Thursday, April 27, 2006

Science Everyone Should Know

Columbia News Service reports that leading scientists were asked to suggest a question that everyone should know the answer to. Ten questions were proposed, ranging from "Why is the sky blue?" to "Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time?"

COMMENT: The part of this article that was hard to believe - I've wondered if it was a joke - was a quote from a professor of science education at Columbia. O. Roger Anderson said, "People are so deeply involved in their family lives and professions. How are they supposed to remember this stuff?" If this is really the attitude of someone who is supposed to be teaching the future science educators of America, we might as well give up on having a future.

A "Grolar" Bear?

CBC News is reporting that a hunter in northwest Territories shot and killed a very odd-looking bear, assuming it was a grizzly, or brown bear (Ursus arctos). On closer inspection, though, the animal, described as "dirty blonde" in color, is considered a possible hybrid that might be half grizzly and half polar bear (U. maritimus.) Canada's Department of Environment is investigating. If confirmed, this would apparently be the first recorded case of such a hybrid in the wild.

COMMENT: Strange bears do turn up from time to time, but the only unquestioned polar-grizzly crosses came from instances where the two species mated in a zoo. MacFarlane's bear, a pre-World War II specimen from Northwest Territories, was yellow and weighed about 600 lbs. It was so strange that mammologist C. Hart Merriam described it as Vetularctos inopinatus "new species and genus." Since there were never any more specimens, though, Merriam's identification was gradually rejected or forgotten. One suggestion is that this was a grizzly-polar hybrid. The skin and skull are apparently still in the Smithsonian, and no one has ever dug them out for modern analysis. See my own Rumors of Existence (1995) and Terry Domico's Bears of the World (1988.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sculpting Lost Species

Rachel Berwick is a wildlife sculptor with a unique choice of subjects - cryptozoological species. Her works include the thylacine (the world's largest marsupial carnivore, believed extinct before WWII) and the coelacanth, the original "living fossil."

Thanks to Loren Coleman, whose post at drew my attention to this subject.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Search for a New Trout

A new species from Mexico, the “Conchos Trout,” has been identified by a team that followed long-lost evidence. A professor at Vanderbilt University gathered information on the trout in the 1880s, but he never formally published a description, and his specimens disappeared. It took eight years of searching for scientists to find the species again in the upper tributaries of the Ri­o Conchos of Chihuahua, Mexico.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Pioneering Test Pilot Scott Crossfield Dies

Scott Crossfield, the first man to fly more than twice the speed of sound, died when the plane he was piloting crashed in Georgia, some 50 miles north of Atlanta. Scott played important roles in early high-speed jet and rocketplane flight. He may be best remembered for his part in helping develop the X-15 rocketplane and his many flights in that craft to the edge of space.
Godspeed, Scott.

There will no doubt be debate over what an 84-year-old man was doing flying - even if he was far from an average man. Whatever the merits of that question, Scott went out doing what he loved.

"Any coward can sit in his home and criticize a pilot for flying into a mountain in a fog. But I would rather, by far, die on a mountainside than in bed. What kind of man would live where there is no daring? And is life so dear that we should blame men for dying in adventure? Is there a better way to die?"
- Charles Lindbergh

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Market for Science News

This is the first study I've seen that attempts to gauge how many Americans are interested in science news and information. Researcher Mike Hess said, "We found that consumer interest in science and science-related consumer products is both larger and more complex than many people previously thought."

Monday, April 17, 2006

A real monster: Mapusaurus roseae

I can never resist posting dinosaur stories. Once a geek, always a geek.

M. roseae, a predator from Argentina that measured more than 40 feet long in life, is the subject of an interesting study by paleontologists. The species offers "the first substantial evidence of group living by large meat-eaters other than tyrannosaurs like T. rex."

Monday, April 10, 2006

Earliest Known Evidence of Dentistry

Skeletons in Pakistan eight thousand years old show evidence of having their teeth penetrated, sometimes deeply, by flint-tipped drills. The scientists who described the find noted it was most common on molars which already showed decay and thus was likely intended to relieve pain.

COMMENT: Having one's molars drilled deeply is, I can attest, an uncomfortable thing with the most modern of tools and anesthetics. The pain imparted by the Neolithic procedure must have been indescribable. Given that, it's interesting to wonder why people underwent horrifically painful procedures that did not help them. After this trick had been tried on one patient, why would any others submit to it?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Giant Step Toward Land Animal Evolution

From the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadephia comes this press release:

"The recent discovery above the Arctic Circle of remarkably well preserved fossils from a new species of ancient fish provides a key marker in the evolutionary transition of fish to limbed animals...Dr. Ted Daeschler of The Academy of Natural Sciences and his colleagues announced the discovery of 375-million-year-old fossils with numerous features that place them squarely at the evolutionary transition from fish to limbed animals. The new species has a skull, neck, ribs and part of a fin like the earliest limbed animals, but also has fins and scales like a fish. The new species, named Tiktaalik roseae, shows that the evolution from life in water to life on land happened gradually in fish living in shallow water..."

Comment: wow.

Monday, April 03, 2006

New "standardized" satellite contract

From a Ball Aerospace news release: The USAF has chosen Ball as the prime contractor for the Space Test Program's Standard Interface Vehicle (STP-SIV).

"The goal of the STP-SIV program is to increase the flexibility and reduce the cost of small satellites, complementing similar efforts underway with small launch vehicles. Ball Aerospace, with teammates AeroAstro, Inc., and Broad Reach Engineering, will build a small spacecraft with a non-proprietary standardized payload-to-experiment interface. "

COMMENT: I wish them luck. Past efforts to reduce cost by standardization have failed because small satellite developers see no advantage in using the standard design unless it gets them affordable launch opportunities. If there is no promise of more frequent and/or affordable launch opportunities attached firmly to this program -and so far, there is not - it's not clear why anyone would follow a standard design instead of customizing to best suit the needs of their own payload.

China's Plans in Space

Luo Ge, vice administrator at the Chinese National Space Administration, has laid out his nation's current plans for space. They include robotic Moon missions, including the return of soil samples in 2017. Closer to home, a constellation of eight Earth-sensing satellites is planned, along with a heavy-lift launch vehicle able to place 25,000 kg in orbit. He said the budget for China's space program is about $500M U.S. per year, although it's not clear to American observers what is included and what might be paid through other budgets, such as the military's.