Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chasing the giant long-finned eel

A tip of the adventurer's cap to Jeremy Wade for yesterday's "River Monsters" outing. which focused on an unknown but plausible freshwater mankiller: New Zealand's long-finned eel. We know it gets 4-6 feet long and lives to be very old, but two modern accounts of divers being attacked say it gets considerably larger. An eight-foot specimen, which an eel biologist tells Wade is quite possible, would weigh over 100 pounds, and there are plenty of people claiming to have seen them - including one Maori who gave his account to Captain Cook. Wade didn't catch one, but he thinks they exist, and the scene of Wade trying to lure one out by putting on Kevlar shorts and gloves and wading in after smearing himself with fish guts was pretty scary when a host of 3 - 4 foot eels appeared for what must have smelled like a fest to them.

Even more amazing photos - Space Station at night

Take a gander at these awe-inspiring pictures of humanity's outpost in space, with the Earth below and the starry, starry night above.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Most amazing ISS photos ever

Our international outpost in space has never been photographed more evocatively than in these wide-angle views. The sheer scale of the ISS is breathtaking from these images: especially if you know how large the docked Space Shuttle is. The alien-ness of space comes through, too, in the brilliant sun and total blackness beyond.
Watch and wonder.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Weird Weather: Now that's a hailstone!

Hailstones the size of golf balls are destructive. The size of baseballs? Very dangerous, and fortunately rare. The size of cantaloupes? Seriously? This one fell in Norman, OK, before the recent tornadoes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

New clue from Peking Man

OK, Peking Man is not considered unique anymore, "just" a population of Homo erectus. But it has an allure far beyond its considerable scientitic importance because of the mystery surrounding it. Nearly all the known fossils vanished at the beginning of World War II, and extensive searches and large rewards have turned up nothing.
In Uppsala University in Sweden, three teeth were preserved. Now a fourth has been found, a canine, and it is almost pristine - un-handled since it was sent to the university's museum all those decades ago. Excited anthropologists note that a great deal of information can be extracted for wear patterns and other aspects of a tooth mith modern diagnostic tools, and they hope to learn much more about this enigmatic ancestor.
Thanks to Loren Coleman for catching this item and posting it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

JFK and the Moon

Despite his critical role in the American space program, JFK was never quite an all-out space buff. He approved Apollo for a mix of reasons, political and economic as well as idealistic. A new tape shows he still wasn't quite sold even after he'd authorized and promoted the program. Tow months before his death, Kennedy told NASA chief James Webb, "But this looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the moon when you can go -- you can learn most of that you want scientifically through instruments and putting a man on the moon really is a stunt and it isn't worth that many billions." He added, though: "I think this can be an asset, this program. I think in time, it's like a lot of things; this is mid-journey and therefore everybody says, 'What the hell are we making this trip for?' But at the end of the thing they may be glad we made it." Webb assured him they would be.

Neat new cryptozoology magazine

Richard Muirhead sent me the first issue of his new "Journal of Cryptozoology, Folklore, and Forteana," Flying Snake. It's not a journal in the peer-reviewed sense, but a very enjoyable little magazine. The printing is crisp and professional, the articles generally well written, and the correspondence included from Richard's files very interesting. It strays to the borders of cryptozoology and beyond (cf. Richard's own piece insisting the Biblical story of Ezekiel's wheels was a supernatural event and not a UFO), but it's Richard's magazine and he can address anything he wants. A notable feature is that not one article addresses the "classic monsters" of cryptozoology, and I found that quite refreshing!
I loved the color photo of an orange badger (really) on the back cover.

Fifty years ago in the Space Race

It was fifty years ago today that JFK asked us the great question: "Why does Rice play Texas?" Oops, not that question. He challenged us: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth." Politicians today say, "commit ourselves to achieving no goal, because that might be hard, except for that of landing a bugdet on the Capital and returning the money safely to my state or district."
Yes, JFK was initially unenthusiastic about the whole thing. But, helped by key advisers, he came to the conclusion that an ambitious space goal was, in modern parlance, a win-win" It would boost national morale, enhance national prestige, make the USSR look like the second-place power in the Cold War, and give a major boost to high-tech industries at home. He turned out to be right on all counts.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dude, it's a freaking ELEPHANT you're grabbing

This crocodile bit off more than it could chew when it grabbed the trunk of a full-grown elephant. The elephant was injured and the crocodile survived, but the crocodile was lucky. There is one case of a crocodile's body being found in a tree after an enraged elephant was done with it. There is another case of a hippo biting a croc in half, which I'm mentioning not just to show off that I remember this kind of trivia, but that we should remember in studying nature that it's not neatly divided between predator and prey. It's dangerous all around.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bronze Age battle site found

In the 1970s, I clipped out a cartoon that showed archaeologists digging out skeletons pierced by axes and spears. One said, "3.75 million years old - and they're definitely human." (Yes, I do remember such trivia very clearly.) While this site from Germany dates only to 1200 BC, it's important for containing only human and horse remains and weapons. In other words, it's the site of a battle with at least 100 participants.
COMMENT: I'm not sure why this one caught my eye. We knew people were fighting long before this. But there's a difference between knowing there were battles and actually getting a picture of how human-on-human violence (sadly) evolved.

Dark energy is really out there

A project with the unique name of WiggleZ has produced evidence that dark energy is real. Dr. Chris Blake explains that studies of how quickly galaxies form and how they are distributed in the universe show it's everywhere: "The results tell us that dark energy is a cosmological constant, as Einstein proposed. If gravity were the culprit, then we wouldn't be seeing these constant effects of dark energy throughout time."

COMMENT: I'm for anything that makes the universe weirder.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Boing-Boing, cryptozoology, and the "pseudoscience" claim

Boing Boing, which carries all sort of interesting and provocative articles, has misstepped on this one. Contributor Maggie Koerth-Baker has lumped cryptozoology in with the pseudosciences: a common belief given how much silliness and chicanery the field has attracted, but a wrong one. I posted a response (a bit shorter than this version). I seem destined to be making thie argument for the rest of my life, but I don't mind, seeing as how I'm right.

The lumping of cryptozoology with other “pseudosciences” is incorrect for a very simple reason: cryptozoology, unlike the study of ghosts, UFOs, etc., deals in testable hypotheses. For example, either there is a large unknown animal in Loch Ness, or there is not. The means to test the hypothesis may not be available (e.g., a definitive sweep using the most modern naval sonar gear and hydrophones may be something no one can afford) but the hypothesis is, nonetheless, logically testable and thus scientific.
There is no arguing with the statement that many people involved in cryptozoological research, mainly amateur enthusiasts, are too quick to conclude an unknown animal is real based on inadequate data. The implication in your article that searching for unknown animals is fruitless, however, is absurd.
New mammal species alone described in scientific literature in the last 15 years number 408, including cetaceans, deer, van Roosmalen’s tapir and dwarf manatee, and other creatures of substantial size. This doesn’t mean there is a huge ape stalking the Northwest forests, and indeed (in my opinion, at any rate) ecological and other factors indicate it is unlikely that one will be discovered. Yet this does not invalidate cryptozoology as a field of inquiry any more than disproven claims of cold fusion invalidate nuclear physics.
It’s proper to demand that, to be accepted, creatures propounded by cryptozoologists must meet the universal scientific standard of a type specimen. In many cases, though, species which have been thus established did not fall into the lap of science. They were found when researchers (both academically qualified and amateur) followed the kind of evidence cryptozoologists collect – historical accounts, footprints, local stories, etc. – until a type specimen was obtained.
You can argue convincingly that many overly enthusiastic cryptozoologists overreach the data in their claims for particular species. You cannot, however, argue that the search for unknown animals – a search being validated by the description or collection of new type specimens every single day – is scientifically void.

New bird and rediscovered tree rat

I'm pleased to give credit to the blog Cryptomundo for catching these two major finds. Birds and mammals are the groups generally considered best-known: various experts at various times have declared them virtually all catalogued. But birds keep coming at a steady rate, and the discovery curve for mammals is actually trending up.
So it is we have a new rail from Madagascar and the rediscovery of a strikingly colored tree rat from Columbia not seen since 1898. The tree rat just sort of walked into view, ambling along a hand rail at a nature center. From the Beanka forest in western Madagascar - and area where the terrain is so steep the forest has yet to be logged - comes the rail Mentocrex beankaensis, courtesy of scientists from the Field Museum. Keep your eyes open, everyone. Discoveries are everywhere.

Friday, May 20, 2011

James Webb telescope takes longer than Apollo program

James Webb was the superb manager who, as much as any other single human, got our species to the Moon. The space telescope named after him is a fitting monument - if it ever launches. Its management is, shall we say, NOT a monument to Webb's own.
The telescope was budgeted at $1B. It is now $7B. Yep, 600% cost increase. It was supposed to launch in 2007. Now it may be as late as 2024. Seriously. A 17-year slip. Jim Webb got Apollo to the Moon in eight years.
I don't dispute the value of the telescope, but if it had been managed to the original cost and schedule, we would now have four years of data from it, and the other $6B could have funded all sorts of other worthy space research. It's a given that development of a huge new space-based astronomical instrument is a major, risky undertaking. Technology proves harder to perfect than anticipated, NASA budgets fluctuate, and unexpected needs elsewhere often force program stretchouts. I wouldn't have been surprised or even much displeased if it had ended up with even a 100% cost overrun and a slip of two or three years. But this is no credit to NASA or Northrop Grumman. Webb may come back from the grave to demand his name be taken off the thing.
AS ALWAYS, ONLY MORE SO: All blog posts represent solely the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen.

From Bali: Cool Photos of New Species

A Marine Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) visiting the cost of Bali has reported nine potential new species, and there's a great photo collection here. A beautifully mottled "garden eel" from the genus Heteroconger peers out from the sediment. A striking "bubble coral" shines yellow, white, and green in the photographer's lights. A red-barred fish with a disdainful expression meanders across the bottom. And so on. Treat yourself to this display of the fellow life forms we're still uncovering.

Our Awesome Earth: Lighting Rises Towards Space

Until the 21st century, we didn't know that lighting bolts - gigantic lightning bolts - could shoot out of cloudtops into the upper atmosphere. We never detected this stunning phenomenon until we watched it from orbit. Ever since, atmospheric physicists and meteorologists have been buzzing about how it works.
Now we think we know. Essentially, one lightning bolt develops in a could but isn't quite strong enough to break out, but its failed attempt clears the upper cloud region of the charges that made it fizzle out. Then a second lighting "channel" develops, and, because the path of least resistance is now upward, it leaps towards space, up to 90km or so, until the charged ionosphere "shorts out" the remaining charge.
Awesome, dudes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Neanderthals lasted longer than we thought

At a site in Russia, just below the Arctic Circle, scientists have found artifacts that match those known to be of Neanderthal origin. While we thought Neanderthals vanished about 37,000 to 40,000 years BP, this is a clue suggesting they lingered another 8,000 years or so. So far, though, there are only artifacts, not human remains, and this isn't a settled issue.
COMMENT: Cryptozoologists like Myra Shackley have suggested Neanderthals lasted much longer: indeed, that in the rugged central Asian region known as the Pamirs, they may still exist. There is no hard evidence here, just sightings and footprints, but it's irresistible to hope the stories of the almas might really hide a human tribe from the mists of time.

Cryptozoology Classics: Creature Chronicles

Thirty years ago, Ron Schaffner published Creature Chronicles, a pioneering newsletter on Bigfoot and other critters. Now he's put the old issues on line. It's a lot of fun to read these accounts from the days before the Internet had sasquatch reports, speculation, and just plain trash seemingly flooding the world.

The Last Shuttle

With the shuttle Endeavour safely on orbit, workers rolled Atlantis into the VAB for processing for the last flight of the program. Workers unveiled a banner ("We're Behind You, Atlantis") and then a quilt with every shuttle mission patch on it. Here are some great photos.
COMMENT #1: In today's Wall Street Journal, a writer compared watching Endeavour's smooth rise toward space to seeing a Yankee clipper under full sail. I liked that.
COMMENT #2: Atlantis was named for the US government's first oceanographic research vessel.
COMMENT #3: Of interest only to me: I named my Honda CRV Atlantis.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Michael Jackson photos = Free Energy?

One of the perks of living on planet Earth is the the opportunity to read news items no one could possibly make up. An inventor in Los Angeles is selling a cache of previously unpublished Michael Jackson photos to raise money for a machine that produces more energy than it uses. Reginald Garcia's electric motor is reconfigured so "it captures the negative electromagnetic field as it collapses, sends energy to a capacitor and recharges the battery." Seriously. Variations on this scheme have been promoted a hundred times. Sometimes the inventors even believe the effect is real. The laws of thermodynamics beg to differ, but the financing approach is certainly original.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Endeavour, we are GO

OK, it took a while. A long while. But the shuttle Endeavour is ready to go on May 16, the last mission for this shuttle and the second to last for the Shuttle program.
The mission is an important one for those of us interested in how this whole universe works. STS-134 Commander Mark Kelly and his five crewmates will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS), a particle detector which will be used in the search for dark matter.
COMMENT: Sending the AMS to the ISS is the kind of mission the Shuttle was made for, and why I will have to see the Shuttle go. Still left on the ground is one more important experiment, the human centrifuge. I had hoped they'd all one more mission to take that one up, as it would mean a lot for the study of long-term human response to microgravity, and it was designed only for the Shuttle. Sigh.

Science Fair - Kids Doing Great Things

Don't think high school students can accomplish amazing and important things in the sceinces? How about making radiation therapy for cancer more effective? Restoring economically vital populations of spiny lobsters? Protecting Earth from asteroids? These are just some of the examples on display at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.
COMMENT: I love stories like this. No matter how screwed up we are, this kind of story gives me hope.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The weirdest little planet

Our solar system has five named dwarf planets: Pluto (unfairly classified), Eris, Ceres, Makemake, and Haumea. Haumea is not the most famous, but it's the strangest. It's elliptical, not round. It has its own moons. It's covered in ice with an odd red spot on it. And it's warmer than it has any right to be. The theory is it has subsurface radioactive elements (uranium-238, thorium-232 and potassium-40), to keep it "warm." It's a reminder that nature is stranger than fiction. I wonder if there's a cult theory that it's really a giant spaceship... of maybe I should start one just for fun.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Myths of the space program

Any endeavor as epic as the US space program is bound to have some myths and misconceptions connected to it, and Smithsonian magazine has gathered a selection. It's an eclectic list, ranging from minor misprints (Alan Shepherd never said he was "A-OK") to commonly misremembered history (the Apollo program did NOT have consistent popular support) to the hurtful (NASA gets a half percent of the national budget, not 25%). Of course, the Moon hoax lunacy is here to. Can't have a myth page and not invite the tinfoil hat people. Sigh.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fun reading for cryptozoologists

Chad Arment has been a pr0lific publisher of high-quality cryptozoology books and article collections. His newest effort is Biofortean Notes. In Volume 1, Dr. Charles Paxton reports on publishing cryptozoology in maintream scientific media. Also in this volume:

American Ibex Folklore
(Chad Arment)

The Popcorn Fish
(Chad Arment)

The Hungarian Reed Wolf
(Tomasz Pietrzak and Miklós Heltai)

Freshwater Seals in Alaska and Canada
(Chad Arment)

A Bipedal Reptile in Nevada
(Chad Arment)

Looks like fun! (OK, I doubt there are bipedal reptiles in Nevado (insert Vegas lounge lizard joke here), but I have no doubt Chad will treat the subject with an appropriately sketical eye.)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Biggest great white ever caught alive

Apache is 5.5m long. He weighs an estimated two tons. He was caught alive, tagged, and released. While scientists kind of scoffed at the idea sheer size made this shark of any particular importance, conservation also depends on capturing the popular imagination, and few things catch the imagination like an apex predator the size of an SUV.
What to read: The Devil's Teeth by Suasan Casey; Great White Shark by Richard Ellis and John McCosker; Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark by Peter Matthiessen.

Dance of the octopus

An amazing nature video to start the week. Two thousand meters down off the coast of Oregon, a remote camera vehicle caught this ghostly white "Dumbo Octopus" (the fins look like big round ears) moving with exquisite grace.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Branson creating lemur sanctuary.

Richard Branson has his own idea for conserving endangered lemurs. He owns a 125-acre private island in the the British Virgin Islands, which he will stock with ring-tailed lemurs from zoos. Conservationists are split on the idea, but here's betting Branson doesn't care.

New species bonanza!

OK, catching up a bit on a major backlog of new species news:

New species of tiger stingray from the Amazon

YOU can name a new species of deep-sea worm

An international team searches for new species on the
Great Barrier Reef

Colorado high school students on a rainforest project in Costa Rica discovered a new salamander.
Brand new amphibian

A created new species? Scientists have bred a hybrid lizard that apparently breeds true to type - and without males.
Creating a species

From 3,000 meters up in the Andes, one of the world's tiniest frogs.
Noblella pygmaea

Update on one of the strangest recent wildlife stories. A turtle fro ma shallow lake in Hanoi, big as a coffee table, may be a new species even though it was once identified as a known type.
Giant turtle

A decade of exploration in the tiny nation of Singapore has netted 500 - yes, 500 - new animals and plants. Diversity in Singapore

Remember: discoveries never stop coming. Ecologically speaking, it's a bigger planet than we think.

Atlas V with SBIRS GEO-1 is looking good

Well, after yesterday's weather scrub (too much cloud cover), the Atlas V went off beautifully, right on time. Great web coverage, United Launch Alliance, and congratulations on 50 straight launch successes. (Now, if we could do something about your launch costs....)

Friday, May 06, 2011

Sex (and much more) under the sea

This NPR excerpts a new book by Dr. Ellen Prager, an undersea biologist who tells us some of the strangest things that go on in the ocean. Title: Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter. A sea cucumber with a buttful of teeth? Check. Lobsters who think urinating on each other is the way to get a lady in the mood? Check. Parrotfish who change from female to exceptionally big, strong males if the dominant male in their group dies? Check. And I haven't even gotten to hagfish (you may not want to know). Dr. Prager's point is the that every creature has an important role in the ecosystem. We all understand that basic point, but we don't often think about how complex the whole business is and how strange the individual components are. I'll be ordering this one.

Backtracking on cosmonaut Komarov's death

Robert Krulwich of NPR reported, uncritically, on a Russian authored book called Starman by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony. This had a sensational version of Valdimir Komarov's death in the Soyuz 1 flight of 1967. I called out what I thought were numerous falsehoods, some of them ridiculous, and unproven claims. I was not one of the historians Krulwich talked to, but people like Asif Siddiqi (and other historians much more accomplished than me) objected too, and he did talk to them. Krulwich backed off. On several major points, including the claims Komarov knew the craft was doomed, talked to his wife and said goodbye, talked to a tearful Premier Kosygin, etc., Krulwich and the book's authors both admit ambiguity at best. For all your accomplishments, Mr. Krulwich, I'm still not impressed. A good writer checks this kind of sensationalist stuff BEFORE going into print with it. ANY space historian he checked with before running the article would have told him the book was full of ... um...rocket exhaust. I hope everyone learned something.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Al Shepard - 50 years ago

Fifty years ago today, Alan Shepard rode a Mercury capsule on a Redstone rocket into space. It was three weeks after the orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin. There was clamor to match the Soviet feat, and of course the U.S. pressed hard, but Wernher von Braun and the other leaders of U.S. spaceflight had their step-by-step plan mapped out, and they stuck to it. A veteran Navy fighter pilot, Shepard was one of the original seven and would walk on the Moon in 1971. His Mercury capsule was as small as a practical spacecraft for humans could be - pilots joked they didn't climb into it, they "just put it on." The Redstone booster was a veteran, too, an Army ballistic missile which was the basis for the Jupiter-C that launched America's first satellite in 1958. Shepard died in 1998, but his feat will endure as long as our history lasts. Ad Astra, Al.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Giraffe v. plane and other strange encounters

About once a month, I have to point people toward something interesting on Dr. Darren Naish's Tetrapod Zoology site. Here we have a fatal accident wherein a plane trying to land had a bad encounter (especially bad for the giraffe) on the runway. This sparked a discussion about whether giraffes had been ridden (at least once, in the movie Dr. Doolittle), and what else humans had ridden I NEVER heard the story of the Swedish attempt to create a moose-riding cavalry troop. Wouldn't those horns get in the way of swinging a sword or anything else a rider was trying to do? There's also a link here to Darren's article on whether rhinos were ever used in war, as shown in the movie 300. (Answer: apparently not.)
So that's our animal post for the day.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Conrad awards showcase Youth and Innovation

The late Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad was known as an imaginative and high-spirited guy, so unique that Mike Collins wrote of him, "One of the few who lives up to the image. Should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie." The foundation bearing his name awards the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation prizes to high school inventors who can solve tough challenges with real-world applicability. Check out what teenagers came up with this year:

"- Ouroboros, Upper Clair High School, Pittsburg, PA (aerospace exploration)- for their Perpetual Harvest Space Nutrition System that takes organic waste created during long duration space flight and creates compost that is then used to grow fresh foods also serving as an air filter for human habitation.

- West Philly EVX Team, West Philadelphia High School Auto Academy, West Philadelphia, PA (clean energy) - their Electric Very Light Car (EVLC) is being prepared for commercial market and will set the standard for efficiency with their electric vehicle.

- Unisecurity, North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics, Durham, NC (cyber security) - for their Med PAL smartphone application that works with a Bluetooth enabled heart rate monitor worn by the user. MedPAL will automatically contact a call center and/or personal emergency contacts based on GPS coordinates should irregularities occur."

COMMENT: This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for the future. We may be in economic recession and a host of other problems, but with kids like this, as John Denver sang in his tribute to the Challenger astronauts, "The promise of tomorrow is real."

Monday, May 02, 2011

Endeavour now May 8

I'm sure it was a little embarrassing to have to postpone the launch while the President was watching, but there's no substitute for safety on the penultimate shuttle mission. A fault in Aft Load Control Assembly #2 (LCA 2) means NASA will remove and replace the LCA: in other words, yank out and electronics box and plug in a new one, then test to make sure they have the right diagnosis and it's ready to go. The 8th is the earliest the shuttle can try for orbit.

Wisdom for today

"Those who understand only what can be explained understand very little."
-Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916)

Passed on by my friend Kris Winkler. It says a lot of what I try to emphasize in this blog and all my writing.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

More on the ivory-billed woodpecker

Here is an excellent article, with a link to more articles plus a sampling of rediscovered bird species. Ornithologist Jerome Jackson writes of the 1999 Kulivan sighting in the Pearl River area of Louisiana, "What were the odds that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were really there? I believe they were mighty slim, but not impossible." He went on to note, "A bird like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a forest so vast and inhospitable is not just a moving needle in a haystack, but an evasive moving needle in a flooded haystack."

New evidence for the ivory-bill?

Nice job by Loren Coleman of reporting on a new professional publication analyzing what appear to be audio recordings of an ivory-bill from the Pearl River ares of Louisiana. This was the area of a famous sighting, which held up to expert analysis, by Dennis Kulivan in 1999.
COMMENT: I am hardly an expert on bird calls, but this is certainly intriguing. I thought the famous Arkansas video was identified accurately as an ivory-bill, and some evidence from Louisiana and Florida was very good. If I had to guess, though, the bird is functionally extinct: reduced to a handful of individuals so scattered they can never re-form a viable population. I sure hope I'm wrong.