Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

October 2006

In the News:

Telepathy Between Friends? - A scientist claims he has evidence that people can telepathically predict who is calling them before their phone actually rings. Rupert Sheldrake of Trinity College, Cambridge ran an experiment in which friends and relatives of a subject would randomly be asked to call the subject. The subject had to identify who the call was coming from before they picked up the phone. The subjects were successful 45% of the time, well above the 25% that might be expected by chance. Sheldrake reported similar results with an experiment involving email. Critics his study point out that the small sample size (only 63 for phone experiment and 50 for email) may be affecting his results. Sheldrake, who believes in telepathy within an interconnected social group, plans to do a similar study for text messaging.

Chimps Use "Crossing Guards" - Scientists report that wild chimps use "crossing guards" when a band of them transverses a busy human road. The research, published last month in Current Biology, analyzes 19 cases where a group of chimpanzees crossed two roads in their territory near Bossou, Guinea, West Africa. Video tapes show the "alpha" male scanning the highway both left and right before signaling the group to cross in an orderly line. An adult male would also wait at the end of the line to assist younger chimps in making the crossing. The results of these studies are surprising given the studies of chimpanzees in laboratory situations where they seem to be indifferent to the welfare of others in their group. Scientists say this underscores the need to study the behaviors of animals in their natural habitat, not in a deprived laboratory environment.

"Hot Jupiter" May Help "Earths" Form - A computer study suggests that earth-like, habitable planets may be able to form in planetary systems were a large gas giant planet is in close orbit around a star. Scientists had speculated that such systems with "hot Jupiters," which are so much unlike our own solar system where gas giants located farther out, might not spawn places hospitable to life. This new study indicates gas giants may not only help rocky planets form close to the suns, but also may help pull in icy bodies, like comets, that deliver water to them. If so, this may increase the chances of life as we know it in other solar systems.

Find is Oldest American Writing - An ancient slab covered with symbols that was found in Mexico has been identified as the oldest known example of writing in the Western Hemisphere. Scientists think that the ancient Olmec civilization probably produced the stone around 900 B.C.. That would make it three centuries older than any other previous example of writing in the Americas. According to an article in the journal Science, the symbols on the slab show all the signs of being part of a true language, including syntax and language-specific word order. Experts hold out little hope of being able to decipher the meaning of the 2,900 year-old lost text, however. Villagers in the Mexican state of Veracruz found the slab in the 1990's, while digging for road-building material. Scientists only heard about it recently and traveled to the site to examine the find earlier this year.

Last Refuge of Neanderthals Found - According to article on the website of the journal Science, scientists think they have found one of the last known sites in the world occupied by Neanderthals. Neanderthals were stocky, muscular humans who first appeared about 200,000 years ago. The article claims radiocarbon dating of charcoal found with Neanderthal remains at a massive cave near the southern tip of Spain, show that Neanderthals were living there as recently as 25,000 years ago. This occupation would be would be 5,000 years more recent than any other known location. Other researchers dispute this, saying the evidence may actually show that the site was occupied 30,000 ago, contemporary with other places. They acknowledge, however, that even if this is true, the location is still significant was as one of the final refuges for this vanishing group. Scientists have long been fascinated by Neanderthals because they lived at the same time as modern humans. Researchers wonder if the two groups had any contact and, if so, did this contact lead to the demise of the Neanderthals.


What's New at the Museum:

The Witches of Salem: The Events of 1692 - The word spread quickly through the tiny community of Salem Village: "There are witches among us." >Full Story

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Remix) - Our graphic novel version formatted as a book so you can can download and print it out at home. >Full Story

From The Curator's Office: The Witches of Fifth Grade - Double, double toil and trouble; Cauldron burn, and fire bubble! >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Where Have All the Mustangs Gone? - Why do all the horses in the old photographs I saw at the museums and on the history web sites look nothing at all like the horses on TV shows or movies about Cowboys Indians and Mountain Man Explorers? Are they all new breed horses just playing the real old western horses? Is the breed that they really used back then extinct now? If so - how sad is that? My granddad says the horses back then were half as big and twice as tough as any of the ones we have now. The closest we have today is mustangs but now even they are now just modern breed runaways, throwaways and calls. He said that if we still had those horses we would have the genes that could save the big modern horses from diseases someday. There are groups saving the chickens and cows and even the pigs we had back then. Why didn't they save those horses too?! - Ann E.

The history of horse breeding is complex to say the least and I can't say that I'm an expert on the subject. However, with some research and some information from some authorities I hope I can answer your question.

No horse in North America today is technically a "wild" horse. All wild horses died off at the end of the last Ice Age, possibly due to climate change or hunting by native peoples. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500's they brought horses with them that escaped or were released into the wild (which makes them "feral" animals, not wild). This is the root of the mustang population in North America today. The mustangs of the west quickly grew to be tough animals as they had to survive on limited vegetation and water in a hot climate. This seems to have favored a smaller horse, perhaps because their smaller bodies needed less water and food to survive.

When the Europeans arrived in the west they found that some of the breeds of horses they brought with them were not suited to the harsh climate. They either switched to catching and using the smaller mustangs, or crossbred the horses they brought with them to the mustangs to create new line that had some of the features of each. This means that when you see the smaller horses in the old pictures, you may be looking at tamed mustangs, or a cross between the two lines that resulted in a smaller horse.

Today with less limited resources, people who own horses are able use breeds that have traits which suit the purpose for which the horse is to be used and are not so concerned about how it would survive in the wild. This may be part of the trend to larger horses. Some of the increases in horse size may also be due to the increase in rider size: people are taller and heavier than they were a century ago.

Your Granddad may be right about modern horses being more susceptible to certain illnesses. Whenever a population is heavily inbred, genetic weaknesses can occur.

Mustangs are currently protected under U.S. law. There are a number of separate herds each with unique genetic traits. Many of the herds show a mixed background that includes the original Spanish breeding and later imports from other locations. However, there are a few small herds, such as the Kiger and Cerat, in very isolated locations which have been shown in DNA testing to be almost directly descended from the horses that came over with the Conquistadors. Steps have been taken to preserve these bloodlines as apart of our unique American Heritage.


In History:

Lightning Strikes Again - On October 8th, 1919, the Monthly Weather Review reported that a ball of fire as large as a "washtub" floated into a downtown intersection of Salina in Kansas. It struck a building, tearing out bricks and destroying a second story window. It then exploded with a bang and send smaller fire balls off in all directions and causing a power failure. This was probably the work of that most startling of all anomalies, ball lightning.


In the Sky:

Earthlight - At trip outside in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday October 18th will yield an interesting and beautiful sight. At first it will appear that the moon's face is merely a crescent lit by the sun. A closer look will show you that rest of the disc illuminated by earthlight (the reflection of the light off the Earth).



Couple Sees "Loch Ness-Type" Monster in British Lake - A couple claim they observed a "Loch Ness-type" monster in Lake Windermere, in Britain according to "It was like a giant eel. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I just stood there and couldn't believe what I was looking at" said Steve Burnip, after he and his wife observed the creature which appeared to be between 15 to 20 feet in length. Ian Winfield, a fish ecologist at Lancaster University, believes the Burnips may have seen a Wels catfish. This giant fish, which was introduced into Britain from mainland Europe, can grow up over 15 feet long.


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: The Viking Deception - Is the Vinland map a priceless depiction of the New World made before Columbus's voyage or a 20th-century fake? On PBS: October 10 at 8 pm; ET/PT

KAPOW! Superhero Science - Celebrate the science behind the superpowers and gadgetry of comic book super heroes and heroines. Investigate real-life cases of super-strength, x-ray vision and speed, and discover the scientific feasibility of high-tech superpowers. On the Science Channel: OCT 04 2006 @ 08:00 PM; OCT 04 2006 @ 11:00 PM; OCT 05 2006 @ 03:00 AM; OCT 05 2006 @ 09:00 AM; OCT 05 2006 @ 01:00 PM; OCT 08 2006 @ 01:00 PM; ET/PT

Egypt's New Tomb Revealed - A new tomb was found in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, with 28 jars and seven coffins. Discover what is sealed inside the jars and what connection the mummies in the coffins may have to King Tut's tomb. On The Science Channel: OCT 09 2006 @ 09:00 PM; OCT 10 2006 @ 12:00 AM; OCT 10 2006 @ 04:00 AM; OCT 10 2006 @ 10:00 AM; OCT 10 2006 @ 02:00 PM; OCT 14 2006 @ 05:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Riddle of Pompeii - Explore life and society in Ancient Rome through recent archaeological excavations and cutting edge science. Discover what really happened during the eruption in AD 79 that destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. On The Science Channel: OCT 16 2006 @ 09:00 PM; OCT 17 2006 @ 12:00 AM; OCT 17 2006 @ 04:00 AM; OCT 17 2006 @ 10:00 AM; OCT 17 2006 @ 02:00 PM; OCT 21 2006 @ 05:00 PM ; ET/PT.

MythBusters: Mind Control - Adam and Jamie attempt to blow open a home improvement myth with dynamite. The 3 Mythkateers tackle mind control by manipulating someone's mind remotely. On The Discovery Channel: OCT 04 2006 @ 09:00 PM; OCT 05 2006 @ 01:00 AM; ET/PT.

Lost Worlds: The Pagans - In the late Stone Age, the pagan people of the British Isles constructed some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world. Fabulous constructions of wood, earth, and stone arose. In this hour, we enter the world of their builders. We travel from the ancient stone villages of the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, to Stonehenge, in Southern England. We reveal a startling new theory about the role this extraordinary structure played in the lives of the pagans. With computer animation, we reconstruct the monument as it appeared to them. We then trace a forgotten ancient pathway to Stonehenge's lost twin--Woodhenge, explore the secrets of Silbury Hill, the world's largest man-made mound, and visit Maiden Castle, a fortress that witnessed the pagan world's end. On History Channel: October 1st @ 10pm ET/PT.

Digging For The Truth: Giants of Patagonia - Many explorers throughout the centuries, including the great Ferdinand Magellan, visited the region in South America now known as Patagonia and reported sighting giants. From these accounts we get the name "Patagonia"--Land of the Big Feet. But what exactly did these explorers see? Now, some experts suggest that the giant, upright-walking ground sloth, once widespread throughout Patagonia, could have been the source of these stories. Josh Bernstein accompanies paleontologists, naturalists, and crypto-zoologists on a search to determine whether the ground sloth could have lived into the era of human habitation. He treks across the glaciers of Patagonia, descends deep in the mountain caves, accompanies a band of gauchos on horseback, and joins a modern-day paleontology dig to try to discover evidence that the ground sloth still exists today. On History Channel: October 2nd @ 10pm ET/PT.



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