Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2006

In the News:

Mammoths: Blond, Brunette or Redhead? - Researchers have extracted DNA from a 43,000-year-old bone that leads them to believe that mammoths may have come in various hair colors, including red and blond. The gene, "Mc1r", codes for a protein that affects hair color in mammals. Reduced activity of that gene produces red hair in humans and yellow hair in such animals as mice, horses and dogs. The research was lead by Holger Roempler of the University of Leipzig in Germany

Cosmic Close Call - Early in July a half-mile wide asteroid zipped by the planet Earth, missing it by about the distance of the moon. While this might seem a huge margin to some, scientists note that it astronomical terms the asteroid, designated 2004 XP14, was the largest object to pass this close to the our planet in the last few years. The space rock was visible as a small moving dot to amateur astronomers with telescopes in North America. 2004XP14 will have other encounters with Earth this century, but according to scientists, none will be a threat for collision. Estimates show that a typical asteroid of this size would create a fireball six miles wide and a crater 7 miles in diameter from a 100,000 megaton explosion if it hit earth.

Carnivorous Kangaroos Surprise Scientists - Kangaroos are usually thought of as cute, pleasant and somewhat unusual animals, that lope across the Australian outback. That wasn't the case in prehistoric times. Paleontologists have found the remains of a much more scary meat eating version of kangaroo that lived between 10 and 20 million years ago. The animal had fangs similar to those of a modern wolf. The species found at the excavation had "well muscled-in teeth, not for grazing. These things had slicing crests that could have crunched through bone and sliced off flesh", said vertebrate paleontologist Sue Hand, a member of the research team. The scientists also found a large duck-like bird that may also have been carnivorous. The scientists jokingly refer this specimen by the name of the "demon duck of doom."

Inflatable Space Station Test Successful - Last month a private commercial space company managed to put an experimental satellite, named Genesis I, into orbit to test the possibility of building a space station using inflatable modules. Real estate magnate Robert Bigelow is bankrolling the project. Bigelow has committed $500 million toward building the station and so far, $75 million has been spent. The object of this recent flight was to see if the test module could successfully inflate in orbit and indications are that the test was a success. Unlike the rigid aluminum construction of the international space station, the test module consists of a flexible outer shell built with such tough materials such as kevlar, which is found in bulletproof vests.

Bacteria has Midas Touch - Scientists have identified a bacteria that seems to be able to create solid gold. Ralstonia metallidurans has been found on gold nuggets in widely separate locations and scientists think that this bacteria takes gold in its dissolved form and converts it into less toxic, solid form. Since heavy metals are toxic to most microorganisms, being able to detoxify its immediate environment gives Ralstonia metallidurans a metabolic advantage. This research is the strongest evidence so far that bacteria could play an important role in creating solid gold, although how this actually works is not yet known.


What's New at the Museum:

Comet Halley: Harbinger of Death?: Man has always found comets a bit scary, so when Comet Halley flew past the earth in 1910 leaving a trail of poisonous gas, people got just a little nervous... >Full Story

The Lost World (Remix) - Our graphic novel version formatted as a book so you can can download and print it out at home.>Full Story

From The Curator's Office: The LAN Party - Pour in eight teenage boys, mix with a room full of powerful computers and let bake all night... >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Thai Water Elephant - I saw this being talked about on the web and wondered if you knew anything about this "legend" and cryptid. Have you ever heard of it? I've read volumes of stuff on Cryptozoology, but I've never heard of this one. It is supposedly a "Thai Water Elephant" - Anonymous

I have to admit that this was so obscure I couldn't find anything about it in any of my regular cryptozoological resources. However, snooping around the web I seem to have found out that this creature falls into the same category as the "jackolope:" a quite normal creature in life that has been altered by taxidermy to be something quite unusual in death. In the case of the jackolope, a deceased rabbit is altered by giving it the antlers of a deer.

In the case of the "Thai Water Elephant" it sounds like the perpetrators have started with a shrew. A shrew is a small mouse-like mammal with a long pointed snout, making it already vaguely elephant shaped. The taxidermist does his work removing and adding bones and flesh in different places (for example, apparently the front legs bones below the knees are removed and shaped into the tusks). In the end the hoaxer has something that looks like a tiny elephant. These can then be sold in the tourist trade as novelties. Although several have shown up on Ebay with prices running in the thousands, apparently they can be acquired from street vendors in Burma for a reasonable price.

The story of the water elephant goes back at least to the 1800's. It is said that they spend their lives in the water and that their tusks carry venom that can kill a man (this part of the story might have some basis in fact as the shrew is one of the few mammal that are poisonous). Only experienced hunters are able to capture them, which is why they are so rare and expensive (at least that is how the story is told by the curiosity shop owner that wishes to sell you one). It is not clear whether the story of a water elephant has any place in traditional folklore, or if it was simply invented after the first hoaxer discovered he could turn a dead, worthless shrew into a rare, valuable water elephant and need a story to go along with it.


In History:

Moon Hoax - In August of 1835 The New York Sun newspaper published a series of stories reporting that astronomers had observed creatures on the moon that were four feet in height, covered with glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings on their backs. Though the articles were supposed to be a reprint from the Edinburgh Journal of Science (which was nonexistent) the material was actually written by Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke. The series became known as the "Moon Hoax." Locke said his motives for writing the story were satirical as he wanted to poke fun at the idea there could be life on other planets. The "Moon Hoax" remains one of the best examples of 18th century hoax journalism, a widespread practice at that time.


In the Sky:

Perseid Meteor Shower - The peak of this shower will occur on August 12th between midnight and first light. Look for the shooting stars to appear anywhere in the sky, but traveling from the direction of the constellation of Cassiopeia. These meteors are dust left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. As the earth moves though the comet's path these tiny particles hit our atmosphere and make spectacular streaks across the night sky as they burn up.



Bigfoot Dispute Hits Court - According to a story in the Mercury News, a lawsuit has broken out between C. Thomas Biscardi, a self described Bigfoot expert, and Carole Rubin and Robert Shorey, president and vice president of the Great American Bigfoot Research Organization. According to Biscardi's lawyer, Biscardi was hired by the group for $250,000 to act as a consultant and guide for expeditions. As a part of the deal Biscardi would also allow the group to use his library which includes plaster footprints, films, photos and sound recordings of the beast. Biscardi's lawyer says the group only paid him $65,000 and will not return his collection. Biscardi's lawyer says he is willing to drop the suit if the Organization will return his library collection.


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 - Who Killed the Red Baron? - Forensic experts investigate the most famous aviation mystery of World War I. On the PBS: August 22 at 8 pm ET/PT

Europa: Mystery of the Ice Moon - Does life exist on one of Jupiter's moons? Europa, the planet's fourth largest moon, may hold the answer. Scientists have found evidence that water exists there, and they are probing to see if Europa's oceans could, or did at one time sustain life. On the Science Channel: AUG 01 2006 @ 10:00 PM; AUG 02 2006 @ 01:00 AM; AUG 02 2006 @ 05:00 AM; AUG 02 2006 @ 11:00 AM; AUG 02 2006 @ 03:00 PM; AUG 06 2006 @ 06:00 PM; ET/PT

Prophets Of Science Fiction - Examine the strange lives of the visionaries of science fiction. The secrets of their uncanny ability to foretell the future are revealed. On the Science Channel: AUG 06 2006 @ 10:00 PM, AUG 07 2006 @ 01:00 AM, AUG 07 2006 @ 05:00 AM, AUG 07 2006 @ 11:00 AM, AUG 07 2006 @ 03:00 PM, AUG 13 2006 @ 09:00 AM; ET/PT

The Mystery of the Jurassic - A remote plateau in Patagonia, Argentina reveals an incredible dinosaur graveyard that scientists believe could be the most significant find ever. This area reveals fossils from the Middle Jurassic, the most mysterious period in dinosaur history. On The Science Channel: AUG 21 2006 @ 08:00 PM, AUG 21 2006 @ 11:00 PM, AUG 22 2006 @ 03:00 AM, AUG 22 2006 @ 09:00 AM, AUG 22 2006 @ 01:00 PM, AUG 26 2006 @ 04:00 PM; ET/PT.

Shark Week! - Discovery Channel does their annual Shark Week starting August 1st. Some featured shows will be Sharks: Are They Hunting Us? AUG 02 2006 @ 09:00 PM, AUG 03 2006 @ 01:00 AM, AUG 05 2006 @ 04:00 PM; Shark Rebellion AUG 03 2006 @ 09:00 PM, AUG 04 2006 @ 01:00 AM, AUG 05 2006 @ 05:00 PM; and MythBusters - Jaws Special AUG 02 2006 @ 10:00 PM. On The Discovery Channel.

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 The Discovery Channel: AUG 05 2006 @ 09:00 PM, AUG 06 2006 @ 01:00 AM ; ET/PT.

The Real Tomb Hunters: Snakes, Curses, and Booby Traps - Fighting Nazis; grabbing golden treasure; fleeing angry natives; dodging pitfalls in a booby-trapped temple--we all know how fictional explorers and archaeologists spend their days. But does real life compare? We follow some of the most daring archaeologists and take on the dangers they face--Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass steps into a booby-trapped tomb; American Arthur Demarest fights looters in the jungles of Cancuen; and in Chiapas, angry villagers kidnap Australian-born Peter Mathews. We also examine stories of past explorers who helped shape the "Indiana Jones" stereotype--paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews battled venomous snakes and Mongol bandits in the Gobi Desert; John Pendlebury, the British archaeologist, fought Nazis on Crete; and Sylvanus Morley, who was the first American archaeologist/spy. There are no special effects, no stuntmen, and no retakes...and for these real-life archaeologists, no guarantee they'll survive for a sequel.On History Channel: August 5 @ 5pm ET/PT



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Copyright Lee Krystek 2006. All Rights Reserved.