Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2007

In the News:

Pyramid at Chinese Tomb - Using remote sensing equipment archeologists have found what appears to be a 100-foot-high room above Emperor Qin Shihuang's tomb near the ancient capital of Xi'an in Shaanxi province, China. The strange pyramid-shaped chamber, which has not been opened, is unlike anything found in any other tomb in China. "Qin himself was very unusual, so it's not unexpected that his tomb should also be unique," said archaeologist Liu Qingzhu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Scientists theorize it was built as a passageway for his soul. Qin's tomb already has been found to have some unique features. Qin commissioned an army of terra cotta soldiers to guard his tomb. Thousands of these buried figures were discovered more than 20 years ago by local farmers sinking wells.

Missing Mummy Mystery Solved - The mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt's most powerful female pharaoh, has been identified by archeologists using a missing tooth. The tooth, which was in a jar with some of the queen's embalmed organs matches perfectly with a mummy discovered in 1903 in the Valley of the Kings. An analysis of the remains shows that the Queen was an obese woman, who died in her 50s, probably had diabetes and is also believed to have had liver cancer. She was one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt, commissioning hundreds of projects throughout the land. After her death, however, her name was obliterated from the records by her stepson as an act of revenge.

Mars Rover Taking Risky Plunge into Crater - The Mars rover Opportunity is making a risky trip into the heart of an ancient deep impact crater. The rover, which with its twin was originally designed to last only 90 days but has been operating for over three years, will attempt to descend into Victoria Crater. The crater is a half-mile across and about 200 to 230 feet deep. Scientists are concerned that the rover may not be able to climb back out, but deem the risk worth taking. By examining the walls of the crater they hope to find out more about Mars' geological history. Already Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, have found evidence of rocks altered by water indicating that Mars had wet period long ago.

Dodo Skeleton May Yield DNA - A skeleton found in a cave will allow scientists to get the first DNA samples of the extinct dodo bird. "The geneticists who want to get their hands on this will be skipping down the street," Julian Hume, a paleontologist at Britain's Natural History Museum said. The skeleton has been nicknamed "Fred" after its discoverer. The dodo, a flightless bird, was driven into extinction by animals introduced by Europeans about 400 years ago. At some point scientists think that the creatures must have lived all over the Indian Ocean island. The DNA should allow scientists classify exactly how the dodo is related to other birds, though it is already known that it is basically, according to Hume, "a giant pigeon."

Royal Mummies Called into Question - All of Egypt's royal mummies will get their identity checked, according to Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist, after a researcher found that a body, thought to be King Tuthmosis I, has been misidentified for years. History indicates that Tuthmosis I died in his 60s. An examination of what was thought to be his mummy last June, however, showed it to be that of a young man who died of an arrow wound. "I am now questioning all the mummies," said Hawass in an interview with Reuters, "We have to check them all again." Scientists in Egypt will use recently installed computed tomography or DNA testing to confirm the identities of its royal mummies. By testing DNA researchers can use family relationships between the royals to confirm which mummy is which. Just recently the mummy of Tuthmosis I's daughter, Queen Hatshepsut, had been identified by matching her DNA to Ahmose Nefertari, her grandmother. "We will have to look for the mummy of the father now," said Hawass.


What's New at the Museum:

War of the Worlds - Aliens invade the Earth! Check out the first chapter in our new graphic novel >Full Story

Notes from the Curator's Office: The Big Three: Robert Heinlein - The second of three articles covering the "Big Three" science fiction authors of the 20th Century. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Elongated Night Reflections - If you look at the reflection of a street light from across a body of water, it appears long in one direction but not the other? Why? - Tariq

Water, under the right conditions, reflects light just like mirror. Of course, a mirror is a usually composed of solid material (most commonly glass with a silver backing) and water is liquid. As long as the water is perfectly still and flat the image reflected is almost mirror-like, but should a breeze start to ripple the water, strange things start to happen.

The ripples cause the shape of the surface of the water to change into a series of up and down curves. This means that the light normal reflected by the surface doesn't come straight to the viewer, but is distorted much like in a fun house mirror. While fun house mirrors are usually static - either making you look tall and thin or short and fat - the many ripples in the water are always moving and changing giving the reflected image a vibrating quality.

Because a lake might have thousand of ripples between the viewer and a distant object on the other side of the lake each ripple as it moves is capable of picking a tiny bit of the light coming from the object and reflecting it back to the viewer (see diagram) making it look like the object is in thousands of different locations.

During the day when everything is evenly lighted these bits of light are overwhelmed by all the other reflections involved and only contribute to the overall reflected image by making it look fuzzy. At night, however, when the most of the background is dark, all these tiny reflection become visible. They tend to appear to elongate the lighted object in the direction where the ripples appear spaced closely together from the viewer's perspective. That is vertically as you have observed. It is possible to see some spreading horizontally, however, depending on what direction the wind is blowing the ripples.

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


In History:

Hairy Biped in Indiana - In August of 1972 people near the tiny town of Roachdale, Indiana, reported seeing a hairy-biped creature running through their area. The creature looked like a gorilla and walked upright, but also ran on all fours. No tracks were ever found and the creature seemed uninjured even when hit by a shotgun blast. Forty people claimed to have seen the beast, but by the end of the month it disappeared, never to be heard of again.


In the Sky:

Stage Set for Meteor Shower - August is the time of year to catch the Perseid Meteor Shower. It will peak on the night of the 11th to the 12th, with the intensity of around one meteor per minute after midnight. If you haven't seen it before, this is the perfect time to watch the show. With no moon visible, it will be occurring this year under ideal conditions. Put a blanket out on the ground facing in whatever direction the sky is darkest for you and lay back and enjoy the spectacle.



Rock May Show Ancient Star Explosion - A rock carving discovered near Phoenix, Arizona, may be the only record in North America of the observation of a supernova in 1006 AD. The carving, or "petroglyph," was discovered in White Tanks Regional Park in an area believed to have been occupied from about 500 to 1100 AD by a group of Native Americans called the Hohokam . The supernova, now referred to as SN 1006, is thought to be the brightest stellar event in human history and was recorded by many societies around the globe. The carving of the explosion also includes the surrounding stars making it easy to identify the event as SN 1006 by its location in the sky. If the petroglyph is confirmed to be SN 1006, it will help date many of the surrounding carvings.



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