Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Stormtrooper spiders

Scientists have placed four newly discovered species of tropical spider in a new genus, Stormtropis - stormtrooper.  They are orange-ish rather than white, but they are almost impossible to tell apart, hence the name.  (Alas, none of these species have a chrome phase that could be named for Captain Phasma.)  It is not known yet whether these spiders have any special problems with accuracy when they strike at prey. 

This isn't the first species named from Star Wars, and surely will not be the last. This article counts 9 so far. An example is the weevil Trigonopterus chewbacca from New Zealand, which is not tall by any standards but has scales that look a little like brown fur.  An extinct giraffe ancestor whose horns reminded someone of Queen Amidala's hair was described in 2015 as reminded paleontologists of Queen Padmé Amidala's "swooping headgear," leading them to name their discovery Xenokeryx amidalae.  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Robert Goddard and the Space Age

Robert Goddard would not live to see the modern space age, but long enough to see its potential.  He had begun the liquid fuel rocket era with a launch exactly 93 years ago in Massachusetts.  He worked on increasingly sophisticated rockets on shoestring budgets until WWII, when he developed Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) for rockets allowing heavily laden planes to lift off.  He saw the recovered remains of von Braun's V-2and knew what was ahead for space exploration. He also knew he could have supplied the U.S. with equivalent rockets if he'd had the backing and funding.  "I don't think he ever got over theV-2," one acquaintance said.
But what he DID do was more than enough to cement his place as a founder of the modern space era. Countless patents on guidance, control systems, better rocket engines, etc. formed the technical  underpinnings of the American space effort.
Happy birthday, Doc.  You were ahead of all of us.

Friday, March 08, 2019

New footage of the most elusive orca

This is not the first time this animal has been observed, but it's a reminder that marine creatures can be elusive even when we know they exist.  Great video. We can't be sure if it's a separate species, subspecies, or ecotype, but the eminent Robert Pitman thinks we are on the way to describing a second species in the genus Orca (there have been proposals for new species before, including O. glacialis and O. nanus, but they really haven't caught on).  Orcinus orca has been thought for centuries to be a single species, but in this century it's become clear there are deep, if subtle, fault lines in the genus Orca, and the scientific discussion is just beginning.

The Type D made me wonder about the enigma called Wilson's whale, but the identification is far from certain.  

Orca (NOAA photo: I think Type C)

Friday, March 01, 2019

Here comes the (giant) sunfish

The ocean sunfish, mola mola, is one of the strangest things in the seas. It is enormous, the heaviest bony fish in the world at over two metric tons: it has, unusually for a bony fish, a hide that can deflect hand harpoons; and it is weird-looking, like a somewhat flattened blimp with fins.  The body seems absurdly short for all its size, as if the Creator got halfway through it and lost interest. (Or, for those old enough to remember, it looks like a subcompact car called the AMC Gremlin.)   It roams harmlessly through the oceans, slurping up zooplankton and (alas) plastic bags.  A new species, Mola tecta, slightly different and appearance and clearly distinct in DNA, was described in 2017 from specimens in the South Pacific. It was nicknamed the hoodwinker sunfish, in tribute to its hiding for so long in plain sight. What's new is that a specimen of M. tecta washed up on a beach in California, providing the first record of this animal in the Northern Hemisphere. The animal, over 2m long, has garnered media attention across the USA.  The hoodwinker's discoverer, Marianne Nyegaard, said of this far-ranging fish, "I couldn't believe it. I nearly fell out of my chair." What no one knows is whether this is a fluke, or there might be a population we don't know about.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Space Show and whale tracking

For those interested, I'm on tonight's live show at 7PM Pacific, 8 Mountain, and 10 Eastern talking about satellite tracking of whales. Calling in questions is encouraged! You can listen over the link or by phone (there’s no video feed of the guests) at



We use a software called OceanLens developed by Booz Allen Hamilton to of one humpback whale over 4 months. The data is from an experimental tag that shows the greatest depth reached between surfacing. The spreading pink object is the sound cloud radiated by a ship: 130 decibels right next to the ship, then spreading out and fading (this is at 2 KHz).  Data courtesy of Dr. Ari Leanander: the ship was not in the original data and was added in to show how the interactions between cetaceans and sound can be mapped.  I'm having some problems uploading it but will work on it.
(all material copyright 2018 Booz Allen Hamilton)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

I Like Big Bugs and I Cannot Lie

When horror met entomology (sort of) the result was pretty fun...  

I grew up with the giant bugs of the 1950s, seeing those movies on Creature Feature  on my local station in the 70s.  "Creature Feature...fiendish films for Saturday night. Creature Feature!" went the ads. 
Some of these movies were better, really, than they had any right to be.  Much credit goes to actors and directors who played everything straight, adding drama to the silliness.  Budgets and special effects varied widely (I forget the name of the one where “giant” grasshoppers walk across photos of buildings), and the cooperation of the military always helped, since seeing tiny models of tanks and planes turns off even kids.  
If filmmakers were using giant versions of real bugs, they could do rear-projection effects, although it was pretty obvious back then what was happening, and sometimes they made partial practical-effects pieces like a claw, foot, or head.  
The trend-setter, 1954’s Them! went to the trouble of building some giant ants that weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been.  It’s a decent movie in all respects, with the best idea being the little girl, lost in the desert, parents can’t be found, who reacts to the smell of formic acid by screaming “Them!”  
The Deadly Mantis (1957) was another good one, although you had to accept a mantis the size of a B-52 “thawing out” and reviving in the Arctic and heading south, somehow hitting DC and New York on the way (it died in New York, something countless performers can say.)   The mantis first wipes out an Eskimo village, a weird twist inasmuch as a disappearing Arctic village is claimed by Forteans as something that actually happened.  
Both movies (and most of their lesser imitators) had a handsome male scientist with a female daughter (Them!) or assistant (Mantis), although Them! gets props for having the daughter a scientist in her own right.  Them! wins on science, tossing in a few bits of real science on ants and radiation (indeed, one real scientist whose work was mentioned on screen threatened legal action, and the studio took the reference out) .
But both are fun – they still are.  Give them a look sometime.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Sleuthing Sharks in the Fishmonger's Stall

When I first started reading about sharks, back in the 70s, people talked about 300 species.  Then 350, then 400, and experts now make estimates of 440 all the way up to 470, with the usual allowances that some species may turn out to be variations of known species - and the reverse. 
Where do you find new sharks? 
Some are split out from studies of known species. 
Occasionally scientists just get lucky, as when the most spectacular modern discovery, the megamouth shark, was caught in a parachute being used as a sea anchor by a Navy ship in 1976. (What is truly weird about that is that some 70 specimens have been caught of found stranded since: where was it until 1976? You can't mistake it for any other shark.  Hmmm.....  an excellent article from Scientific American is found here.)
Many turn up in fishermen's catches.  Some are spotted at sea by scientists with fishing fleets or fishermen themselves.  

Megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios.) This one was found off Florida, a continent away from the first discovery in the Pacific. (Florida Museum of Natural History)

Sorting through the catch fishing boats haul to docks and markets, though, is probably the most  effective technique.  After all, that's how the most famous fish discovery in history, the coelacanth, turned up in 1938.
This article from Smithsonian collects many other examples. Most stunning is that one David Ebert has named 42 species of sharks, rays, and chimeras.  Others have found more new species, species in ranges we didn't know they inhabited, and species unseen for many years. No one had seen a smoothtooth blacktip shark for over a century before Rima Jabado of the United Arab Emirates found one in 2009. 

Smoothtooth blacktip shark. (Source and copyright unknown: educational fair use claimed).

Humans, scientists and laypersons alike, are fascinated with sharks. Sometimes it's because sharks are beautiful and amazing: sometimes it's because people still believe all sharks are like the one in Jaws (despite the late Peter Benchley's spending the rest of his life on shark conservation). 
Shark fishing is often an unsustainable business, or an illegal one, but a shark that's on display in a market is gone, and there's no point in not gleaning knowledge from it. Shark biologists agree on one thing: we haven't found them all. 

If you want to see the most amazing photographs of these creatures and meet them closeup, Shark by photographer Brian Kerry  (National Geographic, 2017) is a stunning book. 

Other sources: 
"Rediscovery and redescription of the smoothtooth blacktip shark, Carcharhinus leiodon (Carcharhinidae), from Kuwait, with notes on its possible conservation status"
Alec B. M. Moore, et. al.,   
Marine and Freshwater Research 62(6) 528-539

 Published: 24 June 2011 .
Matt Bille, "The Still-Puzzling Coelacanth," Shadows of Existence, Hancock House, 2006. 
Florida Museum, :Megamouths,"

Friday, February 01, 2019

Website warning: my old website is dangerous

My older books show a website at www. mattwriter .com. This domain slipped past me somehow and now has red flags about virus warnings. DO NOT GO THERE.  Go to 


Saturday, January 26, 2019

New species all over

"Marbled crayfish are a globally expanding population of parthenogenetically reproducing freshwater decapods."  
OK, that's almost scary. It sounds like an old science fiction movie. However, not science fiction, just science, one of the never-ending rush of new species of all types.  The crayfish ranks, for example, added these two from Indonesia,among many others in the past year.  
The big splash of the last couple of years (yea, I'm cheating by expanding the timeline) was the Tapanuli organutan, a population of several hundred orangs in northern Sumatra overlooked until 1997, then identified in 2017 as a separate species.  They are highly endangered, which unfortunately is not a big surprise.  A Chinese-run company's new dam will rip up a good portion of the animals' habitat. Pongo tapanuliensis is the third species of orangutan. Dr. Marina Davila-Ross, who co-authored the description, remarked, “I was surprised about the extent to which the Tapanuli orangutans differed genetically, morphologically as well as behaviorally from the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans."  Alas, the other two she mentioned are not in any better shape, conservation-wise. 
You'd think the heavily populated modern nations are about picked over, but even where new species seem unlikely, they are not unheard of.  This recap by the BBC on the finds of naturalist Steve Trewhella notes a new wasp (2014) worms, etc., among other critters, in the UK.  In the U.S., a charmingly named new slug (Hemphillia skadei) - Skade being the daughter of the two Idaho biologists who turned it up.  The year 2017 brought a real rarity for the U.S., a new bird, also from Idaho, a crossbill named  Loxia curvirostra (for a curved beak used for probing into pine cones for seeds( by ecologist Craig Benkman.  

Crossbills occur over most of the world, and there are many species, but the most poetic thing about them, is, well, this poem, by Longfellow.

The Legend of the Crossbill

On the cross the dying Saviour
Heavenward lifts his eyelids calm,
Feels, but scarcely feels, a trembling
In his pierced and bleeding palm.

And by all the world forsaken,
Sees he how with zealous care
At the ruthless nail of iron
A little bird is striving there.

Stained with blood and never tiring,
With its beak it doth not cease
From the cross 't would free the Saviour,
Its Creator's Son release.

And the Saviour speaks in mildness:
'Blest be thou of all the good!
Bear, as token of this moment,
Marks of blood and holy rood!'

And that bird is called the crossbill;
Covered all with blood so clear,
In the groves of pine it singeth
Songs, like legends, strange to hear. 

What lurks beneath Antarctic ice?

The first answer, of course, is "a continent."  Get out to the huge ice shelves, though, and the sea in places goes down to 4,000m or So. This interesting article, though lacking in examples and scientific detail, recounts how Aussie scientists probed those depths and found, not only the expected collection of weird fish and invertebrates, but species that seemed to have evolved there into something a little different than their counterparts in other oceans.  That was unexpected;  although we have interesting Antarctic examples like the antifreeze-blooded fishes,  it's generally been held that warm, food-rich waters are the best places for evolution and speciation. Mother Nature springs another surprise... i'll have to look for some more detailed articles from the scientific press. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Book Review: Rocket Men

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon 
Robert Kurson

It's hard to express how much I enjoyed Rocket Men. I was an "Apollo kid" and something of a space historian myself, so I knew the story, but what the author does here is make us FEEL it. The astronauts, of course, take center stage (including Anders, who is kind of the forgotten man on this mission), but the key Earth-based figures, including the administrators who argued and finally approved (with fingers crossed) a very rushed first mission around the Moon, the families, and others - all are brought to life. The technical aspects are well explained and very clearly described. There's an odd point where we switch to the views of unnamed cosmonauts and back in the same paragraph, and the background events of a turbulent year, which are very well described, could have been better tied in to NASA activities. These are quibbles, though. The author, not a space expert by training, puts us into the capsule with excellent descriptions of life for three men in a can. A couple of memorable bits to me were 1) the Saturn V liftoff (except for the wording that there were "explosions" of fuel and oxidizer, which might just have been a bit of hyperbole). I have seen a Saturn V launch, albeit from 10 miles, and I understand the booster technology, and I think he nails it, and 2) the description of an oft-overlooked bit of most space voyages, the recovery: this book captures the drama and the humor of the events that started with the scary but very clean reentry. Well done, sir, VERY well done. Everyone interested in space history and the lunar race will want this book.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Thoughts on cryptozoology

As I've said before, I like cryptozoologists, although I don't count myself as one.  Their resolute optimism can be contagious.  I wish those hunting sasquatch or Nessia all the luck in the world.  I also wish, though, that they did things a little differently. 

Something that should be discussed in cryptozoology is how much background or work someone needs to be credible. (This may apply in other fields - Philip Klass once complained that people thought a few evenings of reading made a UFO expert - but cryptozoology is my favorite oddity, so that's where I'm going.) I ruminate on this this because a lot of people write/post on cryptozoology who are smart and curious but don't know things like ecology and evolutionary biology. Lack of classes in such things has obviously not stopped a lot of people, including me, from writing on the topic. I've written on other topics, like microsatelltie design and Martian soil, where I have no degrees or recent classes, either.  So I'm not saying, "Only write if you're a zoologist."
 My suggestion is that, if you are planning to write on cryptozoology, you owe it to all those interested in the topic to do some reading or talk to some scientists or take some relevant science classes - in short, to do some research outside cryptozoological books and websites and be able to address why a species is likely to exist, where it might plausibly exist, etc. Otherwise, don't waste your time or readers' time. 

The other thing that strikes me about cryptozoology is: Is there any field of endeavor in which people spend so much time re-debating old claims/evidence? P-G film, McNab’s Nessie photo, on and on.... there ARE old things that still puzzle some people. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to take the Valhalla sea creature out of the “Unexplained ” file. But you reach a point where everything that could reasonably be relevant has already been said. Log it as a data point and move on to what’s new. Maybe someone will discover something that explains this old sighting or that old photo (the sea creature nicknamed "Trunko," a longtime discussion topic laid to rest by recent discovery of old newspaper accounts, is a great example). If that happens, great,  but well-discussed evidence fifty or a hundred years old is not, by itself, going to yield new insights. Many smart, capable people get caught up in re-debating old stuff forever. 

There ARE plenty of undiscovered animals out there. New birds, sharks, and even mammals are described every year. So let's search for new worlds.  

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Pretty Amazing Space: 2019 Starts With Succcesses

This year has kicked off with amazing feats in space exploration. Above are NASA images of the asteroid Bennu and the weird little rock/ice conglomeration called Ultima Thule.  

How did we get them, and what else was going on this month in space? Glad you asked.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) Osiris-Rex reached the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and sent back spectral analysis (which proved the existence of water), stunning photos, and, soon, a sample of the surface, which will leave the asteroid’s minuscule gravity for a long journey to arrive on Earth in 2013.  It’s in orbit surveying the asteroid to help engineers plan out the tricky phase of approach and landing.  (That gravity is so minuscule the spacecraft can orbit as close as 1.4 kilometers, a record for close orbit of any natural object.) 

I’ve already written of how NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) control room went nuts on New Years’ Day with the arrival of the New Horizons probe at a little bilobate object (it has basically one round object stuck on top of another, giving it sort of a bowling-pin appearance) in the Kupier belt known as 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule.   New Horizons studied Pluto in 2015 and kept going, a tribute to the program’s engineers and technicians. 

There have been a few oddly negative comments made in the media by people who felt 1) there was too much national pride (flags, etc.) about New Horizons, and 2) the use of "Ultima Thule" was wrong because the term had been adopted by a handful of white-supremacy morons.  I don't get either one: New Horizons was paid for  by American taxpayers and built by Americans, and the fact space exploration benefits all humankind doesn't make it wrong to recognize the nation that made it happen. As to the Roman-era term Ultima Thule (rougly, "most distant land"), there's no way to prevent ANY term from being appropriated by racists.  There's no reason or point to carping about it. 


China, meanwhile, soft-landed a probe and rover on the far side (NOT THE DARK SIDE!) of the Moon.  The Chang’e-4 became the first spacecraft to pull off a soft landing on the side of the Moon away from human sight (and direct radio communication).  The China National Space Administration (CNSA) reported the vehicle, which launched four weeks ago, entered lunar orbit December 12 in preparation for the landing. Once down, it deployed a suite of instruments to study the lunar surface, radiation, etc., sending back some great pictures at the same time.  Then it sent out the rover, Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit 2: Jade Rabbit had been landed by the e Chang’e-3 spacecraft in 2016, but was short-lived) to explore further.  The lander kept in touch with Earth via Queqiao, a Chinese relay satellite already parked at Earth-Moon Lagrange point 2.  Designers of Chang’e-4 even made space for a sealed biology experiment with two kinds of seeds (including, of course, potato "eyes") and silkworm cocoons.  Pretty impressive.

To infinity and beyond!

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

NASA reaches the "Ultima" destination

NASA's New Horizons probe has extended human reach to a place never explored: Ultima Thule, a Kupier Belt object shaped like a big bowling pin.  In addition to the close flyby and the photos and data, one thing to remember is that the solar system may be big, but this is well beyond the normally accepted boundaries, over 6.5 billion km from here.   It's about 20km long, and it was intercepted (remember, you have to HIT a spot marked from Earth as only a dot on a telescope photo) a good 10 hours, as light/radio travels, from the receiving stations here at home.  We humans can do some remarkable stuff.. Let's do more. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Bring back Steller's Sea Cow?

"De-extinction" is talked about a lot these days, with the woolly mammoth being a favorite candidate.  This 2014 article in the scientific blog SeaMonster just caught my attention.  Could we do it with Steller's sea cow?
This history of the incredible animal named Hydrodamalis gigas is a short one as far as science is concerned. In 1741, naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller was shipwrecked on Bering Island.  This is one of the Komandorski Islands,  between Kamchatka and the Aleutians.  There he and his companions met the sea cow.  It was a huge plant-eating mammal, up to 10m long, with a bilobed tail like a whale's and a placid disposition that made it easy to approach or harpoon.  The rough-skinned creatures were also loyal, gathering around an injured animal.  That instinct, while admirable, did little to promote their survival.  
After Steller's crew finally returned to civilization, sealers and other voyagers began stopping off in the sea cow's haunts to slaughter the inoffensive mammals for their meat.   By 1768, the species had apparently been hunted to extinction.
There have been a few reported sightings since then.  Native hunters reported killing them as late as 1780.  Early Russian colonizers of Bering Island reported sighting sea cows in the 1830s.  Fifty years later, the explorer Nordenskiold returned from the region with a sea cow skeleton of unknown age and a tale of a live sighting from 1854.  In 1910, fishermen in Russia's Gulf of Anadyr reported a sea cow stranded on the beach, but the report was never investigated. 
Can we bring it back? The article does not actually say anything about it.  There is some non-fossil skeletal material that can be checked for DNA. One of the lesser surviving cousins, the dugong or the West Indian manatee, would have to serve as surrogates,  My answer would be that we couldn't do it now, but in ten years or so,  we might.  Should we? It would not be tampering with nature, but restoring a species humans wiped out.  Questions about breeding such animals in captivity and re-establishing an ocean population are many, with money being a big one.  But it's food for thought.

Some other sources:
Dietz, Tim.  1992.  The Call of the Siren. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Haley, Delphine.  1978.  "The Saga of Steller's Sea Cow," Natural History, November.
Mackal, Roy.  1980.  Searching for Hidden Animals.  New York: Doubleday. 
Stejneger, Leonhard.  1936.  Georg Wilhelm Steller.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

More Biological Discoveries

The International Institute for Species Exploration offers this list of the most interesting finds of 2018.

Protist (Ancoracysta Twista)
Atlantic Forest Tree (Dinizia Jueirana-Facao)
Amphipod (Epimeria Quasimodo)
Baffling Beetle (Nymphister Kronaueri)
Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo Tapanuliensis)
Swire's Snailfish (Pseudoliparis Swirei)
Heterotrophic Flower (Sciaphila Sugimotoi)
Volcanic Bacterium (Thiolava Veneris)
Marsupial Lion (Wakaleo Schouteni)
Cave Beetle (Xuedytes Bellus)
The "Best Name" Award goes to the Baffling Beetle, witch is exactly the size and shape of an ant's abdomen and rides on the real abdomen for transportation.  The new protist made the list because no one knows where it's from (it was found in an aquarium) and it was very hard to classify, having survived from some point way back in the one-celled evolution business.  The new orangutan was a reclassification, being both distinct and very rare (maybe 800 survive). new species of the extinct marsupial lion was another cool discovery (I'm not entirely convinced this lineage has gone extinct: reports of the mysterious yarri keep cropping up...) .  And the tree? Well, it's huge (40m tall) but overlooked in part because there are only about 25 of this Brazilian species in existence.

A whole lotta Nature is still out there... 

Some "amazing" Biological Discoveries of 2018

A leading paleozoologist, Dr. Darren Naish, always has an interesting take on new discoveries.  His old Tet Zoo blog, hosted for years by Scientific American, was discontinued, so he has a new website at with new stories.  
For 2018, he spotlighted three discoveries of interest. One was a large new salamander from the American southeast: one of those cases where lots of people knew it was there but no one had taken a thorough look at it and distinguished it as a species. He has a piece on known and new prehistoric creatures discovered in amber, including, believe it or not, birds.  A new bird, the Rote leaf warbler, is one of three new passerine species described in 2018 and stands out because of a long, curved bill unlike any other bird in its genus. Neanderthal art (we think of Cro-Magnons as the first artists, but they were not) rounds it out. Thanks, Darrren! 

Monday, December 17, 2018

No, we didn't "let" the USSR launch the first satellite

The idea crops up every now and then that the USSR's launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, before any American satellite flew, because the U.S. slowed down its program to assure a Russian "win" that would establish the principle of freedom of space for future U.S. intelligence satellites. Now, in 1958 there were military and CIA people already working to develop the exciting potential of satellite spies.  And once we started launching them, the Russian got nowhere with protests about overflying their territory because they'd already set the precedent. 

This article in National Review is the most recent example of the thinking that we slowed things down, noting that the Army was ordered to ensure its Jupiter-C reentry vehicle tests did not lead to any "accidental" satellites. (When the Navy's Vanguard suffered a failure in December 1957, the Army got the go-ahead to launch what became Explorer 1 on 31 January 1958.)   
The article does not, however, cite hard information, and my letter to the author reads as follows:

Concerning your recent article on the space race being "fixed," I can't help noting you did not cite any document or any participant in those decisions.  You will not find them.
Erika Maurer and I looked at this extensively for our 2004 book The First Space Race. While the "fix" idea has been around before - even NASA Historian Dr. Roger Launius floated it at one point, although being careful to say it was speculation, not fact - It doesn't fit the known events. We talked to Ernst Stulinger from the von Braun team, every surviving Vanguard official, include the Technical Director, the chief engineer of Explorer, General Medaris' aide, etc. and asked everyone about this idea. 
The "do not launch" order for the Jupiter-C test flight was given because Project Vanguard was THE official US project to launch the first satellite, announced publicly as such by the President himself, and DoD wanted nothing to upstage it.  (We asked Army historians to help locate the original teletype or letter that gave Medaris those instructions: they could not find it, but it could have been a telephoned or couriered order. Medaris in his memoir confirmed he did receive the order but didn't say how.)      
Vanguard ended up late, launching our second satellite, but that was a matter of persistent technical and cost overrun problems.  The issues of overflight were being talked about, and the spy satellite efforts had begun, but there is just no evidence of a related slowdown in U.S. satellite launches. Everyone from Ike on down had simply assumed the U.S. would be first - there was some "the Russians are backward" thinking there.  After the Sputnik 1 launch, Ike called his military R&D chief, Donald Quarles, on the carpet and read him the proverbial riot act for not warning him the Soviets might launch first.    If Ike or someone under him had been slowing the program down (Quarles would have known) this meeting makes no sense.  What IS true is that Quarles pointed out the Russians had unintentionally done the American spy satellite program a good turn by establishing freedom of space.  
It was a chaotic time, and it's not surprising that people interpret events differently.  But this item we can be sure about.
(I'll send you a copy of the book if you like.)

Matt Bille 

Prepare for Smallsat Conference 2019!

My favorite space conference, and the one I've presented to more than any other, is coming up.  Abstracts are due February 1st.  This has become a wildly popular conference, with 3,000 people attending all or part of it.  It's the premier conference in the world for smallsats and microsats. 
Small Satellite ProductionDRIVING A REVOLUTIONAugust 3-8, 2019 | 33rd Annual Conference on Small SatellitesCall For Papers
During the 33rd AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, we will explore the technical issues, development considerations, and new opportunities that result from an ever-growing trend toward missions using tens, hundreds, or even thousands of small satellites to achieve revolutionary effects.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A milestone for private space flight

The Virgin Galactic spaceplane, a SpaceShipTwo model named Unity, designed for carrying tourists on suborbital flights, had it fastest and highest flight yet, reaching an altitude of 82 km (271,268 feet).    Congratulations! 

Here's a good video clip.
It's pretty awesome to think about this. A private company, with no government support, built a spaceplane that goes higher and faster than any such craft built by any government in the world, with the sole exception of the X-15, of the 1960s, which was also air-launched.  (NASA did put four experiments on board.) The SpaceShipTwo craft carried a crew of two pilots and a mannequin representing a passenger.

Now, was it "in space?" Depends on your definition.  There is no international agreement setting the boundary between air and space.  The US Air Force has always used 50 miles above sea level as the basis for awarding astronaut wings.  The FAA picked up that definition: astronaut wings are on the way for the pilots.  Most authorities on spaceflight point to the von Karman line, 100km (62 miles) as the boundary. 

For Virgin Galactic, which has 600 people signed up to fly at a quarter of a million dollars each, they made it. 

The press release stated, in part: "The historic achievement has been recognised by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who announced today that early next year they will present pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow with FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings at a ceremony in Washington DC. CJ, as a four-time Space Shuttle pilot, will become the only person to have been awarded NASA and FAA wings."

Oh, and the passengers could theoretically toast with champagne. The French (who else?) have designed and tested a champagne bottle under spaceflight conditions.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Dolmens: Discoveries and Riddles

Dolmens, the ancient stone tombs and/or ritual constructions, continue to interest me. Readers will remember I wrote The Dolmen, a very well reviewed horror tale whose lesson is, "If you're going to illegally import and entire dolmen, direct and all, you'd better sift through the dirt."
We keep finding new dolmens and new things about them. They were built over thousands of years, from England to Korea and south into the Middle East.    The basic dolmen, usually three vertical stone slabs with a capstone, had many variations, some much more elaborate.  Why are they found over such a range? Probably the same reason pyramids are: if you want to raise something that will last, pyramids and dolmens are two types that don't require much in the way of construction techniques.  (The best-known Egyptian pyramids show a very sophisticated system of design and construction, but there are cruder pyramids all over the world, many built of nothing but tramped-down earth.) Similarly, all you need to build a dolmen is four stone slabs and a HUGE amount of manpower.  
A dolmen reported last year from Galilee is decorated with rock art, a very unusual find: there is none like it anywhere in the Middle East.  The structure, with an interior chamber measuring about 6 square meters. is dated to approximately 4,000 years BP.  It is one of some 400 in a field near Kibbutz Shamir, but it's the largest, the most elaborate (surrounded by a boulder heap about 20m across and four smaller dolmens) and we have only fragments of knowledge about the people who built it. Israeli archaeologist Gonen Sharon notes the field of dolmens means, "a strong system of government was required here that could assemble a large amount of manpower, provide for the personnel and above all direct the implementation and control of a large and lengthy project.” Some stones weigh 50 tons.  
A cryptic message from the Bronze Age, only now being deciphered.  Is it any wonder I made one the center of a novel?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Welcome to Mars, Insight

The Insight lander, braking by aeroshell, parachute, and retrorocket into Mars' thin atmosphere, stuck the landing yesterday to send its first photos from the surface.  The eighth successful landing on the Red Planet since the Space Age began, Insight hopes to (or is hoped to: it's advanced, but I don't mean to grant it sentience) learn much more about Martian geology, internal temperatures, Marsquakes, and many more areas that will advance our knowledge of the planet and provide more clues in the search for life. Kudos to NASA, especially JPL, to Lockheed Martin and the other contractors, and to international partners (the seismometer , for example, is French.) Go Earth!  

Friday, November 23, 2018

Book review: Far-Out, Shaggy, Funky Monsters

Far-Out, Shaggy, Funky Monsters: A What-It-Is History of Bigfoot in the 1970s
by Daniel S. Green  
Coachwhip Publications, 2018, 1188 pp.

This is a unique Bigfoot book, and not only because you could stop a charging apeman by bonking him on the head with this monster-sized tome.  As the author says, the 1970s were the real heyday of Bigfoot / sasquatch / etc., when the modern interest sparked by the Jerry Crew report in 1958 had been raised to another level entirely by the Patterson-Gimlin film and the topic crew massive public interest and came close to scientific respectability.  Green has uncovered seemingly every significant report, sighting flap, footprint claim, book, movie, whatever and presents a year-by-year chronicle of North America’s favorite monster.  Scattered throughout are tidbits for the determined researcher as well as the casual curiosity-seeker. The Sasquatch Festival of 1938 is our (little-known) kickoff point for a short pre-1970s history, and then we get into the reactions to the P-G film and the real fun begins.  We see the sightings all over the country (a new one to me was a report by three Marines in 1973: young Marines like their jokes, but making a hoax official report? Hmmm.)    Green covers the first films and documentaries, especially the shoestring hit film The Legend of Boggy Creek, and of course the Minnesota Iceman first described in print in 1969 and the constantly changing stories attached to it.  The scientists who took an interest (pro or con, with a bit more attention here to the “pro”) are covered, as is the first serious scientific book, Napier’s 1973 Bigfoot, and the major tomes that preceded and followed it up through anthropologist Kenneth Wylie’s 1980 Bigfoot. Green introduces us to many of the colorful characters, like hunter/hoaxers from the late Jon Beckjord (who seems to have been busier than I remember – yes, I remember the 70s) to the still-at-it Tom Biscardi, the completely serious if not always scientific searchers for knowledge, and the people like Stan Gordon who connected Bigfoot to UFOs and other “high strangeness.” (One takeaway is that it is frankly astonishing that no one was ever shot in the swarm of armed amateur expeditions and hunting parties attending many major sighting events.)

The sheer weight of material Green presents here is enough to make anyone wonder whether there is in fact a real species behind all this, even as the nationwide distribution and endless differences in descriptions and footprints makes it hard to reconcile with a believable animal (or even more than one animal).   Publications others have largely overlooked, like the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper (still publishing today), are used as Green chases the tale all over North America, from Alaska down to the Honey Island Swamp Monster and the Florida Skunk Ape. He takes us through the initial wave of conferences and meetings, the beginnings of the “kill-no kill” debate, and of course more sightings, from Ogden, Utah, to Powderly, Texas (Green’s best section headline, without doubt, is “The Tunnel Monster of Cabbagetown.”)
Green doesn’t try to wrap all this up into any personal overall views at the end (I wish he had), but he leaves us with over 100 pages of annexes, blogography, notes, and do forth. The amount of research done for this book makes my head ache.   Green’s evenhanded, sometimes bemused approach and mass of data may not make many converts one way or the other, but he has created a cultural history of our favorite monster’s most famous decade in a volume that will not and probably cannot be surpassed. For those who can manage the hefty price of this hefty book, it’s a must-have reference for anyone interested in North American primate claims, cryptozoology, and the cultural phenomenon that was, and still is, Bigfoot himself, both monster and myth. 

A different kind of wolf?

Fascinating: this discovery of a unique Arctic wolf population doesn't establish a new species, but it does indicate the usefulness of DNA studies and the differences in populations of a worldwide species.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A thought about H.G. Wells

When I was a kid I read everything, including some of the earliest horror/SF novels. H.G. Welles is known as a pivotal AF author, but I have a soft spot for the horror fiction he based on science as it was then known. 
Wells' The Invisible Man was pretty effective: written in 1897, it had some of the tropes which recurred throughout horror fiction: the scientist who experiments on himself, the inability to control the results, and the efforts to reverse the process and be normal again. He'd already written The Island of Dr. Moreau, wherein a mad scientist's advances don't work out at all as he foresaw (shades of Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man) among countless other examples.
The science is always fun to review from a later perspective: Wells' invisible man wouldn't have been able to see if light didn't reach his eyes, a point made by a physicist in 1913. The idea of transforming vertebrate species via surgery looks pretty silly now, when we have all our advances in genetics and DNA manipulation and still can't do such a thing.
But Wells made good use of what was then known in science (he trained in biology), prefigured still-ongoing debates about scientific morality, displayed great imagination, and wrote interesting main characters (secondary characters don't fare as well, getting little development in these short novels). These novels were only part of Wells' contribution to the canons of science fiction and horror, but they were lasting, even if movie and TV projects inspired by them have not fared well.
To mention a few I've seen, David McCallum's 1975 Invisible Man series was interesting but never found an audience, while its successor Gemini Man was just silly, I haven't seen the SyFY series, which lasted two seasons: an interesting sidelight was that the hormone which caused invisibility came from the corpse of a sasquatch, explaining why the big ape hadn't been discovered.  There was a decent version of Island with Michael York, although there's nothing memorable about it: it was simply competent.  he bizarre tale of making the incomprehensible version with Marlon Brando has become a film in itself. But Herbert George Welles' place is secure.
Read his work for yourself at Project Gutenberg. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

New microbes are their own "supra-kingdom"

Taxonomy was simple when I was growing up. There were plants (which included bacteria) and animals, and that was it.  Then things started splitting. The fungi got their own kingdom. Then the bacteria. Then it got crazy, with domains and supra-kingdoms and kingdoms, with the broader name "domains" assigned to the bacteria, the archaea, and the eukaryotes (which includes all the plants,  animals, protists, and pretty much everything else most people have ever heard of).  The only thing we knew for sure is that we at least had specimens belonging to all the kingdoms on up, even if we didn't have all the species. 
For more than a century, there were a few microbes kicking around collections that were described by species names and sometimes grouped as a phylum (the level below kingdom) but didn't fit very well with other microbes. Now we know why: they weren't even in the same kingdom as anything else.  Two new species picked up on a Canadian hike by graduate student Yana Eglit provided her and fellow scientists with their first look at living hemimastigotes, and they were so weird there was nothing else to do except give them their own supra-kingdom. As they wrote in Nature (the world's most prestigious scientific journal - heavy stuff for a grad student!) "The previous ranking of Hemimastigophora as a phylum understates the evolutionary distinctiveness of this group." The authors' findings "place Hemimastigophora outside of all established eukaryote supergroups. They instead comprise an independent supra-kingdom-level lineage..."
Mind blown. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Obituary: Environmental Champion Nat Reed.

I can't remember whether I ever met Nathaniel "Nat" Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics as a teenager, he ran for governor. He lost the Republican primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Democrat Lawton Chiles, but that's beside the point.
The obituary from the NY Times gives a good summation. Reed's legacy is one you wouldn't expect from most Republicans these days. He was instrumental in drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration and the establishment of the EPA. As the obituary in the NY Times tells it, Richard Nixon wasn't especially concerned about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it. He gave Reed a relatively free hand, and some real good resulted. Reed also stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation. He remained active all his life, writing, speaking, and otherwise advocating for the environment. He recounted his work in the book Travels on the Green Highway.
Nat Reed was 84 and died in the outdoors he loved, slipping and striking his head on a rock while salmon fishing in Quebec's Cascapedia River.    Goodbye to a good man.

The Extinct and the NY Times

We're all aware of human-caused extinctions, with famous species like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Steller's sea cow as poster creatures. Where are we now in terms of our impact on vulnerable species?
Obviously, a lot of things are better than they were decades ago. In the U.S., the EPA was created with the power to list species at risk and direct preservation efforts. Truly extraordinary efforts saved the California condor, the Florida panther (still very close to the edge) and the whooping crane, but were apparently a little too late for the Eastern cougar, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and Eskimo curlew.  
The New York Times makes it easy to see all its stories on this topic.  The "paper of record" is a bit battered these days by controversies inside and out, but the science coverage remains definitely worth reading. Stories the classification of tigers, which is am interesting reminder that DNA evidence, which itself is objective and information-stuffed, still needs to be interpreted by the slightly fuzzy standards of a "species" and the very fuzzy standards of other taxonomic levels. Some say there are only two subspecies of Panthera tigris, while others vote for six. We know the Sumatran, which some experts call a separate species, is extinct,  as is the Javan tiger and maybe the Caspian tiger.  
Balancing this sadness is some rare (very rare) good news on the vaquita, the world's most endangered marine mammal, with a sighting including a calf.  
Other recent articles cover the biodiversity of reef communities, the establishment of Madagascar's extinct elephant birds as the largest birds ever (800kg is a lot of Thanksgiving dinners), and how the Asian market for sea cucumbers threatens species off Mexico. 
Finally, there's an obituary I missed, for an Interior Department official named Nathaniel Reed.  I can't remember whether I met Nat Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics he ran for governor. He lost the primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Lawton Chiles, but that's aside from the point: the point is that he was instrumental in establishing the EPA and drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration.  Richard Nixon didn't particularly care about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it, and he and Reed, to whom he gave a free hand, did some real good.  He stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation.  He was 84.  Goodbye to a good man. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Salute to the Kepler space telescope

Kepler was retired today, after control problems made it untenable to keep the mission running. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has discovered 2,600 planets and looked at half a million stars, giving us a far better (and more enthralling) view of the galaxy than any previous mission.  NASA estimates "that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars." An enormous archive of data (the spacecraft sent 678 gigabits) is yet to be analyzed. Approved in 2001 (the 9-year development is not too unusual for complex science missions), it was seemingly done in 2013 when a reaction wheel failed, but engineers were able to work around it.  In 2016, news reports claimed it had discovered an "alien megastructure" (now identified as a dust cloud moving around a star, important but not admittedly not as much fun.  In 2013, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was launched and has taken over the planet-hunting mission. Congratulations to NASA Ames, JPL, Ball Aerospace, and all others involved.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Book Review: Vaquita

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez
by Brooke Bessensen
Island Press, 2018

The vaquita, the world's smallest cetacean, once numbered thousands of animals in the Sea of Cortez. Then it was hundreds. And then it was a handful so small that every death could be the tipping point to extinction. (The estimate in this book is 15: there is a new study saying it might be as high as 30, but it's small comfort.)  It was only discovered by science in 1958, and it may be the second species of cetacean to be driven extinct.

The author, with endless determination and at no small risk to herself, explored both the world of the porpoise and a web of greed and corruption as deadly as the gillnets that may be the last thing the last vaquita ever sees.  Illegal fishing for the totoaba, a human-sized fish whose swim bladder is worth more than cocaine on the Chinese market, continues despite official proclamations, laws, and even a unique agreement by Mexico to allow Sea Shepherd ships to confiscate illegal nets. For every effort or official announcement of more protection, there is a corrupt government official, a crime lord, and/or a desperate or greedy fisherman willing to circumvent it.  An astonishing narrative has sprung up among local fishermen: that the vaquita does not exist, being only a prop for some kind of American-Mexican plot to turn the region into an oilfield. A laudable program to pay fishermen to use safer gear or switch to non-fishing businesses is spotty in practice thanks to corruption, endless delays in permits and paperwork, and the unending demand for totoaba (whose population is also shrinking fast).  
Brooke Bessesen explores the world of the local villages, where she meets people who risk everything to save the species and people who simply will not talk about it, plus those who doubt its existence (she notes fairly that many younger fisherman have never seen one, but many who know better have talked themselves into the myth). She chronicles the efforts of conservationists, artists, and educators to support the animal, and the desperate and heartbreaking attempt to save the vaquita by captive breeding.  
Bessesen ends on a determined note: we may or may not save the vaquita (the odds, while not yet zero, are not good), but she will tell its story. She will not let its spirit die. 
If the heroes in this book do not inspire you, you have no heart: if the villainy does not infuriate you, you have no soul.  That's how memorable this book is.  

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book Review: Spying on Whales

Book Review:  

The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

Nick Pyenson
Viking, New York.  322 pp.
This is a superbly written one-volume introduction to whales through the personal experiences of the author’s adventures and hard work in studying them, whether the whales in question are fossilized (the author is a paleontologist and the fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian) or living. 
He describes numerous challenges in the fossil-hunting field, like trying to get a stunning bonanza of fossils weighing countless tons out  of Chile before the area was bulldozed, and smaller but memorable moments like having his four-year-old son discover a fossil whale skull. 
He relates his first adventure in trying to tag a whale (he did) and some pioneering work at an Icelandic whaling station. (He wondered if it was ethical to work with a whale “fishery,” and finally decided the whales would be killed no matter what he did, so it would at least give their deaths some meaning if scientists used them to learn about the animals and contribute to knowledge useful for conservation.)  There he and a colleague discovered that, after a century-plus of killing hundreds of thousands of whales, some species had a sensory organ connecting the jawbones at the tip that was not only undescribed in any of the literature, but was a TYPE of organ never described in any animal. (You can think of it as a jelly doughnut with fibers (papillae) inside, all of which grow out of one side and connect to the other side.)  It’s amazing how recent much of our knowledge of whales is and how much we have yet to learn.
When trying to understand the behavior of whales, he discusses a problem I’ve never seen explored in any depth in many years of reading on cetaceans: we don’t know what “natural” behavior for the great whales looks like. No one knows how feeding, diet, migration, ranges, etc., looked like before humans started the wholesale slaughter. The behavior and habits we are still trying to document might be radically different from what they were in, say, 1700. This applies to their only predators, the orcas, too.  Did the orcas which today specialize in salmon or seals always feed on those, or was it different when there were many times (almost a hundred times, for blue whales) the number of baleen whales available to pursue today? What were the deepsea floor communities that gather on “whalefalls” like when thousands more whales every year were dying natural deaths and sinking?
Pyenson effectively traces the failure of conservation efforts until recent decades and the problems whales still face from many human-caused effects. He also recounts being part of the fundamental work of figuring out the nutrients vs. metabolic costs involved in lunge feeding on fish and shrimp by the giant rorquals.  One of the outcomes of this analysis concerns the maximum size of whales: it turns out the largest blue whales are about as big as whales can be. Any bigger, and the energy expended can’t be adequately recouped. Pyenson thinks the measured maximum length for a killed blue of 109 feet is about the limit, while the largest whale ever cut up and weighed piece by piece, at 136.4 tons, is somewhat short of the maximum, as this whale was “only” 89 feet long. (He wrote about this in the New York Times, and I blogged on it here.
His work on this topic is also a reminder of how the sciences can cross-fertilize each other. When trying to understand how whales’ pleated throats expanded to take in swimming pools full of water and then contracted to strain it, the whale scientists brought in Jean Piven, a “particle physicist turned parachute experimenter.” Piven joined with them to help calculate, from his design and testing of many types and sizes of parachutes, how the throat expanded, what the energy expended was, how challenging it was to filter that mass through the baleen, and what the muscles and the tongue had to do to make this system work. Pyenson also describes the information gained from some of his fossils at the Smithsonian, explaining technical biological terms and functions in language non-experts can understand. 
The bottom line: I learned things on every page and had a fascinating time doing so. While Pyenson doesn’t try to cover every species, I ended up with a much better idea of what a whale really is and why whales look and act as they do. A marvelous achievement.