Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

August 2008

In the News:

Mercury and Monks - Danish Monks who working on Biblical text or religious writing may have been killed by the toxic mercury ink that they used. Scientists have examined the remains from six cemeteries and found the medieval monks had mercury in their bones. Experts suspect that this they may have been contaminated when they licked their pens, to make sharper point, when using a red ink that included mercury. According to Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a University of Southern Denmark scientist at the Institute of Physics and Chemistry, the mercury was used because it gave the ink a "bright red, beautiful color." He warns that even today "one should really not touch, or much less rub, the parchment pages of an incunabulum" because of the continuing danger of contamination. While mercury was used as a cure for some diseases at that time, it is unlikely that this is the source of the monk's contamination as their remains do not show signs of those illnesses. The report in this month's Journal of Archaeological Science does admit that the monks may have also been exposed to mercury as they prepared the medicine for others.

Speech Goes Back a Million Years - A new study suggests that pre-human relatives, like Neanderthal man, had the capability of using language. Researchers led by geologist Ignacio Martinez Mendizabal of Spain's Alcala University examined the skull of human ancestor Homo antecessor, who lived around 800,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. A careful three-dimensional reconstruction using computerized tomography (CT) reconstruction shows that Homo antecessors' outer and middle ear were optimized for hearing in the one to five kilohertz range. These pitches are linked to speech and are not possessed by other primates. Martinez's team reached the conclusion that if Homo antecessor was listening to speech, he must have also been creating it. He most likely would have passed this skill to his decedents including Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

More Evidence Against Ancient Crystal Skulls - A recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Science adds more support to the idea that the most famous crystal skulls from the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution appear to be 19th century fakes, rather that ancient artifacts. Researchers from the museums examined the skulls with electron microscopes, looking for tiny scratches and marks left by the carving implements. They then compared the results with surfaces of crystal objects known to be of ancient South American origin. Scientists found that in both skulls rotary wheels had been used to work the crystal - a technique that would not have been available to ancient artisans. Researchers also found a tiny black-and-red deposit in the Smithsonian skull which turned out to be silicon carbide. Silicon carbide does not exist on the earth naturally but can only be found in meteorites and modern industrial abrasives. The article concludes that "The skulls under consideration are not pre-Columbian. They must surely be regarded as of relatively modern manufacture."

Less Volume, More Control - Researchers at the Japan Institute of Science and Technology have discovered that humans, like the other great apes, have vocal tract air sacs for communicating to others over long distances. In humans, however, these sacks are just shrunken vestiges. "Unfortunately, it comes with a cost," noted TobiasRiede, a scientist at the National Center for Voice and Speech in Denver who participated in the study as a guest researcher. "You have to fine-tune it in order to keep the voice from breaking." Scientists speculate that evolution in humans sacrificed power and range in communications for control. Experiments, conducted using PVC pipe and an inflatable urinary bladder from a pig, show that air sacs can cause vocalizations to break at times, giving it a hoarse, uncontrolled quality. If humans still had large vocal sacs, human voices would be prone to cracking. The study was published in last month's Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Museum Experts Baffled by Bug - Experts at London's Natural History Museum are baffled by a new bug that has appeared in the museum's gardens. The tiny red-and-black bug which is about the size of a grain of rice was first spotted in March 2007. Scientists have consulted the museum's collections which includes 28 million insect species, but none is an exact match for this bug. "I don't expect to find a new species in the gardens of a museum," said the institutions collections manager, Max Barclay. "Deep inside a tropical rainforest, yes, but not in central London." For that reason experts at the museum are still reluctant to declare it a new species, however, and it may be an adaptation of Arocatus roeselii, which lives in central Europe on different trees.


Science Quote of the Month - "Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination." - John Dewey 1929


What's New at the Museum:

The Hall of Troubled and Alternate History - Step into the museum's subbasement where our researchers have constructed a time machine to allow you to explore mans' sordid past.. > Full Story

Cellular Deception - The cell phone has conquered our society. Now it's going after our foliage > Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Vallée and Bostrom - Is the idea that we are all just living in a big computer simulation related to what Jacques Vallée and people like that are talking about when they try to explain UFO's as not extraterrestrial craft but "control devices" and so on? That is, do they mean that the ones behind the UFO's are the programmers of this big simulation we're living in, who are doing experiments on us by sending these weird, anomalous phenomena and seeing how we deal with them? I never really understood what Vallée was getting at till I read the article on the world as a computer simulation in the current edition of the Museum of Unnatural Mystery. Thanks. - Alan Meyers

Dr. Jacques F. Vallée, a computer scientist, venture capitalist and former astronomer, has long been one of the "deep thinkers" in the arena of Ufology. Born in France in 1939 he became interested in the subject when he observed a UFO in 1955. At first Vallée was convinced that UFOs were extraterrestrial spacecraft and published his ideas in his book Anatomy of a phenomenon: unidentified objects in space--a scientific appraisal. By 1969, however, his thinking had changed and he began to see UFOs and alien abduction reports as part of a much larger phenomenon that included other paranormal events. He outlined his thinking for this in his book Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers. Vallée suggested in his book that flying saucers and alien visitors might not be from other planets, but from other dimensions or even different time periods. These ideas did not sit well with many UFO enthusiasts and Vallée soon found himself an outcast among their ranks, or as he put it a "heretic among heretics".

Vallée sees one possible explanation of the UFO phenomenon as that of a "control mechanism " with incidents as deceptions created to manipulate people and society. Sometimes this is done by other humans. For example, we know the US Air Force encouraged UFO reports to hide the flights of SR-71 Blackbird spy aircraft in the 80's. The Soviet Union also did the same thing to cover the launch of rockets that were not in compliance with the SALT treaty they had signed.

Much of the social manipulation caused by UFOs reports, however, Vallée suggests are done by non-human entities who have an agenda of which we are totally unaware. Vallée's initial thinking was that these entities were from another dimension, and were not operators of a simulated world that we are living in (See last month article on Living in a Video Game). "There is a distinction to be made between a Matrix-like virtual world and what I first proposed in 'Messengers,' [Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults his 1979 book] namely an information multiverse with fully physical manifestations" said Vallée, in an interview with SUB ROSA online magazine.

The multiverse he is thinking about is related to some of the interpretations of quantum theory which suggest that reality consists of many nearly parallel universes. If beings from one universe successfully figured out how to cross to another universe we might interpret them as extra terrestrials. A visitor moving from one quantum parallel universe to another also might be jumping in time also leading to the suggestion that flying saucers are our ancestors' attempts to manipulate their past.

Even though Vallée initial ideas with control mechanisms didn't involve our living in a simulated universe, in my opinion the idea that UFO incidents (and other paranormal experiences) are attempts by those outside the simulation to influence our society seem to make just as much sense as the multi-dimensional approach. Remember Vallée's initial thinking on this subject was published in 1979 long before Bostrom's 2002 paper on the simulation argument came out. Perhaps Vallée, after pondering Bostrom's thinking, will address this possibility directly in some future book.

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


In History:

Strange Wake in Loch Ness - The supposed monster in Loch Ness has continued to defy common logic even in recent times. On August 11, 1996, Austin Hepburn photographed a strong wake moving up the loch despite the day being windless and no in the vicinity. Scientists have no explanation for the sighting and it remains a mystery.


In the Sky:

Summer Meteor Shower - The Perseid Meteor Shower will be the highlight of the night sky this month. Though shooting stars associated with the shower can be seen from late July to August 18, the peak of activity occurs over the 11th, 12th, and 13th of this month. The best view will come just before dawn, but it is still possible to observe meteors in the evening hours. The shower appears to emanate from the constellation Perseus, which will be in the north during the evening hours near the W shaped constellation of Cassiopeia. The shower can produce up to 80 meteors an hour during peak conditions.



Moon Astronaut Believes in Alien Visitors - In a recent radio interview former NASA astronaut Dr, Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, stated the he believes in extra-terrestrial life and that "that we have been visited on this planet and the UFO phenomenon is real - though it's been covered up by governments for the last 60 years or so". While there are scores of people who agree with Mitchell's pronouncement, he is one of the few people of such a scientific statue to publicly state his beliefs. Mitchell holds two Bachelor of Science degrees and a doctorate in aeronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When asked to comment on Mitchell's statement a NASA spokesman replied, "NASA does not track UFOs. Dr Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinion on this issue."


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Dimming the Sun - New evidence that air pollution has masked the full impact of global warming suggests the world may soon face a heightened climate crisis August 5 at 8 pm.

Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science - The legend of a North American Ape species known as Sasquatch, Bigfoot and Yeti has been around since recorded time. Even today, sighting and physical evidence are gathered on a regular basis. Is this creature fact or fiction? On the Discovery Channel. Aug 15, 9:00 pm; Aug 16, 1:00 am; Aug 23, 3:00 pm; ET/PT

America's Loch Ness Monster - Bordering New York and Vermont and known as America's Loch Ness, Lake Champlain is home to a monster named Champ. Experts use the latest technology in an attempt to prove the existence of this giant, sea serpent-like creature. On the Discovery Channel. Aug 15, 8:00 pm; Aug 16, 12:00 am; Aug 22, 12:00 pm; Aug 23, 4:00 pm; ET/PT

T-Rex: New Science, New Beast - Travel into the past and re-write the history of tyrannosaurus rex. Every child's imagination will be turned on end as the world is introduced to the real t-rex On the Science Channel. Aug 16, 8:00 pm Aug 16, 11:00 pm Aug 17, 3:00 am; ET/PT

Most Of Our Universe Is Missing - We can only account for four percent of our universe. Join us as we visit the world's most powerful telescopes, fly through outer space, and travel inside the deepest mines to find the other 96% of what makes the universe home. On the Science Channel. Aug 12, 9:00 pm; Aug 13, 12:00 am; Aug 13, 4:00 am; Aug 13, 10:00 am; Aug 13, 4:00 pm; Aug 17, 5:00 pm; ET/PT

The Universe Episode: Beyond the Big Bang - The universe began with a massive expansion, billions and billions of years ago, and it continues to expand with every passing second. Interviews with the world's leading physicists and historians are woven together with animated recreations and first-person accounts to explain concepts such as the formation of galaxies, the creation of elements and the formation of Earth itself. On The History Channel. Saturday, August 16 08:00 PM; Sunday, August 17 12:00 AM ; ET/PT.

Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed - The story of Anakin Skywalker's descent into darkness and his son Luke's quest to conquer evil has spellbound audiences for 30 years. For the first time take a profound look at the serious subtext behind Lucas' six film milestone. The influence of ancient mythology from Greek legends to King Arthur is visible; but also more recent historical influences, from the political rise of Napoleon to the machinations of Adolf Hitler can be seen. On The History Channel. Saturday, August 16 10:00 PM; Sunday, August 17 02:00 AM; Wednesday, August 20 10:00 AM; Wednesday, August 20 04:00 PM ; ET/PT.



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