Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2005

In the News:

Lions and Elephants in North America? - Some scientists have proposed a controversial solution to the endangered species in Africa: Establish new populations in North America. The plan, which appeared last month in the journal Nature, came out of a conservation retreat at media mogul Ted Turner's New Mexico ranch. The scientists who came up the idea say it could help save some species, like lions, elephants and cheetahs from extinction in Africa were habitats are vanishing and poachers are prevalent. They also argue that this approach could restore biodiversity in North America as it was before humans overran the landscape more than 10,000 years ago. While acknowledging that the African animals being considered never lived in the North American, supporters of the idea point out that they did once have counter-parts in the western hemisphere: Mastodons, American cheetahs, and saber-toothed cats. Critics of the idea point out that past attempts to establish wildlife in places they were not native have often caused ecological disasters. Public acceptance of such a plan including dangerous predators like lions seems questionable given the resistance by some people to the reestablishment of native predators like wolves.

Wild Chimps Show Hand Preference- A study released by scientists shows that 17 wild chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania prefer the use of one had over the other just as people do for some delicate tasks. Although observations of captive chimps has shown this in the past, the close association of those captive animals with the humans who raised them have made scientists wonder if wild chimps would have the same trait. While the chimps do not seem to have as strong a preference to using right or left as humans, the fact that they do at all suggests that the left-brain/right-brain split associated with hand preference evolved at least 5 million years ago from a common ancestor.

Stopping Light - Scientists at the Australian National University have managed to stop light inside a crystal for up to one second. This is 1,000 times longer than the previous record. The team thinks that by using the current material they can trap the light for as long as one minute. Other materials may let them hold the light for as long as an hour. Being able to stop and control light is one task scientists must master before they will be able to build optical computers (sometimes referred to as quantum computers) that will be many times faster than the conventional computers we use today.

Neanderthal's Like a Good Mammoth Steak - A study published last month in the Journal of Human Evolution suggests that Neanderthal's had a taste for large game like woolly mammoths and bison as opposed to smaller game which might have been easier to hunt. The results of the study were based on the 16,000-year-old "Magdalenian woman" skeleton from a site called Saint-Germain-la-Rivière in France. Researchers collected bone collagen from the remains which contain isotopes from carbon and nitrogen that were originally in proteins consumed by the woman. These proteins could then be matched up with the animals that were the meat source. The scientist's think that the preference bison and mammoth means Neanderthals must have hunted in organized groups in order to be able to bring down such large game.

Asteroid Hits Antarctica - According to scientists at Australia's Davis station in Antarctica, a significantly large asteroid hit Earth in September of 2004. Fortunately the impact was in an uninhabited portion of Antarctica, but if the object had slammed into a city it would have destroyed it. The asteroid was the size a bus and weighed about 1000 tons and was traveling at about 150 miles per second. Dr Andrew Klekociuk who was on duty observing the stratosphere that night got a strange signal from30 kms overhead. At first it was thought to be a problem with the equipment, but later it was determined that a asteroid had hit the ground approximately 800 miles from the station. It is thought to be the biggest asteroid to hit the Earth in the last ten years.


What's New at the Museum:

The Great Texas Train Crash at Crush - It was to be a spectacular 19th publicity stunt with a carefree carnival mood. It ended in explosions, flying metal and death. >Full Story

Arthur Conan-Doyle's The Lost World - In the second chapter of this Graphic Classic novel, reporter Edward Malone finds that he has volunteered himself for a dangerous misson the heart of the Amazon forest. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Past Sea Serpents - I have long found the subject of Sea Serpents fascinating, and have collected many books on the subject. My most recent purchase (The Great New England Sea Serpent) by J.P. O'Neill. After reading this book, and others I'm convinced that there may be something to these sighting. However, assuming these creatures do exist do you have a theory as to why none appear in the fossil recorded? - John

It depends what you mean by appearing in the fossil record. Certainly the Jurassic seas were filled with all kinds of marine reptiles that if they were alive today would fit the description of a sea serpent (check out However, these creatures seemed have disappeared about the same time the dinosaurs met their end roughly 65 million years ago. More recently the zeuglodon, a primitive form of whale, might easily be mistaken for a sea serpent if it had been alive today, though it is a mammal, not a reptile. ( In the 19th century an unscrupulous promoter actually cobbled together several zeuglodon skeletons and exhibited them as an extinct sea serpent. Zeuglodons are found in the fossil record as recently 37 million years ago.

Can we find more recent fossil evidence for sea serpent-type creatures? It will be hard. The best place to find ancient sea creature fossils are in ancient sea beds. The geology of the planet changes so slowly that most of the more recent sea beds, where we would expect to find evidence for any sea serpent-like creature that has developed over the last few million years, are still at the bottom of the oceans and inaccessible to us.

Lack of evidence is no proof of existence, of course, so what we have now are simply tantalizing stories like we find in O'Neill's book. Suggestive and intriguing, but until somebody comes up with a well-preserved body, no proof.


In History:

New York USO - Everybody has heard of Unidentified Flying Objects, but what about Unidentified Submarine Objects? In the wee hours of the morning on September 17, 1955 a couple out fishing on the Titicus Reservoir in New York saw a USO emerge from the water a few feet from their boat. The Rose-colored, glowing object was the size and shape of a basketball. After rising a foot out of the water it fell back in and disappeared. The couple then saw two parallel lights, yellowish-white in color about thirty feet in length just under the water. No explanation for what they claimed they saw was ever found.


In the Sky:

Celestial Scenery - On September 7th check the west-southwest sky in the early evening to see Venus, Jupiter and the crescent Moon aligned. Venus will appear in the center with Jupiter to the right and the moon to the left. The bright star Spica will also appear less than 2 degrees to the lower left of Venus.



Company Hopes to Book Tourists to Moon - An American company, Space Adventures, is working with the Russian Space Agency in hopes of making it possible for tourists to visit the moon as soon 2008. The intrepid passengers would be boosted into space by a Russian Soyuz rocket, piloted by a Russian cosmonaut. The first trips would simply circle the moon, but later missions might be able to land. Engineers say that only minor modifications are needed to make the Soyuz spacecraft suitable for this flight, such as installing a panoramic window. The company estimates that a direct flight to the moon and back would take 8 or 9 days and cost a whopping $100 million.


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 - Origins: Where Are the Aliens?- Journey back to the beginning of everything: the universe, Earth, and life itself. On the PBS: September 6 at 8 p.m. ET/PT

NOVA - Mystery of the Megaflood- What unleashed a catastrophic flood that scarred thousands of square miles in the American Northwest? On the PBS: Tuesday, September 20 at 8 p.m. 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: Sep 03 @ 09:00 PM, Sep 04 @ 12:00 AM ET/PT

Alexander the Great: Murder Unsolved - Unravel one of the strangest mysteries of ancient times, the suspicious death of history's most extraordinary leader, Alexander the Great. Experts attempt to decipher if his early death at age 32 was caused by disease, excessive drinking or even murder. On Science Channel: Sep 19 @ 10:00 PM, Sep 20 @ 01:00 AM, Sep 20 @ 05:00 AM, Sep 20 @ 11:00 AM, Sep 20 @ 03:00 PM, Sep 24 @ 06:00 PM ET/PT.

If We Had No Moon - Examine what life would be like if a major space collision with the Earth had not created its moon. Each day would last four hours, winds would blow with hurricane force, and Earth would be shrouded in a dense, toxic atmosphere. On The Science Channel: Sep 25 @ 10:00 PM, Sep 26 @ 01:00 AM, Sep 26 @ 05:00 AM, Sep 26 @ 11:00 AM ,Sep 26 @ 03:00 PM ET/PT.

Parallel Universe - The strange notion of parallel universes is gaining strength in the scientific community and may solve our most basic questions about the universe, including the origins of the Big Bang itself. On Science Channel: Sep 20 @ 09:00 PM, Sep 21 @ 12:00 AM, Sep 21 @ 04:00 AM, Sep 21 @ 10:00 AM, Sep 21 @ 02:00 PM, Sep 25 @ 05:00 PM ET/PT.

Killer Asteroids-Eventually an asteroid will hit the earth. Britain and the U.S. are developing the technology to protect the world from an asteroid impact. Find out what progress has been made in the real star wars. On Science Channel: Sep 04 @ 05:00 PM, Sep 13 @ 09:00 PM, Sep 14 @ 12:00 AM, Sep 14 @ 04:00 AM, Sep 14 @ 10:00 AM, Sep 14 @ 02:00 PM, Sep 18 @ 05:00 PM ET/PT.

Alaska's Bermuda Triangle. - There's something about Alaska that the tourist bureau doesn't want you to know. In Alaska, people, planes, and ships disappear. Suddenly, inexplicably, and permanently! Natives say that shape-shifting spirits kidnap lost travelers. Scientists tell of giant crevasses that swallow the unwary. Others tell of conspiracies to wreck aircraft. We take a detailed look at the 1972 incident that confounded the US military, when an airplane carrying two Congressmen vanished between Anchorage and Juneau. On History Channel: September 3 @ 8pm ET/PT.

UFO Files UFO Hot Spots - For those who study the UFO phenomenon, "UFO Hot Spots" are places around the globe known for a long history of UFO sightings and reports. From Brazil to Mexico, from Washington State to Florida, multiple witnesses, including air traffic controllers and even military personnel, confirm that something unexplained is repeatedly happening in the night sky. Tales of alien abductions, bizarre and chilling photographs of UFOs, and hours of videotape all abound as we search for UFO Hot Spots. On History Channel: September 12 @ 8pm ET/PT.



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