Over the Edge
Roundup of Strange Science for the Month
Dolphins Call Each Other Names - A recently released
study of dolphins indicates that they are the only creatures
on Earth, besides man, that refer to each other with abstract
names. Dolphins can apparently call each other by mimicking
the distinct whistle of the other dolphin they want to find.
"These whistles actually turned out to be names. They're
abstract names, which is unheard of in the animal kingdom
beyond people," said Randall Wells, one of the study's authors.
"Each dolphin produces its own unique signature whistle
that describes its individual identity," said a University
of St. Andrews press release. "The new study suggests that
in fact dolphins are mimicking those they are close to and
want to see again." The name calling dolphins studied live
in the murky estuary environment of the Gulf of Mexico.
"They have to maintain group cohesion and stay in contact
with one another and coordinate their activities -- how
do you do that when you can't see one another?" noted Wells.
The study of what the researchers call "vocal copying" was
published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B
No Ban On Polar Bear Parts - A U.S. plan to ban
the international trade of polar bear parts was voted down
last month at an international conference on endangered
species. The U.S. is concerned that the shrinking Arctic
ice habitat because of global warming could put polar bear
populations in a precarious position. The ban was opposed
by Canada, home to 16,000 of the 20,000 to 25,000 polar
bears left in the wild. "The polar bear does not have a
small wild population, it does not have a restricted area
of distribution and no marked decline has been observed,"
said Environment Canada in a statement. Canada also points
out that polar bear parts are taken in subsistence hunting,
not by commercial operations. It is estimated that 800 polar
bears are killed by subsistence hunters each year. Hides
can sell for between $2,000 and $12,000.
More Evidence that Chicxulub Did in the Dinosaurs
- Researchers have found further evidence that supports
the theory that the asteroid that crashed into Chicxulub,
Mexico, 65 million years ago brought the age of the dinosaurs
to the end. Some scientists have questioned the theory as
the actual impact date seemed to be as much as 300,000 years
before or 180,000 years after the last dinosaurs died. This
has led to alternate theories including another meteor impact
or massive volcanic eruptions in India. A study published
in the journal Science, however, using high-precision
radiometric dating analysis of debris kicked up by the impact
makes the date no more than 33,000 from the end of the Cretaceous
era, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. "We've shown the
impact and the mass extinction coincided as much as one
can possibly demonstrate with existing dating techniques,"
researcher Paul Renne, a geochronologist and director of
the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California. Scientists
caution, however, that the Chicxulib event was just the
final blow in a series of event that brought the dinosaurs
Mummies had Clogged Arteries Too - At study
published in the Lancet medical journal shows that mummies
from a number of different ancient cultures with different
lifestyles all showed signs of clogged arteries. "The presence
of atherosclerosis in premodern human beings suggests that
the disease is an inherent component of human aging and
not associated with any specific diet or lifestyle," the
authors state in the paper's conclusion. Some doctor have
pointed out that this doesn't mean risk factors for atherosclerosis
should be ignored. Many studies have clearly shown that
certain lifestyle choices and increase the risk of cardio-vascular
disease. "Our study demonstrates... that we are all at risk
of atherosclerosis," said author Gregory Thomas. "We should
do the very best we can to avoid these risk factors. We
cannot expect, however, that avoiding them will prevent
Volcanos Responsible for Extinction - A new study
in last month's Journal Science points to volcanic
eruptions to be the cause of the mass extinction that led
to the rise of the dinosaurs. These eruptions, which occurred
about 200 million years ago, are known as the Central Atlantic
Magmatic Province. They started when the Earth had only
one big supercontinent and over the course of 600,000 years
they created a rift that became the Atlantic Ocean. The
cloud cover from these eruptions and the large amount of
greenhouse gases they released, caused rapid climate changes
which likely led to the wide-spread extinctions. Scientists
had previously suspected the volcanic eruptions might have
been connected with the End-Triassic Extinction, but could
not, until this study, could not pinpoint the dates of the
eruptions close enough to be sure. The recent paper employed
a study of the mineral zircon found in the lava flows. Zircon
has a large amount of radioactive uranium in it. My measuring
the decay rate of the radioactivity scientists could then
date the time of the flow very precisely. To confirm these
dates researchers also looked evidence of magnetic pole
reversal in the flows and fluctuations in sun exposure in
certain areas due to the wobble of the planet.
Science Quote of the Month - "Those
who are not shocked when they first come across quantum
mechanics cannot possibly have understood it." - Niels
Henrik David Bohr
New at the Museum:
of the Hindenburg - It was the height of luxury
and a symbol of the future that came crashing down in flames.
Why did the Hindenburg Burn? An update on our classic page.
Why Did the Hindenburg Burn? - Our newest video
explores the reason the great airship went down in flames.
Was it sabotage or a terrible accident? - View
Mysterious Picture of the Month - What
is this this?
Big Steam? - In the movie "Wild Wild West"
starring Will Smith there was a giant Steam powered spider
machine: I already know it was just a special effect but
I would still like to know this... Aside from steam-powered
ships and locomotives, what is the largest steam-powered
vehicle ever made? - David R
Wow! This is
a tough question. The best I might be able to do is to suggest
a couple of big steam machines that move and see if any
of our readers can think of anything bigger.
As you question
implied steamships and locomotives were some of the most
powerful and heavy objects ever moved by steam. Other devices
were relatively light. One of the reasons for this is that
steam engines, especially those built in the 19th century,
didn't generate a lot of horsepower for the weight of the
engine compared to later internal combustion engines. This
was fine if what you needed was a stationary source of power.
You could just build your steam engine as large as you needed,
since it wasn't going anywhere.
example of a large stationary steam engine was the Corliss
Steam Engine built for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia
in 1876. It generated 1,400HP and powered virtually all
of the exhibits. Though there would be more powerful engines
( The Ellenroad Ring Mill Engine built in 1917 could produce
almost 3000HP) the Centennial engine was well-known and
became an icon of the era of steam. It wasn't small, however,
and stood 45 feet tall with a 30 foot diameter flywheel.
A big heavy engine
needs to be mounted on something big to be movable which
is why powerful steam engines worked so well with ships.
One of the biggest of these was the SS United States, an
ocean liner launched in 1952 that could develop 240,000HP.
It still holds the record for the fastest commercial crossing
of the Atlantic.
Rail was also
a natural place to use steam because the steel tracks and
well-built roadbeds would support a lot of weight for a
big locomotive. The largest of these was probably the 1941
Union Pacific Railroad's 4000-class nicknamed "Big Boy"
which could generate at least 6,000HP. However, all that
weight came with a price. This monster weighted over a million
pounds when you included the tender, so it needed the firm
footing provided by a track bed to avoid sinking into the
So back to your
question: What the biggest steam machine that moves that
isn't a loco or a ship? Certainly steam-traction engines
might be a possibility. These were steam powered tractors
that were popular before gas and diesel tractors became
available. Even heavier were steam-rollers which were basically
steam traction engines built with big fat wheels used to
Perhaps for a
really big and heavy steam machine we need to go back to
your inspiration: The Wild, Wild West film from 1999. I'm
not thinking about the huge mechanical spider shown in the
climax, but the steam powered tank from earlier in the movie.
There were indeed
a few attempts to build steam powered tanks in the early
20th century. In 1916 or 1917 a company named Holt built
a "Three Wheeled Steam Tank" that was tested at the Aberdeen
Proving Ground in Maryland. The monster weighed about 17
tons, so it was probably heavier than most traction engines,
but only developed about 150HP, so it was pretty under powered.
According to reports it easily became stuck in the mud during
A bigger tank-like
device was a contraption built by the Army Corps of Engineers
in conjunction with Stanley Steamer in 1918. This guy weighed
in at 50 tons (around twice as heavy as the other tanks
of the era) and had two engines totaling 1,000HP to drive
it forward at a maximum speed of 6 mph. This machine was
armed with a flamethrower on a turret (which makes me think
of the tank from the James Bond film "Dr. No") and four
.30 caliber machine guns. Apparently a prototype, christened
"America," was shipped to France at the end of World War
I, but arrived too late to see any action.
steam was chosen as the source of power because internal
combustion engines of the time couldn't generate enough
force to really get something this heavy moving (The 26
ton British tanks of the time used a 105HP engine that could
only move them forward at about 3 ½ mph). Steam perhaps
isn't the best source of energy for this type of project,
however. Working next to a hot boiler in a windowless tank
must be awful and there is always the chance of a steam
explosion it the machine is pierced by even a small round.
So can anybody
think of a bigger steam-powered machine that would qualify
as a vehicle? If so, drop us a line and we'll feature a
column on it.
Have a question?
Click here to send it to us.
The Strange Carcass - In the 1897 issue of American
Naturalist there was a story about a strange find in Florida
the previous fall: "one arm was lying west of the body,
23 feet long; one stump of arm, west of the body, about
four feet; three arms lying south of body and from appearance
attached to same, longest one measured over 32 feet, the
other arms were three to five feet shorter." What was this
odd, many armed thing? Speculation has been for years that
it was a colossal octopus of species unknown to science
that washed up on the shore after a storm. Despite its appearance
a number of scientists argue that the carcass was only that
of a whale made unrecognizable because of its advanced decay.
Lyrid Meteors - The Lyrid meteor shower will peak
on the night of April 21-22 this year, though you may still
be able to spot some on the following evening. The Lyrids
are a modest size shower best observed in the hours before
dawn after the moon has set. Look for them to appear to
becoming from the North radiating from the constellation
Lyra, which gives the shower its name
Researchers Find Monster in Lake - A group of scientists
from the Russian Geographical Society report that they've
found the remains of a huge creature in Lake Labynkyr in
Siberia. The remote lake for centuries has been the source
of stories about a monster or "Devil" living in it. "There
have been all sorts of hypotheses about what kind of creature
it could be: a giant pike, a … reptile or an amphibian,"
said research team geologist Viktor Tverdokhlebov, in the
Siberian Times. "We didn't manage to prove or to
disprove these versions … [but] we managed to find remains
of jaws and skeleton of some animal." By using an underwater
scanner, the group was able to find a large jawbone and
skeleton. However, the team was unable to bring any physical
evidence to the surface. They were not the first expedition
to report on a monster in the lake. In 1953 a team of geologists
claimed they'd seen a large underwater animal the size of
killer whale swimming in the water.
Hell Lowers Crime Rates - A study of peoples religious
beliefs show that those societies with a stronger belief
in an after-life hell have lower crime rates than those
with a strong belief in heaven. The paper Divergent Effects
of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates
by Azim F. Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla shows that the proportion
of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national
crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime
rates. The two researchers used data collected from 143,197
people in 67 countries between 1981 and 2007. "Once you
split religion into different constructs (a belief in hell
versus heaven, for example), you begin to see different
relationships. In this study, we found two differences that
go in opposite directions. If you look at overall religious
belief, these separate directions are washed out and you
don't see anything. There's no hint of a relationship,"
check local listing for area outside of North America.
Nova: Ancient Computer - A Greek shipwreck holds the remains of an intricate bronze machine
that turns out to be the world's first computer.
On PBS: April 3 at 9 pm; ET/PT.
Nova: Australia: Monsters - Some 250 million years ago, some of the largest, most dangerous reptiles
ruled this land.
Part of a series on the land down under. On PBS: April 24at
9 pm; ET/PT.
Vs. Dinos: The Age of Gigantism
Mammals vs Dinos begins with a look the first dinosaurs and mammals
nearly 200 million years ago and the long evolutionary competition
between the two groups. Through computer-generated animations,
we see dinosaurs evolving into giant creatures. On The
April 5th 7AM;
for Noah's Ark
Examine the latest clues and theories that attempt to confirm the biblical
account of Noah's ark and the flood. Satellite imagery of
mountaintops and underwater geological surveys help dissect
the story timeline from God's warning to the receding waters.
On National Geographic Channe
April 5th 6PM;
Life-changing encounters with the natural world await you off-road and
beyond the tourist spots in a Yellowstone you've never seen.
Get into the two million untouched acres where the bison
and bears roam free. On The
April 5th 7PM;
Night of Exploration: Mammoth
- Back from the Dead
Ten thousand years ago, humans shared the planet with mammoths. They
roamed through the heart of Siberia numbering in the hundreds
of thousands. Today, that same area is a massive mammoth
graveyard, with thousands of skeletons preserved in the
frozen tundra ? and a team of scientists want to bring the
mammoth back to life. Follow this team on a quest to achieve
one of the most audacious undertakings ever: to excavate
frozen mammoth tissue in order to clone it. On The
April 12th 8PM;
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