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Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs


January 2013

In the News:

Boys Find Mastodon Bone Behind Backyard - Two boys, looking for crayfish in a branch of the Clinton River near Shelby Township, Michigan, found a mastodon instead. Well, not a whole mastodon, but a 13,000 year-old bone from the spinal column of the extinct elephant-like creature. Eric Stamatin and Andrew Gainariu, both 11, at first thought the object was a rock, but then noticed a hole in it and then conjectured that it might be a dinosaur bone. They took it to Eric's home where his mother thought it might be part of a cow. It sat on a shelf since the June discovery until she recently sent an email describing the object to John Zawiskie, a geologist and paleontologist at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. He identified it as a specialized part of a mastodon called an "axis." Mastodon's have been extinct in the region for about 10,000 years. The boys are not exactly sure what they will do with the bone in the long run, but Eric took it into school where it was the "coolest" show-and-tell item anyone's ever brought to sixth grade.

Early Andersen Fairy Tale Found - Historians have found what they believe is the first fairy tale written by renowned author Hans Christian Andersen. The ink-written manuscript was found by Danish researcher Esben Brage at the bottom of an archive box. The story, titled The Tallow Candle, has been dated to the mid-1820's when Andersen was a teenager. The document is dedicated "To Madam Bunkeflod from her devoted H.C. Andersen." Bunkeflod was a neighbor of the young Andersen who often loaned him books from her library. The story, about a neglected and dirty tallow candle, is not up to the level of Andersen's later works, but shows researchers that the author had an early interest in writing fairy tales at least a decade before his career as a published author began in 1835. In total Andersen wrote 160 stories including classic like The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid.

Can We Tell If We are Living in a Computer Simulation? - The idea that the universe we live in may actually be a computer simulation has been bandied about for a while now by such notables as British philosopher Nick Bostrom (See "Are We All Just Living in a Video Game"). Now a group of scientists have suggested a test that might reveal if this is true. Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage of the University of Washington have suggested in a recent paper that if our universe is simulated on a lattice (a form of computer simulation) we may be able to detect it by finding a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays. They would tend to move diagonally across the model universe and not interact equally in all directions, as they should if we are actually in a real world instead of a computer world. The scientists didn't do a test that would actually detect this, and even if it was done all other causes would have to be ruled out before we could conclude that we are really living in The Matrix.

Clever Nanoparticles Deliver Drugs in Disguise - Researchers at the Methodist Hospital System Research Institute in Houston have found a sneaky way to deliver drugs targeted a certain types of tissue and avoid interference by the body's immune system. Nanoparticles, bits of material smaller than cells that carry a dose of drugs inside them have been one of the most promising ways of getting medicine in the body. These foreign objects, however, are usually attacked by the body's immune system before they get to right body tissues. As an experiment, scientists tried wrapping the nanoparticles in the membrane normally worn by a white blood cell. Because white blood cells are part of the immune system the nanoparticles get ignored. As an extra bonus since certain white blood cells use their membranes to target specific tissues, picking the right membrane for the nanoparticle can also get it to where it needs to go inside the body.

Asteroid Will Miss Earth - Asteroid 2011 AG5, which will pass close by the Earth in 2040, is no longer considered a threat to our planet. The 460 feet (140m) chunk of rock would have created a 100 megaton explosion (twice as powerful as the biggest H-bomb ever set off) if it had collided with the Earth. New measurements of the asteroid's orbit made in October 2012 by the Gemini 8-meter telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, now show that it will not come closer than double the distance to the moon (553,000 miles). "An analysis of the new data conducted by NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, shows that the risk of collision in 2040 has been eliminated," NASA said in an announcement.

 

Science Quote of the Month - "Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary." - Albert Einstein

 

What's New at the Museum:

The Lost Porcelain Pagoda - "The best contrived and noblest structure of all the East," said theFrench mathematician, Le Comte, when he saw it. This 19th century visitor to China was referring to the astonishing Tower of Najing, a wondrous temple that today is gone. > Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

Teleportation - Since scientists are able to teleport light particles, could we use this teleportation method to travel in space rather than a propulsion based rockets? - Christal

When we talk about teleportation what most people think about is Star Trek. In this 1960's SciFi classic (as well as in the new movie reboots) Captain Kirk was able to hop onto a little pad and Scotty would beam him down from the Enterprise to the planet below in a couple of seconds. This allowed the Captain to avoid the trouble of climbing into a small "shuttlecraft" and to take an hour or so ride down to reach the surface. (More importantly it saved the show's producers money and kept the pace of the story fast).

This scenario is probably the one most people think about when they hear that scientists are teleporting photons (bits of energy) around: A photon gets plopped onto a pad on one side of the lab, a switch is thrown and the same photon suddenly appears on the other side of the lab.

That isn't quite what is happening, however. What the scientists are teleporting are the physical properties of the photon, not the photon itself. They exploit quantum mechanics (specifically something called "entanglement") to "read" the photon and transmit the properties to another photon on the other side of the lab and give it the same state as the original. Since you can't tell the replica apart from the original (whose state was destroyed in the process) for all practical purposes the photon has been "teleported."

Being able to do this is a very powerful technique that can be used in quantum computing and we will probably eventually get ultrafast computers out of it. However, it isn't clear that the same process could be used for transporting solid objects. Scientists have been able to teleport a single atom, but a human consists of about a trillion, trillion atoms, which makes the problem of teleporting them about a trillion, trillion times more difficult. Some scientists think we might be able to pull off teleporting something as complicated as a virus by the end of the century, but even that may just be wishful thinking.

And if we were actually able to teleport a human, it would raise some interesting ethical questions. If a teleport machine works not by moving the actual atoms that make up a person, but just recreating the person's structure with new atoms, have we transported the person or just made a duplicate? (The duplicate would think it was the original because it would have all the same thoughts and memories.) Also, if the original person is destroyed in the process, have we just murdered him, despite creating a duplicate in another location?

The idea that you could switch out all the atoms in a person and still have the same person isn't just a hypothetical situation either. Studies at the Oak Ridge Atomic Research Center found that 98% of the atoms in our body are replaced with new ones each year. So in essence we are all undergoing a slow teleportation and getting new bodies (though the structure still remains the same, so we still age - sorry). This raises an interesting question however. Are we actually the same people we were a year ago, or just duplicates with all the same memories?

There are also some theological concerns with teleportation too. Some people believe that humans have a "spirit." If a person we teleported, would that "spirit" automatically jump to the duplicate person?

Finally, suppose that the original person wasn't destroyed and you wound up with two of them? Who is the original if both of them are exactly the same? Which one gets to go home to their spouse and kids?

For some interesting SciFi fiction on this dilemma check out Think Like a Dinosaur a novelette written by James Patrick Kelly and later turned into an episode on the seventh season of The Outer Limits (2000). It available to watch on Hulu for free.

Have a question? Click here to send it to us.

 

In History:

The Fortean Society - January of 1931 marks the founding of the Fortean Society. The Society, which took its name from Charles Fort, a writer who chronicled reports of unexplained phenomena, operated for 29 years and published the Fortean Society Magazine (retitled Doubt in 1944). Despite the organization being named for him, Fort had little interest in the society, or its founder Tiffany Thayer, and refused to be associated with it. Thayer, for his part, used the society to support his odd personal social crusades which did not always endear himself to the rest of the membership. He was also widely criticized by his own membership for allowing the most outlandish cranks to author articles in the magazine. When Thayer died in 1959, his widow decided to formally disband the society the next year.

 

In the Sky:

Quadrantids - Catch the Quadrantids meteor shower the first week of the month. The shower will peak on the nights of January 3rd and 4th with the best viewing from a dark location after midnight. The shooting stars will appear to be coming from the constellation Bootes. The name comes from the constellation Quadrans Muralis, which is now considered part of Bo÷tes. The shower was first noticed by Chinese, Japanese and Korean astronomers about 500 years ago.

Observed:

Extraterrestrial Cemetery in Mexico? - Archaeologists digging near Mexico's Sonora desert have found a graveyard seemingly filled with what looks like extraterrestrial visitors with elongated skulls and strange teeth. However, a closer inspection shows that the site is actually a burial ground for a Mesoamerican culture that practiced "Cranial deformation:" the squeezing and binding of the skulls starting around age 12 that changed the shape of the head. Although such cranial deformation has been found in other places, the site in Sonora is the most northern location where it has been discovered. While some have suggested that the skulls are from aliens or a human/alien hybrid, DNA tests done on previously discovered remains with cranial deformation have shown them to be completely human.

 

On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Doomsday Volcanoe - Could the explosion of Iceland's ticking time bombs cause cold and famine worldwide? On PBS: January 2 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Decoding Neanderthals - Shared DNA reveals a deep connection with our long-vanished human cousins. On PBS: January 9 at 9 pm; ET/PT.

Nova: Ice Age Death Trap - Scientists race to uncover a site in the Rockies packed with fossil mammoths and other extinct ice age beasts. On PBS: January 16 at 9 pm; ET/PT

Nova: Who Killed Lindbergh's Baby? - Expert investigators reexamine one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time. On PBS: January 30 at 9 pm; ET/PT

Mysteries of the Deep - Explore the most beguiling parts of the sea, the very depths which have never been seen and which we know very little about. On The Science Channel: Jan 2nd 7:00am; ET/PT.

Prophets of Science Fiction: Jules Verne - Jules Verne is the ultimate futurist, with a legacy of sci-fi adventure stories predicting everything from fuel cell technology to viral advertising. The extraordinary voyages of Jules Verne span from the center of the Earth to the surface of the Moon. On The Science Channel: Jan 6th 7:00am; ET/PT.

Ancient Aliens: Aliens and Mega-Disasters - There are numerous historical, religious and mythic accounts of ancient civilizations being wiped out by volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, and meteors. Did god, or nature bring about such disasters? Or is it possible that celestial beings had a hand in the ancient world's catastrophic disasters? On The History Channel: Jan 8th 10PM; ET/PT.

A New Age of Exploration: National Geographic at 125: - Like characters from science fiction, humans are shattering boundaries long considered unbreakable. We are exploring the deepest, darkest regions of the planet as well as the edges of the known universe. We're morphing with machines and eradicating disease. Meet the trailblazers who are working on the frontiers of exploration and innovation. On The National Geographic Channel: Jan 8th, 8PM & 10PM, ET/PT.

LGM:

Science over the Edge Archives

LGM Archive 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.

 

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