Saturday, December 30, 2006
This being a film, the science had to be simplified due to time constraints. That's always true. But Gore simplifies by ignoring important points. To him, all recent warming of the Earth is human-caused. No time is spent on the important issue of how much of the measured warming can definitely be ascribed to human actions and how much is normal long-term change expected for a planet in an interglacial warm period.
The visual effects are mostly effective, even if some (like the drowning of Manhattan) illustrate "worst case" scenarios that Gore presents as likely, if not certain. Gore blames Hurricane Katrina on human-caused warming, which is hardly established fact, and, in a litany of side effects of warming, he includes the emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis. (Huh?)
While Gore mainly points the finger at the U.S., he does a good job of making it clear the situation is global by spending some time on the contribution to greenhouse gases made by China's rapid population and economic expansion.
At one point, Gore throws out a very important statement that needs support. He says that if we "do the right thing" (changing energy technologies, ending greenhouse gas emissions) we will "create new wealth and jobs." That may be true, but it requires explanation, especially when not a word is said about the costs (hundreds of billions of dollars, on a global scale) involved in changing over from fossil to renewable energy.
As a movie, the film meanders. Detours on Gore's personal life and political experiences make the viewer suspect this is a bit of a campaign commercial as well as an environmental film. There are bits that don't make sense (the weird Simpson-ish animation near the beginning, for example) and could have been replaced with more scientific information.
Overall, Gore set out to make a point here, and he generally does it well. He's become more relaxed and engaging than he was as a candidate, although my 10-year-old (who watched with me for a school assignment) still compared him to a "really boring teacher." Still, there is too much oversimplification and overstatement involved in driving the point home. Gore leaves himself open to criticism, some of it accurate, that could have been avoided if the film spent more time on the science of the core subject and less on everything from Gore family farm to non-warming-related extinctions.
So see the film, but don't take it as the whole story of a complex subject.
Friday, December 29, 2006
THANKS to Robyn Kane for pointing me to this item.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
As the nation pauses to remember the late President, who died this week at 93, it is worth remembering that he was a member of the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration which, in 1958, helped draft the Space Act that created NASA. While the brevity of Ford's term and the economic conditions at the time meant he made no major changes in the space program, he always supported space exploration. American space achievements during his time as President included the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, the landing of two Viking spacecraft on Mars, and the opening of the National Air and Space Museum.
COMMENT: I met Ford once, as he accepted an invitation to address our Air Force ROTC dinner when I was in college in 1977. He seemed genuine, straightforward, friendly, and relaxed: truly a man who, in Kipling's phrase, "can walk with kings / nor lose the common touch."
"I have to say, this is probably the most depressing hearing I've sat through." - Rep. Gordon discussing proposed FY 2007 NASA science budget
"The American people, the taxpayers, expect more from basic science research than new knowledge alone." - Energy Secretary Bodman
"Some people attack Members of Congress for having Potomac fever. I think some Members of this House have Mars fever. The fact is, if we are going to make a choice about where to put the best money, right now, I think a far better bet is law enforcement." - Rep. Obey
"These agencies, which are not exactly on the tip of the tongue of most Americans, are keystones of our Nation's economic future." - Rep. Boehlert on NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
To me, it's a very strange amalgamation of the serious and the offbeat.
Stories selected include include the demotion of Pluto from planetary status and the discovery of an Iron Age murder victim who used hair gel (seriously). There are two entries concerning the Judas gospel (in my opinion, an overhyped story of a text which seems no more authentic than many other post-Pauline writings). Then there are new species discoveries in Indonesia, the death of Steve Irwin, and some more oddities like an oversized rabbit terrorizing gardens in the UK.
Frankly, this is pretty disappointing. The magazine's website does not explain the criteria behind the selections, but a source with the prestige and authority of the National Geographic should be explaining to people what the ten most important stories were and why.
Monday, December 25, 2006
Friday, December 22, 2006
Thursday, December 21, 2006
UPDATE: Dr. Darren Naish comments, correctly, that this is not by any means the first sauropod from Europe. I relied on the LiveScience.com story saying it was without checking any other sources, so that error is my fault. Naish knows whereof he speaks: his own sauropod discovery came to light in 2004. See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4031789.stm
Naish's own blog on the sauropod dubbed "Angloposeidon" from the Isle of Wight, along with other matters paleontological and zoological, can be found here:
Side note: the LiveScience.com story has not yet been corrected, so at least I beat them to posting the correction. I sent the author an email documenting the error.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
First, NASA's 3-kg GeneSat-1 is on orbit and looking perfect as it begins its mission of studying the growth of bacteria in microgravity.
Today, the Space Shuttle will begin deploying a series of microspacecraft for three missions. The Shuttle has not been used much recently as a satellite launcher, since the cargo capacity is usually taken up by equipment for the International Space Station. Microsatellites, though, can take advantage of the small amount of leftover capacity on ISS missions.
The first satellite to be deployed is the smallest. The Microelectromechanical System-Based PICOSAT Inspector (MEPSI), smaller than a coffee can, will demonstrate its ability to maneuver in space and inspect larger vehicles. Next out will be the Radar Fence Transponder (RAFT), built by midshipmen at the US Naval Academy to test space surveillance and communications protocols. The final microsatellite mission, the atmospheric neutral density experiment (ANDE), is a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) project using two satellites.
COMMENT: Microspacecraft are not the answer for everything we want to do in space. They cannot, for example, handle high-resolution imaging or bulk communications traffic. However, tight budgets for space hardware and high launch costs, combined with steady advances in miniaturizing space technology, guarantee them a bright future.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
THANKS to Dr. Cherie McCollough, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, for pointing me to this item.
NASAWatch suggests this collaboration may go still further...
Meanwhile, in space, the shuttle Discovery will undock from the International Space Station today after a complex mission involving four spacewalks and the rewiring of the ISS' power system. Keep up with the mission at:
Thanks to Kris Winkler for the first item in this post.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
For full information on the continuing story, see the Nature Conservancy/Big Woods Conservation Partnership site at:
First, the Minotaur is based on a converted Minuteman ICBM, which makes it the most economical operational launcher now available in the U.S. (SpaceX's Falcon 1 will be less than half the price, at $6.9M, but has yet to fly successfully.) The total mission cost was given at $60M, including the booster, both satellites, and $621,000 for range costs.
Second, this launch marks a return to orbital missions for Wallops. NASA fired Scout orbital boosters from this location for many years, but it's been two decades now since Wallops was used for anything larger than suborbital (sounding) rockets.
Third, the payloads are milestones in the use of small spacecraft. The larger is the Air Force's sensing and communications experiment, TacSat-2. Riding along is NASA's GeneSat-1, a three-kilogram microsat carrying bacteria whose development will be studied in orbit.
Finally, there is the commercial aspect of the launch. The launch pad used was leased from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Congratulations to all the people and agencies who made this historic flight a success.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Orbiting objects like the International Space Station will benefit from this reduction, since a cooler thermosphere is less dense and thus causes less drag. (Thermospheric drag is predicted to drop about three percent by 2017.)
Unfortunately, low-orbiting space junk and debris benefits the same way, meaning it will be a hazard to space travelers longer than expected. The other long-term effects of this cooling of the thermosphere are unknown at this time.
COMMENT: If the baiji is going extinct, it will be the first cetacean driven out of existence by humans (in its case, by pollution and heavy boat traffic) in recorded times. Human activity has cost the planet at least two other marine mammals, the Japanese sea lion and (most scientists agree) the Caribbean monk seal. Two other small cetaceans, the vaquita and China's finless porpoise, another river-dweller, are on the edge. Will we act? There is hope, I think. It's hard to get most people excited about an insect or a toad going extinct, but dolphins and seals and their kin are kin to us. People notice them. And we would certainly notice their absence.
"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
- William Beebe, 1906.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
THANKS for this item to Dr. Cherie McCollough.
According to Dr. Christopher Raxworthy of the American Museum of Natural History, the organs of a century-old turtle are virtually indistinguishable from those of a teenage specimen. He says, “Turtles don’t really die of old age."
Part of the reason is that turtles - somehow - can turn their heart off when it's not needed. The Smithsonian's Dr. George Zug (a delightful fellow who I interviewed on cryptozoology back in 1988) told writer Natalie Angier, “Their heart isn’t necessarily stimulated by nerves, and it doesn’t need to beat constantly. They can turn it on and off essentially at will.”
The turtle's only problem is us. Of the 250-odd species, perhaps half are in some level of difficulty. Some, like the giant leatherback of the seas, may be headed for extinction. It's important to save the turtles of the world: not just for their own sakes, but for what they might be able to teach us.
THANKS for this article to Kris Winkler.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
As researcher Ron O'Dor put it: "We can't find anyplace where we can't find anything new."
Two years of study by Eric Regehr of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) indicate that warming has reduced the sea ice in Canada's Hudson Bay area (which is to the east of the Beaufort Sea coast but at a similar latitude), and contributed to a 22% decline in polar bear numbers. Polar bears spend much of their lives on the sea ice along the coast, hunting seals. A decline in the ice cover shrinks the polar bears' range, increasing the competition for the small number of seals frequenting an area. If the ice melts entirely, the bears are forced onto shore, where they are sometimes driven to invade garbage dumps and come in close contact with humans. Younger bears are likely to lose out in this more competitive and dangerous environment, and if fewer young animals survive, the population inevitably drops.
While it's not clear yet whether the population in Alaska has not shown the same effects, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to take action to protect the Alaskan population.
Friday, December 08, 2006
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Monday, December 04, 2006
COMMENT: In a way, this is what Apollo should have been. If we were going to put in the money and accept the risk to land humans on the Moon, we should have aimed for a permanent base, where science, resource extraction, and other activities could be carried out. NASA did not lack for ambition in those days, but found it impossible to get the funding required. Now the big question is whether we will commit the money to get this new vision turned into hardware. NASA today takes about 0.7% of the federal budget. Executing the new Vision for Space Exploration will require a steady increase, but not a large one, to 1% or a bit more. It's not small potatoes, but it's not beyond our reach.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
COMMENT: As impressive as this mission is, it would be more impressive if the ISS partners, particularly the U.S., had funded the work planned and required to maintain a crew larger than two people. With only two astronauts normally on board, and key science sections like the centrifuge module stranded on Earth, we are risking a vehicle and a brave and talented crew to support a space station that is not getting very much done in terms of science and exploration. And we're doing it on a schedule-driven night launch of the Shuttle, which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended not be done since it limits the effectiveness of optical cameras looking for launch damage.
I agree with the idea that a permanent human presence in space is at least symbolically important, and the experience gained in assembling the station will be useful for future endeavors. As to the risk, there will always be risk in space travel, and we have to accept that if we want to further out from Earth. All that said, the objectives should be more important than to support a minimal station that makes the news only when there's a commercial stunt like launching a golf ball.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
COMMENT: These new findings leave us with more questions than answers. What brilliant individual or group designed and built the Mechanism? (It's been speculated the mathematician and atronomer Hipparchos had something to do with it, but no one really knows.) Were other devices also made? (At the least, any invention so complex must have had prototypes.) Why did the know-how embodied in the Mechanism disappear completely, without leaving even a mention of its existence among the records of the time? One need not be an "ancient astronaut" kook to shake one's head in amazement.
Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have trained honeybees to stick out their proboscis when they smell explosives. The effort is called the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project. Operational use is some way off, but, if the bees prove sensitive and reliable enough, the advantages of cheap, tiny bees over large, ground-walking dogs or complex sensing machines are obvious.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Researcher Mark Westneat put it this way: "It kind of blows sharks out of the water as far as bite force goes. A huge great white shark is probably only capable of biting at about half that bite force."
Dunkleosteus, nearly the size of a killer whale, went extinct over 300 million years ago, at the end of the Devonian.
Cue very scary music...
Hof and Van der Gucht wrote, "In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species, it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales, exhibit complex social patterns that included intricate communication skills, coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage. It is thus likely that some of these abilities are related to comparable histologic complexity in brain organization in cetaceans and in hominids."
Friday, November 24, 2006
Genes were classically believed to come in pairs, with rare exceptions called "copy-number variants," but the new research shows that having an unusual copy number - one, three, or more examples of a gene rather than two - is much more common and important than believed.
Shorn of the scientific jargon, the discovery means a couple of things. One is that the human genome is more complex and variable than thought, potentially making it harder to point to one gene as the cause of a problem or defect. Conversely, we now know to look for variations that we used to think were not present or at best unimportant.
James Lupski of Baylor University added, "I believe this paper will change forever the field of human genetics."
Gustav Kuhn of the University of Durham in England has videotaped the magician and the audience while the former appears to make a ball disappear in midair. While audience members insist they were following the ball all the time, the video shows almost all glanced at the magician's eyes for a cue about which direction to look. As Kuhn put it, "Even though people claimed they were looking at the ball, what you find is that they spend a lot of time looking at the face. While their eye movements weren't fooled by where the ball was, their perception was. It reveals how important social cues are in influencing perception."
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
COMMENT: Over the long term, it is hard to imagine a reasonable alternative to fusion. It is much more difficult and expensive to develop than was once hoped, but for large-scale power generation with minimal environmental impact, it's the planet's best hope, and we'd best get going on it.
Stuart Butchart,Global Species Programme Coordinator, BirdLife International, said,
“Spectacular rediscoveries like this are extremely rare, but they provide a glimmer of hope for the 14 other bird species classified as Possibly Extinct.”
COMMENT: Madagascar was the site of another spectacular rediscovery, that of the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, which was found by a conservationist from the Peregine Fund after decades in presumed extinction.
Monday, November 20, 2006
COMMENT: Building a reusable demonstrator of this type makes a lot of sense: not just to have the capability to test and retest equipment in space, but to see if the OTV itself is a workable concept. If it suceeds (or even if it fails in flight) it will contribute a great deal to the design and construction of future reusable spacecraft. However, similar programs have been started by the military and/or NASA many times since the 1950s and have never been funded to completion. So I wish them the best of luck. The environment of space may be harsh, but it's nothing compared to the ones encountered at the Office of Management and Budget and on Capitol Hill.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Naish agrees the eyewitness evidence for some sort of elongated large marine animal is impressive, but he can't accept one of the most-discussed pieces of physical evidence, the Naden Harbor, British Columbia, carcass of 1937. Naish wonders if this 3-4 meter, very slender, odd-looking thing did, as the contemporary reports had it, come from the gullet of a sperm whale. Ed Bousfield and Paul LeBLond published a controversial paper naming this the type specimen of a marine reptile, Cadborosaurus willsi. Naish agrees he does not know what this thing was (the specimen was lost, and only photographs remain), but is quite sure that Bousfield and LeBlond entered into far too much speculation given the limited amount of data one can be sure of from the photographs.
COMMENT: While the whole topic is often buried in the silly-season term "sea serpent," there really is a suprisingly good body of sightings that remain unexplained. The gold standard, as Naish notes, is the 1905 sighting by two well-qualified British naturalists on the yacht Valhalla, who carefully observed and sketched an animal that still cannot be reasonably assigned to any known species. More details are available in (of course) my book Shadows of Existence, among other sources.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
COMMENT: The dimensions above make the ship considerably larger than the Santa Maria, the largest vessel in Christopher Columbus' little fleet sailing over fourteen centuries later.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Thursday, November 09, 2006
COMMENT: Given that this Congress is unlikely to fund major NASA budget increases, the emphasis on science programs is likely to mean a slowdown in human spaceflight programs as money in 2008 and 2009 is shifted to science.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Friday, November 03, 2006
COMMENT: I'm with Kijinski. Yes, the odds are against there being an undiscovered primate wandering the Northwest. However, the scientific method demands freedom of inquiry, including inquiry into subjects that are considered "fringe."
COMMENT: This is not like global warming, where the observed changes leave some doubt about the overall trend and the human role in it. This is a crisis that essentially is impossible to dispute. While some nations, notably the US, believe they are maintaining proper controls keeping harvesting by their own fishing fleets to sustainable levels, the global picture is a very bleak one. This situation requires coordinated global action NOW.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
There is still much work to be done to determine how many of these are new, but one zoologist with the team said, "There were lots of organisms that people were saying, 'Wow! What's that?'"
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Sunday, October 29, 2006
COMMENT: The north Atlantic minke and fin stocks could, from a hard-nosed numerical point of view, survive a limited annual cull without significant harm. HOWEVER, in the bigger picture, this is a very bad idea. First, it further legitimizes whale hunting, encouraging more nations to resume the practice, inevitably leading to larger kills and environmental impacts. Second, the more widespread whaling is, the more it provides cover for the taking of protected species. Numerous samples of humpback, blue, and other rare species have been found in markets selling meat from Japan's "scientific" harvest of minke whales. (How good can their scientists be if they can't tell a humpback from a minke? One sample was even shown to come from a blue/fin hybrid. Try mistaking that for a minke sometime).
Saturday, October 28, 2006
We all know someone who has experienced a seemingly ghostly event. Maybe we've experienced one ourselves. But is there any way to prove whether there's a ghost in the room?
Skeptic Benjamin Radford has no doubts: the answer is no. Radford looks at TV "ghost hunters" and complains that, despite their habit of carrying instrumentation like electromagnetic field detectors, they never really find a ghost. Anything anomalous, like a cold spot, is considered to be evidence a ghost is present, but all that's left at the end is a collection of anomalies.. nothing consistent, nothing repeatable, nothing definite.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
First, the genetic blueprint of the honeybee was published. Only three other insects have had their genomes sequenced so far. Among the surprises: two genetically distinct European bee populations are more closely related to African bees than to each other.
Second, a tiny (3mm) amber-preserved specimen 100 million years old was identified as the earliest known bee. Melittosphex burmensis came from a mine in Burma's Hukawng Valley. The ancient insect showed features supporting the idea that bees were then in the process of descending from a wasp ancestor.
Thanks (as usual) to Kris for this item.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
When asked what mysteries of the ocean he would like to solve next, Ballard told an interviewer, "I have no idea. When you make a true discovery, like the hydrothermal vents, we didn't know they were there, we tripped over them. What ocean exploration does and will do is trip over stuff. I can tell you that statistically there has to be stuff there because we've only looked at a small percentage of the ocean floor, and look what we've discovered. There's got to be countless more discoveries to be made."
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Thanks to Darren Naish
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
The concept of island dwarfism has been most famously debated in the case of the proposed hominid species, Homo floresiensis, the "hobbit" from the Indonesian island of Flores.
COMMENT: I will always remember one great cartoon published during the Mars Pathfinder mission... it showed the little Sojourner rover crossing the Martian sands, leaving human footprints.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Thanks once again to Kris Winkler, who could put me out of a job if she started her own blog :)
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
COMMENT: While I try to take a scientific view of the world, I can't work out why evolution alone would equip us with the capacity to look on a sight like this and feel, not just curiosity or scientific interest, but awe, wonder, and beauty. There is something in the human spirit that evolutionary biology alone has not yet explained. I don't think it ever will.
Whether outwardly or inwardly, whether in space or time, the farther we penetrate the unknown, the vaster and more marvelous it becomes.
— Charles A. Lindbergh
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
The find is important in another way, too. "It was not known that the dromedary was present in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago," Le Tensorer added.
It's not yet clear whether the camels were hunted by early humans, although the two species did coexist. The human remains found at the site are puzzling in themselves: it's not clear whether they belong to modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) or H. s. neanderthalensis, and further study is underway.
Thanks to the ever-vigilant Kris Winkler for pointing me to this article.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
The first person to catch a specimen of E. irwini was Steve Irwin's father, Bob, in 1990. Steve could not identify the animal, so he took pictures and sent them to turtle expert John Cann. "I saw the photos and jumped on the telephone because I knew it was a new species," Cann said. "I think if someone discovers something they should have a reward for it. It's a good legacy for Steve."
Friday, October 06, 2006
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Meanwhile, Canadian researchers found a new species of ichthyosaur in a unique place - under a ping-pong table. At the University of Alberta, researchers renovating their lab space moved an old ping-pong table and looked into the boxes they found underneath. There, untouched since someone had stashed them in 1971, were the 100-million-year-old remains of a new species of icthyosaur. Michael Caldwell, who co-authored the paper naming the new species, said, "I did my undergraduate work here and I was studying specimens right on top of this table."
THANKS TO: Kris Winkler for noticing the first article, and to Angela (I know her only by her MySpace name) for the second.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Dr. Orley Taylor of the University of Kansas has enlisted a small army of butterfly hunters - many of them children - in solving this conundrum. Dr. Taylor's Monarch Project is tagging thousands of butterflies in an effort to trace their migration patterns. The monarchs are not like salmon, who return to the stream where they were born: these colorful orange insects make a multi-generational trip across Mexico, the United States, and Canada. At the end, they somehow manage to locate roosts in Mexico where their great-grandparents originated. Do they use light? Magnetic fields? Scent? Scientists are divided. All we know for sure is, as Ian Malcolm liked to say in Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way."
Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Schaller has played a role in describing several new or extremely rare species of mammals. He thinks the yeti and sasquatch are, while seemingly doubtful, still worthy of study. "There are so many human-like creatures in different places. But after all these years there is not a single bone, a single hair. There is no physical evidence other than tracks. There is one film, taken in 1960, and it has been played endlessly for years analyzed, but they can't say it is fake. A hard-eyed look is absolutely essential." [Editor's note: Either Schaller misremembered, or a typo crept into the story, since the film he is referring to is from 1967.]
"I'm not one to say that something does not exist. Look at the Himalayan area. ...People said that the Javan Rhino was extinct. We started talking to local people and one of them said that a rhino was killed recently. He brought out a horn that was selling for a very high price. Local people know a lot, you have to ask the right questions."
The first Web-based "open peer-review" journals are appearing. Traditionally, a paper is scrutinized (sometimes savaged) by qualified reviewers before it appears in a print journal or its online counterpart. But the Public Library of Science is launching its first open peer-reviewed journal, PLoS ONE, which will appear on the Web and then be subject to review from anyone who puts forth the effort. Will it lead to a flowering of new and innovative ideas? Or will the result be a flood of shoddy work unleashed on the public? Opinions differ, but the idea of open web journals can't be stuffed back in a box. It's going to happen - for good or ill.
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
You can download the paper presenting the evidence from the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, at:
(Thanks to Chad Arment for locating the paper)
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Monday, September 25, 2006
Friday, September 22, 2006
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
COMMENT: It will be a long time before that theory pays off, but your grandchildren may think nothing of holding interactive video conferences and sending massive files back and forth with no time lag between their Martian colony and their Earthbound teacher.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
American archaeologist Stephen Houston commented, "This reveals the Olmecs, in many ways the first civilization in a vast part of the ancient Americas, were literate, which we did not know for sure before, and hints that they were capable of the same large-scale organization assisted by writing like you saw in early Mesopotamia or Egypt."
One of the poster animals of cryptozoology is the Southeast Asian wild ox called the kouprey(Bos sauveli). It was described only in 1937, and no larger land mammal has been found since. (We'll set aside for the moment the debate over whether the African elephant is actually two species.) The kouprey has been on the edge of extinction almost since it was found, and there have occasionally been fears it was gone altogether, save for some hybrid animals that included domestic cattle blood.
Now three biologists have claimed that genetic analysis shows the kouprey was never anything but a hybrid between the banteng (Bos javanicus) and the zebu (Bos taurus indicus). Two French scientists immediately responded that, while "pure" koupreys may be hard to find, they do (or did) exist. The whole episode, which is far from resolved, is a reminder that taxonomy, even when it concerns creatures we know as well as we do our fellow mammals, is still not an exact science.
Friday, September 15, 2006
COMMENT: The ISS was expensive, and sometimes poorly managed: it will never produce the level of science return originally hoped for. That said, it gives us experience in two areas that will be very important in the future. One is long-duration human spaceflight. The other is the construction of large assemblies in space, something impossible to replicate precisely on Earth. Both will be critical to our aspirations to go beyond this planet - first with machines, as we do today, but someday with human explorers.
The urge to explore has propelled evolution since the first water creatures reconnoitered the land. Like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire. - Buzz Aldrin
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
The man who found India's newest bird is an astronomer and amateur birder named Ramana Athreya, a member of Mumbai's Natural History Society. The new species, Liocichla sp., comes from the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It sports a bright yellow patch around the eyes, a a black cap, and yellow, crimson, black and white patches on the wings.
(Thanks to Darren Naish for a correction on this post.)
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Monday, September 04, 2006
COMMENT: Irwin was not a scientist, but he was a tremendously successful popularizer of science. Some scientists dismissed him as a showman who added no new knowledge and exploited animals, but science needs its showmen. Irwin showed millions of people how complex and interesting animals from crocodiles to snakes and spiders really were. He also made good use of his fame in the cause of conservation. Farewell, Steve. We'll miss you.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
Thursday, August 31, 2006
COMMENT: It will no doubt trouble a lot of people that LM's last spaceship development project for NASA, the X-33, was an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, Boeing botched its highest-profile space project, the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), so badly the Pentagon took it away and gave it to LM. Northrop Grumman's flagship space program is the NPOESS environemntal satellite system, which has been a mess as well. So there was no opportunity to select a large American spacecraft builder with a pristine record of recent success. (LM's team includes Orbital Sciences, a smaller company that does have an almost spotless record for the last decade. Maybe it'll rub off. An innovative entry, T-space, which included the SpaceShipOne builders, quit the competition early, saying it was scared off by the sheer magnitude of the NASA bureaucracy and the mass of reports and documentation required to deal with it.)
Of the companies that built human spaceflight vehicles for the US, none exists anymore.
The record goes like this:
1970s: Space Shuttle: Rockwell International (sold to Boeing)
1960s: Apollo: North American (merged into Rockwell and hence to Boeing)
1960s: Gemini: McDonnell (merged into Boeing)
1960s: Mercury: McDonnell
Let's hope LM gets it right. This is NASA's big bet for decades to come. I wish the agency and the company all possible success.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Friday, August 25, 2006
Thursday, August 24, 2006
COMMENT: Alas, nine-planet system, we knew you well. Think of the textbook corrections alone that need to be done. Still, it was long past time that someone had officially defined what a planet is.
Monday, August 21, 2006
COMMENT: Expect another round of rebuttals, based in part on indications that fragmentary skeletons of other individuals show similar adult size. I still think the "pro-species" side has the best of it, but the technical nature of the debate has surpassed my ability as an interested amateur to keep up with it all. This is not likely to be settled until (and unless) more adult skulls emerge from the site.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain rejected the idea of basing "small" on mass alone and outlined what he called a "light satellite" approach, based on flexibility of requirements, constrained cost, and acceptance of risk, which will sometimes, though not always, lead to a smaller spacecraft. He cited ESA's SMART-1 lunar probe as an example.
Overall, this year's conference included a greater variety of papers than ever, everything from broad examinations of what a small satellite is good for to extremely technical topics like a thermal control switch design and even a DARPA-funded project to allow accurate navigation anywhere in the solar system by using X-ray pulsars as reference points. Launch and launch opportunities remained a central concern, and in some cases a very sore point for experimenters who had depended for decades on Space Shuttle "GAS Can" opportunities. The "smallsat community" showed it was a vibrant, growing assembly of entrepreneurs, professors, students, large corporations, governments, and even international associations.
Happy 20th Birthday!