Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs

December 2008

In the News:

Woman Gets New Trachea from Stem Cells - Scientists have managed to give a 30 year-old woman a new lease on life by replacing her old trachea (windpipe) that had been damaged by tuberculosis with a new one formed from her own stem cells. Doctors started with a section of windpipe from a cadaver and stripped of all cells from it leaving just a scaffolding of collagen. They then covered that donor windpipe with stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow and also with cells from a healthy part of her own trachea. After four days of letting these cells grow, the medical team was able to transplant the trachea into the patient. Ten days later she was released from the hospital. By using the patient's own stem cells to create the windpipe doctors can avoid having trachea rejected by the body, a major problem with transplants from other people. The medical team was a collaboration of the universities of Barcelona, Spain; Bristol, England; and Padua and Milan, Italy.

"Furbys" Found Alive - Scientists on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi caught and released three pygmy tarsiers, animals that there thought to be extinct for eighty years. The large-eyed primates, which are small enough fur balls that they can fit snugly into a person's hand, bear a striking resemblance to the Furby, a popular electronic toy for children in the late 1990s. The species had not been seen alive since they were collected for a museum back in 1921. Most scientists had believed they were extinct until 2000, when two researchers trapping rats in Sulawesi accidentally caught and killed one. The pygmy tarsier, or Tarsius pumilus, weighs about 1.7 ounces, and has dense fur with large, protruding eyes.

Mammoths to Return? - According to a study published in the journal Nature scientists have for the first time figured out 80 percent of the genetic code of an extinct animal: the ice age's woolly mammoth. The project was successful because it used mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost, instead of bone. Past efforts to find pure ancient DNA in bone failed because bacteria, viruses and parasites had crept into the bone fossils during the thousands of years it sat in the ground contaminating them. Given the success of this project some scientists think it should be possible to someday recreate any creature that has gone extinct within the last 100,000 years as long as it got trapped in permafrost and had hair. Unlike the movie Jurassic Park, however, this leaves out the dinosaurs which went extinct 65 million years ago.

E=mc2 Proved Correct - Albert Einstein's famous formula E= mc2 has finally been proven by a collaboration of French, German and Hungarian physicists. Though the formula, which stands for Energy is equal to mass times the speed-of-light squared, has been used by scientists for over a hundred years it was still a theory. The calculation to prove it depends knowing that the protons and neutrons in an atom are comprised smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons. The mass of the quarks and gluons only comprise 5% of the weight of the total, however, and scientists have wondered where the other 95% came from. According to the study, which required a huge amounts of computer calculations, the other 95% is bound up in the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons. This shows that Einstein formula is correct and that this energy can be converted to mass. According to France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) Einstein's theory "until now, has been a hypothesis. It has now been corroborated for the first time."

Australian Crocs Threatened by Toads - A survey of the Victoria River in Australia shows that in a one-year period as many as 77 percent of the crocodiles have died as a result of eating cane toads. The cane toads, introduced onto the continent in 1935 from Central and South America in an attempt to control beetles, have slowly spread westward across the county becoming pests themselves. The creatures carry poisonous sacs on their heads with venom so effective it can kill a large predator in minutes. Scientists are worried that if the crocs continue dying at the present rate it will have serious implications for the future of the species.


Science Quote of the Month - "Shall I refuse my dinner because I do not fully understand the process of digestion?" - Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925)

What's New at the Museum:

Remembering Wordsmith Michael Crichton - Eclipsed by the excitement of the past presidential election was the unexpected death of Michael Crichton: best-selling author, filmmaker and science fiction visionary . > Full Story

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:

End of Life on Earth - With recent news about global warming and the slow depletion of the Earth's natural resources due to mining, hunting, killing of plants and animals to make way for modernization, is it possible for man to render the Earth virtually un-inhabitable? If yes, how do you think this will happen, how fast, and given the current state of the Earth, how long until it will happen. - Harris

You didn't mention in your email if you meant virtually un-inhabitable by just humans or almost any living thing. Given the choice let's go for the big enchilada! Could man end life on Earth entirely? Probably not given we know there are bacteria that live two miles underground getting their energy not from the sun but from radiation in the rock. These things would be very hard for us to get at, let alone kill. However, we might be able to do in just about everything else on the planet, including ourselves, if we let our most advanced technology get into the wrong hands.

The best (or perhaps worse) scenario for this would be the deliberate misuse of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology will allow us to produce machines as small as or even smaller than bacteria. The positive uses of this technology include the ability to make a tiny robot that would live in a human body and hunt down cancer cells. Such a thing seems like science fiction, but researchers and engineers are thinking about ways to do this now, and multi-millions of dollars are being poured into this technology both in the United States and abroad.

Imagine the danger though if someone were to reprogram that tiny robot to kill all living cells. A handful of those nano robots might not be that dangerous to large populations, but suppose that these robots also had the ability to self-replicate. The result would be a plague would spread across the earth killing all life.

Another possibility is creating a self-reproducing nano-robot that would enter plants and disrupt photosynthesis. A plant that cannot carry out photosynthesis (create food from sunlight) is a dead plant. Without plants to provide food, life would soon vanish from the earth (with the exception of those bacteria we mentioned before that live off radiation instead of sunlight).

Of course no sane man (or woman) would build such a robot, but the world is filled with crazy people and terrorist groups. Suppose they got a hold of this technology? People thinking about this problem have already coined a term for it: Nanoterrorism. Nobody is quite sure at this point how difficult it will be to build such a robot. Obviously nature has already engineered some organic self-reproducing machines in the form of bacteria. At some point in our future - perhaps in the next decade or two - we will be able to do the same thing. Our machines, unlike bacteria, will be programmed to do specific functions of our own design. Some of them will give us great benefits (think of a self-reproducing nano-robot that be dropped into the ocean to clean up an oil spill), while others may bode of great danger.

I'm not saying here we should blindly panic and start burning down laboratories that work with nano-technology, however. What we do need to do is carefully think how the technology should be used and what safeguards should be in place.

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


In History:

Aliens Bad at Prophecy - On December 20, 1954 the Earth was to be visited with devastating geological disasters according to Dorothy Martin of Oak Park, Illinois. Martin claimed she was a psychic in contact with an alien named Sananda. According to Martin the aliens were going to send spaceships to provide an escape for those who wanted to go with them, however, the date passed and neither the spaceships nor the earthquakes ever appeared. Despite this Martin continued to announce prophecies from the aliens until her death in 1992.

In the Sky:

December's Shooting Stars - December boasts two meteor showers: The Geminids, which peak on December 13, and the Ursids, which peak on December 22. Normally the Geminids give a better show, but this year because they are occurring during a full-moon and will be washed out in its glow, you may get a better view of shooting stars during the Ursids.



Polar Bear Mix Up - Zookeepers at Kushiro, Japan, have finally solved the mystery of why two polar bears, brought together to breed have failed to produce offspring in the past 6 months: Both bears were female. The zoo bought Tsuyoshi as cub believing him to be male and a proper mate for Kurumi, their female. Apparently the zoo that sold Kushiro the cub did not take a very close look at her. Officials at the zoo in Kurumi will keep Tsuyoshi despite her inability to raise the population of polar bears in their exhibit, as she has become a favorite with zoo visitors.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: The Last Great Ape - An expedition into the Congo examines one of our closest living relatives, the peace-loving bonobos. On PBS. December 9 at 8 pm.

UFO's Over Earth: The Bucks County Flap - When the number of UFO sightings increases by 700%, MUFON investigators converge on the Philadelphia suburb of Bucks County. The team works their way through nearly 60 witnesses to focus on two, in hopes their stories can be verified by physical evidence.. On the Discovery Channel. Dec 13, 10:00 pm; Dec 14, 2:00 am; ET/PT

Hot Planet - The effects of climate change -- massive storms, superfires and rising seas -- are potentially catastrophic. But they are not yet inevitable. This film looks at the future of global warming, and what man -- and science -- can still do to stop it.. On the Discovery Channel. Dec 08, 9:00 pm; Dec 09, 1:00 am; ET/PT

The Real Superhumans and the Quest for the Future Fantastic - This groundbreaking, feature-length documentary reveals the amazing stories of real people with extraordinary super powers. On the Science Channel. Dec 11, 9:00 pm; Dec 12, 12:00 am; Dec 12, 4:00 pm; Dec 13, 4:00 am; ET/PT

Humanzee - Humans and chimpanzees share an estimated 98% of genetic material. Oliver is a unique chimpanzee. He walks upright on two legs, he has a pronounced nose and 47 chromosomes midway between a human and a chimpanzee. Could he really be a chimp-human hybrid? On the Science Channel. Dec 14, 8:00 pm; Dec 14, 11:00 pm; Dec 16, 3:00 am; ET/PT

The Mystery of the Giant Sloth's Cave - A team of world renowned palaeontologists uncover a prehistoric sloth cave which could hold the answers to the extinction of the giant sloth over 10 thousand years ago. On the Science Channel. Dec 03, 9:00 pm; Dec 04, 12:00 am; Dec 04, 4:00 pm; Dec 05, 4:00 am; ET/PT

The Universe : Mysteries of the Moon - For thousands of years, mankind has found comfort in its presence. It's been a lantern for nighttime travelers, a timekeeper for farmers, and a location finder for sailors at sea. For some cultures, it's even been a god. It's the only cosmic body ever visited by human beings. From afar, the Moon's luminance has captivated us since the beginning of time. And a closer look at the beacon in the dark sky reveals an ever-present source of myth, intrigue, controversy and unsolved mysteries. The field of science may cast an empirical light on some things about the Universe, but lunar experts are the first to admit they don't have all the answers when it comes to our Moon. This episode explores the theories behind Lunar Transient Phenomena that have left scientists stumped for centuries; takes to the Canadian waters to see how the Moon effects our planet through tides; and dusts off some age-old myths and weighs arguments that without our Moon, humanity may not even exist. On The History Channel. December 16 12:00 PM ; ET/PT.



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