Thursday, December 29, 2011

Not a good year for yeti

Yeti evidence? Not yeti.

The yeti, wherever it is, must feel a bit put upon.  First a finger long supposed to be a yeti artifact was finally tested and found to be human. Then officials of a region of Russia called Ingushtetia announced the capture of a female Yeti, providing plenty of details on the capture, what the beast was eating, and so forth. That one seemed too good to be true, and it was. Depending on which subsequent statement one believes, it was either a mistranslation (unlikely, given all the details) or a publicity stunt. 
COMMENT: There may yet be an unknown primate hiding in high forested valleys of the Himalayan region, but it's no closer to being proven than it was 60 years ago when Westerners started taking the subject seriously.  I still think about the late primatologist John Napier's comment that he would dismiss the whole topic except that footprints found by Shipton and Ward in 1951 still bothered him. Those prints are still unexplained, but we have nothing better since than less-distinct prints and some very brief sightings.  I hope the yeti is out there, but it may be no more real than the jackalope... Another possibility, of course, is that it's the preserved memory of a real species that was walways rare and is now extinct. But we have no proof for that either.

Bad year for elephants

In the 1990s, elephant poaching was cut to a manageable level by a 1989 ban on ivory sales and strong national and international efforts, and rhinos got a break as well.  In 2011, though, elephants had their worst year since that ban was enacted. The tusks of some 2,500 elephants were seized by customs and wildlife officers, and no one known how much smuggled ivory got through.  One African park is losing 50 elephants a month, and South Africa reported a record 443 rhinos were killed in that country.  Even when ivory is seized, the poachers and the ringleaders are almost never caught. Middlemen, like corrupt customs officers who sign false papers, are caught more often, but are easily replaced in poor nations - both in Africa where the shipments originate, and in Asia where almost all the illegal stuff is being shipped. 
COMMENT: Too sad for words. To everyone: please DO NOT buy anything ivory unless it has a valid paper trail showing it's from mammoths or another legal source. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Yeti" hand is human

Well, darn. The most famous known-but-untested relic in cryptozoology, revered as a yeti's hand in the monastaery at Pangboche,  was the hand of a human being after all. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Yeti finger DNA tested

The famed Pangboche hand - or a finger of it - has been subjected to new DNA testing. Results due out today!

Trail of the Javan tiger

Missing 35 years, does it still live?

It was 1976 when the last Javan tiger was seen. It was 1994 when the subspecies was declared extinct.  After years without a clue, droppings and pawprints have prompted one more look with trail cameras. Could the cat still be out there?

Top new species of 2011

The discoveries continued on land, sea, and air

What new animals turned up in 2011? As always, it's been quite a haul. A ferret-badger from Vietnam, two new seabirds, a new rail, a dolphin, a hundreds of others. The Holy Grail of species discovery, a really large new land animal, remained elusive, although a claim was put in to split the African elephant to make the forest variety its own species, and we had plenty of everything else. 

December 23 was Coelacanth Discovery Day

"Living fossil" found in 1938

Loren Coleman pointed out an anniversary I'd overlooked - that of the 1938 discover of the coelacanth. This fish, supposedly extinct for 60 million years, taught us a lot about evolution and survival.  It also taught us that a long gap in the fossil record is not proof of extinction, something cryptozoologists have been pointing out ever since.

"Lake Monsters" surface again

New video purported to be "Champ"

The idea of monsters in lakes goes back, probably, to the beginnings of humankind, when there really were scary animals everywhere, at least on land and sea. Reports of odd lakedwelling creatures come from all over the world, in lakes large and small. Zoologists have been increasingly skeptical, not only because of the lack of hard evidence but because some monster lakes are too small to support colonies of large animals. This new video fro mLake Champlain, while suggested by one video analyst to show animate objects, is being mainly dismissed on Cryptomundo as a boat wake. I tend to think "wake," too - long narrow lakes produce a lot of odd phenomena when wakes "echo" off the shorelines.

Memo to Russia: Space Launch is Still Hard

Soyuz Failure

Space launch is not routine yet - at least, not as routine as it needs to be. While the U.S. has gone through boom and bust cycles of launch success, we generally think of Russian launch based on Soyuz rockets dating back to Sergei Korolev as a bus line, almost always succeeding on schedule.  But last week's failure of a Soyuz 2-1b, a variant with six successful launches on its record, was the third complete failure in the last 13 months (there were also two partial failures, where the upper stages failed to put the payload in the right orbit).  NASA must be pretty nervous about the whole "depend on Russia to launch our astronauts" plan.  It's a reminder that truly routine access to space needs a major investment to become a long-term reality.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The search for other Earths

NASA discovers two Earthlike planets

This may - just may - go down in future textbooks as a turning point in human history.  From NASA:

"NASA's Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.  The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is a bit larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra."

Rockey planets of roughly Earth-Mars-Venus size.  Now we know they exist.  Discovering similar planets in habitable zones is a foregone conclusion. Discovering life? In my opinion, it's just a matter of time. 


Afraid of science?

Decrying the modern trends

Attend a party, and you'll find someone detoxifying or decrying chemicals or railing against technology.  Funny, the author says, how all kinds of stuff trendy people hate are increasing health and lifespan. His main point is that people no longer understand science, or want to. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mysteries of the year - and next year

Discover's picks for best solved and unsolved mysteries

Ben Radford offers his selection of mysteries. Among those he considers solved are a widely circulated UFO video from Jerusalem (hoax), and a boy with magnetic powers (same).  Reaching back to the 1700s, he endorses an idea the famed Beast of Gevaudan never existed - that it was just "normal" wolf attacks. Not buying that one. I mean, we HAVE the mount of a hyena shot in the French countryside. Mysteries he considers worth investigating in 2012 include the faster-than-light neutrino claims from Europe and the further study of possible Earthlike planets.  He's right that both are intriguing, but, Ben, use a little imagination... the orang pendek should merit a mention, at least.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Phobos-Grunt meets conspiracy theorists

US accused of zapping probe

The Russian record on Mars probes is pretty embarassing for a nation that otherwise has so many space accomplishments. With the loss of the Phobos-Grunt probe, a Russian official has reached for an explanation sure to delight conspiracy theorists in the US. The HAARP research device  has been blamed for everything else, so why not accuse it of zapping a Mars probe? (The energy levels are far, far, too low, but never mind... :)  )

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Branson Bullish on Space

Foresees robust tourist market and smallsat launch

Richard Branson is nothing if not bold.  He insists the space tourism industry will be big and profitable, even as he notes that acocuntants would have found his initial questions about its viability insane. He also says his system will be a cheap smallsat launcher, something microspace advocates have been pursuing or dreaming of... well, forever.  His plan for submersibles taking scientists to the greatest depths of the ocean are equally brach and equally fascinating. (OK, ALMOST equally fascinating.)
Go Branson!

Friday, December 16, 2011

New access to space on a big scale

Can billionaires solve the launch problem?
You can't say Paul Allen and Elon Musk think small.  A six-engined launch airplane derived from two 747s, plus a modified Falcon 9 medium-lift booster, is what the new Stratolaunch venture is planning on with help from legendary high-tech aircrat designer Burt Rutan.  The partners think the advantages of airlaunch plus the ability to capture a broad spectrum of military, NASA, and commercial business will result in a high-volume, low-cost business.
COMMENT. I admire their willingness to take the big risk and hope this comes off.  I am concenred about the sheer complexity of the thing.  Will it work reliably, and, if it does, will it really capture enough market to keep the costs down?  Will it be able to underprice ground launches of the Falcon series boosters? I wish Stratolaunch every success.

Harpooning a comet

NASA building gadget to fire into comets

This actually came up in a mission a couple of decades ago, the Comet Rendezvous - Asteroid Flyby (CRAF), which was canceled for budgetary reasons. Now Goddard Space Flight Center (GFSC) engineers envision a probe with several harpoons with varying propulsive charges for sampling molecules inside these still-puzzling roving bodies.  Very cool - hope it works!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dinosaurs - more amazing than ever

BBC Wildlife and the Decade of the Dinosaur

You like dinosaurs? Well, palentologists have 'em. In fact, they have a dizzying arrary of new dinosaurs and other reptilian relatives found over the last 10 years. 
Start in 2000 with hte first definite feathered dino specimen, from China. Progress through the 2002 find of the pterosaur Hatzegopteryx, with its stunning 12-meter wingspan. Follow with Gigantoraptor, 8 meters tall. Then in 2007 we have the discovery that the predator Sinosaurus, of movie fame, weighed 20 tons, 2-3 times what T-rex did. From the first fish-eating dinosaur in Australia to the first possible venomous dino to the mind-boggling pliosaur originally nicknamed Predator X, the past ten years taught us one thing: We don't know all about dinos.  Not yet. Indeed, we may hardly know them at all. 

Private space missions are go

NASA approves ISS trip

The first private mission to the International Space Station, postponed in the wake of NASA's budget problems and the uncertainty of keeping the ISS running using Russian vehicles, is back on.
The Dragon capsule from SpaceX will make an unmanned mission to the station - a big step forward for private space in general, and a big step for SpaceX toward getting its capsule "human-rated." As SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell put it: “SpaceX is excited to be the first commercial company in history to berth with the International Space Station. This mission will mark a historic milestone in the future of spaceflight. We appreciate NASA’s continued support and their partnership in this process.”
Bon voyage!

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Missing a few moon rocks

NASA hunts for samples
NASA's Inspector General reports the agency, which has thousands of lunar, meteorite, and (a VERY few) cometary specimens. When it loans them out, though, they don't always come back on time - or at all.  NASA promises that, after hundreds of small but irreplaceable samples vanished since 1970, it will tighten its procedures.

Best cryptozoology books of 2011

What's worth reading in cvryptozoology?
Loren Coleman has provided his always-fascinating annual list.  He did not try to narrow it to a top 10, but the #1 is Richard Coniff's fascinating The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.  (I'll post my own review of this one soon. Coniff chronicles the adventures and the philosophy behind the historical and continuing search for new species, along with a discussion on how taxonomy is way, way more complicated than we realized. 
The other books listed span a variety of topics, from regional collections of "monster" tales to books based on personal experience (including Tracking Bigfoot, by my friend Lori Simmons), two new tomes on Loch Ness, and two books by skeptics, Nickell and Radford.  It's going to take me some time to get through all these, as my reading of late has all been on missile technology for my "real job." If you want to get me something for Christmas, you know where to look!

My apologies

I've had to say this way too many times in the past, but, if you will bear with me, I know the blog has been very hit-and miss the last couple of weeks. Three solid days of jury duty plus business travel plus illness in the family just kind of swamped me, while a lot of important stuff has been happening in zoology, space exploration, and more. I'll try to catch you up, and I hope this is the last time I'll have to make this post!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nest of the Yeti?

Structures found in Russia
If there are unidentified giant primates (called sasquatch, yeti, or countless other names in different regions), where do they sleep? One idea is that they build nests by twisting branches and small trees together as nests (some of which might be called crude mattresses)  in gorilla fashion, and even shelters, which known nonhuman primates don't make. An expedition in search of Russian "Yeti" evidence led, as Ben Radford of the Skeptical Inquirer reports here, to a split between the two most prominent North American scientific investigators, with Drs. Jeff Meldrum and John Bindernagel divided on whether structures found in Russia added to the evidence in favor of such creatures.
COMMENT: Such structures have been reported in North America. In areas where humans are at least occasional visitors, I thought they were likely made by kids making wigwams, forts, camp beds, etc. I did the same thing myself growing up in Florida.  That's not the explanation for all such sites, but maybe it applies more often than is usually realized.  Kids can push pretty deep into the woods seeking their own worlds.

Deep-sea fishing goes back a long way

East Timor find pushes back timeline
Humans, ever since their ancestors waded into streams hunting for food, have relied on the bounty of the world's waters. Fishing in the open sea, though, was only thought to go back about 12,000 years.   Not so.  Bone fishooks and fish bones from a site in East Timor show people were catching tuna, an open-sea species, 42,000 years ago.  The hooks have the basic modern shape, although without barbs.  There is no evidence to say the people involved told stories of the big one that got away... but no doubt they did.
COMMENT: This is one more bit of evidence of how capable ancient people were in marine environments. We know they crossed the sea to Australia some 50,000 years ago, and now we know they ventured away from the coasts to fish.  It adds plausibility to the idea (still not proven, though) that people might have come to the Americas by sea instead of by land bridge. 

The return from space

Three astronauts visit a small planet
The return to Earth from space has never been more beautifully documented than in this time-lapse video, set to the music of Peter Gabriel, following three astronauts as they descend toward Earth from the International Space Station. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Anti-Darwin site takes Onion article as reality

Referred to nonexistent news conference

The site is dedicated to refuting Darwin. Well, as Darwin explicitly said he expected would happen, some parts of his 1859 work HAVE been refuted or replaced by better theories, and other aspects are still mysteries.  I have sympathy with Lynn Margulis' point that "natural selection" has become a deified term that explains everything, instead of a basic idea that is still in the process of refinement.  (Finally, while I fully believe in evolution/natural selection of physical forms over billions of years, as a Christian, I think there was something more at work in producing beings - us - that are spiritually self-aware.  Yes, I know purely deterministic ideas have been put forth to explain our theological leanings. I just don't find them convincing.)
OK, that was a very long digression, so back to what inspired this post.  The author of this site seems to have, to put it politely, gone off the rails. In this article, he challenges the standard view of history, saying the Greek civilization never existed. His source: The satirical site The Onion, which published a humor piece saying National Geographic held a news conference to announce Greek civilization's record was faked.  Seriously, he believes this is real. 
(I could have made a Comment on the darwinthenandnow site pointing out the absurdity, but I'm more interested in just watching it and seeing how long it takes before the whole page disappears.)
The point: if you want to challenge science, fine: challenging existing wisdom is how science advances. But you have to use science, not fiction.

Onion article

Lynn Margulis, R.I.P.

One of the giants of biology, and one of the most prominent women in science, has died. Biologist Lynn Margulis was 73. She developed the initially-ridiculed theory of symbiogenesis - describing how variations could develop out of the sharing of genes with microorganisms inside a host body - which is now accepted as a major contributor to evolution. I've read some of Margulis' work for general audiences,  and she comes through as a brilliant intellect who could also explain things in a way a non-biologist could understand.  ( I shoiuld mention Margulis later doubted the HIV-AIDS link and rejected some key tenets of what Darwin said about how evolution worked, but her reputation was assured by her work on how evolution DID work).


Thursday, November 24, 2011

New mammal from Vietnam

Thanksgiving greetings!
The new species of ferret-badger from Vietnam was first spotted in 2006 in the form of an injured specimen that was rescued, but died, and apparently was not properly considered for new-species status. It was five years before another one was spotted, and now the official word is out.  There is nothing a zoologist likes better to celebrate a holiday than a new mammal! Welcome to Melogale cucphuongensis sp.nov, the fifth species in its genus.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Invasion of Mars Continues

Earth probes - plans and travails

Earth probes have far from a perfect record in reaching the Red Planet.  Part of this is simply that flying to Mars is hard (not to mention costing $1M a kilogram).  A cartoon made at NASA a long time ago showed a probe-eating monster, called the Great Galactic Ghoul.
The Ghoul is still at work, but Earth scientists never give up on exploring their #1 planetary destination. After Russia's innovative Phobos-Grunt mission to a Martian moon failed to leave Earth orbit (controllers have not entirely given up hope of salvaging it), Russia may join in planned US-European Space Agency (ESA) missions planned for 2016 onwards.  ESA is worried the US may pull out - and it might, given NASA's budget woes.
First, though, comes the next effort - the largest, most complex Mars rover ever, Curiosity, will he carried on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, to launch at 10AM EST this Saturday.  Go for Mars!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Kepler in the corn field

Farmers honor space program There are, it seems, seven "space farms" around the country where the corn mazes popular at Halloween have been designed to honor spacecraft. I'd never heard of this story before. Here is the Kepler telescope in a field in California. Kudos to America's farmers for this one!

Whale Fossils in the Desert = Mystery

Cetacean cemetary in Chile's Atacama Desert "I came here for the waters. For my health." "We're in a desert!" "I was misinformed." (OK, I used that reference last year for a fossil penguin found in a desert and no one laughed. So somebody laugh, please.) Dozens of whale skeletons have turned up in one tiny spot in Chile's Atacama Desert. Most are baleen whales, with a sperm whale mixed in along with a specimen of the bizarre "walrus dolphin," previously knwn only from Peru. Two to seven million years old, the remains (still being excavated) provoke an obvious question - what happened? The presence of other species would seem to rule out a mass stranding. Paleontologists never lack for mysteries.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Two rhinos declared extinct

Bad news for rhinos

The IUCN has declared that two subspecies of rhino are leaving the planet - and not from natural causes.  Tthe the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) of Central Africa is  "possibly extinct in the wild" while a subspecies of the western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) in Western Africa is extinct, period.
COMMENT: This is not only sad for the rhinos, but scary for conservation in general. If we can't protect small populations of conspicuous, easily tracked animals, will we even know if more elusive animals become extinct? And the Javan rhino, a full species, has lost its Asian mainland population and is hanging on by its toenails.  We need to work harder!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Finding the sasquatch film site

Where was the famous film made? There is no moment more famous in the history of sasquatch-hunting, probably none in cryptozoology, than the day in 1967 when Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin claimed to have encountered a large female sasquatch and displayed as proof a 16mm film. The film has become the most analyzed amateur movie in history, except possibly for the Zapruder film. If there has ever been a genuine film of a North American primate, this is it. If it's a hoax, it was expertly done. So exactly where did the filming take place? I had always assumed it had been gone over a thousand times, but apparently some doubt crept in. The Bluff Creek Film Site Project took four years, trying to narrow it down beyond doubt. Now they think they've got it. So now what? Well, having the spot narrowed down, even after 44 years, should allow for more accurate evaluation of the film. There are already whole books on this incident: I'm sure we can now expect more.

Metal 100x lighter than styrofoam

World's lightest metallic substance We know about aerogels, substances so light they are called "frozen smoke." But the boffins (I like that old british word) at the University of California have something more: a metallic substance composed of minitubes and so light the photo here shows it sitting on top of a dandelion puff. Where will this kind of research lead? Well, a kilogram of payload bound for Mars costs $1M to ship. Aerospace engineers might be the first users, but contruction engineers and carmakers also come to mind. We'll just have to see.

Faster than light? Weird, but not dead

CERN eliminates on source of error The report than neutrinos beamed from Switzerland to Italy had traveled faster than light (perhaps they had a craving for cannoli?) set physics abuzz. Several possible error modes were postulated. The folks at CERN say now they have eliminated one source of error. It was suggested the experimenters may have mistimed the moment of transmission. Now that's been ruled out. The original result may still be a mistake - most physicists still think it much be - but no one has proven it yet.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Europa: To a Watery Moon

Europa in the News Jupter's moon Europa has interested astronomers since Galileo found it 401 years ago. It has a surface of water ice, with a liquid water ocean, but that ocean was thought to lie at least 10km under the crust, too deep for a future mission to sample. But more sophisticated modeling, informed by studying ice sheets on Earth, indicates at least some bodies of liquid only 3km down: shallow enough to drill to. Among the possible discoveries: life, at least on a one-celled scale. Now, will the Europa missions proposed in the US and elsewhere for the 2020s get funded? That's as big a mystery as... well, whether there is life on Europa.

NASA: News is not good

Whatever you think of the Adminstration's NASA policy, when you combine it with the general fiscal crisis and Congressional priorities, the results are alarming planetary scientists. Participation in a joint Mars mission with ESA is up in the air, as are almost all planetary missions not already well into the pipleine. While Mars enthusiast Robert Zubrin's published claim that all future science missions were dead is an exaggeration, the recent House-Senate conference report on NASA offers an immediate budget cut with no prospects of restoration.  Given all that, funding the Webb space telescope and the Space Launch System is not going to leave much money for any new initiatives.
COMMENT: It would be nice to see the aerospace giants offer to fund some small science missions as a public service.  NASA, Lockheed Martin, Norhtrop Grumman, etc. all prosper when NASA prospers. 

Thanks, Beyond the Edge radio

We had a great interview Sunday.  I was a little apprehensive because Beyond the Edge radio includes all kinds of paranormal topics I don't get into.  But it was a superb interview, with a lot of time spent on why cryptozoology is (and sometimes is not) scientific and the role of the amateur in modern sceince (a lot more important than most people realize, whether it's asteroid-hunting or finding new insects.)  We also delved into my other passion, space exploration, at some length and made a brief venture into the crossover between developmental aircraft projects and UFO reports.  Thanks to Eric and company for a good time.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Interview on Cryptozoology

Catch me 8PM EST Sunday - thanks to Eric at Byond the Edge Radio for an invitation to discuss cryptozoology.  I consider myself an open-minded skeptic: a believer in the validity of cryptozoology, but a skeptica about claims that don't make sense from an ecological or zoological point of view.

"Join us as we return live Sunday Nights at 8:00 pm ET to 10:00 pm as Eric Altman, Lon Strickler, and the crew bring you the best in Alternative Talk Radio that promises to take you... Beyond The Edge. With the FRESH topics, great guests and an all around bizarre time, you never know what to expect! Tune in to find out what all the talk is about.

Listen live by clicking on the listen live and chat tab and click listen live or visit"

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Encounter Africa in Colorado Springs

Elephants need a new pad

The half-century old elephant barn at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is being demolished. The elephants, in the next phase of the zoo's Encounter Africa project, will reappear in spacious modern quarters.  Good going, Zoo!  The zoo has always been exemplary - more so in that it receives no public funds, yet manages to raise enough to provide quality habitats and programs such as black-footed ferret breeding. 

Now That's a Croc!

Now that's a croc!

A Phillipine village now claims it has the biggest live crocodile in the world. Pronounced to be over 6 meters (20 feet, 4 inches if you prefer) by an Australian expert, the crocodile is drawing tourists at 500 a day, and Guiness is looking into the new world record. 
COMMENT: It looks like it belongs in a Jurassic Park movie, not a pen in a remote village. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Human v Chimp - How different?

From House, M.D. -
Dr. Foreman: "Her oxygen saturation is normal."
Dr. House: "It's off by one percentage point."
Foreman: "It's within range. It's normal."
House: "If her DNA was off by one percentage point, she'd be a dolphin."

We're not that close to dolphins, but we've heard interminably that humans and chimps share 98% (give or take 1%) of our DNA with chimps. Well, then why are we different in many obvious ways? According to researchers at Georgia Tech, that nearly-identical genome is significantly affected by gaps (not physical gaps, but areas filled by "junk" sequences called retrotransposons) surrounding the genes and determining which genes are expressed (turned on) and which are not. That raises some interesting mad-scientist experimentation ideas for the writers of Crichton-type fiction.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Keeping students in a tough field

Everyone, including the President, thinks we need to graduate more engineers. But the dropout rate is double that for most majors. The causes include some obvious ones - STEM fields are tough and students often under-prepared - and some I would not have thought of, such as that grade inflation has made humanities degrees an easier route to a high GPA. This article recommends more innovative approaches to the "death march" first and second years, including more project-based learning.
COMMENT: I went to USC totally unprepared, and left Aerospace Engineering after getting a 2 on a 100-point calculus test. There were freshman projects, but I didn't get that far. I have always thought there was more one-on-one guidance and interaction needed: accept fewer students, give them more help, and you'll end up graduating more. But no one asks me.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Monkey business in China

I'm not sure what this is. Not a monkey, certainly. A loris, perhaps? Awfully cute.

Update: And the winner is... spotted cuscus! Not a native of China, so apparently a local zoo wasn't sure what to make of it.

Loss of diversity makes everything verse

OK, the pun was terrible. But the point is important. Why does life survive mass extinctions, and why does it take longer in some cases to recover species diversity than in other cases? Scientists looking at the Permian-Triassic extinction, 250 MYA, say they can trace cause and effect. Loss of diversity begets more loss of diversity, and recovery is slower when there are fewer species (in other words, fewer respoitories of unique genomes) to work with. It may be worse when it's the big (apex) predators and herbivores are the ones to go. As Prof Jessica Whitesides, concerned about modern extinctions, puts it, “We’re showing that low-diversity systems take a long time to recover. When you destroy links in the food web, effects exist that are difficult to see. Normally when people think of extinctions, it’s of single species. This is a systems approach.”

A new look at new species

This almost gets monotonous. Ho hum, another group of experts find hundreds of beautiful and exotic new species.
OK, it's not monotonous. It's wonderful. Explore!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Three new bat species for Halloween

What's Halloween without bats? Here are three new species from Southeast Asia - all looking suitable weird from a human point of view. Scientists note they have such refined sonar systems they detect and avoid the mist nets usually used to snare birds and bats for study. Also noted (sigh) is that all three are endangered by deforestation.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

NASA IG annoys every sane citizen

OK, I accept NASA's position that all moon rocks, even tiny slivers, are Federal property unless paperwork has been done giving someone else ownership. So an elderly Florida woman's sample, which she says Neil Armstrong gave to her husband and he says he did not, may technically remain government property. So NASA has a right to ask for it back. Instead, the NASA inspector general arranged a massive raiding party of its own personnel and local law enforcement to terrorize the poor woman in a ridiculous, heavy-handed response totally unmerited by the circumstances. Keith Cowing of NASAWatch is on something of a crusade here. Good for him.

Reminder: All posts are solely the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dolphin Day - sensing electric fields

Sharks can sense the electrical fields generated by the nervous systems of fish. That looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment on the front of a hammerhead shark kind of is a vacuum cleaner attachment, or maybe a mine detector - use whatever human analogy you will. But the platypus is the only mammal that can sense electrical fields. Or so we thought, until one species of dolphin proved to have it, too.
COMMENT: Dolphins have big brains, smart hunting strategies, sonar, AND electrical sensing? Fish are screwed.

Dolphin Day- "Here's how to hunt, you idiots."

If you're a fish trying to hide from a hungry dolphin and you see a large conch shell, you may want to duck inside it. That would be a bad idea. Indopacific bottlenose dolphins have figured out that, if you get the fish in there and use the tip of your beak to keep it there, you can grab the whole shell, take it to the surface, and dump the contents into your mouth. Surprisingly (or perhaps not?), more dolphins seem to be catching on to the trick. These critters learn fast.

Dolphin Day - Social networking and cetaceans

Sex-seeking male dolphins (in one species, at least) have wingmen to help "look for chicks." Really. Dolphins are turning out to be so human that, if we could just teach them how to lie, they could run for Congress.
COMMENT: Actually, they probably can lie. But would they want to be in politics? After a day hanging out with sea slugs, hagfish, sharks, and slime eels, why make it worse and be surrounded by lawyers?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

NASA moves to protect Apollo sites on the Moon

The Apollo landing sites should be preserved forever as milestones in human history, but there's technically nothing to prevent someone from going up and mucking around with them (the only thing forbidden is actually taking the hardware, which remains U.S. government property).
NASA is working on it. In this article, Leonard David describes how the space agency has drafted guidelines to protect sites of manned and robotic lunar exploration. NASA would prohibit any unofficial visits to the two most significant sites - Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 - and limitations on human or robotic visits (like those of Google Lunar X-Prize landers) - to the other locations.
COMMENT: We don't think nearly often enough about how to maintain what we're doing here and now as a record of future generations to understand what we were like and why we valued the things we did. This is an important first step.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Skeptic takes on sasquatch

Skeptical investigator Ben Raford once offered 10 reasons sasquatch didn't exist, such as lack of fossils, lack of bodies, etc. Most of his points (read them in the title link on Cryptomundo) strike me as valid, but I have to throw the flag on this one:
"“The last large animal to be found was probably the giant panda, and that was 100 years ago,” said Radford. “There has not been a single new creature that doesn’t fit the recognized taxonomy discovered in the last century, there just simply hasn’t.” He lated confined his comment to human-sized or larger land animals.

Ben, I respect you, but on this point you're still wrong.

Start with the 500-kg kouprey in 1937.
Then to what I wrote in the post:
"First, how did the the Vu Quang ox (new genus) get overlooked? You can argue whether the 100-lb giant muntjac qualifies as human-sized, but I think it does. Then you have creatures like the Bili apes, the mainland population of the Javan rhino, and the Bardia elephants did not end up meriting new taxonomic classifications, but they are examples of how populations of very large and distinctive animals went unnoticed by scientific. Add the huge populations – I mean really huge – of recently discovered gorillas and elephants, and the suggestion that there are no big mammals left is as unpersuasive as when Simpson made it in 1984."

The eminent George Gaylord Simpson wrote in 1984 that only a "few small and unimportant mammals" were likely to turn up. He was wrong. Big-time. Discovery of new mammals is going up, not down.

The Patterson-Gimlin film: Sasquatch at 44

Sasquatch really hit the bigtime in 1967, with a film that looked, at first viewing, very impressive. It's still impressive - IF there has ever been a genuine film of Sasquatch, this is it. Cryptomundo offers new analysis and comments on the film's 44th "birthday." I won;t rehash the endlessly-fought-over technical points, but here's what I added on this site:

"I too am very reluctant to overinterpret the blobs of light and shadow on an image 1.8mm high blown up countless times. But the biggest problem I have with declaring it authentic is the lack of anything as impressive for the last 44 years. Sure, there are still long odds against a close-range encounter with a camera-armed non-panicking human, but those odds are a heck of a lot better in the camcorder/cell phone age than they were in the days of the P-G encounter. I think I’ve looked at everything posted on Cryptomundo without once being as impressed as I am by P-G, which hints to me that P-G is a fluke in the sense of being an exceptionally convincing fake."

Mastodon hunting in early Americas

When did people first get to North America? The long-held theory that pre-Clovis people came no earlier than 12,000 years ago has hung on way too long (I never liked it, but no one cared what I thought.) Anyway, a mastodon tusk found near Seattle and penetrated by a spear point has been dated to 13,800 years old. If people ad reached that far south, they came over earlier than thought. Frankly, I think we'll keep pushing this date back. I would not be surprised if, in another 20 years, the textbooks will start the peopling of the Americas over 30,000 years back.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Big ideas from Small Satellite conferences

Thanks to Leonard David for a good article on the August Conference on Small Satellites. The quotes were accurate, and Leonard even humored me to adding a note that my views were not officially those of my company (even good companies look askance if you seem to be speaking for them when you're not. I mastered the art of the disclaimer a long time ago.)
I think the most important point I made here is that smallsat knowledge has reached a tipping point, where a space agency can now exist anywhere in the world and can be anything from a huge government effort to a kid with a soldering iron an an Internet-ordered CubeSat kit. Who knows the ramifications of that? None of us do - yet.

The Galapagos: Unique meeting of man and nature

The place that inspired The Origin of Species is still pretty unusual. This is a trip I have to take some day. The unique inhabitants, including turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, cormorants, penguins (what are penguins doing on a tropical island?) and so on, still show no fear of humans. Snorkelers report the delightful experience of sea lions coming up to look at their own reflections in scuba masks. The difficult balance between allowing tourism for needed revenue and keeping tourist numbers and activities restricted enough to avoid spooking the wildlife seems, so far, to be holding. The Earth is still full of magic...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

No faster-than-light neutrinos? Darn.

Well, the experiment that appeared to show a beam of neutrinos traveling faster than light appears to be a goof. The CERN researchers who made the claim may not have properly taken into account the motion of the GPS satellites providing the timing signal that seemed to show neutrinos being detected .64 nanoseconds too fast for normal travel between the transmitted in Switzerland and the receiver in Italy.
COMMENT #1 - most people don't realize that GPS satellites don't just provide location. The GPS constellation also provides the world's most accurate timing information, used by scientists, militaries, etc. worldwide.
COMMENT #2 - This article headlines that she shouldn't fire up our faster-than-light (FTL) spaceship drives just yet. True, but it's another opportunity to point out that a vigorous community of talented scientists and engineers are looking at how we can realistically achieve interstellar travel with spacecraft moving at up to half lightspeed. See

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Purple sponges cover reef off English coast

The world's largest chalk reef - a reef carved out by the action of water in a chalk formation rather than built up by tiny tropical organisms - lies only 100m in some places off the coast of Norfolk. On in, amateur divers found large numbers of a purple sponge that might seem more at home in the oceans of Europa than Europe. It is indeed a new species, just offshore from a teeming coast in a heavily fished area, and somehow either no one found it or everyone ignored it.
COMMENT: Have I said enough times that discoveries are often right under our noses, if only we are alert to them?

The world under the ice

Scientists are planning an new expedition to Antarctica to set up a drilling rig that will use hot water to melt its way through ice. A lot of ice.
Starting next November, the team will meal a borehole 36cm wide through 3,000m of ice to an ancient lake that apparently stays liquid thanks to geothermal heat. They expect to find single-celled life forms that will tell us a great deal about the time, a half mission years in the past, when the lake was "trapped" under ice. A huge uncertainly is how to handle the enormous pressure the water has built up - as much as 2,700 atmospheres. The drilling equipment and hose had to be custom-built for the task. and the researchers will endure brutal conditions to carry out the task.
COMMENT: Yes, there is still adventure in science. More than most people could handle.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Kraken sleepeth?

Truly gigantic squids, long known in myth as the Kraken, were thought to be only myth, even though modern evidence suggests living giant squids up to 20m long are possible.
The later Peter Benchley once wrote that a prominent teuthologist who asked not to be named would not be surprised if a 40m squid turned up. Now from the world of paleontology comes the suggestion that such giants lived a very long time ago. It's circumstantial evidence - a collection of bones of huge, apparently violently killed 14-m icthyosaurs from over 200 million years ago - but paleontologist Mark McMenamin thinks it's the logical explanation.
COMMENT: Expect a lot of pushback - he's making a very dramatic claim without hard evidence for it. But if he's willing to advance and defend his work, then who knows what others may find pursuing this lead and looking for better evidence?

Dust-up over Snowman

There's a lot of commentary flying around about an international effort to locate the purported large primate of south-central Siberia. This is near the location where a new ancestor, recently described Homo denisiova, was recently described, and it's natural to wonder if "snowman" reports in modern times might relate to the same primate or its descendant. Skeptical writer Benjamin Radford thought that, essentially, the whole field of "hominology" is so riddled with exaggeration and slipshod science that there's nothing solid to grab on to. Here Dr. Jeff Meldrum argues that, whatever the value of particular bits of evidence and particular claims, there is something very much worth investigating.
COMMENT: Sure, there is a very slipshod component in cryptozoology. The Siberian snowman does not seem to me one of the better cases. But if serious people like Meldrum want to investigate, I cheer them on. It's still a big world out there.

North America was not always primate-free

OK, we're primates, but you know what I mean. Long before humans trod the land bridge (or sailed south of it - the evidence is mixed and intriguing). A new species of fossil primate, Mescalerolemur horneri, has been dug out of West Texas in an area called the Devil's Graveyard. Anthropologist Chris Kirk says Mescalerolemur seems more closely related to fossil primates from Africa and Eurasia than to others known from North America. Going back 14 million years, it's an intriguing piece of a puzzle we still know very little about.

A giant, for a limpet

We humans are naturally fascinated by huge creatures, so it's hard to get us excited about anything 14mm long. However, when 14mm is huge for a specific type of animal, that's very interesting to science. A limpet-like mollusk from Antarctica (Zeidora Antarctica, of course), which is three times as long as the 5mm normal for its genus.
COMMENT: As I say so often - the discoveries are everywhere. Keep up the search!

Explaining a UFO artifact

UFO researchers have long been on a search for physical evidence of postulated alien technology. A fellow named Bob White has spent years writing and talking about a very odd-looking bit of metal he ways was deposited by an alien spaceship. There's no question it's odd, looking like an elongated pine cone and containing an amalgam of metals that didn't make any sense. In this case, though, it eventually did make sense when the right person saw it. The result:
"The object in question is made of accreted grinding residue. It forms in a manner similar to a common stalagmite when metal castings are “cleaned” on large stationary grinders."
COMMENT: I think there are unexplained aerial phenomena, but most likely they are natural. There's no question the concept of alien visitors is compelling: No one would be more fascinated than I to learn "they" were actually here. But I haven't seen anything that convinces me yet.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Students can be scientists, wherever they are

On Staten Island, these students are doing real science. Salamanders, their teacher explains, are easily ignored, yet can be a bellwether for ecological changes. So these New York middle-schoolers are collecting data for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. They and their teachers are turning over rocks, nosing through leaf litter, and learning how to find, identify, and evaluate the population of salamanders in their parks and other green spots of the city.

COMMENT: Real kids, real science. Is there a better way to motivate the scientists of the future? Every city and town in the country should be doing projects like this.

Friday, October 07, 2011

A frog that meows?

Yep. The meowing night frog and 11 other new species, plus three presumed-extinct (or at least long-missing) types, turned up in a study of the frogs of western India, conducted in several trips from 1994 through last year. . A bit like the just described Australian boulder frogs (see entry below), the 3.5 cm Nyctibatrachus poocha lurks in crevices in the rock most of the time. The name "poocha" means "domestic cat" in the local language.

These and more new and surprising Indian amphibians are collected at

Hop to it!

New Aussie frog species climb (not hop) into view

The golden-capped boulder frog is a handsome looking creature by amphibian standards, a golden-brown animal with long limbs and fingers. It and its fellow new species, the kutini boulder frog, also have large triangular finger pads, another adaptation for rock-climbing in a habitat where hopping is really not a good way to get around. Indeed, these frogs simply don't hop. The new frogs are abut 5 cm long, eat mainly ants, and lay eggs in which the tadpoles develop all the way to the mini-frog level. Their discoverer, Dr. Conrad Hoskin, says they stay deep in the cracks of boulders until night or rain brings them out.
COMMENT: Nature is like the Steve Jobs of the universe: it never runs out of new ideas.
I hope someone names a new species after Steve, by the way. Something unique and unexpected.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Mind-boggling photo from orbit

This shows two Soyuz spacecraft backlit by the aurora. Breathtaking.

Nobel for Chemistry: A Dramatic story in science

Prof Daniel Shechtman of Israel won the Nobel in chemistry for his discovery of a new from of condensed matter, quasicrystals - a find that got him ridiculed for years. Crystals are big on symmetry. You cut one in half, it looks the same on both sides - your turn one a quarter or a half turn, it looks the same. Shechtman found crystals in patterns that could not be repeated so easily - they had pentagonal symmetry. Turn a quasicrystal a half-turn and it no longer looks the same, but if you go back to the starting position and turn it a fifth of a turn, it DOES look the same. He saw this in 1982, but it was decades before anyone could stop throwing rocks long enough to provide the ultimate proof - growing quasicrystals in a lab. Congratulations to a pioneer!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

International team chases yeti

08 is the catalyst for an international gathering In the Kemerova region of Siberia to hunt of scientists and researchers from the U.S., Russia and other nations to exchange information on the long-sought Yeti/almas/snowman/whatever it is. After conferring, they will put on their parkas and start out after the creature. (There's a good image here of the 35-cm footprint found by a Japanese expedition in 2008, although it was in Nepal, a LONG way from Siberia and therefore not really pertinent.)
COMMENT: The odds are long, but the idea that some kind of large primate has adapted to life in mountain passes and alpine forests isn't crazy. I will them success.

And the Nobel goes to....

For physics, it goes to Saul Perlmutter​, Brian Schmidt​ and Adam Reiss, who, in work beginning in 1998, proved the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Think about that. It's a mind-blowing concept. If all matter is following the path set by an explosion, the Big Bang, 14B years ago, it should be slowing down thanks to entropy and all those gravitational tugs. It's not. This was a seriously W-T-F moment of human understanding. Dark matter? Dark energy? Evil spirits? Almost anything is possible in a universe as strange as this one.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Starship Symposium - Propulsion

Get your geek on:

Notes from sessions yesterday on interstellar propulsion. Basically, as hard and costly as this trick will be to solve, there ARE promising approaches to it. Make it so!

Propulsion Panel Notes

George Miley -
It’s popular to speculate on Helium-3 fusion, but H3 collection (from moon soil or gas giant planetary atmospheres) is a huge task by itself. Start with elements, even if less optimal, available on Earth.
Louis Freedman, President, The Planetary Society – Promoted lightsails as a near-term technology with great potential. Near-term missions could warn of solar weather, thanks to their ability to “hover” in a spot in interstellar space, and perform near Earth object (NEO) missions, leading to capability to steer NEOs with huge sails
Geoffrey Landis – Lightsails are a good technology, to be followed by nuclear engines. They may or may not lead to interstellar capabilities
Friedman – Simplify missions by taking =humans out of the loop. With advances in robotics and media technology, “being there” virtually is an improving option
Mr. Kammash, Project Icarus – No, we need humans in the loop to make it worthwhile for people to fund huge endeavors.
“Columbus would not have gotten funding for sending a frog on precursor mission.”
Suggested a new Icarus motto: “On to the stars: Cowards shoot for Mars.”
Landis – all propulsion research has value because a starship might have two or three systems, for instance, for accelerating, braking, and precise maneuvers
Miley: It’s all depended on cheaper access to orbit. We need more work to explore SSTOs, light gas guns, and directed energy-powered launches.

There's a lot more where this came from. They are taping the sessions, so we should see some on DARPA's website.

Friday, September 30, 2011

At the Starship Symposium

Wow. Long discussions on the physics of interstellar propulsion, by fission, fusion, and countless other methods. More to the point of this meeting, we also have the other sciences, the arts, politics, etc. NASA Ames Director Pete Worden spoke on how this is a nexus of history - space-related research has revolutionized physics, and epochal discoveries in the biosciences are close. Aerial Waldman introduced her website, a directory of ways for citizens to get directly involved in planet hunting, galaxy-hunting, and other space ventures. I went to two sessions on propulsion physics, and Dr. Mae Jemison's panel on the educational and cultural aspects of a spacefaring civilization. More details to come!

The IgNobel Prizes are out!

The IgNobel Peace Prize went to the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, Arturas Zuokas, got the peace prize for "demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored truck."

Well, was he wrong?

Other prizes went to a Japanese inventor whose fire alarm uses scent (wasabi) instead of smell, a study of why beetles mate, and a paper on how to procrastinate (even if the author never finished it. Rim Shot.) Do we need to understand the science of why tortoises yawn?

Oh well, it's all progress.

The Starship Symposium

Well, here I am at the DARPA/NASA 100-Year Starship Symposium. I'm in a nice hotel and I'm surrounded by hundreds of the best minds on the planet Earth. Sometimes in life you really do get a good day. I don't give a talk until Sunday, so I can just soak up the information.
Will be posting some of the good stuff.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

China's next great leap in space

China, the third nation in the world to launch its own astronauts on its own rockets, is ready for the next step. Within the week, China will launch a test module for rendezvous and docking experiments designed to lead, by 2020, for a permanent orbiting laboratory. (There have been off-and-on discussions about China as a partner on the International Space Station, but current limits on NASA-Chinese ventures, imposed by Congress, effectively rule it out.) The 8.5 ton module is named Tiangong 1 ("Heavenly Palace 1).” WIRED magazine here speculates it could be part of a much larger program including military objectives.
COMMENT: The author quotes the Union of Concerned Scientists as saying this is just a jobs program with no military implications, which is pretty funny considering the UCS thinks practically every U.S. mission has a dark military purpose behind it, and any time WE do rendezvous and docking experiments it's to improve our capability to attack other satellites. There is an inevitable overlap between almost any civilian and military space projects, and it remains to be seen just how much of the Chinese program is scientific and how much effort is devoted to "other purposes." But wearing my space geek hat, I would say this is an important milestone in said exploration, and I wish the Chinese all success.
Also, can we borrow some Chinese inspiration in the area of naming space vehicles. These are symbols of our world's greatness, or at least our potential greatness. China has the Heavenly Palace. We have the space station, space shuttle, and space launch system. Surely we can do better.

NOTE: All posts are, as usual, except sometimes even more emphatically, so, the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen,

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hail the black-footed ferret

A creature declared extinct twice deserves its won Web page, and Nat Geo has given it one. The little "outlaw" of the prairies was rediscovered for the second time 30 years ago and is increasingly repopulating the wild thanks to captive breeding and "ferret basic training" activities designed to fit young ferrets for a life in the wild. (Or they could just watch Animal Planet.) Anyway, major conservation success stories demand to be celebrated, and this is definitely one of them!

The Fried Egg Nebula

That's what astronomers have tagged this example, which shows a gigantic star at the center of two expanding shells of debris as it goes through the stages of stellar death. The star, 13,000 light years away, is a rare "yellow hypergiant" 20,000 times the mass of our sun.

Watch in wonder....

COMMENT: Surely they could have come up with a cooler nickname, like the "Target Nebula" or the "Robin Hood Nebula." Of course, the image came from an instrument called the Very Large Telescope. Seriously. We need to ship an emergency supply of cool names to Europe.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SpaceX is up to something even cooler

I love those folks at SpaceX - always something cooking. Now they've applied for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permit to fly the Grasshopper, an experimental reusable launch vehicle (RLV). The application says this gadget "consists of a Falcon 9 first stage tank, a single Merlin-1D engine, four steel landing legs and a support structure, plus other pressurization tanks attached to the support structure." Thunderbirds are GO!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Throwing the baby sea serpent out with the seawater

A story often repeated by those delving into sea serpents that that Captain William Hagelund in 1968 briefly caught, then release, a "baby Cadborosaurus" the sea serpent reported to haunt the coastal waters of Canada and the US Paficic Northwest). Hagelund sketched and released the creature. Now Dr. Darren Naish has published a paper with a likely identity: the seaman was not a hoaxer, nor a sea serpent pioneer. He was followed by an odd-looking creature, the Bay pipefish. Naish writes: "Pipefishes are not all that familiar and are rarely encountered. They also do weird stuff that most people would find unexpected: they can produce a neck-like region by bending and raising the anterior part of the body ....and can even raise the head above the water surface, for example."
COMMENT: I think he's likely nailed it. I never knew what to make of the "baby" stories (there is one other a bit like Hagelund's) and wrote them off as, if not false, then unprovable without a definite creature to compare them to.
BTW, there are lots of good links in Naish's blog post to other examinations of marine carcasses and other evidence. Cryptozoologists whould all give it a read.

Who's got the UARS?

OK, I was straining for a witty headline this time. But it appears an item I reposted the other day was false - we do not, in fact, have good reports of UARS debris landing in Canada, only a hoax by a guy with a Twitter account. He calls it a "social experiment." All kinds of news organizations picked it up without question. So it proves again the fragility of information in the Information Age. (There may still be debris in Canada, as it was within the possible impact zone, but there's little doubt most of it lies under the trackless Pacific. So a sigh of relief is heard from NASA HQ).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: Fishing fun with Jeremy Wade

River Monsters
by Jeremy Wade
Da Capo Press, 2011
The host of River Monsters here unspools his adventures with rod and reel. Wade is clearly a master at the craft of fishing, but he makes it clear here that sometimes he's benefited from dumb luck. He has caught (and, when practical, released) the largest freshwater fishes on every inhabited continent. Along the way, he has plenty of harrowing adventures, in the water and out. Wade explains some points of fish biology (for example, adapting to fresh v. salt water) and conservation concisely and clearly. He also has some tidbits for the cryptozoologist. Remember, Wade is the guy who filed an "impossible animal:" a river dolphin with a weird sawtooth back, which turned out to be a wildly unlikely survivor of being hacked with a machete by a fisherman. He investigates Lake Iliamna (finding some data I did not, although the reverse is also true) and comes to the same conclusion I did, that it's an undocumented population of white sturgeon. This book is gripping fun from beginning to end.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

UARS satellite vs. Earth: Earth 1, Satellite 0

Falling satellites may be big objects, but eventually they slam into an object missions of times larger, and a graceful orbital path becomes a tumble, then a fiery splat. Or splash. NASA's UARS, including an estimated 26 parts/pieces capable of surviving its disintegration on reentry, hit last night, mainly in the Pacific Ocean, but producing some reports of debris on the ground in Canada. No injuries or property damage have been reported.
NASA was originally uncertain of the impact points. NASA spokesman Stephen Cole said, “It could have fallen into the Pacific. It could have continued a little further into Canada. But we don’t have confirmation of that.” The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, plus some phone calls from Canada, eventually shed more light on the satellite's fate.

Step forward for space cooperation

This is a step forward on a subkject I have long been urging needs more attention. No one nation can afford to do everything it wants to in space.

From NASA:
Global Exploration Roadmap was developed by the ISECG and is the culmination of work by 12 space agencies, including NASA, over the past year to advance coordinated space exploration.

The roadmap begins with the International Space Station and expands human presence throughout the solar system, leading ultimately to human missions to explore the surface of Mars. The first iteration of the roadmap flows from this strategy and identifies two potential pathways: "Asteroid Next" and "Moon Next." Each pathway represents a mission scenario over a 25-year period, describing a logical sequence of robotic and human missions. Both pathways were deemed practical approaches addressing common high-level exploration goals developed by the participating agencies — serving to inform individual agency decisions related to exploration preparatory activities.

The following space agencies participated in developing the GER (in alphabetical order): ASI (Italy), CNES (France), CSA (Canada), DLR (Germany), ESA (European Space Agency), ISRO (India), JAXA (Japan), (KARI (Republic of Korea), NASA (United States of America), NSAU (Ukraine), Roscosmos (Russia), UKSA (United Kingdom).

Hear, hear!

Skepticism and cryptozoology

From a recent Facebook chat with Ben Radford:
I've noodled at this problem before. One the one hand, I find it ridiculous that there exists some conspiracy to cover up cryptid animals. But I must say there are things that bug me about what might be called "the skeptical community." I see skepticism properly directed against the claims of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) skeptics, but very rarely even the most shaky or exaggerated claims of AGW supporters. I am annoyed every time I see cryptozoology - properly, the name of a hard science pursing hard evidence of real animals - lumped in "the paranormal" with fields that do not or cannot produce any such evidence. It is true that many people pursuing cryptozoology pursue unscientific methods and make wild claims, but that no more invalidates the science than crank physicists invalidate physics. (I don;t reject a priori all the phenomena claimed under "the pararmormal" - the universe is very big and very weird - but it's just not accurate to lump in cryptozoology as if it used the same methodology.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Breaking the lightspeed limit?

One thing physicists have agreed on for a long time is that nothing can exceed the speed of light, 292,700 km per second. But researchers in Europe say - very cautiously - that Einstein seems to be wrong. Experimenters at CERN appear to have shown that a beam of neutrinos traveled faster than light. To say this got everyone's attention is an understatement. Is this possible, and, if so, why did no one see it before? The CERN scientists are asking colleagues in other facilities to duplicate the experiment. They only announced it after painstaking checking of their instrumentation.
COMMENT: Wow. My first reaction would be the experiment has to be flawed. But these folks have gone about things the right way, looking for problems and then asking others to try and duplicate their results. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bonked by a satellite? Probably not

So the UARS satellite will reenter Friday. The potential debris zone was announced, unhelpfully as "from Newfoundland to Argentine." Now, your personal chance of getting killed by it are about 1 in 21 trillion. (No one has ever been killed by space debris. Accounts of people killed by natural debris (meteorites) are disputed, although it's probably happened.) This event does highlight the need for better rules about end-of-life/disposal mechanisms on all spacecraft. We have put thousands of tons of stuff in orbit and don't have a good handle on how to clear it out or deorbit it safely, although schemes ranging from deployable cone-shaped Mylar(TM) drag-inducers to microsatellites that will hunt down large spacecraft and use their own thrusters to steer them into the atmosphere or up into disposal orbits have been proposed.

Farewell, Tevatron

The Tevatron, America's mopst powerful "atom smasher" and the world's most powerful proton-antiproton collider, will shut down at the end of this month. Obsolete? No. Unaffordable? Sadly, that seems to be the thinking.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A new sparrow?

"God sees the little sparrow fall..." does He see them appear, too? Researchers in Norway are arguing a recent but distinct species, the Italian sparrow, has emerged from the mingling of the common house sparrow and the Spanish sparrow. The Italian sparrow shares habitat with the Spanish but doesn't breed with it and has enough differences in its DNA to differentiate it from either parent species. As this article points out, what constitutes a species remains fuzzy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NASA takes next step on private crew transport

NASA has launched a 2-year, $1.61B contract, to be split among yet-unnamed companies, to provide private transport of astronauts to the International Space Station. With the Shuttle retired and everything dependent on Russian crew transport, NASA's commercial spaceflight development director said, "Right now, we have a single-string failure for a $100-billion national lab. Every year we do not have a commercial crew capability, the station is at risk." SpaceX's Dragon will make the first unmanned visit to the ISS by a private reusable spacecraft later this year.

Raptors just keep getting nastier

Take this one, for example. This newly described 2-meter-long dinosaur, Talos sampsoni, has the characteristic hooked talons of its kind, but the middle toe really looks oversized, and damage to it shows the animal had put it to use in combat. This "switchblade" claw was held off the ground when walking. The species was discovered in southern Utah by a scientist looking for fossil turtles. Most related species have been described based on fossils from Asia, and the author of the study on this one says, "Finding a decent specimen of this type of dinosaur in North America is like a lighting strike. It's a random event of thrilling proportions."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Demon Fish by Juliet Eilperin

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.
by Juliet Eilperin
Pantheon, 2011

Nature books with a lot of first-hand reporting in them can get chatty, preachy, or precious. Juliet Eilperin has avoided these traps in her engrossing exploration of the relationship between humanity and sharks. She recounts her visits with shark callers, shark hunters, sharkfin soup makers, and many others, weaving them into a book that's both a natural history and a meditation on the changing ways humans think of, and alter, the natural world. This is not a book that goes into great detail about the history of sharks and the hundreds of species. Instead, Eilperin presents her facts judiciously, walking the fine line between too much and too little detail to serve her narrative. I thought I was well read on sharks (the books of Richard Ellis are a highly recommended starting point), but I learned a lot here, especially about the challenges of shark conservation and a closely related topic, the sharkfin soup trade. It is dismaying how unnecessary and wasteful this really is: the fact that sticks in my head is that only a rod of fin cartilage goes into the soup, meaning the amount of shark in a bowl of sharkfin soup can practically be measured in molecules. Eilperin romanticizes sharks a bit, but forgivably so. She hits hard on the fact that taking the apex predators out of any ecosystem has long-lasting, broad, and maybe irreversible effects. As a writer specializing in following the discovery of new species, I would have liked a little more information on how frequently this happens with sharks and how. That's a quibble, though. This is an excellent book that should, as the author clearly intends, add momentum to recent efforts to better understand and protect these ancient predators.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Planet orbits two suns.

"The planet's called Tatooine." - Luke Skywalker, in the Star Wars novelization. OK, it isn't but it might as well be. For a long time, scientists were not sure whether you could have a stable planetary system around a double star. Thanks to the Kepler telescope, we know you can. Kepler-16b, about the diameter of Saturn, exists 200 light years away. SInce most of the stars we've observed are in binary systems, this greatly increases the possible number of planetary systems.
COMMENT: The universe is more diverse, weirder, and more exotic than we used to know or even theorize - and that is proved all over again seemingly every year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are differing dolphin species "talking?"

Bottlenose and Guyana dolphins are different species with very different calls (among other things, bottlenoses use a lower frequency). When they mingle off the Costa Rican coast, though, each changes its "language" to something intermediate. Are they trying to mimic each other, or are they trying to find a common "tongue"? Researchers don't know yet.

NASA's Giant Booster: To boldly go..somewhere

The SLS has been unveiled, and the design is a monster of a booster. Its announced mission: to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit. Where to? Well, the President likes discussing an asteroid mission, and the moon and Mars are being discussed, but NASA can't be said to have published anything that really looks like a plan. I wish the SLS people all the best - given the constant political interference NASA is suffering, they will need diplomatic skills and luck in addition to engineering abilities to get this baby to the pad.

New dolphin species discovered!

Dolphins living off Melbourne, Australia, had been thought to be members of a common species, the bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus). Recently, though, researchers decided to take a closer look at the population. Differences in their skulls (measured in museum specimens) reinforced DNA evidence that these dolphins were a species unto themselves. Welcome Tursiops australis (known from an Aboriginal term as the Burrunan dolphin). There are only about 150 members of this species known to science, and they inhabit a very small area compared to most cetaceans. According to Kate Charlton-Robb of Monash University, "This is an incredibly fascinating discovery as there have only been three new dolphin species formally described and recognised since the late 1800s. What makes this even more exciting is this dolphin species has been living right under our noses."
COMMENT: Discovery is very often right under our noses...a lot of the stories in this blog have begun with someone having a thought like, "That creature looks a bit off..."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mystery from a war zone - the Kanahar cougar

Two war correspondents have reported how American troops in Afghanistan are watching, or being watch, by large felids the Americans have collectively nicknamed the "Kanahar cougar." To U.S. troops, they look like American pumas (cougars), although spots or stripes are sometimes reported. The correspondents and the troops they cover are debating whether these are merely exaggerated reports of caracals (max weight 18kg), hyenas wandering to the northern edge of their range, or something quite different. Interestingly, Afghan troops profess to be unfamiliar with any true big cat in their country except the very rare snow leopard and think the Americans are seeing things. The only video available to date shows caracals, but troops claim to be seeing cats more in the 50kg range. Hmmm....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New monkey discovered!

A new species is always a big deal to science, a new mammal an even bigger deal, and a new primate rates a full-blown celebration. A beautiful all-white monkey just turned up in the Sri Lankan rain forest. Researchers have confirmed it is not a case of occasional albino specimens but a new color morph of the southern purple faced leaf langur. It has been found in several locations, thanks to information given to scientists by treacle tappers. DNA testing is underway to determine its presumed identity as a new subspecies (a bit of a fuzzy distinction, as there is no real agreement on DNA differences and subspecies) and pin down its range for conservation.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Space Show blog on my appearance

This hits the highlights of what we discussed. Thanks, David!

9/11 remembrance on Mars

I didn't know this until now... pieces of metal from the World Trade Center wen into the Mars rovers, the noe-deceased Spirit and the still-exploring Opportunity, as cover pieces, painted with American flags. See a photo at the title link.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Blog had an off week

Sorry this wasn't a very well kept blog this week. I was ambushed by severals weeks' worth of other stuff all in one week. Tomorrow, back to science!

And as for NASA's Space Launch System

The internal budget/schedule briefing has leaked. And none of it looks good. Personal opinion? If SpaceX's Falcon Heavy performs, SLS will be canceled.

What will happen to the Webb telescope?

The James Webb space telescope is unquestionably a worthy project that will produce great scientific return. But at what cost? Overrun after overrun, schedule slip after schedule slip, has some people, even scientists, thinking of the $8.7B telescope as "the program that ate NASA" as other missions are cut to keep it going. Is it too big, with too much investment sunk in, to allow it to fail? Plus, I'm thinking about those intricate components that will have been in storage for more than a decade by the time it's launched. A mess. How would I rule if I were the President? I'd probably try to finish the job, but I'd hate myself and NASA for having to put up with this.

Science and 9/11

Good article on why the "truthers," sincere though they may be, are wrong on every claim about the physics involved in demolition claims concerning 9/11. Remember also that any complex event, especially one that has never happened before, will produce oddities, both material and in human perceptions. Believe the science. Honor the heroes based on the real events.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Type specimens: Do we need a whole sasquatch?

The short answer is No, we don't. But we need something.

The 1991 Bulo Burti shrike description reads,

"A new species of bush-shrike is described on the basis of the only known individual. The bird was captured in a disturbed Acacia thicket near the town of Bulo Burti by the Shabeelle River in central Somalia. Believed to represent a species near extinction, the bird was kept alive, studied in captivity and then released. The type material comprises moulted feathers, blood samples and DNA extracted from feather quills."

(Dr. Darren Naish (title link) separate-species identity was challenged in 2008 on the grounds the DNA was a match to a previously described species. Even if this is accepted, though, it does not invalidate the mechanism of the description: the initial controversy over that seems to have faded away in favor of acceptance.)

In establishing something as controversial as a new giant primate, I suspect that, in practice, there must be a well-documented chain of custody of the type material, and it must be available for examination by any qualified outside authority. In theory, any DNA is fine, but a morphologial sample, even a fingertip or scrap of skin, would help a lot.

This brings us back to the central problem of this crypto-primate business. Most individual cases (orang-pendek, yeti, etc.) find at least some claim to plausibility in a proferred explanation of why the animal has avoided ending up in a cage or on a wall mount. Even sasquatch, as outlandish as an undescribed giant primate on the North American continent may be, is not impossible, as Pyle argued quite well. But despite that and the fact there are unquestionably undiscovered mammals out there, we have this problem that a dozen or more reported populations (we'll sidestep the question of who is a separate species from whom) of very large mammals have ALL escaped description, when the Vu Quang ox 20 years ago was the last 100kg+ land mammal described. (That assumes the OTHER long-horned Vietnamese bovid, the much-debated linh duong is not valid, although I don't think that's settled.) These primates all seem possible individually, but the lack of a type specimen of ANY of them seems to verge on the impossible.
I think the orang-pendek of Sumatra and neighboring lands is very close to acceptance, but it may be the least outlandish of cypto-primate claims: it seems very close to the existing gibbons.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Ancient rhino was a living snowplow

From Tibet comes a new fossil species - a woolly rhino with a huge, flat, paddle-like horn that could have been used to clear snow off vegetation to allow grazing in the winter. (It's hard to think of any other use for it, really.) The animal was about the size of a modern rhino and lived 3.7 million years ago (MYA). See the title link for a really cool (ha ha) illustration of what this beast looked like.

Electric motor small as a molecule

In fact, it IS a molecule. Tufts University researchers have built a working electric motor out of a single molecule 1 nanometer in diameter. The previous record for smallest electric motor: 200 nanometers. Scientists say this could be used in devices that could, for example, work inside a tiny blood vessel.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Martha, the last passenger pigeon

Smithsonian magazine this month features Marta, a passenger pigeon who died in 1914, having lived alone at the Cincinnati Zoo despite a standing reward of $1,000, back when that was real money, for anyone who could bring in a live male. This article says the last wild sighting was in 1900: there are a few later ones mentioned in zoological or cryptozoological literature, but there's no doubt the species is now extinct. I've seen Martha, and there is kind of a pall of sadness surrounding her exhibit. People stop talking when they get close.
Audubon once saw a flock pass over his head that he estimated contained a billion individuals. A billion. At least a quarter of all birds in the U.S. at one time were passenger pigeons. If we can exterminate abundance like that, we can exterminate anything. Food for thought.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Gadgets: Canada builds stealth snowmobile

OK, the Canadian Armed Forces want a hybrid-motor snowmobile that will be much quieter than current models. But according to WIRED, no one is saying what sort of missions actually require this capability. Sneaking away from hockey games? Sneaking up on polar bears? I suppose the Bond movies will find some use for it.

Aye, that be Blackbeard's ship

A shipwreck off North Carolina that has, since its discovery in 1996, been presumed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge, skippered by Blackbeard, is now officially the vessel of the famous pirate. Archaeologists could find no record of another ship the size of the Queen Anne's Revenge that would have been in the area at the time, and the trove of armament found in the wreck also points to a pirate vessel. So don't arr-gue!

New seabird may be in deep trouble

Last week, I blogged about the description of Bryan's Shearwater, the first new bird found in U.S. territory since 1947. Unfortunately, it's not clear if there are any birds left. The type specimen was collected at Midway Atoll in 1963, and one bird was photographed in Hawaii in 1990. That doesn't mean it breeds at either location: indeed, it is likely a transient at both sites. But does it still breed anywhere? No one knows. Ornithologists suggest it might breed on one or more islands making up the nation of Japan, but that's just a guess. The search is on, though. No one wants to miss the little black and white seabird if it turns out the species still exists.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On The Space Show Tuesday night

Come join us!

From Dr. David Livingston, host, The Space Show:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011, 7-8:30 PM PDT: We welcome Matt Bille to the program.

Mr. Bille of Booz Allen Hamilton will discuss his paper from Small Sat, "Distant Horizons: Smallsat Evolution in the Mid-to Far-Term," looking at the likely future for microsatellite technologies and applications." Matt Bille is an Associate with the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and a freelance writer on space and other scientific topics.
At the most recent Conference on Small Satellites, Matt and two colleagues presented the paper, “Distant Horizons: Smallsat Evolution in the Mid-to Far-Term,” looking at the likely future for microsatellite technologies and applications. As with all his Space Show appearances, Matt is here tonight offering his own opinions as a space writer and historian and is not speaking for Booz Allen Hamilton.
Listeners can talk to the guests and the host by using toll free 1 (866) 687-7223, by sending e-mail during the program using,,
The Space Show is now podcasting effective May 3, 2005. Subscribe your pod casters to For questions or additional information, send e- mail to Dr. David Livingston,, or

UPDATE: I had, as always, a great time!

Just in from NASA: ISS situation doesn't look pretty

NASA says it may have to evacuate the International Space Station after the failure of a Proton rocket carrying supplies to the station. The Proton had an outstanding record for reliability, but failed at the worst possible time: when NASA had just shut down the Space Shuttle program and was assuming our astronauts could get there on Russian rides. The question is, how soon can Proton ISS flights resume, and how much confidence will NASA (and other nations sending up astronauts) have in the rocket when they do?

ADDED: The future plans for access took a hit, too, with the loss of a Blue Origin prototype to a control failure. Jeff Bezos, though, is determined to press on. We forget sometimes that it's ok for a test to end in a failure - that's why we test.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Discovered: the scariest-looking wasp on Earth

Wasps are pretty unsettling to most people. To entomologist Lynn Kimsey, though, the newest known species is something to marvel at, not just run away from.
Running away would be forgivable, though. From the island of Sulawesi comes a species whose males have jaws longer than its front legs. Kimsey, in perhaps an understatement, said, "The first time I saw the wasp, I knew it was something really unusual." The "Komodo dragon" of the wasp family is shiny black and 6.4cm long. Adds Kimsey, "I don't know how it can walk."

As war fades, science moves in

War has often been the bane of science: not only does it kill people and divert resources, but it's hard to do much exploration when the shooting is going on.
(It also has direct and dire effects on many species: the kouprey, the wild bovine of Cambodia, was almost pushed into extinction as soldiers, guerrillas, and peasants shot the animals for food, while land mines, bombing, and artillery no doubt did still more damage.)
Columbia's Las Orquídeas National Park was closed for 13 years due to rebel activity. With a victory by the Colombian armed forces, however, has has come an opportunity. Scientists moved in and described the mountainous region as a paradise of untouched species. One group went into the nearly roadless area on muleback and hauled out 900 plants. Scientists are still sorting out which of these - dozens, at the least - are new to science. New expeditions may add new animals as well - in fact, it's almost certain they will. Heedless of the dangers of unexploded ordnance. lingering rebels, and the terrain, Colombian scientists and international partners like New York Botanical Garden biologist Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa are determined to understand the regions' flora and fauna so conservation plans can be made.

Science, truly, has many heroes.

New American bird species (and new monkey, too)

Those who've read my stuff know that new monkeys in the Amazon are not that rare. Still, every new primate species is a big deal scientifically. The new titi monkey found in the Brazilian state of Masso Grosso has, as biologist Julio Dalponte said, "features on its head and tail that have never been observed before in other titi monkey species found in the same area." Meg Symonton of the WWF added, "This incredibly exciting discovery shows just how much we still have to learn from the Amazon."

Now the REALLY big news: there hasn't been a new American bird species since the po'uli was discovered in Hawaii in 1974. Now from the same islands comes Bryan's Shearwater, a little black and white seabird with blue legs and a a black or blue-gray bill. It was first collected in 1963 but misidentified as a known species. We don;t know how many of these birds exist or just where they breed. Conservationists are assiduously trying to find out such details. As Rob Fleischer of the Smithsonian put it, "It's very unusual to discover a new species of bird these days and especially gratifying when DNA can confirm our original hypothesis that the animal is unique. This bird is unique, both genetically and in appearance, and represents a novel, albeit very rare, species." Welcome, Puffinus bryani!

Discovery never ends, whether it's in a remote rain forest or (relatively) right on our doorstep...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How many species are out there?

How many species do we share the planet with? The number of described species is over 1 million and counting. but how many others are out there? A new estimate says the rough estimate (but the most accurate one to date) is 8.7 million, including (I'm rounding off a bit here):
- 7.8M animals, the vast majority being uncatalogued insects (We know about 950,000)
- 300,000 plants (we know 216,000)
- 611,000 fungi (we know only 43,000)
- 36,000 protozoa (we know only 8,000)
- 27,500 chromists (13,000 known)

So the idea that we know every species - or even all the "important" species - is ludicrous.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A "history" text that somehow missed Apollo


My 15-year-old brought home a textbook called America: Past and Present (8th edition, combined volume).
Apollo 11 does not get a mention. Seriously. One of the great events of the past millenium was judged unimportant. Even if I overlook the fact that what they do say about the space race is largely wrong (right down to the captions of the photographs), I can't believe this. The only mention at all is that JFK started a program which spent $25B to go to the moon. Even the name "Apollo" is absent.
The only modern technological/scientific issues treated in any depth at all are nuclear power (it's evil) and environmentalism.

You think only Texas has a textbook problem? What myopic moron approved a history textbook with gaping holes in history?

P.S. I'll bet you didn't know "the United States and Britain caused the Cold War" by not sharing all their nuclear information with Stalin. Wouldn't YOU trust a top-secret apocalyptic weapon to a mass-murdering dictator? (Never mind his spies were feeding home all the key information anyway.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Does species rediscovery mean victory?

Everyone rejoices when an "extinct" species is rediscovered (except possibly the person who'd been planning to build a furniture store on that spot), but does "rediscovered" mean "saved?" Unfortunately, not necessarily.
A new multinational university study came up with 351 species rediscovered in the last 122 years, but the large majority of these remain highly endangered. Species are often rediscovered in a very restricted, often disappearing, habitat. That doesn't mean rediscovery is a futile enterprise - far from it. We can't even try to conserve something that is presumed gone.
The rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker (yes, I still think that was valid) led to huge efforts to conserve its habitat, but the woodpecker appears to have flown off for good. It's possible to rediscover a species when it's already too far gone.
The cahow, or Bermuda petrel, was a success story, saved by conservation measures despite having "vanished" for 300 years. On the other hand, Miss Waldron's red colobus was determined extinct, written off, and then "rediscovered" via a photograph of a dead specimen. Are there live specimens? Nobody knows.
Keep up the search!

Great series on discovery of species

This series of posts by Richard Coniff covers the history and important of species discovery. Along the way, he comments on such things as the belief that extinction was impossible (God would not allow such imperfection in Creation), the dangers faced by naturalists accused of being spies (zoologist Jordi Magraner was killed in 2002 in Pakistan on such suspicion, although Coniff missed this example), and the challenge of inventorying a forest when you're only a half-step ahead of the loggers.
(Magraner, who had spent years in the area and was fluent in three local languages, was killed in a house he was renting in the troubled northern region of Pakistan by assailants who reportedly were organized enough to drug his watchdogs. Pakistani media and police said he had "suspicious links," but no hard information has ever surfaced to indicate he was anything other than what he said he was: a zoologist on the trail on the bar-manu, a reported man-sized primate.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sasquatch, science, and confusion

I read some of the sasquatch literature, and I hold it to be very unlikely but not entirely impossible there's an unclassified North American primate, but sometimes it seems it IS impossible for the whole business to be handled in a way "mainstream" science could respect. Sasquatch hunters and researchers range from people with relevant Ph.D.s (only a few, but they ARE there) through a wide range of people who are dedicated and sincere, and then on down to people who are, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. I respect all the sincere researchers, but they don't seem able to entirely disassociate themselves from the hoaxers and the deluded. Maybe that's an impossible task in the Internet-enabled world. Anyway, I post this link for Dr. Ketchum's comments about how she is in fact following the rules in analyzing purported sasquatch DNA and has a peer-reviewed scientific journal paper in process. I will look forward with great interest to that paper. But note the DNA enterprise is no exception to the rule that sasquatch researchers eat their own. There are competing projects, hoaxers, wild tales of dead sasquatches, and much more in this article and the comments thereto. If sasquatch exists, here's my advice to his entire species: run.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Closer to the "God particle"

The Higgs boson, which would validate the Standard Model (the dominant model of physics) if discovered, has not turned up yet at the Large Hadron Collider. At least, not for certain. There's some evidence that has physicists wondering, essentially seeing a higher level of particle creation activity than would be expected if the Higgs did NOT exist (got that?) but the LHC is not yet operating at its designed full power, and the search goes on.

SpaceX heads for the space station

SpaceX's Dragon capsule will make its first unmanned cargo flight to the ISS in November. That's really moving with amazing speed for a space program: the capsule and its Falcon 9 booster will both be on only their third launch. SpaceX believes it can zoom past other competitors for the cargo mission, and then do it again with the first private manned missions. Given that NASA has abandoned the capability to launch U.S. astronauts until its own MPCV/Orion capsule is ready for launch around 2014, there's a lot riding on the efforts of entrepreneurial space firms. Here's wishing them luck.

Why the giant arrow on Titan?

Why does Saturn's moon Titan sport a giant arrow in its atmosphere? By the time you read this, it doesn't: it's a transient cloud pattern caused by an interference pattern of atmospheric waves. Either that, or aliens posted it to point spaceships to Saturn, as if they otherwise would not notice the gas giant planet dominating the horizon. Either way, it's kind of a mind-stopping image: after all, we KNOW moons are not supposed to have arrows as big as Texas on them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Old eel is new again

"Living fossil" is an overused term (as well as self-contradicting), but off the coast of Palau lives an eel with features not seen since dinosaurs roamed the planet. Meet Protoanguilla palau ("first eel from Palau"), The fossil record on its type is blank for the last 100 million years. Excited biologists are comparing its discovery to that of the coelacanth, which reappeared in 1938 after a gap of more than 60MY.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Surfing hippos (yes, really)

Maybe "Charlie doesn't surf!" But hippos living at the seaside apparently do. As Karl Shuker tells us, hippos are known to body-surf. He says they are not in fact great swimmers, but don't need to be, given that their blimplike bodies make them nearly impossible to drown. It's a reminder of how many animals engage in pure, functionally useless play activities, and how varied those activities are.

Jodie Foster supports effort at alien Contacts

The actress who starred in the movie Contact has joined the donors keeping alive the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and its 42-dish Allen Telescope Array (ATA) after budget cuts threatened the effort. Foster said the Array could "turn science fiction into science fact." Kudos to one star who puts her money where her movie character is.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book review: Kingdom Under Glass

Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals
by Jay Kirk
Henry Holt, NY, 2010

I wanted to like this book more than I did. The subject is fascinating: Carl Akeley, the pioneering taxidermist/conservationist who mounted Jumbo the elephant and created the museum diorama, and who also found time to push successfully for the world's first gorilla sanctuary when not hunting with Theodore Roosevelt or strangling a leopard with his bare hands. The strength of the book is the characters: Kirk re-creates a very colorful cast of men and women who supported, opposed, or exploited Akeley throughout his amazing life. Along the way, the reader will learn much about taxidermy and the "safari culture" (my term) of the early 20th century. Kirk succeeds, quite skillfully, in making the reader see, hear, and smell the world of colonial Africa. Clearly, the author did his research.
Kirk spends a lot of time in the Notes section justifying his "creative nonfiction" approach, an approach which makes the book hard to evulate or review. He argues that he was accurate in recreating the thoughts in long-dead people's minds, something he can't know regardless of the depth of his research. Scenes are inaccurately strung together and details invented. He explains he was driven by "commitment to narrative flow," which is not persuasive, seeing as how countless biographers have produced compelling narratives without resorting to fictional techniques. Also, this is a book that demands a good photo section, something that is peculiarly absent.
Bottom line: not all bad, but not what I hoped for when I picked it up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Those marvelous meteors - from space

If you did not see the Perseids in person...

This is something that makes me reject the views of those who seem certain we are only material beings and have no spiritual dimension. What matters is not that shooting stars are beautiful, but that we KNOW they're beautiful. Of what possible evolutionary advantage is the ability to feel awe and wonder and pleasure at the beauty of the universe? I don't believe our theories about evolutionary biology are wrong, but I do believe they are incomplete. There's something about us no analysis of DNA will ever capture.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The dark planet

It sounds like science fiction: a planet so dark it reflects almost no light (what geeks would call a blackbody). The universe, though, seems to enjoy telling us that our science fiction is never quite weird enough to keep up with reality. TrES-2b is a gas giant, which makes it even stranger. Astronomers say it would look to us like a solid black ball with a hint of a red glow. Science fiction writers, get to work!