Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A catfish that hunts on land

The eel catfish can live in tiny bodies of water that shouldn't be able to sustain a fish its size. How? It expands its feeding territory by wriggling out onto the shore and grabbing insects. It even has two different feeding mechanisms. In the water, it's a suction-feeder: on land, it can arch its "neck region" in a way few fish can to plant its mouth over an insect from above.
The linked story includes a video clip of the eel catfish on the hunt.

Inconvenient, but how true?

National Geographic News has a good article on Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth." The earth scientist who reviews it, Eric Steig, is a believer in human-caused global warming. He thinks the science is mostly correct but finds the film guilty of some exaggerations and questionable cause-and-effect claims. It does harp on worst-case scenarios, although most of those, according to Steig, are at least possible.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Book of the Month: The Physics of Superheroes

James Kakalios' The Physics of Superheroes (2005, from (really) Gotham Books) might be the most enjoyable learning experience you'll ever have. Kakalios, a physics professor and comic book nut, introduces readers to the basic ideas and principles of physics, from F=ma to cosmic string theory, via examples of the actions of comic-book heroes and the discussion of what they might and might not be able to do. (For instance, Superman could leap a 660-foot building easily - IF we assume Krypton had a gravitational pull 15 times that of Earth, although constructing a world like that in plausibility is... well, you can't, but explaining why you can't is highly informative.) Who knew that one trip at super-speed would require the Flash to consume 150 million cheeseburgers as fuel?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Invisibility: Not Just Fantasy?

Two separate teams of researchers, one British and one American, have reported advances in what used to be pure fantasy - a shield, or perhaps even a cloak (albeit a very cumbersome one), that could make a person very difficult to see. Strange, man-made substances called "metamaterials" might be able to "guide" visible light around the periphery of an object instead of reflecting the light to an observer.

COMMENT: Some things, as Laurence Krauss has discused in his books on Star Trek, may be forever out of reach due to the laws of physics. This story is a good reminder, though, of how the human mind can conceive ways to work with and around those laws to create what used to be strictly science fiction - without offending Einstein or Newton.

A Spectacular Undersea Eruption

A Japanese remotely operated vehicle nudged within three meters of an erupting volcano deep beneath the Pacific. See the link for spectacular footage.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A "Yes" on the Hobbits

A coup for cryptozoologist Loren Coleman and friends at cryptomundo.com: paleontologist Peter Brown, co-discoverer of the Flores hominid remains known as the "hobbits," has responded to the recent spate of articles claiming the find represents one or more microcephalic humans. Brown argues, convincingly I think, that the chief scientific objector, biologist Robert D. Martin, has been too narrow in his reading of the evidence. Martin focuses on the one skull of Homo floresiensis (from the individual called LB1) and discounts the evidence of several other individuals as inconsequential. Brown challenged critics to "point you at a human mandible with the same features as those from Liang Bua. Claiming that they have the same features as small local people is simply untrue."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit..."

A note in tomorrow's issue of Science magazine challenges the identification of the "hobbit" fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores, arguing they represent microcephalic modern humans.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

How Do You Make an Elephant Exercise?

You can't. Not if she doesn't want to. Keepers at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage installed the world's largest treadmill for their African elephant, Maggie. Unfortunately, they have yet to find a treat that will entice her to use it. The zoo has spent $1M to improve Maggie's living conditions, including having the $100,000 treadmill built.

COMMENT: OK, I can't resist this... maybe elephants and people are not so different after all. Most days, I can't induce myself to get on the treadmill. Good luck with the elephant.

Hollywood and Science: Big Waves

Films like Poseidon and The Perfect Storm include memorable images of gigantic waves. As Tariq Malik of LiveScience.com notes, such events, while perhaps not quite the size they attain in Hollywood, are nonetheless real. Indeed, we have found recently that both storm-driven waves and the "rogue waves" that can appear in relatively calm seas are larger and more common than once thought. Ten waves over 75 feet high were detected on satellite data in one three-week study. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 produced waves over 90 feet high. The largest wave ever measured (at least by someone who survived to tell about it) came during a strong gale in the Pacific and was triangulated from the bridge of the USS Ramapo at approximately 112 feet. It seems logical that some of the unexplained disappearances of ocean vessels sometimes ascribed to bizarre or even supernatural causes can be laid to this phenomenon. Malik's article includes several links to further information.

Strange doings in Malaysia

There have been a series of strange stories, some in the mainstream press, about an alleged "bigfoot" type of creature in Malaysia. There are always such stories from somewhere, it seems, but the difference this time is that detailed photographs are alleged to exist, and sketches based on them have been released. This has been enough to get one Malaysian government agency to publicly state it is involved in checking out the collection of reports, footprints, and other evidence. The indefatigable Loren Coleman has collected most of this material and put it on the Cryptomundo website. There's also a good discussion on the site about what should happen (and what probably will happen, which is not at all the same thing) if something as remarkable as a new species of ape is confirmed.

COMMENT: There's nothing inherently silly about a fairly large (1.2m or so) upright primate in the SE Asian region. This area of the world is extremely ape-friendly, with gibbons, siamangs, and orangutans sharing the habitat. There have been very serious searches on both the mainland and islands like Sumatra for such animals, known as orang-pendek and many other names. Dr. John MacKinnon of the WWF, an expert by anyone's standards, once reported primate footprints he couldn't identify. If I had to bet, I would say that the odds of the Malaysian reports being the real thing are, at least, better than those of sasquatch and the yeti. Here's hoping the alleged photographs turn up in the proper scientific hands.

Friday, May 12, 2006

New Monkey Goes up a Branch on Family Tree

A new monkey discovered last year in Tanzania is not just a new species, but a new genus. Rungwecebus kipunji is a large, light-colored monkey, up to 90 cm tall, and sports what one writer called a " distinctive Mohawk stripe of hair."
The animal was originally classified in an existing genus when photographs taken in the wild showed it clearly could not be referred to any known species. This was, incidentally, a very interesting affair, as cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has pointed out, because the scientific world very rarely accepts a photograph as a holotype for naming a new species. The usual rule is that you have to have a specimen. The rule was apparently bent in this case because qualified scientists observed and photographed it. (There's no one arbiter of what is accepted as a species - acceptance is more a case of "most scientists go along with it.") The DNA analysis that resulted in the new-genus claim was based on a specimen killed by a farmer well after the species' description had been published.
To illustrate this (ahem) fuzzy state of affairs, the news releases on this species have called it the first new genus of monkey in 83 years. That distinction requires discounting the new genera of monkeys Dr. Marc van Roosmalen has named in the Amazon. Van Roosmalen's work has not been universally accepted, as some zoologists think he's too quick to create new species based on surface differences.
In the case of the Tanzanian monkey (locally called the kipunji), one prominent taxonomist, Dr. Colin Groves, has urged caution, questioning whether enough DNA analysis has been done to prove the animal's distinctive status as a new genus. Even that pronouncement can be questioned, though, because there's no agreement on what degree of difference in DNA establishes a separate species, let alone a genus.
We will settle for this: a large, distinctive new primate has been discovered. It's one more reminder that we are a long way from knowing all the creatures of the Earth.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for the pointer to the article referenced above and to Loren Coleman for his analysis on www.cryptomundo.com.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Followup: The Bear was a Hybrid

The strange bear shot in the Northwest Territory of Canada (see entry below) was, indeed, a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly, or brown bear. This is the first time ever a mix of these two species has been positively identified in the wild. Canadian authorities have agreed the bear was taken legally and will return the skin to American hunter Jim Martell, who will have the only trophy of its kind in the world.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Ivory-Bill: Next Round of Debate

The New York Times has a long article today on the controversy surrounding the claimed rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Jack Hitt examines the controversy as well as the issue for conservation. This is a very interesting case, with highly qualified experts strongly disagreeing over the evidence. As for the search itself, it goes on - and, as Hitt describes, it goes on in the midst of argument, rivalry, and what can only be called political intrigue. The bird remains elusive, as if determined not to answer the question of its existence. As birder Bill Tippit explains, "You can't find the bird. The bird has to find you." Hitt compares the species to Schrodinger's cat: "both extinct from the planet and nesting in the swamps of Arkansas."

Thanks to Elise LeQuire on the National Association of Science Writers mailing list for bringing this to my attention.

Science and UFOs - a British View

The UK's Ministry of Defense concluded, in a report written in 2000 but classified until now, that unidentified flying objects present no threat and there is no evidence any are extraterrestrial. The 400-page report blames many UFOs on meteors and other atmospheric phenomena.

COMMENT: I once spent some time looking into this subject. The claims of UFO contact seem more a psychological phenomenon than a physical one, and there's no credible evidence for any of the "crashed saucer" claims. I do think that, in dismissing the subject, we may be overlooking some unknown natural phenomena of great scientific interest. The late Philip Klass and others have postulated the existence of atmospheric plasmas - much larger and more stable cousins of ball lightning. When we have only recently discovered such spectacular phenomena as "sprites" and "elves," it seems unscientific to discount the possibility of other electromagnetic entities, even if we do not understand just how they might work. After all, we don't really understand ball lighting yet.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

NASA and Science Missions

The National Research Council issued a new report saying bluntly that NASA does not have the budget to carry out both its human spaceflight programs and its space science mission. The chair of the committee which produced the report said, "There is a mismatch between what NASA has been assigned to do and the resources with which it has been provided." The crisis in space science has moved a well-respected private group, The Planetary Society, to begin a "Save Our Science" petition drive. Director Louis Friedman emphasized they were not pitting science against the Vision for Space Exploration. "We think that the Vision is being undermined," he said. "You cannot have a "vision" for space exploration without science." The program's website is http://planetary.org/programs/projects/sos/.

COMMENT: This is where the age-old fallacy that the NASA budget is too high comes in. NASA takes 0.7% of the Federal budget, but surveys show many Americans think it's 20% or more. That sets up a false choice between "space explorations and our needs on Earth." Human needs we are not meeting with 99.3% of the budget are not going to be solved by raiding the 0.7%. Some NASA advocates in Congress have proposed the right figure for NASA is about 1% of the budget, which is entirely reasonable for an agency that explores our universe while bringing us invaluable knowledge of our home planet.

New species - and species under threat

Two items in the same day on new species demonstrate how much we still have to learn about the diversity of this planet: and a report from the IUCN demonstrates how many species are at risk.

New species from the deep Atlantic (link in the title of this entry) include a new species of black dragonfish, 40 cm long with fearsome-looking fangs, and 10-20 even stranger invertebrates.

Meanwhile, eight new frog species have hopped out of Laos:

And, according to the IUCN's 2006 Red List, the number of known species under threat keeps growing.
The list includes list includes a third of the known amphibians, a quarter of the mammals, and one out of every eight bird species.
Links from the IUCN site show the entire list of threatened taxa maintained in a searchable database by the SSC Red List Programme as part of the SSC's Species Information Service (SIS).

Monday, May 01, 2006

Colonel. Eileen Collins retires

Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle flight, has retired from NASA at age 49. The former Air Force colonel's four-flight career will be remembered for two missions in particular. She became the first woman to command a Shuttle flight, which made her the first to command any crew in space. That flight was made in 1999 on the orbiter Columbia. In 2005, she commanded the orbiter Discovery on STS-114, the first mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster. That mission involved several firsts, including the first spacewalk to repair a shuttle. Her future endeavors are yet to be determined, but she's earned her place in history.

Space Shuttle: Fingers Crossed

An article on nasaspaceflight.com reports that engineers from Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) were strongly in favor of postponing the Space Shuttle's July flight (designated STS-121) in order to allow further modifications to the external tank (ET) to preclude damage to the orbiter from foam shedding. At the recent Program Requirements Control Board meeting, it was decided to go ahead with the modifications made so far, as the mission was sufficiently safe and would provide real-flight data on the current version of the ET. Future tanks will have more safety-related modifications in place.

COMMENT: I'm neither an engineer nor a Shuttle program veteran. Moreover, I've always said that the risk of spaceflight can never be zero, and we have to accept that if we are to explore the Solar System. All that said, IF this article is accurate and not taking things out of context, it bothers me a lot that NASA would opt to override the objections of the engineers most familiar with the ET. It also makes me wonder if "schedule pressure" is once again, even if unconsciously, edging back into NASA decision-making.

New Searches for Two Missing Woodpeckers

Our friends at the cryptomundo.com cryptozoology site have noted that, in addition to the continuing search for confirming evidence of the survival of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States, there are expeditions underway to search for two close relatives. One is looking for the Cuban subspecies of the ivory-bill, missing since about 1983: the other is looking for a related species, Mexico's imperial woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in the world and also feared extinct.