Monday, October 31, 2005

The Robot Fish

The London Aquarium is now host to the world's first autonomous, self-navigating robotic fish. Developed by the University of Essex, in southeast England, the fish are intended as a public demonstration of robotic technology, but project leader Huosheng Hu notes, "This work has many real-world applications including seabed exploration, detecting leaks in oil pipelines, mine countermeasures and improving the performance of underwater vehicles."

Comment: Some technology is just plain cool. This qualifies, definitely.

Science Policy News

The best source for keeping up with what's happening in science policy and funding is the American Insitute of Physics news page. The AIP staff is especially good at staying on top of each step of Federal budgeting actions.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

New Book "Shadows of Existence" delayed

This pains me enormously, but I must report that my second book on zoological discoveries and mysteries has been postponed again.
The publisher, Hancock House, contracted with a printer that turned out to be unreliable.
Shadows of Existence recounts the last decade of discoveries and rediscoveries in the world of zoology. The decade of the 1990s brought a wave of new species descriptions, especially of mammals, and the trend has continued into the 21st century. New deer, rodents, birds, sharks, and other vertebrates are entering the textbooks along with enormous numbers of invertebrates of all types and sizes, from microscopic creatures to a weird squid, seven meters long, that looks like an animated microwave tower. The book also delves into the mysteries of cryptozoology, separating rumor from science and showing there are still intriguing questions about creatures in the shadows.
I do have a chance to add some updates, so I'll be doing a quick revision to cover events like the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Further updates to come...

Meanwhile, the real Shuttle news

The "Tiger Team" formed to examine the unsettling External Tank foam-shedding events on the flight of STS-114 has reported in. While the exact causes remain a little fuzzier than NASA would like, the team did offer recommendations for safer flight:

Remove and replace the entire length of the LO2 and LH2 PAL ramps using improved application processes.
Implement modifications required to prevent cryopumping through bi-pod heater wiring.
Investigate the possibility of venting ice/frost ramp "fingers".
Improve hardware protection provisions to minimize the potential for collateral hardware damage during processing.

Elimination of the PAL ramp at the earliest possible opportunity coincident with rigorous aerodynamic test and analysis.
Develop hard covers for ice/frost ramps and implement in conjunction with PAL ramp elimination.
Eliminate tank traffic to the extent possible in the long-term and implement a no-touch processing policy.
Develop and certify nondestructive evaluation (NDE) techniques for all ET TPS applications.

For the full report and other Shuttle news, see:

Space Shuttle News from The Onion

The Internet's answer to The Daily Show offers this enjoyable nuggest about government rule-bending.

The Onion "reports" that...
"NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has yet to respond to recent allegations that he used NASA space shuttles on as many as one dozen unauthorized outings to such destinations as New York City, the French Riviera, and his vacation home near Ketchum, ID."

Click the headline above for the whole story! :)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Obituary: Michael Ward

Michael P. Ward, British physician and mountaineer, has died. While Ward has many important feats of mountaineering to his credit, including pioneering work on Mount Everest, he is known in cryptozoology for being co-discoverer, with Eric Shipton, of the "yeti footprints" in 1951. In 1972, primatologist John Napier wrote that he would dismiss the yeti except that the Shipton-Ward prints were the one piece of evidence that "simply sticks in my throat." The prints, which look like a primate's but with an anomalously broad heel, small big toe, and long second toe, have never been convincingly explained.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Africa's First New Monkey in 21 years

The "Highland Mangabey" (Lophocebus kipunji) has become the first new monkey species described from Africa since 1984. Biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found this brown, long-haired primate on the slopes of a Tanzanian volcano, Mt. Rungwe. It's a large monkey, with a head and body length of up to almost a meter. The animal has long been known to local hunters, and it was their discussions with visiting scientists that led to the animal's discovery. Oddly, after being unknown to science for so many years, the animal was discovered almost simultaneously by two biologists 350 km away. This second population lives in the Ndundulu Forest in the Udzungwa Mountains. The species includes only an estimated 500 to 1,000 individuals, and it is considered highly endangered.

Monday, October 17, 2005

China's Second Human Spaceflight Succeeds

Astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng safety returned to Earth by parachute in their Shenzhou VI spacecraft, making China 2-for-2 in successful human spaceflight missions. The mission lasted five days. Popular celebrations of the flight included firecrackers and dragon dances, while the nation's leaders celebrated the scientific, technological, and political advances made by the flight. The Shenzhou program has reportededly cost about $2.3 billion (U.S. dollars) so far.

"Pop Rocks" from the Ocean Floor

In 1960, unusual deep-sea volcanic rocks were dredged up from the waters off Mexico, near Guadalupe. They broke apart with loud popping noises when brought to the surface. A very few additional sources of popping rocks have been found, mainly on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but it took 45 years to relocate the site of the original discovery. Scripps oceanographers have finally accomplished that, finding the rocks on a volcano 3,200 meters down. The rocks "pop" due to concentrated bubbles of volcanic gases trapped inside. When the rocks escape the confining pressure of the deep sea, the bubbles expand with enough force to break the rocks open. The gases in the bubbles will give geologists a window back in time to examine the concentrations of these elements and compounds (helium, argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, etc.) trapped when the mantle was being formed.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Next American Spaceship

The team of Northrop Grumman and Boeing team revealed its planned version of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA'a next crewed spacecraft. (Click on link in title above.) The CEV is intended to fly orbital missions bweginning in 2012 and lunar missions by 2018. It's a modular system, much more capable than the Apollo "stack" is somewhat resembles. There is room for six astronauts in the crew module, which is coupled with a service module and a launch-abort system.

For Something Different...

Science Frontiers is a unique newsletter collecting snippets of information about scientific anomalies and curiosities from sources ranging from peer-reviewed papers to textbooks to popular media. I'm not talking about things like UFOs, although they occasionally do turn up, but such items as why the "red shift" measurement does not always work as it should for astronomers, why "earthquake lights" appear to be a real phenomenon but do not appear in all cases, and a report of traces of tobacco, a New World plant, in an Egyptian mummy. The newsletter is put out by an organization called The Sourcebook Project, which has culled hundreds of years of scientific and popular literature for this stuff, also available in collections:
The Project also sells a variety of mainstream and non-mainstream science books. The newsletter ($7/year for six issues of the print edition) is a very mixed bag, but always fascinating reading.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

China Launches Two Men Into Space

China announced the launch of its second human spaceflight mission, this one carrying two men. The Shenzhou VI was lofted by a Long March 2F booster with Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng aboard. The five-day mission took off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. This is China's first human space flight since the nation's inagural Shenzhou mission, with Yang Liwei aboard, in October 2003. China is the third nation, after the US and USSR, to launch an astronaut with its own spacecraft and booster. The astronauts on this mission will spend time in an experiment module attached to the craft's nose, where they will carry out medical and other scientific tests. This mission is a major step toward China's announced goal of a permanent crewed space station.

New "Hobbit" Bones Found

The Australian and Indonesian scientists who last year reported discovering a diminutive species of human, Homo floresiensis, have found additional remains. Working in Flores' Liang Bua cave, they have uncovered bones from the right arm of the previously discovered female designated LB1. They also found a lower jaw bone not matching any of the individuals already known. The H. floresiensis remains, believed to be 18,000 years old, remain the subject of controversy, with some scientists doubting their identity as a separate species.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

News of a Mystery Ape

An expedition to Sumatra has reported that analysis of hair believed to come from an unknown primate, known locally as the orang-pendek, has shown the sample comes from no known primate. This is not a formal publication in a scientific paper, but it's intriguing because the gibbon-sized ape (the name means "short man") represents one of the more intriguing and better documented cases of alleged unknown primates. No less an authority than Dr. John MacKinnon of the World Wildlife Fund has reported seeing what he believed were orang-pendek tracks. Conservationist Debbie Martyr, who has been working in Sumatra for years to save endangered tigers, orangs, and other species, is a solid believer and thinks she has spotted the elusive ape herself. Of all the primates around the world that draw the attention of cryptozoologists, the orang-pendek is the one I'd bet on to be a genuine unclassified species.

White House Science Policy

John H. Marburger III, the physicist who directs the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, made a presentation to LSU on the White House's view of its much-criticized policies in this area.

Dr. Marburger's Powerpoint presentation is available as well.

(Click on the title above for link)

Paper on Squid Filming Available

The full paper on the marine biology event of the year - the first-ever filming of a live giant squid - is available online.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Focus on Conserving "Charismatic" Species

Many scientists have criticized as unbalanced the strategy used by conservation groups of focusing on saving "charismatic megafauna" - generally big fuzzy predators. A new study reports the strategy is not necessarily a bad one, though. Areas in which the top predators have been conserved tend to have greater biodiversity overall. (Click on the title above for article).

This makes sense. Sure, conservationists often focus on bears and tigers because people are more likely to send money and set aside habitat for these animals than they are for endangered centipedes or frogs. Keeping the top predators healthy, though, avoids the confused and possibly collapsed ecosystems likely to emerge where such animals are allowed to vanish. Another point, sometimes criticized but still valid in my view, is that it's the top predators who need the most land area, and keeping bears, wolves, or lions healthy necessarily requires preserving large areas of habitat. This directly assists countless other species.

Habitat preservation is the key to all conservation efforts. Taking land from a developed to a wild state is usually politically impossible as well as unaffordable. If pictures of cute pandas and magnificent tigers motivate us to preserve more of the world's remaining wilderness, that can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Python v. Alligator

Over 150 pythons have been caught in South Florida in the last two years. This article documents what can happen when you turn a large predator (the python) loose in a habitat which already has an established large predator (the American alligator). In this case, a 13-foot Burmese python swallowed a 6-foot alligator, but apparently the alligator was not dead and clawed his way through the python's stomach. The results were not pretty.

Python v. Alligator 2

Sorry, the link did not display in the previous post. The Washington Post has a photograph on the messy results of what sounds like a bad SciFi channel movie:

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Happy Sputnik Day

Forty-eight years ago today, Sergei Korolev and his band of Soviet engineers launched the first artificial satellite. While it did not set off the mass panic that has become a popular myth, it certainly sparked a wave of change comparable to that produced by the atomic bomb. Arthur C. Clarke said at the time, "I had not expected it in the least. But I knew that it would change the world."
Naturally, I can't help mentioning that the Sputnik story is told in The First Space Race, by Matt Bille and Erika Lishock, with Foreword by Dr. James Van Allen. (Texas A&M University Press, 2004).

NYT: The Hunt for New Species

In a very good article in the New York Times, "One Legend Found, Many Still to Go," science writer William J. Broad celebrates the feat of two Japanese scientists in filming the giant squid. Broad reviews humanity's fascination with unknown or little-known animals and the efforts made to find them. He also writes something I did not know: that one of the best nature writers, Richard Ellis, has a book coming out cataloging the many recent discoveries in the oceans. I intend to pre-order my copy immediately. ("Singing Whales, Flying Squid and Swimming Cucumbers" (Lyon Press, 2006).)

Article (NYT requires registration):

NASA Administrator clarifies "mistake" remarks

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has clarified his controversial remarks to USA Today about the Shuttle and International Space Station being "mistakes." Griffin's words were presented out of context, and his clarification is quite close to the interpretation posted here a few days ago.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Nobel for Research Once Called "Preposterous"

When two Australian doctors reported in 1982 that bacteria, not stress, caused ulcers, their work was called "preposterous" by colleagues. More than two decades later, this revolutionary notion won them the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The idea that stress caused ulcers was so fixed in medical "fact" and popular culture that it's still heard today, long after its disproof. This case should remind everyone in the scientific world that we still need to look at even "settled" issues with an open mind and go where the evidence leads.

Tool Use by Gorillas Confirmed

Until recently, tool use among wild apes was thought confined to chimps and orangutans. Now gorillas have been observed using detached limbs and tree trunks to support themselves and to test the depth of a pool (gorillas don't swim, but they will wade in pursuit of favorite foods). In a new paper, Thomas Brewer, et. al., reported one failrly sophisticated use this way:

"Efi detached a 1.3-m-long and 5-cm-thick leafless trunk of a dead shrub with both hands. She forcefully pushed it into the ground with both hands and held the tool for support with her left hand over her head for 2 min while dredging food with the other hand."

It's not connected to this paper, but primatologist Rchard Carroll has also reported gorillas will brandish sticks at threatening leopards: Gorilla Tools

There is much we have yet to learn about our cousins, the primates.