Aug 08 @ 11:00 PM; Aug 09 @ 03:00 AM; Aug 09 @ 09:00 AM; Aug 09 @ 01:00 PM; Aug 13 @ 04:00 PM ET/PT.

The Dinosaur Feather Mystery - How did feathers evolve? New archaeological discoveries lead a journey into the evolutionary history of some fascinating creaturesbirds and dinosaurs. Explore the distinction between modern birds and their theropod ancestors. On Science Channel: Aug 01 @ 08:00 PM; Aug 01 @ 11:00 PM; Aug 02 @ 03:00 AM; Aug 02 @ 09:00 AM; Aug 02 @ 01:00 PM; Aug 06 @ 04:00 PM ET/PT.

Secrets of Soviet Space Disasters - An investigation into one of the 20th century's most shocking hidden stories--the dismal failure of the Soviet space program, which led to more than 150 recorded deaths. Much has come to light from declassified files. We see how personal rivalries, shifting political alliances, and bureaucratic bungling doomed the program. On History Channel: August 2 @ 6pm ET/PT.

Tsunami 2004: Waves of Death - The 2004 Tsunami, centered in the Indian Ocean, was caused by a 9.3 earthquake--the second strongest quake on record. Join us for a minute-by-minute look at nature's fury at its worst, when the tsunami kills more than 200,000 people in 14 countries. In this special, we examine the tsunami as it moves from coast to coast through the eyes of people who lived through it and scientists now studying its path of devastation. Drawing on the extraordinary volume of amateur video that recorded the disaster, we take viewers inside the world's deadliest tsunami. On History Channel: August 7 @ 6pm ET/PT.



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