Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2003

In the News:

Strange New Ape in Africa? - Scientists are wondering if they have a new species of great ape in Africa. The animal, which appears to be as big as a gorilla, has been reported to be living in a forest in the north central area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unlike the gorilla it appears to be carnivorous and more "flat-faced" than other apes. One report has the animal walking bipedally with a height of more than six feet. Geneticists at the Omaha Zoo have obtained fecal samples from the unknown animal and have compared its DNA to that of other apes. Preliminary data shows that the mitochondrial DNA (passed from the mother) of the animal is chimp-like which raises the possibility that the animals are the result of mating between a chimp mother and a gorilla father. Additional tests underway now should clarify this possibility.

Pre-Mayan Civilization Found - Preparation for construction of a warehouse in Nicaragua has revealed the remains of a previously unknown pre-Mayan civilization. A worker cutting trees discovered two mounds with foundations at the site and called in archaeologists working at the nearby prehistoric village to examine them. The scientists were surprised to find the remains of a complex civilization and named the location El Cascal de Flor de Pino. The civilization involved apparently started building at the site around 1500 BC and came to a quick end around 400 AD.

New Dino Found in India- Scientists have discovered the remains a new carnivorous dinosaur species in western India. The animal, which has been named Rajasaurus narmadensis, or "Regal reptile from the Narmada," is estimated to have been 25 to 30 feet long with a horn above its skull and lived during the Cretaceous Period some 65 million years ago. The relatively heavy two-legged dinosaur is thought to have eaten, four-legged, long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs of the era.

$180 Million Shipwreck Discovered off of Savannah - Greg Stemm and John Morris of Odyssey Marine Explorations Inc. think they have discovered the wreck of the Civil War-era steamer S.S. REPUBLIC off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, in 1,700 feet of water. The ship was carrying 59 passengers and 20,000 $20 gold coins to pay for reconstruction of the South after the Civil War when it sank on October 25, 1865 during a hurricane. It is estimated that the value of the gold is now between $150 million $180 million in today's dollars which could make it the richest shipwreck in history. The treasure hunters had been searching for the ship for 12 years and had combed 1,500 square miles of ocean using robotic vehicles as well as sonar and magnetometer technology before finding the wreck.

A Microbe that Likes it Hot - A newly discovered one-celled organism found in a magma vent at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean can survive at temperatures of 266 degrees Fahrenheit which is higher than any other known life form, according to an article in last months issue of the journal Science. The authors of the article, Derek R. Lovley, a University of Massachusetts microbiologist, and Kazem Kashefi, subjected the microbe, temporarily referred to as Strain 121, to high temperatures in an autoclave which is usually used to sterilize medical equipment. The microbe not only survived, but continued to multiply at temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The discovery seems to raise the possibility that microbial life might be able to survive on other planets with extreme temperatures.


What's New at the Museum:

The Spaceship that Never Was -In the late 1950's a group of American scientists had a dream of using a nuclear bomb propelled spaceship to get to Saturn by 1970. The effort was scuttled because of politics, but would the idea have worked? - >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Exploding Lungs and Spaceships - The human body is very tough and could easily survive the vacuum of space, so why couldn't you use a breathing apparatus [like a Scuba]? If you're saying that molecules would become unfixed and simply explode, as in your quoting NASA saying your lungs would explode, then why don't space ships that are filled with air simply explode? I realize metal is in some ways stronger than the human body, but likewise in other ways, like resiliency and dexterity, the human body is tougher than metal. - James

Your right that much of the human body is tough, but the lungs are relatively fragile. Certainly not near the strength of a spaceship hull. Scuba divers have been dealing with these issues for years.

The atmosphere of our planet at sea level pushes against us with the force of about 14.7 pounds per square inch (PSI). Ideally a spaceship would be pressurized the same, but NASA has used lower cabin pressures (around 5psi) during spaceflights (To do this you have to increase the percent of oxygen in the air so the astronauts can breath normally. This is increases the risk of fire, though. The three astronauts that died on the launch pad in 1965 were victims of a flash fire which was partly the result of using a cabin environment with a near 100% oxygen level).

Let's look at an ideal spaceship that would contain 14.7psi. Can metal stand that kind of pressure? A typical scuba tank can withstand more than 3000 psi! Remember a spaceship cabin is just a big tank of air. Even the thin-walled propane tank on your gas grill can safely contain a pressure of 325psi - more than 21 times the pressure needed on our ideal spaceship.

Now how about the human lung? Again we will go back to scuba divers. As you go down into the water the pressure becomes greater at a much faster rate than it does as you move down through air. The only way divers can breath underwater is by using air pressurized the same level as the water around them. For this reason divers must be very carefully to breath normally as they ascend. If they hold their breath they could rupture a lung because the air in the lung expands as they go upward. It has been shown that a lung can rupture if the diver is holding his breath and ascends as little as 4 feet. That's an increase of only 1.7psi. Much less than even the 5 to 14.7psi of a spaceship cabin and certainly much less than a metal hull of a spaceship can stand.


Foo Fighters and Freedom Ridge - I was wondering if you could help me find more information on Foo Fighters. I believe that between Christmas of 1994 and before August of 1995, I saw Foo fighters. I do happen to live very close to Fort Hood Texas and I know that their military flight path goes right over my property, whether this has anything to with what I saw that day, I don't know. I am 18 years old now and I saw the Foo Fighters when I was 9 years old.

Another question that I have , why is it that Freedom Ridge in Nevada (10 miles from the area 51 facility) was closed in 1995? - Krista

Foo fighters are what WW II aircraft crews called the unexplained glowing balls that seemed to follow their planes. At first they thought they might be some sort of enemy weapon, but they never attacked and after the war the Allies found out that the Germans had been seeing them too. There has never been a good explanation for what these objects were. For an full discussion of the foo fighters of WWII, click here.

Since what you saw occurred in 1995 it might be hard to classify it as "foo fighters" in the technical sense, but you could probably list it as a UFO (unidentified flying object). Whether it is explainable or not by natural or man-made phenomena depends on exactly what you saw.

As for Freedom Ridge, the government closed it because it gave the public too close a look at the facility at Groom Lake were secret military weapons are tested. Some people claim this is because the government is hiding crashed flying saucers there, but more likely it is because it could be used by foreign agents to gain information on sensistive aircraft or weapons systems under construction.


In History:

Flatwoods Monster - On September 12, 1952, eight witnesses near the West Virginia town of Flatwoods saw a weird creature that was later dubbed the "Flatwoods Monster." The witnesses said they observed a strange glowing object as big as a house and near it a creature with an head shaped like an "ace of spades" with eyes that glowed like blue beams of light. The group ran and the creature disappeared, but investigations the next day by the local newspaper revealed a strange smell in the area and grass flattened as if by a great weight. Air Force investigators chalked up the incident to a meteor and an owl.


In the Sky:

Harvest Moon - On September 10 look for the full moon in the sky. This is what is traditionally called the "Harvest Moon" because its light help farmers work late into the evening. You should still be able to see Mars shining brightly to the moon's right or upper right.



Bigfoot Artist's Works for Auction - Interested in a Bigfoot statue for your home? Artist Bruce Horton is selling some of his unique sasquatch sculpture on Ebay. Check out this page or his website at .


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: Neanderthals on Trial - Are Neanderthals our ancestors or an evolutionary dead end? On PBS: September 23 8PM; ET.

Cleopatra's Lost City - Alexandria held the status of the most important port in the Mediterranean, and arguably, the world; Archaeologist, Jean-Yves Empereur uncovers some of the most important and magnificent monuments from this period notably, the Lighthouse and the Colossi. On the Discovery Channel: Sep 10 2003 08:00 PM Sep 10 2003 11:00 PM Sep 13 2003 01:00 PM; ET.

Mysterious Hanging Coffins of China - China's leading explorers have been trying to save the last vestiges of a society that buried their dead in coffins hanging off the side of limestone cliffs. Pollution, encroaching urbanization and graverobbers threaten to destroy these artifacts. On Discovery Channel: Sep 17 2003 10:00 PM Sep 18 2003 01:00 AM Sep 20 2003 03:00 PM; ET.

Alien Secrets - Area 51 - What lies within the heavily guarded confines of Area 51? Rumors of a UFO, complete with alien spacecraft and alien corpses in the Nevada desert have refused to die, even becoming a part of the blockbuster hit "Independence Day." On TLC: Sep 16 2003 10:00 PM Sep 17 2003 01:00 AM; ET.

Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed Alligators in the Sewers - Deep in the sewer system of New York City, workers have been confronted with colonies of alligators. Stories like this have been reported since the 1930s, but there is no evidence of gators. A reptile expert explains the actual life cycle of alligators. On TLC: Sep 02 2003 09:00 PM Sep 03 2003 12:00 AM; 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 TLC: Sep 23 2003 10:00 PM Sep 24 2003 01:00 AM; ET.


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