Sunday, January 19, 2020

Intriguing new Dunk model appears online

This looks like a new contender for "best Dunk model."

These folks at Paleozoo Evolutionary Models are advertising a seriously great-looking Dunkleostus model along with a very good description page. They describe it as up to 9m long (it came close, although that specimen, from the Cleveland shale, is a decided outlier) and, I think, get the controversial tail structure right. It says you can buy this as a 200m model, but the Store part of the site reads, "Closed for Maintenance" and I can't find it through any other site. Does anyone know where it can be found?

Pictute posted as advertising, copyright PEM, fair use claimed

Image result for paleozoo dunkleosteus model

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Some Space Book Reviews (mostly good)


Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew

By Michael Leinbach and Johnathan Ward. Arcade Publishing, 2018
The Columbia disaster was a horrible day in history, made worse by the knowledge it was preventable.  The authors tell that story, but they also tell the story of hope and dedication and that old-fashioned and much-maligned thing called the American spirit. 

Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System: The First 100 Missions. Dennis R. Jenkins, published by the author, 2001.
What Jenkins did here is phenomenal. No other book on the Shuttle or any other spacecraft provides this level of authoritative detail. Every idea, version, and system is here in words and diagrams.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon, by Robert Kurson, 2018.  It's hard to express how much I enjoyed Rocket Men. I was an "Apollo kid" and something of a space historian myself, so I knew the story, but what the author does here is make us FEEL it. (Caution: there's another space history book called Rocket Men: not nearly as good.)

Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race from Sputnik to Today
Jay Barbee, Smithsonian, 2007.  Journalist Jay Barbree had a front-row seat to much of the American program.  It's a fun read, although it feels a bit too much like the reader is on a rushed tour bus, hitting the highlights with some pauses for personal interludes. You will learn some new stuff, though!

I wanted to like this book by a respected (formerly, anyway) journalist on a fascinating topic. Some of the airplane test stories are good.  But a ton of research is undone with careless misreporting on several projects and a "Soviet/Mengele" Roswell crash theory that is batshit crazy. 

Riding Rockets, by Mike Mullane
Three-time Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane has produced a unique memoir of his time with NASA. It offers more than you want to know about space bathrooms along with good portraits of fellow astronauts and his own stories: lots of fun.

Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan,  Little, Brown and Company, 2019
There are more Apollo books than there are rocks on the moon, but stories can always be told better. There are mistakes in the pre-Apollo chapters, but the story of the Apollo program is first-rate, covering everything from personalities (to the engineering-focused Buzz Aldrin, "small talk was a foreign langiuage" - wow,has Buzz changed)  to politics and engineering.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ten new birds in one swoop

Discovery of a new bird is a big event. It only happens three or four times a year.  An expedition returning with 10 new birds - five species and five subspecies - is unheard of in modern times.

But it just happened.

OK, not "just." It takes years to formally describe a new species.  The expedition was in 2013, but scientists kept pretty quiet about it (amazingly so, really) until a publication in the msot prestigious American science journal, Science.  
We have, from islands off the east coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia:


Taliabu Grasshopper-Warbler
Taliabu Myzomela
Taliabu Leaf-Warbler
Peleng Leaf-Warbler
Peleng Fantail


Togian Jungle-Flycatcher
Banggai Mountain Leaftoiler
Taliabu Snowy-browed Flycatcher
Taliabu Island Thrush
Sula Mountain Leaftoiler.  

Scientists attributed much of the success of the six-week expedition to preparation and study before they got ther. They studied the land connections of prehistoric times, looking at which islands had been part of the same landmass (or not), plus information from collector from past centuries including Alfred Russell Wallace. 
The lesson: yes, there are still new species to find, and not just bugs. It's still a big world out there.  

Friday, January 10, 2020

At COSine this weekend

Great SF conference in Colorado Springs this weekend (17-19 January)!

Thanks to Alastair Mayer for adding me to the 1PM panel Saturday on lunar exploration. When will we go back to the Moon, and why? There's a lot of science content at this con to go with the Manticorian Navy and the T-Space universe and Guest of Honor Eric Flint's 1632 and... well, it goes on.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Book Review: To Reach the High Frontier

To Reach the High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles

Roger D. LauniusDennis R. Jenkinseditors Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1 Published by: University Press of Kentucky Pages: 528

This is an important book in space history, and not just because I had a hand in it. This is a very handy one-volume collection of the highlights of American launch vehicles up until the publication date.  Some of this ground, such as the histories of the Delta rocket and Space Shutttle, had already been fairly well-trod, but even here the authors provide new facts and insights.  Roger Launius, former Chief Historian of NASA, provides the Introduction and the first chapter, "Rocketry and the Origin of Space Flight." From there follow chapters by experts on Titan, Shuttle, Saturn V, Atlas, Delta, etc. All are excellent. A few that stood out for me in providing new information included "Minuteman and the Development of Solid Rocket Launch Technology," Andrew J. Butrica's "The Quest for Reusability," and the Epoilogue by David Spires and Rick Sturdevant on military-civilian partnerships in launch.  

I left until last, of course,  "History and Development of U.S. Small Launch Vehicles." In this 43-page chapter, Dr. Pat Johnson (engineer), Ericka Maurer (nee' Lishock) (engineer), Robyn Kane (cost analyist), and I covered the sounding rockets that predated the orbital launchers and their contributions, the pioneering Vanguard, Jupiter-C, Jupiter, and Thor, the long-working Scout, and the appearance of new and proposed small launchers like Pegasus.  Rwecognition is due to Pat for her exhautive survey of Scout and Robyn for her skill in comparing rockets of different eras on a cost-per-kilogram basis, while my frequent collaborator Erika and I, drawing on material that would become our 2004 book The First Space Race, wrote the main narrative, throwing in such interesting bits as 1958's then-classified Project Pilot (call it a prehistoric Pegasus).  For the expert and the lay reader, this book, which has plenty of techncial content but avoids equations for accessibility's sake, offers a concise introduction to the American vehicles that that launched and sustained the Space Age.  (On Amazon, the new hardcover appears to be is out of print, so the few available command a high price, but sellers of used books have them as low as $20.  So get yours while they last!)

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Thoughts on prehistoric models and toys

I grew up playing with those little dinosaurs that look ridiculous with what we know now: the upright T. rex, the perfectly symmetrical humped stegosaur, etc.  I was too early for the really good ones, which started appearing (to my recollections as a dino fan) in the 70s and of course exploded after Jurassic Park.  To take my favorite creature, Dunkleosteus, we have toys/models (the distinction isn;t always clear) from silly monstrous-looking one to the Mojo and CollectA figures that look like they'd take off swimming in a heartbeat. The people who produce these top-quality critters use artists who really know palentology and put superb craftsmanship into them. 

Mojo (L) and CollectA Dunks.

So, how do you decide what's worth buying? Source 1 is the Dinosaur Toy Blog, a wondrous corner of the Web in which you can get lost for hours looking at specimens and reading reviews. Second is Prehistoric Times magazien, which caters to both the scientist and the fan.  I'm not sure what's third.  There are some other blogs out thee with lesser reach than DTB, and of course there is this blog and the associated Dunkleosteus terrelli FaceBook page for reviews of Dunk models and toys.  

A last note here is that even models can be used for cool photo-artwork, and not just by filmmaking geniuses. Herewith a plug for my friend Aurora Rayn, whose page showcases what she can do with good commercial

models and imagination to produce photos that look like they were taken from life. She sells prints, so check it out! 

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist


By Paige Williams

Hatchette, NY, 2018. 410 pp (278 text, 132 endnotes, index, etc.)

This much-praised book opens a window into a world those of us in the general dinosaur-aficionado community don’t know much about: the trade in illegally or quasi-legally trafficked fossils.  Fossil prices have gone through the roof, so the average hobbyist has to save a long time to afford a small T. rex tooth ($2,499.00 as of today on eBay) in a market full of fakes.   Williams explains how this situation arose, including the effect of movie stars like DeCaprio and Cage bidding huge sums for theropod skulls. 

Williams’ centerpiece is the famous case in which American fossil hunter/dealer Eric Prokopi went to jail for selling a Tarbosaurus bataar (a close relation to T. rex) shipped out of Mongolia with deceptive documents.  The main text begins and ends with Eric's story.
Williams takes us on long treks through the Mongolian desert, including the famed Flaming Cliffs site, where Roy Chapman Andrews and associates found the first confirmed dinosaur eggs almost a hundred years ago.  She also takes us through changing Mongolian politics and through the lives of Propokpi and his many associates.  We get to know people like the pioneering Mongolian paleontologist, Bolortsetseg Minjin, a woman who did more than anyone to make Mongolian fossils a national resource rather than an easily plundered source of “art” for auction in New York or horse-trading in the famed Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. (Williams emphasizes that the large majority of people and transactions at this show (now on my bucket list) are legitimate, but some strange things happen.)
The book also explores a never-ending source of tension in fossil hunting. One one side are the professional paleontologists, who prize documenting fossils in place before removal so they can visualize not jsut the dinosaur but its world. On the other are private fossil hunters, who are accused of taking fossils out of the vital context of location and strata and defend themselves by arguing they save many fossils that would otherwise be destroyed by weathering or development (both statements are true, but rarely so at the same time in the same dig site, so the tension's not going to end). Customs and other law enforcement personnel struggle to handle affairs involving changing laws, artifacts most of them know little about, and impossible-to-establish provenance (no one can match a fossil to a precise location once it’s been removed).

It’s all exhaustively researched and documented and end-noted. Williams clearly went to enormous lengths to unearth personal stories and the scientific, commercial, and legal context for them.

The generally sterling prose includes some odd bits. Williams’ seemingly pointless one-time effort at a phonetic rendering of a heavy Southern accent took me out of the story, as did the execrable mutant verb “centerpieced.”  The whole book doesn’t quite flow for me, as the side topics made me lose the main thread a couple of times. Don't forget to read the endnotes through: like post-credits scenes in Marvel movies, they hold some fascinating nuggets.  

On balance, it's a terrific book. So safari hats off to Williams for taking us on this journey. 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019: A Momentous Year for the Oceans

It was a momentous year. Not all the moments were bad, but let's take a look.
The conservation website offered its top 10 stories for year about the oceans. 

Top 10 

Writers E listed 1) Climate change, including acidification, which scares me more than warming itself; 2) Youth leadership (not merely by Ms. Thunberg, but globally) 3) Progress toward a global ocean biodiversity protection treaty, with the U.N. hosting promising negotiations), 4) Progress in establishing marine protected areas, 5) A serious oil spill off Brazil that, for all our improved monitoring technology, has yet to be traced to a particular ship), 6) Increasing plastic pollution. with some progress here and there on regulation, 7) Arguments over seabed mining, 8) Progress on ending subsidies for fisheries, 9) Whale news - 10 more washed-up North Atlantic right whales, some glimmers of hope for vaquitas, and a great success story, restoration of the Atlantic humpback - and 10) "Marine Weirdness," a catchall for new discoveries, out of place animals, and so on.  

I don't have any disagreements here, although a couple of things merit a bit of amplification. The amazing comeback of the Atlantic humpback - arguably the most impressive comeback for a protected marine species ever - came despite an Unusual Mortality Event along the U.S. coast that saw 110 whales die of a variety of causes. 
Humpback whale breaching.
Humpback celebrates comeback (photo NOAA)

The vaquita still lives on the thinnest of razor edges.  A handful of 2019 sightings and photographs have indeed given it some hope, but only some. The most endangered of the large whales, the North Atlantic right, continued to take a beating from ship collisions and ghost gear despite increasingly tight regulations. 

North Atlantic right whale breaching out of the water.

N. Atlantic right (NOAA)

There's good evidence that protected areas increase the fish available for human consumption by creating breeding sanctuaries of a sort, with fish populations rising on all sides of the protected area.  The United States, which if often criticized (sometimes properly) on marine protection issues, has been a leader on this one, with huge protected areas being declared by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. On the other hand, Russia and China have blocked an attempt to create a sanctuary in the Southern Ocean, which needs a 24-nation consensus among the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR),  plus the European Union.

Seabed mining has long been a bone of contention. It's  not certain which types of mining for which resources could be made to pay commercially, but countries in need of particular resources (for domestic use or for strategic advantage) may not care about that.  The U.S. in particular, through five Administrations, has never found a treaty the President and Congress would both buy into. The Pew Environmental Trust has a good overview of the topic here

So there's a lot of work to do, but as 2019 closes, we can at least say there's no one who doesn't  KNOW there's a lot of work to do.  

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Air Force historian's review of The First Space Race (and a discount sale!))

This is our favorite of the First Space Race reviews, by a professional aerospace historian.  

Published in government (not subject to copyright) publication High Frontier, Air Force Space Command's professional journal (the journal is now, sadly, extinct: we hope it will be picked up as the AFSPC transition to U.S. Space Force continues).  
(The paperback version is now on sale via Amazon at only $4.85!!!!)

Book Review

The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites. 
By Matt Bille and Erika Lishock. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 214. $19.95 Paperback ISBN: 1-58544-374-3

Nobody should assume the history of American and Soviet space programs during the 1950s has been chiseled in stone. Matt Bille and Erika Lishock [ed: now Erika Maurer] make this perfectly clear in their new book titled The First Space Race
Through thoughtful analysis of events generally familiar to space historians and vigorous pursuit of details obscured by the passage of time, the authors supply new insights to one of the Cold War’s most dramatic chapters. As the legendary James Van Allen admits in the foreword, this volume even provides still-living participants in that race with a “much improved context for their own fragmentary knowledge.” 
It took several centuries to lay the foundations for successful launch of the world’s first artificial, earth-orbiting satellites in the late 1950s. During the 17th century, Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton formulated the necessary theories of motion. Edward Everett Hale and other science-fiction writers in the 19th century inspired serious spaceflight theoreticians like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Robert Goddard at the dawn of the 20th century. The pace of actual hardware development quickened at mid-century under the leadership of brilliant engineers like Wernher von Braun, Sergey Korolev, Theodore von Karman, and others. 
Long-range rockets built by the US and USSR could travel through outer space to deliver thermonuclear warheads halfway around the globe. 
Informed visionaries recognized the feasibility of using those same rockets to launch satellites that would enhance national security. While long-range rocket and satellite development occurred within the military establishments of the US and USSR, plans for the International Geophysical Year (July 1957-December 1958) committed both countries to launching satellites for scientific research. The Soviet Academy of Sciences created a Commission for Interplanetary Communication, chaired by academician Leonid Sedov, to oversee its IGY satellite program. Meanwhile, a committee headed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Homer Stewart selected the US launcher and satellite from among several proposals by the military services. 
On 4 October 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. After the US Navy’s failure to launch a Vanguard satellite on 6 December, the Army put Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, into orbit on 31 January 1958. Both nations commenced “storming the heavens” with civil and military satellites. 
Bille and Lishock drew information from a variety of sources—written and oral, primary and secondary, older and recent— to tell this complex story in a relatively straight-forward, simple style. They discuss how erroneous “facts” have crept into the literature over time. For example, the color scheme on museum models of Explorer 1 differs from the actual flight article. Furthermore, the Goldstone tracker could not have confirmed that Explorer 1 was in orbit, because Goldstone was set up months later to support the Pioneer lunar probes. The authors analyze in depth the Stewart Committee’s choice of the Navy’s proposal over the Army’s, the relationship between early military and civil satellite programs, and the question of whether the US purposely refrained from being the first to launch a satellite. Finally, they surprise readers with a description of NOTSNIK, a “secret competitor” that aimed to place tiny satellites in orbit via a five-stage booster launched from a US Navy fighter aircraft. 
When one considers that neither Bille nor Lishock is an academically trained historian, the rigor of their research methodology becomes all the more remarkable. Anyone wanting to know how these two associates with the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton successfully managed this project should read their article titled “Chronicling Space: Adventures in Space History” in Quest 11:4 (2004), pp. 7-13. The authors explain its genesis and evolution from a manuscript titled “Little Star: The History and Promise of Small Satellites” toward the published work that is the subject of this review. 
Along the way, Bille and Lishock had the good fortune to interview such space luminaries from the 1950s as James Van Allen, Milton Rosen, Ernst Stuhlinger, Fred Durant, and William Pickering. They also learned that obstacles sometimes thwart research plans, that serendipity can play a delightfully rewarding role in the discovery of information, and that the practice of historical writing involves more than merely recording names and dates. 
The First Space Race engages interested readers to the point where they will have difficulty putting it down before turning the last page. Bille and Lishock have achieved a wonderful balance between the American and Soviet sides of the story. Their new research and refreshing analyses correct inaccuracies that have crept into the literature over the decades and prompt space historians to question causal connections they once took for granted. Despite a few editorial errors, this volume offers space professionals a window on how past spaceflight successes might broaden our perspective on future possibilities.
Reviewed by Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant, Deputy Command Historian, HQ Air Force Space Command

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A few favorites from Paleontology

Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved by Darren Naish and Paul Barrett  
Smithsonian, 2016: 224pp.
Naish, a paleozoologist, and Barrett, a paleontologist, have given us an altogether splendid treatment of what, as of just a couple of years ago (this business changes fast, especially regarding feathers) we know about dinosaurs.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a LostWorld by Steve Brusatte
William Morrow, New York, 2018. 404pp.
In Rise and Fall, the latest in dinosaur science is presented in a highly readable science book doubling as a rip-roaring adventure tale. The story of dinosaurs, not just as fossils but as real animals, is masterfully presented

Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press (May 1, 2005) 488 pages
 Mayor is a scholar of the overlooked chapters of history and prehistory, such as historical Amazons and early automata. Here she asks what Native Americans thought of the fossils in fossil-rich North America, and uncovers a treasure trove of anecdotes, myths, and fossils.

Prehistoric Animals.  Text by Joseph Augusta, illustrated by Zdenek Burian. Translated by Greta Hort. Spring Books, London. (Reviewed edition is 1963: numerous versions and reprints exist.).
While much of the knowledge in this book is outdated, its influence and the excellence of the writing and illustrations enthralled a generation of professional, student, and public readers. Dr. Augusta's text is fine and the 60 plates, many in color, by the great Zdenek Burian are classic.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The starry night frog and other rediscovered species

Rediscovery of a species missing for decades. This is one of those cases where scientists could have rediscovered it much earlier, but they neglected to ask the locals in Columbia about it., or asked the wrong one.

Here's an article from a couple of years ago listing five more rediscoveries. While the Javan elephant  may not count (that case is about identifying the ancestry of a known population), it's a good reminder that hope can be abandoned too quickly when a species goes missing. 

Collected Reviews: Books on Zoology and the Environment

Books are the best Christmas gifts, right? The best idea is to buy my books, but if you don't, here are some I liked from the past two years.  I'll collect the ones on other topics in upcoming posts. 

Vaquita, by Brooke Bessesen
The tragic, infuriating story of how humans are driving the vaquita to extinction.

Spying on Whales, by Nick Pyenson
One of the truly great books on cetaceans, with the latest research.

Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator   
by Jason M. Colby 
A unique book tracing the beginnings of the orca's transition from the target of fear and hatred to an (unwilling) performer.  

David C. Xu, Coachwhip 

On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear
Richard Ellis,  Knopf  
A biography of the world's most remarkable bear and its conservation

The Bountiful Sea
Seabrook Hull, Prentice-Hall, 1964
Revisiting an old classic on how humans would explore and live in the sea

Gold Rush in the Jungle
Dan Drollette, Jr
Amazing book on the discoveries of new mammals in Southeast Asia and the reports of still-mysterious ones

The Lives of Hawai‘i’s Dolphins and Whales: Natural History and Conservation
Robin W. Baird, University of Hawaii Press 
  • Gorgeously photographed and stuffed with the latest information, including some eye-openers like false killer whales including humans in a game of "pass the dead fish."

Monday, December 09, 2019

Rhino rumblings

I missed World Rhino Day on September 22 this year.  I don't think much about rhinos, and I'm not sure why. Maybe they just don't have the grandeur of elephants. The other giants, the hippos, don't press either of my buttons (possible new species or endangered status), except for the intiguing possibility a small hippo lived on Madagascar into historical times. 
The Javan rhino has one population and 72 individuals, which is a terrible situation but at least, for the moment, a stable one. Four new calves spotted by camera trap in the last six months have perked up conservationists a bit, and the species is up from a count of 50 a decade ago. Conservationists are discussing moving a few to establish a second population outside Ujung Kulon National Park, although that's on hold right now.  The Javan used to live on the Asian mainland, but the last one, in Vietnam, died a lingering death in 2010 after being shot by a poacher.
The Sumatran rhino is in a similar state, with perhaps 80-in the world, nine of which are in captivity: captive breeding efforts haven't yielded any results yet.  
There are the two smallest and most primitive of rhinos, and the hairiest, with their hides encasing them like plates of clumsy armor. They are being sustained by extraordinary human effort, and their survival is not yet assured.  
The most famous rhino these days is the one in the new Star Wars series, The Mandalorian. It may lay eggs and have a terrible temper, but it's clearly a variation on Earth's extinct woolly rhinocerous. Coelodonta antiquitatis is probably most famous as the star of cave paintings. It got a boost toward extinction by, you guessed it, humans. Let's hope we don't have any more such extinctions.  

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Grab Bag 2: Odds and Ends About Oddities

Here we are, the end of 2019, and it's been an interesting year full of mysteries and monsters. But let's set aside the current events and turn to science for a bit.
There are end of year ten-best lists popping out: here's the first one I noticed. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t read any of these picks for best science and nature books of the year. Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, I think, is at the top of my list. 

I like new animals, living and prehistoric. Some of Nature’s experiment turn out to be really crazy.    A flying squirrel with a 5-foot (1.5m) wingspan? Yes. We have Petauristatetyukhensis, found near Vladivostok and estimated at 30,000 years old.  It easily dwarfs its largest relatives, which are impressive enough. I’ve written elsewhere about how Pakistan's woolly flying squirrel, the largest squirrel in the world, was discovered in 1888, vanished soon after, and stayed missing until 1995. The animal, which is up to two feet long not counting its two⌐foot tail, was found by two dogged amateurs after eluding repeated searches by professional zoologists.

Everyone likes finding new examples of those other flying vertebrates, the birds. A widespread group called the honeyeaters, the Alormyzomela (fancy scientific name Myzomela prawiradilagae), was announced earlier this month from the Indonesian island of (of course) Alor.  As is too often the case, the scientists describing a new species recommended it immediately be declared endangered thanks to habitat degradation.    A handsome little brown and grey creature with a mostly red head, it has a call described as “tssip” or “vick.” 
Then there’s the new crocodile. Really! While New Guinea has a well-established freshwater crocodile, described 91 years ago, it apears that population is split, and what’s now called Crocodylus halli is a different breed of reptile. There were even specimens in captivity, at Florida’s St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida.  I’ll stop by sometime and see them in a while…
And if you’re not sure what species something is… there’s anapp for that. 
The source is, which describes itself “a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe.”
My favorite critters include the tardigrades, near-microscopic six-legged beasties that look kinda cute and are some of the toughest multicellular organisms on Earth. Freeze, them, dry them, heat them, starve them – they don’t care.  Some of them lived after exposure to empty space, cosmic rays, and brutal temperature changes in a box mounted on the outside of the International Space Station.  There’s a very cool Twitter account at Some sceintists has raised the idea of integrate tardigrade DNA with humans.  Ummm… that’s how you get a cross between Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers. There was an article in one of those old men’s magazines, like TRUE, that had a blown-up picture of one claiming NASA had photographed this "unknown alien creature" on Mars or in space. 
Speaking of space. I used to spend a lot of time pondering UFOs.  The term stinks, of course: there’s no way to know whether something in the sky is an “object” or “flying.”  Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) is used by, among other organizations, the U.S. Navy, which had some publicized sightings in the last few years. 
I’m talking about the philosophy of the topic and not individual sightings here.  I mention it not because I think aliens are visiting us - I don’t – but because there’s a residue of UFO reports that stubbornly stick in the “unidentified” category.  A couple of more skeptical commenters, Robert Schaeffer for one, have written that, if 95% of UFO sightings could be explained (and everyone agrees on some number in the 90s), then why not 99%? Why not 100%?  I find this a bit unscientific.  No one doubts ball lightning exists, but everyone agrees many sightings are mistaken.  A police hotline may hear from 1,000 people that they saw the murderer whose picture was on TV: 99% may be mistaken and 1% correct, and police still use such tiplines and do get genuine sightings. Thousands of sightings of the Eastern cougar have led to a few genuine cougars (relict, released, or rambling in from other states is not always clear, but the point is 99 percent can be wrong and the thing can still be there,
Going back to our space motif, there are quite a few reports from space by astronauts, who you’d think would be good observers of phenomena in space if anyone is. However, James Oberg had had no trouble explaining them, especially because low Earth orbit (LEO) is filled with debris of all shapes and sizes. ( There are also hoaxes, like an altered Apollo 11 transcript.)
Continuing to ramble, UFO documentaries tend to be low quality at best. One called Unacknowledged, which ran on Netflix, was built around encounters by military personnel and astronauts. So far, so good, but it turns out the astronauts were quoted out of context, some of the military men held way-out fringe beliefs and space and aliens, and the whole ends up pretty weak.  
Groups like MUFON solider on, and not entirely without reason. Alien spaceships are not here, but aerial phenomena, both explainable and not-explained yet, are here.  The discovery of massive discharges of energy, spires and elfs, is recent: The late Aviation Week editor Phil Klass’ old idea about plasmas, large, longer-lived cousins to ball lightning, still has some validity in it. A friend of my father’s, a pilot on duty in postwar Japan, chased a reddish disk that was translucent – he could make out clouds through it – that his P-51 couldn’t catch.  That sounds more like a natural phenomenon than a spaceship, but what sort of phenomenon?  We don’t know. 
And there you have the starting point for all scientific investigation: “We don’t know.”

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Grab Bag: Odds and Ends About Oddities

Grab Bag: Odds and Ends About Oddities
I like oddities from all areas of science, history, and technology.  A lot of the oddities you find on the internet and in books are fabricated, misinterpreted, or hard to verify. 

What got me on this topic today was seeing FaceBook posts on a weird, very loud sound nicknamed Julia, which NOAA recorded in the Southern Ocean in 1999. The story that keeps being repeated is that NASA’s Apollo 33A5 mission photographed a gigantic shadow in the water there.  While the sound – ascribed to an iceberg rubbing against the seafloor – IS weird, the story immediately falls apart because no NASA mission or experiment ever had a number anything like 33A5 or operated in 1999 (there were 17 numbered Apollo missions, and they ended in 1972.  Anyone with an internet account can falsify it in about 30 seconds. For some reason, that doesn’t work.

Some others:.
No, there was not a Canadian “Eskimo village” whose population disappeared: that seems to have been inspired by the movie The Deadly Mantis. (Watch it, it’s a hoot.)  I once wrote to the RCMP to double-check.
No, there are not fossils/remains of American giants hidden away by "science" Some  19th-century newspaper articles and photos have never checked out as anything but hoaxes.
A farmer named David Lang did not vanish as he was crossing his Tennessee field in 1880. He didn’t exist.
Because a phenomenon is famous, that doesn’t make it real. Spook Hill in Florida is a real place, but the terrain tricks the eye: nothing pulls your car uphill.  Board Camp Crystal Mine in Arkansas draws attention because the owners, who host tourists, claim strange lights circulate while rocks levitate.  Geologist Sharon Hill explains things here.
An interesting example of a proper investigation of an oddity is how Lawrence Kusche demystified much of the “Bermuda Triangle” story by checking weather records and determining that many disappearances were in bad weather even though authors repeated each other as saying the weather had been good. 

So what oddities are worth pondering?
In my favorite oddity topic, cryptozoology, the Nicoll / Meade-Waldo “sea serpent” sighting of 1907 remains a puzzle. There are other hard-to-explain sightings of such things, but if this one was explained, I’d be more willing to dump the subject.  The “yeti” tracks from Eric Shipton and Michael Ward is in this category.  There’s no evidence of a hoax, except that no one has since found tracks as good (or the Yeti), but I’d like to know.  Wilson’s whale, painted from like in Antarctica in 1902, hasn’t been explained. No one’s found the weird screw-like colonial invertebrate (I assume that’s what it is) photographed by underwater camera on an oil rig and nicknamed “Marvin.”
I’ve collected my favorite ocean oddities here and there's some more on the "sea serpent" here.
Some things that are lost to history are interesting, although not “odd” in the fringe/paranormal sense. I write space history, and I learned the Soviet Union had a well-placed spy in Wernher von Braun’s German rocket organization. Stalin read the spy’s reports personally.  Who was he, or she? Seventy-five years on, no one knows. 
The Voynich Manuscript remains undecoded. It has been claimed to be a hoax, although it would be an elaborate and pointless one. Claims of partial translations are, so far, not very convincing. Even if we knew what it said, we wouldn’t know what long-dead hand wrote and illustrated it.
I’ll do more Grab Bags in the future. Just getting this one off my brain. I hope you enjoy it. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Science Fiction Review: Into the Drowning Deep

by Mira Grant (pen name for Seanan McGuire)

438pp, Orbital, 2017
(looks like it's free as an audiobook this week!)

This is a tale I’ve been hoping for for a long time – a great, epic marine creature novel. It tops most competitors in science, characterization, plot, and/or writing skill, and that makes it one satisfying read.

Many authors have tried to turn mermaids into believable creatures, and some have done it well, but no one’s done it like this. The science, the “casting,” and the plot here are almost perfect.

First is my primary interest, the science.  There are two aspects here, the marine science/technology and the mermaids (or “sirens”). I’m a science writer, and I do a lot of open-source research in my day job, and the work that went into this just blew me away.  The research ship Melusine  has been custom-built by the Imagine Network to follow up on the mysterious events on their much smaller ship, the Atargatis, over the Mariana Trench.  Bits of video on the internet from the Atargatis appear to show some kind of amphibious creatures vaulting onto the ship, leaving nothing but a blood-stained derelict. 

The Melusine has everything possibly needed for finding, studying, capturing, and/or killing  new creatures, although most of the scientists aboard don’t expect mermaids: they’re piggybacking on that mission to do a multitude of studies on this patch of the Pacific, from the surface to the Challenger Deep. Cryptozoologist Luis Martines is one who does think they’ll find something, as does his research partner, marine biologist Jillian Toth, whose academic reputation has been pretty much wrecked by her belief in such creatures.  The ship and scientists are described so well you think you’re on board, although I’d be interested in a diagram of the very complex vessel.

Once they get to their search area, things start getting weird. A fatal submersible descent, a crewman yanked over the side, and a bizarre range of sonar and hydrophone readings indicate the mermaids are real, although some of their actions seem inexplicable. Naturally, everyone from the network stays focused entirely on delivering good TV.  Then come more documented (sometimes fatal) close encounters.  Things get really fun here as the author details the rivalry between different scientists with different motivations (some scientific and some very personal), disciplines, and methods, who nearly come to blows over who gets what sample and whose theories make more sense. 

Then the fun is over, as the mermaids decide this weird floating reef full of edible creatures merits an all-out attack. (One aside here: The expedition has research dolphins, and I think the author overreaches in giving them intelligence fully equal to humans, from deal-making to long-range planning to philosophy. But this is a novel about mermaids, after all, so go with it.)

Now we get into the mermaids/sirens. They are nothing you’d expect from Walt Disney. The ancestry, anatomy, and capabilities of the predatory creatures are thoroughly explored, and it all makes sense.  They are almost too perfect, too capable both in body and brains, but McGuire makes you believe.  Again, the research involved simply makes my head hurt. Some things done really well in this section. One is linguistics, as the humans try voice and sign language and attempt to decipher the mermaids' communications, with a clever nod to a famous Star Trek: TNG episode. Another is the appearance of two very intriguing humans, a pair of unethical but superb big-game hunters who describe themselves as “throwbacks” and think everyone else on board is useless, except maybe as bait.  As scientists try to find answers and security plans and equipment (believably) go to hell, the tension goes up and up and up. There was only one spot, about 75% through the novel, where the details of who reported to who and who hated who got a little dense, but it didn’t last. I was on board to the end. I stayed up late to finish this, and for a guy with serious sleep problems and a need for a careful routine, that’s saying something.

McGuire, it should be noted, does not stint on the violence here—and a couple of scenes involving toxins are really yucky—but there’s nothing that feels shoveled in to appeal to violence-lovers. The sex/romance is likewise only what’s needed, with a lot of allusions but only one love affair being even PG-rated.

I’m not calling this book THE definitive marine creature thriller, since I thought there were a few minor flaws, and because someone can always come along and top even a very impressive accomplishment.  But the science here is excellent, all the characters are interesting, and the creatures are very cool.  I had some reservations on whether the sirens would develop the intelligence level they have or be able to find enough large prey, but McGuire is aware of these issues and does the best she can to keep the plausibility level high. She also works in intriguing ideas on everything from deafness to evolution, never preaching but letting the characters speak in ways that make sense. 
If you want a novel that’s all slam-bang creature action, or a tight little thriller like Jaws, this isn’t it. This is a complex novel that’s creates its own very believable reality and maintains it, and that is high praise.

Note to cryptozoology friends: if you're considering a purchase, the author is very sympathetic to cryptozoology, both in this novel and elsewhere – she went on Twitter recently to state her belief the thylacine still exists. (She also, when we've met a conferences, loved my Dubnjkleostus collection, so I'm not unbiased. Trust me, though.  This is a crypto-epic done right.