Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

December 2006

In the News:

Leonardo's Finger Points to Middle-East - Researchers at the University of Chieti have extracted the fingerprint of the great artist and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci, from his works. According to anthropologist Luigi Capasso, leader of the team, this fingerprint is the only known physical remains of the artist and suggests he had a middle-eastern heritage. The project began in 2002 when it was discovered that many of Leonardo's papers had fingerprints on them. Since some the prints could have belonged to assistants and others who handled the materials, the team examined 52 of his papers and some of his paintings looking for consistent prints. The team put together several partial prints to construct an entire fingertip, which they believe belongs to the artist's left forefinger. According to Capasso, "The fingerprint features patterns such as the central whorl that are dominant in the Middle East. About 60 percent of the Middle Eastern population display the same dermatoglyphic structure found in the fingerprint." This would support the idea that Leonardo's mother was not a local peasant girl as was previously assumed, but might have been a Middle Eastern slave.

Yacht Discovers New Island - The crew of the Maiken, a yacht sailing near the Tongan islands group, has reported discovering a new volcanic island which has just risen from the sea. The ship first noticed "pumice rafts"- light, porous volcanic stone floating in the water - while sailing toward Fiji. "We were so fascinated and busy taking pictures that we plowed a couple of hundred meters into this surreal floating stone field before we realized that we had to turn back," wrote a crewman in the ship's web log. The crew reported seeing the island itself the next day. "One mile in diameter and with four peaks and a central crater smoking with steam and once in a while an outburst high in the sky with lava and ashes," said a crewmember, adding, "I think we're the first ones out here."

Recycling Space Probes - Scientists at NASA are working on recycling old space probes and giving them new missions. The agency has approved two new missions for the Deep Impact probe which blasted a hole in comet Tempel-1 back in July of 2005 and one mission for Stardust, a probe which returned samples of Comet Wild-2 earlier this year. The reuse of these existing probes allows scientists to conduct new science at a fraction of the cost of building and launching another probe. Deep Impact will do a fly-by of a comet named Boethin to get a closer look. Scientists are very interested in comets and the part they may have played in depositing water on early Earth. On the way to Boethin, Deep Impact's cameras will also be used to look for Earth-like planets around stars in other solar systems. Stardust will be redirected to Deep Impact's original target, Tempel-1, to see what it looks like after it was hit by Deep Impact's projectile.

Spacecraft Observes Hurricane - NASA's Cassini spacecraft has discovered a storm about two-thirds the diameter of Earth across Saturn's southern pole. The probe clocked its winds in the storm at speeds of 350 mph. "It looks like a hurricane, but it doesn't behave like a hurricane," said Andrew Ingersoll, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Scientists estimate that the clouds tower 20- to 45 miles above the center of the storm. That's several times higher than the clouds that surround the eye of a hurricane on Earth. Scientists believe the storm can grow much taller because the planet's hydrogen-helium atmosphere is much less dense than Earth's at comparable pressures.


What's New at the Museum:

From The Curator's Office: Santa Tracking - What is the real reason the U.S. Government is interested in keeping tabs on the jolly old elf? >Full Story

AKA Santa Claus - Every December 24th millions of people are visited by a short, fat guy in a red suit. Where did he come from, why does he do it, and how does he accomplish this seemingly impossible task? (An encore of our popular feature) >Full Story


Ask the Curator:

Can Light Slow Down? - I heard that light never stops or slows down. The beam from your flashlight only seems to dim in the distance because the light waves are spreading out so you can't see them as well. If that is true, couldn't you "fill up" a sealed room with light. If the light waves just keep bouncing around the room and you keep adding more from a bulb, wouldn't the room just get brighter and brighter or where would the light go? - Wick W.

In a vacuum, like out in space, light always travels at approximately 186,000 miles a second. However, if light travels through some other medium it can slow down. You can see this with a lens, a prism or a glass of water. When light hits a denser medium at an angle, part of it slows down sooner than the rest. This causes the light to change direction. This property, called refraction, allows a lens to focus light to a point. Because different wavelengths also travel at slightly different speeds in a medium like glass, a prism can be used to change the angle of each color differently allowing normal white light to be split up into is component colors. If you put a straw in a glass filled with drinking water it will look as if the straw is bent because as the light passes into the water it slows down and bends making the straw look out of position.

In addition to just slowing it down, scientists have even managed to stop light completely in recent experiments where they channeled light through special materials. They hope to harness this capability to make ultra-fast quantum computers.

While a beam of light will get faint in the distance because the light is spreading out, it also loses strength because it is being absorbed and reflected by dust, water vapor and other materials floating in the air. In fact, the only reason you can see a light beam in the air is because part of it is reflected off of material floating in the air back to you. In a perfect vacuum light is invisible.

Putting a flashlight in a sealed "clean" room empty of air and dust would remove that problem, but the walls of the room would still absorb much of the light as the beam bounced against them. You could replace the walls with mirrors so that the light would be reflected and bounced around the room, but no mirror is perfect and a little light would still be absorbed with each reflection so the room would never "fill" with light.


In History:

Lucky Escape - The day after Christmas, 1950, a Scottish man driving his car near Dumbarton had a brush with death when a mass of ice, estimated to weigh 112 pounds, fell out of the sky nearly hitting him. This was just one of several incidents of unexplained ice falls in Great Britain at that time. No explanation has ever been found for the event.


In the Sky:

Three Close Planets - In the early morning hours of Sunday December 10th you will be able to see the most compact gathering of three naked-eye planets since 1925. Jupiter, Mercury and Mars will be low on the ESE horizon just one hour before sunrise. Three naked-eye planets will not be this close togeather again until 2053. If you are busy Sunday morning, the view is still pretty good the day before or after.



UFO Movie Hoax Causes Confusion - "The Top Secret UFO Project," is filmmaker R. J. Thomas' mockrumentary of UFO TV shows that has caused some confusion among flying saucer enthusiasts. Some have apparently believed that the parody of cheesy UFO documentaries of the 70's like "Overlords of the UFO," and of TV programs like "In Search Of" was for real. The program chronicles the UFO-related events experienced by Jasper, a tiny Colorado hamlet some 75 miles south of Denver. According to the film, the town dealt with one unusual event after another in the summer of 1956. After a farmer spotted a flying saucer zipping over his property, scientists rushed into Jasper to investigate, reporters rushed in looking for stories, and government officials rushed in to keep it a secret from the world. "I've received phone calls. I've received e-mails. Bloggers are arguing about whether it's a fake or not," Mr. Thomas said. Despite this Thomas contents people should not really be fooled. "I don't think anybody's going to walk away from this movie thinking that it is real," Mr. Thomas said. "It's a joke, a spoof, a parody. It is told with a straight face, but it's just meant to be entertaining. Even the folks who are dead serious about UFOs can get a laugh out of this."


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.

Wave That Shook the World - Experts reconstruct the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in an effort to prepare for the next big one. On PBS: December 19 at 8 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 04 2006 @ 08:00 PM DEC 04 2006 @ 11:00 PM DEC 05 2006 @ 03:00 AM DEC 05 2006 @ 09:00 AM DEC 05 2006 @ 01:00 PM DEC 09 2006 @ 04:00 PM; ET/PT.

The Search for Khan's Tomb - Legend has it that after Genghis Khan's funeral, 2,000 servants were killed by 800 soldiers, who were in turn killed by a handful of generals to preserve the secrecy of the tomb site. Now, archaeologists believe they have discovered this hidden treasure. On The Science Channel: DEC 11 2006 @ 08:00 PM DEC 11 2006 @ 11:00 PM DEC 12 2006 @ 03:00 AM DEC 12 2006 @ 09:00 AM DEC 12 2006 @ 01:00 PM DEC 16 2006 @ 04:00 PM; ET/PT.

Big Science: Giant Squid: Caught on Camera - The first photographs ever of the giant squid - one of the world's largest and most mysterious sea creatures. On the Discovery Channel: DEC 10 2006 @ 10:00 PM DEC 11 2006 @ 02:00 AM;

Extreme Engineering Space Tower - The tallest skyscraper in Spain is under construction! The 700 foot tall Torre del Espacio (Space Tower) is unlike any other tall building. Danny will ascend to dizzying heights to join the crew in a week-long struggle to repair one level of the building. On The Discovery Channel: DEC 27 2006 @ 08:00 PM DEC 28 2006 @ 12:00 AM DEC 30 2006 @ 02:00 PM; ET/PT.

Seven Wonders -The Great Pyramid of Giza, Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Colossus of Rhodes, Temple of Artemis, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Pharos of Alexandria. Of the Seven Wonders, only the Great Pyramid remains. Why did ancient scholars select these sites? What can the crumbled remains say about those who built them? On History Channel: Thursday, December 07 09:00 PM Friday, December 08 01:00 AM ET/PT.



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