Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2004

In the News:

John the Baptist's Cave? - British archaeologist Shimon Gibson claims he has found the cave where the Biblical figure John the Baptist baptized many of his followers. The cave is located just 2.5 miles from the location considered by tradition to be John's birthplace and has etched into the walls pictures that tell the story of his life. The cave was probably carved by the Israelites sometime between 800 and 500 B.C. Pottery shards found in soil layers indicate it was used as a ritual immersion pool before the time of John. The carvings were probably done by Byzantine Monks who associated the site with John. Many archeologists disagree with Gibson's conclusion that the site was definitely used by John the Baptist, but admit that the dig provides a useful window into early Israeli history.

Robotic Mission to Save Hubble Approved- NASA has approved a robotic mission to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope. If not serviced, the Hubble will fail around the year 2008. Originally the telescope was to be serviced by a Space Shuttle mission in January of this year, but that mission was dropped for safety reasons following the 2003 crash of Columbia. The new mission will take about three years to plan and execute using a two-armed robot, named Dextre, developed by the Canadian Space Agency. The cost of the mission will be between $1 billion to $1.6 billion.

Archaeopteryx Brain Could Fly - The fossil remains of Archaeopteryx might have been mistaken for just another dinosaur when it was discovered in 1861 except for the fine impression left by its feathers. Scientists have debated ever since: Could the thing really fly? Investigation up to recently centered on the animal's bone and wing structure. A new study by Angela Milner, a paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum, however, shows that the creature's brain seems to have been wired for flight. Using an X-ray device similar to a CAT scan, a 3D image was made of the fossil's brain cavity which was later converted to a wax model that could be examined by scientists. The model showed that the animal's brain structure was very similar to that of a bird with a strong sense of vision and depth perception suggesting that it was actually capable of flight.

Doctors Grow Human Jaw in Back - A German man who lost his jaw to cancer now has a new one that was grown inside a muscle in this back. This instance was the first case where a doctors have used the patient's own body to incubate and synthesize a replacement for lost bone tissue. The surgeons, led by Dr. Patrick Warnke of the University of Kiel, built a mesh cage of titanium in the shape of the jaw, then filled it with bone mineral, bone protein and liquid bone marrow and implanted it into the patient's back. After seven weeks of growth the jawbone was transplanted to the head allowing the man to have his first solid meal in nine years. The surgeons hope to remove the titanium mesh next year and implant the jaw with false teeth.

Belugas' have Distinct Voices. - A paper, published in Acoustical Physics, suggests that Beluga, or white, whales have extremely distinct voices. The Russian scientists involved in the study analyzed recordings which showed that whales, like humans, possess individualized vocal capability. Males have a larger deeper sound than females or youngsters. It may even be possible for researchers to identify whales by voice instead of by their visual appearance. This would make it easier for scientists to track and study the whales.


What's New at the Museum:

Are We Alone?- It was once assumed that Earth was just a typical planet in a run-of-the-mill solar system. Some evidence is beginning to appear that suggests this isn't true. If so, what does this mean about life on other planets? - >Full Story

Classic Graphic Novels - Check out the fourth chapter - The Straits of Torres - in our classic graphic novel version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. - >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Coral Castle Mystery - Has there been any progress on the theory that the builder of the Coral Castle in Florida was able to move large stones without heavy equipment? - Thanks, Mike

Edward Leedskalnin, a Latvian immigrant, who moved to Florida in 1918 spent most of his life carving a fantastic castle-like building out of huge blocks of coral. There is a mystery about how he was able to shape and move these blocks which weighed as much as 30 tons by himself without the help of heavy machinery (Leedskalnin didn't even own a car). Leedskalnin, who said the castle was a tribute to a lost love, did all the work at night and was very secretive about his methods. Over a period of over 20 years he cut and positioned over 1,000 tons of coral.

Some people credit his feat to supernatural power, or the understanding of an alternative energy source (Leedskalnin wrote several booklets on his theories of electricity and magnetism). When asked about the construction, however, he replied that he simply understood the laws of weight and leverage. "I have discovered the secrets of the pyramids. I have found out how the Egyptians and the ancient builders in Peru, Yucatan, and Asia, with only primitive tools, raised and set in place blocks of stone weighing many tons."

Some engineers think he just used simple machines (levers, wedges, screws, tackle) and applied them expertly to get the job done. In any case, we may never know for sure as Leedskalnin seems to have taken his secret to the grave when he died in 1951 at the age of 64. The site is now a tourist attraction. For more information go to


In History:

Mad Gasser of Mattoon - In September of 1944 the town of Mattoon, Illinois, was terrorized by stories of a "Mad Gasser" prowling the town. Victims reported smelling a "sickening sweet odor" that paralyzed them for some minutes. Connected with some of these stories was a man described as "tall, dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight-fitting cap." The flap climaxed on September 10th when five people claimed they'd been gassed during a single night. Police investigated a number of these incidents over a two week period but failed to find evidence to support the stories. In the end they declared that the attacker was nonexistent and the stories were the result of "mass hysteria."


In the Sky:

Vesta Asteroid - With a good star chart and a pair of binoculars you can observe the asteroid Vesta this month. On September 17th Vesta will be passing between the stars Omega 1 and Omega 2 located in the constellation of Aquarius. Look for the minor planet near the lower of the two stars about 2 or 3 hours after sunset.



Alien Artifact found in Blast Zone - According to the Interfax news agency, Russian scientists claim they have found a device of alien origin at the Tunguska blast site in Siberia. The researchers, all from the Tunguska space phenomenon public state fund, say the alien object crashed near the Tunguska river. The cause of the tremendous Tunguska explosion, that occurred on June 30th 1908, has been debated among scientists for many years, though recent investigations seemed to suggest it was a large meteoroid or comet that exploded before hitting the ground. The scientists also claim to have discovered a 110-pound rock which they have sent to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk for analysis.


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: Infinite Secrets - A battered manuscript turns up after 1,000 years, revealing the mind of the Greek genius Archimedes. On PBS: Sept 14 @ 8PM; ET.

Wild and Weird Rockets- The largest amateur rocket competition blasts off in Kansas -- with a chance to break world records and put some of the most unusual rockets into the atmosphere. Can the Aurora hit Mach 2? And can an outhouse really fly? On the Discovery Channel: Sep 08 2004 @ 08:00 PM; Sep 08 2004 @ 11:00 PM; Sep 11 2004 @ 01:00 PM; ET.

Bermuda Triangle - Hundreds of boats and planes have disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle, leaving little or no trace. Most of these can be explained easily, but a few still remain a genuine mystery. Follow this ultimate scientific exploration of this intriguing area. On Discovery Channel: Sep 16 2004 @ 09:00 PM; Sep 17 2004 @ 12:00 AM; Sep 19 2004 @ 11:00 AM; ET.

MythBusters: Ancient Death Ray/Skunk Cleaning/What is Bulletproof? - Jamie and Adam reflect on one of the world’s oldest urban legends -- did the Greek scientist Archimedes set fire to a Roman fleet using only mirrors and sunlight? And moving to more modern times, have you ever tried to remove the fetid funk of a skunk? On Discovery Channel: Sep 29 2004 @ 08:00 PM; Sep 29 2004 @ 11:00 PM; ET.

History's Mysteries: Raise the Hunley - On February 17, 1864, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, history was made when nine Confederate sailors hand-cranked the iron submarine H.L. Hunley out to Union forces blockading the city and sank the USS Housatonic. It was the first time that a sub was successfully used in battle. But the Hunley disappeared beneath the waves shortly after achieving its goal. In August 2000, the sub was finally brought home when it was lifted off the ocean bottom and placed in a conservation facility. On History Channel: September 15 @ 6pm ET/PT.

Secret Luftwaffe Aircraft of WWI - German military aircraft designs were decades ahead of their Allied counterparts. To insure Luftwaffe superiority, their designers tested advanced concepts including swept-wing and vertical take-off aircraft and stealth bombers. Using computer-generated images and archival footage, we trace development of Hitler's airborne arsenal. On History Channel: September 9 @ 8pm ET/PT.



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