Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

December 2005

In the News:

German Skies Filled with Flying Objects - Last month there was a surge of reports of objects racing though the skies of Germany. Descriptions of the phenomenon say they seem to be "super-large, colored fireballs that shoot with the speed of lightning through the sky". Witnesses relate that they look like "something out of a science fiction horror film." Although some people have speculated that the objects are UFOs, meteor expert David Asher from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland has noted that people "are probably seeing the Taurid meteor shower". The Taurids meteors, which peaks at the end of October and early November, appear to come out of the constellation Taurus.

"Godzilla" Skull Reveals a Frightening Creature - Scientists have nicknamed a newly discovered marine fossil "Godzilla" after the film monster that terrorized the people of Tokyo in the movies. Godzilla, whose real designation is Dakosaurus andiniensis, had a short, high snout and large, jagged teeth for biting prey. The creature lived in Pacific Ocean in the late Jurassic era and probably measured about 12 feet in length. The marine crocodile probably propelled itself through the water using four paddle-like limbs. The fossil was discovered in 1996 in the Patagonia region of Argentina and researchers have spent several analyzing the skull. Their report was published last month in the journal Science.

"Corpse Flower" Blooms in U.S. Capital - The U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. has had its titan arum plant, nicknamed the "corpse flower," bloom for the first time in its life after fourteen years. The plant, which will bloom for only several days, emits a rank smell which has been compared to garbage, spoiled meat, and rotting fish. The bloom, which is five feet high, has a strong smell in order to attract carrion beetles and other pollinators in its native Sumatra. The beetles usually lay their eggs in rotting animals, so the titan arum pretends to be a dead animal. The "corpse flower," which may be responsible for stories about man-eating plants, usually blooms only every five years or so. The plant at the U.S. Botanic Garden was viewed by at least 10,000 people during its bloom.

Statue Can Cause Mental Imbalance - One of Florence, Italy's top psychiatrists says that viewing Michelangelo's David, regarded by many as one of the world's most beautiful statues, can trigger mental imbalances in some people. Graziella Magherini, who is president of Italy's Art and Psychology Association, calls it the "David Syndrome." According to the doctor this kind of artistic intoxication is caused by a combination of several things, including the stress of the trip to visit the art, an "overdose" of too much beautiful art and the sensitivity of the viewer. "We should not forget that a work of art is a very powerful stimulus and can stimulate memories in our unconscious, sometimes triggering a crisis," Magherini said. People visiting the statue have been rushed to the hospital complaining of heavy perspiration, rapid heartbeat, stomach pains, dizziness and even reactions including aggressive feelings and hallucinations.

Survival in Space - Researchers sponsored by the European Space Agency have shown that at least on form of complex life, lichen, can withstand the direct exposure to the vacuum, radiation and extreme temperatures of outer space. Scientists sent samples of lichen on the exterior of a Russian capsule that spent two weeks in orbit. Later analysis showed the lichens not only survived, but continued to conduct photosynthesis when they were brought back to Earth. Images taken by electron microscopes also showed no apparent damage to their cells. Lichen is made of algal cells in a mat of fungus that attaches to rock. It has a reputation for being able to survive extreme conditions, such as on the very tops of high mountains. This discovery would seem to make it more likely that some kind of living material could be transported between planets on the surface of a meteorite.


What's New at the Museum:

The Christmas Visions of Thomas Nast - At the beginning of the 19th century Santa Claus found himself in a quandry. What should he wear? Perhaps he should emphasize his title of St. Nicholas and appear as a stern bishop wearing robes? Or maybe go the other way and be seen as a clowning elf with a frock coat and pantaloons? It was at this point that Thomas Nast, premire American political cartoonist of the 1800's, stepped in and gave Santa the well-needed makeover that he still carries with him even today... >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Centripetal Force and the Earth - How much would a one pound object weigh if the earth stopped spinning? In other words if not for the centripetal force created by the spinning of the earth, how much would the gravitational force of the earth increase on its surface. Thanks. I've been wanting to ask about that for some time now.- Lizanne B.

What an insightful and interesting question! I have to say that because I often wondered about that myself, but was too lazy to do the math. Since your question is forcing me to make the calculations, let's get on with it and see what we have.

Centripetal force isn't actually a force at all, but an effect of acceleration. Things in motion like to keep going in a straight line unless something forces them not to do that. In the case of the merry-go-round it's the wooden horse you are clinging to which keeps you from pulled to the outer edge of the ride. In the case of Earth, it's gravity that keeps you on the ground. Logic says that effect of the Earth's gravity should be lessened by the centripetal acceleration that pulls objects away from it. At first this would seem to be a pretty significant factor. After all, the earth spins at about 1000 miles per hour at the equator! Perhaps we would all be squished flat by our planet's gravity if it stopped and the centripetal acceleration disappeared!

A little analysis, however, shows us that such a drastic scenario could not be true. Near the North and South Poles there is almost no spin and explorers have not reported feeling a significant change in their perceived weight. Let's go to the mathematics.

The formula to calculate the effect of the centripetal acceleration on the equator of a sphere is 4 times pi squared times the radius of the sphere divided by the period of rotation squared. When you plug in 6400km for the radius of the Earth and 24 hours (or 86400 seconds) for the rotational period you find the centripetal acceleration throws you away from the Earth at about 0.03 meters per seconds squared. Gravity on Earth is about 10 meters per second squared so if you stopped the planet you would weigh about three tenths of one percent more that when it was moving. So if you weigh 100 pounds, you would weigh about 100.3 on a non-rotating Earth. A one pound object would weigh in at 1.003 pounds. A very tiny difference.

This effect does have an impact on the planet itself, however. The Earth is not perfectly round, but it is slightly fatter along the equator. This is caused by the centripetal acceleration pulling at the middle of the planet.


In History:

Yeti Tracks - On the morning of December 18th, 1971, members of the Arun Valley Wildlife Expedition working in eastern Nepal awoke to find the footprints of a bipedal creature that had walked between two of the tents in their camp in the middle of the night. The tracks were nine inches long and showed a short, broad foot with four toes and a wide rounded heel. They were perfectly preserved, yet unidentifiable to the scientists on the expedition. Had they run into a young specimen of the legendary Yeti, sometimes referred to as the abominable snowman?


In the Sky:

Meet Mercury - If you haven't seen Mercury in the sky, look for it in the early morning hours of December 11th. On that day the innermost planet in our solar system reaches its "greatest elongation," or maximum angular distance from the Sun . Look for Mercury one hour before sunrise,low in the ESE, about 20 degrees to the lower left of the brightest morning planet, Jupiter.



Company Suing to Sell Moon Real Estate - A Chinese company, Beijing Lunar Village Aeronautics Science and Technology Co., is suing the government of China for the right to sell real estate on the moon. "There is no law or regulation in China that prohibits the selling of land on the moon," said chief executive officer Li Jie. Chinese authorities shut down the business after it sold 49 acres of lunar land to 34 Chinese clients in the first three days of operation. The company charged 300 yuan ($37) for a deed promising to one acre of lunar surface and the associated mineral rights up to two miles underground. The government closed the business accusing it of illegal speculation and profiteering.


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 - Wave That Shook the World - Experts examine the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in an effort to prepare for the next big one. On the PBS: December 27 at 8 pm ET/PT

Noah's Ark: The True Story - Search for the truth behind the story of Noah and his ark. Find out how Noah could have built such a structure and whether or not a great flood took place on the earth. The search for remains of the ark continues today. On the Discovery Channel: DEC 10 @ 08:00 PM, DEC 11 @ 12:00 AM ET/PT

The Real Da Vinci Code - 'The Da Vinci Code' has been a phenomenal success with millions of readers hooked, but what do historians think of the book? Discover the facts about the Holy Grail and cut through the thicket of mystery that surrounds the subject. On The Discovery Channel: DEC 10 @ 09:00 PM, DEC 11 @ 01:00 AM, DEC 23 @ 12:00 PM, ET/PT.

Island of the Pygmy Mammoth - Piece together the world of the mammoth species that evolved, and then became extinct thousands of years ago. The Channel Islands were the breeding ground for the evolutionary laws of giantism and dwarfism that created the smallest mammoth in history. On The Science Channel: DEC 19 @ 08:00 PM, DEC 19 @ 11:00 PM, DEC 20 @ 03:00 AM, DEC 20 @ 09:00 AM, DEC 20 @ 01:00 PM ET/PT.

The Mystery of the Jurassic - A remote plateau in Patagonia, Argentina reveals an incredible dinosaur graveyard that scientists believe could be the most significant find ever. This area reveals fossils from the Middle Jurassic, the most mysterious period in dinosaur history. On The Science Channel: DEC 12 @ 08:00 PM, DEC 12 @ 11:00 PM, DEC 13 @ 03:00 AM, DEC 13 @ 09:00 AM, DEC 13 @ 01:00 PM, DEC 17 @ 04:00 PM ET/PT.

The Hindenburg Disaster: Probable Cause - When the Hindenburg took to the skies in 1936, it became the largest flying machine in history. What caused the Hindenburg's spectacular and tragic demise in only 34 seconds is still not clear. Specialist investigators re-examine this airship disaster. On The Science Channel: DEC 10 @ 10:00 PM, DEC 11 @ 01:00 AM, DEC 11 @ 05:00 AM, DEC 11 @ 12:00 PM ET/PT.

The Nazi Expeditions - A ship sailing under the Swastika flag glides through the Antarctic Ocean in search of stone and ice samples to support the "global ice theory", according to which a comet crashed to Earth in prehistoric times and scattered the "original Aryans" worldwide. In Tibet, an expedition hunted for new findings relating to early Germanic history. The Nazis believed in a Nordic master race that survived the demise of Atlantis. These expeditions within and beyond the German Reich were planned in direct collusion with Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. They were funded to produce proof of the superiority of the German race and reinforce the Nazi claim to world supremacy. Featuring previously unpublished library material and statements by witnesses, expedition members, historians, and scientists, we shed light on these bizarre operations. Unpublished film shots, propaganda films, and photos from public and private archives provide incredible testimony. On History Channel: December 6 @ 6pm, ET/PT.

Time Machine: Ancient Computer? - Journey back in time for an eye-opening look at the amazing ancient roots of technologies we like to think of as modern. New research suggests that many of the inventions of the last 200 years may, in fact, have already been known to the ancients. In this hour, we explore the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient machine that was discovered deep in the Aegean Sea. Could it perhaps have been an ancient computer? Could Archimedes have had a hand in its creation? On History Channel: December 11 @ 6pm, ET/PT.


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