Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

December 2007

In the News:

King Tut on Display - King Tut's mummy was put on public display for the first time last month, some 85 years after boy King's 3,000 year-old tomb was discovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Except for brief examinations by scientists, the mummy has spent most of that time hidden in its sarcophagus in its ancient tomb near the city of Luxor. Egyptian authorities, concerned that the mummy was deteriorating because of the humidity caused by thousands of tourists as they visited his resting place, decided to change the way the mummy is stored. It now will be visible to visitors in a climate controlled environment that will protect what is left of the pharaoh's remains. The mummy has been much damaged over the years, but the King's young face is still clearly visible.

Famous Signing Chimp Dies - Washoe, a chimpanzee thought to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died of natural causes at the The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute in Washington. She was 42 years old. According to scientists that worked with her she used and understood 250 words of American Sign Language. The chimp first developed the skill in 1967 under the direction of Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno. Later Washoe in turn taught sign language to three younger chimps. The conclusion that she really understood sign language, however, has been questioned by experts such as MIT linguist Noam Chomsky who contents that she simply learned to perform to please humans and receive rewards.

Never to Young to Start Paleontology - A three-year-old boy discovered a 10,000 year-old mammoth tooth last month. According to WISN.Com, young Kaleb Kidd spotted an unusual looking rock on an outing with his grandfather near La Crosse, Wisconsin. His grandfather, Gary Kidd, knew that the object resembled a woolly mammoth tooth as he had found one himself ten years ago. The find was taken to the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin and they confirmed that it was a mammoth tooth. It measures 3 inches wide by 6 inches long and is between 10,000 and 30,000 years old. Mammoths were vegetarians and had large flat teeth, like cows, for grinding up grass.

Excavated Temple Shows Advanced Peruvian Culture - A 4,000-year-old temple discovered near Peru's northern desert coast suggests the early civilization there was more advanced that archeologists had previously thought. The Ventarron temple, a bit larger than a basketball court, had painted walls and a white-and-red mural of a deer hunt. The building's "harmonious" design is more like that of later temples according to Walter Alva, a prominent Peruvian archaeologist. He also noted that the temple shows the use of advanced materials like mud brick rather than just rock. Alva is also well known for his work at Peru's famous Moche Lords of Sipan tombs.

Was Indian Volcano the Dino Killer? - New evidence may support the idea that a massive volcanic eruption in India may have dealt the death blow to the dinosaurs, not a giant asteroid, as has been the prevailing theory. The Deccan Traps volcano in west-central India had its most massive eruption almost at the same time the famous asteroid hit in the Gulf of Mexico, according to an international team of geologists that has been examining lava flows from the event. The volcano also had a slightly smaller eruption 280,000 later, that may have slowed the recovery of life on the planet. In both cases the volcano would have belched massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere rapidly changing the climate. It is this change that scientists think may have driven the dinosaurs to extinction. Researcher Gerta Keller of Princeton University and her colleagues presented their findings to a meeting of the Geological Society of America last month.


Science Quote of the Month - "We know very little, and yet it is astonishing that we know so much, and still more astonishing that so little knowledge can give us so much power" - Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)


What's New at the Museum:

Nessie of Loch Ness - Check out our new page on Nessie before going to see the new movie "The Legend of the Waterhorse" >Full Story

War of the Worlds: Thunderchild - The third chapter in our all new graphic online novel.>Full Story

New Feature: Related Links- Check out our new Related Links feature on the right-hand side of most UnMuseum pages. Select from the titles here to find other great Museum pages with similar topics.

On the Silver Screen :

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep - The Loch Ness Monster gets some screen time in this new fantasy film from Jay Russell based on the novel The Water Horse by Dick King-Smith. A Scottish boy finds a mysterious egg which hatches into a sea serpent. When the creature takes up residence in nearby Loch Ness, a legend is born. Before going to see it you should probably bone up on your lake monster background by checking out our article on Nessie of Loch Ness.


Ask the Curator:

A WOW in SETI - What do you know about the WOW signal, and have scientists found any possible source (other than aliens)? Could it have even been faked? Or is it more likely to be a genuine signal from aliens? If that's the case, why haven't we heard any more? - Jonathan .

This signal (called the "WOW" signal because that's what the scientist who first saw the data wrote on the printout) was observed by the "Big Ear" radio telescope at Ohio State University on August 15, 1977. The Big Ear was part of a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project run by the college for almost 30 years. The signal was the closest thing to an alien contact that the project - or anybody else involved in SETI - has ever found.

There are several things that make the signal so interesting. The first is the strength. It is extremely high: The most powerful signal ever received from space from an unknown source. Second is its duration. Almost exactly 72 seconds. This is significant because the Big Ear was a fixed radio antenna which swept the sky as the earth turned and 72 seconds was exactly the length of time it would take for the antenna to sweep by a pinpoint source in space. Also the growth and decay pattern of the signal is exactly what one would expect for a fixed celestial source, making it unlikely it was an earthbound transmitter. Third is its frequency: It is very near the frequency of hydrogen and very concentrated. The hydrogen "line" is considered to be by most scientists the logical frequency to choose if you where trying to broadcast to another civilization. The fact that that signal did not extend much above or below that frequency is a strong indication that the broadcast was artificial, as natural sources a rarely so concentrated.

Another intriguing aspect of this signal is that is that it was only observed from one of the Big Ear's two "horns" but not the other. They scanned the same section of sky about two minutes apart, so in that short period something, or somebody, stopped the transmission.

As fascinating as the signal was, it has never been found again despite many researchers revisiting that location in the sky using, in many cases, much more sensitive equipment. This both deepens the mystery and makes it almost impossible to hope for a solution. The follow up surveys have almost eliminated the possibly of some weird natural source. However, the lack of any additional signals also makes it seem very unlikely that aliens are trying to contact us. Most scientists believe that they definitely would try more than once (although we ourselves have only sent a sent an outbound signal once). The only way we may have missed their additional signals, if they exist, is if they are being repeated at very long intervals (at least 14 hours apart).

In science, unless something is repeatable, it doesn't count for much. Some have suggested that the signal may have been a man-made space probe that the SETI team wasn't aware of, but there is no way of proving that one way or another. So, the mystery continues. We can only hope that if E.T. was trying to contact us, he tries to phone again, soon.

Have a question? Click here to send it to the curator.


In History:

The End of the Blue Book - December 17, 1969, marks the end of the U.S. Air Force's investigation into the flying saucer phenomenon. Project Blue Book had been operating in various names and forms since 1947, investigating such incidents as the crash of a U.S. military aircraft after it chased a UFO in 1948. According to its final director, Edward Condon, however, the project was not worth continuing as it "cannot be justified either on the ground of national security of in the interest of science." Many critics of the closure disagreed, however, pointing out that of the many UFO cases that the project had investigated in depth, one-third could never be explained.


In the Sky:

Meteor Shower Peaks - One of the finest meteor showers of the year appears this mouth: The Geminids. They should peak on the 13th and 14th with a rate of up to 80 shooting stars an hour. Look for them in the early evening in the east-northeast coming from the constellation Gemini.

Comet Coming Through! - If you have a good pair of binoculars you might be able to catch a glimpse of Comet Holmes in the sky in the constellation Perseus (located in the northeast between the W-shape of Cassiopeia and Taurus and the Pleiades cluster). It will appear as a fuzzy object among the stars. The "fuzz" is gas expelled by the comet as it is heated up by the sun. The gas bubble expelled by Holmes is now the largest object in the solar system.



Governor Talks about UFO Experience - Former Arizona Governor Fife Symington acknowledged he observed a triangular shaped UFO in the skies over a mountain range near Phoenix, Arizona in 1997. According to a statement Symington made to CNN "It was truly breathtaking." The object was witnessed by hundreds of people, said the former governor. He dismissed a response from the Air Force that what had been seen was high-altitude flares "because flares don't fly in formation." Symington added, "This is indicative of the attitude from official channels. We get explanations that fly in the face of the facts. Explanations like weather balloons, swamp gas and military flares." The former governor moderated a discussion last month at the National Press Club where he discussed the "Phoenix Lights" incident. He was joined by other former high-ranking military and government officials who will shared evidence from their own UFO experiences.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova:  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 25 at 8 p.m.

Meltdown: A Global Warming - Global warming is the hottest scientific topic of the age. And yet despite all the hype, it is still highly controversial. Paul Rose, who has spent much of the past 10 years organizing expeditions to examine global warming, looks at the issues. On Science Channel. Dec 06, 9:00 pm; Dec 07, 12:00 am; Dec 07, 4:00 am; Dec 07, 10:00 am; Dec 08, 1:00 pm; Dec 10, 7:00 pm; Dec 11, 2:00 am; Dec 16, 9:00 am

Supermassive Black Holes - Scientists have discovered something even more powerful than black holes - supermassive black holes. Far from being agents of destruction, these giant black holes are now believed to be the seeds from which all galaxies grow On Science Channel. Dec 18, 9:00 pm Dec 19, 12:00 am Dec 19, 4:00 am Dec 19, 10:00 am Dec 23, 5:00 pm.

Secret History of the Freemasons - An unprecedented inside look into one of the world's most mysterious organizations: the Freemasons. Their inner workings, history, and secrets will be uncovered and centuries old rituals are filmed for the first time ever. On the Discovery Channel. Dec 15, 8:00 pm Dec 16, 12:00 am.

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 17, 8:00 pm Dec 18, 12:00 am.

Ancient Discoveries Episode: 12 - Machines of the Gods- Gods and religion played an extremely important role in antiquity. The problem with so many religions being worshipped by the Greeks and Romans was how would the priests of these temples pay for their upkeep? Great scholars such as Philon, Ctesibius and Heron were patronized by the temples to create "magic". In return, they created intriguing and mind blowing objects. It was a heavy mix of religion and science. One of the most famous illusions was found in Alexandria at the temple of Serapis, where an iron chariot was suspended in mid air. It appeared to be the work of the gods. On The History Channel. December 06 10:00 PM Friday, December 07 02:00 AM Saturday, December 15 12:00 PM .

Modern Marvels - Secret Luftwaffe Aircraft of WWII - German military aircraft designs were decades ahead of their Allied counterparts. To insure Luftwaffe superiority, their designers tested advanced concepts including swept-wing and vertical take-off aircraft and stealth bombers. Using computer-generated images and archival footage, we trace development of Hitler's airborne arsenal. On The History Channel. Friday, December 14 07:00 PM.

Vampires Secrets - Since Bram Stoker first published his novel Dracula in 1897, the world's most popular vampire has made his appearance in 44 languages. The vampire myth however, is much older than Count Dracula, popping up from Athens to Beijing almost 1000 years before the Transylvanian legend. Vampire legends have two things in common: drinking blood and returning from the dead. Long before Jesus urged his followers to drink his blood and eat his flesh, prehistoric man held similar rituals. From the Bible and ancient Mesopotamian history to blood drinking societies in New York, we reveal the amazing truth behind one of the most terrifying legends in history. On The History Channel. Saturday, December 15 10:00 PM Sunday, December 16 02:00 AM.



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