Robert Heinlein once observed that space is only an hour away if you could drive your car straight up. Well, that might be easier than the way humanity accesses space now. The news is flying thick and fast, and about half of it is making access to space easier. A recap:
Another Atlas V success for United Launch Alliance. Good for them: it's a superb record, even if it costs (by some published estimates) about $400M (total program costs divided by launches) to get to orbit.
A daring plan by SpaceX: Elon Musk and company are going to launch their Falcon 9v1.1 next week, bring the first stage back, and land it on a barge. Nothing like this has been done: it hasn't even been tried. Musk thinks the reusability will enable steep cost cuts: we'll have to see if that works out, technically and financially. Anyway, the grid-like fins on the first stage look really cool.
The NASA Space Launch System is in more trouble: technical challenges have pushed the first launch back to 2018. The GAO isn't at all sure NASA can make that, even though NASA funding in the just-passed omnibus bill got a plus-up.
RD-180: Congress has ordered DoD to phase out the Russian RD-180 (which the Atlas V depends on - Delta uses the US-made RS68, and SpaceX builds it own engines). Congress also appropriated funding to start building an American-made replacement. Earlier this year, a DoD panel said a new engine could be ready in 2022. I'm at a loss to understand why it would take longer to build a new engine than it took to not only build the F1 engine, but build the Saturn V and fly the whole thing to the Moon.
So... we have two positives (Atlas success and SpaceX test: it may or may not work, but they get major props for being willing to try something radical), and two negatives. We can get to space: we can't get there quickly or cheaply. There's a lot more work to do.
NASA SLS. The agency is being disingenuous by showing it with the Saturn V paint scheme: it will not be painted. (NASA)
109 years ago today, the most intriguing "sea serpent" sighting of all time was made. The circumstances were perfect, the witnesses well-qualified, and the animal very strange-looking. So what really happened?
Here's the relevant chapter from my 2006 book Shadows of Existence.
NATURALISTS' SEA MONSTER
large and strange unclassified animals roaming the oceans of the world?The best single piece of evidence to date on
this question came from two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and
E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.In 1905, these
witnesses observed a "sea monster" which has never been explained.
The men were
both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.Their account of "a creature of most
extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's
Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.
7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard
the yacht Valhalla.They were fifteen
miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his
companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?"
The fin was
cruising past them about a hundred yards away.Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled
at the edge."The visible part was
roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high.
Meade-Waldo watched through“powerful”
binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.He described the neck as "about the
thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the
water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very
turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the
color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost
white, I think."
"Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black
patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."They kept the creature in sight for several
minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.The yacht was traveling under sail and could
not come about.At 2:00 AM on December
8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost
In a letter
to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent,Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never
forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we
had passed out of sight of it ... "Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has
been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
these gentlemen see?Meade-Waldo offered
no theory.Nicoll, while admitting it is
"impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown
species of mammal, adding, "the general appearance of the creature,
especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this
impression."The witnesses did not
notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the
Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish
swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.For reasons no one understands, the largest
known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.Interestingly, the conger also has been
observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an
appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster,
albeit a small one.Congers are known to
reach about nine feet in length.
candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a
Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as
early as 1833.
keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few
marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on
plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they
were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was
hardly worth while.”Indeed, the
plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the
another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.In addition to the absence of relevant
fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to
have possessed a dorsal fin.There was
no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these
animals.A plesiosaur with a fin or
frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for
threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation.
of a mammal poses problems as well.No
known mammal, living or extinct,fits
the description given by the two naturalists.Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to
archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus
Basilosaurus.It'sconceivable this group could have evolved a
long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite
direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.One other mammalian possibility is a huge
elongated seal.This seems equally
difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a
truly long neck or a dorsal fin.
was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the
frigate HMS Daedalus.He thought his own
creature "might easily be the same."The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large
snake or eel"with a visible length
estimated at sixty feet.
There are a
few reports specifically describing giant eels.A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature
in its entirety off England in 1912.The
Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen
inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel
in 1915.In 1947, the officers of the
Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature
estimated at sixty feet long.In 1971,
English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he
allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger
eel but “four times the size.”He told
author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen
something like this.”Smith suggested it
was… “a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational
explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
“non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla
sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.Ellis has suggested that a giant squid
swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the
surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable
degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.For one to have presented the appearance
described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.The squid would have to swim on its side to
keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and
swimming forward for several minutes.Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it
seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.This explanation also requires that
Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large
body under water “behind the frill.”
idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem
surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified
whales have already been mentioned.The
sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) was only discovered when
caught by accident in 1976.A unique
feature of the megamouth case is that this species - a slow-moving, blimplike
filter-feeder which became the sole inhabitant of a new family - was not just
unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.There were no fossil indications, no sighting
reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.The species just appeared.Finally, in recent times, at
least one type of whale was generally accepted by cetologists well before there was any physical evidence.
We are left
with this simple fact: on December 7th, 1905, two well-qualified witnesses
described a large unknown marine animal for which no satisfactory explanation
has been presented.Their report
strongly indicates the oceans hold (or held at that time) at least one
spectacular creature still evading the probes of science.
Richard.2003.Sea Dragons. Lawrence, Kansas: University
Press of Kansas.
Richard.1998.The Search for the Giant Squid.New York: Lyons Press.
Richard.1994.Monsters of the Sea.New York: Knopf.
T.1930.The Case for the Sea Serpent.London: Philip Allan.
Paul.2001.Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British
Isles.London: Robert Hale.
Bernard.1968.In the Wake of the Sea Serpents.New York: Hill and Wang.
E.G.B., and Nicoll, Michael J., 1906."Description of an Unknown Animal Seen at Sea off the Coast of
Brazil," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, p.719.
Michael J.1908.Three Voyages of a Naturalist.London: Witherby and Co.
As someone of Danish ancestry (there is still a Bille family castle), I keep an eye on science stories out of my little homeland. This was a surprising one. An axe found during a road tunnel excavation project is made of stone and 5,000 years old - and the handle is still on it.
The flint axe was found in anaerobic silt that preserved its handle and other wooden artifacts, like paddles. Museum archaeologist Anker Sørensen reacted as if, well, she'd been hit with an axe handle: "Finding a hilt axe that is so well preserved is absolutely incredible," she said.
It's only been two weeks since another exciting find in the same excavation: the footprints of two people who'd apparently been tending a fish-trap.
Museum Lolland-Falster released this photo of the axe before it was taken to a preservation lab.
The Little Lander That Could is in deep sleep mode on its cometary home on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko half a billion kilometers from Earth. We saw it touch down - and we actually heard it (I didn't realize it had acoustic sensors until after the fact.) That little audio clip told project scientists it his a soft layer (dust?) that was very thin and then a hard layer (rock or ice). The lander tried hammering into the surface (it didn't get far, but that, too, is valuable data) and it detected organic molecules. For a lander with so short a life, Philae did a lot of science.
Also, it landed on a comet. Don't forget how amazing that is after a ten-year journey from Earth.
Philae may come back. The comet is headed for the Sun, with its closest approach coming next August. More sunlight on the solar panels may result in more data as the probe returns to life and contacts us through Rosetta, which will be hovering (ok, orbiting) around until at least December 2015.
It's an amazing story. And it may not be over.
Our first panoramic view of the surface of a comet (ESA)
The Walking Whales
by J.G.M. "Hans" Thewissen
University of California Press
I've read a lot of good books lately on marine life and its prehistory, but Thewissen's stands out. The veteran paleontologist, a specialist in whale ancestry, simply does everything right in this slender but fact-packed volume.
His discussions of the science are clear and well-illustrated, and his adventures as a paleontologist in India and Pakistan present the risks, the tedium, and the thrill of discovery. Science is, after all, a human story. One crucial discovery was made by accident when a bone was broken in the lab, and I found that very interesting. Despite all our modern tools, science still depends partly on luck.
The author leads us, with very good explanations, through the complicated business of how evolution transformed land animals into aquatic ones. There were more whales than anyone suspected when the author began his own excavations and searches. Just twenty years or so ago, whales were often pointed to by young-Earth creationists as an example of seemingly huge change in a relatively short time but with no transitional forms. Now we know that whales are not only fascinating creatures, but offer one of the most complete evolutionary records of any modern group, with many transitional forms we can use to trace the development of particular traits. (The author makes a humorous but insightful comparison to whale evolution by asking readers to imagine the Batmobile being given to a group of engineers with orders to use its parts to build the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.) I wanted a little more explanation of how the diet developed (the whales' closest relatives on land are, after all, vegetarians), but I was fascinated to learn that teeth are in fact present in fetal baleen whales, and traces sometimes show up in adults.
Overall, this book is everything I could have hoped it was. Excellent job!
...and they are breathing again in the European Space Agency's operations center!
The little Philae lander (100kg, 21kg of which is instruments) left the Rosetta mothership and plunked itself down safely on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Garasimenko. Or pulled itself down: the lander fired mini-harpoons into the surface and winched its way to contact. The mission was launched ten and a half years ago. Flight controllers had tense moments as they waited out the 28-minute signal delay from the distant comet. NASA was a partner in areas including maintaining deep-space communications.
Aficionados of extinct animals are sorry we just missed (or hunted to extinction) beasts like the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, and the wooly rhinoceros. But, unlike the dinosaurs, the great mammals have left us some startling specimens frozen in soil and permafrost.
The mammoth called Yula is 39,000 years old and hails from Russia - the shores of the remote Laptev Sea, to be precise. Found in 2010 and now in the hands of the Russian Geographic Society, Yula (a youngster 6 to 9 years old) turned out to have a remarkably preserved brain, showing folds, blood vessels, etc. Paleontologists are ecstatic about having a look at what made the mammoth tick.
Are rhinos more your thing? Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology blog explores what we know- and what we think we know. It seems the woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquitatis), usually depicted as resembling a modern rhino in a mink coat, instead might have had a whiff of musk ox about its stocky, long-furred, humped appearance. Or maybe not - prehistoric artists in France depicted it both ways, and Naish suggests the coat, at least, varied with the seasons. They apparently had low-hanging heads and huge horns, and another British paleontologist envisioned them chomping their way through grasses "like giant furry lawnmowers."
A very large and complete woolly rhino skull was just found in Cambridgeshire in the UK, so that's another piece of evidence under study. Finally, there's another recent find of note: a spear, about 13,000 years old, made of rhino horn. It was found in Siberia and still looks lethal. It's the first known spear of its type and comes from a place where humans were not previously thought to have lived in that era.
The northern plains of old North America and Eurasia must have been very impressive places. While the mammoth-based economy in the movie 10,000 BC is ridiculous (as are occasional claims the mammoth survives to this day - alas, it does not), these were really big lawnmowers.
The mammoth, Mammoth primigenius, on a recent Russian postage stamp.
The Explorers (written on the occasion of the loss of SpaceShipTwo)
The souls departing Earthbound life Rise to heaven’s plane Soldier, sailor, priest, or king The destination is the same But in an even higher realm With stars always in view Meet those lost in exploration Remembering how they flew
Komarov toasts Gus Grissom And Resnik talks with Clark Ramon and Chalwa share a tale As they look beyond the dark Adams shares his glory days With Husband and McNair And always they watch And urge us on To rise above the air.
Don’t cling to mother Earth, they’d say God has given us the stars There’s a reason we aspire To cross the celestial bar We gave our lives We don’t regret To push back the frontier Remember us by challenging And rising past your fears
Patseyev, Onizuka Anderson and Brown Salute each new endeavour That lifts us from the ground To every new thrust into space They raise their glasses high And remind us we were always meant To reach beyond the sky. - Matt Bille, space historian, 2014
We've had the second bad day in a week for a privately built space vehicle, and this one has cost us a brave and skilled man.
Michael Alsbury was an experienced test pilot, designer, and engineer. Pilot Peter Siebold survived the destruction of SS2, and my prayers are with both families.
A lot of speculation has focused on the hybrid engine, using a propellant combination never flown before (although ground-tested). I won't add my speculation to the quota at this point. It's far too early. A couple of interesting facts are that the engine housing looks intact except for the nozzle and that Siebold was able to eject - we don't know yet why Alsbury could not.
Richard Branson, who funded the program through his Virgin Galactic, says the program will go on. The second SS2 is under construction. Here's hoping they will press on. You may call it a toy for the rich, but it could greatly broaden our knowledge of flight in high-speed suborbital regimes as well as popularize the idea of citizen space travel for the future.
The Antares rocket that failed the other night has been subject to a lot of misreporting. One repeated claim on CNN was that there was "classified equipment" on board. All launch vehicle companies encrypt their telemetry so no one unauthorized can read or affect the data stream. We're talking about commercially available stuff here.
I saw an article on one website claiming "5 Astronauts Dead" even though it was seemingly universal knowledge that the flight was un-crewed, taking a robotic supply vehicle up for the ISS. And there was constant chatter about a "NASA rocket." No, it was a private rocket under contract. Then there were people commenting online that we ought to go back to "NASA rockets" vs. private ones. News flash: every U.S. orbital booster ever was built by contractors.
The rocket's owner, Orbital Sciences (a company I know and admire, though I've never worked for them) IS very fortunate no one was hurt. That was one heck of an explosion. Kerosene, liquid oxygen, hydrazine from the upper stage, detonation charges set off by Range Safety Officer - enough to run everyone's day. Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight
Facility is in bad shape. Repairs will take months and cost millions.
Space flight will never be entirely routine. This failure comes after a long run of American successes (including over 60 from United Launch Alliance), but it does bring to mind Wernher von Braun's comment after the Apollo 1 fire: "This should remind us that we are not in the business of making shoes."
Good luck, Orbital, and I hope you solve this soon.
How big can jointed-legged animals (arthropods) get? Well, the answer (at least the answer for land animals) is all over the internet, and it's pretty darn scary.
A Goliath spider commonly described as "puppy-sized" freaked out even the scientist who found it: "I couldn't understand what I was seeing."
Everyone likes a really big insect, spider, or crab when the film script calls for a monster. From the insectoid MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) in the last Godzilla movie to the claims of a "Crabzilla" photographed off England, giant arthropods things have sparked our fears and imaginations. As a kid, I loved the giant ants in Them! (a good movie, really) and The Deadly Mantis (not that bad a movie, despite being savaged on Mystery Science Theater 3000). Peter Jackson's King Kong remake was crowded with outsized arachnids, which fortunately were vulnerable to being shot away from a person's body by a writer who had never handled a submachine gun before. (All us writers want submachine guns on occasion.)
Such creatures appear in written fiction, of course, as well; Greg Beck recently wrote a pretty good thriller called The First Bird which included spiders big enough to trap and poison humans and centipedes big enough to... umm, you really don't want to know.
The Goliath spider, Theraphosa blondi (Wikimedia Commons)
So, how big can such creatures actually be? The answer is as much in the realm of engineering as in biology. An animal is essentially a machine taking in oxygen and some form of fuel convertible to fats, sugars, etc. It needs enough of these inputs to fuel the digestive system and spin off energy to run all the other processes (growth, mating, thinking, etc. - all the things that make the being autonomous (the word "autotroph" having come into widespread use thanks to The Big Bang Theory.) )
There are limits to practical sizes of all animal types, just like there are of man-made machines.
To look at an artificial example, we can build big tanks, but we couldn't scale a Tiger tank up to the size of a blue whale: the power-to-weight ratios of internal combustion engines and the strength-to-weight ratios of metals are inadequate. (To get picky, you might conceptualize a movable object that size with using a fission reactor and nanomaterials, but it would be a totally different type of machine design: the point is that the tank "order" long ago reached its limits. )
In the natural world, said blue whale, of which giant specimens may push 100 metric tons, is probably the practical limit for all animals, Godzilla notwithstanding. There's only a certain percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere, and mammalian lungs are the most efficient way devised to extract it. The spiracles and book lungs used by arachnids just are not nearly as good, and making them larger doesn't make them better. (The movie Mimic, with its human-sized cockroaches, had the beasts evolve lungs: that film was especially scary to us former Floridians who have seen them almost that big.)
Another killer is the weight of an exoskeleton and the effects of gravity. The square cube law says that, if you double an animal's size in all three dimension, the resulting beast has eight times the weight. The blue whale uses an internal skeleton and the support of water, from which it can't emerge without internal collapse and death. Crabzilla, a photoshop job claimed to be over 15m across, simply couldn't have dragged that massive armored skeleton anywhere even if the respiratory system could support it. A truly awful novel called Spider Legs, by Clifford Pickover, with co-authorship by Piers Anthony, who I'm told was brought in late as a "book doctor," went through all kinds of contortions describing the artificial enhancements (not one of which would have actually worked) by an unscrupulous scientist/breeder to create a monster crustacean.
Anyway, the biggest known arthropod ever to live was a Devonian-age sea scorpion or eurypterid called Jaekelopterus rhenaniae. It may have been 2.5m long and would scare the daylights out of anyone.
Jaekelopterus rhenaniae (Wikimedia Commons)
Today we have to make do with the American lobster (up to 20 kg in exceptional specimens) and, for land-dwellers, the bizarre coconut crab (about 4kg). And we have the Goliath spider, of course.
There are some oddities in the cryptozoological literature. A bizarre animal reported off Florida and nicknamed Specs for its protruding eyes was suggested by zoologist Karl Shuker in a book to be a possible surviving sea scorpion, but there was only one witness and no one has reported it since. Then you have the spiders. There are at least two reports of a "small dog"-sized or larger spider (complete with web) from Papua New Guinea, one of similar-size spiders from Vietnam, a "washtub sized" spider in the United States, and an even bigger species from the Congo. (Shuker has thoughtfully collected these here.)
No matter how you slice the engineering, spiders the size of coffee tables and crabs the size of small yachts, just don't work. But giant arthropods will always be with us in fiction. And they'll always be scary.
My first novel, The Dolmen, will be out on October 15 from Wolfsinger Publications as an ebook, available in paperback by October 24. This blend of horror and police procedural, sprinkled with a little bit of science, will take you into an English megalithic tomb and ask, "Is it wise to illegally import a dolmen for a private museum?" The answer is "No" - and it's not just because lawyers get involved. Something else was imported, too.. something that threatens to turn the City of Angels into the gates of hell.
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
by James Nestor Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 272pp.
This book, like its subject, is breathtaking. Nestor takes us into the world of freedivers, people who go down 100 meters and more with no equipment - and no air.
Along with following the most dangerous of sports (side note: I would have appreciated a chart or list defining the different disciplines he alludes to), he shows us how this practice came into being as a way to gather food and sponges and to salvage cargo from sunken ships. Nestor visited the handful of living amas, Japanese women who still practice freediving in its ancient form.
Nestor does a good job explaining the physiology involved. Freedivers make use of the mammalian dive reflex, also called the Master Switch of Life (which sounds much cooler) and hone it to incredible levels. This takes years of training: trying to push one's capabilities too deep, too soon can and does result in death. As Nestor makes clear, even experienced and careful freedivers take enormous risks. There is no other sport where blackouts and bleeding from various facial apertures are considered normal. The scariest group of freedivers are the no-limits divers who use weighted sleds to go deep and inflate balloons to rise. The no-limits record is pushing 215 meters, which was
the maximum rated depth for the Type VII U-boat of World War II. Nestor takes interesting detours into deep-sea research, including some types enhanced by freediving. Freedivers report that sharks don't bother them and whales accept them to an impressive degree (Nestor doesn't mention that scuba divers, whom freedivers rather look down on, have reported amazing cetacean encounters, too: it's not clear from this book whether there's really a degree of contact unique to freedivers.) He also touches on such interesting subjects as hydrothermal vents, bottom ooze, and privately owned deep-diving submarines: I never knew it was possible to buy a ticket to go down 900 meters in a hand-built sub. Nestor brings the book to a close on a dive where he finally finds the Master Switch for himself.
As a reader and researcher into marine subjects, I was genuinely sorry to have this book end.
I used to be able to keep up with all the cryptozoology novels: in the indie age, I couldn't hope to do so, so I have to pick the ones that look intriguing. Bailey's looked intriguing, and it was. I enjoyed J.M. Bailey's novel about finding Sasquatch - or, rather, being found by Sasquatch. Eve is a well-written bit of speculation (only a couple of misspellings and clunky sentences pop up) by an author who knows the
wilderness and clearly knows her Sasquatch lore (the old Albert Ostman tall tale of being kidnapped by a sasquatch family
is an obvious influence.) Bailey makes a brave and successful decision
as a writer by making her first-person narrator a profane and not
entirely likable woman. The narrator's descriptions of her feelings
about the hominid Sasquatches she meets are sometimes a little hyperbolic, but,
to be fair, she is describing an event that would pretty much blow the
fuses in the human brain. I personally, as a reader, never like it when
psychic elements show up in cryptid stories: however, it's her novel and
her Sasquatches, and those elements never take over the story.
Sasquatch aficionados will like this one. There's a sequel out - I've not yet read that, but I'll get to it.
Whale taxonomy - and taxonomy in general - is still not as precise as scientists would like. Some scientists suggest species in general are more variable than we once thought: some have given up on subspecies and other distinctions. DNA analysis provides a powerful new tool, but there's no universally-accepted rule about what degree of difference, and what kind of differences, clearly delineate separate species or subspecies.
The latest discovery in cetacean taxonomy is a surprising one. A small population of Bryde's whales (Balaenoptera edeni) in the Gulf of Mexico appears so distinct that it represents, at the least, a new subspecies.
Bryde's whales are among the smaller rorquals - the all-time record is 15.5m long, and most are significantly smaller - and the least known. This population has unique calls and distinct DNA. Indeed, they seem more closely allied genetically to Pacific Bryde's whales than to Atlantic populations. The nonprofit National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) intends to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare the population endangered.
DNA testing helped determine, in 2003, that what had been thought to be a strain of Bryde's whale was in fact a different species, now known as Omura's whale (Balaenoptera omurai). There are other outstanding questions about classification of apparently differing Bryde's whale populations, including an inshore and an offshore form (see the IUCN writeup here), and it's a good reminder that even the largest creatures on Earth keep some secrets from science. We have much to learn.
Bryde's whale, showing the distinct ridges around the blowhole (rostral ridges). (Photo NOAA)
Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of
Unmanned Space Exploration
By Chris Impey and Holly Henry
Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2012
This book is a thoroughly researched chronicle of
ten robotic missions, with an overview of the entire field of non-piloted
exploration.If it meanders a bit, it
succeeds at the most important task: showing readers just how remarkable our
robotic missions are. Impey is a professor of astronomy, Henry a professor of
English, and the combination of their expertise works very well.)
The Introduction sets the stage with the theorists,
from the Greek Anaxagoras to Copernicus to the modern day.For a long time, people have had the notion
there were other worlds to explore, but that was science fiction until 1957,
when it suddenly appeared practical to send machines (and eventually people) sailing
away from Earth.
The authors do, however, do a good job of featuring
all types of missions: planetary observer, rover, deep space, and
astronomical.They present two Martian
missions (Viking and Mars Exploration Rovers) first, followed by the probes
Voyager and Cassini, the comet-sampling Stardust, and SOHO, a mission to study
our home star.They break away from
voyages to specific destinations to cover Hipparcos, the Spitzer telescope,
Chandra, the Hubble, and the Big Bang explorer WMAP.It’s odd there are no Soviet/Russian missions
included, and Venus is left off the destination list. There are two European
Space Agency missions: Hipparcos, a 1989 mission dedicated to astrometry
(distances, locations, and movements of the stars) and Planck, along with the
joint Cassini-Huygens mission.
All the chapters on individual missions are good,
and the authors seem to know all about them.Who knew 1,500 papers were published so far on the Cassini results?One aside here contains an error: the authors
say NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” initiative “launched 150 payloads at an
average cost of $100 million per mission, with a failure rate of less than 10
percent.” There were were 16, of which 10 accomplished their missions: even if
they are counting individual experiments vs. whole spacecraft, the numbers are
much too high.
The explanations of spacecraft design, function,
and results are succinct and well-done: clearly the authors understand the
technical side and have the ability to condense it in terms understandable to
the interested public.
There’s a tendency in this book to stray from the
main narratives in each chapter to explore topics as varied as extremophiles
and the history of X-rays. I enjoy this
kind of digression as long as there’s a connection: not all readers may
Finally, the authors look ahead. They describe the
hoped-for advances from the James Webb Space Telescope and future Mars probes, although
only NASA missions are addressed for some reason.
There’s a good color plate selection of 24 images and
some well-selected images in the text.The references will make even the most detail-minded reader happy, and
the index is good as well.
This is, in short, a very valuable book, well
written and well documented. The selection of missions can be debated, but not
the quality of the coverage of those that did make it in.This is a must-have for anyone interested in
the robotic exploration of space, both closeup and from astronomical distances.
It will be valuable for a long time to
No one has seen a Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat (Cuscomys oblativa) alive. It was known only from Incan-era skulls and was considered extinct. This was true, at least, until just a few years ago... and only in 2014 have scientists confirmed the critter is among us.
Yes, we still find mammals. And it is really cute. I'm not showing it here, because the photo is copyrighted as far as I can tell, but check out the link, and you'll agree.
Helen M. Rozwadowski. Belknap (Harvard University Press),
276pp. hardcover, 304 in paperback
Foreword by Sylvia Earle
We all know modern tools are allowing us to get a better
view of the deep seas than we’ve ever had, but how did that kind of exploration
get started? How did humans first get interested in the word below the first
few sunlit meters of the sea, and how did we start probing that world?Rozwadowski, in the first book I’ve read
devoted to the early ocean surveyors, shows us how the Age of Sail fostered the
age of deep-sea exploration. As commerce, whaling, fishing, and travel
grew in economic importance and matured from coastal to trans-oceanic pursuits,
naturalists, professional and amateur, grew more interested in the depths. These
men (and women) tried a number of modifications of fishing nets and trawls for this work,
then added purpose-built, often very ingenious tools like water samplers and
recording thermometers.In England and the United
States, especially, wealthy and then middle-class amateurs took up the new
interest in sampling and describing ocean fauna, followed increasingly by government-sponsored
professionals, which led to episodes like the fortunate inclusion of Charles
Darwin on the HMS Beagle, not to mention the epic 1872-76 voyage of the HMS
Challenger, which is often called the beginning of the modern age of ocean
exploration. In this superbly documented and referenced book, the author
includes the views of governments, ordinary sailors, and the Western public
along with those of scientists.This is
an essential book for the understanding of deep-sea exploration, both
historical and modern.
That's the title of a children's book that got me interested in rocketry a long time back (as Ishmael says, "never mind how long ago exactly" ), but there sure was adventure this past week. SpaceX and Boeing got contracts to launch Americans to the ISS, Atlas V had another success, SpaceX is gearing up for the next launch, Nanoracks' innovative Cubesat deployment system started spitting out satellites from the International Space Station when it felt like it (probably drawing a collective "Yikes!" from NASA safety engineers) and a new player, Blue Origin, jumped in via an alliance with Boeing. Also, United Launch Alliance announced it would have Blue Origin building it a new engine to replace the Russian RD-180: interesting, a "RD-180-degree turn" from years of insisting the supply was OK and they'd only build a new engine if taxpayers funded it.
I was sorry Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spaceplane didn't get NASA Commercial Crew funding. The Dragon and the Boeing CST-100 (seriously, Boeing, you can come up with a better name than that!) look like worth spaceships, but we are facing another 30 years of using capsules... workable, but less exciting and flexible. And Congress is going to ask some hard questions about how Boeing and SpaceX are doing identical tasks, but Boeing is being paid $4.2B and SpaceX $2.6B, a question Administrator Bolden has not addressed in his blog and other NASA people have flatly refused to discuss. The Administrator also said, "From day one, the Obama Administration has made it clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space." That doesn't make it clear why substantive action took six years into the Administration, but, hey, at least they got here.
This week will take a while to digest. But it's been an exciting one!
Over the long and perilous history of Arctic exploration, there have been many tragedies and many disappearances. For example, the great Roald Amundsen vanished on a rescue mission in 1928, and only a float and a fuel tank from his flying boat ever drifted back. He was just the latest: many more sailors and explorers, going back two centuries, died or vanished, mostly while looking for the Northwest Passage.
One of the great mysteries is that of the Franklin Expedition. Two ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, under command of Sir John Franklin, set sail in 1845. Information from the Inuit people confirmed they were locked in Arctic ice, and the crew perished, but where were the ships? Did they sink? Were they locked forever in ice?
Now one of the two ships - Parks Canada does not know which - has been clearly imaged by sidescan sonar on the bottom of the Canadian Arctic Ocean. The location is being kept secret, but the images are mesmerizing. So strong is the hold of Arctic explorers on the Canadian imagination that the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, made the announcement in person.
It will be fascinating to watch this archeological story unfold.
A great bit from collegehumor.com in which Sebastian the Crab leaves his shallow-water reef and sings (nervously) about the denizens of the very deep sea. Their megamouth has kind of a whale shark look to it, but it's all pretty good.
The most frustrating cases in zoology / cryptozoology are those
where a single specimen exists, but its provenance cannot be proved, and no one
can find another.One such case is a
cloak of kiwi feathers from New Zealand in which the feathers are too big for ordinary
kiwis: was there, in Maori times, a giant variant?Another such case, where the specimen is not
preserved but unquestionably existed, is the Case of the Wayward Salamander.
The largest living amphibian is the Asiatic giant salamander
Andrias davidianus. Found in China,
with a slightly smaller relative in Japan, it may be over 1.5 meters long.The largest known in North America is the
hellbender of the Ozarks and Appalachians, which grows to over 60cm.
America's largest known salamander, the hellbender (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1951, an article by Stanford University herpetologist
George Myers appeared in the scientific journal Copeia.Myers reported he
had examined a giant salamander caught in a catfish net in California's
Sacramento River.The amphibian looked
like an Asian giant salamander to him (he called it a member of the genus Megalobatracus: Andrias has superseded the older name).However, it was dark brown with yellow spots,
"quite at variance" with the standard gray or brown of Asian types,
and "suggested the possibility of a unique California
variation."The specimen (if fully
grown) was of modest size for this genus, only 76 cm long.Unfortunately, the fisherman only allowed the
specimen to be examined, not kept for further study.What became of the salamander, then living in
a bathtub in its owner's apartment, is unknown.
A point here is that the coloration isn’t, in fact, outside
the range of Andrias. A Google Images search turns up a brown one with yellow spots, or at least splotches.
Getting back to California, giant salamanders have long been
rumored from the Trinity Alps. A deer-hunting attorney claimed he’d seen five
such animals in the New River, ranging up to almost three meters long.
Biologist Thomas Rodgers, who investigated this story, allowed it was possible
that a relict population of giant salamanders still lived in California.
Rodgers also looked at the Sacramento River specimen.The local press related a rather too cute story
that this salamander was an escapee named "Benny," from a shipment of
exotic pets from "somewhere in China."With the question thus properly muddled,
Rodgers led an expedition into the Trinity Alps in 1961 to search for the
alleged amphibians.Rodgers' group found
only well-known native salamanders under 30cm, and he came away doubting any
giant salamanders existed.
Other reports have trickled in since then, but no one has
produced another giant salamander.We
are left with the usual problems of one-specimen cases.Was the animal an exotic escapee? A last
relic of a lost race?A chance specimen
of a surviving population? I hate writing "we may never know," but, well...
See: Myers, George S.1951."Asiatic Giant
Salamander Caught in the Sacramento River and an Exotic Skink Near San Francisco,"
Copeia, No. 2: Rodgers, Thomas L.1962."Report of Giant
Salamanders in California," Copeia,
Some years back ("never mind exactly how long ago," as Ishmael says), I had a chance to look in on Martha, the last passenger pigeon, in her eternal home at the Smithsonian. All I can say is that she looked lonely, as well she should have. I still have a Kodak Instamatic snapshot, but it's hard to tell it's even a bird, so I won't inflict it on you here.
Her species went through the biggest massacre of wildlife in all history, ending exactly 100 years ago today with Martha's demise in the Cincinnati Zoo. The pigeon once lived in unaccountable numbers: John James Audubon reported a flock took three days to pass overhead. A hundred nests were once counted in a single tree. Centuries of Native American and early European hunting made no dent in this multitude, but shotguns, nets, and other tricks of the 19th century did. Mass hunting for sport, meat, and feathers, combined with the destruction of forested habitat, somehow reduced billions of birds to one.
There is not much doubt the pigeon was extinct, although; for the record, a Professor Philip Hadley reported glimpsing a passenger pigeon in 1929 in northern Michigan. There was a trickle of sightings all the way up at least until 1965. There is not, however, any real hope, and ornithologists consider Martha's demise definitive. (A poignant footnote: the last confirmed Carolina parakeet, Incas, died in the same zoo three and a half years later.)
So we know to the day, almost to the minute, what happened to the most abundant bird ever to live.
Farewell, Martha. We're sorry. May we all learn your lesson.
Houghton Mifflin, NY 2010 (link above is to a 2011 edition)
Whitty, a writer and environmentalist, gives us a book worthy
of its title. She is a wonderful writer – while we have many good
nature/science writers (Angier, Safina, et.
al.), Whitty and Diane Ackerman are in a class by themselves when it comes
to vivid descriptions and marvelous you-are-there evocations of time and place.
Writing in the first person, Whitty begins by taking us back
to 1984 and to Isla Rasa in the Sea of Cortez, a global center of seabird
nesting and an example of difficult but successful conservation efforts. Later
trips venture into the Pacific, the north Atlantic, and even the high desert of
Mexico (the one sequence that failed to hold my interest).
Whitty has a lot to tell us about the creatures of the great
waters. Did you know hermit crabs are the basis for a moving community of other
invertebrates totaling over 500 species? Or that some Pacific rockfish of the
genus Sebastes live over 200 years, a span more than doubled by the quahog Artica islandia?
But it is the language that stays with this reader the most.
Hordes of spawning capelin at the Newfoundland shore are “turning the waves
into polished silver purses that roll ashore and spill their wriggling treasure
onto the beach.” (Two
males clamp onto every female.) At a
cold seep off Oregon called Hydrate Ridge, “the mud on the bottom of the sea is
more alive than dead” with an amazing density of invertebrates. Working on a
marine research ship, she learns that calling a specimen “interesting” is a
cautious yet excited way of saying “possible new species.”
Whitty deals with rough waters, drunken sailors, and a sperm
whale that comes right at her while she’s swimming until she has to look up and
down to see the whole head, and she thinks for a moment he’s going to crush her
before he slips gracefully beneath. Along the way, she shows us not just marine
creatures but the people who depend on them and the threats that we have to
Deep Blue Home is
a voyage home, and you’ll enjoy the journey.
Author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations
in Zoology (Hancock, 2006)
The last two years have been good for cryptozoology-themed
fiction.We’ve had high-octane thrillers
like Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, atmospheric novels like Willis’ The Daedalus
and the Deep, chillers like Below, a crypto subplot in a Dan Simmons epic, and
the scariest crypto-thriller ever, Joseph Wallace’s superbly researched Invasive Species, just to
name a few.The genre has never been healthier,
in quantity or quality.
Now we can add to list the best of Lee Murphy’s George
Kodiak novels (available only in e-book format for now, by the way). Murphy is on his game here: the plot, setting, and characters
are all terrific.The author sends his
tough-guy cryptozoologist to Loch Ness (and we all knew he’d wind up there
eventually, right?) for two futile years of research in a semi-submerged lab
which (for reasons that could be made clearer) many local citizens oppose. The boredom, though, explodes in one short week that sees one of George’s friends get killed, new and
old adversaries try to sabotage his scientific venture, and the creature of the
loch arise once and for all.(To avoid
being too much of a spoiler, I won’t say what it is Kodiak finds. The solution
seems a little less plausible to me than the giant eels of Steve Alten’s The
Loch, but it’s more fun, and Lee has done a lot of work to make his creature
Indeed, Lee has done his homework in every topic touched on
in this novel. He might even have done a little too much: as I said of Max
Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, the story drags in spots as a character gives an
information dump.Murphy also knows the
history of the loch and of cryptozoology, and readers will learn a lot of
background to the “real” Loch Ness case. For the first time in these novels, Kodiak gets a supporting
cast as interesting as he is. His friend Rocky, Rocky’s daughter Erika, and a
cast of local and international helpers and meddlers are along for the ride.
Lee gets better in every book at drawing his people. Kodiak more than ever is a
three-dimensional human with foibles and limitations, and the unexpected
romance he finds in this novel is genuinely touching.Murphy also works an environmental message in
almost from the beginning of the book, and it’s a powerful one. Like so many of us readers, Murphy loves the latest in
technology (I helped him a bit on some research) and there are plenty of cool
gadgets on display. I’ll nitpick only one here: the X-Ray mode on his high-tech
diving helmet couldn’t really work with X-rays, which require a target to be
between transmitter and receiver, although there is some promising research
into a more limited “see through walls” capability using radio waves. Lee and I are different writers with slightly different
views on the need to stick to the rules of traditional English grammar: I have
to take a half-star off my enjoyment level for that, though many readers won’t
mind. The sentence structure is clunky in the chapter “Extinction Event,” which
feels tacked on. The rest of the book is better, and I enjoyed it even as I
groused about the occasional change of tense. The plotting and pacing here are good, and the reader will
find plenty of surprises. This is also the funniest of Lee’s books, with
laugh-out-loud moments woven into the life-and-death events. The loch is well
described, as are the vessels involved. To recap, this is a very enjoyable read. It’s George
Kodiak’s most thrilling and satisfying venture into cryptozoology, and it
leaves our hero a little bloodied, a little wiser, and, for the first time in
his life, willing to admit he might even have a romantic future.Good job, Lee!
Western popular culture loves prehistoric beasts, especially
dinosaurs. Indeed, dinosaurs crowd out almost everything else.Exceptions are the mighty shark Megalodon,
which has its own subculture of books, movies, and other stuff, and marine
reptiles, which share space with the dinosaurs (and are often incorrectly called
dinosaurs) as well as having some properties of their own and cross-fertilizing
with the interest in sea monsters and lake monsters. I caught a traveling
exhibit on marine reptiles way back in 1991 at the Fort Worth (TX) Museum of
Natural History, where one display asked “Is Nessie a Plesiosaur?” (The answer,
in case you were wondering, was a politely hedged “no.”)
Now, on to Dunkleosteus: there are many species, but D.
terrelli was by far the largest, and is the only one I’m concerned with.Dunkleosteus is a genus name now widely
accepted, after being untangled from the older and once-conflated Dinichthys
(still a good genus of its own) and the latter’s proposed synonym or
replacement, Ponerichthys. I think I have all that right.
Despite its enormous size (9-10 meters!) and fearsome appearance, though, the
Dunk doesn’t appear much at all in pop culture compared to the plesiosaurs and
tyrannosaurs of the Cretaceous.
Dunkleosteus terrelli (image public domain)
Here’s my first attempt at a list:
The cheap and stunningly awful 2002 film Megalodon includes
a baby Dunk: a character says the species grew to 12 feet long, a rare
understatement. (I saw the baby prop on an online sale years later for $50 but
for some reason didn’t pursue it.)
In the 1984 French-Italian horror film Monster Shark, the
Dunk is (I swear I’m not making this up) one of the “parent” species used to
breed a monster by crossing it with an octopus.If the film is notable at all, it’s for presaging the “Sharktopus” and
other idiotic hybrid creatures on the SyFy Channel.
Start with the BBC series Sea Monsters (a.k.a. Chased by Sea Monsters, where
the seven most dangerous seas in history included, in fifth place, the Devonian
world of the Dunk.There’s terrific CGI
of the Dunk scaring hell out of a time-traveling explorer in a shark cage.
Dunkleosteus appeared in the second episode of Animal
Armageddon on Animal Planet.
There’s an effort described on FaceBook to raise money for a
new documentary and for a film called Dunkleosteus the Devilfish.Not much seems to be happening, though.
Some online sources mention the Dunk appearing in the ITV science
fiction series Primeval, but I can’t find a definitive reference.
The Dinotopia series (also made into a TV miniseries)
included “The Fish,” a Dunk that guarded the underwater entrance to a cavern. In the Bas-Lag fantasy novels of China Miéville, Dunks are called "bonefish."
There’s a novel on Kindle called The Twelve Seas: Deep
Lagoon, by Lenore Langland, that features the Dunk, and the animal makes an
appearance in Steve Alten’s popular Megalodon series in the 2009 novel Meg:Hell’s Aquarium.
Finally, there’s a 1969 novel for young readers, Corey’s SeaMonster, by Rutherford George Montgomery, that centers on a Dunkleosteus (here called Dinichthys).
Countless books on fossils, fishes, etc. have at least brief
mentions of the Dunk. A 2005 example - this one for young readers - isDragons of the Deep: Ocean Monsters Past and Present by Carl Wieland and Darrell
Wiskur. Deep Alberta: Fossil Facts and Dinosaur Digs by John Acorn (2007) is of special interest because Alberta has produced some of the best Dunk
fossils.The Dunk also appears in
companion books to the above-mentioned TV documentaries, like the 2004 volume Chased
by Sea Monsters by Nigel Marven and Jasper James. It appears only momentarily in Richard Ellis’
book Sea Dragons, but that's long enough for Ellis to create the definitive description by likening the animal’s jaws (in a memorable line
I’ve been borrowing ever since) to a giant staple remover. A unique angle on the Dunk and its relations appears in the 2012 book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, by John A. Long. The placoderms were the first animals we know of to have actual sex (internal fertilization), and palentologists are still discussing just how sex was possible with all that armor: the male may have had to shove the female face-first into the seabed, which kind of takes the romance out of it.
The Dunk appears briefly in ParaWorld and plays a bigger
role in E.V.O. Search For Eden and Ecco the Dolphin. On Android phones, you can
choose the Dunk as your prey in the game Dinosaur Assassin Pro. There’s also an old PlayStation game called Aquanaut's
Holiday that includes the Dunk.
So that’s Dunkleosteus in popular media. It’s not much of a
record compared to the dinosaurs, but it’s enough to introduce the world to one
of the most remarkable creatures of all time.
We can do better, though. I’m working on it
UPDATES: Thanks to some fans on FaceBook and the Comment below, I can now make some
additions.The Jurassic Park Builder
games do indeed allow you to raise your own Dunkleosteus.The 2008 Studio Ghibli animated film Ponyo includes a Dunk among its
varied cast of fishy creatures. And, going way back into the 1970s, Dungeons
and Dragons included a Dunkleosteus, known in the game as Dinichthys.
Sources: In addition to the sources linked above, I am
indebted to a Wikipedia user named Resident Mario for a list posted here on
Wikipedia in 2009.