Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

November 2002

In the News:

New Team Enters X-Prize Competition - John Carmack, cofounder of Id Software which published the hit computer games Doom and Quake, last month announced he has put together a team that will join the X-Prize competition. The $10 million X-Prize was established to promote private space technology. To win a team has to launch a ship with a three-man crew to the height of 62 miles, return them safely to Earth, then repeat the feat using the same ship within two weeks. Carmack's team, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, is a band of volunteers that will be competing with some 20 otherX-Prize teams around the world. Carmack, who became rich with Id Software's success, said he decided to put together his team when he realized that for less money then he'd spent on Ferraris the past decade, he could build his own spaceship.

Big Bird Startles Alaskans - Residents of the Alaskan towns of Togiak and Manokotak have reported seeing a fantastically large bird last month, according to the Anchorage Daily News. A heavy equipment operator, Moses Coupchiak, reported seeing what he first thought was a small plane, but turned out to be a with a bird with a 14-foot wingspan. Scientists are skeptical, though. "I'm certainly not aware of anything with a 14-foot wingspan that's been alive for the last 100,000 years," said bird expert Phil Schemf in the article. The bird has been sighted multiple times, however, including once by pilot John Bouker from his airplane. He was quoted as saying "He's huge, he's huge, he's really, really big. You wouldn't want to have your children out." The US Fish and Wildlife Service suspects witnesses are overestimating the size of a Steller's eagle, a fish-eating bird that can have a wingspan of up to eight feet.

World's Funniest Joke - After a year-long search scientists in Britain have declared they have discovered the world's funniest joke. Through a website scientists invited surfers from around the world to rate jokes and contribute there own. Almost two million ratings were done and 40,000 jokes collected. Dr. Richard Wiseman, from the University of Hertfordshire, who led the research discovered not only the world's funniest joke, but interesting information about humor in different cultures. For example, people from the Republic of Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand found jokes involving word plays the most humorous. The joke that garnered the highest ratings across the largest number of cultures was this:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"

Plan for Power from Moondust - Scientists are thinking about turning moon dust into power plants that would allow for the development of a human society on the moon or maybe provide needed energy back here on Earth. According to a paper presented at the World Space Congress in Houston, Texas, last month, lunar soil has the necessary ingredients to build basic solar power cells. The researchers suggest that a robot rover could be designed to use the material to build huge arrays of cells on the lunar surface. The power could then be used to support moon manufacturing or colonies. Power could also be beamed back to Earth. If just 1 percent of the solar energy that strikes the moon could be converted and sent to Earth it might meet man's need for power for many decades.

Astronomers find Black Hole at Heart of Milky Way - At the heart of our Milky Way galaxy lies a giant black hole, according to a team of astronomers in an article published last month in the journal Nature. Scientists have long suspected that a compact radio source known as Sagittarius A was a black hole located at the center of the galaxy, but up to this point did not have any confirming evidence. The team found such evidence by watching a star that orbits Sagittarius A every 15.2 years. The orbital path observed means that the entire mass of Sagittarius A is at least 2.6 million times more massive than the sun and is contained in an area only three times the size of our solar system. The only explanation for such a large mass in such as small area is thought to be a massive black hole.


What's New at the Museum:

Who Invented the Lightbulb? - Most people would say Thomas Edison, but are they right? -Who Invented the Lightbulb?


Ask the Curator:

Mammoths Last Stand - I have heard stories of Mammoths surviving up until about ten thousand years ago. Is this true, and have there been any reports of one surviving into modern times? If not, when did they become extinct? - Bruce.

There have been stories about mammoths and mastodons surviving into modern times, but no proof. As far as anyone is aware the last mammoths survived until between 7,300-3,700 years ago on isolated Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia. It is likely that the mammoths wandered out onto the island when it was still attached to the mainland, then were trapped by rising waters. The mammoths found on Wrangel after it became an island are a dwarf version of the animal that might have adapted to limited resources there by growing increasingly smaller generation after generation.

These micro-mammoths did better than their cousins on the mainland. They survived some 6,000 after the extinction of the larger Siberian Mammoths. The figures are the result of testing mammoth carcasses found frozen in the tundra using the Carbon-14 process of estimating age.

Falling Fish - What role does a whirlwind play in raining fish - Anonymous

One of the more inexplicable phenomena often seen is the fall from the sky of fish, or other small animals. There have been reports of this from as far back and 77 A.D. (Pliny's Natural History) straight through into the modern era. One notable event recorded by the newspaper Annual Register, happened on February 9, 1859 near Gamorganshire, Wales.

...I was startled by something falling all over me - down my neck, on my head, and on my back. On putting my hand down my neck I was surprised to find they were little fish. By this time I saw the whole ground covered by them. They were all jumping about... It was not blowing very hard, but uncommon wet...

The typical explanation for this event is that the fish were swept up in a waterspout or whirlwind then dumped on dry land. While this seems a logical, these types of falls are often seen with no waterspout anywhere around. Also often only one species of animal drops from the sky. If a waterspout scooped some water out of a nearby lake and dropped them, why is only one type of animal found on the ground instead of a sample of everything in the lake? While wind does seem the most logical explanation, it does not seem to explain all the of the mystery.


In History:

Giant Octopus - In November of 1896 a strange carcass washed ashore near St. Augustine, Florida. Dr. DeWitt Webb, a local physician, examined it and determined that it was the remains of a giant octopus which in life might have stretched 200 feet from tentacle tip to tentacle tip. Scientists ever since have been arguing over whether the body he found was that of an unknown species, or a whale carcass so decayed that it was totally misidentified. For more information check our Colossal Octopus page.


In the Sky:

Leonid "Storm" - It's that time of the year again! The Leonid meteor "storm" will be hitting its peak in the early hours of Tuesday, November 19th. It was a spectacular show last year and this year estimates of the number of incoming meteors at the storm's peak range up to 10,000 an hour, though you will probably only see about one a minute. The best strategy for watching the show is to go out about 5AM and lay on the ground on your back with a blanket below you to watch the sky.



Former Prez Aide Wants UFO Information - A former aide to President Clinton has called on the government to declassify records relating to a fireball that crashed to the ground in western Pennsylvania. The aide, John Podesta, said, "It is time for the government to declassify records that are more than 25 years old and to provide scientists with data that will assist in determining the real nature of this phenomenon." The incident Podesta was talking about occurred near Kecksburg, PA on December 5, 1965. Eyewitnesses said they saw a fireball come down, bank, turn and appear to crash into the ground. Other witnesses reported that military personnel with a truck later drove an acorn-shaped object the size of a small car away from the site. At the time the government claimed that the object seen falling form the sky was a meteor.


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: Volcano's Deadly Warning - A man obsessed with understanding volcanoes comes up with a radical new way to predict eruptions. On PBS: NOV 12 8:00 PM; ET.

Mystery of the Persian Mummy - Encased in a gilded wooden coffin inside a stone sarcophagus, a Persian Princess mummy over 2,600 years old was found. Follow the discoveries that turned this archaeological treasure into a murder hunt On the Discovery Channel: NOV 11 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM ; ET.

Ultimate Guide: Iceman - Leading researchers race against time to defrost and take scientific samples of the 5,300-year-old body of Otzi, the Stone Age "Iceman" uncovered in the Alps in 1991. After a decade of study of his remains, a scientist discovered that Otzi was murdered. On the Discovery Channel: NOV 20 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; NOV 23 1:00 PM; ET.

Walking with Prehistoric Beasts - A landmark three-hour mini-series that sweeps through time from 49 million BC to 30,000 years ago to explore the rise of mammals. Follow an array of strange creatures that once roamed our planet but seem to have sprung from the annals of science fiction. On the Discovery Channel: NOV 29 and 8:00 PM; NOV 29 11:00 PM; ET.

Ultimate Guide, The: Pyramids - Combining awesome mass with astonishing precision, the pyramids overshadowed all other man-made structures for 4,000 years, built with tools of wood and stone. Follow the fascinating story of the people who built them. On the Discovery Channel: NOV 30 10:00 PM; ET.

Atlantis - The Lost Continent - Explore the myth, history and science fiction surrounding the legend of Atlantis using computer graphics and state-of-the-art digital video. Sophisticated imagery depicts the environment on the lost continent and dramatizes life as it may have existed. On the TCL: NOV 5 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM; ET.

Mysteries of the Sphinx - The Sphinx is a major tourist attraction, commanding the attention and interest of people around the world. But the truth about the origin and purpose are shrouded in mystery and controversy. Examine recent geological evidence and hear from experts. On the TCL: NOV 12 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; ET.

Your Worst Nightmare - Discover the world of monster hunters. Find out how long they've been hunting the creature, what drives them, what is their best evidence, and what is their biggest hurdle in convincing others of the existence of the creature. On the TCL: NOV 21 9:00 PM and 12:00 AM; ET.

Paranormal - Tales of the paranormal have haunted and intrigued civilizations throughout history. Delve into the reasons behind man's affinity for the unexplained and examine why cultures clash in their beliefs of ghosts, spirit possessions and psychics. On the TCL: NOV 21 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM; ET.



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