Thursday, October 30, 2014

Unfortunate accident, worse reporting

The Antares rocket that failed the other night has been subject to a lot of misreporting.  One repeated claim on CNN was that there was "classified equipment" on board.  All launch vehicle companies encrypt their telemetry so no one unauthorized can read or affect the data stream.  We're talking about commercially available stuff here. 
I saw an article on one website claiming "5 Astronauts Dead" even though it was seemingly universal knowledge that the flight was un-crewed, taking a robotic supply vehicle up for the ISS. And there was constant chatter about a "NASA rocket." No, it was a private rocket under contract.  Then there were people commenting online that we ought to go back to "NASA rockets" vs. private ones. News flash: every U.S. orbital booster ever was built by contractors. 
The rocket's owner, Orbital Sciences (a company I know and admire, though I've never worked for them) IS very fortunate no one was hurt. That was one heck of an explosion.  Kerosene, liquid oxygen, hydrazine from the upper stage, detonation charges set off by Range Safety Officer - enough to run everyone's day. Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is in bad shape.  Repairs will take months and cost millions.
Space flight will never be entirely routine. This failure comes after a long run of American successes (including over 60 from United Launch Alliance), but it does bring to mind Wernher von Braun's comment after the Apollo 1 fire: "This should remind us that we are not in the business of making shoes."

Good luck, Orbital, and I hope you solve this soon.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The fun (and science) of giant arthropods

How big can jointed-legged animals (arthropods) get? Well, the answer (at least the answer for land animals) is all over the internet, and it's pretty darn scary.

A Goliath spider commonly described as "puppy-sized" freaked out even the scientist who found it: "I couldn't understand what I was seeing."
Everyone likes a really big insect, spider, or crab when the film script calls for a monster.  From the insectoid MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) in the last Godzilla movie to the claims of a "Crabzilla" photographed off England, giant arthropods things have sparked our fears and imaginations.  As a kid, I loved the giant ants in Them! (a good movie, really) and The Deadly Mantis (not that bad a movie, despite being savaged on Mystery Science Theater 3000). Peter Jackson's King Kong remake was crowded with outsized arachnids, which fortunately were vulnerable to being shot away from a person's body by a writer who had never handled a submachine gun before.  (All us writers want submachine guns on occasion.)
Such creatures appear in written fiction, of course, as well; Greg Beck recently wrote a pretty good thriller called The First Bird which included spiders big enough to trap and poison humans and centipedes big enough to... umm, you really don't want to know.

The Goliath spider, Theraphosa blondi (Wikimedia Commons)

So, how big can such creatures actually be? The answer is as much in the realm of engineering as in biology.  An animal is essentially a machine taking in oxygen and some form of fuel convertible to fats, sugars, etc. It needs enough of these inputs to fuel the digestive system and spin off energy to run all the other processes (growth, mating, thinking, etc. - all the things that make the being autonomous (the word "autotroph" having come into widespread use thanks to The Big Bang Theory.) )
There are limits to practical sizes of all animal types, just like there are of man-made machines.
To look at an artificial example, we can build big tanks, but we couldn't scale a Tiger tank up to the size of a blue whale: the power-to-weight ratios of internal combustion engines and the strength-to-weight ratios of metals are inadequate. (To get picky, you might conceptualize a movable object that size with using a fission reactor and nanomaterials, but it would be a totally different type of machine design: the point is that the tank "order" long ago reached its limits. )
In the natural world, said blue whale, of which giant specimens may push 100 metric tons, is probably the practical limit for all animals, Godzilla notwithstanding. There's only a certain percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere, and mammalian lungs are the most efficient way devised to extract it.  The spiracles and book lungs used by arachnids just are not nearly as good, and making them larger doesn't make them better. (The movie Mimic, with its human-sized cockroaches, had the beasts evolve lungs: that film was especially scary to us former Floridians who have seen them almost that big.)
Another killer is the weight of an exoskeleton and the effects of gravity. The square cube law says that, if you double an animal's size in all three dimension, the resulting beast has eight times the weight. The blue whale uses an internal skeleton and the support of water, from which it can't emerge without internal collapse and death. Crabzilla, a photoshop job claimed to be over 15m across, simply couldn't have dragged that massive armored skeleton anywhere even if the respiratory system could support it. A truly awful novel called Spider Legs, by Clifford Pickover, with co-authorship by Piers Anthony, who I'm told was brought in late as a "book doctor," went through all kinds of contortions describing the artificial enhancements (not one of which would have actually worked) by an unscrupulous scientist/breeder to create a monster crustacean.
Anyway, the biggest known arthropod ever to live was a Devonian-age sea scorpion or eurypterid  called Jaekelopterus rhenaniae. It may have been 2.5m long and would scare the daylights out of anyone. 

Jaekelopterus rhenaniae (Wikimedia Commons)

Today we have to make do with the American lobster (up to 20 kg in exceptional specimens) and, for land-dwellers, the bizarre coconut crab (about 4kg).  And we have the Goliath spider, of course.
There are some oddities in the cryptozoological literature.  A bizarre animal reported off Florida and nicknamed Specs for its protruding eyes was suggested by zoologist Karl Shuker in a book to be a possible surviving sea scorpion, but there was only one witness and no one has reported it since. Then you have the spiders. There are at least two reports of a "small dog"-sized or larger spider (complete with web) from Papua New Guinea, one of similar-size spiders from Vietnam, a "washtub sized" spider in the United States, and an even bigger species from the Congo. (Shuker has thoughtfully collected these here.)
No matter how you slice the engineering, spiders the size of coffee tables and crabs the size of small yachts, just don't work. But giant arthropods will always be with us in fiction. And they'll always be scary.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tomorrow... The Dolmen will be opened

My first novel, The Dolmen, will be out on October 15 from Wolfsinger Publications as an ebook, available in paperback by October 24.  This blend of horror and police procedural, sprinkled with a little bit of science, will take you into an English megalithic tomb and ask, "Is it wise to illegally import a dolmen for a private museum?"  The answer is "No" - and it's not just because lawyers get involved.  Something else was imported, too.. something that threatens to turn the City of Angels into the gates of hell. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: Deep, by James Nestor

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
by James Nestor
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
This book, like its subject, is breathtaking. Nestor takes us into the world of freedivers, people who go down 100 meters and more with no equipment - and no air.  
Along with following the most dangerous of sports (side note: I would have appreciated a chart or list defining the different disciplines he alludes to), he shows us how this practice came into being as a way to gather food and sponges and to salvage cargo from sunken ships. Nestor visited the handful of living amas, Japanese women who still practice freediving in its ancient form.

Nestor does a good job explaining the physiology involved. Freedivers make use of the mammalian dive reflex, also called the Master Switch of Life (which sounds much cooler) and hone it to incredible levels.  This takes years of training: trying to push one's capabilities too deep, too soon can and does result in death.  As Nestor makes clear, even experienced and careful freedivers take enormous risks.   There is no other sport where blackouts and bleeding from various facial apertures are considered normal. The scariest group of freedivers are the no-limits divers who use weighted sleds to go deep and inflate balloons to rise.  The no-limits record is pushing 215 meters, which was
the maximum rated depth for the Type VII U-boat of World War II.   Nestor takes interesting detours into deep-sea research, including some types enhanced by freediving. Freedivers report that sharks don't bother them and whales accept them to an impressive degree (Nestor doesn't mention that scuba divers, whom freedivers rather look down on, have reported amazing cetacean encounters, too: it's not clear from this book whether there's really a degree of contact unique to freedivers.) He also touches on such interesting subjects as hydrothermal vents, bottom ooze, and privately owned deep-diving submarines: I never knew it was possible to buy a ticket to go down 900 meters in a hand-built sub.  Nestor brings the book to a close on a dive where he finally finds the Master Switch for himself.
As a reader and researcher into marine subjects, I was genuinely sorry to have this book end.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Cryptozoology fiction: Eve, by J.M. Bailey

J.M. Bailey
self-published (CreateSpace)

I used to be able to keep up with all the cryptozoology novels: in the indie age, I couldn't hope to do so, so I have to pick the ones that look intriguing. Bailey's looked intriguing, and it was. I enjoyed J.M. Bailey's novel about finding Sasquatch - or, rather, being found by Sasquatch. Eve is a well-written bit of speculation (only a couple of misspellings and clunky sentences pop up) by an author who knows the wilderness and clearly knows her Sasquatch lore (the old Albert Ostman tall tale of being kidnapped by a sasquatch family is an obvious influence.) Bailey makes a brave and successful decision as a writer by making her first-person narrator a profane and not entirely likable woman. The narrator's descriptions of her feelings about the hominid Sasquatches she meets are sometimes a little hyperbolic, but, to be fair, she is describing an event that would pretty much blow the fuses in the human brain. I personally, as a reader, never like it when psychic elements show up in cryptid stories: however, it's her novel and her Sasquatches, and those elements never take over the story. Sasquatch aficionados will like this one. There's a sequel out - I've not yet read that, but I'll get to it.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A new whale in the Gulf of Mexico?

Whale taxonomy - and taxonomy in general - is still not as precise as scientists would like. Some scientists suggest species in general are more variable than we once thought: some have given up on subspecies and other distinctions. DNA analysis provides a powerful new tool, but there's no universally-accepted rule about what degree of difference, and what kind of differences, clearly delineate separate species or subspecies. 
The latest discovery in cetacean taxonomy is a surprising one. A small population of Bryde's whales (Balaenoptera edeni) in the Gulf of Mexico appears so distinct that it represents, at the least, a new subspecies.
Bryde's whales are among the smaller rorquals - the all-time record is 15.5m long, and most are significantly smaller - and the least known.  This population has unique calls and distinct DNA. Indeed, they seem more closely allied genetically to Pacific Bryde's whales than to Atlantic populations. The nonprofit National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) intends to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare the population endangered. 
DNA testing helped determine, in 2003, that what had been thought to be a strain of Bryde's whale was in fact a different species, now known as Omura's whale (Balaenoptera omurai). There are other outstanding questions about classification of apparently differing Bryde's whale populations, including an inshore and an offshore form (see the IUCN writeup here), and it's a good reminder that even the largest creatures on Earth keep some secrets from science.  We have much to learn.

Bryde's whale, showing the distinct ridges around the blowhole (rostral ridges). (Photo NOAA)