Saturday, October 03, 2015

October 4, 1957: Sputnik changes the world

The Space Age has turned 58 years old.

On October 4, 1957, the world changed.   The 84-kg Object PS 1, as the Soviet Union called it - or Sputnik 1, as everyone else called it - rode a modified R-7 ICBM into space and into global headlines. 

What happened next? Many, many momentous things.

The sensation was created even though the launch should not have been a complete surprise. Soviet experts and publications openly discussed their International Geophysical Year (IGY) satellite (in general terms), and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had predicted the possibility a year in advance. Yet it was a surprise. As Sputnik’s creator, Chief Designer of the Soviet space and missile program Sergei Korolev, congratulated his comrades for opening the road to the stars, radio operators around the world tuned in the satellite’s beep and others scanned the night sky. The satellite was too small to be seen with the naked eye, but the core of the R-7 booster had followed Sputnik into orbit and was spotted easily. This visual proof magnified the satellite’s impact. Several influential American media outlets, most notably LIFE magazine, published alarmist critiques, which succeeded in raising the public’s concern.
Reports that Sputnik caused panic in Western nations were exaggerated. However, the satellite did send shock waves through U.S. and allied governments. James R. Killian, a scientific adviser to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, wrote that the event violently contradicted the fundamental belief that the United States’s technical capacity had no serious rivel.. Western armed forces had a specific and worrisome concern. Missile experts correctly deduced the launcher was a powerful ICBM. The Soviet Union had announced the first flight of Korolev’s ICBM a few months earlier, but U.S. intelligence had been unsure of the validity. Now there was no doubt. 
If the little sphere caused consternation among governments, it also excited scientists who knew that the Earth satellite concept, long a theoretical possibility, had at last been proven feasible. British author and space visionary Arthur C. Clarke recalled that it was a complete shock, but he realized it would change the world.
The international impact of Sputnik was unexpected even by the Soviet leaders. At first, the official newspaper Pravda gave the launch only a brief mention. Only after it became clear Sputnik had caused a global sensation did the satellite earn banner headlines. A CIA assessment stated that Sputnik had immediately increased Soviet scientific and military prestige among many peoples some governments. Soviet diplomats and politicians made the most of the resulting admiration. 
The effect of the Sputnik launch on the Western public was raised by the subsequent media coverage and magnified by the 3 November 1957 launch of Sputnik 2. Sputnik 2 weighed 508 kg, was highly visible (thanks to the failure of the R-7 core stage to detach as planned), and carried the first living creature in space, the dog Laika. Coming at a time when the United States was still scrambling to launch even a 1.5-kg Vanguard test satellite, warnings of Soviet superiority seemed, if anything, too moderate.

Museum display with R-7 booster in the foreground and Sputnik on the far right. (Satellite in the middle is a display model based on the US Vanguard satellite) 

President Eisenhower had also been surprised by Sputnik. While he reassured the public that the U.S. satellite program had not been conducted as a race against other nations and that Sputnik raised no new security concerns, he privately called his advisers on the carpet for an explanation. At the same time, he considered what actions were necessary in response. The president saw reason for concern but not panic. He refused demands for an all-out crash program, but did ask Congress for a $1 billion emergency appropriation to boost American missile programs. 
The U.S. government responded to calls from the media and academic leaders to improve education in engineering and the sciences. In 1958 Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act to provide funding for science and math programs in colleges and high schools. This federal intervention in education, traditionally a state and local matter, began the transformation of America’s system of government. This had consequences in social programs, civil rights, and other areas far removed from space. Another consequence the Soviet leaders did not foresee was the effect of Sputnik on international law. Before Sputnik, the right of transit through space above a nation’s territory was an unsettled question. Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, pointed out that the Soviets had possibly done the United States an unintentional favor by establishing the concept of freedom of international space. Not one government protested the overflight of Sputnik. In July 1959 this acceptance was cited by a United Nations report endorsing “freedom of space”—an idea enshrined by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. 
In the Soviet Union, Sputnik made Korolev a powerful man with vast resources to devote to his dreams of spaceflight. The price imposed was the need to keep the successes coming to maintain leadership in this new field. Korolev responded with new satellites, lunar probes, and in 1961 the launch of the first human into orbit.
Sputnik also galvanized the lagging U.S. space program. With the official U.S. IGY satellite program, Project Vanguard, still struggling, the Army missile team headed by Wernher von Braun was given approval to launch a satellite. After a frantic effort, Explorer 1 was orbited in January 1958. The government was already discussing the options for a long-term space program. On the military side this led to the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the post of Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), beginning a shift of control over research funding and military budgets in general from individual services to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Civilian space programs, Eisenhower decided, should belong to a new agency. On 1 October 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence. It began pursuing numerous space endeavors, including science and applications satellites and its own human-in-space program. Sputnik’s launch was the beginning of the journey to the Moon. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Matt Bille and Erika Lishock, The First Space Race (2004). Roger Launius et al., eds., Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years since the Soviet Satellite (2000). Walter A. McDougall. …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985). Asif Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974 (2000).

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Counting down to the ICM Cryptozoology Conference

Three months and counting to the International Cryptozoology Museum conference in St. Augustine, Florida.  This looks like a really fun gathering, with authors, field researchers, and scientists coming together in the oldest city in the United States,

I'll be talking about bears, which is a topic I've had a special liking for.  Bears figure in cryptozoology a lot. Some have no doubt been mistaken for Bigfoot (and, indeed, Loren even found an old clipping where a gigantic grizzly was nicknamed Bigfoot). Bears star in many other zoological mysteries, from the erroneous suggestion of a new species in Bryan Sykes' The Nature of the Beast to reports of really odd bears from Alaska and Kamchatka: mistakes aside, it really is possible the eight species we know today are not quite all the bears out there.

The ICM is the life's work of Loren Coleman, dean of living US cryptozoologists.  Loren and I have our disagreements (most notably, I do not hold out hope for nearly as many spectacular undiscovered animals as he does), but I respect his dedication and do my best to garner support for the Museum, an irreplaceable treasure house of tens of thousands of items on animals known, unknown, and mythical.

See you in Florida!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Of Orcas and Men

Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us

David Neiwert
Overlook Press, NY, 2015

This is a very good book on the history and effects of orca-human interaction, from ancient Native American stories to the slaughters of the 20th century and the turn toward conservation in the 21st.  Seattle journalist Neiwert has spent a great deal of time with scientists studying orcas, and he gives us a lot of facts in the course of a compelling narrative.  He doesn't  try to provide every known detail: there are other books for that, such as Robin Baird's classic Killer Whales of the World.  (Interestingly, Neiwert uses the name "orca" throughout, although scientists are more and more going back to the old "killer whale.")   
Neiwert admires the animals and considers things like personhood, but he nearly always avoids  slipping into Jon Lilly-type woolly-mindedness (he does at one point refer to orcas' "fantastic sixth sense," but that's a quibble.). I learned a lot from this book I didn't know, especially about release efforts and proposals. (Some involve Miami Seaquarium's Lolita, an animal I saw in the mid-70s but didn't realize until recently had been in that little tank alone for so many years and was still there.) The sad saga of Willy/Keiko is here, too.  
Neiwert considers orcas and the media, including the effect of movies such as the positive Free Willy (not the remake) and the stunningly awful thriller Orca.  (He missed a family film I liked as a kid, Namu the Killer Whale, a very pro-orca film.) He spends a lot of time on the continuing global impact of the documentary Blackfish.  (To be fair, the marine park industry challenged the accuracy of Blackfish, and their arguments should at least be acknowledged, but Neiwert does mention the genuineness of the affection between orcas and their keepers even as he argues passionately for an end to captivity.)  The issues concerning the environment and ecology, especially as they affect his favorite orcas, the Southern Resident pod, are covered in depth.  
I would have liked more photos and some illustrations of the whale-studying gear he often discusses, but the author achieves his purpose: to make us think more about orcas and how we can protect them.  An excellent addition to the literature on Earth's apex predator.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Book review: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises:A Natural History and Species Guide

Annalisa Berta, ed.
U. of Chicago, 2015
288pp, large-format hardcover

Wow. I'm still digesting it, but this book is very impressive. 

In this overview of the cetacean world, Professor Berta marshals a variety of solid, up to date information, from whale biology and evolution to feeding techniques to range maps and field marks, with 2-4 page descriptions of 89 known species. Recent entrants like Daraniyagala's beaked whale, Omura's Whale, the Australian snubfin dolphin, and the narrow-ridged finless porpoise are all here. An interesting line in the long-finned pilot whale entry (by Jessica Aschettino, one of 37 named contributors) is "G.m. un-named subspecies." The killer whale section (by Robert Pitman) lists the animal as a single species with "at least six distinct ecotypes that may in fact represent different species or subspecies." Uncertainty about the exact delineations of minke whales, Bryde's, and others are also mentioned. For you mesoplodon fans, there are 22 species of beaked whale described in a section written by Randall Reeves. 
The book is beautiful as well as informative. Photographs and other illustrations are plentiful, well-labeled, and helpful. The text is authoritative but highly readable to the nonexpert like myself. 
The only quibble I have is with the physical book: the binding feels flimsy and the pages don't lie flat: handle it with care. (OK, there are two quibbles - killer whales deserve more than 2 pages, and there should be illustrations, at least silhouettes, of the differences between ecotypes).
Overall, though, this book is a magnificent achievement and a very useful reference.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

And the website is back up is functioning again.

Also, you may be cool, but you will never be as cool as this magnificent orca, painted for my next book by the awesome wildlife artist Rebekah Sisk.


New species: handsome and deadly

Not all new species are harmless little invertebrates or cute mammals.  The Kimberly death adder, about 60cm long, is undeniably a handsome creature, with its banded brownish-orange body and white belly, but it's just as undeniably dangerous. Acanthropis cryptamydros joins numerous other species of death adders all over the Australasian region.  The number of known reptiles has passed 10,000 and is still rising steadily. (The official 10,000th was a gecko from Laos.)  One estimate is there are another 1,300 reptiles awaiting description, but it may be considerably higher. There's a lot of foliage left in the world to conceal species that are well adapted to their environments and generally good at hiding.

Friday, September 11, 2015 is down for the moment

My website has vanished and I'm traveling and haven't figure it out yet. Will get it bcck soon.

Meanwhile, here's a NEW HUMAN.  Yeah, science is cool

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

New digs for International Cryptozoology Museum

I've talked before about the ICM and Loren Coleman's efforts to provide a repository for artifacts, print materials, and everything else related to cryptozoology.  Whether you think cryptozoology is an intriguing branch of zoology or a pesudoscience where amateurs chase nonexistent animals actually doesn't matter when it comes to the ICM.  Animal science and animal folklore are important to every culture and country the world, and the ICM's collection of tens of thousands of items is simply not replaceable. It provides an invaluable trove for scientists, folklorists, researchers of animal myth and legend.
Accordingly, it's nice to see the Museum moving from downtown Portland, Maine to a larger permanent home.  Loren announced the 10-year lease on a bigger property on Thompson's Point in the same city.

By the way, the ICM is currently hosting, on loan from the Museum of the Weird in Austin, TX, the original Minnesota Iceman, a hoax creature made with considerable care and detail.

Iceman in Argosy magazine 
(copyright unknown, as company has folded: educational fair use claimed.)

The Iceman once prompted two qualified scientists (Bernard Heuvelmans, Ivan Sanderson) to declare a new species of primate had been discovered. The ICM offers a chance to see a major piece of bigfoot history.

New location for the ICM (see note #8). 
Used by permission of the ICM

Don't forget, the ICM's first sponsored conference is coming in January in Saint Augustine, FL.  Yours truly will be there to talk about bears in zoology and cryptozoology - a hot topic in the wake of Bryan Sykes' book.  I've never managed a visit to the ICM, despite being a Mainer by birth. It's still on my list. Good luck!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Sea scorpion - the size of a shark

The eurypterids or sea scorpions were the invertebrate kings of the  seas 400 million years ago. For a while, before the armored fish known as placoderms got to be the size of small buses, they were unchallenged. The largest species ever had spiked claws a half-meter long and could slice and dice anything it was likely to meet. (This was also before the nautilus-like ammonites started putting on weight - the monster Parapuzosia seppenradensis, 2 meters across, didn't show up until the Cretaceous and was not seen again until 1957, when something that might have been its much-evolved descendant starred in the delightful grade-B creature film The Monster That Challenged the World.)
Anyway, we have a new entry in the "scariest giant invertebrate with killer claws" category. Pentecopterus decorahensis, some 460 million years old, was found in Iowa, USA. It is described as 1m long with the usual eurypterid armor and armament.  It's the oldest such animal yet discovered, but it can't be THE oldest because it's surprisingly evolved.    The whole family tree of its larger group, the carcinosomatoids, is accordingly screwed up. That, however, is how science works.  For palentologists, the cool things is that they now know that looking in older rocks for sea scorpions is well worth their time. There are discoveries to be made! 

Yale University: Used under educational/journalistic "Fair Use)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Neil Armstrong, died on this day 2012

I watched the liftoff live in person (Thanks, Dad), fell asleep for the first step, watched the return live on TV. There could have been no better choice for Earth's hero..

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cryptozoology, culture, and folklore

How do we know whether to evaluate a cryptozoological report, especially an old one, in the light of the witness's or recorder's culture? Does it matter if the culture has a strong "monster" tradition?  The always-interesting Sharon Hill gave her take on this in a Doubtful News post this week.
I thought that was a very good take, reminding us that we can't just assume what we want from old accounts, be they presented as facts or legends. (By the way, if you think all cryptozoology is nonsense, keep reading anyway: this isn't about whether it has value as a science, but where the reports in it originate and how to treat them)
The "Father of Cryptozoology," Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, offered a good example about cultural and linguistic context.   He said a future reader shouldn't take literally a modern description of an animal that had "fire in its eyes" and ran "like lightning." The animal might be a normal, real creature - a lion, say - but if you don't understand the language and its fondness for metaphors and similes, you might look at that and chuckle, "Silly myth. 21st-century people would believe anything. “ (Arguably, we do, but to continue...)  The point is there's no easy rule. 
Sasquatch poses a good example. Sasquatch-like creatures are widespread in Native American lore, but the origins and meaning of these stories are difficult to evaluate, especially for the non-Native (or, for that matter, the modern Native disconnected from old traditions, which is hardly uncommon.)
The Salish word from which “sasquatch” is derived refers to a supernatural creature, not an animal. At the same time, many Native cultures didn’t recognize the sharp divide we scientifically-minded moderns do between natural and supernatural entities, so the situation is confused further.  (On the other hand, zoologist Ivan Sanderson wrote in the 1960s that, when one Indian was asked about the subject, the reply was a derisive, “Oh, don’t tell me the white men have finally gotten around to that.”) 
Sharon wrote, referencing Michel Meurger’s 1989 book Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis, “I admit surprise to find out that the maned serpent is so old a concept. Meuger says the origin of today’s sea serpent concept is a product of the Enlightenment drawn from Nordic stories of giant snakes. “  
This is a unique and valuable book, but there's one thing the author seems to treat lightly when discussing the Scandinavian lindorm and other creatures of legend, and it's the same thing Prothero and Loxton skipped over in their generally excellent book Abominable Science when discussing the mythical hippocampus. That is that a legendary creature may influence a future witness's interpretation of a sighting, but it also may not. The authors in both these books present the legendary forebears of reported cryptids as important even though a particular witness may be living generations later and may have never heard of the story. Jay M. Smith pursues a version of this in Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast, about a wolflike creature that killed many people in pre-revolutionary France.  The cultural background he described and used to frame the beast stories is alleged to have influenced peasants who may have not had the least idea of what increasingly free newspaper publishing in Paris meant, or indeed that it existed. (Sociologists in general tend to irk me by assuming a specific incident is related to a bigger trend when it may not be.)  (Another book, by the way, that doesn’t get into cryptozoology but provides a valuable overview of the whole “why we like monsters” question is Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters.)
To go back to sea creatures, the lindorm and its cousins, for example, seem to me likely to have precisely zero bearing on the one of the most famous sightings, the 1905 Nicoll/Meade-Waldo case. This is one of the "gold standard" cases, in which two qualified natural scientists on a yacht off Brazil spotted a long-necked animal they were certain was an unidentified species. What we know for sure is that the witnesses saw an animal, and one of two things happened: either they accurately described an unknown species or misidentified a known species. You can argue either way, but there's nothing to indicate tales told by their ancestors were involved. It's worth noting in this case that Meade-Waldo was aware of another "sea serpent" sighting, the 1848 encounter by the HMS Daedalus, and thought that creature might be the same (although the Daedalus reported no fin and his creature had a very prominent one.)  So, while ancient legend had no bearing, it might be that another cryptozoological report did. A lot of modern cryptozoologists write the Daedalus episode off to a giant squid, which it probably was, but it was very much an unknown in 1905.

That leads us down another interesting path.  Let's do a little thought experiment.  Say I am hiking near my home in Colorado and spot a big, dark, lumbering figure from a distance.  I know it’s at least human-size and on two legs, but that’s all I can be certain of at this distance and lighting. If I knew nothing of Bigfoot, I might consider two possibilities: a human and a bear.  Since I do know of Bigfoot, even though I'm skeptical about it, I am likely to think of three possibilities.  Having three vs. two options, no matter what they are, creates some (if hard to define) increase in the possibility I might misidentify the animal. 
Now, let’s go one further: creatures we know are legendary.  If I think I see a huge winged fire-breathing thing, it’s either a dragon or it isn’t. If I didn’t have the legend of the dragon, I couldn’t put such a thing into any handy context at all.  I would essentially have to make up my own legend.  In this case, science would come to my rescue: dragons as commonly depicted have unrealistic proportions for a flying animal, and a flying animal that size isn’t possible at all in our gravity and atmosphere, therefore I didn’t see one.  If I didn’t know the science, I might be more inclined to lean on the legend.  The 21st century, with the internet and global television empires, has created a situation where everyone knows the major creature legends, or some snippet of them: Merguer couldn't have imagined such a world in 1989.  

Where does all this leave us? In an unsatisfactory fugue, really.  I reject the idea that cryptozoological reports can be dismissed if the beast as reported bears some resemblance to a legend, but I also  acknowledge the existence of a legend makes it somewhat more likely I might ascribe an uncertain sighting to something it isn’t.  Know the context: know the language: know the culture and the trends: but never forget an individual report might have nothing to do with any of them. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Of Whales and Satellites

It would be really cool (and useful) to track whales via satellite imagery. Of course, the whales have to cooperate by being at or near the surface.  Assuming they are, can we spot them and tell that they are whales?  The Ikonos satellite service reports its WorldView2 satellite can spot whales. WorldView2 has a maximum resolution of 50cm, so a whale is going to appear of decent size: a whale showing 20m of back at the surface will be 40 pixels long and maybe 6 pixels wide (wider if the flukes are showing.)  There is a lag in how often one satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) can look at a given patch of ocean, though, so it can't keep continuous track of a pod.
Planet Labs can keep continuous watch on an areas when it's finished deploying its nanosatellites (5kg each (really) and offering 3-5 meter resolution),  A whale may be only a pixel wide and a few pixels long, though, I had a chance to ask co-founder and CTO Chris Boshuizen about it at the Conference on Small Satellites. He's looked at this because people have sent in Planet Labs images and asked if some objects visible are whales.  Chris doesn't see whale-tracking from his satellites as practical: a whale is, at best, a tiny smudge indistinguishable from a boat. Planet Labs started out not intending to image watery areas at all but now goes out 40 km from all coastlines.  We also discussed whether whales, with their blubber insulation, have enough of a heat signature to be spotted in the infrared band (he doubts it).  He can spot pollution plumes in the water and sediment flows, though, so Planet Labs, which has a strong ecological mission, can contribute to the study of inshore habitats.  Thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer my questions!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Cecil, and bigger issues

If I call myself a writer on science and nature, I need to say something about Cecil. It's a tragedy this lion was killed, and a crime the way it was lured. Everyone involved should face appropriate legal punishment. This is a moment we should seize, though, to talk about all the issues involved. Should we allow any trophy hunting?
Hunters argue the huge license fees support often-impoverished local communities: opponents argue that money ends up with corrupt officials instead. The lion is, at the least, a threatened species: it's not in imminent danger of vanishing, but its numbers go down every year, with the most vigorous animals, the huge males, being hunted the most. I'd say the US should go beyond requirements of the CITES treaty and ban import of lion trophies as we do of elephant tusks. A TIME magazine piece notes some blame should go to Zimbabwean officials who created the poverty in their once-thriving nation in a political land-grab that broke up productive farms and game ranches because most were white-owned, plunging the whole nation into extreme poverty where people will do anything for money or food. The leads to another issue: should we give so much ink and airtime to Cecil in a land where thousands of children are starving? I have no pity for the professional poachers who make millions supplying traditional-medicine markets: shooting on sight is a tempting remedy. But there are local people whose children are hungry and will do anything, including poach a lion.
I don't have the answers to all these issues, but we should talk about them. Mourn Cecil, but not only Cecil: think about how to prevent poaching, balance human and animal needs, and build a sustainable future for all.

Since part of the problem is the poor and corrupt system prevailing in the nation housing the park from which Cecil was lured, I have an idea I trot out every now and then for international parks: start with a half-dozen wild areas the conservation world can agree are vital and create an agency (UN, maybe, or something seen as less corrupt, like the OECD, which isn't thought of as a conservation agency but could be become one in the ecotourism era), to fund and administer on a continuing basis on an equal footing with the nation (if there is one) owning the site. The Galapagos and Okavango might be good places to start because of the universal recognition of their importance: you could also start with the most endangered spots instead: Conservation International maintains a list. There would be all kinds of problems in practice, but exporting "America's best idea" on a cooperative international seems wiser than having so much preservation depend on year-to-year grants and political changes. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Time to Howl - it's a new wolf!

Most discoveries of large animals these days (though not all!) are made in the lab, where similar-looking, or "cryptic" species are distinguished from relatives that look much the same.  There are morphological as well as genetic differences behind this identification of a new wolf, though.  The population known as the African golden jackal is, instead, the African golden wolf.  To quote the attached article, "the authors were surprised to learn that African golden jackals are more closely related to grey wolves, even though there are no grey wolves in Africa and even though grey wolves and African golden jackals look dramatically different. "

You'll have to follow the link to see photos, since I try not to post copyrighted material, but it's a beautiful animal and another reminder that we don't know everything about the natural world. 

Here's an old public-domain illustration, which is quite beautiful itself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sea Creatures, Cryptids, and Seals

One of my favorite topics in cryptozoology is "sea monsters" or "sea serpents."  Now, no one believes in giant marine snakes, and very few biological scientists believe in possible sea monsters at all, but there are a lot of people like myself who can't let go of the idea that something peculiar still lurks in the stories and legends of giant, sometimes terrifying creatures from the deep. Some reports are traceable to real creatures, like these oarfish.  And the stories have provided inspiration  for toys, hoaxes - sophisticated or silly - knick-knacks, books, movies, and so on.
The question is - are all such stories dismiss-able?
There's been a spate of recent blog/internet posts on the topic, and some make for intriguing reading.
A common speculation among cryptozoologists is that there's an unknown pinniped (seal) with a long neck.  Seals have surprisingly long necks, though it's often not obvious because there is a lot of fat under the neck fur.  The leopard seal, which is genuinely scary (and it should be, because it's definitely killed humans) looks like a long-necked reptile from some angles.  The species' length is often cited as up to 10 feet, but men from the famed (doomed) exploration ship Endurance killed one as it was attacking and measured it at 12 feet.
I learned that from Karl Shuker's blog. Dr. Shuker (he's one of two Ph.D. scientists in the world who write on the "pro" side of marine cryptids: Darren Naish, much more cautious but still intrigued, is the other), published a two-part blog on the long-necked seal idea.  (Part One, Part Two) He's pretty thorough.  He ends up being very cautious: he notes there's fossil evidence for seals with slightly longer necks than modern ones, but nothing that could be taken for a swan-necked plesiosaur-like animal.  He admits one case really stumps him: a closeup sighting by British lawyer Mackintosh Bell and a cod-fishing crew in 1919.  Bell described his animal so thoroughly at close range that there are only two possibilities: Bell saw a long-necked seal, or the whole account is a lie. (It does not appear the fisherman friends who accompanied him ever set down accounts, so this case does depend on Bell's word, but he stood by it in correspondence with oddities investigator Rupert J. Gould.
Sea monsters are not popular these days: indeed, for most scientists, they never were. (Sir Richard Owen was an early and vociferous critic. I must note his treatment of the Daedalus crew in 1848 was unfair, despite the fact the latter probably saw a giant squid.)  
But the grandfather of modern sea serpent stories, the Gloucester beast, arguably remains not quite explained.  See Craig Woolheater's article for a good review.  The episode started in 1638 and peaked in 1817. It's always been puzzling: it may may forever be puzzling.  Even a cautious authority like Richard Ellis thought something strange had happened.  The oft-invoked (and often true) explanation of "contagion" for "flaps" of odd occurrences seems inadequate: People were reporting big animals of a fairly consistent description that puzzled men who'd spent many years at sea.
In the 21st century, years can pass without a sea serpent report, near Gloucester or anywhere else.  Is whatever animal might be at the basis of sea serpent stories rare, extinct - or was it never real?
I'd like to think it's just rare.  I could be wrong. But I hope I'm not.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sykes' The Nature of the Beast, revisited

The Nature of the Beast: The First Genetic Evidence on the Survival of Apemen, Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures into Modern Times
Coronet Books, 2015. 336 pp.

While I write about cryptozoology, I rarely have anything to say about sasquatch: it’s not my area of concentration, and it seems so ridiculous that we’ve missed a huge species in North America that I’d like to write the whole thing off. I can’t quite do that to my satisfaction, though, because intelligent normal humans are still reporting – well, something. This book, though, is so compelling I’m going to analyze it in more depth than I did in my first posting on this subject.

In a field rife with ambiguity, Oxford genetics professor Bryan Sykes tried to do something definitive. He invited sasquatch, yeti, almas, and other assorted unknown-primate hunters to send him their best samples of hair, saliva, blood, etc. (mostly hair), and (using techniques in which he was recognized worldwide as an innovator) he would extract DNA and identify the species. After throwing out obvious known species and samples of doubtful provenance, he had 37 to test and got 30 good results: every one a known species. There was bear, horse, wolf, and human hair (and a raccoon sample from Russia: apparently there was once a release of captured raccoons into this country), but nothing to indicate a nonhuman primate.

Sykes is strongly critical concerning the tendency of cryptozoologists to seize on hair samples that are not identifiable or ignore evidence of contamination, as with the orang-pendek reports that got some people (including me) genuinely excited. The orang-pendek sample was claimed to be halfway between human and ape, an unsupportable and indeed meaningless statement. He finds the work of Dr. Melba Ketchum to be a mess of sloppy amateurism and impossible conclusions. Along the way we learn a lot about genetics and a little about the odd corners of said science: surprisingly, Sykes thinks fabled human-chimpanzee crosses would be infertile but not quite 100% impossible, even though his description of a region called 2T implies strongly that they are. Sykes identified the Russian “ape-woman” Zana as fully human, of southern African descent, apparently almost mute and horribly ill-used. He does wonder if such an exceptionally tall and healthy woman (apparently she was almost 2m tall and extraordinarily athletic) might be descended from an unrecorded African migration tens of thousands of years ago, rather than being a recently escaped slave or the daughter of such (slaves normally being poorly nourished and unhealthy). Such a radical idea, though, needs much more support than Sykes can offer to get any consideration by the larger scientific community.

When it comes to anecdotal evidence, Sykes starts off telling eyewitness stories as fairly as possible, from the viewpoint of the teller. He doesn’t even throw Justin Smeja’s “Sierra Kills” story into the “absurdity” pile, even though most sasquatch-hunters do. He tells of some interesting fieldwork alongside my friend Lori Simmons (of which more later). But when it comes to hard, cold science, he’s adamant: no one sent him a sample of any kind of nonhuman primate, even though he clearly WANTS there to be something incredible behind all this hominid-hunting. Sykes may be stern in his insistence on better science, but he is a friend to cryptozoologists. He did turn up some samples that seemed to be of a very odd bear (a polar bear or brown-polar hybrid in the Himalayas, to be exact), which set off a furor of its own (also discussed below).

Now, back to his work with Lori Simmons, which I use here to highlight what a fascinating, multifaceted cultural phenomenon sasquatch is. Lori takes him to a tree whose roots apparently cover an underground den used by a sasquatch she calls the Big Guy, who her late father discovered. While she has barely glimpsed the Big Guy, she believes she’s communicated with him by leaving food, by stamping her foot (which draws sharp knocks and sometimes growls) and by accustoming him to the sound of her voice: she talks soothingly, as one might to a nervous horse. Sykes is quite taken by all this and wonders if he’s in real danger.

Sykes sets sticky-tape traps around the site but gets only a sample of Lori’s own hair. He visits the tree again with a ranger named Sage Bohme who suggests that a spot about 50 feet up where a big branch on one trunk knocks against another in a way that could send knocking noises down the trunk and mislead people about their place of origin. He wrote to Lori that this seemed plausible but that he was still puzzled by two aspects of the case, the reported growls and the apparent response to Lori stamping her foot are puzzling.

Sykes doesn’t believe Lori’s making things up (nor do I: I don’t know how to interpret some things Lori reports, but I’ve gone on record as denying she’s a hoaxer. Lori has invited me out to try the stomp-and-knock communication in person, and I’ll take her up on that when I can. Definitely not hoaxer behavior). Still, as Sykes notes, it’s easy to ascribe woodland sounds and activities to a creature you think is there, even when you can’t be certain.

Lori, commenting on the book for me, is steadfast, noting Sykes agreed there are still some problems and adding, “I thought Sage's theory was going to be dismissed. The food we left out was taken and consumed on the site. Also in some instances, by the creature having to unwrap chocolate, etc., in order to do it. In one experiment (cryptozoologist) Adam Davies did, it had to unwrap an egg from tissue paper. The egg was consumed, the paper intact. It does not explain the growling, the knocks on the ground, or the increase in intensity in response to our behavior. Also, the frequency of the growls is not dependent on the weather. There was even a time back in March of 2013 at dusk I saw what I believe to be a Bigfoot/Sasquatch only yards from the den.” Lori’s next book, Tracking Bigfoot: the Journey Continues, will tell her side of the adventure.

A comment Lori adds from her dad is worth mentioning: “October 2008: A very deep, guttural sound came from off to my right and near the creek. It kind of resembled an irate brahma bull only with a deeper sound. This sounded very dangerous-what a horrible change after it had been so quiet and peaceful earlier. I stayed still for a few minutes-no sound- so I decided to go against my better judgment and walk slowly towards where I had heard it. I only got about halfway to the creek when I heard a knock sound back and below where I'd just come from: so I did an about-face and headed in that direction, slowly. I went over a small ridge and into a mini valley. It's expertise in camouflage, hiding and superb stealth in the forest or elsewhere, and possible (in my opinion) great strength. Seeing some hardwood trees broken off about twelve feet high convinced me. But, even more impressive was how the big guy jarred the ground I was standing on and could actually make the ground tremble.” You can attribute this to a mix of natural events like storms damaging trees and maybe a bear, but it kind of raises the hackles on your neck.

To go back to Sykes, he published his theory about bears and came under immediate skeptical fire. Writing in Skeptical Inquirer, taxonomists Ron Pine and Eliecer Guiterrez strongly dismissed this work, arguing Sykes was relying on a short DNA sequence that was within the variability of modern brown bears. Sykes took a shot in reply at the overuse of statistics and bioinformatics, and I’m not going to try to work out those arguments, but suffice to say that interest in a potential hybrid bear as the Yeti seems to have dropped off.

Some cryptozoologists have complained that Sykes tested only about a third of the “good” samples (those that were not immediately ruled out on the grounds of unverifiable provenance, obvious artificiality, etc.), but Sykes is on solid ground here: he chose the samples that seemed most likely to represent an unknown primate. He wanted to find such an animal. He did not.

Despite the flaws, this book is an important one. Sykes has taken the best evidence offered by unknown-primate hunters worldwide and shown that it is, without exception, not up to snuff. That doesn’t mean Bigfoot cannot exist, but it means the bar has been raised. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Sykes’ work shows we don’t have it.

In addition to Sykes’ book, sources consulted include:

Personal communications with Lori Simmons: personal communications between Bryan Sykes and Lori Simmons, shared with permission; FaceBook posts by Pine and Sykes: Sharon Hill, “Sykes’ reputation and his Yeti project get slammed,” Doubtful News, April 5, 2015: and Pine and Guiterrez, “No Reason to Believe That Sykes’ Yeti-Bear Cryptid Exists,” Skeptical Inquirer v.39#4, July/August 2015.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Arriving at life's Plutonian shore

We're here. And Pluto, with its huge basic, few craters, and odd color, looks nothing like we might have expected.  So much to learn....

"These are the voyages of the starship NASA.  Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before! "

Congratulations to the New Horizons team!

Hey Mate, you don't don't want to know what we found off Australia

Well, yes, we do.  They're fish apparently designed specifically to look as scary as hell.  A government research vessel with new instrumentation, exploring the bottom off New South Wales, encountered small but totally alien-looking new species.  Have a look. They were exploring a newfound patch of undersea volcanos and were surprised, among other things, to find many larval forms that it was thought developed entirely in coastal waters. Even a science writer is tempted to think, "No, fish like that shouldn't exist."

Friday, July 03, 2015

Pluto - a big surprise (and more to come today)

We expected Pluto to be a ball of frozen rock.  It is, but it's an interesting-looking ball of frozen rock.  The New Horizons spacecraft is giving us our first closeups of the planet (and yes, I will refer to it as a planet, now and forever), It's moon Charon has still-unexplained light-colored patches, and Pluto, which we knew was generally brownish-reddish because the frozen rock is covered in goop called tholins raining from the methane atmosphere, has spotty markings that are oddly regular.  Cue the UFO buffs and the "giant alien bases" claims...

Update: New Horizons has lost contact and gone into "safe mode."  This happens with deep space probes, and many recover, but there's not too much time if we're going to get a closer flyby out of this voyage.)

The faces of Pluto (NASA)
UPDATE: "We're here!"  It's flyby day!  Go, NASA!

Details, answers, and more questions for a planet that appears more complex the closer we get.

For July 4, an explosion of new species

We don't know all the species on this planet.  But how fast are we discovering them? It's still true, as the Times of India quotes a British WWF scientist, that,  "The more scientists look, the more they find."
This particular  compilation covers the discoveries in the Amazon basin over 2010-2013, a total of 441 species. Adorable purring monkeys? Got 'em.  Vegetarian piranha?  We have one of those, too.  Two hundred and fifty-eight plants to go with 84 fish, 22 reptiles, 18 birds, a mammal, and 58 amphibians? Sounds about right.And again, those are just the plants and vertebrates. It's nearly impossible to keep up with the invertebrates: at the high end, entomologist Terry Erwin, whole collects insects so fast he assigns alphanumeric codes because there are too many species to award scientific names as they are found, thinks there could be 30 million tropical beetles, with a huge share of those in the Amazon.

This image from NASA breaks down the many types of habitats found in this area rich in plant and animal life.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Wonderful Novel with a Tinge of Cryptozoology

At the Water's Edge
Sarah Gruen
Spiegel & Grau

This is a magical novel, weaving fact and fiction together to set the scene for one troubled American wife's World War II venture to Scotland with her despicable husband.  The people, the lake, and the maybe-there monster are all lovingly depicted along with the times.  If it's a half-notch below Water for Elephants (one of my favorites among all modern novels), It is nevertheless superb in every way. I know a lot of the monster-related history, and Gruen uses much of it, tweaking it occasionally to suit her narrative (as when the allegedly hoaxed "Surgeon's photograph" become a real hoax created by the protagonist's father in law).Gruen  puts us firmly, flawlessly into the time and place and explores life through the eyes of Madeline Hyde, a would-be independent woman in a very constricted life.  She's never preachy about the oppression of women in those days (which, among the upper crust, included lobotomies when necessary to keep them in line): she lets her points flow honestly from her characters' experiences and emotions. This is a wonderful book, and I look forward to the next one.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jurassic World: Science no, Fun yes

OK,  I went to Jurassic World. 

I understand why some paleontologists despise it - it wouldn't have hurt the movie to make the dinosaurs more in line with the latest scientific discoveries, and they should have taken the opportunity to make the dinos more accurate (which also would make them more visually interesting). In fact, the raptors are LESS accurate than in the last movie, and it's disappointing. (And, why, in the name of Roy Chapman Andrews, do we keep seeing them with cute little "bunny hands"?) And how can pterosaurs lift way more than their own weight? And why does the mosasaur look different sized in every shot, and why is it bigger than a blue whale to start with?   And so on... 

Nevertheless, this is a terrifically enjoyable monster movie, with the right balance of scary and funny moments. One death is drawn-out and gratuitous, but the rest of the violence is ok. The actors generally give good performances in the usual monster-movie stereotype roles. There are enjoyable nods to the original Jurassic Park, and there's a climax where my all-time favorite dinosaur gets on the screen again. The last joke, played out as people evacuate the control room, is a hilarious skewering of a common movie trope: I won't spoil it for you. There was a lot of predictability in the script, but the filmmakers did a decent job of hiding it.  (You knew the sinister defense guy was going to die, but they made you wait for it.)  And most of the ideas about what would actually be in a theme park of this sort, and how it would be marketed and run, seem pretty spot-on.

(Missed opportunity: a TV network should have had the older Ian Malcolm commenting on why you didn't need chaos theory to predict that a plan that twice ended in disaster was going to end, once again, in disaster. "They've removed the chaos. It's back to old-fashioned linear mathematical certainty.") 

No, I don't believe in the super-powered Indominus rex.  You don't get significant additive (that is, positive or enhancing)  characteristics of another species as a random side effect of splicing in some genes for some other reason.  That we MIGHT be able to someday design something like this - and I think we might - is a scary thought, though, and it works great in the movie. And the discussion over the creature's name is funny and entirely plausible.

The CGI (save for a couple of moments) is good, and if the mosasaur is insanely big and some of the dinosaur behavior makes no sense, well, I'm willing to forgive the filmmakers most of their faults, because they created great entertainment. Turn off your brain, grab your popcorn, and enjoy the action.

Random untruths.

I don't know why I keep returning to this stuff, but: 1. The US Government has no contact with aliens. Such an event would become the central fact driving US space, defense, and intelligence budgets. It's not mentioned once in the massive leaks. Case closed. 2. There are no simple natural cures for cancer or other killer diseases. Arguing otherwise means that doctors and pharma CEOs are letting their own cancer-afflicted families die horribly rather than admit to simple cures and diminish drug profits. Case closed. 3. Vaccines are effective. The modern victories against diseases like polio are aided but not caused by improved sanitation, etc, because vaccines stop these diseases even in nations where the poverty and sanitation remain terrible. Case closed. 

Now back to space exploration, zoology, and pictures of my cats.

Philae Phones Home

This is kind of incredible, in the best way.  ESA's cometary lander put down on Comet 67P in November 2014.  It transmitted for two and a half days and went silent, its batteries run down, its body-mounted solar cells presumably shaded by terrain and unable to recharge it.  As the comet approached the Sun, though, solar energy (direct or reflected) on the cells increased enough to wake up the spunky little 100-kg spacecraft and prompt it to transmit an electronic "hello."  Indeed, it turns out the lander has considerable information in its memory queue and must have been actively gathering data at some point during the long silence.

Congratulations to the ESA team.  A space first - the landing of a probe on a comet - has become even more memorable.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Happy World Ocean Day

OK, it's not a great day for the oceans. They're in a lot of trouble.  But the situation is';t hopeless.
First, more people know about the challenges and difficulties plaguing the oceans and marine life with every passing year.  More people get active, even if it's just little things like writing some blog articles.
Second, our knowledge is increasing every year.  We find more species, learn more about them, figure out more about how they are integrated and how the food web works.
I don;t know whether the gains every year are more important than the losses, but there ARE gains. Science, hard work, and hope can keep the planet's lifeblood flowing.

In celebration, the top quotes from the planet’s leading marine scientist, “Her Deepness,” Sylvia Earle.

“If you think the ocean isn't important, imagine Earth without it. Mars comes to mind. No ocean, no life support system.”
“Ten percent of the big fish still remain. There are still some blue whales. There are still some krill in Antarctica. There are a few oysters in Chesapeake Bay. Half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape, a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet. There's still time, but not a lot, to turn things around.”
“We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.“
“Far and away, the greatest threat to the ocean, and thus to ourselves, is ignorance. But we can do something about that.”
“Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you're lucky enough to see lots of them,  that means that you're in a healthy ocean. You should be afraid if you are in the ocean and don't see sharks.”
“I have lots of heroes: anyone and everyone who does whatever they can to leave the natural world better than they found it.”

“I've had the joy of spending thousands of hours under the sea. I wish I could take people along to see what I see, and to know what I know.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Some skeptical reading on matters of health

I'm not sure why I've spent a lot of time reading way-out health claims and their rebuttals.  I have yet to find anything directly connected to my own health in arguments over vaccines, GMOs, and so many other things, and I have no medical background, so why do I bother?
I guess I am intrigued by controversy.  But the point to remember in a lot of these debates is that controversy exists only on the Web, or in the minds of a fraction of the population (or in a fraction of a percent of those medically educated in some way).
Take vaccines. They are the greatest advance in human health in the history of the world.  Antivax activists say they are only in favor of more information. The trouble is the information they cite is, to use a precise scientific term, crap.  Vaccines don't cause autism, which is present genetically in the womb. They don't cause much of anything they are accused of. There ARE people, very rarely, who have a strong allergic reaction to an ingredient in a vaccine, and in the US there's a vaccine injury legal system for precisely this.  The system does not exist for people given autism by vaccines because there aren't any.
Parent like to know a cause when their kids develop problems.  I'm a parent, and I still want to know why my daughter has lupus, and I may never know.  Parent want to know, not only for themselves, but because they genuinely want to help other parents avoid seeing the same (often heartbreaking) problems.  But correlation in time - whether it's your child showing symptoms of autism soon after a vaccination or a child who develops a gastrointestinal disease after eating a normal diet for some years - doesn't mean that what you see is caused by what you think it is.  That's why there is exactly one discredited / withdrawn / fraudulent study saying vaccines = autism outside the fringe-medicine press.  It's why there is one withdrawn / discredited French rat study linking GMOs to ANY health problem in ANY mammal.
Peer review is not a perfect tool, but it's the best we have. And think before you claim "conspiracy" - the claim really means that doctors and pharmaceutical execs let their own families, their own children, themselves all die rather than suggest "secret" natural cures. (Actually, another writer pointed out a contradiction here: leftist activists claim Big Pharma is hiding cures for cancer, but they also claim that simple natural substances cure cancer, so what would those Big Pharma cures be NEEDED for?)
So ignore sites like, which is neither natural nor news.  Eat a healthy diet, which does matter. Exercise.  And when something goes wrong, remember that one doctor may be wrong about it, but it's pretty unlikely that they all are.  Don't listen to people like the one described here.  Read real medicine and science by people with real expertise (like this blogger here ) and real medical organizations, like here, and real journals, like you'll find here, and accept - as bad as it is - that we simply don't have cures for anything yet.
But hope.  There's a lot of hope.  Keep funding real science and real medicine, and every decade, we'll say goodbye to another "incurable" malady.  The future is bright. It's just not perfect.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A science writer at Denver ComiCon

OK, so I'm not just a science writer. but a general nerd, and Denver ComiCon is a don't miss item on my calendar.  I dress as my favorite literary character, wizard Harry Dresden.  All being Harry requires is:

  • Black duster (I need a longer one to get the look just right, but this one will do)
  • Staff (carry one often anyway due to bad back)
  • Black low-crowned hat (Stetson calls this style a "gambler's hat," and I wear one anyway)
  • Being tall (can't help you with that one.)
I dress it up a bit with Harry's amulet and shield bracelet.

Anyway, ComiCon had a skeptics' booth, which I didn't expect, held down by Kyle Sanders and his wife in Ghostbusters uniforms.  Kyle illustrates SKEPTIC magazine and writes the webcomic Carbon Dating.  Great to meet you, Kyle.

There were panels on NASA and space in general with utility for SF writers, like how to construct believable planetary ecosystems.  There were good panels on writing (Peter Wacks of Wordfire Press was especially full of good advice for freelancers).  There was the usual bewildering assortment of elaborate cosplayers, including a Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy in a suit so well constructed to look like an organic whole that I wondered how he want to the bathroom.  Carole Hightshoe had the Wolfsinger Publications booth up with my horror novel, The Dolmen, which was handy since the opportunity came up to give a signed copy to Dresden Files author Jim Butcher.  The enormously successful Butcher treated a writer he'd never heard of as an equal, and I won't forget that.

I also met Mitch Pileggi of The X-Files, who gave me a tidbit on the upcoming reboot: When I said Skinner should be retired and writing a management book about dealing with an incredibly difficult employee, said, "I can tell you this much: Skinner's not retired."
My oldest daughter had a good time meeting Lou Ferrigno, the original Hulk (he publishes advice she uses in the gym), and both daughters enjoyed exploring the exhibit space.

Anyway, a great time was had.  My advice for next year: arrive early for parking.  An estimated 80,000 nerds overwhelm both public transit and parking lots.  And keep some MREs on your person in case the food lines break you.

Here's to  2016!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

God, science, and John Glenn

One of my personal heroes is astronaut / fighter pilot / Senator John Glenn.  Now he's encapsulated my own beliefs precisely in this article:

Glenn from space: "to look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible." Glenn today: "I don't see that I'm any less religious by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that's a fact. It doesn't mean it's less wondrous."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Under the sea - a creature from another time

OK, so it's not really a "living fossil." But that other overused term, "missing link," has some utility here. 
 Two billion years ago, microbes with a nucleus and other changes from the bacteria and the archaea evolved, and, as this article explains, they kept evolving into every multicellular creature on planet Earth, including us. A new sample from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean yielded a strain of archaea, dubbed Lokiarchaeum, which had many eukaryote-type features including genes that code for the proteins giving eukaryotes a complex structure the other types lack. . Since the latter evolved from the former, this was a snapshot of early evolution that had scientists jumping up and down (I don't know if the "jumping" part is literally true, but it seems close enough).
To swipe the key language from this article, "Lokiarchaeum was much more complex than other archaea and bacteria, although not as complex as true eukaryotes... a Lokiarchaeum-like ancestor could have evolved into the first full-blown eukaryotes.. Once the ancestors of eukaryotes evolved a complex skeleton, the next major step may have been the origin of mitochondria."
The scientific team is trying to learn more about these creatures, despite the handicaps of limited supply and the annoying fact the microbes keep dying soon after being scooped up.  But the work done so far has given us a look at evolution from the days when dinosaurs were only one of Nature's dreams and humans were not even that.  Keep up the good science, guys!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Great Whites... and REALLY Great Whites

Everyone's fascinated by the great white shark, a beast that can be 7m long and can (and has) put humans on its menu on occasion. It is the largest and, in some ways, most evolved of a line that goes back 400 million years. Sharks outlasted the mighty Dunkleosteus, the great reptiles like Liopleurodon, and the most fearsome whale of all time, Livyatan melvillei. Today there are nearly 400 known species of shark, and the great white is their metaphorical king (or queen, since the biggest ones are always female).
One thing people like to speculate on is how big great whites get. The maximum length of the species has been subject to countless tall tales, overestimates, and mistakes (for a long time the record was 36.5 feet / 11.1m, but this was a misidentified basking shark.) Looking at claimants from the Azores, Cuba, and Australia, the answer seems to be that the provable maximum length is under 23 feet / 7m. (I've named 7m the "Ellis/McCosker limit," since Richard Ellis and John McCosker have done the most research on this and produced the best single book on the species so far.). There is a case where an expert theorized bites on a whale carcass floating off Australia might belong to a monster in the 25-foot neighborhood (around 7.5m) which would be mean real great whites get as big as Bruce in Jaws.  The question of exact lengths can devolve into a pointless debate over inches/centimeters, so I'm going to say the biggest great whites approach 7m, with exceptional sharks possibly larger, and call it a day.

Katherine, a great white tagged off the Florida coast. (Wikimedia Commons)

For centuries, human being killed great whites when they had the chance and otherwise avoided them at all costs. Silly stories about a shark swallowing a whole man in armor did nothing for their reputation. Herman Melville called the great white "the dotard lethargic and dull, pale ravener of horrible meat."
Today, scientists take significant risks in order to learn more about great whites - not to kill them, but to conserve them. This article from Nat Geo tells of a dramatic tagging venture, involving the largest great white ever pulled out alive, tagged, and returned to the ocean. "Apache" is 5.5m (18 feet) long, enormous for a male. the shark weighs about two tons and did not come aboard peacefully, but the conservation team lead by Michael Domeier looks for a selection of sharks, including the biggest (presumably oldest) as well as the smaller ones that are relatively easy to handle. (Relatively.)
There's a lot we don't know about this species, including its mating and migration habits. Without knowing more, we can't tell whether the population is being affected by factors like climate change and overfishing of its prey. Great whites are taken in the pointless and destructive shark-finning trade, but, though classed by the IUCN as Vulnerable, they are not endangered - at least not yet. This is important because healthy top predators are vital to an ecosystem. This article documents how at least one population seems to actually be on the rise.
Those of us who dabble in either sharks or cryptozoology are always asked about Megalodon: Carcharocles megalodon, a distant cousin of the great white, which became extinct over 2m years ago.   While Meg gets 80 - 200 feet long in fiction, we know for sure that they reached at least 15m, maybe 18m, and may have been the largest fish ever to have lived (there's quite a lot of dispute about a couple of older prehistoric fish, but there is no doubt Meg was  at least the largest shark ever.)  
Megalodon naturally attracts novelists like, well, great whites are attracted to chum.  A lot of the literature is fun, if little of it could be called scientifically precise. Steve Alten has made a good living off his fictional Megs. Briar Lee Mitchell write a good novel with the all-time-best title of Big Ass Shark.  There are lesser-known novels, incredibly bad cheap-crap movies, and even worse fake "documentaries," along with other ways to get a Meg fix, but the fish is extinct, period, done, over with, gone, dead. the only really interesting possible Meg sighting, which novelists have played off a good deal, was the New Zealand shark of 1918 claimed by lobstermen to be ghostly white and at least 100 feet long. This case was accepted by an expert who interviewed the men, and it's frankly still a mystery: if I had to make a guess, I would suggest an exceptionally huge and unusually light-colored great white, plus human exaggeration factor, was involved.  (Ellis once observed that the name "great white" only makes sense if you're looking at the shark upside-down.) 
So no Meg, but we'll settle for the great white - which is more than enough. It's pretty damn awesome, and hopefully we can keep it on Earth for millions of years to come.  

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