Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

October 2008

In the News:

Extinct Frog Isn't Extinct - Scientists are happy to find that a tiny frog species thought to be extinct has been rediscovered alive and well. The 40 millimeter-long (1.5 inch) Armoured Mistfrog was thought to have been wiped out by a fungus that hit the Australian state of Queensland in 1991. Two months ago, however, a student from James Cook University conducting research on another frog species found what looked like several Armoured Mistfrogs in a creek. Conrad Hoskin, a researcher at The Australian National University in Canberra tested DNA tissue samples from the frogs and determined they were indeed from the missing Armoured Mistfrog. "A lot of us were starting to believe it had gone extinct, so to discover it now is amazing," Hoskin said. "It means some of the other species that are missing could potentially just be hidden away along some of the streams up there."

Nasty Ancient Salamander - Those little salamanders you see in your local stream had a very nasty ancestor: Kryostega collinsoni - the15 foot long salamander-like amphibian from hell. Kryostega, which lived about 240-million-year ago, was the largest land animal in Antarctica during the middle Triassic period. Though scientists dug up the creature's skull in 1986 they are only now getting around to publishing an article about it in an upcoming Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. One of the more unusual characteristics of this creature is that in addition to teeth around the edge of the mouth it had teeth across the roof of the mouth. Some of these teeth were an inch and a half in size. Researchers believe that the animal looked and acted a lot like a modern crocodile.

Stonehenge was a "Place of Healing." - Scientists think they have found evidence that Stonehenge, the circle of standing stones in southern England, was a "place of healing." A large number of remains found in graves in the area show signs of serious disease or injury. Also about half of the people were from outside the Stonehenge area. "People were in a state of distress, if I can put it as politely as that, when they came to the Stonehenge monument," Archaeologist Timothy Darvill told journalists during a press conference at London's Society of Antiquaries. The researchers believe the place was similar to Lourdes, the French shrine known for its supposed ability to heal the sick. This evidence, however, does not rule out other uses for Stonehenge. "It could have been a temple, even as it was a healing center," Darvill said. "Just as Lourdes, for example, is still a religious center."

Collider Down Till Spring '09 - The Hadron Collider, the world's largest atom smasher, had to be shut down just 36 hours after it started operation and will be off line until next spring. The collider began working on September 10, shooting protons at nearly the speed of light, but was turned off after an electrical transformer failed. Further examination showed parts of the system had melted. Initally CERN, who operates the smasher, had thought it was take two months for them to warm the system up from its operating temperature of near absolute zero, fix the problem and cool the system back down. Now, however, the agency says there is not enough time to bring the system back on-line before they enter their "winter maintenance" period that lasts till spring.

Vikings Needed Wives - The Vikings may have plundered the rest of Europe not for gold and goods, but to get wives. Researcher James Barrett thinks that the selective killing of female newborns led to a shortage of adult Scandinavian women. This drove young men during the eighth to the mid-eleventh centuries - a time known as the "Viking Age" - to seek women by raiding neighboring countries. Barrett dismisses alternate theories like the development of improved seafaring technologies spurred the Viking Age because there is evidence that the Vikings had boats capable of traveling to locations like Britain centuries earlier. "Thus the development of the Viking ship cannot have been a cause of movements of this kind," he notes. "Ships capable of carrying warriors over long distances are a necessary pre-requisite for the Viking Age, but clearly they did not cause it." Barrett has written an article about his theory for last month's issue of Antiquity.


Science Quote of the Month - "Those who have an excessive faith in their theories or in their ideas are not only poorly disposed to make discoveries, but they also make very poor observations." - Claude Bernard (1813-78)


What's New at the Museum:

The Colossal Squid - Riddle: What has eight arms and two tentacles, lives in the deep ocean and is bigger than a giant squid? Answer: The Colossal Squid. > Full Story

Monster Movies - As Halloween approaches it's time to take a serious look at the history of these perennial thrillers. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

People Too Heavy for the Earth? - This may be a very stupid question, but I have been curious about this for a long time. When the earth was first formed, there were no people inhabiting the earth. Now there are over 6 1/2 billion people on the earth (along with all the animals now roaming the earth). I realize living things consume the resources of earth but why has not the weight of 6 1/2 billion people affected the orbit or tilt of the earth? It is an incredible amount of weight on earth that was not there before. - Diane

There are a few reasons why this weight does not affect earth's orbit. If we take the average weight of a human being as 150lbs and multiply it by 6.5 billion, then converte it to kilograms by dividing by 2.2, we get an approximate mass for all the human life on our planet as 443.19 billion kilograms (this is probably an over-estimate as the much of the world's population are children which would lower the average weight). This seems like a large number until you compare it with the mass of the earth, however, which is 6,000,000,000,000,000 billion kilograms. We are only a tiny, tiny fraction of the planet's total mass.

Accurate estimates of the planet's total biomass (all plants and animals) are hard to come by, but one often cited figure is 69,181 billion kilograms. Still only a tiny fraction of earth's total mass.

Even if people did represent a large percentage of the earth's weight our growth in numbers on the planet would not represent a change in the planets total mass. Why? Because all that we are was once part of the earth. For example 80% percent of our bodies are water. The water was here before people were on the earth; it was just located in the lakes, rivers and oceans of our planet. As a human body grows it takes on this water that was already on the planet. The water is shifted from sitting on the surface of the earth to inside your body, but the mass does not change. This is the same for all the other materials in your body and for all life.

The only way to significantly increase the weight of our planet would be for it to be hit by a large object (by large I mean planet-sized). If such a collision occurred, however, the impact would probably wipe out all life on the planet and any modifications to the orbit would be a moot point as far as human beings were concerned.

Have a question? Click here to send it to the curator.


In History:

UFO with Hairy Aliens - On October 25, 1973, man with two children stopped his truck by a field near Uniontown, PA. They'd seen a red light over the area and on closer examination found a UFO resting on the ground. Two hairy figures with green glowing eyes were making "screaming sounds" near by. The man took a shot at one of the creatures with his rifle. The creatures and the UFO then disappeared, though a state trooper, summoned to the site, observed the ground glowing where they UFO had previously been parked.


In the Sky:

Two Meteor Showers - Two meteor shows will light the October sky. The first is the Draconid meteors which will peak around October 7. This minor shower come from debris left behind in the wake of comet Giacobini-Zinner. The meteors will seem to come from the constellation Draco the Dragon, found between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. The second meteor shower , the Orionids, comes to us courtsey of Halley's Comet. It will peak on October 20, with a meteor approximately every two minutes. The Orionid meteors appear to come from the Orion constellation (hence the name).



Swedish Monster Caught on Tape - Sweden's monster, the Storsjoe or Great Lake monster, has been caught on film by surveillance videos, according to Gunnar Nilsson, the head of a shopkeepers' association in Svenstavik. The association has installed the six cameras that monitor the lake constantly. "On Thursday at 12:21 pm, we filmed the movements of a live being. And it was not a pike, nor a perch, we're sure of that," announced Nilsson. The images filmed have been posted on a website dedicated to the Storsjoe monster (, and show a long serpent-like creature swimming in the murky waters. "A highly-advanced system on one of the cameras detected heat...," suggesting the creature was alive, Nilsson said. "It's very exciting and quite spectacular."


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Arctic Dinosaurs - Experts in Alaska investigate how dinosaurs managed to thrive in polar regions. On PBS - October 7 at 8 pm.

Quest for the Giant Squid - The Discovery Channel and Smithsonian Institute team up to find the bus-size marine monster alive in its habitat. Sonar, a manned submersible and high-tech cameras are used to search as record numbers of dead giant squid are raised by fishing trawlers. On the Discovery Channel. Oct 03, 8:00 pm; Oct 04, 12:00 am; ET/PT

Colossal Squid - Colossal Squid is a landmark television event that presents the dramatic capture of a massive squid off the coast of Antarctica, and the groundbreaking research to discover the secrets of one of the ocean's most ellusive and mysterious creatures. On the Discovery Channel. Oct 03, 9:00 pm; Oct 04, 1:00 am; ET/PT

Siberian Apocalypse - A cataclysmic explosion wiped out nearly 1000 miles of Siberia wilderness in 1908. Three scientists return to the site of the detestation to find out what triggered this apocalyptic event nearly a century ago. On the Discovery Channel. Oct 13, 9:00 pm; Oct 14, 1:00 am; Oct 18, 10:00 pm; Oct 19, 2:00 am; ET/PT

The Hawking Paradox - In 2004, Stephen Hawking admitted to making a mistake. The genius who discovered black holes was claiming that his entire theory about them was wrong. Follow Hawking as he prepares to deliver the paper that he says will prove his doubters wrong. On the Science Channel. Oct 05, 8:00 pm; Oct 05, 11:00 pm; Oct 07, 3:00 am; ET/PT

Dive to Bermuda Triangle - The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle has spawned theories from aliens to time warps. Hundreds of boats and planes have disappeared without a trace. Most of these can be explained, but a few still remain a genuine mystery. On the Science Channel. Oct 13, 8:00 pm Oct 13, 11:00 pm; Oct 14, 3:00 pm; Oct 15, 3:00 am; ET/PT

Last Days on Earth - Could the human race become suddenly extinct? We count down seven ways in which the world as we know it could meet an abrupt and untimely end, from a mammoth asteroid strike to the eruption of a super volcano. What would happen as computers literally become trillions of times smarter than we are--would they program our mass murder? Scientists, experts, and witnesses describe these and other vividly pictured disaster scenarios, from super bugs created in secret labs to black holes that could suck earth into oblivion. Using state-of-the-art computer-generated graphics and interviews with the world's top scientists, we will leave viewers pondering humanity's place in the universe and will reveal the most terrifying truth of all--that our greatest enemy is ourselves. On The History Channel. Sunday, October 12 10:00 PM; Monday, October 13 02:00 AM; ET/PT.


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