Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

November 2003

In the News:

Oldest Vertebrate Found in Australia - A farmer named Ross Fargher of southern Australia has discovered a tadpole-shaped fossil believed to be the oldest vertebrate ever found. The animal is believed to be at least 560 million years old. That's 30 million years older than the previous vertebrate record holder. The fossil, which measures only 2.56 inches in length, was originally found 10 years ago, but its age was only recently confirmed by scientists.

Dino Brain Tumor - Researchers have found the first evidence that dinosaurs suffered from brain tumors. Evidence of a tumor was found in a fossil of a Gorgosaurus. The Gorgosaurus was a 25-foot-long meat-eating dinosaur that lived about 72 million years ago in what is now Montana. Scientists found evidence that the animal had a ball-shaped mass, about two inches in diameter, inside its brain. It most likely affected the animal's ability to walk. The research was announced by Children's Museum of Indianapolis and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.

Yellow Submarine for Sale - For a mere $845,000 you can purchase your own private, family submarine. The Gemini, produced by the British-based company Subeo, can take three people at a top speed of five knots and can dive up to 150 feet below the sea. The bright yellow sub was designed as a plaything for the person who has everything, but has gotten a lot of interest from governments wishing to use it for anti-terrorism duty. A demonstration model is now on display at the London Science Museum.

Jet Car to Hit 800 MPH- A group of Washington State enthusiasts are trying to build the world's fastest ground vehicle. Ed Shadle, the contraption's pilot and owner, will lead the group in converting a Lockheed F-104 jet fighter to a ground vehicle. The jet-engined car is expected to have 39,000 horsepower and put out 18,000 pounds of thrust. Shadle estimates that it will be able to go from zero to 800 mph in 19 seconds. This will be enough to break the record set by the British in 1997: 763 mph.

English "Xena" Found -Researchers excavating in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Lincolnshire, England, have found the remains of a six-foot tall woman who was buried with a knife and shield. Scientists have dated her burial to A.D. 500-600 suggesting she fought along side men during tribal warfare that followed Roman rule. Locals have taken to calling to her the "warrior queen," referring to the fictional TV character Xena, but scientists doubt she was of royal blood. She was buried with two other individuals, and man and a woman, who were interned with shields. Archaeologists made the discovery while working on a program for Britain's Channel 4 "Time Team"series.


What's New at the Museum:

Castle - We think of them as romantic symbols of a past full of Kings, Queens, Knights and Nobles. In reality, though, they were the latest in military hardware. See what castles were really all about. - >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Dendrochronology - Will you tell me which time "periods" carbon dating applies to and which dendrochronology applies to? I'm thinking dendro- only works ice age forward and carbon dating present-ice age, but I don't know. Thanks if you can!! - Elise

Dendrochronology is the science of using tree rings to date past events. As we all learned in 6th grade science, you can examine the cross-section, or core, of a tree and see how old the tree is by counting the "growth rings" it lays down each year. Since the characteristics of each year (wet vs. dry) can be seen though the width of the each ring, the tree can show us a unique pattern of the climate over time and it is possible to match that pattern of the living tree against that of a tree that was cut down. For example, we can tell when a house was built by comparing the growth rings of wood used in construction against that of a living tree.

The climatic pattern can be extended back past the age of any living tree by finding trees that are dead, but still standing. By looking for an overlapping climate pattern between the dead and living trees the death year of the dead tree can be established. By using this technique on the long-lived bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California a pattern can be established as far back as 9,000 years. Note this only is valid for a particular region as other regions will have different climatic patterns.

Carbon-14 dating is another method of establishing dates. Carbon-14 is a slightly radioactive isotope of carbon absorbed by living things from the air. When that living thing dies it no longer absorbs the carbon-14 and the carbon-14 slowly begins to decay. By knowing how long it takes the carbon-14 to decay and comparing it with the Carbon-12, which is also absorbed by the creature, but is stable and does not decay, a estimation of how long the thing has been dead can be made. Because the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere has varied over time it is less accurate then dendrochronology. Dendrochronology has been used to "calibrate" the Carbon-14 process, though, making it fairly accurate back to 9,000 years. The further you go back, however, the less accurate your estimate will be. Carbon-14 hits its limit at about 50,000 to 60,000 years in the past. Beyond that other methods are necessary.

The last great "Ice Age" started around a million years ago. There have been been a series of warming and cooling periods within that with a cold-dry peak around 700,000 years ago. Around 30,000 years ago a major cold period began, ending 10,000 years ago. Many scientists think that we are simply in a respite between major ice advances, and have not really left the Ice Age at all.


Mothman - I just saw the movie Mothman Prophecies and it enticed me to do a little research on what exactly the Mothman is. I was very enlightened on how the Mothman was explained on the movie by the paranormal expert, but I was wondering where some other sightings on the Mothman are and what they were. Thanks. - Anonymous

In 1966 and 1967 almost one-hundred people allegedly sighted a strange batlike creature in the vicinity Point Pleasent, West Virginia. The suppsed creature was dubbed "The Mothman" after a villain on the Batman television series. Before or after that flap very few reports of the Mothman occured.

Four people reported a Mothman-like figure and a UFO near Kent, England in November of 1963. In 1989 reports of "vampire birds" sounding something like the the Mothman were reported in Puerto Rico. In November of 1995 serveral people said they encounted a "giant bat" near the El Yunque Rain Forest also in Puerto Rico.


Tube Alert:

The Elegant Universe - If you missed the first two parts of this excellent Nova Special you still have a chance to catch the final climatic episode, Welcome to the 11th Dimension, on November 4th from 8 to 9PM on PBS. The series tries to explain the how scientists are struggling to unite Einstein's Theories on Relativity with Quantum Mechanics through String Theory. If they do we will finally have a unified grand theory of the Universe. This theory is something scientists have wanted for over a century and its solution has eluded the best minds of the times including Einstein.

The material here is highly complicated stuff that sounds like science fiction, but Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and author of the book The Elegant Universe, manages to bring it down to layman's terms without losing the subtle beauty of the ideas involved. This series when released on video will make an excellent classroom tool.

If you want to go back and see the first two episodes or have them all in your library, they will be released on VHS and DVD. Go to or call 800-949-8670. For further information on the special visit the Elegant Universe website at


In History:

Colossal Octopus - On November 30, 1896, two bicyclists came across a gigantic carcass laying long the beach just south of St. Augustine, Florida. The mass appeared to be associated with what looked like huge tentacles that lay beside it. DeWitt Webb, local physician, estimated the thing weighed five tons and was twenty-three feet in length. Scientists argue to this day on whether the remains were those of a giant unknown species of octopus, or a whale carcass so badly decayed it was unrecognizable. For the full story click here.


In the Sky:

Lunar Eclipse - This year's second lunar eclipse for the continental United States will occur on November 8th. As the Earth passes between the sun and the moon the moon will grow dark with a color that may range from gray to copper. The moon will be entering the deepest part of the eclipse at 6:27PM ET. For the western U.S. the moon will be in the middle of the eclipse when it rises.



Tasmanian Tiger Pelt for Sale - One of our readers has a Tasmanian tiger pelt that he would like to sell to a private collector. If you always wanted a reminder of this now extinct creature, or wish to start your own cloning experiment and need some DNA, drop the museum a line ( and we will put you in contact with him (Note: the museum in no way can guarantee that the pelt is authentic as we have not examined it).


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: Wright Brothers' Flying Machine - Relive the engineering challenges that two obscure bicycle makers overcame to become first in flight. On PBS: November 11 at 8PM; ET.

Ancient Evidence: The Real Jason and the Argonauts - The myth of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece may be based on real events that took place over 3,000 years ago. Discoveries in Greece suggest that Jason's journey may have been a genuine voyage of discovery. On the Discovery Channel: Nov 05 2003 10:00 PM, Nov 06 2003 01:00 AM, Nov 09 2003 07:00 PM; ET.

Ancient Evidence: Joshua & the Walls of Jericho - Trace the career of Joshua, from his birth as a slave in Egypt to his famous military victory in the battle of Jericho. Examine the site where the walls of the city are said to have collapsed. On Discovery Channel: Nov 12 2003 10:00 PM, Nov 13 2003 01:00 AM, Nov 16 2003 07:00 PM; ET.

Secret Towers of the Himalayas - A French explorer travels to the remote valleys of Tibet to study and film the unknown Towers of Tibet. Estimated at six hundred, these stone towers, some as high as 150 feet, date from the time of the Mongol invasion of China. On Discovery Channel: Nov 20 2003 10:00 PM, Nov 21 2003 01:00 AM; ET.

Finding Atlantis - The search for the lost civilization of Atlantis has captured the imagination for the last 2000 years. We examine the evidence gathered by 3 teams, each with it's own theory. Discover mysterious links to ancient civilizations lost to time. On TLC: Nov 13 2003 10:00 PM, Nov 14 2003 01:00 AM; ET.

Pyramids, Mummies and Tombs: Why Build Pyramids? - Pyramids served many purposes throughout history, from a gateway to heaven for Buddhists to a sacrificial altar for Mayans. Learn how the same structure that guarded Pharaoh's treasures in the afterlife served to honor the gods with human sacrifice. On TLC: Nov 06 2003 09:00 PM, Nov 07 2003 12:00 AM; ET.

Vanishings!: Foo Fighters - Colored balls of light that teased German and Allied pilots, Foo Fighters maneuvered in and around bomber formations. After WWII, U.S. pilots returned to base with tales of UFOs flying alongside a plane's wing before vanishing. In June 1953, an F-94C Starfire left Cape Cod to investigate an UFO siting. When control systems failed, the pilot and radar operator bailed out. The pilot landed safely, but the plane and radar operator disappeared. Foo Fighters, UFOs, or is there a rational explanation? On The History Channel: November 8 @ 11pm; November 9 3am ET/PT.



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