Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

October 2002

In the News:

Pyramid Robot Finds Another Mystery - Scientists using a robot to explore Egypt's Great Pyramid solved one mystery only to be immediately confronted with another. The small robot, christened "Pyramid Rover," climbed up a 200 foot, eight-inch-square shaft that originated in an inside chamber and headed toward the outside of the structure at a steep upward angle. The robot, designed and built by the Boston firm iRobot, was sent to examine what appeared to be a limestone door with two brass handles blocking the shaft. Using a built-in drill, the robot cut through the door and inserted a small video camera into the hole to find out what was on the other side. What it found appears to be another limestone door just beyond the first one. Scientists will now spend the next few months digesting what the robot learned and deciding the best course of action to continue the exploration.

Is "Out-of-Body" Experience All in the Head? - Many people have described having "out-of-body" experiences and a recent incident may shed some scientific light on this phenomenon. According to an article last month in the British journal Nature, doctors in Switzerland treating a woman for epilepsy reported she experienced the sensation of "floating above her own body" when a portion of her brain was simulated with an electrode. Doctors were using the electrodes to try and "map" her brain so they could locate the origin of her seizures. Such a map helps surgeons to avoid damaging critical sections of the brain during surgery. The portion of the brain connected with the sensation was the angular gyrus in the right cortex. Researchers were surprised when the women reported what she was feeling. They hope the incident might be used to spur research into the how activity in that part of the brain might play a role in explaining the "out-of-body" phenomenon.

Blue Flash and Booms Downunder - Astronomers from southern Australia are investigating reports of a bright blue flash and loud booms seen and heard by people on the Fleurieu Peninsula last month. Witnesses reported that there was a light followed by a smoke trail and two loud booms that shook the ground. Scientists think that the phenomenon was the result of a meteor entering the Earth's atmosphere and breaking up about 20 miles above the ground.

"Big Crunch" Ahead for Universe? - For many years scientists have argued over whether the universe will continue to expand indefinitely, or slow to a stop, then collapse upon itself in the distant future. Most of the evidence seems to favor expansion, especially since it has been shown that the current expansion is accelerating. A new theory, however, seems to suggest that a collapse is not only possible, but will happen sooner than anyone has expected.

Andrei Linde of Stanford University and his colleagues suspect that the universe is being pushed apart a repulsive dark energy field. Over time this energy field will decline until it reaches zero. Linde thinks that it might not only reach zero, it might actually become negative. If that is so, then the repulsive field will become an attractive field and will grow stronger over time causing a universal "big crunch." Some of Linde's calculations show that such a process could start in as little as 10 to 20 billion years.

Astronomers Search for Vucanoids- Last month Alan Stern and Dan Durda of the Southwest Research Institute used a F-18 jet fighter to look for asteroids between the Sun and the orbit of its inner most planet, Mercury. In the 18th century scientists speculated about the possibility of a planet circling within the orbit of Mercury. This supposed planet was called "Vulcan," but was never discovered. Einstein's theory of relativity later showed that there shouldn't be a planet, but the possibility of small asteroids (Vulcanoids), perhaps 20 miles across, still remains. Stern and Durda hoped to spot them by using a camera mounted on the F-18 which was flying at an altitude of 50,000 feet to get above much of the Earth's lower atmosphere. The scientists also carefully timed their flights to take advantage of the September 23 equinox, when the positions of the Earth and Sun would be the best for spotting the asteroids. It will be several weeks before Stern and Durda can examine the data and release the results.


What's New at the Museum:

Allegations of Alligators in the Sewers - Do New Yorkers really have a population of dangerous reptiles living under their feet? - Allegations of Alligators


Ask the Curator:

Rabid Rabbits? - Can rabbits get rabies? If not, why not? - Cheryl

Rabies, a viral infection of the nervous system which is usually transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected animal, can be found in all mammals, including rabbits. If untreated it is always fatal. While rodents, including rabbits, can get the disease, it is unusual that it is seen in either wild or domestic populations, who seem to have a natural resistance. There is no record of a bite from a rabbit have transmitted the disease to a human in U.S. history.

Wild animals that are most likely to be infected are skunks, foxes, raccoons, and bats. It is wise, however, to say away from any wild animal, especially if it seems to be acting strangely. For more information on this subject check this fact sheet on rabies at:


Titanic Sinking - I remember reading an article that gave an eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic. He said, and there was an illustration, that the ship actually broke into a "V" shape while still visible above the water. In other words it broke in the middle, and bent into a "V" shape before sinking. However, when the actual wreck was discovered on the sea bed, an accompanying article on the event said that the ship broke apart into two pieces underwater. Can an eyewitness be wrong? - Anonymous

Most current thinking on the break up of the Titanic has it splitting up on the surface just as many eyewitnesses said. As the forward portion of the ship, which had been torn open by the iceberg, filled with water it pulled the down on the stern which was buoyant because it was still filled with air. At some point the hull, under this tremendous stress, gave way and the vessel was torn apart. There is some argument on whether the ship broke in two from the bottom up or the top down. If it broke in two from the top part down the stern should have flopped back into the water with a tremendous splash. While shown this way in movies because it is so dramatic, reports of the "flop" are missing from eyewitness accounts. It seems more likely that the breakup started at the keel and moved up. In this theory the stern settles more gently into the sea after the forward section brakes away. The break up may have been so gentle that passengers standing on the stern at the time may have not realized what had happened. A bottom up break also better explains the tremendous damage seen on the stern section when it was found on the bottom.

For a really cool animation of the Titanic sinking go to


In History:

Tasmanian UFO - On October 4, 1960, several witnesses, including an Anglican minister, reported seeing a 300-foot-long, cigar-shaped craft come out a a cloud during a rainstorm in Tasmania, Australia. The strange object was followed by five or six domed discs that seemed to be "skipping" along behind. After a few seconds that cigar-shaped craft, along with the discs, reversed course and disappeared back into the cloud and were not seen again.

No explanation for this sighting is known.


In the Sky:

Uranus View - If you have excellent eyesight, or a fair pair of binoculars and a dark sky, you might try to find the planet Uranus this month. Look on a moonless night at the star Capricorni. Uranus will be nearby. If you don't know where Capricorni is located, check out this article on the Sky and Telescope website.



"Buzz" Aldrin Decks Filmmaker- Former Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin found himself defending charges that he had decked a man who cornered him as he entered his hotel. The man, independent Nashville filmmaker Bart Sibrel, was trying to make a documentary proving that the 1969 Moon landing was faked by NASA. Sibrel, 37, ambushed the seventy-two year-old Aldrin and shoved a Bible in his face so Aldrin could swear he really walked on the moon in July of 1969. The filmmaker says Aldrin responded by punching him in the jaw. Sibrel is pushing the police to charge the former astronaut with assault.


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: Lost Roman Treasure - Archeologists race to excavate an ancient city before it is inundated by rising waters, and discover priceless mosaics. On PBS: Oct 8 at 8 PM; ET.

NOVA: Lost at Sea -- The Search for Longitude - How the quest for a reliable method to find your way at sea was solved by an 18th-century English clockmaker. On PBS: Oct 22 at 8 PM; ET.

NOVA: Galileo's Battle for the Heaven - Galileo struggles to persuade church authorities of the truth behind his astonishing discoveries about the cosmos. On PBS: Oct 29 at 8 PM; ET.

The Assassination of King Tut - Did King Tut's gleaming death mask hide an ancient homicide? Dead since 1323 B.C. and hastily mummified, Egypt's boy king lay in an unfinished tomb until its 1922 discovery. Modern forensics sheds light on what caused the blows to the King's skull. On the Discovery Channel: Oct 6 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; Oct 12 12:00 PM; Oct 14 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; Oct 20 6:00 PM; ET.

Mutter Museum, The: Strange Medical Mysteries - Tour one of the most unusual and enlightening medical museums in the world. Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter contributed his personal collection of strange specimens, creating the foundation of a truly harrowing exhibit On the Discovery Channel: Oct 20 10:00 PM; Oct 20 1:00 AM; ET.

If We Had No Moon - Without the moon, days would last four hours, winds would blow with hurricane force, and Earth would be shrouded in a dense, toxic atmosphere. What luck that 50 million years ago, Earth sustained a major collision that created its moon. On the Discovery Channel: Oct 24 8:00 PM and 11:00 PM; Oct 26 2:00 PM; ET.

Mysteries of Easter Island - Seek answers to the mysteries surrounding one of the most isolated locations on Earth. The massive stones of Easter Island have been linked to ancient Peruvians and extraterrestrials. Delve deep into the speculation surrounding their origin. On the TCL: Oct 22 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; ET.

The Bermuda Triangle--Secrets Revealed - Is it a fatal twilight zone, a graveyard for the lost, or simply stormy waters? Scientists employ the latest technology to search for the countless planes, ships and people that disappear each year On the TCL: Oct 22 10:00 and 1:00 AM; ET.

Nefertiti: Egypt's Mysterious Queen - Somewhere in Valley of the Kings lies young King Tut's stepmother, the most beautiful woman of ancient times. Follow archaeologist Nicholas Reeves on his search for Nefertiti's tomb, the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century On the TCL: Oct 8 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM; ET.

History's Mysteries: Monsters of the Sea - Gargantuan creatures rising from ocean depths to wreak havoc on man! Are they figments of the imagination or living relics of prehistoric times? On the The History Channel: Oct 01 6:00 PM and 12:00 PM; Oct 18 11:00 PM; Oct 19 3:00 AM; ET.

Secrets of the Ancient World: The Search for Noah's Ark - The great flood that destroyed the world except for Noah, his family, and herd would probably be dismissed as legend--if not for other ancient evidence suggesting the presence of a once-massive flood. Instead, the search for Noah's Ark continues to this day--one of the most controversial searches for one of the largest items described in the Bible. On the The History Channel: Oct 17 8:00 PM; Oct 18 12:00 AM; Oct 20 12:00 PM; Oct 24 8:00 PM; Oct 25 12:00 AM; ET.



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