Thursday, December 30, 2010

Species keep coming out of Peru

In the Peruvian Amazon, the rate of "major" animal discoveries is impressive: one new bird a year and one new mammal every four years. There are plenty of invertebrates as well: one find I mentioned in an earlier post was the toothy "Tyrannosaurus leech" (Tyrannobdella reina). As this article points out, the nation is taking meaningful conservation measures, with 15 percent of its lands under some level of protection. It's also a land undergoing rapid development, though, with 16 percent of the territory included in mining concessions. Conservationists are fighting to make sure the most critical spots are saved, noting that there are no doubt more species there we don;t even know about yet.
COMMENT: As in the United States, it's not reasonable to expect all public lands will be protected: economic welfare and conservation will sometimes be at odds. The balancing act will never be simple, although requiring greener methods of extraction and restoration can help.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The South Atlantic Anomaly

Here's another fun Skeptoid post. The South Atlantic Anomaly, unlike the Bermuda Triangle it's sometimes (unsupportably) linked to, is a real phenomenon, a quirk in the Van Allen belts that maintains a cloud of high-energy particles at an altitude low enough to concern the operators of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Some spacecraft have sensitive instruments turned off when they approach the Anomaly. While pseudoscientists link it to the strange 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, that's not supportable, either. Commercial aircraft operate at far too low an altitude to be affected.

What was the Bell Island Boom?

Atmospheric phenomena have always fascinated me. We are still learning about strange, gigantically powerful phenomena like sprites and elfs (not elves) in the upper atmosphere. One awesome phenomenon we have confirmed is the superbolt, a long-lasting lightning bolt from the top of a thundercloud to the ground, with 100 times the power and brightness of a normal bolt. Skeptoid host Brian Dunning here details a superbolt strike, blamed on a secret superweapon by some conspiracy types, that shook Newfoundland in 1978. It destroyed appliances, killed chickens, and left holes in roofs. No wonder it had people puzzled and alarmed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Homo sapiens much older than thought?

The general theory, until recently, was that our own species evolved only some 200,000 years ago, a half-million years after the migration out of Africa. Teeth found in Israel, though, may complicate this picture considerably. According to Israeli researchers, the teeth are from "modern" humans - but are 400,000 years old. While the discoverers are cautious (they will keep digging, looking for skulls and bones that might reinforce their theory) and other anthropologists think the claim isn't proven yet, the find raises the possibility that the first H. sapiens arose in what would become known as the Holy Land. That might mean one group of ancient humans pushing out from Africa settled this region and eventually developed into a new species - us.

More on ancient human from Russia

Readers may remember the announcement made in March that a finger bone from a Russian cave represented a new species of human. Now we have learned more about the "Denisovans," as the writers have nicknamed these people from 41,000 years ago. Among other findings: some of their DNA shows up in modern people from Melanesia. That's a long way from southern Siberia, and complicates questions about human origins and migrations. As one researcher put it, "Instead of the clean story we used to have of modern humans migrating out of Africa and replacing Neanderthals, we now see these very intertwined storylines with more players and more interactions than we knew of before."
COMMENT: Also, this indicates the Denisovans may have migrated south, which increases speculation by cryptozoologists that they may not be extinct, and may represent the almas, reported primates generally described as primitive humans of some sort, from the Pamirs.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Book Review: True Giants

Is Gigantopithecus Still Alive?
Mark A. Hall and Loren Coleman
Anomalist Books, 2010

In True Giants, Coleman and Hall tackle a question that's hung around the edges of primate cryptozoology without being fully addressed: Are sasquatch and its ilk (assuming they exist) the tallest primates on Earth, or could there be an additional species, presumably a modern descendant of Gigantopithecus blacki, that forms the basis for worldwide legends of giants 9-20 feet tall? I greatly respect Coleman, and Hall is a researcher of prodigious skill, but this slender volume didn't change my thinking on this.
The authors admit up front that we don't know what kind of skeletal structure works in such an animal. To me, practical knee joints are especially hard to visualize: human knees are problematic even for people of ordinary height and chronically troubled for very tall people. Giraffes manage their True Giant-like height with fairly normal mammalian knees but have four to spread the weight over.
The authors suggest a honeycomb bone structure for lightness, but there's no precedent for a true birdlike honeycomb structure in mammals: you have to postulate a long line of evolution we know nothing about for a change this radical. It seems a stretch even though, given that we have nothing of G. blacki but fossil jaws and teeth and the entire fossil record of the modern species of chimpanzee and gorilla could be held in a man's two hands, our picture of primate ancestry is a long way from complete.
Gigantopithecus is viewed by anthropologists, almost unanimously, as a heavily built knuckle-walker. If this is correct, it would take a lot of evolving to get to any sort of upright ape and a lot more for the True Giant. Giganto's gorilla-like posture is basically implied from the sheer size indicated by its sparse fossils, so this common scientific belief does not quite rise to the level of established fact. The late Grover Krantz argued the spread of the fossil jaws indicated upright posture, but leading Giganto expert Russell Ciochon rejected this, and very few people in the scientific community are open to the idea.
Implausibilities and new structures certainly arise in mammals, but scattered eyewitness reports and footprints are not enough to make me take the True Giant possibility seriously. I commend the authors for tackling a difficult subject and sparking debate, and cryptozoologists should read this book for an understanding of the "high end" of unidentified-primate reports.

Top 10 Cryptozoology stories of 2010

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has released his Top 10 Cryptozoology Stories of the year. They include discovery of two large and impressive new species, a monkey and a monitor lizard: the repeated misdentifications of ordinary animals with mange as something bizarre (not sure those really belong here); publications of new theories, including the DNA results from the pursuit of Sumatra's mystery ape, the orang-pendek; the continued success of Loren's pride and joy, the International Cryptozoology Museum; a new photo from Loch Ness and a spate of sasquatch-type reports from North Carolina; and the capture of a live saola in Vietnam.
COMMENT: I'm sick of the mangy corpses, although Loren has a point in that they do keep making the news.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Von Braun's 1960 lunar plan (and a cool blog)

Larry Klaes has a very interesting blog, Paleo-Future, about predictions of the future from years past (it explains, for example, who predicted the personal jet-pack thing that I still want and can't have.) This example looks at a book by Wernher von Braun, written in 1960 and portraying a near-future lunar mission. Not surprisingly, a lot of it turned out to be right (he was predicting less than a decade, after all, and he was Wernher von Braun). He did think we'd be wearing advanced versions of the close-fitting Mercury-type space suits rather than the much bulkier suits that were really used.
COMMENT: Just plain love this blog. But I still want my flying car, too.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gradeschool kids publish in scientific journal

You're never too young to be a scientist. A group of 8- to 10-year olds in England have published their research on bees. Biology Letters is, in fact, a serious peer-reviewed journal. The scientist who mentored the kids in their study of how bees use a combination of spatial and color cues to determine which flowers to visit writes, "They [the kids] asked the questions, hypothesized the answers, designed the games (in other words, the experiments) to test these hypotheses and analysed the data."
COMMENT: Just wonderful stuff. Reviewers wrote that, while the usual degree of statistical rigor and repetition from most papers was absent, the experiment was genuine, well designed and added to knowledge.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hornet's exoskeleton generates electricity

They don't know exactly how the Oriental hornet's exoskeleton generates solar electricity, and they also don't know why. But icthyologists have confirmed that, somehow, the mix of pigments in the exoskeleton takes in sunlight and puts out electricity. It's not an efficient process, but no one knows why it exists at all. Did the hornet evolve this ability so it could carry an iPod? That makes as much sense as anything.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nat Geo's ten weirdest new species

And some of them, like the little purple octopus and the sneezing snub-nosed monkey, are endearingly odd.

Chimp girls play with "dolls"

Among chimps in Kibale National Park, Uganda, some female juveniles use sticks as dolls, caring for them the way their own mothers tend to offspring. Males almost never do the same. Researchers are still working out the implications.
COMMENT: Maybe the boy chimps would get on board if their sticks were called "action figures."

Amino acids found in asteroid meteorites

Scientists have found amino acids, the building blocks of life, in meteorites from Sudan. This is not the first time that's happened, but it is the first time they turned up in meteorites that had been naturally subjected to temperatures of 1,100 degrees Celsius. There shouldn't have been any organic compounds left, and experts like NASA astrobiologist Daniel Glavin are not certain why. But this does make it more plausible that life COULD have come to Earth from elsewhere.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Bontanist's Christmas: new species of mistletoe

Helixanthera schizocalyx is a new species of mistletoe, found growing wild in Mozambique. Not where you'd expect mistletoe to show up, is it?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

New species discovered by Missouri high schooler

I love stories like this. A new species of flower was discovered in China by a visting American high school student. You're never too young to wonder about the world.

It's squidworm!

And it's really bizarre. Teuthidodrilus samae is one of the weirdest looking things on the planet, a marine worm 9cm long with two armlike appendages used for feeding, eight qrmlinke appendages used for breathing (yes, breathing), pink paddlelike appendages for propulsion, and, last but not least, a dozen frondlike sensory organs. You have to take a look at the image: words can't do it justice.

Top Ten New Species of the decade

Conservation International, with an assist from the BBC, has announced ten new species from the last decade. The list is a reminder of how much we're still learning about our world.
Big red jellyfish (Tiburonia granrojo) - a deepsea Pacific jellyfish a meter across.
Chan's megastick (Phobaeticus chani) - a stick insect over half a meter long
Grey-faced sengi (Rhyncocyon udzungwensis) - a comical-looking mammal from Tanzania
Kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji) - also from Tanzania, the first new genus of monkey since the 1920s
Bamboo shark (Hemiscyllium galei) - a colorful-seafloor-walking species
Giant slipper orchid (Phragmipedium Kovachii) - a striking purple flower, 20cm across, from Peru
Pitcher plant (Nepenthes palawanensis) - a large new species from the Philippines
Langkawi bent-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus macrotuberculatus)- a forest- and cave-dwelling species from Malaysia
Pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus) - a swimming sloth from a Caribbean island.

New lemur leaps into view

Primatologist Russ Mittermeier has seen a lot of species, and participated in the discovery of more than one. In Madagascar, some fifteen years ago, he spotted a member of the "fork-marked lemurs" - known for a black stripe on its back that forked on its face. He suspected the species was new, but didn't get to take another look until two months ago. He and his team captured a specimen, took genetic samples, and let it go. Based on an odd structure under the tongue, apparently used for lapping up nectar, Mittermeier thinks he has the world's newest primate species on his hands. The genes will tell.

Friday, December 17, 2010

the heavens and the Earth: Apollo 8 reading of Genesis

One of the most thought-provoking videos from the space program: the crew of Apollo 8 reads from the book of Genesis while showing their global TV audience the Moon. It doesn't matter if you're a Christian: the wonder of the moment touches everyone.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Two space anniversaries today

Courtesy of fellow space nut Larry Klaes, who points out December 15 is doubly significant:
40 years ago today: the first robotic spacecraft to land on another planet, when the Russian Venera 7 came down on Venus.
45 years ago today: The first time two manned spacecraft made a precise (within a meter or so) rendezvous in orbit, by Gemini 6 and 7.

Book to watch for: The Great Sperm Whale

Thanks to a lovely illustrated Christmas e-card from Richard Ellis, I'm anticpating his next book:
The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature [Hardcover]
The card came, interestingly, while I was re-reading Moby Dick.

This should be a kind of bookend to Ellis' study of the giant squid. I'm definitely looking forward to this one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

MicroSpace News: USC's nanosatellite hitches ride on Dragon

When SpaceX's Dragon made its historic flight, it had several little passengers along. One was billed as the first Amy-built satellite in 50 years. Another came from my alma mater.
A nanosat built up of three one-kg cubesats was built by USC's Viterbi School's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and the Department of Astronautical Engineering's Space Engineering Research Center (SERC), with a hand from Northrop Grumman and other companies. USC provided a Cubesat unit called CAERUS (the Greek word for "opportunity"). David Barnhart, who I've worked with before, was one of the leaders of the USC effort.
For more:

Arsenic-based life: How sure are they?

NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who led the team reporting on life that used arsenic as a chemical building block. wrote that she checked her work carefully at every step and was 100% sure when she submitted her paper. Doubters do exist, though. Quite a few doubters, with good credentials of their own, are pointing out where the experiments could have been done better, where contamination could have crept in, and where the results seem odd (the bacteria were grown in water, but arsenic bonds are weak in water.) A NASA spokesperson dismissed criticisms on the web or in blogs, saying they should be published in papers, which raises an interesting question about form v. content making a critique valuable. One of the original paper's authors did agree on this: " The only way this is going to get settled is if people reproduce these experiments on their own.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bizarre big-headed prehistoric dolphin found

Modern dolphins have rounded heads housing their echolocation apparatus. This newly discovered species had a really exaggerated "melon" and forehead. A fisherman named Albert Hoekman pulled up the first known remains of the animal now called Hoekman's blunt-snouted dolphin. Living in what is now the North Sea, it was 6 meters long and possibly ancestral to today's pilot whales.
COMMENT: It looks to me like nothing so much as a dolphin wearing a "Gazoo helmet," sometimes used by American football players who have had concussions or collision-induced migraines. Presumably, the dolphins didn't play football.

New theory on Saturn's rings

The rings of Saturn (which we science writers are required by law to describe as "majestic" - but that's OK, because they are) are 95 percent ice. That posed a problem for scientists tyring to figure out how they formed. If they were bits from colliding moons (the planet has 63), there should be a lot more rock in there. A new theory says that a single, large, ice-covered moon was drawn in by Saturn's gravity, which stripped off the ice layers. The remnants in the rings have actually coalesced to make some of the small rock-and-ice moons we see today. One scientist refers to this as "cosmic recycling."

NASA in FY11: halfway to a budget

Technically, it's not a budget. The House of Representatives has thrown in the towel on a budget and passed a Continuing Resolution to fund the govenrmnet through September 2011. Unusually for a CR, there are some changes in spending: NASA gets a slight increase from $18.7 billion to $18.93 billion. The CR would continue work on the Orion capsule, commercial crew and cargo programs, and heavy-lift vehicle. It would allow NASA to formally end the Constellation program. The CR is in the Senate for debate.

Tourism to begin at Chernobyl

In 1986, Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded in the worst-ever disaster to arise from the nuclear power industry. It effectively froze the industry in the U.S., although American reactors were very different in design. The ruin is still dangerous: a new concrete casement, weighing 20,000 tons, is being built. But you can check the disaster out for yourself next year, when tourism begins at the reactor site. Yep, tourism. Yulia Yershova, spokeswoman for Ukraine's Emergency Situations Ministry, said, "There are things to see there if one follows the official route and doesn't stray away from the group." Don't sign me up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

MicroSpace news: NASA ejects one satellite from another

Very cool: a small satellite ejects a "nanosatellite" in space. The nanosat will test a tiny solar sail.
UPDATE: Nanosat-D, which was supposed to unfurl a 100-square-foot solar sail ffrom a container the size of a bread loaf, appears to have a probelem. NASA originally said it deployed on schedule for the parent FASTSAT, but it's not transmitting and has yet to be located.
COMMENT: Solar sail experiments seem to suffer from an ongoing jinx. The idea of solar sail propulsion has yet to be tested on orbit despite several attempts.

Eating like a whale

How many calories does a whale need? Well, it takes in a half-million with every "bite."
The largest creature ever to live, the blue whale, strains tons of crustaceans called krill from the sea in every mouthful. In each of those mouthfuls is an average of 457,000 calories. One scientist, Robert Shadwick, says they are the most efficient feeders in the animal kingdom: "When they take a gulp of water, they are filling their mouths with the amount of water equal to their own body mass, so there is nothing that comes close to doing that." This sustains an animal that may weigh over 150 tons, with a heart the size of a small car and arteries a child could crawl through. When whalers were allowed to kill blues, the first step on killing a whale was to slice it open so seawater could sluice through to cool the insides: otherwise, the latent heat of all those tons of muscle would cook the animal.

The stork that hunted hobbits?

The "hobbits" on the island of Flores apparently had an avian predator to contend with: an extinct type of marabou stork that stood 1.8 meters tall. The stork would have towered over the island's human inhabitants and perhaps posed a direct threat to the youngest. The stork appears to have died out about 20,000 years ago.
COMMENT: I couldn't help but think of this exchange: "Mommy, does the stork bring babies?" "No, honey, the stork takes them away."

Ancient civilization under Persian Gulf?

Eight thousand years ago, the water level in the Persian Gulf rose dramatically, an effect of melting glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. This may be the flood described in the Bible. Recent discoveries of ancient settlements on the current shoreline are surprisingly advanced and permanent. Hence the theory that evidence for an older, widespread civilization is beneath the waters. Jeffrey Rose of the University of Birmingham has published the idea and says he knows what the next step must be: finding an underwater site.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Meanwhile, on Venus

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency reports its Akatsuki probe reached Venus on schedule but failed to make orbit. A mechanical failure (possibly, though unlikely) due to a meteorite collision) made the probe miss the planet and keep going. JAXA project manager Masato Nakamura apologized for not meeting the nation's expectations (there's a custom we could import: leaders who are actually sorry when they fail). Engineers think they may be able to try again if the probe, sent on a two-year mission, is viable after another six years, when its trajectory will carry it by Venus again.

And the Dragon has landed

"It's just mind-blowingly awesome. It's hard to be articulate when your mind's blown — but in a very good way." That was SpaceX founder Elon Musk at a press conference after the Dragon capsule was recovered in the Pacific ocean after two orbits. The Dragon becomes the first craft launched into space and recovered by a private company.
SpaceX has a NASA contract to make 12 unmanned cargo flights to the ISS through 2016. Rival Orbital Sciences has a contract for eight flights using a spacecraft still under construction.
COMMENT: Yes, it's a magnificent feat, and important step for space commerce, etc. But most of all, it just darned cool.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

We have liftoff

SpaceX's Falcon-9 with Dragon capsule made a beautiful liftoff at 10:43 EST. Watching the live feed, almost every comment heard from mission engineers had the word "nominal" in it. When it passed from the visual field of ground-based tracking systems, the second stage was performing well after the first stage did its job, and the shroud protecting the Dragon capsule had been jettisoned. It's a great start to an important mission.

Where to discover a new plant species?

In a drawer in your local museum, lab, or arboretum, of course. British botanists have made the estimate (highly speculative, of course), that 35,000 species may all have been collected and are just waiting for someone to identify them. Problem: there aren't enough "somebodies" with time and training to undertake the work.

SpaceX, waiting for go....

Space X on Monday: "A decision on whether or not to attempt launch on Wednesday will be provided tomorrow evening... if the nozzle had to be replaced, the company would aim for a Friday launch. SpaceX has a launch window that will remain open until Saturday." It's a nozzle extension used for extra thrust and not needed on this flight, but engineers want to make sure it's not a symptom of more critical cracking elsewhere.
On Tuesday: It all looks good, going for Wednesday liftoff. Trying for two orbits for Dragon and then a water landing.
Thunderbirds are Go!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"My laboratory is under water"

OK, no one actually said that headline, but I'll bet it's a good conversation starter. The Wall Street Journal has a good article, with photos and video of the unique Aquarius facility, 18m (60 ft) under the sea in the Florida Keys. There were once several such labs around the world, but Aquarius is the only one left. The lab lets scientists carry out long-term, continuously observable studies and experiments. Operations director Saul Rosser describes Aquarius by saying, "You're in this reverse aquarium—an air bubble with windows." The lab can handle six people and is in its 18th year of operation.
COMMENT: It seems to me that, with the urgency of marine science in this era of ecological concern and climate change, there should be more than one such lab - a lot more. I understand the competition for scientific resources, but there should be several such labs in different locations at different depths. Robotic vehicles and stations are increasingly capable, but nothing yet replaces the human scientist on the spot for a thorough understanding of an ecosystem.

SpaceX launch slips

SpaceX had planned to launch its Falcon-9/Dragon combination into orbit today, but small cracks were found in the nozzle of the second-stage engine. Company engineers hope a quick fix on the pad will allow a launch Wednesday or Thursday. SpaceX is testing its vehicle for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which funds the delivery of cargo and personnel to the International Space Station.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Falcon-9/Dragon launch coming up

Follow a big day for private space. The Falcon-9 medium-lift booster launch with a reusable (unmanned, for this test flight) Dragon capsule is set for a Tuesday launch. You can follow developments on thie title link at Spaceflight Now or with SpaceX (which has been great at putting all important moments, like test firings, on the Web live) at Best of luck, folks!

Space launch: what's Russian for "Oh, (*$%*$?"

A Russian Proton rocket carrying three Glonass navigation satellites into space has instead entered "reef-level orbit" by dumping its cargo into the Pacific. The three satellites were supposed to to complete the 24-satellite constellation, a rival to the U.S. GPS system. The satellites lie 1,500km northwest of Honolulu.
COMMENT: It's never been clear to me what the point is of Glonass or Europe's Galileo system, set up as rivals to an American constellation which provides free service to any user anywhere in the world. I suppose these expensive expressions of national pride at least promote global expertise in space engineering, which may pay other dividends down the road.

China's Unicorn Cow

Technically, it's a three-horned cow, but the third horn, right in the middle, is much more prominent than the other two. "Unicorn" animals have been produced artificially by grafting the horn buds of a cow or goat together (an American experiment by a veterinarian named Dove back in 1940 produced a bull with a really impressive horn), but this seems to be a natural genetic oddity. In China, which has many traditional beliefs regarding animals and good or bad fortune, the unique cow with the 20-cm horn has become a celebrity.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Get your yeti/sasquatch ornaments!

I hope I'm not being repetitive, but no matter what you think of cryptozoology, the International Cryptozoology Museum is a unique collection of artifacts and information on a subject of scientific and popular interest. They are giving out VERY cool yeti or sasquatch ornaments with donations. I got mine and they look great on the tree. OK, my wife looked at me a little funny.... Anyway, hit the title link for a unique way to celebrate.

And the X-37B is home

The Air Force has successfully brought back its uncrewed X-37B mini-spaceplane to a safe runway landing. There are endless speculations on what experiments were on board, but aside from that, the implications for space exploration and commerce are important. The Air Force orbited the winged craft, put it through major changes of orbit, kept it up for over seven months, and then brought it back for re-use, demonstrating advanced autonomous operations, thermal protection, and a host of other things.
COMMENT: First, as a space geek, this is really, really cool. The many spaceplane concepts conceived and abandoned in the last few decades look a lot more practical for the near future. Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists (which is actually open to anybody) is once again claiming the US is getting ready for space war. The evidence for that? Umm, there isn't any. And there is NO advance in orbital rendezvous, repair, or operations the UCS would NOT claim was evidence of space war preparations, so I think we should all agree to ignore them on this topic.

Aging an animal backward? Almost

The headline of this article is a bit misleading: scientists did not make mice age backwards. What they DID do, by manipulating an enzyme called telemorase long thought to have a role in aging, was to turn declining, feeble mice into more energetic, healthy, seemingly younger animals. While the genomes of these mice had been manipulated to make them highly suitable for the experiment, the implications for slowing deterioration in humans - either in specific organs or the entire body - are very real. Practical human applications may be decades off, though.
COMMENT: At age 51, it's really annoying that all kinds of advances that could have prolonged my productive life may not be ready until shortly after I'm dead. I'm excited for my kids, though!

Presenting the flying snake

You may have heard of the gliding snakes of Southeast Asia, but here's a supercool video clip of scientists doing experiments in the field on a snake's gliding ability, and then explaining the aerodynamics. What I wonder is why the twising snake doesn't get airsick.

Thanks to my dad, Don Bille, for this link.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Arsenic and Old Life, Part II

NASA confirmed that its big announcement this week was about life - a new species of bacteria from a California lake - that uses arsenic instead of the phosphorus present in every known species of everything in the five kingdoms of life.
"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it."
COMMENT: OK, so it was not E.T. And it's not quite as strange as, say, Star Trek's silicon-based Horta. But it's unprecedented evidence that life can be weirder than we thought.

Believe it or not: Albino redwood trees

Coast redwood trees are magnificent by any standard. It's a handful of tiny, slow-growing redwoods that have Stanford geneticists puzzled. The trees are albinos. About 60 exist, and no one is sure how they can. After all, photosynthetic pigments are green. The albinos are dwarfed and are not healthy, but they shouldn't be living at all.

Thanks to Chad Arment for posting this first.

4G networks are a myth

I rarely touch on things as mundane as conumer electronics here, but this one got my notice. Several companies are advertising fourth generation (4G) wireless networks. The problem: there's no such thing, at least not yet. By official definition a 4G is one capable of download speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps). The networks using the term are less than half this fast. Networks with faster speeds than the standard 3G are using them term 4G instead of "faster 3G." Upshot: the term is meaningless to consumers. Ignore it and look at actual speeds promised.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

House of Gladiators collapses

Two thousand years ago, Pompeii's House of the Gladiators was where combatants gathered before heading into the arena. The walls were covered with frescoes of combat and military themes. The volcano couldn't knock it down, but it finally collapsed. The event is sparking a debate over who should be in charge of preserving such major (and sometimes expensive to keep up) reminders of the past.