Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Inconvenient Truth: A Mixed Bag

Having finally gotten around to seeing Al Gore's global warming film, I came away thinking it is being overpraised.
This being a film, the science had to be simplified due to time constraints. That's always true. But Gore simplifies by ignoring important points. To him, all recent warming of the Earth is human-caused. No time is spent on the important issue of how much of the measured warming can definitely be ascribed to human actions and how much is normal long-term change expected for a planet in an interglacial warm period.
The visual effects are mostly effective, even if some (like the drowning of Manhattan) illustrate "worst case" scenarios that Gore presents as likely, if not certain. Gore blames Hurricane Katrina on human-caused warming, which is hardly established fact, and, in a litany of side effects of warming, he includes the emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis. (Huh?)
While Gore mainly points the finger at the U.S., he does a good job of making it clear the situation is global by spending some time on the contribution to greenhouse gases made by China's rapid population and economic expansion.
At one point, Gore throws out a very important statement that needs support. He says that if we "do the right thing" (changing energy technologies, ending greenhouse gas emissions) we will "create new wealth and jobs." That may be true, but it requires explanation, especially when not a word is said about the costs (hundreds of billions of dollars, on a global scale) involved in changing over from fossil to renewable energy.
As a movie, the film meanders. Detours on Gore's personal life and political experiences make the viewer suspect this is a bit of a campaign commercial as well as an environmental film. There are bits that don't make sense (the weird Simpson-ish animation near the beginning, for example) and could have been replaced with more scientific information.
Overall, Gore set out to make a point here, and he generally does it well. He's become more relaxed and engaging than he was as a candidate, although my 10-year-old (who watched with me for a school assignment) still compared him to a "really boring teacher." Still, there is too much oversimplification and overstatement involved in driving the point home. Gore leaves himself open to criticism, some of it accurate, that could have been avoided if the film spent more time on the science of the core subject and less on everything from Gore family farm to non-warming-related extinctions.
So see the film, but don't take it as the whole story of a complex subject.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Defense Technology - Top 20 Stories

The editors of review their 20 most popular posts of the year. These concern high-technology efforts with military applications, but many of the solutions being developed have broader implications. Everything from super-sized airships to miniature sensor networks is covered, along with some highly speculative stuff that may or may not really be coming out of the Pentagon and its labs.

THANKS to Robyn Kane for pointing me to this item.

A mini-Lost World

Scientists analyzing a specimen of amber some 220 million years old have found well-preserved fungi and algae, along with bacteria and other microbes. This find, from Italy, is unusual to begin with, as it's one of the oldest organism-preserving amber specimens ever found. What is most surprising, though, is that the microbes look very much like modern counterparts. Lead investigator Alexander Schmidt of Berlin's Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, reports finding very few or no differences between modern and Triassic specimens. Schmidt concludes, "Although there were big changes in the composition of forests from the Triassic to recent … their microhabitats probably changed little, even during extinction events."

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Polar Bears v. Global Warming, Part 2

As mentioned in an earlier post, loss of sea ice off the northern coasts of Canada and Alaska is likely to have serious consequences for Ursus maritimus, the polar bear. In a move which surprised many conservationists who had criticized the Bush Administration for downplaying global warming, U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has proposed putting the polar bear on the Endangered Species List as a "Threatened" species. It normally takes a year or so for a species to go from a proposal to a formal place on the ESL.

RIP: President Gerald R. Ford

As the nation pauses to remember the late President, who died this week at 93, it is worth remembering that he was a member of the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration which, in 1958, helped draft the Space Act that created NASA. While the brevity of Ford's term and the economic conditions at the time meant he made no major changes in the space program, he always supported space exploration. American space achievements during his time as President included the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, the landing of two Viking spacecraft on Mars, and the opening of the National Air and Space Museum.

COMMENT: I met Ford once, as he accepted an invitation to address our Air Force ROTC dinner when I was in college in 1977. He seemed genuine, straightforward, friendly, and relaxed: truly a man who, in Kipling's phrase, "can walk with kings / nor lose the common touch."

S&T Leadership Quotes for 2006

The AIP has collected quotations on science and technology from America's political leadership for 2006. They are not, on the whole, terribly consistent or inspiring.

"I have to say, this is probably the most depressing hearing I've sat through." - Rep. Gordon discussing proposed FY 2007 NASA science budget

"The American people, the taxpayers, expect more from basic science research than new knowledge alone." - Energy Secretary Bodman

"Some people attack Members of Congress for having Potomac fever. I think some Members of this House have Mars fever. The fact is, if we are going to make a choice about where to put the best money, right now, I think a far better bet is law enforcement." - Rep. Obey

"These agencies, which are not exactly on the tip of the tongue of most Americans, are keystones of our Nation's economic future." - Rep. Boehlert on NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

National Geographic's Top 10

National Geographic has published a list of their Top Ten News stories for 2006.
To me, it's a very strange amalgamation of the serious and the offbeat.
Stories selected include include the demotion of Pluto from planetary status and the discovery of an Iron Age murder victim who used hair gel (seriously). There are two entries concerning the Judas gospel (in my opinion, an overhyped story of a text which seems no more authentic than many other post-Pauline writings). Then there are new species discoveries in Indonesia, the death of Steve Irwin, and some more oddities like an oversized rabbit terrorizing gardens in the UK.
Frankly, this is pretty disappointing. The magazine's website does not explain the criteria behind the selections, but a source with the prestige and authority of the National Geographic should be explaining to people what the ten most important stories were and why.

Monday, December 25, 2006

New Birds: Christmas Gift for Science

Wishing everyone a merry christmas, with the melodic sound of these three new species from Nepal trilling in the background.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Discovery is home

After 13 days in space, the shuttle Discovery returned successfully and safely to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Mission STS-116 continued construction of the International Space Station, took up a new station crewmember, supplies, and equipment, and launched three small satellite missions (see earlier posts). The next shuttle mission, STS-117, should go up in March 2007.

Do you like your calamari fresh?

Japanese researchers have filmed the capture of a live giant squid (genus Architeuthis) for the first time. This specimen, over 7 meters long, was a female, caught using a smaller squid on a baited hook. The animal was dead by the time it was hoisted to the deck, but this video gives viewers a look at what an adult (albeit a relatively small one) of this famous yet mysterious species looks like when battling at the surface.

The Year in Space Science

Aviation Week has posted a roundup of the achievements being made in space science by robotic probes and the people behind them as 2006 draws to a close. New explorations of Mars, Venus, and other bodies are teaching us more than even the mission designers expected. From water ice fields and craggy rock features beneath the surface of Mars to geologic processes on Titan, the discoveries just keep coming.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Europe's New Sauropod was a Giant

The giant herbivious dinosaurs, the sauropods, were known until now only from the Western Hemipshere and Africa. Now Spanish paleontologists have unveiled the fossils of Turiasaurus riodevensis - not just the first European sauropod, but a colossal beast even by dinosaur standards. At 125 feet long and 40 to 48 tons, Turiasaurus is the largest animal known to have walked the continent of Europe, and one of the largest dinosaurs known.

UPDATE: Dr. Darren Naish comments, correctly, that this is not by any means the first sauropod from Europe. I relied on the story saying it was without checking any other sources, so that error is my fault. Naish knows whereof he speaks: his own sauropod discovery came to light in 2004. See:

Naish's own blog on the sauropod dubbed "Angloposeidon" from the Isle of Wight, along with other matters paleontological and zoological, can be found here:

Side note: the story has not yet been corrected, so at least I beat them to posting the correction. I sent the author an email documenting the error.

Thanks, Darren.

Discovery Wraps Up Successful Mission

The space shuttle Discovery is on track for a landing Friday afternoon, though weather has created some doubt about which landing site will be used. The vehicle carries two tons of surplus equipment and gear being returned from the International Space Station (ISS), along with one astronaut who was swapped out from the ISS crew. Astronauts on the Shuttle delivered and emplaced a new ISS structural element, the P5 truss, stowed a no-longer-needed solar array, and rewired the entire ISS electrical system to a more capable, permanent configuration. The ISS support mission required an eight-day stay at the orbital outpost and four EVAs. The Shuttle has deployed two of its three microsatellite payloads (see earlier post) and will deploy the last one today. That one is the Atmospheric Neutral Density Experiment (ANDE), a Naval Research Laboratory experiment using two spherical microsats to measure the density and composition of the residual atmosphere found at orbital altitudes.

Following the GeneSat-1 Mission

Here is a unique resource for following a microspacecraft mission. This "dashboard," provided by engineers at Santa Clara University (partners with NASA Ames on this mission), allows viewers to check the spacecraft parameters and orbit at any time. As of this morning, everything was nominal. The experimental bacteria on board, a harmless strain of E. coli, are growing nicely and already providing data.

A Year of Fabulous Fossils

Neatly collected here by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman are ten of the most amazing fossil discoveries of the year. They range from Mongolia's little Volaticotherium antiquus, which set the date for gliding flight by mammals back an astonishing 70 million years and required creation of a new order, to the "Demon duck of doom" from Australia and the continuing studies of the most controversial fossil find in decades, the "hobbits" of Flores. Then there was the elephant-sized camel from Syria and the new species of giant carnivorous marsupial, not to mention a very large South American monkey and two new hominid discoveries from Africa. All that in one year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More news on microspacecraft

It's a big week for small spacecraft.

First, NASA's 3-kg GeneSat-1 is on orbit and looking perfect as it begins its mission of studying the growth of bacteria in microgravity.
Today, the Space Shuttle will begin deploying a series of microspacecraft for three missions. The Shuttle has not been used much recently as a satellite launcher, since the cargo capacity is usually taken up by equipment for the International Space Station. Microsatellites, though, can take advantage of the small amount of leftover capacity on ISS missions.
The first satellite to be deployed is the smallest. The Microelectromechanical System-Based PICOSAT Inspector (MEPSI), smaller than a coffee can, will demonstrate its ability to maneuver in space and inspect larger vehicles. Next out will be the Radar Fence Transponder (RAFT), built by midshipmen at the US Naval Academy to test space surveillance and communications protocols. The final microsatellite mission, the atmospheric neutral density experiment (ANDE), is a Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) project using two satellites.

COMMENT: Microspacecraft are not the answer for everything we want to do in space. They cannot, for example, handle high-resolution imaging or bulk communications traffic. However, tight budgets for space hardware and high launch costs, combined with steady advances in miniaturizing space technology, guarantee them a bright future.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Biological Bonanza from Borneo

The World Wildlife Fund reports that scientists exploring the wilds of Borneo have discovered 52 new species in the past year. Stuart Chapman, the International Coordinator of the WWF's Heart of Borneo Programme, says, "The more we look the more we find. These discoveries reaffirm Borneo’s position as one of the most important centres of biodiversity in the world.” The new finds include 30 species of fish, two tree frogs, and three trees. One of the new fish, less than a centimetre long, qualifies as the second-smallest known vertebrate. Other examples include a tree frog with brilliant green eyes and a catfish with protruding teeth and an adhesive patch on its underside allowing it to stick to rocks. The "new 52" are added to the 361 new species of animals and plants found on the island since 1996.

THANKS to Dr. Cherie McCollough, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, for pointing me to this item.

News from NASA

On Earth, an item from the San Jose business journal (see title link) reports NASA has partnered with one of the great innovators of the 21st century, Google, to work on problems including improved human-computer interfaces and the handling of massive amounts of data. This kind of public-private partnership is critical in an age where NASA is struggling just to maintain its cut of six-tenths of one percent of the Federal budget. It's interesting to note this new approach came out of NASA's Ames Research Center, where Director Simon "Pete" Worden is instituting a host of novel efforts, including increased development of microspacecraft. One of those microspacecraft is the tiny GeneSat-1, which is now doing well on orbit after a Sunday launch.

NASAWatch suggests this collaboration may go still further...

Meanwhile, in space, the shuttle Discovery will undock from the International Space Station today after a complex mission involving four spacewalks and the rewiring of the ISS' power system. Keep up with the mission at:

Thanks to Kris Winkler for the first item in this post.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Ivory-bill: The search continues

More than a year after the dramatic announcement in April 2005 of the rediscovery of the "extinct" ivory-billed woodpecker, the story and the search go on. Since that stunning announcement, some experts have questioned the data used to claim the bird survived in Arkansas, while others reported evidence for a second population in Florida. This item from the AP recounts one of the latest Arkansas sighting reports. Connie Bruce of Cornell University's ornithology laboratory told a reporter, "We get thousands of sightings ... and we're pleased that the public is interested and actively involved and that they do call us and advise us of these sightings.... We all want to locate this bird."

For full information on the continuing story, see the Nature Conservancy/Big Woods Conservation Partnership site at:

A Big Step for Small Space Missions

At 0700 EST today, a Minotaur rocket lifted off from Wallops Island, VA, carrying two experimental satellites. This flight is interesting for several reasons.
First, the Minotaur is based on a converted Minuteman ICBM, which makes it the most economical operational launcher now available in the U.S. (SpaceX's Falcon 1 will be less than half the price, at $6.9M, but has yet to fly successfully.) The total mission cost was given at $60M, including the booster, both satellites, and $621,000 for range costs.
Second, this launch marks a return to orbital missions for Wallops. NASA fired Scout orbital boosters from this location for many years, but it's been two decades now since Wallops was used for anything larger than suborbital (sounding) rockets.
Third, the payloads are milestones in the use of small spacecraft. The larger is the Air Force's sensing and communications experiment, TacSat-2. Riding along is NASA's GeneSat-1, a three-kilogram microsat carrying bacteria whose development will be studied in orbit.
Finally, there is the commercial aspect of the launch. The launch pad used was leased from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Congratulations to all the people and agencies who made this historic flight a success.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Stunning Fossil from New Zealand

A long-held belief among paleontologists and mammalogists is that New Zealand never had indigenous mammals. The lack of mammalian competition was one factor in the diversity of bird life that developed on New Zealand, including the spectacular giant moas. Until now, there were no mammalian fossils to refute the idea. Now the remains of a mouse-sized creature, estimated at 16 million years old, have turned up. Tim Worthy, co-leader of the expedition that made the discovery, reported, "This amazing find suggests that other mammals are waiting to be found there, and that New Zealand belonged to the birds only in more recent times."

Cryptozoology Books of 2006

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has posted on the always-interesting Cryptomundo blog a list of the top books on cryptozoology published in 2006. My Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock House, 2006) rated an honorable mention, and a full review of my book is pending. Other winners this year on Loren's list included anthopologist Jeff Meldrum's Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science: Chad Arment's The Historical Bigfoot: and Joe Nickell's Lake Monster Mysteries.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Global Warming cools upper atmosphere

That headline is not a misprint. A scientific team led by Dr. Stan Solomon of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado reports that an odd side effect of global warming caused by greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere is that the thermosphere, the envelope of very thin air starting at about 100 kilometers, will be cooled. The reason is that CO2 molecules collide with air molecules often in the lower atmosphere, producing heat, but are unlikely to collide with any in the thermosphere, so any heat they carry is dissipated into space.
Orbiting objects like the International Space Station will benefit from this reduction, since a cooler thermosphere is less dense and thus causes less drag. (Thermospheric drag is predicted to drop about three percent by 2017.)
Unfortunately, low-orbiting space junk and debris benefits the same way, meaning it will be a hazard to space travelers longer than expected. The other long-term effects of this cooling of the thermosphere are unknown at this time.

Yangtze River dolphin feared extinct

Scientists in China report an extended expedition in search of the baiji, or white dolphin, a nearly blind river-dwelling cetacean, yielded no sightings. August Pfluger, co-leader of the international effort, says they may have missed a few dolphins, but not enough to constitute a viable population. He adds, ""We have to accept the fact that the Baiji is functionally extinct. We lost the race."

COMMENT: If the baiji is going extinct, it will be the first cetacean driven out of existence by humans (in its case, by pollution and heavy boat traffic) in recorded times. Human activity has cost the planet at least two other marine mammals, the Japanese sea lion and (most scientists agree) the Caribbean monk seal. Two other small cetaceans, the vaquita and China's finless porpoise, another river-dweller, are on the edge. Will we act? There is hope, I think. It's hard to get most people excited about an insect or a toad going extinct, but dolphins and seals and their kin are kin to us. People notice them. And we would certainly notice their absence.

"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
- William Beebe, 1906.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sea Monster from the Antarctic past

The skeleton of a baby plesiosaur, 70 million years old, has been recovered from an island off Antarctica. One of the best skeletons ever found of its species (which could measure over 9 meters as an adult) was recovered by researchers working under freezing, extremely windy conditions and supported by the National Science Foundation. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology's Museum of Geology, whose curator, James E. Martin, led the expedition, is putting the skeleton on display this week.

THANKS for this item to Dr. Cherie McCollough.

Turtles: Ageless yet Endangered

Turtles don't just live a long time (perhaps 250 years for some species), but scientists now understand they barely age at all. What they don't understand is why.
According to Dr. Christopher Raxworthy of the American Museum of Natural History, the organs of a century-old turtle are virtually indistinguishable from those of a teenage specimen. He says, “Turtles don’t really die of old age."
Part of the reason is that turtles - somehow - can turn their heart off when it's not needed. The Smithsonian's Dr. George Zug (a delightful fellow who I interviewed on cryptozoology back in 1988) told writer Natalie Angier, “Their heart isn’t necessarily stimulated by nerves, and it doesn’t need to beat constantly. They can turn it on and off essentially at will.”
The turtle's only problem is us. Of the 250-odd species, perhaps half are in some level of difficulty. Some, like the giant leatherback of the seas, may be headed for extinction. It's important to save the turtles of the world: not just for their own sakes, but for what they might be able to teach us.
THANKS for this article to Kris Winkler.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Latest Shuttle Flight Looking Good

After a night launch that worried some safety officials, the shuttle Discovery is safely in orbit and appears to be damage-free. The STS-116 mission should dock with the International Space Station (ISS) about 1700 EST on Moday the 11th. The shuttle will deliver a new structural element, designated the P5 truss, and change out one crewmember on the station.

New Worlds of Marine Life

The report from the sixth year of the global Census of Marine Life effort includes some startling discoveries. Highlights include the shrimp Neoglyphea neocaledonica, found in the Coral Sea and nicknamed the "Jurassic shrimp" by scientists who knew it only as a fossil dated to 50 million years ago. Another was the marine crab covered in hairlike filaments, so strange it required creation of a new family, Kiwaidae. Expeditions trawled up new species from an unexplored environment 1,600 feet below the Antarctic ice shelf and a thermal vent three miles below the Sargasso Sea. A new rock lobster, weighing four pounds, popped up off Madagascar, and the Nazare Canyon off Portugal yielded a single-celled, shelled animal, of incredible size (0.4 inches in diameter).
As researcher Ron O'Dor put it: "We can't find anyplace where we can't find anything new."

Polar Bears v. Global Warming

While there's still debate on how much human activity is contributing to global warming, the effects of the warming itself are starting to show up in studies of individual species. The latest report on this concerns the polar bears of the Beaufort Sea region of Alaska's northern coast.
Two years of study by Eric Regehr of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) indicate that warming has reduced the sea ice in Canada's Hudson Bay area (which is to the east of the Beaufort Sea coast but at a similar latitude), and contributed to a 22% decline in polar bear numbers. Polar bears spend much of their lives on the sea ice along the coast, hunting seals. A decline in the ice cover shrinks the polar bears' range, increasing the competition for the small number of seals frequenting an area. If the ice melts entirely, the bears are forced onto shore, where they are sometimes driven to invade garbage dumps and come in close contact with humans. Younger bears are likely to lose out in this more competitive and dangerous environment, and if fewer young animals survive, the population inevitably drops.
While it's not clear yet whether the population in Alaska has not shown the same effects, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to take action to protect the Alaskan population.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Predator fish team up

In the first known example of interspecies-cooperative hunting in fish, the moray eel and the grouper have learned (if "learned" is the right word) to work together in the Red Sea. When a stoutly built grouper, a daytime hunter, chases prey into a crevice too small for pursuit, the grouper looks for the nearest moray. The moray, which is normally resting in a crevice of its own waiting for nightfall, is lured out by the grouper's act of shaking its head. The grouper then leaders the moray to the prey. The two predators do not apparently share the meal - sometimes the grouper gets it, sometimes the moray does, but for the grouper, this at least provides a chance at prey that would otherwise escape. The complexity of this behavior (How does the grouper "know" the moray will cooperate? Why does the moray respond to the head shaking?) is puzzling and downright amazing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Water on Mars

NASA has reported that images from the Mars Global Surveryor, taken in 2004 and 2005, show that water flowed onto the surface of Mars on at least two occasions within the last seven years. While liquid water would quickly freeze or evaporate, it apparently carried new sediment downhill in craters in the Terra Sirenum and Centauri Montes regions of the planet, leaving very distinct traces of its eruption onto the surface.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Space Exploration Conference Coverage

NASAWatch covers the AIAA Space Exploration Conference from Houston: THE place for space leaders and enthusiasts to be this week (OK, if they're not in Florida for the Shuttle launch).

Monday, December 04, 2006

NASA's New Plan: Moon Base in 2024

At the Space Exploration Conference in Houston, NASA unveiled the plans for it next major goal: an inhabited, permanent base on the Moon by 2024. The base may be at the north or south pole and will be supported by the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) now in development.

COMMENT: In a way, this is what Apollo should have been. If we were going to put in the money and accept the risk to land humans on the Moon, we should have aimed for a permanent base, where science, resource extraction, and other activities could be carried out. NASA did not lack for ambition in those days, but found it impossible to get the funding required. Now the big question is whether we will commit the money to get this new vision turned into hardware. NASA today takes about 0.7% of the federal budget. Executing the new Vision for Space Exploration will require a steady increase, but not a large one, to 1% or a bit more. It's not small potatoes, but it's not beyond our reach.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Next Voyage to the ISS

The space shuttle Discovery, slated to launch on December 7, has a big task ahead of it. Large sections of the International Space Station (ISS) will be powered down while the electrical system is reconfigured to a more powerful, more permanent setup. Discovery will also deliver a new addition to the station, release three satellites, and swap out an ISS crew member.

COMMENT: As impressive as this mission is, it would be more impressive if the ISS partners, particularly the U.S., had funded the work planned and required to maintain a crew larger than two people. With only two astronauts normally on board, and key science sections like the centrifuge module stranded on Earth, we are risking a vehicle and a brave and talented crew to support a space station that is not getting very much done in terms of science and exploration. And we're doing it on a schedule-driven night launch of the Shuttle, which the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended not be done since it limits the effectiveness of optical cameras looking for launch damage.
I agree with the idea that a permanent human presence in space is at least symbolically important, and the experience gained in assembling the station will be useful for future endeavors. As to the risk, there will always be risk in space travel, and we have to accept that if we want to further out from Earth. All that said, the objectives should be more important than to support a minimal station that makes the news only when there's a commercial stunt like launching a golf ball.