Monday, December 31, 2007

Wish for the New Year

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

It's my tradition to wish out the old year by sharing one of the great poetic expressions of hope and renewal. Whatever our spiritual beliefs or philosophies, we can all find a shared sentiment in this poem.

"Ring out, wild bells" from In Memoriam

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

And since hope is always buoyed by laughter, I add another perennial favorite: Dave Barry's recap of the year just passed.

The best of wishes to all,
Matt Bille

Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Book to Watch For: Your Inner Fish

Available for preorder now and out January 15 is Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon, 2008) Shubin is a palenontologist, anatomist, and now author who made one of the great "missing link" discoveries showing how fish became land vertebrates.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Ape and the Panda

Chinese scientists have unearthed new fossils of the largest ape that ever lived, alongside those of giant pandas with which it apparently competed - and lost. The fossils, 400,000 years old, came from a limestone cave on the island Hainan. They indicate that, in this habitat, the bear and the ape both utilized a bamboo-heavy diet, putting them in direct competition. The pandas persisted, although they became slightly smaller over time, while "Giganto" apparently vanished entirely.

Mars: Countdown to Collision?

The odds are still against the asteroid called 2007 WDS colliding with Mars - but they are improving. When I first blogged on this, the odds of a collision with the 50m-wide object were 1 in 75. Now they are 1 in 25. If the collision does take place, reports NASA JPL, it will do so at 2:55 a.m. PST on January 30. Stay tuned....

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Science Stories of the Year

The end-of-year lists are coming out. I like this one from USA Today because of the prominence it gives to the discovery of new animal species, both living and prehistoric.

Army buys Macintosh

We Mac lovers no longer feel quite so alone :)

Tiger attack at SF Zoo

A Siberian tiger penned behind a moat over 6m across and a wall over 5m high nonetheless got out on Christmas Day, killing one man and injuring two more before it was shot dead. There's no word yet on whether human error was involved, but it certainly seems likely. One unofficial tally (there is no official one) is that there were 44 big cat attacks in the US in 2007, although this includes pets, carnival sideshow animals, etc.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas, and an idea for that gift you forgot

I received a set of DVDs containing the BBC series Living Planet. Even viewers like myself who think they know something of natural history will gape at images of otters driving off a crocodile, cranes battling team-hunting golden eagles as they try to surmount the Himalayas, and macaques swimming underwater just for the fun of it. And that's just part of Disc 1. Diary segments about the challenges and techniques of filming this series are just as fascinating as the documentary itself.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Global Warming - an inconvenient dissent?

A Senate minority report objects to the insistence by Al Gore and others that there is a scientific consensus on human-caused global warming and only a few fringe scientists and paid oil company spokesmen are objecting. The report lists 400 scientists in relevant disciplines, some of them quite prominent, who doubt either the mechanism of global warming or the claim that it will be severe.
COMMENT: My non-expert opinion: I do think the Earth is warming, but I'm not at all sure how much of it can be laid confidently to human causes and how much is part of a natural cycle. I'm unnerved any time a majority supporting a scientific theory tries to paint itself as all-knowing and the opponents as cranks or criminals (seriously: some environmentalists have predicted criminal trials for "global warming deniers"). The point I do think I can make with confidence is that this is a complicated issue, not the gradeschool-simple cause and effect painted by Al Gore's famous slide show.

In some positive space news....

NASA's Kennedy Space Center has released a a list of its successes for the year. These included launching three Shuttle missions and four unmanned science spacecraft, hosting the World Space Expo, and making progress on the Constellations spacecraft and infrastructure. For 2008, the Center has an ambitious list: five Shuttle launches and ten robotic spacecraft.

Missing Mars

An optimal Earth-Mars trajectory is available every 26 months, so naturally NASA tries to use those opportunities to launch its probes to the Red Planet. A major mission, the $475M Mars Scout, was slated for the 2011 launch window. The agency, however, found a "serious" conflict of interest in one of the panels formed to pick the contractor for the mission. Restarting the selection process will delay the flight until the 2013 window and add $40M to the cost. NASA won't say where the conflict occurred or whether it involved an individual, one of the institutions competing for the contract, or one of NASA's support contractors.
COMMENT: This is inexcusable. You're supposed to do your "due diligence" before you appoint panels for this kind of thing. When the details leak out, as I'm sure they will, I would not be surprised if the conflict was something that could have been discovered with an Internet search.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mars under attack

A newly discovered asteroid has at least a one in 75 chance of hitting the Red Planet in January, and the odds of a collision appear to be improving. The wide chunk of rock known as 2007 WD5, 50 meters in diameter, could make a dent in Mars comparable to what a similar-sized body did 50,000 years ago on Earth. This impact resulted in the 1.2km-wide Meteor Crater (a.k.a. Barringer Crater) in Arizona. The Mars rovers are not believed to be in danger if a collision occurs, but you can be sure every instrument on Earth, in space, and on Mars will be pointed at the impact site if this cosmic smashup actually happens. The damage done to Mars, the plumes thrown into the atmosphere, and all other aspects of the collision would tell us much about our sister world.

Weirdest science story of the year?

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log lets you vote. Was it the development of transparent-skinned frogs? Radiation-proof underwear? The discovery that Viagra cures jet lag in hamsters? (I'm not sure how useful that is - I have yet to see a hamster on my business flights, and certainly hamsters have no need for Viagra for the drug's primary use.)

Vote now!

Another cryptozoological outfit of note

John Downes' Centre for Fortean Zoology fills a niche in the UK similar to the one the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club occupies in North America. The CFZ is a little too willing to consider poorly supported or illogical claims for my taste, and their Weird Weekend conference conflates cryptozoology with UFO and general Fortean enthusiasts, a combination I think cryptozoology, in its claim to be a hard science, should stay far away from. Still, I'm the guy writing from his armchair and the CFZ folks are out actively pursuing animals, so I can't criticize too much. They recently arranged a small expedition to Guyana in pursuit of cryptzoological critters, and they do a lot of investigation of odd or out-of place animals in the UK. Construction of a museum is underway. Good hunting, chaps!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

From small ancestors, great whales grow

Evolutionary biologists have long debated the origin of the whales. Now a raccoon-sized mammal called Indohyus, which lived 48 million years ago in what is now India, has been put forward as a candidate for the ancestor of all whales. Despite obvious differences between the semi-aquatic, muntjac-like Indohyus and the largest creatures that ever lived, a team led by American paleontologist Hans Thewissen reports that there are strong skeletal similarities, especially in the skulls and middle ear bones. Other experts are awaiting more analysis to support this fairly radical notion.

ISS crewmember's mother dies

Ofttimes one of the costs involved in exploration is separation from loved ones. My sincere condolences to astronaut Daniel Tani, whose mother has died on Earth while he is in orbit, enriching our knowledge aboard the International Space Station.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dragons are Too Seldom

With the new cuddly-monster film The Water Horse coming out, it's not surprising to see the media revisit the long-lived mystery of Loch Ness. Adrian Shine, one of the most experienced Nessie searchers, made a wonderful comment on the subject: "If there are no dragons there, there really ought to be.”

The giant rat of Papua

Researchers in in the Foja mountains of Indonesia's eastern Papua province have collected two new species of rodents: one a tiny possum, the other a very large rat. One scientist, Kristofer Helgen, says, "The giant rat is about five times the size of a typical city rat. With no fear of humans, it apparently came into the camp several times during the trip." The expedition was sponsored by Conservation International.
Thanks to Cameron Leuthy for drawing my attention to this item.

Friday, December 14, 2007

For Something Different: Grendel = Sasquatch?

Cryptozoologists have speculated on whether some form of human-like primate, be it a surviving Neanderthal or an unknown species, has been behind European folklore about "wildmen" and "trolls." Grendel of Beowulf fame pops up often in this conversation. The reason is that some translations, like a prose version I read in high school, explicitly make Grendel a wildman of some sort. The version I remember (and cryptid researcher Dale Drinnon agrees we read the same book) makes him about seven feet tall, "drooling with spit, stinking and hairy." Does that accord with the actual text of the poem?

We have, of course, no definitive version of the poem, whose origins are lost in time. Indeed, since for a long time it was a tale told or sung orally, and changed constantly, there is not really an official nor an original form. But the most authoritative source we have, the one all modern translations spring from (at first, second, or third hand) is a single surviving manuscript in the British Library. When poet Seamus Heaney went back to this source and used it directly for his wonderful new translation, he shed some light on Grendel.

That Grendel was a seven-foot hairy wildman appears to be a later author's interpretation. Heaney's translation of Beowulf doesn't contain anything sufficiently descriptive of Grendel to be of much use. Heaney, in an introduction, provides his view after reading the sole surviving original text: that Grendel makes us think of "some hard-boned, immensely strong android frame, half Caliban and half-hoplite." (Caliban being the deformed (also not well described, but usually depicted as looking like a bestial subhuman or wildman) yet eloquent slave in The Tempest, while a hoplite was a Greek heavy infantryman.)

Grendel is "a fiend out of hell, a grim demon" from "the banished monsters, Cain's creatures." He attacks Beowulf with his claws ready, which doesn't sound primate-like, and the later description of the arm and hand Beowulf tears off doesn't sound mammalian at all. On the other hand, Grendel is sufficiently human to have a soul, which is condemned to Hell.

The description of his size is not consistent: he is bested by one human hero in unarmed combat, but a few pages earlier, it says he bore off THIRTY men at a time, which would make him gigantic. Nowhere is he compared directly in size to a man or anything else that would allow us to ascribe an approximate height to him. All we know for sure is that he could fit through the doors of the mead hall.

From a cryptozoological perspective, I don't think there is anything solid we can make of this. Grendel is a little-described fiend who, given the reference to the old idea of Cain's clan as outcasts from humanity, might plausibly be assumed to be hairy, even if the poem makes no further reference to it. His mother seems to be something else again: she's been seen with him stalking on the moors, but she moves better in water than on land.

They went a different direction with the recent film, which follows the poem about halfway before veering off into a different story. In this visually stunning but ultimately less than compelling version, Grendel is a huge, misshapen parody of a human, but is still a physical animal, while his mother is a supernatural entity who can be physical (in more ways than one) when she wants to be.

I've always thought that Grendel was useful only as evidence of humanity's long fascination with semi-humanoid monsters, and not as evidence of any specific animal that was then living, or indeed had ever lived outside the human imagination. This doesn't mean such things can't exist, only that we can't rely on an old Anglo-Saxon poem to prove it.

But what a poem it is.

Orion/Ares I passes Preliminary Design Review

I've been very leery of the Orion/Ares I stack NASA plans to use to put the next crew into orbit. The eningeers working on it, though, think they have conquered the most improtant problems, and the stack has passed a PDR. This is without settling officially on a landing mode, oddly enough, even though NASA officials have finally stated unequivically that it's going to be a water landing as the primary option.

Also: the Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM), successor to the ingenious LEM of the Apollo days, finally has a name: Altair.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mammoth extinction: the smoking gun?

At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists offered new evidence that not only man, but nature, had a hand in the rapid decline of the mammoth and other North American megafauna. Eight 35,000-year-old mammoth tusks show damage apparently due to being peppered with tiny fragments of metal (mainly iron and nickel) moving at very high speed. All the impacts were from one direction. Richard Firestone from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said, "We think that there was probably an impact which exploded in the air that sent these particles flying into the animals."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mars Sample Return planning underway

A mission to return samples from Mars to Earth has been proposed many times, but never funded to completion. Now a new effort is underway.

NASA press release, 10 December 2007:

International Group Plans Strategy for Mars Sample Return Mission

NASA and an international team are developing plans and seeking
recommendations to launch the first Mars mission to bring soil samples back
to Earth. The ability to study soil from Mars here on Earth will contribute
significantly to answering questions about the possibility of life on the
Red Planet. Returned samples also will increase understanding of the useful
or harmful properties of Martian soil, which will support planning for the
eventual human exploration of Mars.

A task force named the International Mars Architecture for Return of
Samples, or IMARS, recently met in Washington to lay the foundation for an
international collaboration to return samples from Mars. NASA hosted the
meeting. IMARS meeting participants included representatives from more than
half a dozen countries and NASA, the European Space Agency, or ESA, the
Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

First film of a rare mammal

Mongolia's long-eared jerboa, which looks a bit like a miniature kangaroo with comically oversized ears, has been filmed for the first time. The Zoological Society of London released the video in hopes of drawing attention to the need for conserving this endangered species. The Society's Dr Jonathan Baillie said, "The long-eared jerboa is a bit like the Mickey Mouse of the desert, cute and comic in equal measure. Unfortunately, it is just one of many unusual animals that are highly threatened but receiving little or no conservation attention. This is the most amazing and remarkable creature."

Human evolution accelerating?

A study led by Robert K. Moyzis of the University of California, Irvine, and Henry C. Harpending of the University of Utah reports that approximately 7 percent of human genes shows signs of having evolved via natural selection since the emergence of modern humans. What's interesting is that the rate of genetic change in humans has apparently been accelerating over the last 50,000 years, producing such things as populations more resistant to certain diseases. The reason, apparently, is that people have exploded in numbers and pushed into more environments. Other researchers are cautious about the findings, noting that alternative explanations are possible and that the test for determining which genes have evolved may be faulty.

A little more NASA news

I was pretty harsh on NASA the other day, because I was frustrated by the conflicting word on the Orion landing mode. I still am, but I should link to another news source covering reaction to the ESMD news briefing yesterday.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Shuttle Launch slips to January

Launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, with the critical Columbus laboratory module for the ISS, has slipped to January. The problem remains the persistently troublesome engine cutoff sensors (ECOs). January 2 is the earliest possible date.

Landing Orion

There certainly has been a lot of confusion about the landing mode for NASA's Orion CEV. For a long time, it was "baselined" that the capsule would come down on land as opposed to an Apollo-style water recovery. The advantage of that is that you can put down near your recovery base and save the cost and uncertainty involving having ships in place for every landing. The drawback of such a landing is the need for airbags and other equipment that add weight and cost. It's also harder to make a reusable heatshield for landing under the sterner conditions.
In the last few months, word has been leaking out that NASA is going to give up on land as the primary mode. As NASAWatch and other sources have documented, the agency is seemingly loath to admit it. Even after an Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) administrator finally said it in Space News, NASA communications to the public have made no mention of any change in plans. Now SpaceRef hhas published an internal directive making land a "contingency only" option (that is, the crew must survive in the event of a ground landing, but the reusable spacecraft won't be reusable any more.) Amazingly, NASAWatch has notes this morning from an ESMD telecon in which NASA insists no one has picked a landing mode for certain.
COMMENT: This is ridiculous. There's no excuse for not making the decision public and explaining the rationale at the time it was made. The agency seems to be going out of its way to trip over its own feet, making it look like NASA is hiding something for as long as possible.
The possibility that NASA has, indeed, been deliberately trying to downplay any change can't be ruled out on the evidence so far. A switch to a water landing makes the Orion look a little less unique, a little more like a recycled Apollo, which is not an insignificant point when scrambling for funding. It also contributes to the perception that the Ares I launch vehicle is marginal at best and might not have handled the weight needed to safely and reusably (my grammar is off there, but you get the point) land the Orion on terra firma.
A poster to a space newsgroup took this a step further, asking if this could be a step toward dropping the reusability requirement entirely. I know NASA would hate taking that step, but between the continuing budget crunch and the capacity of the launch vehicle the agency is hell-bent on using no matter how its timeline and capabilities slip, I'll bet it's being discussed in very hushed tones somewhere.
COMMENT TO COMMENT: I believe in the VSE and the Constellation program. They are valuable to the nation and to humanity. I just wish I could believe NASA was taking the right path and executing the program as best as it could be done.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Shuttle not up in air: just launch date is

OK, sometimes I go overboard trying for a cute title.
Anyway, the shuttle Atlantis' launch, which NASA hoped it could squeeze in today (Sunday), has bees postponed again due to the ever-troublesome ECO sensors. I suspect Shuttle program managers can't even say "ECO" anymore without at least two unprintable adjectives. At this point, a new launch date has not been set. If the shuttle can't get off later this week, it will have to wait until January for the next launch window.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Kenya's Deadly New Cobra

If you think newly described species are generally harmless bugs and the like, meet Naja ashei, the giant spitting cobra just described from Kenya. Almost three meters long and able to spit venom several meters, the snake was first reported in the 1960s, but has only now been identified as a separate species from smaller spitting cobras.

First Google Lunar X Prize Competitor

The Google Lunar X Prize has its first formally announced competitor. The team, called Odyssey Moon, includes the Canadian space firm MDA and The Planetary Society among its collaborators. Its founder is Dr. Robert (Bob) Richards, a founder of the International Space University.

Shuttle countdown holding

From NASA:
"The launch of NASA's space shuttle Atlantis will take place no earlier than Saturday, Dec. 8, at 3:43 p.m. EST. Thursday's scheduled liftoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., was postponed because of a problem with a fuel cutoff sensor system inside the shuttle's external fuel tank." The shuttle is to install and activate the Columbus laboratory module on the International Space Station.
COMMENT: The four engine cutoff, or ECO, sensors, have been a sore spot for a long time. They are continually being refurbished and point up the difficulties of sustaining a launch system, however capable it may be, built with 1970s technology.

A weird little species from Ghana

The latest report from a field survey by Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) concerns discoveries made in Ghana’s Atewa Range Forest Reserve. In addition to significant new populations of endangered primates, birds, and amphibians, the team collected nine new species. The oddest of these is described as a tick-like arachnid from the age of the dinosaurs. The bizarre little animal "looks like a cross between a spider and a crab." It joins a group with only 57 other living species known.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Last chance for a giant turtle

Rafetus swinhoei, the Yangtze soft-shelled turtle, is a contender for the title of "world's largest freshwater turtle." It's also, unfortunately, a contender for the title "turtle species closest to extinction."
In the zoo in the Chinese city of Changsha lives the last known female specimen, an estimated 80 years old and weighing about 40 kg. In a zoo in Suzhou lives a 90-kg turtle, about a century old, who is the last known male. After years of difficulties, the zoos have reached an agreement to allow the female to be sent to meet the male. Scientists will try both artificial insemination and old-fashioned mating in a last-chance plan to save the species.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Followups on two cryptozoological stories

The website Cryptomundo has put up new information on a couple of the sotries I've mentioned. One is that the photo of a yeti track reported by an American TV crew which is being circulated with the news story is actually an unrelated find from Malaysia. So we still don't really know what the track being reported on looks like. The other is that the recent photograph of a South China tiger, presumed extinct in the wild, was a forgery based on a picture used for a calendar - unfortunately.

Chimp vs. college students

You may have thought some of your fellow college students were more ape than human. That might be a compliment. The testing reported here from Japan indicates that on one measure, remembering the locations of a short string of numbers flashed up only briefly, chimps competed equally with college students, and one particularly bright animal went on in a more difficult test to best its human opponents.
COMMENT: As creatures born to survive in the wild, chimps may have a stronger reason, evolutionarily speaking, to be able to take in a scene at one glance, and thus their brains and eyes are better optimized for that task. Just a thought from a human.

The Hadrosaur from Hell Creek

A very rare fossil find - a hadrosaur fossilized so completely that its skin, tendons, ligaments, and other soft structures can be studied - is undergoing a CT scan at a Boeing facility normally used for large rocket engines and the like. The fossil "mummy" was found in the Hell Creek formation in North Dakota. Among the most interesting items in the research to date is that a calculation of the animal's lean muscle mass yields an estimate of the hadrosaur's top speed at 28mph. One paleontologist noted this would enable it to outrun predators like Tyrannosaurus rex, although the speed and hunting habits of the T. rex are a matter of some debate.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

GAO on the Ares 1

A GAO report on NASA's Ares 1 booster agrees the agency is working hard to make the program executable, but worries not enough money has been set aside to bring the upper stage in on its aggressive schedule. The audit agency recommended NASA develop a revised business case for the Ares 1 and consider delaying the July 2008 Preliminary Design Review (PDR) if insufficient progress has been made.

"Sex Crazed Female Antelope Attack Tired Males"

That's the headline. Really. And I couldn't resist posting it.

Friday, November 30, 2007

In the footprints of the Yeti

An American TV crew has reported footprints near Mount Everest which, they say, resemble Yeti tracks. The legendary anthropoid of the high mountains apparently left prints by the Manju River at a relatively low (and thus livable) altitude of 2,850m. The producers from the show Destination Truth released pictures of a cast showing a "pristine" print about 30cm long and, from what I can make out from the image, very widely splayed toes.

COMMENT: I hope they found something, but we can't conclude much from what's been released. How do you say "this looks like a Yeti track" when there's no such thing as an authenticated Yeti track to compare it to? I presume they are referring to Exhibit A in anyone's case for the Yeti, the tracks photographed at a much higher altitude by Eric Shipton and Michael Ward in 1952. However, the cast displayed does NOT look much like the Shipton prints. What ever left that print had a foot which was very broad (about 20cm) for its 32-cm length but was broad along its length except for the heel. That is, those photos did not show a relatively narrow print which became much wider at the toes. So I'm not booking any flights to Nepal just yet.

Skeptic on Psychic Crime Solving

As Benjamin Radford writes in this article, journalists tend to banner the use of psychics in criminal cases without following up to see if the psychics did any good. Radford details a case where 30 psychics joined in the search for two missing women. Not only did they fail to help, but every clue they gave was wrong, and police wasted a lot of time chasing them down. Sloppy journalism like this, Radford points out, is what allows psychics (both the sincere and the publicity-seekers) to trumpet their rare "hits" and ignore their far more numerous "misses."
COMMENT: There is, as yet, no validated scientific theory that would permit any sort of ESP. I don't discount it entirely: I have two experiences with what's called "crisis telepathy" that I don't think I'll ever explain to my satisfation. This matter of psychics claiming to solve crimes is serious, though, if a psychic tip sends police in the wrong direction. If there are a hundred wrong tips from pyschics and one that turns out right, even if it's only general (e.g., "the body is near the river"), journalists tend to focus on the interesting story of the hit rather than explore the misses. Psychics were all over the Washignton sniper case without providing anything of use (of course, that was also true of the psychologists and profilers, all of whom gave the "while male loner" profile in a crime committed by two African-Americans).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Unveiling the prehistoric food chain

Paleobiologist Jurgen Kriwet at the Humboldt University of Berlin has unveiled an amazing fossil showing two steps in the food chain. Unearthed in Germany, the fossil is of a shark which has swallowed two young amphibians, about 20-25 cm long, called temnospondyls. In turn, one of the amphibians had a small bony fish in its stomach. This minidrama, which occurred over 250 million years ago, is interesting for many reasons, one of which is that no other shark, extinct or living, has been documented to eat amphibians.

Your Robot is Ready

OK, not quite ready. But the latest advances in robotic "helpers" for humans, coming out of Japan, are pretty startling.

Space and the Republicans

Space finally made it into a Republican Presidential debate, although only two candidates (one of them highly unlikely to win) addressed it. Governor Mike Huckabee endorsed, in general, the current Vision, while Rep. Tom Tancredo said the exploration (meaning human exploration) of Mars was unaffordable.
Earlier, Senator McCain had endorsed President Bush's initiative, and Governnor Romney and Mayor Giuliani did so a bit more cautiously.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nature, Nurture, and Genius

A new study offers an interesting view of what we call "genius," emphasizing that it's often narrowly focused (chess grandmasters who can remember and analyze countless moves scored no better than average at memorizing strings of numbers) and must be developed with hard work. I think the study's authors played down the genetic influence a bit too much, but it's fascinating reading.

ANGELS microsatellite program advances

Press release from Orbital Sciences:

"Orbital Awarded $29.5 Million Contract For ANGELS Satellite Program By Air Force Research Laboratory
– Orbital Sciences Corporation ...announced it has been selected by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., for a $29.5 million contract to support the execution of the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space satellite program. The ANGELS program supports the continued initiatives of AFRL’s Space Vehicle Directorate to develop innovative nanosatellite technologies capable of independently providing localized space situational awareness.

COMMENT: The program has morphed from a very innovative idea (tiny nanosatellites flying "escort" for large, expensive spacecraft) to a slightly less challenging, though still valuable one, with 50-70kg satellites providing space situational awareness (SSA). According to AFRL, the original idea was simply too difficult with current technology. OTHER COMMENT: This is not, and has never been, a weapons program. I throw this comment in a lot when reporting on military microsatellite development because the Center for Defense Information, a private group that gets quoted in the press a lot, routinely paints all such efforts as being efforts by the US to "weaponize space."

Space Battlelab deactivated

USAF press release from Schriever AFB, Colorado:
"The Air Force Space Battlelab here stood down in an inactivation earlier this month by Space Innovation and Development Center Col. Robert Wright. Colonel Wright and 595th Space Group Commander Col. Stephen Latchford retired the Space Battlelab's guidon before an audience that included all the previous Space Battlelab commanders.
The inactivation completed Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley's direction to inactivate all Air Force battlelabs, Colonel Wright said. The Battlelab's mission was to directly support combat operations through innovative and revolutionary applications of space systems. Its goal was to turn around projects at low cost within 18 months." The SDIC will continue some projects along these lines.

COMMENT: I have worked with the Space Battlelab (which, despite the name, did not develop weapons) and was very impressed with this small, dedicated group which had a number of successes in the low-cost application of space technology. The SBL will be missed.
(Oddly, the press release archived here by SpaceRef is credited to US Space Command, which (due to a decision I continue to believe is unwise, not that the Pentagon cares what I think), no longer exists.)

Next Step in Commercial Access to space

With over $200M in NASA funding made available for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) to the ISS by the disqualification of contract holder Rocketplane Kistler, Lockheed Martin, ATK, and PlanetSpace have submitted a bid. SpaceX, which holds the other COTS contract, has also applied for the new money to speed up its own booster/spacecraft development program.

More Bug Naming News

Meanwhile, a butterfly discovered in a Florida museum's collection had its naming rights auctioned off to fund an entomology research program. The grandchildren of Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller paid $40,800 to name the insect Opsiphanes blythekitzmillerae.
COMMENT: While the concept of selling species names is still a bit controversial, it's always seemed to me a win-win situation, in which market forces are harnessed to fund scientific research. Given estimates of 10-30 million animal species yet to be named (the overwhelming majority being tropical insects) it's not like opportunities to honor scientists and other worthies will be crowded out by patrons willing to pay for a name.

The Springtail and the Senator

At the dedication of the new Twin Creeks Science and Education Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the facility's Congressional patron, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, was honored in an unusual way. Earnest Bernard, the chair of Discover Life in America, which is coordinating the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), announced a newly found insect species from the park had been named the Lamar Alexander springtail, or Cosberella lamaralexanderi. Not only did Alexander secure funding for the center, but the new bug has a checkered color pattern somewhat resembling Alexander's political trademark, the plaid shirts he wore when campaigning. Alexander was appreciative, saying: "It is a pretty cute bug."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giant Sea Scorpion discovered

British and German scientists have unearthed the claw of a sea scorpion an astonishing 2.5 meters long. Jaekelopterus Rhenaniae is the largest of the known Eurypterids, aquatic or amphibian creatures which are the ancestors of modern scorpions, and, some scientists think, of all the arachnids.

Obama Talks Space - Sort of

Senator Barak Obama has become the second Democratic candidate for President to say something important on future space policy, but he did it indirectly, as an aside to his education plan. To pay for an $18B/year increase in Federal aid to education, one of his solutions is to delay NASA's Constellation program for five years.

COMMENT: It's not at all clear how much money you could free up this way, and NASA supporters are naturally deeply cynical about the idea that any major cuts would eventually be restored. It's easy to say "we'll delay a program five years," but it's extremely difficult to do it without causing significant and permanent damage. You have to find a level of spending which will maintain the critical workforce and minimize the "brain drain" over those years, while also maintaining the physical infrastructure and keeping enough work going to ensure the contractors and NASA centers are capable of completing the program eventually. I'm not arguing NASA is sacred or that Constellation must be executed as it stands today. I do, however, think that this plan will be a disaster for human spaceflight. We will see a mass exodus of top engineers, managers, and scientists into related fields like private spaceflight and aviation, and the experienced astronauts who would have been first to fly the Orion CEV will likely be gone, too.

Dating: Not just for humans

How do animals impress prospective mates? In many ways, some of them kind of amusing (the way the bower bird builds a relatively huge structure and never uses it for anything after he's gotten a lady to swoon over it), and some downright bizarre.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Update on NASA's future

Updating the post on Lori Garver's speech (below):

Space News reports that it's very unlikely the $1B add-on will survive the House-Senate conference committee, adding considerable uncertainty to an already cloudy picture. Add to that: days after Garver's speech, NASA indicated that avoiding the "brain drain" would take another $2B the agency is highly unlikely to get.
COMMENT: I'm often less than complimentary about recent decisions from NASA management, but Mike Griffin and company are in an impossible position. Congress and the Administration want the agency to pursue a slate of missions that is flat-out impossible with the current funding level, made worse by Congressional earmarks and the political impossibility of closing any of NASA's ten centers. Limping along under these conditions makes it probable the desperate agency will try to cut corners anywhere it can - raising the odds of failed programs and, potentially, disasters. It's easy for me to say, but I can't see a solution without Griffin telling the Administration and Congress, "We can't do this. Either let us close centers, or give us enough money, or fire me, but do something."

The Origins of Rome

In Roman legend, the city was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were suckled in a cave by a friendly she-wolf. Archaeologists are unlikely to vindicate this tale, but they do think they've found what Romans in the days of Augustus believed to be the location of this cave. A vaulted sanctuary, buried 17m inside the Palatine hill, was decorated with colored marble and sea shells to mark it as the Lupercale (named for the Latin term for a she-wolf, lupa). There is at yet no direct access to the partly filled-in site, which has been explored with laser scanners and endoscopes while a debate continues on how to safely open up a passage into the fragile vault in a hill riddled with centuries of buildings and passages.

Stem Cells: A Way Out of the Debate?

As neatly summarized in this article by MSNBC's Alan Boyle, two groups of researchers have developed ways to genetically modify adult cells to create new cells identical to embryonic stem cells. Neither method is ready for large-scale application, but they offer the promise of further exploring the theraputic possibilities of such cells without the oral and ethical questions surrounding the use of stem cells from human embryos.
COMMENT: Whatever one's stance on the use of human embryonic stem cells (personally, it makes me very queasy), this is good news. Hopefully this progress will attract funding to determine the large-scale applicability of these methods. When there's a non-controversial way to pursue research, it only makes sense to pursue it that way. My other thought is that the media may well be overblowing the whole subject: no useful product derivered from embryonic stem cells has yet emerged from several years of research. The potential, though, is still there, and this news may indicate a workable route to pursuing further research.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A New Hurdle for the Ares Rocket

During a system definition review (SDR) which finished up in October, NASA and contractor engineers found a potentially serious vibration/oscillation problem with the five-segment solid-fuel "stick" Ares I booster design intended to loft the Orion CEV.

A NASA spokeperson said, in response to a question from NASAWatch:
"Thrust oscillation or resonant burning is a characteristic of all solid rocket motors. It is caused by vortex shedding inside the solid rocket motor, similar to the wake that follows a fast-moving boat. When the vortex shedding coincides with the acoustic modes of the motor combustion chamber, pressure oscillations generate longitudinal forces that may affect the loads experienced by the Ares I during the last phase of first-stage flight. NASA is assessing the analyses in more detail, looking for any potential impacts to the integrated stack and ways to mitigate those impacts. Results are due in spring 2008. It is a normal part of the development process to identify, mitigate and track challenges such as this."
NASA confirmed this meant a delay of six months in the Critical Design Review (CDR) but denies a rumor that this means a slip of over a year in the first human flight, currently scheduled for March 2015. According to NASA, there's enough flexibility in the development schedule to solve the new problem without long-term impact.

COMMENT: All large rockets, being elongated structures through which tremendous and complex stresses are acting, do have challenges of this type at some point in the design phase. Going all the way back to 1958, the spinning upperstage package on the Jupiter-C/Juno I had to vary its rotation rate to avoid a "coupling" of vibrations as the first stage burned fuel and thus changed its own characteristics.
That said, no large rocket has ever been this elongated: the Ares/Orion stack will have a ratio of height to diameter of 18:1.
NASA made an early decision for a Shuttle SRB-dervived booster for Orion over alternatives like man-rating a Delta or Atlas EELV to simplify the whole Constellation program, keeping the cost down and getting the program moving sooner. To me (insert my usual "I'm not an engineer" disclaimer here), the idea that this was a "safe, simple, soon" solution, as manufacturer ATK described it, is increasingly hard to argue for. The current Ares design is no more a "simple" modified SRB than the Vanguard booster was the "modified Viking sounding rocket" the Navy used to sell its program in 1955. (Insert usual "If that's not familiar, read my book" comment here.)
I understood the initial basis for proposing the Ares family, but that logic may not be valid any more. Some human spaceflight experts have always been leery of a solid-fuel booster, which cannot be turned off, despite the addition of an Apollo-type escape tower. If I were the NASA Administrator, I'd continue with the Ares program but invite the EELV makers to provide a new round of proposals for a backup booster option.

(Insert one more comment, emphasizing even more than usual that this is a personal opinion and not related to any company or organization I'm affiliated with.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Really Wayward Whale

I try to keep up with "lost cetacean" incidents, mainly because it puzzles me how intelligent animals with great sensory capabilities get so screwed up. This last one was really a wanderer - a minke whale that turned up stranded on a sandbar over 1,500 km up the Amazon in Brazil. At least report, the 6-meter animal was still alive despite being partially exposed to the air and sun, and officials were trying to determine if the creature could be freed and sent off in the right direction.

A Strange new Sauropod

On Tetrapod Zoology, a superb blog maintained by my acquaintance, paleogeologist Darren Naish, is a new entry describing

"Xenoposeidon proneneukos Taylor & Naish, 2007, an enigmatic and morphologically bizarre Lower Cretaceous neosauropod from the Wealden Supergroup rocks of East Sussex, described in the new issue of Palaeontology (Taylor & Naish 2007).

The new species is based on a single vertebra, about 20 cm long and 30 cm high, found in the Natural History Museum of London after roughly 115 years of being overlooked in storage. Paleontological enthusiast Mike Taylor brought it to Dr. Naish's attention, and the two co-authored the description. Without getting bogged down in the details, the bone shows at least three characteristics unknown in any other sauropod species from any location, indicating it belonged to its own family with a unique ancestry.

Congratulations, Darren!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A View of NASA's Future (Lori Garver speech)

I was in attendance earlier this week when Lori Garver, space policy advisor to Senator Hilary Clinton's Presidential campaign, was a lunchtime speaker for the American Astronautical Society's National Conference.
Garver’s talk was mainly an effusive pitch for her candidate, but there was more to it than that.
She restated Clinton’s policy and also reported the limited information she’d found on space statements by other candidates.
Here is her assessment of the two leading Democrats and three of the Republicans:
Senator Clinton: Promised increased support of aeronautics, Earth science, and robotic exploration, accelerating the development of Ares/Orion to avoid a “brain drain” when the Shuttle retired in 2010, and continuing to pursue human exploration, including lunar and eventually Martian ventures (NOTE: she did not specifically commit to NASA's current timetable for when humans should be on the Moon).
Senator Barak Obama: NASA is inspiring, but the agency should “do fewer things better” and must operate in light of a strict budget environment.
Governor Romney: Has not formed a policy yet, but said he’s seen no reason so far to change President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)
Senator McCain: strongly in support of the VSE, including sending humans to Mars
Mayor Giuliani: Strongly supports an “aggressive space exploration” program.

Q and A

Q: I was able to ask a followup about what Senator Clinton’s policy meant for NASA’s topline.
A: Senator Clinton cosponsored the Senate-passed bill to add a $1B supplemental to NASA’s budget to make up for Katrina costs. Garver was asked by one of the Senator’s aides to make an estimate on what was needed to support Clinton’s NASA policy. She reported that adding the current $1B proposal to NASA’s budget and making that increased figure the new bottom line for smaller annual increases should do it. Garver said the current budget for exploration was “robust” and didn’t need a hike to carry out the new policy, but the other areas did need new money. She said her estimate was accepted by the campaign.

Q: What qualities do we need in the next NASA Administrator?
(NOTE: Garver has been mentioned as a strong possibility if Clinton is elected.)
A: The thing our recent administrators have not been able to do is better engage with, and be responsive to, the public, and that will be a key attribute to look for. Garver mentioned that, like many in the space community, she held up James Webb of the 1960s as the ideal Administrator.

A Mesozoic Vacuum Cleaner

A new dinosaur discovery from Africa, 10m long with a body mass approximating that of an elephant, shows a dentition unlike any other land creature of its time. With ten rows of tiny teeth, fast-growing and quickly worn out and replaced, in its flat mouth, Nigersaurus taqueti was a highly efficient browser - the "cow of the Mesozoic."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Flying High in Orbit

The Houston Chronicle runs an editorial applauding the recent record-setting spacewalk by Scott Parazynski by noting the mission set a new mark on the "wow factor" meter. It's hard to think of a better word than "wow."

To Clone or Not to Clone?

The United Nations University has released a new report recommending a global policy on human cloning. In the document, "Is Human Reproductive Cloning Inevitable: Future Options for UN Governance," the answer is NO, although perhaps with some narrowly defined medical or "theraputic" exceptions. The authors wrote that, among other aspects of this complex issue, "It is clear that any debate on human dignity needs to separate the various elements of the debate in order to consider whether opposition to cloning stems from concern for human dignity or respect for divine dignity.” The whole report defies thorough summary in this space, but it recommends an international agreement to ban most human cloning.
COMMENT: This seems a fairly sensible approach, but frankly, I doubt anything is going to stop human cloning from happening sometime in the next decade. That's not to say it's a good thing. It sounds naive or fuzzy or something to say that there are cases where we shouldn't take a scientific step, even if the reasons are good, but that's what I think in this case. THere are things humanity should stay away from, not just because of eithical or religious qualms but because we have no idea what the long-term effects on human society will be.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

How Flight Began

How did flying get started? Did the earliest reptiles to take wing develop their abilities by hopping from the ground, or by jumping between trees? A new paper in Current Biology argues it was the former. Studying the toes of modern birds, early birds, and feathered ground-dwelling reptiles, the authors report that the toes of all types were similar, and did not match those of tree-dwelling reptiles. Accordingly, they argue. flight evolved from running and jumping on the ground, where winglike, feathered forelimbs might have aided in balance and directional control.

Thanks to Kris Winkler, my good friend and indefatigable volunteer researcher, for this item.

Norman Mailer has died

Norman Mailer, one of America's most colorful and talented writers, has died at 84.
Space afictionados will remember Mailer as the author of "Of a Fire On the Moon," certainly the most unique chronicle of Apollo 11. In this example of his "non-fiction fiction" style, mixing in a lot of his personal life and philosophy, Mailer showed a somewhat grudging admiration for a feat he thought was marred by the bland conformity of the agency and the voyagers carrying it out. He felt this conformity, even in post-Woodstock 1969, was a stifling force holding back all society - and yet, it produced Apollo.
In the book, he wrote: "The astronauts were the core of some magnetic human force called Americanism, Protestantism, or WASPitude... They were the knights of the Silent Majority, the WASP emerging from human history in order to take us to the stars."
He told an interviewer in 1973 about watching an Apollo launch: "It was a thunderingly beautiful experience -- voluptuous, sexual, dangerous, and expensive as hell."

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

VERY Big News from the world of whales

Loren Coleman has collected some very important news and links in one handy spot on the blog Cryptomundo.
First, there is a link to cetologist Robert Pitman's paper from 2006 on the first definite sighting of a live example of the enigmatic Shepherd’s beaked whale (Tasmacetus shepherdi).
Then there's a link to Pitman's Journal of Mammology paper on a new dwarf species of killer whale from the Antarctic.
Finally, a star-studded cetological team, with Merel L. Dalebout as lead author and a roster of co-authors including two more of the top experts on the mesoplodonts (beaked whales), William F. Perrin and James G. Mead, has determined that DNA taken from stranded whales in the Palmyra Atoll Wildlife Refuge and the Tabiteuea Atoll in the Republic of Kiribati indicate there's a yet-unidentified species in that little-known group.
I covered Pitman's studies of the fault lines between what was once thought to be a single species of killer whale (a.k.a. orca) in the Antarctic and the thoughts of Dalebout and others about yet-unidentified beaked whales in my 2006 book Shadows of Existence (Hancock House). Now, though, we have formal publication of more concrete conclusions in these areas. Thanks again to Loren for putting this together.

Chinese probe orbits Moon

In another first for China's space program, the Chang'e 1 spacecraft, launched October 24, has successfully entrered orbit around the Moon. It now enters a 12-month mission of studying our natural satellite. Pei Zhaoyu of the China National Space Administration reported, "All of the subsystems of the Chang'e 1 are in normal operation so far," and added, "The project is a comprehensive demonstration of China's economic, scientific and technological power."

Some observers have noted the timing is interesting, since Japan's first lunar probe entered its own orbit just a month ago. Given the long lead times for such missions, though, it's doubtful that timing is more than coincidence.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Book of the Month: "Red Moon Rising"

This chronicle of the Sputnik era is one of several new histories which have come out this year, and it's a good one. Michael Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (2007: Times Books) stands out for a couple of reasons, including solid writing and an in-depth presentation of the Soviet side of events. He adds a good grasp of technical detail. As the co-author of another book on this subject, The First Space Race, I can speak with some authority when I say this is a valuable contribution. If anything gave me pause, it's his inclusion of the quote "Goldstone has the bird" in his acocunt of the Explorer I launch: we demonstrated that must have been based on incorrect memories, as no Goldstone tracking station yet existed. However, a few quibbles like that don't detract much from a book I recommend.

Florida's Weird Fauna

I grew up in Florida, so I noted with special interest the new book by Michael Newton titled, Florida's Unexpected Wildlife: Exotic Species, Living Fossils, and Mythical Beasts in the Sunshine State (2007: University Press of Florida). Florida is teeming with released or escaped exotic creatures (there was a monkey colony south of where I grew up in Vero Beach) and has its own "mystery animals" like sea monsters and the Skunk Ape.

It's official: the Giant Peccary

The formal publication of Marc van Roosmalen's paper naming the giant peccary (Pecari maximus) marks the latest in a series of mammal discoveries in the Amazin region by the prolific (sometimes controversial) zoologist and conservationist. The giant species has almost twice the mass of the previously established species in Brazil. An interesting note is that it was apparently discussed in a book by an American rubber-tapper named John Yungjohann, who described this species accurately as part of the fauna he encountered while working in the region from 1906 to 1919.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Triumph in Orbit

Scott Parazynski, supported by a cast of astronuts on the shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station (ISS) plus experts on the ground, pulled off one of the most difficult feats in the history of human spaceflight. In a complex seven-hour spacewalk, Parazynski anchored an extension boom on the ISS' robot arm, snipped tangled wires, and attached braces improvised on the space station to repair a 33.5-meter-long solar wing that was damaged last Tuesday. Parazynski, a doctor specializing in emergency medicine before he became an astronaut, surely never cured a more important patient. NASA can now proceed with the next launch in December, using the shuttle Atlantis, to continue the station's assembly.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Scott Parazynski's Challenge in Space

This Saturday or Sunday, U.S. astronaut Scott Parazynski will make one of the most difficult and potentially dangerous spacewalks in history. Parazynski will try to fix the ripped solar wing on the International Space Station. The plan requires travel almost from one end of the station to the other, a repair procedure which were just developed and can't be rehearsed, and the need to work next to an electrically charged panel that cannot be turned off. Astronauts on the ISS have already fashioned a brace from aluminum strips to take stress off the panel's damaged hinge.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bringing back NASA's Think Tank

Leonard David reports that interest is growing, in Congress and elsewhere, in a move to bring back the recently (and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupidly) defunded NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). NASA currently has no office dedicated to seed money and studies for long-term technologies that we will need in fulfilling the Vision for Space Exploration. NIAC was killed to add a fraction of a percent to the money available for the development of the VSE hardware.
I understand the NASA Adminstrator's desire to push the VSE as far along as possible to make it hard to kill if the White House gets an "unfriendly" occupant next year. (That, at least, is my interpretation of the push to kill anything necessary to put more money into the VSE and its hardware program, Constellation.) However, NASA's job is to think about the future. Someone needs to be thinking beyond simply getting the Orion and Ares onto the launch pad.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Tough Day in Orbit

The report from today's work on the International Space Station (ISS) reminds us how challenging major construction in space can be. Spacewalkers from the 7-person crew of the STS-120 mission had to move a pair of stored solar wings to their final position at the opposite side of the station and install them. At some point in the procedure, a 75-cm tear appeared in the wing. The power loss is minimal, but there's some concern about the structural integrity of the wing. The ISS does not just float up there: every section is under a variety of stresses as the complex structure zips through space at orbital velocity. NASA had lengthened the mission a day to allow for possible repairs to the wing as well as inspection of a joint found to be contaminated with metal shavings.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Before Columbus

A unique archaeological dig in Puerto Rico is shedding light on Caribbean native life in the centuries before Europeans showed up. It's like nothing found before in this region: a stone plaza measuring some 130 feet by 160 feet, carved with elaborate petroglyphs. The site was presumably built by the Taino people or their ancestors and was in use for as long as 900 years, from 600 to 1,500 AD.

Armadillo Aerospace - a bad day

The NASA-run Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge requires an unmanned rocket-powered craft to lift off, go to another pad at least 100 meters away, refuel, and return. It's not as easy as it looks. A well-financed team from Armadillo Aerospace thought they had it nailed this year, but they had four tries, and none of them made it. On the fourth, engine exploded on launch.
COMMENT: The engineers of Armadillo say they will get it next year, and I hope they do. NASA's prize challenges are a great idea, something to involve smaller companies in developing innovative technology for space exploration.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Science and Saucers

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log offers a good story on what UFO enthusiasts call the best case of the year, a multiple-witness sighting by employees at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Boyle includes a discussion, with links, about some of the phenomena that can be mistaken for strange-looking craft in the atmosphere.
COMMENT: I've always felt that, in dismissing UFOs wholesale, we're missing some clues about still-unknown or poorly-known atmospheric phenomena. I still think the late Philip Klass may have been on to something four decades ago when he hypothesized a kind of larger, longer-lived cousin of ball lighting. His 1968 book UFOs-Identified maintained that this theory, if correct, could explain most UFOs, given the human mind's tendency to fill in extra details like windows. His later work was much more devoted to the idea UFOs were a mix of psychological phenomena, misidentifications of known phenomena, and hoaxes. In a letter to me about 1991, he said he still thought his plasmas were likely to exist, but were behind only about 1% of UFO sightings.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Notes on Cryptozoological Fiction

This essay was published in Craig Heinselman's compendium Elementum Bestia earlier this year. It was written for an audience interested in cryptozoology, but, if that does not include you, please don't be deterred.

Cryptofiction – One Reader’s Thoughts
By Matt Bille

It’s not clear who created the genre of cryptofiction. Perhaps the unknown composer of Beowulf gets credit. More likely, the art goes back to some Cro-magnon telling stories around the campfire of how he saw a strange, unknown breed of short-faced bear (no doubt the size of a mastodon) or rediscovered a presumed-extinct cave lion.
There was a spate of cryptofiction (CF) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that produced some very enjoyable work, mainly in short story form. The writers were not just the expected culprits like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but included such luminaries as Rudyard Kipling (sea serpents) and Jack London (mammoths). Some of the short stories involved were told in the straightforward manner of a news report. Wells’ “The Sea Raiders” is a standout in this group: those who read about his murderous cephalopods could be forgiven if they thought the material was nonfiction. Chad Arment has put together a wonderful collection of such cryptofiction at
CF continued to crop up in all kinds of works, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series, where his great apes are just one of many unknown species that play greater or lesser roles. But I want to focus this essay on cryptofiction’s most common 21st-century form, the CF novel. I’m defining a CF novel as one where the main plot centers around discovery or rediscovery of a species of animal (a “cryptid”) not recognized as existing by mainstream zoologists. The modern CF novel might be said to descend from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, written in 1912 and still in print. Most CF novels would be classified as thrillers, although genres like mystery, SF, and horror can all have cryptid themes.
That covers a lot of ground, and the lines around this subgenre are fuzzy ones. What, for example, does one do with Whitley Strieber’s superb The Wolfen? His creatures are natural animals, and he makes them quite believable, but I think of it as a horror novel. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s equally gripping Relic is a scientific thriller not based on any reported cryptid, and I never figured out whether to call it CF until the sequel, Reliquary, moved the story firmly into the realm of science fiction and saved me from further pondering.
There is also the problem of classifying cryptofiction with supernatural or mystical elements, as in Robert Masello’s Bestiary and Philip Kerr’s Esau. I suggest these are probably still CF, though a bit genre-bending. There are plenty of novels which include cryptozoological elements as secondary or even incidental components (Michael Crichton’s Sphere and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, for example), but we’ll set those aside here.
In this reader’s opinion, the truly great CF novel has not been written. There are some top-shelf examples of the genre, with Eric Penz’s Cryptid, Petru Popescu’s Almost Adam, and Steve Alten’s The Loch all come to mind, but nothing I’ve read so far is really transcendent, the way Elizabeth Kostkova’s The Historian is for vampire fiction. There’s no reason there can’t be such a cryptonovel, given the inherently dramatic nature of the subject matter and the many human, scientific, and political conflicts which may be involved. It just has not quite been done yet.
By way of comparison, the vampire novel would seem to have been drained dry, with hundreds or thousands published since Mr. Stoker got the whole thing started in 1897. Yet Anne Rice made a fortune by providing a new and literate take on the legend eighty years later, and then Kostkova essentially did the same thing again, only even better, in 2006. If great novels with a fresh approach can be created in a genre as crowded as this, they certainly can – and, hopefully, will – be published in the CF realm.
Who writes cryptonovels? The authors can be established thriller writers who just choose to do a plot concerning an unknown or unconfirmed animal, or cryptid (e.g., Philip Kerr). They can be cryptozoological researchers who use the novels as a way of exploring what might be the truth behind cryptid tales (e.g., D. L. Tanner, Lee Murphy). They can also be thriller writers who start in CF and branch out from there (e.g., Steve Alten). They can even use the cryptid as a central part of a plot meant to explore some other topic. Frank Peretti did that in his Christian-themed Monster, where his sasquatches just happened to be in the same area as an ape-raising mad scientist who accidentally proves evolution doesn’t work.
The would-be CF author has a dual problem. First, the novel must be a good novel, with believable characters, stories, etc. The usual rules of good writing – people, motivation, story, and conflict – all apply in CF as they do everywhere else. So do details. Dean Koontz’ much-quoted (by me, anyway) maxim is that you can ask a reader to accept one major improbability as long as all the other features of the novel, including the small details, are solidly grounded in reality. (Koontz has not always followed his own rule, but it’s still a good one.)
That does not rule out minor liberties in geography or history, which crop up in non-cryptid writings by everyone from Stephen King to Dana Stabenow without hurting the story, but there are limits: James Michener’s creation of fictitious states in his novel Space was a jarring distraction even in the hands of a skilled writer. (I do hope Dana Stabenow somehow reads this: a novel putting her sleuth Kate Shugak on the trail of Alaska’s legendary Hairy Man would be great fun.)
The second part of the writer’s problem is the cryptid. A horror writer can invoke the supernatural and get away with almost anything, but a CF author can’t. The author has to make Koontz’s big improbability (the cryptid, in this case) seem probable, or at least plausible. The cryptid must be more or less consistent with the existing record and, to a large degree, scientifically believable.
Dedicated readers of cryptofiction are not a large lot, and the writer must appeal to a broader thriller/horror/etc. audience to make a novel successful. However, cryptozoologists are a hard-core bunch, well-read in the facts and theories of their field of interest. If an author attributes the Lachlan Stuart photo from Loch Ness to Tim Dinsdale, there will be hell to pay. It’s almost like writing a Star Trek novel, where an error on some obscure point of Vulcan protocol will draw a deluge of emails calling the author a Romulan or worse.
An author introducing a new or surviving creature has to assume many readers will have, or will look up, sufficient information to judge whether the creature involved might really exist. In James Robert Smith’s enjoyable thriller The Flock, I could generally get past the problems with undetected survival of his terror birds, but was stopped short when one “laughed” at the abstract idea of a dog taking him on, and I almost gave up on the book when the critter actually got a mental image from human hunters.
Sometimes CF authors seem not to know how to get to their tale, and so they gloss over too much. Robert Masello in Bestiary described his animals well, but never explained where they were for millions of years before they ended up as living treasures in care of an Iraqi dynasty. Sometimes authors go the other way, throwing a blizzard of scientific jargon at the reader in hopes said reader will thus buy into the creature’s reality. Dave Freedman’s Natural Selection, which mixes a few real data points and many imaginary (and some impossible) ones, is the most egregious offender on this point. (The astonishing thing is that, to read some reviews by major media outlets, this actually worked. The absurdity of Freedman’s flying mantas was somehow passed over, and I suppose I must give the author some credit for this accomplishment.)
For the author who plans to tell a series of stories in novel form, growth from one tale to the next is always possible and highly welcomed. I wrote harsh reviews of Steve Alten’s original Meg and its sequel, but Alten had improved as a writer by the second sequel, and did a better job as both author and cryptozoologist with The Loch. Likewise, Lee Murphy’s Naitaka corrected what I thought were flaws, most notably in characterization, that had marred his debut novel Where Legends Roam.
Human characterization is the hardest thing for any author to get right, and CF is even less forgiving than most thrillers in this light. The author must not only give us real people, but make us believe in how they would react when faced with the incredible.
Imagine being alone in the forest when confronted by a sasquatch. Some of us would stand and stare in fascination: some would reach for a camera or a gun; some (probably including me) would want to stay but would likely, by reflex, high-tail it out in search of reinforcements. The author needs to think about why this person is in the woods, what shaped their character, and how they would greet a giant, smelly, supposedly non-existent ape. Likewise, the quiet guy who was reluctantly dragged along on an African cryptid expedition should not suddenly burst forth with a long explanation of why a given fruit is probably good dinosaur fodder, unless it’s been established that 1) animal nutrition is his expertise and 2) his character is likely to grab the spotlight if opportunity presents itself.
In some novels (I’ll pick on Natural Selection again here), the author offers us a collection of two-dimensional folks who summon no sympathy from the reader even when they are eaten or dismembered. At the other extreme, Robert Laws is so sure his characters in Ferocity will hold the reader’s attention (and he’s right) that the cryptid gets two brief mentions in the first six chapters. (Laws’ book was going to be on my top picks, but his leaving his British mystery cats’ ability to hide from direct vision unexplained spoiled it for me.) Likewise, one of the reasons I admire Almost Adam is that Popescu’s characters keep us turning the pages even when his australopithecines are “off screen” and not even being discussed.
Not all characters, of course, are equal. By the nature of all fiction, length and pacing dictate that some characters will remain undeveloped. That’s no excuse for stereotypes, though. Examples in CF (especially prominent in CF-related films) include the skeptic who dismisses everything until the cryptid makes human McNuggets out of him or the wise old Native who tells the disbelieving white visitors to stay out of the woods. A personal non-favorite of mine is the business executive who is already wealthy and successful but casually orders or even personally commits kidnapping, murder, etc. in pursuit of more money or to settle a minor score. Even Enron wasn’t the Mafia.
The CF reader wants to be transported into a setting that is right for the animals involved and feels real to the reader. Eric Penz in Cryptid did this better than any other CF author I’ve read, making us see, hear, and smell our surroundings in the Northwest forests. I compared him to Barbara Kingsolver in this regard, and I meant it. One can do a good job with slightly less detail, as Alten did with Loch Ness and Popescu with Kenya, but the point is the environment matters to any cryptid, and thus to any writer or reader of CF.
The writer does not need to explain the plausibility of each point in so much detail that the story bogs down or halts. I remember reading a Tom Clancy novel that went on for two pages about how you make an automobile gas tank, and I remain convinced Clancy had given in to the temptation of simply showing off. CF authors should resist.
The flip side of that is that there’s no excuse for a flat-out wrong detail that most readers will catch. Alten gave us such a moment in Meg: Primal Waters when a prehistoric “flashback” offers us a Steller’s sea cow cruising a tropical lagoon without dying instantly of heatstroke. James Robert Smith does it when one of his characters brings out a Doberman weighing 170 pounds, almost twice the upper end of the bell curve for this breed. (I’ve already had a friendly exchange with Lee Murphy about his next novel – the guys on Mythbusters tried his hero’s playing-card-as-lethal-weapon trick, and it can’t be done.)
The last question that comes to mind is whether there’s a distinction between CF and “monster” thrillers. I think there is, but we are back to drawing fuzzy lines again. When the point is to have an exciting plot about terror, danger, and death, the author is usually not overly concerned with ensuring the creature (note I did not say “cryptid”) is plausible. James Rollins’ Ice Hunt is a first-rate page-turner, but his cetacean “grendels” not only survived 50 million years with no fossil record, but then survived while entombed in ice for fifty thousand years, and the explanation for all this is less than convincing. Just read it as a thriller and enjoy.
Taken together, all these points ask a lot of the would-be writer of great CF. No author will never convince every reader that his sasquatches have the right diet or that her giant octopus has the right mating habits. But he or she needs to show they’ve done the homework without drowning the reader in details that slow the story.
There is an enormous amount of unplumbed material in the crypto-world. We have several novels on sasquatch, but none on Africa’s dodi or Asia’s orang-pendek. We have several on Loch Ness, but almost none exploring sea serpents. Cryptid tales, by their nature, tend to involve exotic locales and often would, in real life, be the catalyst for many competing interests. They set up the most interesting kind of people stories – the kind where true character comes out under great stress – and offer the chance to enlighten readers on the scientific plausibility of the entire field of cryptozoology.
All this is, as I said in the headline, the opinion of one (albeit voracious) reader. Some people may love books I think little of, and vice versa. What is most important about CF is that it’s a vibrant, growing field, drawing in new authors who publish through all venues - large traditional presses, small presses, and self-publishing ventures.
I guess the bottom line of these notes is to tell writers of CF that there are many people eager to read your work, but we expect something of you, too. We expect you to treat the subject with seriousness and depth, not just have the cryptid pop out and chomp someone every now and then. The world needs more good CF, a lot more, and there’s room at the top for great CF. So go forth and write well.

Matt Bille is a writer of non-fiction cryptozoology (see his books Rumors of Existence and Shadows of Existence, both from Hancock House). He is working on a CF novel which has yet to find a publisher, and hopes any hints of professional jealously do not color the above essay. Matt’s website is

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Cold-adapted dinosaurs?

Paleontologists studying 115-million-year-old dinosaur tracks in Australia report the tracks are evidence that dinosaurs flourished in a period where temperatures ranged from 20 degrees Centigrade (68F) in the summer to a chilling -30C (-22F) in winter. Paleontologist Thomas Rich speculates the species which left the tracks, a carnivore standing about four meters high, may have been a truly warm-blooded species equipped with body fat to ward off the cold. This find reminds us about how much we still have to learn about the most fascinating creatures ever to walk the Earth.

Discovery is in Orbit

The STS-120 mission of the space shuttle Discovery is off to the International Space Station after a smooth and safe launch. Concerns about the outer layer of some of the carbon-fiber heat-resistant panels were examined by NASA leadership, but it was decided the mission could safely proceed on schedule. During the countdown itself, a patch of ice near the hydrogen umbilical on the external tank was examined and discarded as a possible hazard. This link provides a blog written as the countdown was in progress.
NASA notes: "The STS-120 mission will mark the first time females have been in command of both the space shuttle and the International Space Station at the same time. Space shuttle Discovery is being commanded by Pam Melroy, and Peggy Whitson is currently serving as the station's commander."

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Progress on commercial space transport

SpaceX, the pioneering private launch firm founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, reports its Falcon 9 / Dragon mission for the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program has passed the Critical Design Review (CDR) stage. The CDR was vital to getting NASA funding for the next stage of the program. Documents, hardware, and presentations to NASA got SpaceX the thumbs-up to proceed with the project. Musk said, "In terms of overall design maturity of the Falcon 9 project, we are well ahead of the curve for a program of this size. Few CDRs feature multiple hardware items in fabrication, assembly, integration and test phases." SpaceX plans to fly a demonstration mission carrying cargo to the International Space Station by 2009.

Alaskan tribe receives ancestor's remains

Over ten years ago, human remains estimated at 10,000 years old were found in a cave in the Tongass National Forest. Studies indicated they belonged to the ancestors of the Tlingit nation of Alaska Natives. What's notable about this find is that everything was done right in accordance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Tlingit leaders agreed the bones could be studied before their return to the tribe for appropriate reburial. Now the U.S. Forest Service has handed them back, and Tlingit will proceed with permanent re-interment. Anthropologist Rosita Worl, a Tlingit, said, "I think ours is a really good example of what can be accomplished when scientists and federal agencies recognize the legal rights of Native people. They're professional with them, they're sensitive with them. They're equal with them."
COMMENT: This was a simpler case than that of Kennewick Man, whose remains have been claimed by several tribes and remain the subject of contention. Still, it's a good example of how both science and cultural sensibilities can be accommodated when everyone starts with the right mindset.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Strange new creatures of the deep

Completing a trio of animal discoveries and rediscoveries in the news is the latest find from the ocean depths. Researchers off the Philippines have photographed a swarm of strange species, some of them new to science, at depths down to 2,900m. Notable examples include a black jellyfish and a bizarre orange worm with 10 tentacles.

South China Tiger seen again in the wild

The South China tiger, Panthera tigris amoyensis, has not been seen in the wild in over 20 years. There were an estimated 4,000 prowling the forests and mountains 50 years ago - today, there are 68, all in zoos. The subspecies was the victim of development and poaching for the value of its body parts in traditional medicines.
Or so it was thought. A farmer in northwestern China reported seeing the animal two weeks ago, and experts have confirmed the authenticity of the resulting photographs (it's not clear from the AP report whether the farmer took the pictures or officials he talked to came out and got them). It's still unknown whether there is a stable wild population, but even the single sighting is a rare piece of good news for tiger conservationists.

A New Mammal - the Dwarf Manatee

Loren Coleman has posted on the cryptozoology site Cryptomundo a version of the announcement of a formal description my Marc van Roosmalen, et. al., of a large new mammal van Roosmalen had been investigating for some time. This is the dwarf manatee, Trichechus bernardi. It's the second known freshwater-specializing manatee and, at 1.3m in length, by far the smallest. A holotype is in hand, and the species has also been filmed in the wild. DNA analysis confirms its long-term genetic isolation from other manatee species. Sizable new mammals are the rarest of new species, but they still come along more often than most people realize.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Robotic romance?

Artificial intelligence researcher David Levy at the University of Maastricht has offered the belief that human beings will have sex - and marriage - with robots in this current century. He suggests the politically liberal U.S. state of Massachusetts will legalize such relationships around 2050. Levy recently completed his Ph.D. thesis (no doubt the first person to do so on the topic of human-robot relationships).
COMMENT: Human relationships are so complex that you can't say no one will ever want an intimate relationship, including marriage, with a robot - someone probably will. But legal status with something that can be disabled or dismantled at will? Not a recipe for stability. Let's leave the robots out of this.

Shuttle and Station

Although NASA safety experts recommended a two-week delay due to minute cracks in the outer layer of some protective carbon fiber panels, NASA has decided to launch the shuttle Discovery on schedule on October 23.
COMMENT: This will very likely turn out OK, but the cultural message is unsettling: disregard a possible safety concern and launch on schedule.

Meanwhile, a new crew has docked at the ISS via a Russian Soyuz capsule. Those on board include NASA's Peggy Whitson, the first woman to be in command of what is, for now, Earth's only long-term space outpost. With her were cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Darren Naish on Cryptozoology

Dr. Darren Naish, a British paleobologist, has consistently produced some of the most well-researched and scientific articles in the cryptozoological literature. In this post on his blog, he ties it all together in the form of a presentation he's given to conventions on the topic. Naish's insistence that cryptozoology be neither overly restrictive (i.e., counting only large or spectacular animals) nor overly credulous is a valuable insight, and his explanation of it well worth reading.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Steve Fossett may be lost

Authorities have called off the search for pilot/adventurer Steve Fossett in the mountains of Nevada after five weeks of futility. Searchers spotted several other aircraft wrecks, at least on never noticed until now, but found no trace of Fossett. Friends are continuing the search on a small scale, and some, like fellow entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, think Fossett may yet walk out of the mountains. The official view, though, is that Fossett - a man who gave the term "daredevil" new meaning by pushing the limits of balloon, glider, and powered aircraft flight - probably died in the crash of his single-engined plane.

The Birds From Brazil

There have been many new species of birds discovered in Brazil over the last two decades (I have written about several, but I haven't had time to look up the total, so trust me on that). The newest arrival is a handsome brown, black, and white species dubbed Formicivora grantsaui, the SincorĂ¡ Antwren. According to BirdLife International, it inhabits a limited area, and that only between altitudes of 850 and 1,100 meters - an interesting reminder that a species' habitat can be restricted by height as well as acreage. This habitat preference, as well as its unique vocalizations, helped scientists classify the bird as distinct from a visually similar relation, the Rusty-backed Antwren (Formicivora rufa).

Shuttle Discovery launch uncertain

With the space shuttle Discovery slated for launch on October 23, NASA is trying to decide whether three of the reinforced carbon panels protecting the leading edges of the spacecraft's wings need replacing. The outer coating on the panels has experienced "degradation" from an unknown cause. Some engineers are optimistic, noting that Discovery has flown twice with this problem and not experienced any further degradation or resulting difficulties. Others are still unnverved by the "unknown cause" part of the equation.

Teleportation, just not for you

Is teleportation of science fiction type ever going to arrive? It will be a long time, if ever. Some recent developments, however, are raising startling possibilities about the utility of teleporting something else: information. Experimenters have already succeeded in "teleporting" the quantum properties of particles, the first step toward a quantum computer with infinite storage and (to us humans) seemingly infinite speed, as well as enabling light-speed transference of huge amounts of data across interplanetary distances.
This CNN article quotes Valerie Jamieson, physics editor of New Scientist, who offers a helpful analogy.
"This is not teleportation as we like to think of it, namely an object disappearing from one place and reappearing in another. Rather, it is about the transferring across space of the quantum properties of particles, and in particular their spin." She suggests imagining a pool table. "In the traditional view of teleportation a spinning ball will de-materialize at one end of the table and exactly the same ball will re-materialize at the other end. In quantum teleportation the spinning ball stays where it is, but its spin is transferred to another ball somewhere else on the table, in effect creating a Doppelganger. It is an aspect or a 'property' of the original ball that has been transmitted rather than the ball itself. Although to complicate matters the process of transmission would destroy the original ball."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Senator Clinton on space

Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton is to be congratulated on being the first of the Presidential candidates to address space policy. It's unfortunate that she didn't say much. Words like "balanced" and "robust" don't commit anyone to anything. Basically, she made a promise to each constituency - earth science, space science, and human spaceflight - to do better by them. The exception was the promise to "speed" development of the next generation of human spaceflight vehicles and launchers, but even that really commits her to nothing - you can always say something along the lines of "We sped it up compared to what the last Administration was likely to do." Finally, she gave no figures and mentioned no funding sources. It also doesn't help to recall that her husband's administration was really supportive only when it came to Earth science. That Administration was no friend to commercial space development or to human spaceflight - at one point telling NASA to halt all planning for a human presence beyond LEO.
Still, Senator Clinton deserves to be commended for two things. One is simply teeing up the space issue, increasing the chance other candidates will address it seriously. The other is her promise in the space speech to reestablish Congress' Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Now, she can't actually do that, only Congress can. But it should be done. The OTA did some excellent work.