Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Gadgets: Canada builds stealth snowmobile

OK, the Canadian Armed Forces want a hybrid-motor snowmobile that will be much quieter than current models. But according to WIRED, no one is saying what sort of missions actually require this capability. Sneaking away from hockey games? Sneaking up on polar bears? I suppose the Bond movies will find some use for it.

Aye, that be Blackbeard's ship

A shipwreck off North Carolina that has, since its discovery in 1996, been presumed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge, skippered by Blackbeard, is now officially the vessel of the famous pirate. Archaeologists could find no record of another ship the size of the Queen Anne's Revenge that would have been in the area at the time, and the trove of armament found in the wreck also points to a pirate vessel. So don't arr-gue!

New seabird may be in deep trouble

Last week, I blogged about the description of Bryan's Shearwater, the first new bird found in U.S. territory since 1947. Unfortunately, it's not clear if there are any birds left. The type specimen was collected at Midway Atoll in 1963, and one bird was photographed in Hawaii in 1990. That doesn't mean it breeds at either location: indeed, it is likely a transient at both sites. But does it still breed anywhere? No one knows. Ornithologists suggest it might breed on one or more islands making up the nation of Japan, but that's just a guess. The search is on, though. No one wants to miss the little black and white seabird if it turns out the species still exists.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On The Space Show Tuesday night

Come join us!

From Dr. David Livingston, host, The Space Show:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011, 7-8:30 PM PDT: We welcome Matt Bille to the program.

Mr. Bille of Booz Allen Hamilton will discuss his paper from Small Sat, "Distant Horizons: Smallsat Evolution in the Mid-to Far-Term," looking at the likely future for microsatellite technologies and applications." Matt Bille is an Associate with the global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and a freelance writer on space and other scientific topics.
At the most recent Conference on Small Satellites, Matt and two colleagues presented the paper, “Distant Horizons: Smallsat Evolution in the Mid-to Far-Term,” looking at the likely future for microsatellite technologies and applications. As with all his Space Show appearances, Matt is here tonight offering his own opinions as a space writer and historian and is not speaking for Booz Allen Hamilton.
Listeners can talk to the guests and the host by using toll free 1 (866) 687-7223, by sending e-mail during the program using,,
The Space Show is now podcasting effective May 3, 2005. Subscribe your pod casters to For questions or additional information, send e- mail to Dr. David Livingston,, or

UPDATE: I had, as always, a great time!

Just in from NASA: ISS situation doesn't look pretty

NASA says it may have to evacuate the International Space Station after the failure of a Proton rocket carrying supplies to the station. The Proton had an outstanding record for reliability, but failed at the worst possible time: when NASA had just shut down the Space Shuttle program and was assuming our astronauts could get there on Russian rides. The question is, how soon can Proton ISS flights resume, and how much confidence will NASA (and other nations sending up astronauts) have in the rocket when they do?

ADDED: The future plans for access took a hit, too, with the loss of a Blue Origin prototype to a control failure. Jeff Bezos, though, is determined to press on. We forget sometimes that it's ok for a test to end in a failure - that's why we test.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Discovered: the scariest-looking wasp on Earth

Wasps are pretty unsettling to most people. To entomologist Lynn Kimsey, though, the newest known species is something to marvel at, not just run away from.
Running away would be forgivable, though. From the island of Sulawesi comes a species whose males have jaws longer than its front legs. Kimsey, in perhaps an understatement, said, "The first time I saw the wasp, I knew it was something really unusual." The "Komodo dragon" of the wasp family is shiny black and 6.4cm long. Adds Kimsey, "I don't know how it can walk."

As war fades, science moves in

War has often been the bane of science: not only does it kill people and divert resources, but it's hard to do much exploration when the shooting is going on.
(It also has direct and dire effects on many species: the kouprey, the wild bovine of Cambodia, was almost pushed into extinction as soldiers, guerrillas, and peasants shot the animals for food, while land mines, bombing, and artillery no doubt did still more damage.)
Columbia's Las Orquídeas National Park was closed for 13 years due to rebel activity. With a victory by the Colombian armed forces, however, has has come an opportunity. Scientists moved in and described the mountainous region as a paradise of untouched species. One group went into the nearly roadless area on muleback and hauled out 900 plants. Scientists are still sorting out which of these - dozens, at the least - are new to science. New expeditions may add new animals as well - in fact, it's almost certain they will. Heedless of the dangers of unexploded ordnance. lingering rebels, and the terrain, Colombian scientists and international partners like New York Botanical Garden biologist Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa are determined to understand the regions' flora and fauna so conservation plans can be made.

Science, truly, has many heroes.

New American bird species (and new monkey, too)

Those who've read my stuff know that new monkeys in the Amazon are not that rare. Still, every new primate species is a big deal scientifically. The new titi monkey found in the Brazilian state of Masso Grosso has, as biologist Julio Dalponte said, "features on its head and tail that have never been observed before in other titi monkey species found in the same area." Meg Symonton of the WWF added, "This incredibly exciting discovery shows just how much we still have to learn from the Amazon."

Now the REALLY big news: there hasn't been a new American bird species since the po'uli was discovered in Hawaii in 1974. Now from the same islands comes Bryan's Shearwater, a little black and white seabird with blue legs and a a black or blue-gray bill. It was first collected in 1963 but misidentified as a known species. We don;t know how many of these birds exist or just where they breed. Conservationists are assiduously trying to find out such details. As Rob Fleischer of the Smithsonian put it, "It's very unusual to discover a new species of bird these days and especially gratifying when DNA can confirm our original hypothesis that the animal is unique. This bird is unique, both genetically and in appearance, and represents a novel, albeit very rare, species." Welcome, Puffinus bryani!

Discovery never ends, whether it's in a remote rain forest or (relatively) right on our doorstep...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How many species are out there?

How many species do we share the planet with? The number of described species is over 1 million and counting. but how many others are out there? A new estimate says the rough estimate (but the most accurate one to date) is 8.7 million, including (I'm rounding off a bit here):
- 7.8M animals, the vast majority being uncatalogued insects (We know about 950,000)
- 300,000 plants (we know 216,000)
- 611,000 fungi (we know only 43,000)
- 36,000 protozoa (we know only 8,000)
- 27,500 chromists (13,000 known)

So the idea that we know every species - or even all the "important" species - is ludicrous.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A "history" text that somehow missed Apollo


My 15-year-old brought home a textbook called America: Past and Present (8th edition, combined volume).
Apollo 11 does not get a mention. Seriously. One of the great events of the past millenium was judged unimportant. Even if I overlook the fact that what they do say about the space race is largely wrong (right down to the captions of the photographs), I can't believe this. The only mention at all is that JFK started a program which spent $25B to go to the moon. Even the name "Apollo" is absent.
The only modern technological/scientific issues treated in any depth at all are nuclear power (it's evil) and environmentalism.

You think only Texas has a textbook problem? What myopic moron approved a history textbook with gaping holes in history?

P.S. I'll bet you didn't know "the United States and Britain caused the Cold War" by not sharing all their nuclear information with Stalin. Wouldn't YOU trust a top-secret apocalyptic weapon to a mass-murdering dictator? (Never mind his spies were feeding home all the key information anyway.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Does species rediscovery mean victory?

Everyone rejoices when an "extinct" species is rediscovered (except possibly the person who'd been planning to build a furniture store on that spot), but does "rediscovered" mean "saved?" Unfortunately, not necessarily.
A new multinational university study came up with 351 species rediscovered in the last 122 years, but the large majority of these remain highly endangered. Species are often rediscovered in a very restricted, often disappearing, habitat. That doesn't mean rediscovery is a futile enterprise - far from it. We can't even try to conserve something that is presumed gone.
The rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker (yes, I still think that was valid) led to huge efforts to conserve its habitat, but the woodpecker appears to have flown off for good. It's possible to rediscover a species when it's already too far gone.
The cahow, or Bermuda petrel, was a success story, saved by conservation measures despite having "vanished" for 300 years. On the other hand, Miss Waldron's red colobus was determined extinct, written off, and then "rediscovered" via a photograph of a dead specimen. Are there live specimens? Nobody knows.
Keep up the search!

Great series on discovery of species

This series of posts by Richard Coniff covers the history and important of species discovery. Along the way, he comments on such things as the belief that extinction was impossible (God would not allow such imperfection in Creation), the dangers faced by naturalists accused of being spies (zoologist Jordi Magraner was killed in 2002 in Pakistan on such suspicion, although Coniff missed this example), and the challenge of inventorying a forest when you're only a half-step ahead of the loggers.
(Magraner, who had spent years in the area and was fluent in three local languages, was killed in a house he was renting in the troubled northern region of Pakistan by assailants who reportedly were organized enough to drug his watchdogs. Pakistani media and police said he had "suspicious links," but no hard information has ever surfaced to indicate he was anything other than what he said he was: a zoologist on the trail on the bar-manu, a reported man-sized primate.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sasquatch, science, and confusion

I read some of the sasquatch literature, and I hold it to be very unlikely but not entirely impossible there's an unclassified North American primate, but sometimes it seems it IS impossible for the whole business to be handled in a way "mainstream" science could respect. Sasquatch hunters and researchers range from people with relevant Ph.D.s (only a few, but they ARE there) through a wide range of people who are dedicated and sincere, and then on down to people who are, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. I respect all the sincere researchers, but they don't seem able to entirely disassociate themselves from the hoaxers and the deluded. Maybe that's an impossible task in the Internet-enabled world. Anyway, I post this link for Dr. Ketchum's comments about how she is in fact following the rules in analyzing purported sasquatch DNA and has a peer-reviewed scientific journal paper in process. I will look forward with great interest to that paper. But note the DNA enterprise is no exception to the rule that sasquatch researchers eat their own. There are competing projects, hoaxers, wild tales of dead sasquatches, and much more in this article and the comments thereto. If sasquatch exists, here's my advice to his entire species: run.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Closer to the "God particle"

The Higgs boson, which would validate the Standard Model (the dominant model of physics) if discovered, has not turned up yet at the Large Hadron Collider. At least, not for certain. There's some evidence that has physicists wondering, essentially seeing a higher level of particle creation activity than would be expected if the Higgs did NOT exist (got that?) but the LHC is not yet operating at its designed full power, and the search goes on.

SpaceX heads for the space station

SpaceX's Dragon capsule will make its first unmanned cargo flight to the ISS in November. That's really moving with amazing speed for a space program: the capsule and its Falcon 9 booster will both be on only their third launch. SpaceX believes it can zoom past other competitors for the cargo mission, and then do it again with the first private manned missions. Given that NASA has abandoned the capability to launch U.S. astronauts until its own MPCV/Orion capsule is ready for launch around 2014, there's a lot riding on the efforts of entrepreneurial space firms. Here's wishing them luck.

Why the giant arrow on Titan?

Why does Saturn's moon Titan sport a giant arrow in its atmosphere? By the time you read this, it doesn't: it's a transient cloud pattern caused by an interference pattern of atmospheric waves. Either that, or aliens posted it to point spaceships to Saturn, as if they otherwise would not notice the gas giant planet dominating the horizon. Either way, it's kind of a mind-stopping image: after all, we KNOW moons are not supposed to have arrows as big as Texas on them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Old eel is new again

"Living fossil" is an overused term (as well as self-contradicting), but off the coast of Palau lives an eel with features not seen since dinosaurs roamed the planet. Meet Protoanguilla palau ("first eel from Palau"), The fossil record on its type is blank for the last 100 million years. Excited biologists are comparing its discovery to that of the coelacanth, which reappeared in 1938 after a gap of more than 60MY.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Surfing hippos (yes, really)

Maybe "Charlie doesn't surf!" But hippos living at the seaside apparently do. As Karl Shuker tells us, hippos are known to body-surf. He says they are not in fact great swimmers, but don't need to be, given that their blimplike bodies make them nearly impossible to drown. It's a reminder of how many animals engage in pure, functionally useless play activities, and how varied those activities are.

Jodie Foster supports effort at alien Contacts

The actress who starred in the movie Contact has joined the donors keeping alive the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and its 42-dish Allen Telescope Array (ATA) after budget cuts threatened the effort. Foster said the Array could "turn science fiction into science fact." Kudos to one star who puts her money where her movie character is.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book review: Kingdom Under Glass

Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals
by Jay Kirk
Henry Holt, NY, 2010

I wanted to like this book more than I did. The subject is fascinating: Carl Akeley, the pioneering taxidermist/conservationist who mounted Jumbo the elephant and created the museum diorama, and who also found time to push successfully for the world's first gorilla sanctuary when not hunting with Theodore Roosevelt or strangling a leopard with his bare hands. The strength of the book is the characters: Kirk re-creates a very colorful cast of men and women who supported, opposed, or exploited Akeley throughout his amazing life. Along the way, the reader will learn much about taxidermy and the "safari culture" (my term) of the early 20th century. Kirk succeeds, quite skillfully, in making the reader see, hear, and smell the world of colonial Africa. Clearly, the author did his research.
Kirk spends a lot of time in the Notes section justifying his "creative nonfiction" approach, an approach which makes the book hard to evulate or review. He argues that he was accurate in recreating the thoughts in long-dead people's minds, something he can't know regardless of the depth of his research. Scenes are inaccurately strung together and details invented. He explains he was driven by "commitment to narrative flow," which is not persuasive, seeing as how countless biographers have produced compelling narratives without resorting to fictional techniques. Also, this is a book that demands a good photo section, something that is peculiarly absent.
Bottom line: not all bad, but not what I hoped for when I picked it up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Those marvelous meteors - from space

If you did not see the Perseids in person...

This is something that makes me reject the views of those who seem certain we are only material beings and have no spiritual dimension. What matters is not that shooting stars are beautiful, but that we KNOW they're beautiful. Of what possible evolutionary advantage is the ability to feel awe and wonder and pleasure at the beauty of the universe? I don't believe our theories about evolutionary biology are wrong, but I do believe they are incomplete. There's something about us no analysis of DNA will ever capture.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The dark planet

It sounds like science fiction: a planet so dark it reflects almost no light (what geeks would call a blackbody). The universe, though, seems to enjoy telling us that our science fiction is never quite weird enough to keep up with reality. TrES-2b is a gas giant, which makes it even stranger. Astronomers say it would look to us like a solid black ball with a hint of a red glow. Science fiction writers, get to work!

Plesiosaurs didn't lay eggs

The plesiosaurs - giant marine reptiles which were contemporaries of the dinosaurs but were not technically dinos themselves - didn't lay eggs like most reptiles. A fossil of a plesiosaur carrying a single, large youngster showed they'd evolved for live births, like whales. (Just Showing Off Department: evolving toward fewer, larger young is known as "K selection.") Paleontologists had debated this a long time, because there was no evidence that plesiosaurs were really built to haul out on land like crocodiles to lay eggs, but there was no evidence they didn't behave this way, either. The decisive fossil of Polycotylus latippinus sat in a museum for 20 years before someone looked closely at it. This is not unusual: most large museums have huge back catalogs they just don't have the personnel to examine thoroughly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Perseids are coming!

OK, there is that pesky full moon. But says you still get a good view if you look away from Luna.
Comment: We don't have enough poetry about shooting stars. They vie with the aurora as the most beautiful sight in the heavens.

Smallsat conference complete

Well, complete for me, anyway, some die-hards are still in meetings there. But it was a great conference, as always. More attendees than ever, but it all ran smoothly. Thanks to Pat and everyone at Space Dynamics Lab!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Smallsat Conference Day 1 and 2

No one can say small satellites are not getting their due attention. The conference's attendance set a record of over 1,000 people. 210 abstracts were received, and only 1/3 of those could be accepted. The NRO director spoke yesterday, and the head of the Operationally Responsive Space office, Dr. Wegner, headed a panel today. Dr. Gold, director of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, also spoke today.
I an my colleagues from Booz Allen Hamilton presented our paper on the mid- to far-term microsatellite picture today, to very nice applause from the audience and some compliments afterward.
On to Day 3!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Time for the Conference on Small Satellites!

Heading out Monday to the Conference on Small Satellites in Logan, UT. (It's more fun than it sounds) My team will deliver a paper Tuesday morning on the mid- to far-term prospects for microsatellites (defined as under 100kg). The technology is advancing dramatically (satellites run by smartphones, for instance, and satellites built on individual computer chips!)

The Endangered Species Act: Flawed, but vital

Yes, there are horror stories, like the couple who was enjoined from building their dream house because it might spoil the natural view of a pair of nesting bald eagles (not affect them in any other way, just spoil the naturalness of their vistas.) And, on a more troublesome note, the ESA is often a political tool, with listings based more on lobbying and court decisions than on the science. One environmental group files petitions to list over a thousand species last year, which blocks the swamped agency from focusing on the most critical cases. (I don't think the claims of activists relocating endangered species to stop otherwise-approved developments, have ever been proven, but I would not be surprised if it happened, any more than I would be surprised if the claims landowners fearful of government intrusion occasionally shot an endangered specimen and buried it instead of reporting it were to prove true.) But the recent attempts by some Congressional Republicans to block all new species listings went WAY too far in trying to correct government and judicial excesses. Fortunately, 37 House Republicans didn't like the smell of it and joined Democrats in removing the provision.
COMMENT: Conservation, as some of us like to say, IS conservative. We need to improve the way things are done under the ESA, but we need the Act itself. To meet some other Republicans who think as I do. go to www.repamerica,org.

Knocking Archaeopteryx off its perch

We all know the story. Archaeopteryx was the first bird. Back in the Jurassic, this little creature, stunningly preserved in German sandstone as one of the most famous fossils of all time, was flitting through the treetops, dodging those clumsy pterosaurs and chuckling at its ground-bound dinosaur cousins. That picture has changed a bit: pterosaurs, for example, were covered with filaments like hair and were not clumsy at all - but the story was the same..
Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, though, has a new take on the matter. He thinks a small dinosaur found in China is the closest relation to Archaeopteryx and proves both were true dinosaurs.
"The most exciting result from our research is that both Xiaotingia and Archaeopteryx are primitive deinonychosaurs rather than birds. In other words, Archaeopteryx is a kind of Velociraptor ancestor rather than a bird ancestor."
COMMENT: It's going to take a long time (and many more fossils) to sort out who's right here. DInosaurs and their kin have repeatedly confounded paleontologists since the original picture of giant belly-dragging lizards was imagined from the remains of beasts like iguanodon. What's important is that we keep looking and keep learning. Remember the old saying, "Will wonders never cease?" Maybe not when it comes to the Mesozoic Era.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Water flows on Mars?

Surface water on Mars, even brief, seasonally appearing surface water, would seem unlikely. The planet is basically a desert, and the low atmospheric pressure means water would vaporize quickly. Yet, water flows may happen. This belief is based on observations from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Dark features that look like the signature of water flows appear every summer and fade every winter. It's not 100% certain this is from water, but no one has an alternative yet. Likewise, this does not mean there's life on Mars, but every discovery that increases the estimates of Martian water makes astrobiologists more hopeful.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden: "NASA's Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form, and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration."
COMMENT: I can't help asking if Mr. Bolden forgot, or wants us to forget, that there is no record of him protesting when his boss killed our program to put humans on Mars.

PRIMEVAL: latest take on sasquatch in fiction

I love David Golemon's Event Group thrillers, in part because I wish I'd invented the concept of a secret government "historical recovery" team myself. Primeval, the latest, gives an unusual take on sasquatch. In Goleman's fiction, the squatches are neither the shy giants of most novels (like Murphy's Where Legends Roam) or the vengeance-wreakers of Hanson's Shadowkiller. His descendants of Gigantopitchecus (misspelled throughout, which is really weird because Goleman's research is usually good), are huge and generally keep to themselves, but they also keep an eye on the human world. They are very intelligent, able to camouflage themselves well, and will band together to wreak havoc on any intruders of their remote Alaskan fastness. The "sky burials" of their dead, a concept borrowed from Native American tribes, is interesting but makes me wonder why no one on Google Earth ever noticed thousands of huge corpses rotting in treetops. (Another nitpick: I won't spoil the details, but the secret bombing mission he describes to set the action in motion would never have gotten off the ground with its payload.)
Don't let the nitpicks turn you off, though. The Event Group novels are fast-moving fun with a lot of suspense and good ideas. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Why sasquatches don't photograph well

If there is an unclassified American ape, then we ought to have better footage than we do. Even if the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967, considered the gold standard by those pursuing sasquatch, is genuine, the millions of camcorders and smartphones in the USA should have yielded something better than an endless array of "blobsquatch" images. (Someone suggested that the cameras are fine, but the sasquatches are blurry.)
This author makes the case that images of a smart, shy animal that normally avoids humans are very hard to get. There are only a few sasquatch hunters in the field at any time, and people who meet a huge animal by accident are likely to be too startled to reach for a camera.
You can draw an analogy with pumas: we know there are thousands, but good photos or videos from surprise encounters are very rare. (I think that's better than the anology about drive-by shootings the author emphasizes, given that there's an active intimidation element behind the rarity of drive-by footage.)
I'm not entirely convinced (think of the millions of birders who wander out with cameras, for example), but this is a well-reasoned argument.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Lizards - smarter than you think

You don't normally think of lizards as smart. OK, Godzilla figured out long ago that the Japanese military was impotent and he could attack Tokyo any time he felt like it, but your ordinary garden lizard didn't have much going on between its scaly ears.
Turns out lizards can do some basic problem-solving for food, and they remember the problem presented with it again the next day. Puerto Rican anoles, once they worked out by trial and error a problem where food was hidden under one of two caps, each a different color, would remember what color worked for them, and would pick out the right one on the first try a day later.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Calling All Bats

We've long known some plants are pollinated by bats. If you're a plant, though, how do you attract the bats? Send up the Bat-Signal?
Well, sort of. In a marvelous example of how intricate the links between dissimilar organisms can be, the Caribbean plant Marcgravia evenia has evolved dish-shaped leaves that make it appear more prominent to a bat's sonar than other plants without such sound-reflecting technology.
Evolutionary biology tells us that this is natural selection in action: plants whose leaves were more dish-shaped were more likely to be pollinated, and thus plants with that adaptation gradually displaced all other members of its species. It's not any less fascinating for being explainable, though.

Houston, we have oxygen

Oxygen molecules have to exist in space. Don't they? After all, oxygen is the tird-most abundant element in the universe, and it likes to form the O2 molecule. Astronomers always thought molecular oxygen was out there, but never found any.
Well, it was hiding, so it seems, in the constellation Orion, where the Herschel space telescope finally found it. Researchers presume free-floating molecular oxygen hasn't been spotted in quantity until now, because it's locked in solid particles of dust or in ice, but the whole thing is still very puzzling: there should be a lot more such oxygen than what we can put our fingers on. At least now we know it's not a pointless search.