Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New book a tribute to Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride (PhD from Stanford in astrophysics) died two years ago today.  I went to a program at the Space Foundation Discovery Center here in Colorado Springs.

The program featured Lynn Sherr (formerly ABC News) making a presentation and discussing her new biography of Ride. I haven't started reading the book yet, but it was a great evening.  When I asked Sherr what she thought of space coverage on TV today compared to the 1980s, she said, "The first thing to realize about space coverage today is that there isn't any."

Ride has always been a hero of mine, and I'm looking forward to starting the book!

My apologies to Lynn and everyone else for a terrible photo.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Meanwhile, the new-species business stays busy

I've not posted on the continuing discoveries of new living species in a while, so let me throw out a few items.

From Bolivia we have four new gopher-like mammals about 30cm long, all grouped by local people under the same name, tuco-tuco,  but now known to science as Ctenomys erikacuellarae, Ctenomys yatesi, Ctenomys andersoni, and Ctenomys lessai. They are an interesting example of speciation occurring when an original species settles in to populations broken up by the valleys and ridges of their local topography. Indeed, the formation called the central Andean backthrust belt, which creates many barriers between populations, is referred to by one scientist as a "speciation engine."

A new species of water mite from the seas off Puerto Rico was named after Jennifer Lopez because the description team was listening to her songs while they worked. So welcome, Litarachna lopezae.

A report from the Zoological Survey of India says that, in 2013, the Indian scientists found 248 new animal species in the subcontinental nation. They did not find any mammals (always the newsiest discoveries, except maybe for sharks), but are happy with 5 amphibians, 2 reptiles, 36 fish, and 181 invertebrates. 

New Zealand scientists looking off the Northland coast report several new areas of distinct habitat communities (such as shellfish beds) that were unknown and likely house new species. This cute seahorse (is there any other kind?), about 3cm long, is the first to be examined for classification and description. The survey technique here is interesting: researchers dropped a trawl studded with commercially purchased GoPro video cameras. A British entomologist discovered a tiny new wasp in a tree on the playground of his son's school, an elephant shrew was found in Namibia, a new moth from the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S. was named in honor of the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans and their great Chief Attakullakulla of the 1700s, a new catfish turned up in Australia, new crabs were reported from Malaysia, and the satirical publication The Onion gets the last word with an article on 43 primates just classified in a subway system. Don't take my word for it - read it yourself.

How Great is the Great White Shark?

OK, now that we're approaching Shark Week, which Discovery Channel has kicked off with a ridiculous hoax about a bull shark in Lake Ontario, we can return to an endlessly fascinating shark question: can Great White Sharks reach 7 meters (23 feet)?
Old records claiming 10m or more have long since been discredited, bet here's an Interesting study.  Ellis and McCosker, for their 1991 book Great White Shark, checked all the records of huge GWS and concluded the probable total length (TL) of the very largest was around 6.5m (just over 21 feet).   I went with this conclusion in my book Shadows of Existence.
 Mollet et. al. in 1996 went back and looked at the information, including how various measurements and estimates were done, and concluded the famous Malta shark from 1987 might actually have touched the 7m mark and the shark caught in the same year from Kangaroo Island, South Australia, could have been, and probably was, slightly over 7m. (The Malta shark was measured while lying on a floor: the Aussie shark was estimated against a boat and body parts kept, but it was too big for the fisherman to get it aboard.)  So maybe the people who suggested South Africa's fabled Submarine could be 7m long are not far off.  I'd be interested to hear what other experts have to say.
("A review of Length Validation Methods and Protocols to Measure Large White Sharks," in 1996 book Great White Sharks: The Biology of Carcharadon carcharias, Academic Press, NY.)

UPDATE: A FaceBook correcpondent, Caludio Dino Galetovic, sent a 1998 article saying the Malta shark might have been measured over the curves rather than in a direct line head-to-tail. This would make it under 6m.  Well, darn. 

The Great White isn't the human-hating monster of legend, but no one would deny it's formidable
(Photo NOAA)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Bully for Orbital Sciences

We have another commercial mission off to the International Space Station. Orbital's Antares light/medium launcher is now 3 for 3 in flights with the Cygnus spacecraft.  Cygnus carries supplies for the ISS and many student experiments, plus and no fewer than 32 nanosatellites for customers of the partner firm NanoRacks LLC. (NanoRacks partners with SpaceX and other providers, US and abroad, to get CubeSat-based nanosatellites to the ISS, where they are launched from Japan's Kibo module. )
Of the smaller firms contending for NASA-funded missions, Orbital is actually a much older firm that SpaceX, but was out of the spotlight for a while with minimal demand (or rather, minimal desire on the government's part to budget for)  launches of its Pegasus air-launch vehicle and the Minotaur series of converted ICBMs.  SpaceX had a good run going with its larger Falcon 9 until a recent glitch that stopped launch of the Orbcomm Generation 2 small communications satellites. It's scheduled to try again on Monday, 14 July. 
So congratulations to Orbital and good luck to SpaceX!

UPDATE: And bully for SpaceX and a perfect launch of the Falcon 9!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How many giant squid? More than you thought

Indeed, more than you wanted to know about.  Giant squid (the true giants, Architeuthis dux), are among the most famous yet most mysterious of marine denizens. They are eclipsed in size among all invertebrates only by their bulkier relative, the colossal squid Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Given that we've only recently (2012) videotaped a giant squid underwater and have seen very few of them alive at all, the question of how many there are seems unanswerable.
However, there is an estimate, and it's mind-blowing. Since large-scale sperm whaling continued until 1998, and dead specimens are often necropsied, we have a good idea about what they eat. (Bear with me. I'm getting there.) The majority of sperm whale diets are squid, but they are overwhelmingly small to medium-sized: the fabled battles between the giant squid and the sperm whale, never witnessed by a human observer, are relatively rare.  (Sperm whales also take a lot of fish, some developing a knack for nibbling them off hooks, and there is one known case of sperm whales attacking one another of the ocean's moist mysterious denizens, the megamouth shark.)

OK, enough meandering. The money shot: 

The paper "Unanswered Questions About the Giant Squid Architeuthis (Architeuthidae) Illustrate Our Incomplete Knowledge of Coleoid Cephalopods," by Clyde Roper and Elizabeth Shea (full paper not online), as quoted here by squid biologist Danna Staaf, says,  
“If the estimated 360,000 sperm whales remaining in the world’s oceans eat one giant squid per month, then the giant squid population consumed must be over 4.3 million individuals per year. If the number is one per week, then the consumed population would be over 18.7 million individuals consumed per year. Estimates based on actual samples taken from sperm whale stomachs are much larger still. Clarke (1980) suggested that approximately 1% of the 700–800 squids a female sperm whale eats each day and the 300–400 squids a male eats each day are Architeuthis specimens. If true, that yields the astonishing number of over 3.6 million giant squids consumed per day, and a yearly total over 131 million giant squids.”

Staff figures in her blog Squid a Day that this equates to a giant squid being eaten every one-fortieth of second.  Wow. Seriously, think about 131 million giant squid eaten per year. Playing with almost non-existent data here, with female squid topping out around 275 kg and males about 150, and assuming the sex ratio is 50-50 (which we don't know) and that all the squid eaten are adults averaging maybe 200kg, gives us 26.2 billion kilograms of giant squid being processed every year into whale poop.  The actual number is a good bit lower, since only a minority of the squid involved are likely to be full-grown when eaten, but it's still stupendous.  Indeed, given that sperm whales have been reduced by roughly (very roughly) two-thirds in the last two centuries by whaling, it's surprising the depths are not simply full of giant squid bumping into each other.  Human activity, which has reduced the population of large fish up to 90% or more, might be part of the reason they are not.  But wondering where all those missing squid are makes for a heck of a SyFy movie premise, doesn't it?

Monday, July 07, 2014

Farewell, Bill Gaubatz, space visionary

Bill Gaubatz has died. Bill was a leader of the revolutionary DC-X reusable spaceplane program, which had great success with its small demonstrator but could never find the money to go further. He continued working on spaceplanes and other reusable launchers, and I met him at spaceplane conferences in the 1990s and 2000s. He was a great guy as well as being a leader in the pursuit of more affordable, routine space transportation. 
Here's SF writer Jerry Pournelle's farewell blog post.

Basking Sharks and Sea Monters

Cryptozoologists love to discuss the "sea serpent." It's a topic that never gets old, thanks to the romance of it, the spectacular nature of the creatures or creatures (still reported occasionally today) and the fact that the oceans are still a very big hiding place. After all, we're still identifying dolphins, sharks, and so on. It's not unreasonable to wonder (as I do myself) where there is still some kind of singular creature hiding amid the tales of puzzled sailors and beach-goers.

If there are unidentified species involved, one would expect a carcass to drift ashore occasionally. The reclusive, deep-diving beaked whales, after all, are known primarily from carcasses.

Those carcasses that do engender excitement as possible "sea serpents" tend to be identified either as decaying cetaceans or, most commonly, as one of Nature's little jokes, the basking shark.

This harmless shark reaches at least (13m (40 feet) in length, and it's amazing in it's own right. It is a filter feeder, once widely fished for meat and oil, now protected in most areas but under brutal assault for the shark fin trade. A huge basking shark dorsal fin can fetch at least $20,000 U.S. (one source says $50,000). This billion-dollar business continues worldwide despite increasingly tight regulations, and there's no guarantee the basking shark and its even larger cousin, the whale shark, will survive it. The single species, Cetorhinus maximus, is found in temperate to boreal zones worldwide and thus is apt to turn up almost anywhere a "sea monster" might be found. Some very good basking shark specimens have been retrieved from such carcasses.

When a basking shark dies a natural or unnatural death and drifts ashore (finners cut the fins off and drop the shark, still living, back in the water), it decomposes in a most peculiar fashion. The lower jaw and the gill section drop off, the lower lobe of the tail disappears, and what you have when such a partially decayed carcass reaches shore is something that looks very much like a creature with a small head on a long neck. As the skin erodes, it can even look “furry.”

These imitation plesiosaurs have caused a great deal of consternation. They have also made good tourist attractions, as in the case of a Massachusetts carcass found in 1970 that was actually served up in a local restaurant as sea monster stew. Health codes seem to have been a little looser in those days.

The basking shark has been fingered in several of the most famous sea monster carcass episodes in history, including the Stronsay beast of 1808, the Zuiyo Maru "catch" of 1977, and (somewhat controversially) the mangled Naden Harbor carcass, about 3.6m (12 feet) long, found in a sperm whale in 1937. Concerning the first two, I think there's no doubt: the appearance of the Naden Harbor carcass still bothers me, although Richard Ellis writes in his book The Great Sperm Whale that there is a record of a sperm whale swallowing a 4.3m (14-foot) basking shark. (The Stronsay beast was paced out at over 16m (50 feet – some estimates were up to 18m) and might, even allowing for damage, have been one of the largest basking sharks ever.)

This unique take on the stranded monster vs. basking shark business was published in 1942 by a writer known only as Lucio. I first saw it in one of Tim Dinsdale's books: I wrote to the newspaper it appeared in, the Manchester Guardian Weekly, and was told there was no copyright objection to my including it in my 1996 Rumors of Existence. So here it is again.


Yet again the doubting Thomas
Takes our precious monster from us
And proceeds once more to bomb us
With disclosures stern and stark,
Lo! our portent meteoric
Doped with dismal paregoric
Sinks from monster prehistoric
To a common Basking Shark.

When we thought we had before us
An undoubted something-saurus
From the days when all was porous
In the world's well-watered dish
These confounded men of science
Setting fancy at defiance
Go and put their cold reliance
On an unembellished fish.

But the monster fan, unbeaten
Calls for something more to sweeten
Yarns so moldy and moth-eaten
And he takes a stouter stand
For some long-delayed survival
From days distant and archival
When the lizards had no rival
In their lordship of the land.

We need something more terrific
Than these learned lads specific
I defy their scientific
And uncompromising quiz
Their pretensions need unmasking
Here's a question for the asking-
How could any shark go basking
With the weather what it is?

Picture at top: a stranded basking shark as depicted in Harper's Weekly in 1868 (out of copyright)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Cryptozoology: Sykes DNA results on yeti, sasquatch, etc.

Bryan Sykes is a well-respected Oxford professor with a stack of peer-reviewed scientific publications on DNA. Now he has a new one. His paper analyzing 37 "anomalous primate" samples from around the world has produced 35 known animals - 37, really, but the two polar bear samples from the Himalayas present a genuine mystery, if not a primate-related one.  The abstract states:
"In the first ever systematic genetic survey, we have used rigorous decontamination followed by mitochondrial 12S RNA sequencing to identify the species origin of 30 hair samples attributed to anomalous primates. Two Himalayan samples, one from Ladakh, India, the other from Bhutan, had their closest genetic affinity with a Palaeolithic polar bear, Ursus maritimus. Otherwise the hairs were from a range of known extant mammals."

A book, The Yeti Enigma,  will follow soon. Note that Sykes published his peer-reviewed paper (not a flawless system, but the best we have) before coming out with a book.  Too often in cryptozoology, people do the reverse. Also too often, the science is sloppy: Sykes and colleagues dismiss the contaminated samples and the overall toxic mess of the Ketchum sasquatch DNA study.  The new findings do not prove there is no sasquatch, yeti, etc., but they do prove no one has gotten a genuine hair sample, which does lengthen the odds against these putative primates. Sykes has taken the best-quality evidence primate hunters could supply him with and showed that almost all of it is irrelevant. He has, though, established a database of results that will come in handy for identifying and future samples: negative findings do matter in science.

What to make of all this? Sharon Hill of Doubtful News writes, "The main thrust of this paper hits the gut of cryptozoology. As it is practiced today by amateur Bigfoot hunters and monster trackers, it is not science. This paper represents science. It’s a high bar." To her, amateur hunters need to stop complaining about "closed-minded" experts and switch to persuading them with high-quality science.  Yay!

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman points out on his CryptoZoo News site that the news is hardly all bad for cryptozoology.  Coleman notes the study itself and some of the news coverage - which has unusually intelligent for coverage of this subject - reveal "a notable depth of respect for the work of cryptozoologists." Plus, "This definitely shows there’s DNA in the Himalayas area of an unknown bear." The polar-bear type hairs are reddish-brown and golden-brown, respectively, though Sykes notes there are some reports of white bears from the region, while Coleman makes the point that reports of white yetis are almost nonexistent.  Sykes and his colleagues suggest the hair could be from a brown bear-polar bear hybrid. In other words, there could be a relatively isolated group of bears whose genomes are predominantly polar.

Sykes says, "Bigfootologists and other enthusiasts seem to think that they’ve been rejected by science. Science doesn’t accept or reject anything, all it does is examine the evidence and that is what I’m doing.” He plans an expedition in search of the strange bear.  Good luck and good hunting!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

NASA keeps things hopping - in and out of the atmosphere

In the coolest recent test of gear that may get us to other planets (and by "us" I of course mean "me," or maybe that's wishful thinking), NASA flew a balloon carrying a rocket booster and an inflatable ring called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator.   The impetus here is that the thin atmosphere of Mars, which right now is the only planet where human life support is just extremely difficult rather than impossible, puts a limit on the cargo mass that can be delivered via parachute. The inflatable part of the LDSD "flying saucer," when accelerated to Mach 4 some 40 km above the Earth, performed perfectly under conditions simulating, as far as is possible on Earth, a high-speed delivery through the atmosphere of the Red Planet to the point where speed and atmospheric density are low enough and high enough, respectively, so conventional parachutes can take over. Given it takes about a million dollars to send a kilogram to Mars, we don't want to waste any cargo in landing accidents - let alone the astronauts who will one day make the trip. 
So while NASA is getting beat up (with some justification) for not having an executable vision for solar system exploration, there's some comfort in knowing that farsighted scientists and engineers are still thinking ahead.

LDSD in the lab (NASA photo)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

One, two - three new mammals?

Could be. 
A crowd-funded (!) expedition to the Torricelli Mountains of Papua New Guinea placed 40 trailcams and may have gotten pictures of three new mammals. In the words of ecologist Eaun Ritchie: "We certainly got an image of what we think is a new species of sort of small kangaroo, dorcopsulus wallaby. Think small dog-size wallaby if you like. There's also things like bandicoots and rodents that don't appear to be in any of the books that we know about."
It's still a big planet....

Book Review: The World is Blue, by Sylvia Earle

National Geographic, Washington, DC, 2010 edition. 319pp.

Earle, Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, here provides a highly readable and compelling “state of the oceans” report.  The facts and figures are all here, but they are mixed with anecdotes and vivid descriptions of marine life to keep the reader in the right context.  Earle argues for more protected marine reserves (they covered less than one percent of the ocean when she wrote the book, an improved but still fragile two percent here in 2014), better regulation of fishing, and many other measures to halt the sharp decline in ocean productivity and biodiversity.  (One of her best points is that American hunters can take millions of ducks every year because there are enough protected marchlands and flyways to ensure the duck population can stay healthy.)   She touches on all the major groups of marine life and describes the latest in submersibles and other technology, although she points out there are far too few vessels, crewed or robotic, to properly explore the oceans.  Through all this runs a thread tracing the development of marine conservation efforts, in the U.S. and internationally.  One of my heroes of exploration and conservation, “Her Deepness” has here made a contribution that should be read by everyone interested in marine life and conservation – which essentially means everyone, since the Earth (as she quotes another scientists as pointing out) IS a marine habitat.

A snapshot of U.S. networks' online science news

CNN was the first all-news network, the first 24-hour news source, and has a founder (Ted Turner) who's been prominent in environmentalist activities.  So it's a real disappointment to look at their online science coverage.  Space geeks know they fired the great Miles O'Brien and the rest of the science office in a stupid cost-cutting move.  Looking at their online offerings right now (24 June 2014), CNN's abandonment of science news is a shameful abdication of the responsibility to keep people abreast of what's happening on their planet and in their universe.  A scan of today's pages reveals there is ONE science story not related to heath/medicine or computers, and that one is a way-down-the-page link to a misleading headline of a NY Times article about the discovery of water deep beneath the Earth (like most headlines on this topic, it talks about an "underground ocean" when we're in fact talking about zillions of scattered molecules.)
A snapshot of the others as of 24June:
CBS ( = Front-page tab for SciTech (heavy on tech, but science is there)
Fox news = Front-page Science tab, with separate Health and Technology and a lot of content in specialty areas like paleontology
NBC news = separate Science, Tech, and Health tabs, plus they have the marvelous Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log
MSNBC = can't find anything at all besides consumer tech and health.
ABC news = natural science stories are hidden under the Tech tab.

So using ease of access to science stories as the only criterion, Fox, and NBC get As, CBS a B, ABC gets a C, and CNN and MSNBC get Fs.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sharing the planet with sharks

Sharks are scary.  And, frankly, they should be.  We humans are scared of sharks, not just because some species have killed people, but because, by definition, if you encounter a shark, you're already in a realm evolutionary biology didn't prepare you for.  You are at a disadvantage from the start.
We are well north of 400 species of sharks and counting.  New ones are proposed in scientific literature every year, although the last really huge and distinctive shark, requiring a new genus, was the bizarre megamouth (Megachasma pelagios) caught accidentally by a U.S. ship in 1976.  The really odd thing about this case was that there were no sightings, strandings, reports, or even folklore hinting at the shark's existence before that date, although the numerous specimens gathered since then indicate there must have been strandings where the shark wasn't identified.
Here in 2014, one shark getting a lot of ink is one that will not be discovered, at least not alive.  Megalodon (no relation to megamouth) died out millions of years ago  but was brought back, in a sense, by a fake documentary on the Discovery Channel, which used to show only factual science programming and so misled a lot of people despite some rather fuzzy disclaimers.  There are some intriguing sighting reports of huge sharks, though most can be blamed on the harmless whale shark, which reaches 15m, and the basking shark, which is almost the same size. One that I still wonder about was that recorded by  Dr. D.G. Stead, who questioned witnesses of a sighting in 1918. Lobstermen spoke in awed tones of a ghostly white monstrosity that gobbled meter-wide lobster traps whole like popcorn.  Stead noted that some of the estimates of length were "absurd" (one man said 300 feet!) but still felt the men had met "a vast shark." The coloration is almost as much of a mystery as the size in this case.
How many of these species are dangerous to humans? I've seen counts as high as 33 species, but it's hard to sort out: humans are often bitten in circumstances where no one has a good look at the shark or can identify it. Even very small sharks may bite (like most other fish) in the right circumstances. The great white, oceanic whitetip, bull, shortfin mako, and tiger sharks are most often accounted dangerous to humanity. Of these, the whitetip may be the one people hear least about, but it was probably the chief predator in two really horrendous episodes, the predations of sharks after the sinkings of the Nova Scotia and the Indianapolis in World War II.
The blue shark (one of my personal favorites, a beautiful animal and one of the most streamlined creatures in nature) is often feared but rarely fingered as a culprit. Other species like gray reef, nurse, and lemon sharks, while not as large or deadly as their already-mentioned counterparts, figure in many of the "shark bites man" cases. 
You are, statistically speaking, unlikely to die of shark bite even if you spend a great deal of time in the oceans. Sharks kill about ten people a year. Crocodiles kill a hundred times as many people. Snakes may kill 5,000 times as many.  Even if you leave off the far greater numbers of people killed by disease carrying insects, snails, etc., it's pretty clear sharks rank as amateurs in the human-killing business. 
Again, this is about evolutionary biology.  Sharks are adapted to search for particular prey.  Most of the time a fatal human encounter is precipitated because the shark mistakes a person for a seal or something else on the normal menu. Nonfatal encounters are often the result of a shark biting at something in murky water.
That's not to say there are no shark attacks - incidents where a shark has a good view with its eyes and the rest of its marvelous sensor suite, targets a human, and seriously wounds or kills him or her.  Those certainly happen, and it's crazy to approach large sharks casually. The point is that such attacks are freakishly rare in most of the world. The Nova Scotia and Indianapolis episodes were the result of dumping large numbers of humans into the sea where sharks could hardly overlook the buffet thus presented.  (The death tolls in each case are known - 852 on the former and 879 on the latter - but the percentage of deaths caused by sharks will always be guesswork. Likewise for the 1943 case of the Cape San Juan, where many of the 825 people who died in the water were shark meals.)
It's common for many sharks to be killed by local authorities when there's a death on the world's beaches.  Countless sharks paid for the famous 1916 episode that inspired Jaws (although the perpetrator was most likely a bull shark, assuming it was only one shark.)
Most recently, seven human death in three and a half years caused the government of Western Australia to spent over a million dollars (U.S.) on a program of catching sharks via baited hooks in 2013-4.  The catch was reported in June 2014 as 175 sharks. Those over three meters - 50 of them - were deemed dangerous and killed.  The cull, however, caught no great whites, the species actually blamed for the recent human deaths. Tiger sharks made up most of the catch.  It's not at all clear this controversial effort made any difference to human safety, although it's being extended anyway.
Any human v. shark accounting is a very one-sided affair.  It's been authoritatively estimated that humans kill 71 million sharks a year, mostly for the sharkfin soup trade. The number may be higher.  The population of sharks obviously can't withstand this onslaught forever. Many nations have moved to protect particular species and block off habitat.  There is occasional good news, like the June 2014 report that great whites off the U.S. east coast are much more numerous than previously believed. And not all sharks are in trouble: small deep-water species have no economic importance.  However, as long as facilities like this fin-processing factory in China operate, sharks overall are in dire need of increased human assistance.
There remains a great deal of public fascination and fear about sharks. Witness the coverage of a single shark, "Katherine," a 1,000-kilogram-plus great white tagged off Massachusetts and most recently headed for the Gulf Coast of Texas, an event which seemingly has people stirred up as though she was Godzilla.
It's very safe to say we don't know all the shark species of the world yet.  It's also, though, clear that many of the best-known species need help.  The insanity of the soup trade (especially given that the actual shark fin in a bowl of such soup can almost be measured in individual molecules) and a myriad of other dangers threaten to effectively remove two of the ocean's biggest filter-feeders and several of its apex predators from the food chain. We don't know exactly what the results will be, but they will be serious.  They could be catastrophic. 
"Sharks are for study, not soup" should be our motto.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Latest new bird flies in

Indonesia has yielded the newest bird species known to science.   The Wakatobi Flowerpecker (Dicaeum kuehni) comes from a smaller island off Sulawesi.  It is not a "just sighted" type of discovery, as it was confused with another flowerpecker from Sulawesi proper, but it's an interesting example of biodiversity. The Wakatobi bird shows no sign of interbreeding with its smaller relative: they are separated by a strait 27km wide that the birds could cross (and presumably did at some ancient point) but do not. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Music of the celestial night

Sarah Brightman will pay a whopping $52M to become the eighth space tourist to ride a Russian rocket to the ISS.  She's not talking much about what she'll do there, but I assume she'll try to work out arrangements to provide some kind of live performance and recording. It'll all have to be done with the onsite equipment, though: professional-quality mikes, recording equipment, and so forth are not the kind of thing space tourists can bring. They are limited to personal essentials.  Also, they can't disrupt the operations of the science station. Finally, the acoustics in a metal can crammed with equipment are nothing to sing home about. Still, I hope she can arrange something to encourage support for space exploration and interest in the ISS mission. She's a marvelous singer (Andrew Lloyd Webber described her as having a pop voice with an operatic range) and has been working to arrange this since 2012, so it's not a flirtation she's likely to abandon. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

A cryptozoological thriller - Under the Dark Ice (review)

Beneath the Dark Ice
Greig Beck
St. Martin's, 2010

This is the first novel I've read by Beck, and I enjoyed it.  His subterranean ocean food chain is questionable, at least in its capability to support so many big predators (Warren Fahey did a better job with Pandemonium) , but this is a fast, well-written adventure thriller with a mix of survived and evolved prehistoric animals that keep the pages turning as the human characters try to escape before they are eaten. A couple of the creatures, especially the Big Bad, aren't quite believable, but others are, and Beck sure as heck makes them all scary.  Beck gets an extra point for creating a believable romance between characters who have just met, a tricky feat to pull off for any author.  There is lots of cool military technology, some of it real today, the rest plausible in 5-10 years, and military/tech adventure readers will eat this one up.  I couldn't quite believe Beck's main military character, Alex Hunter, has the abilities he does, but he's well-written enough that I didn't care.  Bottom line: this book is  a lot of fun. I gave it 3.5 stars on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

New spaceships on the horizon

At the recent Space Symposium (formerly National Space Symposium), Boeing had a full-scale mockup of its cool CST-100 human transport on display (right next to the even cooler Lynx spaceplane).  It looks essentially like a bigger Apollo capsule with a greatly improved interior. Then SpaceX grabbed the spotlight by unveiling what CEO Elon Musk called a flight article - in other words, real and complete - Dragon 2.  He may have been exaggerating a little about this being flight hardware, but there's no question SpaceX is well along toward being the first of the Commercial Crew units to fly humans. 
Senator Richard Shelby, in a blatant example of promoting business in his state at the expense of the taxpayers, has proposed language that will require SpaceX and the other commercial firms to provide cost and pricing data on every component of their vehicles. The Commercial Crew program was created to buy services to orbit as a commodity, creating a much faster, cheaper pipeline to orbit than sending people up on government (U.S. or Russian) spacecraft.  Shelby, who thinks everything related to the U.S. belongs on government vehicles like the Space Launch System and the EELVs being built in his home state, would wreck this premise and cost taxpayers billions.  Boeing, with its military experience, has the infrastructure in place to figure out and provide all this data: SpaceX and Sierra Nevada do not.  Shelby saw an opportunity to crush SpaceX as a competitor on price.  What's scary is that he might get his way.

Below: Boeing capsule at Space Symposium

Friday, June 06, 2014

Book Review: Daedalus and the Deep

Another entry in the recent wave of sea-creature novels is Matthew Willis' Daedalus and the Deep.
(Cotero Publishing, 2012: 248pp.) It's a unique and rather delightful book.
Willis takes as his starting point a true event, the report of a "sea serpent" by the HMS Daedalus in 1848.  He fictionalizes Captain Peter McQuahe as Robert MacQuarrie, and the other names used are all fictitious. Our protagonist here is Ensign Colyer, a teenage girl passing herself as her dead brother Tom.  Such things did happen in the Royal Navy on occasion, and Colyer is an engaging hero among a crew of well-drawn male characters.
Willis asks what might have happened if the corvette had not merely reported the serpent but chased it hell-bent, determined to secure it for the honor of England, its Navy, and the ship's captain.  Along the way we get all kinds of detail on how such a ship was equipped and sailed in those days. Indeed, there's sometimes a little too much detail, and I found myself skipping occasional paragraphs even though the subject interested me.
While trying not to spoil the plot too much, it's important to say there is a science fiction (one may say fantasy) element throughout this book. It's not by accident that the Daedalus and the creature came together, and their running fight over many days and thousands of miles is driven by the creature as much, or more than, by Captain MacQuarrie. 
The result is a very enjoyable read. Willis writes well: there are only a couple of clunky sentences here and there.  You will put this book down having enjoyed a rousing adventure story, an original slant on the sea serpent motif, and an engaging introduction to the days of sail.  Well done, Mr. Willis.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A month beneath the sea

Two decades ago, there were several long-dwell scientific habitats scattered on the continental shelves of the world. Now there is just one, Aquarius Reef Base off the Florida Keys.  Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, will dive today to join a five-man crew for a 31-day stay.  Cousteau will help with experiments while filming the underwater odyssey.  It's a worthwhile mission, though it highlights the restricted funding for underwater exploration worldwide.  The last great frontier on Earth has only one outpost of Homo sapiens, and even it was almost shut down for budgetary reasons in 2012.  It only survives because of frantic fundraising efforts and some support from NASA, which sends astronauts there to train. Space explorers get used to the confined space, hostile environment, and weightlessness-like underwater conditions to prepare them for space station flights.
Cousteau calls his effort "Mission 31." Here's hoping it won't be "Mission Final" for Aquarius. 

UPDATE: Mission 31 was a complete success.  Here's hoping it brings a reappraisal of how atrophied the human presence on the seafloor has become. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The cryptozoology "absence of evidence" thing again

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." - Bernard Heuvelmans, the father of cryptozoology, wrote that, and it's been quoted ever since. Is it valid?
I've dealt with this before, but I didn't resolve it. It's still pretty complicated.
Scientific answer: the validity of what I'll abbreviate as AEINEA depends on the circumstances.
Let's take the ivory-billed woodpecker. We know it existed. We know it hasn't been conclusively proven to exist in the U.S. since the Singer Tract in Louisiana was logged out in the 1950s.  Some ornithologists came to accept its absence: others pointed out Southern woodlands were still relatively big and a few woodpeckers in a remote spot could be overlooked for a long time.  So there was a split on whether AEINEA was valid.
Maybe this wasn't the best example, because there's still a split between the ornithologists who are sure they saw and videotaped it and those who have gone over the testimony and the tape and written them off as representing pileated woodpeckers. Still, the search was active for a very long time, and highly qualified experts took the AEINEA position. Some still do.
Anyone could have been forgiven for rejecting AEINEA in some cases, like the cahow or Bermuda petrel.  It vanished for thee hundred years. No one was looking for it in 1906 when one was caught, killed, and stuffed - but misidentified. It wasn't until 1935 when one flew into a lighthouse window and the species' rediscovery began. If you'd been arguing the AEINEA position in 1934, you'd have been ridiculed. 
Then we get to cryptozoology.  To take the most topical subject, consider sasquatch. We have no hard evidence it existed or did exist.  It's argued about whether it could exist in the purported habitat, but for the moment we'll accept Robert Pyle's well-argued book Where Bigfoot Walks and assume it could. (Pyle did not argue it did exist, only that it was possible).
You can still fly for hours over the Pacific Northwest and western Canada and not see a sign of human habitation.  When sasquatch first made headlines in the 1950s (there are older stories, but let's start with the 1958 media explosion), it seemed logical to argue AEINEA, in part because no one had been looking for evidence.
In 2014, is it still valid?
A lot of people, include a very few scientists, do argue it. A small population of smart, wary animals, they say, can still avoid leaving good evidence.  If we accept this as possible, the next question is, how long is AEINEA valid?  If it was valid in 1958, it seems reasonable to accept it in 1968 and even 1978.  1988? 2000? 2014?  (I am here setting aside the most intriguing evidence, the Patterson-Gimlin film, because it's still not definitive. We don't have a scrap of valid DNA, much less a definite piece of a specimen.)
If it's still good in 2014, how much longer? 2024? 2034? At some point, it will become indefensible. Skeptics have argued it's been indefensible for a long time.  But even if it's valid now, it can't be valid forever.
Philip Klass once said UFO researchers lived under this curse: "You will never know more about UFOs than you do now." We don't know any more about sasquatch than we did 50 years ago.  I personally leave the AEINEA door open just a crack because I know sincere people who are sure they've seen it.  But I can't leave it open much longer.
Some cryptids are a bit different. The elongated marine animal known as the "sea serpent" has left no hard evidence anyone has collected for science, but it has the whole global ocean. It had better odds than sasquatch of not leaving hard evidence but still existing just because of that habitat. It does, however, become increasingly untenable that there is no evidence if the creature comes ashore to give birth. It's retreated, in essence: if there's a real animal, it's almost certainly pelagic.  But I think AEINEA still has some validity here. 
The "I think" part is tough. There is simply no way around some degree of subjectivity unless the habitat is entirely converted to asphalt or is so thoroughly known by humans that nothing could hide. This is where we are with Loch Ness, to my thinking. 
The one thing we can say with certainty is that AEINEA cannot be valid forever for any large animal that lives on Earth.  How long is it valid? 
Assume for a moment sasquatch does NOT exist. If this is the case, there are sasquatch hunters who will come, in the coming decades, to decide AEINEA no longer applies. There are others who may die thinking it is still valid.
You'll notice that I really haven't come to a definite conclusion.
That's the thing.
YOU have to do that for each cryptid based on your own research and your own reason.  I hope, in all cases, that AEINEA will turn out to be right. It won't, but  I hope.

Private Group Revives NASA Probe

In 1997, the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), its extended mission completed, was left to its own devices in space. No one even tried to talk to the venerable probe (launched in 1978), which had studied cosmic rays, comets, and solar phenomena.  A private group, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, came to its rescue. A crowdfunded effort, the Project reached a Space Act agreement with NASA allowing them to try to contact the probe and set it to yet another mission.  Using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, project engineers on 29 May made contact and got a response from the "dead" spacecraft.   With $160,000 raised from Kickstarter, the group has plans to fire the ancient engine and send ISEE-3 to ES-1, the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1, nearly a million miles from Earth, and get the instruments going again.

This effort is groundbreaking in so many ways. Reviving a spacecraft launched when Jimmy Carter was President. A citizen group taking over and running a NASA probe.  This really is a voyage into new frontiers. (I contributed, by the way).


Monday, May 26, 2014

Birthday: Dr. Sally K. Ride

Dr. Sally Ride would have been 63 today.  America's first woman in space - and the first woman to really EARN a spaceflight rather than being rushed up as a stunt - was born in California in 1951. She earned three degrees in physics and one in English. She flew into space on STS-7 in 1983. She flew again on STS-41G and was in training for a third mission when we lost the shuttle Challenger - the spaceship that had carried her into history three years before the accident.  Dr. Ride served on the Challenger investigation commission and left NASA in 1989 for a professorship, and was active from then until her death from cancer in 2012 in programs to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers. She served on a half-dozen other prestigious boards and institutes, including the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She wrote five books on space for young readers. Intensely private, she never talked of her personal life, refused endorsements, and turned down most opportunities for appearances.   She crammed enough achievements and causes into her 61 years for three people - maybe four.

Godspeed, Doc.

Sally Ride: an American hero.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Top 10 new species announced

I'm not sure how one picks the Top 10 out of 18,000 species discovered in the past year, but the International Institute for Species Exploration has taken a shot.  In no particular order, they include one impossibly cute mammal (the Olinguito), one tree, one bizarre-looking lizard, and a microbe found - believe it or not - in two spacecraft-assembly clean rooms on different continents. Fish and birds lost out this year (they were discovered, but didn't rate placement on the list.  It is appropriate that the international committee involved made sure the invertebrates were dominant, since, in terms of total species and new species discovered, they always are.)

The list is released every year on the birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the creator of modern taxonomy.

  • Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)
  • Kaweesak's Dragon Tree (Dracaena kaweesakii)
  • ANDRILL Anemone (Edwardsiella andrillae)
  • Skeleton Shrimp (Liropus minusculus)
  • Orange Penicillium (Penicillium vanoranjei)
  • Leaf-tailed Gecko (Saltuarius eximius)
  • Amoeboid Protist (Spiculosiphon oceana)
  • Clean Room Microbes (Tersicoccus phoenicis)
  • Tinkerbell Fairyfly (Tinkerbella nana)
  • Domed Land Snail (Zospeum tholussum)

    Saturday, May 24, 2014

    More kudos for the International Cryptozoology Museum

    What more can a museum of the strange and unusual ask for? Loren Coleman's ICM in Portland, Maine, has been named one of the Top 10 Weirdest Museums by no less an authority than TIME magazine. TIME commented, "It includes everything from hair samples, fecal matter and native art — and it just might turn you into a Bigfoot believer.”  It might not, of course, but there are only so many life-size, fully furred sasquatch replicas in the world - indeed, I think the ICM's is the only one. Even if you think cryptozoology is silly, this museum houses thousands of items about animal fact and folklore from all over the planet. There's nothing like that collection.
    The ICM, as always, needs funds, but I'm not asking for donations to the museum right now. There's something more important: my friend Loren has huge uncovered medical expenses. If you feel like helping, do what I did and PayPal your donation to:

    Tuesday, May 20, 2014

    At the National Space Symposium

    The Space Foundation is calling it just the "Space Symposium" this year to reflect the growing international focus. 
    I managed only a brief visit today, and I thought the crowd was a little thin, but far better than last year, when the sequester crippled NASA's participation.  The Boeing Exhibit Center, though, is FULL of companies and organizations. Everyone's here, and there are some spectacular exhibits, like a Dream Chaser mockup you can sit in and a full-size Orion capsule cutaway.  More to follow!

    Friday, May 16, 2014

    The race to find new species

    Actually, this article is more about one lab's discoveries, but I though the figures were interesting: researcher at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History described 103 species, living and extinct,  in 2013. In second place: the California Academy of the Sciences, with 91 species. 
    Go Gators!

    Crypto-fiction review: Kronos Rising

    Kronos Rising
    Max Hawthorne
    Far From the Tree Press
    2013 (updated edition)

    "Creature" novels usually have two faults: the hand-waving of the science and the inability of the author to keep our attention when the creature is off stage.  Hawthorne's novel succeeds on the second count and is entertaining despite holes in the science.
    So to give the good news first, Hawthorne can write. Some of his characters (the two-fisted lawman, the woman scientist) are tropes of this genre, but Hawthorne writes them colorfully and sure-footedly. Everyone has an interesting backstory, which helps us cheer on the heroes and slightly humanizes the villains.  (One odd note here: the novel's repeated reference to champion fencers being national figures and having a professional tour is so weird I assume Hawthorne means it as a kind of running gag.) 
    Hawthorne knows the sea, and the ocean scenes are authentic and suspenseful.  We spend time on several ships, and all of them are described in interesting detail.  We feel the rocking of the waves and smell the salt air. 
    Finally, Hawthorne is good at plotting and pacing. The book races along, and only the drawn-out climax seems too long. 
    So it's eminently readable. The science needs some work.
    Hawthorne's villain is an evolved species of kronosaur, close to a hundred feet long and weighing a hundred tons.  That's a lot bigger than any historical pliosaur, but this IS fiction, and I give Hawthorne a pass there.
    Other mistakes are harder to overlook. That baleen whales echolocate is a thuddingly obvious error, the kind that primes you to look for more errors. And, in the nonfiction background, there are plenty. Species are the wrong size, in the wrong habitat, and they behave however the story requires.
    The knonosaurs' survival to the present is unsatisfactory: Hawthorne presents a story that puts two kronosaurs in a volcanic cone after the K-T asteroid impact, but then leaves them there: presumably they reproduced in a self-contained ecosystem,  but it's not clear. Real kronosaurs didn't echolocate, although if they've been evolving for 65 million years you can't say it couldn't happen.  The animal's complex thinking and emotions, like its fast-healing ability and its habit of laying eggs on shore, are well outside plausibility.
    This won't bother anyone just looking for a fun read, because Kronos Rising delivers on the fun: it has plenty of plot twists, roller-coaster suspense, colorful characters, and action.  On that score, I got my money's worth.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Monk seals: the good, the bad, and the extinct

    There were three species of monk seals, so widely separated that their kinship seemed bizarre - the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Hawaiian. Scientists have now figured out, using DNA from museum specimens of the Caribbean species (believed extinct sine 1952, though it likely lingered past that), that the Mediterranean, the original stock, should have the genus Monachus to itself, while the other two should be in a new genus, Neomonachus. The two surviving species are endangered - the Mediterranean critically so.

    In the case of the Caribbean seal, in 1494,Columbus took note of this animal's abundance.  By 1911, humans had found and slaughtered the last known herd near the Yucatan peninsula.  The last definite record was from 1952, although sightings of one or two individuals were reported in 1964 and 1969.  A report of two seals off the southeastern Bahamas in 1974 might have marked the last time this species was encountered.  A 1980 expedition to this area produced no sightings, though fishermen surveyed in the 1990s indicated there was at least a possibility survivors had been sighted in recent years.     It is likely, however, that the species is now extinct.

    Sunday, May 11, 2014

    Review: Predator X by C.J. Waller

    I try to keep up with novels with a cryptozoological influence. That's very hard now with so many self-published and Web-published novels, most of them awful.  Predator X looked interesting, though, and mainly it was. It kept my attention, though the cryptozoology isn't the focus of the novel.   Author Waller writes well and has avoided the bloat afflicting novels these days and kept it short (149 pages). Actually, the novel is a little too short: none of the characters has any backstory, and the explanation of how the caving team this novel focuses on ended up in its situation needs more development.  There are a couple of good plot twists, especially at the very end.  Predator X (a giant pliosaur) isn't the focus here: it exists and is important to the plot, but isn't the focus of the novel, which deals more with extraterrestrial activities and a creature which reminded me of Dean Koontz' antagonist in the novel Phantoms crossed with the one in the movie The Thing (John Carpenter version). There are a few factual errors (e.g., you wouldn't find trilobite fossils in Jurassic sediments) and the ecosystem in a deep underground sea doesn't really work, or at least isn't adequately explained.  (Read Warren Fahy's Pandemonium for a much better attempt at this.) I should be fair, though, and note the ecosystem isn't entirely natural: someone's been customizing it, so to speak.
    In sum, Predator X isn't a great novel, but it's a fun way to pass a couple of hours.

    Thursday, May 08, 2014

    Turning anemones into new friends

    The 1,200 species of sea anemone cover the reefs of the world with flower-like beauty and nasty stings.  Scientists surveying the world's anemones (which for their own order) discovered that one of the biggest kinds - with tentacles 2m long - is a completely different animal. Relicanthus daphneae is the new same for Pacific species found in 2005.  It used to be Boloceroides daphneae, and it likes the neighborhoods around hydrothermal vents.  Turns out it's more closely related to coral than to anemones.   There are only some three dozen orders (some are disputed) in the entire animal kingdom, so this is a very big deal.

    I am still trying to come up with a truly funny joke that ends, "With friends like these, who needs anemones?" Marvin in Finding Nemo only had the punchline. If you know a good one, let me know.

    Wednesday, May 07, 2014

    One mean new dinosaur

    From the United States, we have a new entry in the "top prehistoric predator" competition.  While I still give that title to T. rex for land predators and Dunkleosteus terrelli for marine predators, Siats meekerorum (the genus name is from a legendary Native American monster) was over 9m long, with three-clawed hands and a generally fierce demeanor, especially in the artist's concept attached to the linked story.  To  an amateur, the head and claws give this 100-million-year-old beast a more allosaurid look than a tyrannosaurid one, but that's just on looks: the article doesn't offer much on the actual relationships.
    It's not only an awesome critter but a good reminder that the dinosaur record is far from being filled in.  Who knows what's next?
    Siats meekerorum as tribute to a Native American legendary creature, the Siats (pronounced as See-otts). According to this legend, the Siats was a terrible man-eating creature. While Siats the dinosaur obviously did not eat man due to a nearly 100 million year gap in existence
    saur Siats meekerorum as tribute to a Native American legendary creature, the Siats (pronounced as See-otts). Accord
    saur Siats meekerorum as tribute to a Native American legendary creature, the Siats (pronounced as See-otts). Accord

    Saturday, May 03, 2014

    New species swim in familiar waters

    There's a fish in the Columbia River Basin in Montana and Idaho called the cedar sculpin, or Cottus schitsuumsh. It lives in waters that are well known and fished, but it's newly discovered.
    It's a rare event, but it does happen.
    Back in 2000, a new species of bass, Micropterus cataractae, was even described from well-known and commonly fished rivers of the southeastern United States.  Fishermen had known of the “shoal bass” for at least fifty years, but no scientific examination had been made to see if this fish differed from other bass.  A large shoal bass can be two feet long and weigh over eight pounds.  
    That was the case for a long time with the sculpin, too. The new find was a "cryptic species" - an animal that looks so much like related species that it needs expert examination to distinguish it. The cedar sculpin, it turned out, had a single tiny visual difference from the shorthead sculpin, Cottus confuses.  DNA is increasingly the tool of choice for distinguishing species, but it's not a perfect science yet. What degree of difference splits a species off from the others? While this is still being worked out, this article describes an effort to determine the true diversity of fish and amphibians in the rivers of the Rocky Mountains. What's known so far is that we've considerably underestimated it.

    Friday, May 02, 2014

    Thanks to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference

    I normally stick to science in this blog, but there's one event every year for which I have to interrupt that theme, because the Pikes Peak Writers Conference deserves all the accolades it can get. The PPWC is a gathering in late April of each year (it began in 1993) to celebrate, teach, and inspire writing. I've been a dozen times or more, and it's always worth the effort and cost (the latter is significantly less than for most conferences, by the way).

    (Don't take my word for it: here, from another attendee, is a great testimonial)
    The PPWC is known as the friendliest writer's conference around, a reputation kept up every year with lots of mix-and-mingle opportunities (there's no separate lounge for faculty and speakers: they are part of the general population here), a great setting in a nearly flawlessly-run hotel with lovely views of the Rockies, and an army of volunteers who make sure everything is taken care of.  Mary Kay Meredith was an awesome Director.

    If you're interested, here's a blog you should most definitely follow.

    The largest group of attendees is always the novel-writers, but there is programming for screenwriters, memoirists, and anyone else you can name.  The speakers are great: I was limited in my attendance by business trips this year but did hear a hilarious keynote from Jim Hines.

    No event involving human beings is perfect, and I have voiced two concerns.
    One is to the hotel: we're on top of a steep hill, there are 300+ people, and there are four handicapped parking spaces.  I talked to an assistant manager who said, "Maybe we'll improve when we resurface the parking lots." As I said, the hotel is ALMOST perfectly run in support of the Conference.
    The other concern is for the conference organizers (and I admit I should be thinking about how to be more active and useful myself: I pledge every year that I'll be a more active volunteer, and somehow I always let that ambition get crowded out.)   There aren't enough minority attendees: somehow, we're just not attracting them. I looked for non-Caucasian attendees in the crowd and spotted a small handful of Hispanic and Asian faces and not a single African-American.

    Those aside, I learned a lot,  made friends, and made memories.  (Did I mention the Pikes Peak Writers offer programming all year round, and membership is FREE?)

    Here's to 2015!

    Can Science Solve Everything?

    As Robert Oppenheimer said, "Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful."  But having been through the usual phases of reading classic scientists, current scientists, old philosophers, new philosophers (none of the latter very interesting), and religious/theological sources, I keep coming back to the idea there are things we'll never solve.

    But don't take my word for it. Here's a very good article.

    Not even the most brilliant theoretical physicists can do a damn thing with the "Why" question - why is there something rather than nothing? One of the commentators on this article attempts to reason his way out of this by saying there may not be a "why" - "Why can't things just BE?" but I don't think he wins a point: if there's no Why, then we have to ask Why there's no Why. 

    Of the other points, take life after death. Setting aside the much argued-over NDEs (near-death experiences), some scientists argue there's no evidence to think there's anything: certain processes in the brain stop happening, and that's the end of it.  But what evidence would there be, exactly? Sure, it would be nice if people were always coming back to tell their children where they stashed some extra cash, but there's no reason an afterlife has to be workable that way.  It's easy to postulate an afterlife state where contact with or even awareness of the physical world doesn't exist.  As a Christian, I think something does exist, but what really annoys me is that, if I'm wrong, I'll never KNOW I'm wrong.

    But I digress.  The point was there are still places where science stops working.  Is there anything past those boundaries? We can debate that, but we're no longer debating science.  Science and the scientific method are the best tools ever developed to explore and understand the magnificent physical universe we are in. If God exists, I take it as a commandment that we are meant to use all the tools at our disposal to further develop our understanding and further explore (and protect) the realm we exist in. 

    So let's saddle up our microscopes, our telescopes, our particle accelerators. Let us build out models of Earth's environment while we also build our starships.  This is the universe we're in. Science lets us make the most of it.

    Friday, April 18, 2014

    Keeping Up with New Species

    There are so many species being added continually to the nearly 2 million we know about that it's hard to keep up.  One of the sources helpful in this endeavor is at, where a page is devoted fulltime to the new creatures of the world.  The Newfound Species page does not just include the charismatic vertebrates. The beetles, anemones (did you know an anemone lives in the Antarctic ice? No one did, until recently. Meet it here.), corals, spiders, and others are here along with the reptiles, mammals, fish, and birds. (Sorry, amphibians" you're here too.  I don't know why I always leave you out.) Other recent entire here include an orchid, a scorpion, and the recognition of the second species of oncilla, a handsomely spotted Brazilian feline.  
    Another site is the species discovery page of Mongabay articles tend to lean more towards the vertebrates, though not entirely - meet the newest mantises here. There is some overlap, but there are plenty of new species to go around.   The same is true for the New Species News page of ScienceDaily, which today features new sponges and bats.  It also includes some related articles about topics like how to name and track endangered species.
    Those sites, plus a Google Alert, keep me reasonably up to date.  (Oh, don't forget to follow National Geographic news, including the Wild & Weird blog.) 
    There's a lot to catch up on....

    Across the last frontier: John C. Houbolt

    John C. Houbolt, Unsung Hero of the Apollo Program, Dies at Age 95

     Houbolt, a critical factor in the race to the Moon, has died at 95. I never met him, but as an "Apollo kid" I certainly watched his work. He was instrumental in selecting the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) plan that got us on the Moon in JFK's public timeline.  As Astra, doc.
    From NASA press release:
    "In the space race of the 1950s and '60s, the leading voices were rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and ... another guy. Household names included Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard and ... oh, you know, the fellow who pushed the idea of a separate crew capsule and lunar lander. America wouldn't have won the race, the Eagle wouldn't have landed in 1969 and the Apollo 13 crew would never have survived if it weren't for an engineer from [the] NASA Langley Research Center. John C. Houbolt."
    So reads a feature on written in 2009 about one of the unsung heroes of the Apollo Program. Houbolt may have never become a household name, but his ideas and contributions to Apollo made it possible to achieve the goal of landing a crew on the Moon and safely returning them by the end of the decade. As a member of of Lunar Mission Steering Group, Houbolt had been studying various technical aspects of space rendezvous since 1959 and was convinced, like several others at Langley, that lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) was not only the most feasible way to make it to the moon before the decade was out, it was the only way. At the time many scientists thought the only way to achieve a lunar landing was to either build a giant rocket twice the size of the Saturn V (the concept was called Nova) or to launch multiple Saturn Vs to assemble the lunar ship in Earth orbit (an approach known as Earth orbit rendezvous).
    In November 1961, Houbolt took the bold step of skipping proper channels and writing a 9-page private letter directly to incoming Associate Administrator Dr. Robert C. Seamans. Describing himself somewhat melodramatically "as a voice in the wilderness," Houbolt protested LOR's exclusion from the NASA debate on the Apollo mission profile. "Do we want to go to the moon or not?" the Langley engineer asked. "Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted." Houbolt clearly saw that the giant Nova rocket and the expensive and complex Earth orbit rendezvous plan were clearly not a realistic option--especially if the mission was to be accomplished anywhere close to President Kennedy's timetable. While conducting a rendezvous in orbit around the Moon was going to be a challenge, the weight, cost and savings of using LOR were obvious once one realized that LOR was not fundamentally much more difficult than Earth orbit rendezvous. This insights, and Houbolt's brave and energetic advocacy of it, made all the difference.


    Friday, April 11, 2014

    Book Review: Book of Animal Records

    You may think all "record" books have "Guinness" in the titles, as kind of a natural law, but this edition of Mark Carwardine's Book of Animal Records is sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London.  It's a lot of fun and is often eye-opening, but its utility is limited by the complete lack of references.

    The Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records
    Firefly, 2013

    The book is colorful, readable, and has an intriguing collection of odd records (the fastest-digging monotreme is the echidna, just in case someone asks)   along with the usual biggest, heaviest, smallest, and all that. It adds up to some 900 records from all over the animal kingdom.  Carwardine is a veteran of wildlife books (I have his Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and the touching Last Chance to See, with Douglas Adams) and is qualified to undertake this endeavor.  Most of the time, his details are accurate, and they are certainly interesting.
    Since my current area of interest is marine animals, it was cool to spend some time with the largest pinniped (a southern elephant seal caught in 1913 weighed an estimated 4,000 kg) and the fastest of the seals (the leopard seal's ability to leap onto a flow 2m above the water indicates a launch speed of 22km/hr). On the sirenian side, did you know the Florida manatee has been known to migrate 850km? 
    When it gets to records, of course, the whales grab most of the superlatives. The biggest sperm whale brain weighed was 9.2kg.  A blue whale caught in 1931 was weighed in pieces: with an estimate added for lost blood (6.5 metric tons) the whole whale weighed a stupendous 199 mt.  Orcas have been known to prey on 25 species of their fellow cetaceans using their speed (timed at 55.5km/h), smarts, and nasty jaws: one of those prey species is the blue whale, which while not swimming for its life communicates with low-frequency calls at 188 decibels, audible 3,000km away.
    The dominant ocean vertebrates, in numbers, are are the fishes, and we learn plenty of nuggets about them:  puffer fish kills 30 people a year in Japan, while the top location for shark attacks in the years 2000-2011 is Florida (281). There are 410 species of sharks (a number probably already obsolete) and 42 are "known or suspected" of taking at least the occasional bite out of a human. (I wish there was a list provided: I've never seen an estimate that high.)
    There is the occasional moment of clunky writing: e.g., coelacanths "have been dubbed as 'living fossils.'" There is also the occasional mistake. The claim on page 195 that marine biologists in 1963 saw an oarfish 15m long is flat wrong: the animal was a nearly-transparent invertebrate. Speaking of invertebrates, a deep-water crustacean in the genus Gigantocypris has, according this the text, better night vision than any living animal, though you have to read a bit further to learn Carwardine means the most sensitive, in terms of f-number (0.25).  The author gives a maximum weight of 272kg for the Pacific giant octopus, a number disputed in other references, though he adds a cautious note on the cephalopods by  saying there's no evidence for the monster Octopus giganteus once believed to have been stranded in 1896.  Also speaking of the invertebrates, they get short-changed a bit here: there are only 41 pages on them, despite their vastly outnumbering the vertebrates.
    The question of dueling sources brings me to the huge problem with this book. There are no sources. No footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography.  While it's understood Carwardine was going for the interest of popular audiences and wasn't trying to write a textbook, having NO references just flummoxes me.  With them, this book could have been terrific: instead, it's always interesting but rarely authoritative.