Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

September 2006

In the News:

The Eight Planets - Last month the International Astronomical Union created a definition of a planet that has excluded Pluto, one of the traditional nine, from the list. Up to this point there had been no official definition for planet, but the discovery of several objects, including one nicknamed "Xena" that is larger than Pluto, forced the Union to create a set of criteria. Until the last minute is seemed likely that the group would vote to include the smaller bodies and increase the number of planets to twelve, with more likely to be found in the near future. Instead the definition was changed to include spherical bodies large enough to "sweep" their orbits clean of small objects like asteroids. Scientists are now calling objects like Pluto, and "Xena," "dwarf" planets.

The Umoonasaurus and Opallionectes - Scientists have discovered two new species of prehistoric marine reptiles belonging to the group of animals call plesiosaurs. Umoonasaurus was the "killer whale equivalent of the Jurassic" period with a relatively small length of 8 feet and distinguished by three crest-like ridges on its skull. "Imagine a compact body with four flippers, a reasonably long neck, small head and short tail much like a reptilian seal," said paleontologist Benjamin Kear, a member of the team that identified the creatures. The other, Opallionectes was about 20 feet long and had many fine, needle-like teeth for trapping small fish and squid. Both lived in the freezing polar waters that covered Australia 115 million years ago, when the continent was located closer to Antarctica. The team published their finding in the journal Paleontology and also the online edition of Biology Letters, a periodical from the prestigious Royal Society of London.

"One Space Step" Tapes Missing - The U.S. government has misplaced the original historic recordings of man's first walk on the moon along with other data tapes from the Apollo space missions. Approximately seven hundred boxes of the material, mostly data tapes, have disappeared. The data tapes were held by the National Archives but returned to NASA sometime in the late 1970s and it is not known what has become of them. A NASA spokesman assured reporters that all the data that is missing is still available to the space agency in a different form, though the quality of some of the material, such as the television pictures, may not be of as high a quality as the originals.

Too Much Deuterium Around - Scientists have been surprised to find a lot more deuterium lurking around in the universe than expected, according to a study published in the Astrophysical Journal last month. Deuterium is form of hydrogen with a neutron in its nucleus that was created just moments after the "big bang." According to current theories much of it should have turned into regular hydrogen since then as it was recycled through stars. Results from the NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, or FUSE, satellite, show that the amount of deuterium around, however, has only declined 15% from the big bang, less then half of what was expected. "This implies that either significantly less material has been converted to helium and heavier elements in stars or that much more primordial gas has rained down onto the galaxy over its lifetime than had been thought," said Jeffrey Linsky of the University of Colorado, who led the study. "In either case, our models of the chemical evolution of the Milky Way will have to be revised significantly to explain this important new result."

Scientists Take a Closer Look at Dangerous Comets and Asteroids - International Astronomical Union, last month, established a special task force charged with taking a close look at the threat of collision with "near-Earth objects" like asteroids that might cause a global cataclysm. "The goal is to discover these killer asteroids before they discover us," said Nick Kaiser of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy. There are an estimated 1,100 comets and asteroids in the inner solar system at least a half-mile across and could cause planet wide destruction should they hit Earth. Scientists hope to chart the paths of possibly dangerous objects. If given a decade of warning it is possible that a specially designed spacecraft could be used to "nudge" the object out of the way and into a different orbit.


What's New at the Museum:

The Lost City of Petra - An ancient city of stone hides deep in the mountains of Jordan. What mysteries are hidden there? >Full Story

The Kraken - Our popular page on this legendary creature updated. >Full Story

From The Curator's Office: The B9 Builders Club - What more could you want than a plastic pal that's fun to be with? >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Moving Target in Space - I understand that the Universe is constantly expanding, which means that we, on Earth, including our solar system, are in a new area of space at any time, constantly moving away. Why is that we never see or encounter anything in the new spaces we pass through? What is the speed of this expansion? Thank you, Victor B.

The expansion of the universe is thought to have started with the "Big Bang" some 11.2 billion to 20 billion years ago. Since all matter and energy in the universe were at one time together in one location, the expansion, or some use the term "inflation," of the universe has the effect of spreading things out so it actually reduces the density of material in the universe overall making things farther apart the longer time goes on. Imagine putting three dots on a balloon with a marker, then blowing air into the balloon. The inflation of the balloon causes the dots move apart.

The rate of expansion looks different based on how far away an object is from you. A galaxy that is a megaparsec (3.2 million light years) away from us moves at a speed of approximately 72 kilometers per second (Kps). A galaxy two megaparsecs away moves at a speed of 144 Kps and so on (If this doesn't make sense, put three dots on a balloon in a row and label them A, B and C, then blow it up. The distance from A to C will increase about twice as fast as that from A to B).

Now on a smaller scale, gravity in the universe does cause material to clump together to form things like stars, solar systems and galaxies. Because of the effects of gravity they stay relatively the same distance from each other in respect to the expansion of the universe. Even so, they are also moving. Our sun, along with billions of other stars in our Milky Way galaxy, rotate around a central point (probably a massive black hole). The speed of rotation varies, with the stars closer to the center going slower and those farther out going faster. The Sun is about 2/3s of the way out from the center and moves at a speed of 250 Kps.

Since the sun is moving along with most of the stars in this area of the galaxy in the same general direction, our distance in respect to these stars doesn't change much. However scientists have recently found evidence of "rebel" stars that seem to be moving either out from the galactic center or in toward it. Our next encounter with such a star will occur in about 1.4 million years from now when Gliese 710 will pass within a light year of us.

To sum it all up, we are always moving, but the distances in space are so vast things only go by us rarely and when they do they are still very far away.


In History:

The Last Tasmanian Tiger - On September 7, 1936, the last thylacine, also known as the "Tasmanian tiger," died in captivity in the Hobart Domain Zoo in Tasmania. The thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial, had been eradicated in the wild by the Australian government six years before as they saw them as a pest that endangered livestock. Occasionally reports that the "tiger" is still alive somewhere in the deep forests of Tasmania have been heard, but so far no convincing evidence has come to light.


In the Sky:

Month of the Moon - Check out the full moon on September 7th as it rises just after sunset. When the moon is low in the sky like that you can observe the "Moon Illusion:" The moon appears to be much bigger than normal, though an actual measurements shows that it is really a tiny bit bigger when directly overhead. For a more detailed explanation of this illusion, click here. The moon also comes to our attention on September 21st. While the lunar orbital path is almost circular, there are times when it is slightly farther from Earth than others. This point is called the apogee. On that day the moon reaches its furthest apogee of the year, at a distance of 252,587 miles.



The Mystery Beast of Maine - Residents of Maine are scratching their heads about a strange animal that appeared out of nowhere on a secluded highway and was hit fatally by a car. The bizarre looking creature was thought to be living in the forest in the area possibly attacking animals. Since the incident several residents of the neighborhood have come forward to speak of a mystery monster that roams the woods. "It was evil, evil looking. And it had a horrible stench I will never forget," recounted Michelle O'Donnell to the Sun Journal of Lewiston. "We locked eyes for a few seconds and then it took off. I've lived in Maine my whole life and I've never seen anything like it." Some have suggested the creature is a goat-sheep hybrid or even a Tasmanian devil or dingo. Others have wondered if it had extraterrestrial origins. Author and cryptozoologist Loren Coleman examined the body and suspects it was a feral dog. Samples have been taken from the body by the Sun Journal newspaper to be sent to a lab so the species can be identified though DNA testing.


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.

T-Rex: Warrior or Wimp? - Since the discovery of the first T-Rex skeleton in 1905, this famous dinosaur has been billed a supreme predator, a six-ton Tyrant Lizard King. The dinosaurís mouth, filled with huge spiky teeth, led scientists to conclude it must have been a killer. On the Science Channel: SEP 03 2006 @ 10:00 PM, SEP 04 2006 @ 01:00 AM, SEP 04 2006 @ 05:00 AM; ET/PT

Exploring Einstein: Life of a Genius - Albert Einstein's physics theories led to the creation of the nuclear bomb, space travel, and an understanding of our universe. In the later part of his life Einstein tried to disprove his theories as they clashed with his personal beliefs. On the Science Channel: SEP 10 2006 @ 10:00 PM, SEP 11 2006 @ 01:00 AM, SEP 11 2006 @ 05:00 AM, SEP 11 2006 @ 11:00 AM, SEP 11 2006 @ 03:00 PM, SEP 17 2006 @ 09:00 AM; ET/PT

When Yellowstone Erupts - A super volcano lies beneath the beauty of Yellowstone Park. Scientists are challenged with predicting when the next super-eruption might take place and describing what will happen if this cataclysmic event occurs. On The Science Channel: SEP 17 2006 @ 09:00 PM, SEP 18 2006 @ 12:00 AM, SEP 18 2006 @ 04:00 AM, SEP 18 2006 @ 10:00 AM, SEP 18 2006 @ 02:00 PM, SEP 23 2006 @ 09:00 AM; ET/PT.

Big Science: What Really Killed the Dinosaurs - Until recently, most scientists thought they knew what killed off the dinosaurs - a giant meteorite crashing into Earth. But a small and vociferous group of scientists believes there is increasing evidence that the 'impact' theory could be wrong. On The Discovery Channel: SEP 02 2006 @ 08:00 PM, SEP 03 2006 @ 12:00 AM ; ET/PT.

Comet Collision! - NASA's brilliant but risky mission is designed to collide with a comet and in the process, reveal what lies in the heart of those blazing voyagers of the solar system. Filmmakers use state-of-the-art spacecraft animation and stunning location photography. On The Discovery Channel: SEP 30 2006 @ 08:00 PM, OCT 01 2006 @ 12:00 AM; ET/PT.

Tsunami 2004: Waves of Death - The 2004 Tsunami, centered in the Indian Ocean, was caused by a 9.3 earthquake--the second strongest quake on record. Join us for a minute-by-minute look at nature's fury at its worst, when the tsunami kills more than 200,000 people in 14 countries. In this special, we examine the tsunami as it moves from coast to coast through the eyes of people who lived through it and scientists now studying its path of devastation. Drawing on the extraordinary volume of amateur video that recorded the disaster, we take viewers inside the world's deadliest tsunami. On History Channel: August 28 @ 8pm ET/PT.

Lost Worlds Knights Templar - They defended the Holy Land through bloodshed and prayer. Founded in the 12th century, these Christian warrior monks reigned supreme for nearly 200 years before suffering a spectacular fall from grace. Tried for heresy, they were disbanded and their Grand Master burned at the stake. We'll search behind the legend for their lost world. We recreate the city they knew as Tortosa--now hidden among modern homes in the Syrian city of Tartus. We reveal secrets of their headquarters at Temple Mount in Jerusalem, with magnificent underground vaults that could stable 1,000 horses. And we visit the circular church in London built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the site of the Templar's mysterious initiation rites. We bring to life the hilltop fortress that Lawrence of Arabia called "the finest castle in the world", and return to the Mediterranean island where the Knights Templars made their last stand against Moslem enemies. On History Channel: September 3 @ 8pm ET/PT.



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