Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

November 2005

In the News:

"Tenth Planet" Moon Given Nickname - Astronomers observing a possible 10th planet in our solar system, nicknamed "Xena," have discovered it apparently has a moon. The moon has been tentatively named "Gabrielle." Both names originate from the former TV series "Xena: Warrior Princess." The moon is estimated to be 155 miles wide and 60 times fainter than Xena and will be helpful to scientists as they try and estimate the exact size of the possible planet. The faster a moon orbits a body the heavier the body must be. The status of Xena as a 10th planet is being debated in the scientific community. Xena is three times farther from the sun than Pluto, and somewhat bigger. There is no exact definition of a planet and scientists have been in a quandary over whether objects like Xena should be included as planets, or if Pluto should be demoted from planetary status.

Massive Stars found in Center of Galaxy - Scientists using the Chandra X-ray Observatory have discovered a ring of super massive bright stars in the center of our galaxy. The ring is just a light-year outside the galaxy's central black hole. Normally this would seem a bad place for a star to be as they risk being sucked into the hole, but researchers believe that a ring of dust just outside the influence of the hole provides the raw material that builds these super large stars that range anywhere from 30 to 50 times as massive as our own sun. Scientists expect that these massive suns - up to 100,000 times as bright as our own - will burn out quickly, perhaps in as little as five million years, and then explode as supernovas. The sun, by contrast, uses its fuel up more slowly and has an expected life span of 10,000 million years.

Gorilla Uses Tools - A young gorilla in the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International sanctuary has learned to smash palm nuts between two rocks to extract oil. Scientists observing the infant gorilla, named Itebero, were surprised to see such advanced tool usage when it has not been reported in gorilla's before. It had thought that such skills were limited to humans and chimps. Other scientists wonder if Itebero's close association with humans in the sanctuary has generated the behavior. In the wild gorillas' tool usage seems much more limited. One scientist observed that Itebero's action "clearly shows that gorillas have the capability to use sophisticated tools even if they do not -- or rarely -- do so… Very often the use of tools is triggered by certain needs and it seems that gorillas have only little need to use tools in the wild."

Hubble Checks Out Moon - The Hubble Space Telescope was used to look at the moon last August and gauge the amount of oxygen-bearing minerals there that could be used in future manned moon missions. Ultraviolet observations by the Hubble of two old Apollo landing sites and a third unexplored area will help scientists pick the best spots for future explorations. It is hoped that oxygen could be extracted from ilmenite, a mineral in the soil, to provide air, water and rocket fuel for future astronauts. This would allow them to "live off the land"and helping to drive down exploration costs. NASA hopes to return to the moon with manned exploration in 2018.

Dino Not Slasher - The Velociraptor dinosaur, made famous in the movie "Jurassic Park," probably didn't use its large sickle-shaped claw to disembowel prey, as once thought. Research done by Phil Manning and colleagues from the University of Manchester shows that the claw was used as a "climbing crampon" allowing the dinosaurs to hook themselves on to the flanks of their prey. The scientists reached this conclusion after building a robotic dromaeosaurs leg with a hydraulic control system (dromaeosaurs are the group of dinos that include velocipator) that could strike at various samples of animal tissue. When the claw was tested on crocodile skin it just bounced off without doing damage. The scientists conclusion was that the claw was probably used more like that of a cat. Cats use their claws to pierce and hold prey. Velociraptors probably used their claws to pounce on a dinosaur and hold it in a death grip while their razor sharp teeth went to work went to work on the victim.


What's New at the Museum:

Rocket Racing - Will this new, dangerous sport catch on? >Full Story

Arthur Conan-Doyle's The Lost World - In the third chapter of this Graphic Classic novel reporter Edward Malone and friends find themselves stranded in the Lost World with no way to return. >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Astronauts in Ancient Art? - I have noticed that in ancient art, many of the gods resemble astronauts. How could the ancients know how an astronaut looked like when people have only gone to space recently? -Kate

Ancient carvings or pictures that seem to show modern technological devices, like spacesuits, helmets and rocket ships would seem to be powerful evidence of visits by ancient astronauts or highly technological societies that have since gone missing. However, accepting such speculation as proof requires a jump in logic that is faulty at best. Just because something resembles something else doesn't mean that it is that thing. For example, on the Nazca plains in South America there are a series of lines on the ground that resemble the layout of a modern airport. Does that mean that this is what the makers of the ancient lines were constructing? An examination of the ground in that location shows that is much too soft to have supported any kind of aircraft landing, therefore, despite the resemblance, it was not an airport, though the lines may have some equally fascinating function.

In the same way does a figurine or drawing that resembles a helmeted spaceman mean that this is what the artist intended? Or was he carving a man wearing a mask related to some ancient ritual. Or does the drawing simply have no meaning other that what came from the artist's imagination? We are free to speculate about what ancient astronauts and the like, but we should be aware that their may well be other explanations for what we are seeing.


In History:

A.C. Oudemans - November marks the birth in 1858 of Antoon Cornelis Oudemans of Batavia. Oudemans was a zoologist that specialized in the study of insects and worms and became director of the Royal Zoological and Botanical Gardens at the Hague. Oudemans was one of the first people to make a serious study of Sea Serpents and wrote a book published in 1892 titled The Great Sea Serpent. At first he thought that sea serpent reports might be sightings of zeuglodons, an extinct, primitive whale, but later he theorized they were big, long necked seals. Many people attacked Oudemans' ideas, but his scientific reputation was undamaged. Oudemans died in 1943.


In the Sky:

Planets on View - This month is a great time to view the planets Venus and Mars. On November 6th Mars will be in opposition (at the other side of the sun) at a distance of 43 million miles. Because some much of its surface will be reflecting the sun the following nights it will appear to be the brightest it will be all this year. Look for it in the ENE at dusk. It will move high into the southern sky as the night progresses.

Venus also will be highly visible late in November into December. Look in the SW sky.



Dangerous Pets Get Wired - The Japanese government is considering enacting a law that would require owners of dangerous pets, like pythons and crocodiles, to have a microchip put in the animals so that they can be tracked down if they go missing. The proposed chip measures 0.4 inch long and 0.08 inch in diameter and will be required to be implanted under the skin of some 650 animal species. Exotic animals like reptiles have become popular pets in Japan over the last several years because they are clean and quiet and usually reside in terrariums which fit easily into the country's small apartments. With the increase in population, however, escapes have become more frequent and the public's desire for regulation of the animals has gone up. In one incident a man lost track of his pet python after he took it to the park and the snake fled when the he fell asleep.


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 - Hitler's Sunken Secret - An expedition to the bottom of Norway's Lake Tinn illuminates Nazi Germany's nuclear ambitions. On the PBS: November 8 at 8 pm. ET/PT

NOVA - Newton's Dark Secrets - Sir Isaac Newton, the eccentric genius who helped define modern science, was also an obsessive alchemist. On the PBS: November 15 at 8 pm. ET/PT

Before the Dinosaurs - Welcome to Earth -- before the dinosaurs. The creatures may look strange, but they mark the beginning of life as we know it. Learn how some of the characteristics that helped them survive millions of years ago make humans what they are today. On the Discovery Channel: NOV 05 @ 07:00 PM, NOV 05 @ 11:00 PM, NOV 13 @ 03:00 PM ET/PT

What Really Killed the Dinosaur - Until recently, most scientists thought they knew what killed off the dinosaurs - a giant meteorite crashing into Earth. But a small and vociferous group of scientists believes there is increasing evidence that the 'impact' theory could be wrong. On The Science Channel: NOV 07 @ 09:00 PM, NOV 08 @ 12:00 AM, NOV 08 @ 04:00 AM, NOV 08 @ 10:00 AM, NOV 08 @ 02:00 PM, NOV 12 @ 05:00 PM, ET/PT.

Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery - In one of magic history's rarest events, a private collector auctioned off the largest collection of personally-owned Harry Houdini artifacts and memorabilia, providing an unprecedented peek behind the curtain at the world's great showman and magician. In a 2-hour special, hosted by renowned magician Lance Burton, we explore the life and magic of the great escape artist through his most prized possessions: the Chinese Water Torture Cell, the Milkcan, his straitjackets and handcuffs, and lockpicks that were "key" to his handcuff escapes, revealed to the public for the first time. We also unlock secrets of the man--brash showman, fierce competitor, loyal son and husband. With expert commentary, including a great-nephew and the last surviving member of his magic troop. On History Channel: November 5 @ 5pm ET/PT.

Days That Shook the World: The Rosetta Stone/The Discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb - In the early 1800s, the first Europeans were exploring Ancient Egypt's enigmatic ruins and the race was on in Britain and France to crack the hieroglyphic language and the mystery of the pyramids. On November 26, 1922, Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon made one of archaeology's most famous discoveries--the tomb of the Boy-King Tutankhamun. And on September 14, 1822, a young French academic, Jean-François Champollion, successfully translated a pharaoh's name on the Rosetta Stone, with carvings in hieroglyphs and Greek, thus finally enabling translations of ancient Egyptian. On History Channel: November 8 @ 6pm, ET/PT.



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