Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Calculator of the Ancients

One of the oddest artifacts ever found, the Antikythera Mechanism, has been subjected to a reconstuction that shows just how amazing the original device was. Found off Greece in 1901 and dating back perhaps 2,100 years, this assemblage of precisely crafted gear wheels was more sophistiaced than anything that would appear for a millennium. The bronze construction was a calculator that could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It could track the movements of the sun and moon and locate them within the zodiac, and could even predict lunar and solar eclipses.

COMMENT: These new findings leave us with more questions than answers. What brilliant individual or group designed and built the Mechanism? (It's been speculated the mathematician and atronomer Hipparchos had something to do with it, but no one really knows.) Were other devices also made? (At the least, any invention so complex must have had prototypes.) Why did the know-how embodied in the Mechanism disappear completely, without leaving even a mention of its existence among the records of the time? One need not be an "ancient astronaut" kook to shake one's head in amazement.

Bomb-Sniffing Bees

We are used to bomb squads that go "woof." Now they may go "bzzzzz."

Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have trained honeybees to stick out their proboscis when they smell explosives. The effort is called the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project. Operational use is some way off, but, if the bees prove sensitive and reliable enough, the advantages of cheap, tiny bees over large, ground-walking dogs or complex sensing machines are obvious.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dunkleosteus: The Ultimate Predator

There is a new study out concerning my favorite fossil species, the Devonian-era Dunkleosteus terrelli. Scientists at the Field Museum looked at fossils to build a computer model and analyze the animal's bite. Their conclusion: Dunkleosteus, armed with "biting plates" of bone rather than true teeth, was as scary as it looked. The force exerted by the animal's gaping jaws when they closed was estimated at 11,000 lbs (5,000kg), with the force at the tip of a plate being over seven times that.
Researcher Mark Westneat put it this way: "It kind of blows sharks out of the water as far as bite force goes. A huge great white shark is probably only capable of biting at about half that bite force."
Dunkleosteus, nearly the size of a killer whale, went extinct over 300 million years ago, at the end of the Devonian.

Cue very scary music...

The Brain of the Whale

Patrick Hof and Estel Van der Gucht of the Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York report the brains of humpback whales include spindle neurons, an "advanced" type of brain cell previously known only from the higher primates and the dolphins. Spindle neurons, believed to be used in cognition, may play a role in some signature behaviors including the unique "singing" of the male humpback.
Hof and Van der Gucht wrote, "In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species, it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales, exhibit complex social patterns that included intricate communication skills, coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage. It is thus likely that some of these abilities are related to comparable histologic complexity in brain organization in cetaceans and in hominids."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Genetics: More Complicated than we thought

An international team of scientists has published a paper containing potentially revolutionary findings about the human genome.
Genes were classically believed to come in pairs, with rare exceptions called "copy-number variants," but the new research shows that having an unusual copy number - one, three, or more examples of a gene rather than two - is much more common and important than believed.
Shorn of the scientific jargon, the discovery means a couple of things. One is that the human genome is more complex and variable than thought, potentially making it harder to point to one gene as the cause of a problem or defect. Conversely, we now know to look for variations that we used to think were not present or at best unimportant.
James Lupski of Baylor University added, "I believe this paper will change forever the field of human genetics."

The Science of Sleight-of-Hand

We've always known that a great deal of what magicians do involves misdirecting the audience's attention. Now we know why it works.

Gustav Kuhn of the University of Durham in England has videotaped the magician and the audience while the former appears to make a ball disappear in midair. While audience members insist they were following the ball all the time, the video shows almost all glanced at the magician's eyes for a cue about which direction to look. As Kuhn put it, "Even though people claimed they were looking at the ball, what you find is that they spend a lot of time looking at the face. While their eye movements weren't fooled by where the ball was, their perception was. It reveals how important social cues are in influencing perception."

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Three new primates named

The world's smallest primates, all residents of Madagascar, are the mouse lemurs of the genus Microcebus. German researchers have identified three previously unclassified members of this ever-expanding group. The new chipmunk-sized, nocturnal critters (Microcebus bongolavensis, Microcebus danfossi, Microcebus lokobensis) join a genus which has expanded considerably over the last decade as scientists race against deforestation and other threats to study Madagascarene fauna. A researcher from the German Primate Center in Gattingen explains that the mouse lemur species, which look very similar and need a lot of work to differentiate, appear to have been split up primarily by river barriers on the world's fourth-largest island.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

New Support for Fusion Reactor project

Thirty nations, including the United States, have signed a pact committing them to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which will be built in Cadarache, France. The project's cost is estimated at up to $10.8 billion U.S. Also signed on are the European Union, Japan, India, South Korea, China, and Russia: most of the world's major technological powers. Commercial fusion power is variously estimated at 20-50 years off: ITER is intended to be the proof-of-concept reactor.

COMMENT: Over the long term, it is hard to imagine a reasonable alternative to fusion. It is much more difficult and expensive to develop than was once hoped, but for large-scale power generation with minimal environmental impact, it's the planet's best hope, and we'd best get going on it.

Raiders of the Lost Duck

Conservationists from The Peregrine Fund Madagascar Project have rediscovered the Madagascar Pochard, a duck not seen since 1991 and classified as "possibly extinct." The site was a remote lake in the northern wilds of the island mini-continent.
Stuart Butchart,Global Species Programme Coordinator, BirdLife International, said,
“Spectacular rediscoveries like this are extremely rare, but they provide a glimmer of hope for the 14 other bird species classified as Possibly Extinct.”

COMMENT: Madagascar was the site of another spectacular rediscovery, that of the Madagascar Serpent Eagle, which was found by a conservationist from the Peregine Fund after decades in presumed extinction.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The AIr Force's New Space Vehicle

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DARPA are working on the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, intended to carry new equipment, experiments, components, and satellites into orbit for testing, then return then to Earth. The X-37B may be thought of as a quarter-scale version of the space shuttle, minus the astronauts. The Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office is responsible for the program to acquire, test, and demonstrate the OTV. A first launch in 2008 is hoped for.

COMMENT: Building a reusable demonstrator of this type makes a lot of sense: not just to have the capability to test and retest equipment in space, but to see if the OTV itself is a workable concept. If it suceeds (or even if it fails in flight) it will contribute a great deal to the design and construction of future reusable spacecraft. However, similar programs have been started by the military and/or NASA many times since the 1950s and have never been funded to completion. So I wish them the best of luck. The environment of space may be harsh, but it's nothing compared to the ones encountered at the Office of Management and Budget and on Capitol Hill.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Decoding the Neanderthal genome

This blog post gives a nice capsule review of the recent papers in Nature and Science decoding the Neanderthal genome. Author John Timmer explains the methods and the difficulties of this work in language us non-geneticists can understand. On the most interesting question - whether modern humans still carry Neanderthal genes - one of these two studies suggested (although not definitvely) that we do, while the other found no evidence. These papers represent a quantum leap in understanding our heavy-browed prehistoric cousin, but we are a long was from knowing everything.

A Cryptic Carcass

Paleobiologist Darren Naish, one of the most thoughtful of scientifically-trained cryptozoologists, here takes a detailed look at one of the semi-holy grails for those who believe in large unidentified animals still prowl the seas.
Naish agrees the eyewitness evidence for some sort of elongated large marine animal is impressive, but he can't accept one of the most-discussed pieces of physical evidence, the Naden Harbor, British Columbia, carcass of 1937. Naish wonders if this 3-4 meter, very slender, odd-looking thing did, as the contemporary reports had it, come from the gullet of a sperm whale. Ed Bousfield and Paul LeBLond published a controversial paper naming this the type specimen of a marine reptile, Cadborosaurus willsi. Naish agrees he does not know what this thing was (the specimen was lost, and only photographs remain), but is quite sure that Bousfield and LeBlond entered into far too much speculation given the limited amount of data one can be sure of from the photographs.
COMMENT: While the whole topic is often buried in the silly-season term "sea serpent," there really is a suprisingly good body of sightings that remain unexplained. The gold standard, as Naish notes, is the 1905 sighting by two well-qualified British naturalists on the yacht Valhalla, who carefully observed and sketched an animal that still cannot be reasonably assigned to any known species. More details are available in (of course) my book Shadows of Existence, among other sources.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

First Launch for Blue Origin

Blue Origin, the secretive space-tourism company founded by Jeff Bezos of, has carried out its first test launch. No information has been released about the rocket-powered test craft, except that it was a short suborbital flight, lasting under a minute and not exceeding two kilometers in altitude. No other information has come out of the launch site in western Texas or the company's Seattle HQ.

A Window onto ancient Rome

A beautifully preserved Roman cargo vessel, loaded with amphorae (sealed clay jars), is now yielding up its treasures, six years after it was discovered. The ship apparently sank in a storm of the southeastern coast of Spain about 2,000 years ago. The vessel was 100 feet long and carried 400 tons of cargo. This included lead, copper, and hundreds of amphorae, some containing fish sauce, a prized condiment in ancient Rome. Archaeologist Javier Neto told a reporter, "For archaeologists, a sunken ship is a historic document that tells us about ancient history and how its economy worked. This ship will contribute a lot."
COMMENT: The dimensions above make the ship considerably larger than the Santa Maria, the largest vessel in Christopher Columbus' little fleet sailing over fourteen centuries later.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Killer Whales: A dramatic look

In this stunning video posted on National Geographic News, two killer whales, or orcas, halfway beach themselves in pursuit of sea lion pups on the shore of Argentina. Once the two orcas (who are known to be brothers) have filled up their stomachs, they grab another pup and use it in what humans would call a sadistic game, tossing it back and forth to each other - in one case, batting it into the air with a mighty tail. Amazingly, the pup is not killed in this game. Even more amazingly, one whale takes the pup back to shore and releases it. Cetologists are puzzled, to say the least, at this behavior... just one more reminder of how hard it is to understand what goes on in the brain of another species.

Farewell, Mars Global Surveyor?

Mars Global Surveyor was launched ten years ago, and has been sending back data on the Red Planet ever since. Now NASA's mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have lost contact with the probe. A variety of things, from a power problem to a meteorite strike, could be to blame. The original mission, scheduled for one Martian year, has been extended many times, the MGS has mapped the entire planet, studied possible landing sites, and added greatly to our knowledge of the planet's past and the possibility of remaining water sources. The MGS may yet be revived, but, even if not, it's an example of how superbly a spacecraft can be designed, engineered, and operated to greatly exceed expectations. FOr those interested in costs, the mission cost $150M to build, $65M to launch, and costs about $7.5M a year to operate. Planetary scientists consider that one of the great bargains of the Space Age.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What's ahead for NASA?

Shelby Spires of the Huntsville (AL) Times writes that big changes are not likely to affect space programs, including NASA, in the wake of the U.S. midterm elections that brought the Democratic party to power in both houses of Congress. (Keep in mind it takes over a year to make a real change in the U.S. budget: the FY 2007 budget is set and the 2008 requests are well along). One thing experts agree on is that a Democratic Congress is more likely to fund space science, particularly Earth-focused environmental science.
COMMENT: Given that this Congress is unlikely to fund major NASA budget increases, the emphasis on science programs is likely to mean a slowdown in human spaceflight programs as money in 2008 and 2009 is shifted to science.

New Parrot Down Under

After ten years of fieldwork, wildlife cinematographer John Young has discovered a possible new species, the blue-fronted fig parrot, in the forests of southern Queensland, Australia. It's not certain yet whether this diminutive bird is a full species or a distinctive subspecies of the known double-eyed fig parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma, but Young's discovery is important in any case: important enough that the Queensland government is keeping the location a secret while further expeditions are made. (The name "double-eyed" apparently derives from the brightly colored cheek patches (red for males, yellow for females) on this largely green-feathered bird, although they really don't look like eyes at all.)

New Phylum is Very Old

Xenoturbella is a 12-mm wormlike creature that would not seem very important, and no one thought much about it when it was first dredged from the Baltic Sea some 50 years ago. A new study, though, shows it is a very interesting beastie indeed. The critter is so different from everything else it belongs in its own phylum. There are only 30-some phyla in the animal kingdom (the exact number is disputed). Xenoturbella is literally brainless, and shows features indicating it has retained characteristics of the original missing link - the presumed common ancestor of all chordates, including humans. One researcher explained, "It is a basal organism, which by chance preserved the basal characteristics present in our common ancestor. This shows that our common ancestor doesn't have a brain but rather a diffuse neural system in the animal's surface."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wind energy gaining steam (so to speak)

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) estimates that, if wind energy is pursued "aggressively," it could account for 20% of US electricity demand by 2020. Factors slowing the expansion of wind energy include questions raised by environmentalists concerned with the number of birds killed by the turbine blades. A new report by the Department of Defense also raises concerns that tall windmills in some locations could degrade the capabilities of air-defense and air traffic control radars. So far, radar-related concerns have resulted in delays of some energy projects, but no cancellations. AWEA Executive Director Randall Swisher says, "Decades of experience tell us that wind and radar can coexist. The American wind energy industry will continue to work collaboratively with government and others."

One Dolphin, four flippers?

Japanese scientists are studying a captured dolphin with a unique anomaly - it has four flippers. The animal has a second, small pair where hind legs might be expected in a land mammal. Seiji Osumi of the Institute of Cetacean Research said, "I believe the fins may be remains from the time when dolphins' ancient ancestors lived on land ... this is an unprecedented discovery." Vestigial hind legs or unformed protrusions have, in very rare cases, been found on other cetaceans, but this is the first case of well-formed, functional flippers.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Bigfoot and academia

Idaho State University anthropologist Jeff Meldrum is one of the leading scientific experts on the alleged unclassified ape of North America, the sasquatch. Unfortunately, that does not make him very popular with the rest of the faculty. Dr. Meldrum, a tenured professor, is considered an embarrassment by some of his colleagues. Thirty of them signed a letter objecting to his hosting a sasquatch symposium on campus. Fortunately, John Kijinski, dean of arts and sciences, is more tolerant, saying, "He's a bona fide scientist. I think he helps this university. He provides a form of open discussion and dissenting viewpoints that may not be popular with the scientific community, but that's what academics all about."

COMMENT: I'm with Kijinski. Yes, the odds are against there being an undiscovered primate wandering the Northwest. However, the scientific method demands freedom of inquiry, including inquiry into subjects that are considered "fringe."

NASA approves Hubble repair mission

NASA has approved a Shuttle mission to extend the life of the Hubble telescope. The action was widely applauded in the space science community, which has not had much to cheer about from NASA lately. The mission would launch in 2008 to allow astronauts to add seven years of life to Hubble by upgrading guidance and control components. They would also attempt to repair one instrument and replace two others, greatly improving the telescope's capabilities. However, NASA, having directed all possible funding into the Shuttle missions supporting the International Space Station, the planned retirement of the Shuttle in 2010, and the demands of the new Vision for Space Exploration, does not know where the estimated $900M budget for the mission will come from.

World fish stocks trending sharply downward

A new study indicates that global stocks of fish and other edible marine life, with the ecosystems they support, are headed for a cliff by 2050. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said, "I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are - beyond anything we suspected." He and his colleagues, who spent four years collating results of experiments and other studies worldwide, report that 29% of commercially valuable marine species have already "crashed" - that is, the populations are down an estimated 90 % or more - and the rest are following quickly. Overfishing in the main culprit, but coastal development and other ecological degradation is blamed as well.

COMMENT: This is not like global warming, where the observed changes leave some doubt about the overall trend and the human role in it. This is a crisis that essentially is impossible to dispute. While some nations, notably the US, believe they are maintaining proper controls keeping harvesting by their own fishing fleets to sustainable levels, the global picture is a very bleak one. This situation requires coordinated global action NOW.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New Species from the Pacific

A protected marine area northwest of Hawaii has yielded a bonanza of new and rare species of marine animal. A three-week expedition in the French Frigate Shoals area netted over a thousand species of invertebrates. Examples include a sea star (starfish) colored bright purple and measuring a foot (30cm) across the arms and "a hermit crab that dons a sea anemone and sports shiny golden claws."
There is still much work to be done to determine how many of these are new, but one zoologist with the team said, "There were lots of organisms that people were saying, 'Wow! What's that?'"