Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New prehistoric whale was a monster

Its name was Leviathan melvillei (yes, named for Herman Melville). It was the size of its modern relative, the sperm whale, but had a full set of enormous (36cm) teeth and a habit of dining on other whales. You could say it incorporated the deadliest features of the modern sperm and orca, except the teeth were bigger than on any other marine animal, living or extinct. Thirteen million years ago, this was the unchallenged apex predator of the oceans.
COMMENT: This fascinating creature is a good reminder that prehistory still holds many surprises. While Alan Grant in Jurassic Park may have lamented the impending death of his profession, the truth is we still need paleontologists, and will for many generations to come. There are whole worlds yet to be understood.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

NASA and its counterparts talk international cooperation

Without waiting for the new National Space Policy, NASA and its counterparts are discussing a joint lunar exploration infrastructure and the sharing of robotic mission work, based on a principles document hammered out in 2007.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sculpting spacecraft - life-size

This Australian artist does something no one in the world does: using plywood, canvas, and steel to sculpt life size tributes to spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope. Fascinating photos.

White House formally announces National Space Policy

From the White House fact sheet, we can see the Obama administration is, as was earlier reported, putting more emphasis on international cooperation while setting down, at the highest level yet, the President's planned shift in NASA priorities. To "begin human missions to new destinations by 2025" is interesting: President Obama has mentioned a trip to an asteroid. (As expected, the policy makes no mention of returning humans to the Moon, a goal the President explicitly endorsed in a campaign speech but removed from his latest guidance to NASA.) The emphasis on Earth science and resources satellites was widely expected.
Now to translate this into a budget - that's the hard part.


Key Elements of the Administration's National Space Policy

The United States remains committed to many long-standing tenets in space activities. The United States recognizes the rights of all nations to access, use, and explore space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity.

The United States calls on all nations to share its commitment to act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust. The United States will take steps to improve public awareness of government space activities and enable others to share in the benefits of space through conduct that emphasizes openness and transparency.

The United States will engage in expanded international cooperation in space activities. The United States will pursue cooperative activities to the greatest extent practicable in areas including: space science and exploration; Earth observations, climate change research, and the sharing of environmental data; disaster mitigation and relief; and space surveillance for debris monitoring and awareness.

The United States is committed to a robust and competitive industrial base. In support of its critical domestic aerospace industry, the U.S. government will use commercial space products and services in fulfilling governmental needs, invest in new and advanced technologies and concepts, and use a broad array of partnerships with industry to promote innovation. The U.S. government will actively promote the purchase and use of U.S. commercial space goods and services within international cooperative agreements.

The United States recognizes the need for stability in the space environment. The United States will pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence building measures to encourage responsible actions in space, and will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies. In addition, the United States will enhance its space situational awareness capabilities and will cooperate with foreign nations and industry to augment our shared awareness in space.

The United States will advance a bold new approach to space exploration. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will engage in a program of human and robotic exploration of the solar system, develop new and transformative technologies for more affordable human exploration beyond the Earth, seek partnerships with the private sector to enable commercial spaceflight capabilities for the transport of crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station, and begin human missions to new destinations by 2025.

The United States remains committed to the use of space systems in support of its national and homeland security. The United States will invest in space situational awareness capabilities and launch vehicle technologies; develop the means to assure mission essential functions enabled by space; enhance our ability to identify and characterize threats; and deter, defend, and if necessary, defeat efforts to interfere with or attack U.S. or allied space systems.

The United States will fully utilize space systems, and the information and applications derived from those systems, to study, monitor, and support responses to global climate change and natural disasters. The United States will accelerate the development of satellites to observe and study the Earth's environment, and conduct research programs to study the Earth's lands, oceans, and atmosphere.

Super-Tech builds new Supercarrier

A fascinating look at the building of CVN-78, the USS Gerald R. Ford, the lead ship in the first new class of aircraft carriers since 1968. It replaces steam catapults with electromagnetic ones and includes numerous technical leaps, both in physical setup and in computerization, to launch more sorties (a sortie is the flight of an individual plane) more quickly than older carriers, using a smaller crew, and, thanks to 3D visualization systems, costing less to build than the last carrier from the Nimitz class, the current mainstays of Naval aviation.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

New U.S. push for international space cooperation

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration will soon release a policy supporting increased international cooperation in space, fostering commerce, and pursuing arms control agreements.
COMMENT: I'll be very interested to see this. Civil space exploration is expensive, difficult, and something our whole species should be united in, with nations sharing risks and benefits. The U.S. leads in human spaceflight, while other nations are doing important robotic work, and the synergy could be very beneficial. The organizational aspects will be tricky: there is no realistic chance of a global NASA, but there are many other potential ways to make progress here.
I've always been skeptical of space-related arms agreements, however well-intentioned, because I've never seen a proposal that included strong verification procedures, but we'll see what comes up.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Blast from the past: France's rocket-powered train

From 1965 to 1977, French engineers worked on a high-speed express train powered by rocket engines. It looked like something out of 1950s science fiction, but it also looked promising until it was (figuratively speaking) overtaken by advances in electric motor technology.
1) It's still cool.
2) The page's author claims high-speed trains would solve US transportation problems. They could help some, but they would not be heavily used because US cities that grew up with the automobile are physically enormous and almost impossible to get around quickly. Even the cities with better public transit are difficult unless you are already familiar with the routes and even more difficult to use to meet tightly spaced appointments. I agree with improving both intercity rail and public transit, but I've always felt the first priority is to improve the automobile. Absent brute force on the government's part, it's not going away.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Italy may prosecute quake scientists

An Italian prosecutor is going after seven seismologists and technicians who were unsure about whether last year's deadly L'Aquila earthquake would happen and offered their best guess that a major quake was not imminent. The charge: manslaughter, for failing to issue a warning and causing 308 deaths.
COMMENT: This is insane. It's terrifying to seismologists and other scientists (think meteorologists) who could potentially be held liable any time they get things wrong. Earthquake prediction is a very uncertain and immature field. If this actually goes through, who will ever try to advance this important frontier of science? Who will make anything but worst-case predictions on hurricanes, climate change, and so many other things?

Monday, June 21, 2010

7th graders discover cave on Mars

I love these kind of stories.

The Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University runs the Mars Student Imaging Program, where school kids can ask for a specific area to be photographed on Mars by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter if they come up with a compelling research question. A group of 7th graders hunting for lava tubes discovered instead a "pit crater" that appears to be a large cave entrance or possibly a spot where a cave or lava tube roof collapsed. Either way, it's a new and potentially important feature. An ASU scientist said, "This pit is certainly new to us. And it is only the second one known to be associated with [the volcano] Pavonis Mons."
COMMENT: What a great program!

CNN on the search for sasquatch

This article asks why people search for unlikely creatures. The answers will not surprise you: it's been said many times that people need "wildness" and a sense there are still mysteries in the world. What I did not know was that one anthropologist introduced here has run 15 specimens of alleged sasqautch or "chupacabra" tissue through DNA testing, always with mundane results. That does not prove nonexistence, but it's important to know.
I think it very unlikely, if not quite impossible, we have a species of ape in North America. (The arguments of some cryptozoologists that there are two, three, or four species are something I can't swallow: I'd bet $500 even money against one sasquatch species being formally described in one of the major scientific peer-reviewed journals in the next decade, but I'd bet $1,000 we don't have two new species in 20 years.) As long as it's "not quite impossible," I cheer on the searchers and wish them the best of luck. I want to be wrong. This article echoes that sentiment.

As a side note, I never thought much of the whole "chupacabra" business. The animal is saddled with an impossible range of conflicting descriptions, and where the heck was it before the reports began in the 1990s? Add the rate at which dead dogs and racoons have been stuck with this name, and the whole thing seems pretty silly.
I do agree cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard has a point when he suggests a series of weird canines from Texas raise the possibility some odd genetic quirk is turning up in coyotes and coyote hybrids down there, producing a susceptibility to sarcoptic mange (which leaves the animal hairless), exaggerated canine teeth, and a tendency for rear legs to be longer than normal, producing a strange gait. (This would in principle be a bit like the mutations that produced king cheetahs or Scotland's enigmatic Kellas wildcat, which sports long legs, and long fangs not found in its genetic sources, the known wildcat and the domestic cat.)

Japan's successes in space

In addition to the asteroid return mission, Japan's space agency, JAXA, just unfurled the first solar sail ever tested in space. (There have been other solar sail launches, but they were undone by launch mishaps.) The results solidify Japan's status as a technically innovative, highly accomplished space exploration power. As this article notes, the space program has become a source of pride in this recession-wracked nation.
COMMENT: This is a good reminder of something I've been working on for a couple of years now: fostering greater international cooperation in civil space exploration. Space exploration is costly (although the two Japanese missions were strikingly cost-effective compared to recent US missions) and technically difficult. If our species cannot pull together on exploring the universe, what can we agree on?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Water on the Moon may be widespread

We know from recent probes that there is water ice at the poles of the Moon. New analysis of lunar samples brought back from Apollo indicates that water is, or was, many times more common in lunar rocks than anyone has guessed. We are not talking about a ready supply to support human habitation - far from it - but evidence of water in rocks from many locations is a big, big puzzle for scientists studying how our satellite was formed. It has long been assumed that the high temperatures of the impact even which formed the moon almost instantly boiled off any water "captured" from the bodies inolved.
There are several lessons here, including "don't get too comfortable with theories no matter how long they've been accepted" and "just because evidence has been studied for decades doesn't mean it's a waste of time to study it again."

A real source for Europe's "wildman" tales?

Stories of "wildmen" on the Eurasian continent date back to the ancient Greeks and beyond. Such tales likely have more than one origin, but folklorist Michael Heaney suggests a the new hominin species from Siberia (see my post on this from March 2010) may have persisted long enough to inspire stories from Europe's wudewosa or wodewose to the almas of the Pamirs. Actually, given that the anecdotal evidence for the living almas is intriguing, if not definitive without a specimen, cryptozoologists would suggest the "wildman" could be with us yet. (See Dr. John Napier's superb 1972 book Bigfoot for a basic grounding in almas tales.)

New species: Cameroon's lovely new tree

New tree species are not as uncommon as you'd think. But huge, distinctive tree species? Meet Berlinia korupensis from Cameroon. It has lovely white flowers, seed pods which burst in spectacular fashions, and a known population of just 17 individuals. Add to those qualities its sheer size - up to 42m high with a trunk a meter thick - and it certainly qualifies as one of the most striking new species of the year.

The Blue Pike - an American fishing mystery

I like reminders that not everything about the natural world has been nailed down and catalogued yet - not even in the United States. Is the blue pike or blue walleye just an oddly colored walleye? Is it a hybrid? A subspecies? A distinct species? Anglers and icthyologists have been puzzled for a very long time. DNA may solve the mystery.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review: World Ocean Census

by Darlene Trew Crist, Gail Scowcroft, James M. Harding Jr., and Sylvia Earle
Firefly Books

World Ocean Census may be sort of a clumsy title for a book, but this volume on the findings of the ongoing Census of Marine Life is just wonderful. Clearly and skillfully written, the text conveys both the science and the wonder of undersea exploration. Sections on everything from ancient fisheries to how new species are named (and how many new ones we are finding) flesh out the basic narrative.
Then we get to the photos. I simply run out of superlatives in trying to describe the photographs in this book. It's not too strong to say the book reminded me, in this age of video and CGI, how evocative still photographs could be. New and weird species, photographed with astonishing clarity, pop out from almost every page. It's hard to imagine how this book could have been better. It's also hard to imagine a better book for introducing people to the facination, diversity, and fragility of the ocean world.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How Mysterious, the Oceans...

Did you know the world's highest waterfall is underwater - near Greenland? That six times as many men have been to the moon as to the deepest depths of the ocean? That about 230,000 species of marine organisms have been discovered, and estimates of the undiscovered ones are over three times that? This article is a good reminder that, as Sylvia Earle once put it, "We know more about Mars" than we do about the deep sea.
COMMENT: As readers of this blog will know, we have not even defined all the large animals. New beaked whales, dolphins, and sharks keep showing up in the journals, and there are good sightings of at least two types of unclassified beaked whales, plus several problematic accounts of dolphins and porpoises, indicating just how much we still have to learn. And that's before we even get to the fishes, and we have no idea where we stand on the invertebrates...

How long do species stay unchanged?

All species may be caught up in an evolutionary mega-system of life, but some are much less affected than others. The coelacanth did not change very much (except to get larger) in 60 million years. That is probably a record for minimal change in known vertebrates, but the phenomenon of minimal change over millions of years is more common with small invertebrates.
The record-holder for multicelled creatures may be Neopilina, a weird little mollusk with a circular internal body plan, measuring about 35mm long, which was thought extinct until dredged up on the famous Galathea expedition of 1952. The existing species Neopilina galatheae is almost unchanged from fossils that go back over 400MY - and were believed to have been extinct 350MY ago.
A newer example (see title link) is this fig wasp from the Isle of Wight - almost unchanged after 34 million years.
Why do some animals find a comfortable niche and stay there, while others in the same niche, or similarly "comfortable" positions in nature, get displaced and move to the "extinct" column? It's a complicated question to which the answer is not yet clear. One of science's countless mysteries.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sea turtle takes its own home movies

A diver in Aruba lost his waterproof Nikon camera while diving on a wreck. A sea turtle intercepted the object (maybe tyring to see if it was edible) and wound up with its flipper entangled in the camera strap. Somehow, in the jouncing, the camera was switched on. It was found much later on a beach in Florida and traced to its astonished owner, who found five minutes of turtle's-eye-view footage on it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Falcon has landed!

An international team of scientists verified the soft landing in the Australian outback of the return capsule from the space probe Hayabusa (Falcon) carrying the first samples ever taken directly from an asteroid. The probe landed twice on the half-kilometer-long asteroid Itokawa in 2005. It is not a certainty that the sample collector actually holds pieces of the surface, but project scientists are hopeful, and it's a brilliant feat of space exploration no matter how much or how little of Itokawa made it on board.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Large Hadron Collider: Halfway to full power

The newest bulletin from CERN on the LHC begins, "Over the past 2 weeks, commissioning of the machine protection system has advanced significantly, opening up the possibility of higher intensity collisions at 3.5 TeV..." (TeV = trllion electon volts).
The CERN gang is current working on curing a "beam instability" in order to enable those collisions. The significance here is that, as CERN's Steve Myers explains, “With two beams at 3.5 TeV, we’re on the verge of launching the LHC physics program." Collisions with a total energy of 7 TeV are - physicists hope - halfway to the realm where the Higgs boson will pop out.

COMMENT: Despite all this progress, of course, unscientific alarm has not gone away. Interestingly, the link on the LHC page for Safety requires a password. The best a casual visitor can do is read a very general two-paragraph discussion on the site's Outreach section FAQs. I know CERN scientists think the whole "destroy the universe" thing is absurd, but they could do a better job of public education. If you think about it, public concern over misunderstood science is the perfect attention-getting opportunity to explain the science right.

Scientific thought for the day

Seriously, we should all give some thought to this notion from the creator of Dilbert.

"Every generation of humans believed it had all the answers it needed, except for a few mysteries they assumed would be solved at any moment. And they all believed their ancestors were simplistic and deluded. What are the odds that you are the first generation of humans who will understand reality?"
— Scott Adams (Dilbert)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gould: What is a scientific fact?

"In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms."

Stephen Jay Gould

Centennial celebration for Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) was born 100 years ago this coming Friday. The explorer - the first great television popularizer of science as well as a pioneering inventor of diving gear and a tireless conservationist - introduced global audiences to the marvels of the sea.
Cousteau's legacy includes a conservation society with 300,000 members as well as a mind-boggling 50 books and 120 documentaries. As a kid, I read everything I could find with his name on it and watched every show that appeared. He was a major inspiration to me, as he was to so many others.
He once said, "I am not a scientist. I am, rather, an impresario of scientists," which pretty much nails it.
Cousteau, not surprisingly, saw a lot of strange things. He reported seeing the eye of an "utterly fantastic" squid out the porthole of his Diving Saucer. Off Africa, his divers found a wreck site where two ordinary wrasses, members of a species maybe a meter long at most, had grown to science-fiction proportions.
Here's wishing you "fair winds and following seas," Captain.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New species - Sharks! Skates! Rays!

Not only do we not know all the fish in the sea, but this paper from Australia reminds us we don't even know the large ones, like the elasmobranches. Seven new species and two resurrected ones are here in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Marine and Atmospheric Research Paper no. 032 (2010). Meet the rediscovered Borneo Shark, little known and believed to be very rare: Okamejei cairae, a new skate from the South China Sea: and the rest of a re-examined group.

Asteroid samples coming home to Earth

There have been four cases where spacecraft have returned matter from other bodies to the Earth. Apollo astronauts and Russian unmanned probes sent back samples from the Moon. The Genesis mission retrieved solar ejecta, and the Stardust spacecraft brought back samples of a comet. Now the fifth such program - the first NOT to be launched by one of the superpowers - is climaxing. Japan's Hayabusa (Falcon) capsule should land Sunday night in Australia with samples of an astroid after an odyssey that took seven years and covered 4 billion kilometers.
As one Australian on the project noted, "There's absolutely nothing like going to the source. Hayabusa has sampled an asteroid in situ and soon we will have in hand an actual asteroid. Any sample coming back ...will be a major scientific prize for us."

South Korea's space launch falls short

South Korea is angling to become the world's next space power. Iran was the last (maybe) to join the small group of nations which can launch their own satellites on their own rockets. In recent years, Brazil and North Korea have failed to join the club. (Brazil will try again in 2011).

Nations which have achieved such launches include the aforementioned Iran (although it is not universally agreed their satellite actually made orbit), the U.S,, the defunct USSR, France, Japan, Britain, India, modern Russia and Ukraine, Israel, and China. The ESA organization has a joint capability, and Britain has abandoned its independent national capability to work with ESA.

South Korea, working with Russian help, had a partial success in 2009 (a payload was placed in orbit, but the wrong orbit, and it did not function). The newest version of their Naro booster featured a Russian-built first stage and South Korean upper stages. It appears to be the Russian stage which was the culprit, since failure was apparent 137 seconds into the flight.
South Korea's Science Minister said, ""We humbly accept today's result and will find a remedy to continue our efforts at space exploration."

Monday, June 07, 2010

New-species news never ends

Here's a reference to a new armored catfish from Africa, while these folks at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project link to two new frogs and a lizard - while also linking to some very serious concerns among herpetologists.

Bad day for brown pelicans

The Deepwater Horizon spill is wreaking havoc with human lives and ecosystems around the Gulf Coast. One species hit harder than most is the brown pelican. After an enormous effort by Federal, state, local, and nonprofit conservation agencies, the bird finally graduated entirely from the Endangered Species List last year. It's not heading back onto the list as a result of this spill - the population has grown to a healthy 650,000. But it's rapidly becoming the poster animal for oil damage.

It's not just the pelicans who suffer. Last year, LSU biologist Prosanta Chakrabarty discovered two new species of bottom-dwelling pancake batfish - which today are smack dab in the path of the massive underwater plume of oil. Chakrabarty has noted that his article formally describing the new fish will appear in the August edition of the Journal of Fish Biology. By that point, the two species might merit being nominated to the same Endangered Species List the brown pelican has escaped from.

COMMENT: I avoid politics on this blog - so many people cover it much better than I could, so I focus on my niche - but this case is a reminder that science, technology, and policy are inextricably linked. I was never opposed to underwater drilling, mainly because American/British companies had a good record of doing it safely, and the switch to a "no oil economy" is not something that will happen quickly or painlessly. At the least, though, future drilling needs to be done under much more stringent oversight, with government inspectors permanently stationed on the rigs until a given project has finished drilling and has extracted oil for some period of time without incident. Just one non-expert's opinon.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

More on the SpaceX success

Great job by SpaceX to make their medium-lift Falcon 9 succeed on the first try. There were some anomalies (having no anomalies would be downright weird) but, when you put your payload in the orbit you want it, that's the definitition of a highly successful launch. And I mean they placed it PRECISELY in the 250km orbit they wanted, with variances under one degree.
Boeing and LockMart deserved praise for making the newest versions of Atlas and Delta work well on the first and (so far) every launch, but they were coming off a heritage of decades of evolving these designs. SpaceX did something remarkable, with only the lessons of a much smaller vehicle to validate Falcon 9 design ideas.
It's been my opinion that SpaceX may have relied too heavily on their computer simulations with the Falcon 1, given that they lost two birds to problems (stage bump and propellant slosh) discovered in the 1950s. They were certainly aware of these problems (I spoke once with Elon Musk about the history of new vehicles and found him extremely well informed on the subject), but relied on solutions proven in their simulations rather than building a bigger margin for error into their birds. Fortunately, one of the critical things Musk and company did right was create a program with realistic expectations and the resources to survive early failures and incorporate the lessons learned, something many other entreprenuers could not or did not do.
The success of Falcon 9 indicates they found the right balances in design, construction, and testing this time out. There's a lot to work yet to come, and there may well be failures before the design is perfected, but this is a huge step forward.
Champagne in Ten Forward to the entire company!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Talking to Dolphins: There's an App for That?

Well, sort of. Scientists at a nonprofit institute are teaching a dolphin named Merlin to use his nose to select shapes on the touchscreen of an iPad in a waterproof case. The idea is to teach a dolphin a symbolic language, as has been done with apes. While dolphins may be just as smart as apes (depending, of course, on how one defines and measures "intelligence"), apes are far easier to work with because they can point, push buttons, and grasp objects. Apple's newest cool technology may overcome cetaceans' lack of fingers and enable, if not full communication, then at least a better understanding of how dolphins think.

SpaceX bird is go!

The first test version of SpaceX's Falcon-9 medium-lift booster has taken off from Cape Canaveral. It carries a mockup of the Dragon capsule, intended to haul materials and astronauts into low Earth orbit.
COMMENT: Entrepreneur Elon Musk makes no secret of his enthusiasm to help humans colonize space. That's why he put a big chunk of the fortune he earned inventing, running, and then selling PayPal into an effort to make boosters cheaper and more reliable, taking on industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin where several other companies had failed. He persevered through early failures of the smaller Falcon-1 and built the nine-engine Falcoln-9 and its test capsule. If the Falcon-9 system performs as Musk hopes, he wants to snag a big chunk of the money President Obama's new NASA budget would direct to private companies to provide orbital launch services. Fingers crossed.

Reflections on the synthetic cell

This superb article by the always-superb Natalie Angier looks at the big picture surrounding Dr. Craig Venter's announcement that his team has created a bacterium run by an artificial genome. That is, they did not build the whole bacterial cell from scratch, but they did remove the genome and replace it with one they had assembled in the lab, copying from a related bacterium, from chemical building blocks. The new genome immediately began to run the cell like its natural predecessor had. Angier reports the scientists did tinker with the genome to the point of writing scientific graffiti in it with encrypted messages, including Richard Fenyman's postulate that “What I cannot build, I cannot understand."
What Angier explains, though, is how far this still is from creating completely artificial life. A cell is not the seemingly roomy affair seen in textbook illustrations. It's jam-packed with complicated components, some of which we know how to make synthetically and some of which we're a long way off from understanding let alone building. So this a big (and controversial) step, but still only a step.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

IgNobel nomination for proving a giraffe can swim

Dr. Darren Naish has been nominated for an IgNobel, the prize for research which cannot or should not be replicated. His achievement? With a co-author, he has proved mathematically that a giraffe can swim. It turns out there are no clear records of giraffes swimming, as opposed to wading across rivers (do you need to swim when you are five meters tall?). But now science has proven that, yes, if you throw a giraffe into water over its head, it can survive. Darren is now looking for a research grant and a spare giraffe, not to mention a crane....

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Strange beast the ancestor of cephalopods

Cephalopods - octopus and squid - are pretty strange. But their ancestor was stranger. A half-billion years ago, a kite-shaped animal with two long tentacles and big eyes on stalks cruised the ancient seas. Its name was Nectocaris pteryx.

UPDATE: Dr. Charles Paxton has written in to note that it may be premature to grant Nectocaris the honored position of common ancestor to the cephalopods. He comments, "...I can see it looks like a larval teuthid but surely it should have a radula even if no beak or shell? [ED: the radula is the tonguelike abrasive structure all cephalopods use in feeding.] Why wouldn't that be preserved given the preservation of the other soft tissue? The authors argue the mouthparts are not well preserved. Do they have an objective way of knowing that or is it a convenient way to explain away the absence of a beak and radula in their putative cephalopod? The cephalopod affiliation is further reliant on identification of a "funnel" and no formal phylogenetic reconstruction is presented in the sense of comparison of traits using an algorithm."

In other words: Like a lot of claims made in science, the one made for Nectocaris is not a certainty. Future fossils may confirm the hypothesis or refute it. Science at work.

Thanks to Charles for writing in.

The challenge of human deep space exploration

"Traveling through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, boy." - Han Solo.
This excellent report from Johns Hopkins APL looks at what's involved in getting humans to the outer planets. The authors consider what's involved in a program that takes humans all the way out to Neptune by 2100. Possible? Yes. Easy? No.