Saturday, October 31, 2015

A fictional diversion: The Dolmen

If you're going to illegally import an entire megalithic tomb from England, be sure to sift through the dirt. You don't know what else you might be importing.... my novel The Dolmen is a combination of the old-fashioned horror tale and the police procedural, with a dash of science and history thrown in.  Only for Halloween, get it from Amazon for for $1.99 (ebook) and $8.99 (paperback).  If you like chillers, see why this one has 33 reviews, none lower than 4 stars. I hope you love it!

Monday, October 26, 2015

R.I.P., space pioneer Fred Durant

Most of the sources we used for our book The First Space Race (published 2004) have passed on. The latest, and almost the last of those I talked to personally, has crossed the final frontier. I interviewed him 13 May 2002, and he helped out a lot by explaining the organizational atmosphere in DoD and the NAS/IGY effort in the pre-Sputnik days. Ad Astra, Fred: this planet will miss you. 

From NASA Historian Mike Ciancone:
                                               Frederick C. Durant (1916-2015)

Frederick C. Durant, III, the former Assistant Director for Astronautics of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and one of the world's foremost authorities of spaceflight and rocketry, died on 21 October 2015 in Mount Dora, Florida, at age 98.

Mr. Durant was born in Ardmore, Pennsylvania into a distinguished Philadelphia family.  Two of his forbearers include Thomas C. Durant of the Union Pacific Railroad and Joseph Harrison who was one of the great engineers of the 19th century.  Mr. Durant grew up at the family home located at 16th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia, just two blocks from his fraternal grandparents, who lived in a house on the far side of Rittenhouse Square.  His father, Frederick C. Durant Jr., was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Colorado School of Mines- educated engineer who had been President of the Keystone Telephone Company for the last 20 years of his life. 
 Mr. Durant received a B.S. Degree in Chemical Engineering from Lehigh University in 1939 as he had become drawn to chemistry as a boy after being given a gift of a chemistry set that allowed him to create experiments with various concoctions which invariably ended with a loud bang or in his words “whizzing”.  At the same time, he developed a life-long love of magic: he maintained his membership in the Society of American Magicians throughout his life.   Fresh out of university, he worked as a chemical engineer with the E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., at Pennsgrove, New Jersey from 1939 through 1941.
 In May of 1941, Mr. Durant left DuPont to enlist in the U.S. Navy as a naval aviation cadet.  He served until 1946 as a naval aviator, flight instructor, and test pilot, flying about 30 different types of aircraft from Piper Cubs and PBYs to the B-26.  A peptic ulcer prevented him from seeing combat overseas.  He later retired from the Navy as a Commander in the Naval Reserve. He recounted that his “love of aviation” began at age ten when he became engrossed in the media coverage of Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.  Mr. Durant’s interest in aviation intensified after he personally saw Charles Lindbergh pass by his home while on parade in Philadelphia late in October 1927.  
 In 1947, Mr. Durant began his long and very distinguished career in the rocket and missile field as a rocket engineer with the Bell Aircraft Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y.  He then served as the Director of Engineering at the Naval Rocket Test Station at Dover, New Jersey, from 1948 to 1951.   Additionally, he became an enthusiast and ardent promoter of space flight.  In 1953, he became the President of the American Rocket Society (ARS), now known as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and as early as 1951, spearheaded the organization and growth of the nascent International Astronautical Federation (IAF).  From 1953 through 1955, Mr. Durant served as the IAF’s second President.   During the late 1940s through the later 1950s, he became a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, the German Society for Aviation and Space Flight (DGLR), the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, and innumerable US and international astronautical societies, some of which he personally assisted in organizing.
 Other aerospace positions he held were with Arthur D. Little, Inc., at Cambridge, Mass., and the Avco-Everett Research Laboratory at Everett, Mass.   He was also a consultant to the Department of Defense, Bell Aerosystems Co., and other companies and organizations. 
 From 1954 to 1955, Durant played a key role in the organization of Project Orbiter, headed by Wernher von Braun, which was a joint U.S. Navy-Army project for launching a minimum weight satellite.   The first U.S. satellite, the Army's Explorer 1, launched in January 1958, was a direct outgrowth of the Orbiter concept. 
In the words of Randy Liebermann, Fred Durant’s biographer “In the 1950s decade, Fred Durant was known of by anyone and everyone who was even remotely involved in the growing rocket and missile business.  Durant, with his superb pedigree, sterling military credentials, and seasoned social skills was the pre-Sputnik era linchpin of the rocket and missile field.  ... In 1965, Mr. Durant joined the staff of the Smithsonian Institution as an Assistant Director of the National Air and Space Museum.  Over the course of the next 15 years, he greatly built up the space and rocketry collections at the Museum, including the creation of its space art collections.  Part of Mr. Durant’s multi-faceted legacy is that his collecting efforts on behalf of the Smithsonian left that institution with a plethora of artifacts that are now considered among the finest of their type in the world.  
 Mr. Durant retired from the Museum in 1980 but continued to be active in the field of astronautics, serving in the 1980s, for example, as an historian and consultant with INTELSAT to establish their archives.
 For a number of years, Mr. Durant had also authored the  “Rockets and Guided Missiles” and “Space Exploration” in the Encyclopedia Britannica entries as well as many other articles and academic papers on space flight, all the while he lectured as a leading authority on rocket and space flight history.  His wide international circle of lifelong friends and colleagues in these fields included such world notables as the late Wernher von Braun, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick I. Ordway, III.  

Fred Durant (photo NASA)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Columbus Day, Indigenous Americans Day - what about Exploration Day?

Maybe today should be Exploration Day: a day when we can celebrate the courage (if not always the motives) of all explorers of the Americas: the early Asians who pushed across the land bridge, the voyagers who (apparently) spread their culture down the West Coast with amazing speed, the bold Vikings, the later Europeans with the vision and nerve to pilot tiny ships across the Atlantic, the Polynesians who dared the emptiness of the Pacific to reach Hawaii, and the explorers who went out from the Americas: into the north and south polar regions, into orbit, and to the Moon, and all the great scientific explorers who continue to probe the seas. It would be a day to learn, understand, and debate the impact of those explorations: no white-washing, but no blaming without trying to understand, either. It could conclude with a night spent gathering at telescopes looking up at the universe and asking, "What next?"

Beyond Words by Carl Safina

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Carl Safina
Henry Holt, 2015

Safina's book gave me a problem when I tried to rate it for Amazon: there's nothing above five stars. This is, if not quite a flawless book, one that deserves the topmost ranking as a momentous, world-changing work with the impact of Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction.
To boil Safina (author of such seminal works as Song for the Blue Ocean) down to one line, this book argues that the characteristics we think of as "human," like altruism, complex thought, and love that goes beyond the sexual urge, are more differences in degree than in kind from the "lower" animals who have "different but overlapping" gifts bestowed by evolution and genetics. He discusses mainly three species: elephants, orcas, and wolves, although there are plenty of anecdotes and studies thrown in about other species, and he even ponders the behavior of animals like ducks that we hardly think of as intelligent.  All these animals, he writes, are "who" rather than "what:" while they may not pass the famous mirror test, which he casts doubt on, they have an understanding that they are individuals.  He speculates that this really goes all the way down the animal kingdom in some form: even an ant needs some understanding of when its behavior is like or or unlike the other ants' and whether to change it to accomplish a task.  
Readers will be caught up in the animals' stories: the complex leadership and deep empathy of elephants; the the efforts of wolves to find their place in a world of fissioning/fusioning packs and families where intelligence is often more important than strength; the ability of orcas to understand not only each other but humans in ways that sometimes seem downright spooky.  All these species, and many others, display traits that force us to think about who they are and how we treat them. 
I had one misgiving: while we have extensive field observations of all three main species, they are not continual observations: we don't see everything they do, especially with orcas. Safina recognizes this on page 373, where he talks about dolphin rescues and agrees with the need for caution. I followed up and asked the author online if it was appropriate to assign a behavior trait to a species based on limited anecdotes.  He responded that it depended on the strength of the anecdotes: we had, he cited, two pretty convincing examples of orcas doing something startling (nudging lost dogs back to shore instead of eating them), and thus his book argues we can ascribe that behavior to them, at least under some circumstances.  
There is still a lot of room for further learning and understanding, and even the observations and conclusions of leading scientists may not be the last word (as, Safina shows, great minds of the recent past often fell into error).  While I'm admittedly an amateur here, I wondered about the orca researcher who, seeing captive orcas fascinated with photos in books shown to them, felt that they understood the abstract idea that these are tiny representations of orcas.  Is that accurate, or were they doing something a little less amazing, recognizing the orca silhouettes as if these were orcas far away? We don't have the tools to ask the orcas those questions yet. But the human researchers Safina compellingly profiles are learning more all the time about how to measure an animal's intelligence (which may have little to do with the human definition of same), understand their differing personalities, and get a glimpse of what's going on as they observe and react to their world. 
Safina opens his book by quoting Henry Beston's words to the effect that other animals, "...are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations. caught with ourselves in the net of life and time..." A lot of authors quote this: Safina, in this marvelous book, brings it home as a fundamental truth in a way that will change the reader forever.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

October 4, 1957: Sputnik changes the world

The Space Age has turned 58 years old.

On October 4, 1957, the world changed.   The 84-kg Object PS 1, as the Soviet Union called it - or Sputnik 1, as everyone else called it - rode a modified R-7 ICBM into space and into global headlines. 

What happened next? Many, many momentous things.

The sensation was created even though the launch should not have been a complete surprise. Soviet experts and publications openly discussed their International Geophysical Year (IGY) satellite (in general terms), and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had predicted the possibility a year in advance. Yet it was a surprise. As Sputnik’s creator, Chief Designer of the Soviet space and missile program Sergei Korolev, congratulated his comrades for opening the road to the stars, radio operators around the world tuned in the satellite’s beep and others scanned the night sky. The satellite was too small to be seen with the naked eye, but the core of the R-7 booster had followed Sputnik into orbit and was spotted easily. This visual proof magnified the satellite’s impact. Several influential American media outlets, most notably LIFE magazine, published alarmist critiques, which succeeded in raising the public’s concern.
Reports that Sputnik caused panic in Western nations were exaggerated. However, the satellite did send shock waves through U.S. and allied governments. James R. Killian, a scientific adviser to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, wrote that the event violently contradicted the fundamental belief that the United States’s technical capacity had no serious rivel.. Western armed forces had a specific and worrisome concern. Missile experts correctly deduced the launcher was a powerful ICBM. The Soviet Union had announced the first flight of Korolev’s ICBM a few months earlier, but U.S. intelligence had been unsure of the validity. Now there was no doubt. 
If the little sphere caused consternation among governments, it also excited scientists who knew that the Earth satellite concept, long a theoretical possibility, had at last been proven feasible. British author and space visionary Arthur C. Clarke recalled that it was a complete shock, but he realized it would change the world.
The international impact of Sputnik was unexpected even by the Soviet leaders. At first, the official newspaper Pravda gave the launch only a brief mention. Only after it became clear Sputnik had caused a global sensation did the satellite earn banner headlines. A CIA assessment stated that Sputnik had immediately increased Soviet scientific and military prestige among many peoples some governments. Soviet diplomats and politicians made the most of the resulting admiration. 
The effect of the Sputnik launch on the Western public was raised by the subsequent media coverage and magnified by the 3 November 1957 launch of Sputnik 2. Sputnik 2 weighed 508 kg, was highly visible (thanks to the failure of the R-7 core stage to detach as planned), and carried the first living creature in space, the dog Laika. Coming at a time when the United States was still scrambling to launch even a 1.5-kg Vanguard test satellite, warnings of Soviet superiority seemed, if anything, too moderate.

Museum display with R-7 booster in the foreground and Sputnik on the far right. (Satellite in the middle is a display model based on the US Vanguard satellite) 

President Eisenhower had also been surprised by Sputnik. While he reassured the public that the U.S. satellite program had not been conducted as a race against other nations and that Sputnik raised no new security concerns, he privately called his advisers on the carpet for an explanation. At the same time, he considered what actions were necessary in response. The president saw reason for concern but not panic. He refused demands for an all-out crash program, but did ask Congress for a $1 billion emergency appropriation to boost American missile programs. 
The U.S. government responded to calls from the media and academic leaders to improve education in engineering and the sciences. In 1958 Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act to provide funding for science and math programs in colleges and high schools. This federal intervention in education, traditionally a state and local matter, began the transformation of America’s system of government. This had consequences in social programs, civil rights, and other areas far removed from space. Another consequence the Soviet leaders did not foresee was the effect of Sputnik on international law. Before Sputnik, the right of transit through space above a nation’s territory was an unsettled question. Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, pointed out that the Soviets had possibly done the United States an unintentional favor by establishing the concept of freedom of international space. Not one government protested the overflight of Sputnik. In July 1959 this acceptance was cited by a United Nations report endorsing “freedom of space”—an idea enshrined by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. 
In the Soviet Union, Sputnik made Korolev a powerful man with vast resources to devote to his dreams of spaceflight. The price imposed was the need to keep the successes coming to maintain leadership in this new field. Korolev responded with new satellites, lunar probes, and in 1961 the launch of the first human into orbit.
Sputnik also galvanized the lagging U.S. space program. With the official U.S. IGY satellite program, Project Vanguard, still struggling, the Army missile team headed by Wernher von Braun was given approval to launch a satellite. After a frantic effort, Explorer 1 was orbited in January 1958. The government was already discussing the options for a long-term space program. On the military side this led to the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the post of Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), beginning a shift of control over research funding and military budgets in general from individual services to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Civilian space programs, Eisenhower decided, should belong to a new agency. On 1 October 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence. It began pursuing numerous space endeavors, including science and applications satellites and its own human-in-space program. Sputnik’s launch was the beginning of the journey to the Moon. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Matt Bille and Erika Lishock, The First Space Race (2004). Roger Launius et al., eds., Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years since the Soviet Satellite (2000). Walter A. McDougall. …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985). Asif Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974 (2000).

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Counting down to the ICM Cryptozoology Conference

Three months and counting to the International Cryptozoology Museum conference in St. Augustine, Florida.  This looks like a really fun gathering, with authors, field researchers, and scientists coming together in the oldest city in the United States,

I'll be talking about bears, which is a topic I've had a special liking for.  Bears figure in cryptozoology a lot. Some have no doubt been mistaken for Bigfoot (and, indeed, Loren even found an old clipping where a gigantic grizzly was nicknamed Bigfoot). Bears star in many other zoological mysteries, from the erroneous suggestion of a new species in Bryan Sykes' The Nature of the Beast to reports of really odd bears from Alaska and Kamchatka: mistakes aside, it really is possible the eight species we know today are not quite all the bears out there.

The ICM is the life's work of Loren Coleman, dean of living US cryptozoologists.  Loren and I have our disagreements (most notably, I do not hold out hope for nearly as many spectacular undiscovered animals as he does), but I respect his dedication and do my best to garner support for the Museum, an irreplaceable treasure house of tens of thousands of items on animals known, unknown, and mythical.

See you in Florida!