Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

Applet credit: Ed Hobbs


May 2007

In the News:

T-rex Cousin to a Chicken Little? - Scientists have established that the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex was a distant relative of today's humble chicken. Mary Higby Schweitzer, of North Carolina State University, was able to isolate some very rare soft tissue from the thighbone of a 68-million-year-old T-rex which John Asara, a Harvard Medical School researcher, used to determine amino acid sequences the animal possessed. Most of the amino acid sequences Asara found matched that of a chicken. In a separate study Schweitzer was able to show that extracts of T. rex bone reacted with antibodies to chicken collagen, further supporting Asara's results by demonstrating the presence of birdlike proteins in the dinosaur's bone. Scientists have long speculated that dinosaurs were close relatives of birds, but this is the first genetic proof for the theory.

Earth-like Planet Found that May Harbor Life - European astronomers have found a planet only 20.5 light years away so similar to Earth it might be able to harbor life. The planet, which circles the red dwarf star, Gliese 581, is only 1.5 times bigger than Earth with a gravity 1.6 times as strong. The temperature is very similar with an estimated range between 32 and 104 degrees F. According to theory this could mean the plant has a rocky surface covered with liquid water which scientists believe is the prerequisite to life.

Though astronomers have discovered over 220 planets outside our solar system they have all been too hot, too cold or just plain too big and gaseous to make good candidates to host life. Though the new planet is very similar in to Earth in many ways, there are also some startling differences. The red dwarf that acts as its "sun" is much cooler and smaller than the real sun and the planet has a much closer orbit. The "sun" would appear to be 20 times the size of our moon and hang forever over one portion of the sky leaving haft the planet in perpetual darkness and the other half in perpetual daylight.

The planet was discovered using a telescope at European Southern Observatory's telescope in Chile equipped with a special instrument that can detect wobbles in different wavelengths of light.

Higher Sea Levels May Could Affect Over a Half Million People - A new report shows that millions of people could be affected by a sudden surge in the sea level. The study, led by a U.S. Geological Survey team, indicates that a rise of just 16 feet would affect 669 million people and cover 2 million square miles of land. A rise of 100-feet would cover 3.7 million square miles of land worldwide. While scientists are concerned that sea levels are slowly rising due to global warming, of more immediate concern are storms surges and tsunamis that can temporary force sea level higher in a matter of minutes. In 2004 a tsunami forced sea levels nearly 100 feet higher in places and killed 230,000 people. "A 30-meter [100 foot] surge in Florida would leave the whole state covered except for a little plateau area," one of the authors of the study concluded. The study uses a new mapping technique that was previously unavailable and allows researchers to see how much land would be lost at various sea levels by just clicking a mouse.

New Fish Eating Dino Found - Excavations around a giant lake in Utah that existed some 200 million years ago have yielded the remains of an enormous, previously unknown carnivorous dinosaur, a new shark species and at least three other new fish all now extinct. The dinosaur, a relative of the crested Dilophosaurus, had long, sharp teeth at the front of the its mouth which suggest it specialized in catching and eating fish, including sharks and huge bony fish. The fish back then were armored and it would have been "like biting through chain mail," said James Kirkland a Utah state paleontologist. "The only other meat-eating dinosaurs with teeth worn like that are the spinosaurs Spinosaurus and Suchimimus from North Africa where large...fish dominated," he added.

Mammoth Goes for Record Price - The skeleton of a 12-foot-tall, 16-foot-long, prehistoric mammoth was sold by Christie's auction house last month for a world record sum of $421,200. The mammoth was just one of a number of archeological curiosities previously owned by private collectors sold during the special action. Other items sold included the 10,000-year-old skeleton of a 13.5-foot-long rhinoceros that sold for $162,000 and the remains of a 7.5-foot-high prehistoric cave bear from the Russian Urals which brought in $63,180. The Siberian mammoth nicknamed the "The President," had been expected to sell for only about $199,000. Altogether the auction grossed more than $1.53 million.

 

What's New at the Museum:

The Mysterious Tower at Newport - In the center of one of the most popular and ritzy seashore resorts on the eastern shore of the United States stands a small tower. The vast majority of tourists that pass by it never realize that it has been the center of an archeological controversy that is over a century old. >Full Story

Notes from the Curator's Office: Home Movies - There was a time when home movies meant an eight millimeter black and white film of people's kids playing on the beach. Now technology is letting them create Hollywood productions in their backyards >Full Story

 

Ask the Curator:

Very, Very Cold - Is it possible to attain 0 Kelvin? -Feloxi

Zero on the Kelvin temperature scale is often referred to as absolute zero. To get an idea of what absolute zero is, we first need to know a little bit about heat and temperature. All atoms and molecules "vibrate" with thermal energy. The more vibration, the more heat the atom or molecule has. As the atoms and molecules of a material are cooled, the vibration slows down and the energy decreases. The point at which all heat energy has been removed from a material is called absolute zero. This is approximately -459.67 F on the Fahrenheit scale or 0 on the Kelvin scale.

According to the third law of Thermodynamics you can never completely achieve absolute zero but only approach it, but scientists have come darn close. In September of 2003 scientists at MIT managed to get a small group of sodium atoms down to 240 millionths of a degree above absolute zero. Larger objects are harder to cool, but another group at MIT managed to get a mirror about the size of a dime down to just 0.8 K above absolute zero. They did this by shooting laser pulses at it to "trap" and "damp" the molecular motion.

These laboratory temperatures are just a bit colder than any reported in nature. The coldest known place is about 5,000 light years away from Earth in the Boomerang Nebula located in the constellation Centaurus. Astronomers think the temperatures there run around 1K. If you ever visit it, better bring a jacket.

Scientists are very interested in the behavior of objects very close to absolute zero. It may give them the chance to observe quantum physics effects that normally are too small to see because the are lost in the heat motion of the material. Just a final note: There is also something called a negative temperature (less then absolute zero on the Kelvin scale) but negative temperatures are actually hotter then absolute zero.

Send your questions to: askCurator@unmuseum.org

 

In History:

A Whale of a Surprise - In 1937 whalers off the coast of Queen Charlotte Island in Northern British Columbia cut open the stomach of a Sperm whale a got a surprise: Inside were the semi-digested remains of a ten-foot-long, creature with a body like a snake and a head like a horse. Unfortunately, due to its poor condition, the strange animal, which also has a hump-like back, was thrown back into the sea. What it the long sought after sea-serpent?

 

In the Sky:

View Saturn - If you own a telescope this month is a good time to take a look at the planet Saturn just in the Southern sky after sunset. It will be at eastern quadrature, 90 degrees east of the Sun. Because of the angle the light is coming from the planet's shadow across its rings will look almost "three dimensional" in telescopes.

 

Observed:

Scientist Discovers Superman's "Kryptonite" - A mineral found by a geologist in Serbia has the same chemical composition as the fictional kryptonite from the film "Superman Returns." Chris Stanley, a mineralogist at London's Natural History Museum was analyzing the new material and did an Internet search to see if the formula - sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide - turned up anywhere. "I was amazed to discover that same scientific name written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luther from a museum in the film 'Superman Returns,'" Stanley said. Unlike the movie version, Stanley's mineral is white and powdery, not the radioactive green crystals seen in comic books and movies. The substance, which has been confirmed as a new mineral after tests at the Natural History Museum, is on exhibit. Its official name will be Jadarite.

 

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.

Newton's Dark Secrets - Centuries-old manuscripts reveal the hidden pursuits of a scientific genius. On PBS: May 1@ 8 pm; ET/PT.

Starship Orion: The Future of Space Travel - NASA has taken the lead in designing the new space exploration vehicle, ORION, with which man will go back to the Moon; go on to Mars, and beyond. On The Science Channel: May 08@ 9:00 pm; May 09@ 12:00 am; May 09@ 4:00 am; May 09@ 10:00 am; May 12@10:00 pm; May 13@ 1:00 am; May 13@ 5:00 am; May 15@ 5:00 pm; May 22@ 10:00 pm; May 23@ 1:00 am..

Riddle of the Polar Sky - Join a quest to unravel the mystery of the Aurora Borealis. Scientists and citizens working on the most current scientific theories live in six months of extended darkness. On The Science Channel: May 01@ 8:00 pm; May 01@ 11:00 pm; May 02@ 3:00 am; May 02@ 9:00 am; May 05@ 8:00 pm; May 05@ 11:00 pm; May 06@ 3:00 am; May 06@ 4:00 pm; May 08@ 5:00 pm , ET/PT.

What Really Killed the Dinosaurs - Sometimes a discovery forever changes what we think we know, altering our perspective and re-writing history. This is the story of a mystery dinosaur called Jane, that baffled the greatest minds in paleontology from the moment she was unearthed On The Science Channel: May 14@ 5:00 pm, ET/PT.

Moon for Sale - After forty years, man is going back to the moon. Across the world scientists are gearing up to take part in what's been called a second moon race. Behind it lies a prize some believe could change the face of the world. On the Discovery Channel: May 05@ 8:00 pm; May 06@ 12:00 am; ET/PT.

Killer Squid - In Mexico's Sea of Cortez fishermen talk of a monstrous carnivorous squid. These killer squids are among the most dangerous and least known of oceanic predators. Follow Scott Cassell and Jacquie Cozens on their quest to film these awesome killers. On the Discovery Channel: May 03@ 9:00 pm; May 04@ 1:00 am ; ET/PT.

Knights Templar - For nearly two centuries, the Knights Templar were the medieval world's most powerful order, a fearsome and unstoppable Crusader militia. Then came accusations of unspeakable crimes. Who were the Templars, really? How did they become so powerful, so fast, and why did they fall just as quickly? Evidence hints that the Templars excavated under Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon. What did they find there? Was it, as The Da Vinci Code suggests, the true identity of the Holy Grail--the bloodline of Christ? Or an unimaginable treasure, documented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, buried 1,000 years before Christ's birth? We explore the Templar's origin, how they lived, trained, fought and became a medieval world power, and the suspicious circumstances behind their sudden downfall. Plus, we reveal why these warriors, dead for seven centuries, and their treasure still populate Hollywood blockbusters. Narrated by Ed Herrmann and featuring preeminent Templar authors. On History Channel: April 10 @ 08:00 PM, April 11 @ 12:00 AM; ET/PT.

 

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Copyright Lee Krystek 2007. All Rights Reserved.