Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tomb of Jesus? Perhaps Not.

Filmmaker James Cameron made a big splash with his claim that a tomb discovered in Jeruslaem in 1980 contained ossuaries (bone boxes) labeled with the names of Jesus' family. The small stone caskets bore names including Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and "Judah, son of Jesus." To Cameron, this means one of the central tenets of Christianity - the resurrection of Jesus - has been disproven. His documentary on the subject is due to premiere March 4 on The Discovery Channel.

Not so fast, Jim.

First, the BBC aired a documentary on this 11 years ago, which came under a withering fire of criticism, not just from Christian leaders, but from archaeologists. While no one doubts the genuineness of the find, the names involved were among the most common in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. More tellingly, whatever one thinks of the divinity of Jesus, there's nothing in any history to indicate he was part of the middle-class or upper-class Jerusalem society that could have afforded a family tomb of this sort. That a carpenter's son from the "hick town" of Nazareth would wind up buried in Jerusalem in this fashion along with his parents (remember, his father had died some 20 years before) seems an improbability of the highest degree.

Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, dismissed the idea this was the Biblical Jesus as made-for-television hype. "They just want to get money for it,'' he said.

Hail forces Shuttle slip

NASA managers have scrapped the March launch date for the Space Shuttle Atlantis and will send the vehicle back into the assembly building for a thorough examination damage done on the pad by 62-mph gusts driving hail as large as golf balls. Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said, "This constitutes the worst damage we have ever seen from hail on ET foam. It is clear that areas will need to be repaired. We will need to move Shuttle back to VAB to assess and then repair damage to foam." Orbiter tiles and the wing leading edges will likewise need to be checked out.

The Reality of CSI

A Newsweek reporter attends a conference on forensic science and finds the only thing in common between real forensic investigation and its countless TV incarnations is that they all involve dead bodies. After that, TV is a wonderland of tests and equipment which either do not exist or take more time and equipment than viewers will ever learn about. Added to that, most police departments have no access to the cool stuff on programs like CSI, and could not afford it if they did.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Clovis People were not the first

The "textbook" view of American prehistory - that the ancestors of the Clovis people came over the Bering land bridge in a single group perhaps 12,000 years ago and populated the Americas with their descendants - has been under siege for some time. Now Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, thinks he's put the nail in that coffin. Redating of Clovis sites makes them comparative latecomers - latecomers whose culture lasted only a few hundred years. Waters' paper "Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas," appears in Science (2/23/07 issue).
COMMENT: I always thought the pre-Clovis "Adam and Eve" scenario was much too simplistic. I have no credentials in this area, but I've always been interested in this fascinating problem and try to keep up on the literature. I've found it hard to believe that all the claims for dates of 20,000 years and older from sites scattered all over the Americas could be wrong. I think archaeologists are slowly migrating to a more complex view, that there were several migrations, by sea as well as land, over thousands of years.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

New Species from WAY Down Under

An expedition to Antarctic waters has netted an estimated 30 new species among a trove of animal specimens including one described by as "a psychedelic octopus." The 10-week international effort explored "virgin geography:" an area of the Weddell Sea that, until recently, was sealed off from the surface by the now-collapsed portion of ice shelves dubbed Larsen A and B. See the link for great photographs.

R.I.P. John Heyning

John Heyning, one of the great authorities on cetaceans, has died.
Heyning, deputy director of the research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, was 50 years old. While he researched everything from dolphins to whale lice, his specialty was ziiphids, or beaked whales, a group of little-known, deep-diving species we are still discovering and classifying. Heyning was instrumental in learning much of what we do know, constantly traveling to beaches wherever a cetacean was washed up. Some years he hauled as many as 30 carcasses to his laboratory. Among other accomplishments, Heyning documented that the common dolphin was actually two species, the short-beaked and the long-beaked.
It is always true that great scientists leave us too soon. Sometimes, though, it really strikes home. Heyning was passionately curious, open-minded, brilliant, and everything else a scientist should be. He spread his knowledge among his colleagues through many papers and monographs and to the public in the book Masters of the Ocean Realm: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises (University of Washington Press, 1995).
Goodbye and Godspeed.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Colossal Colossal Squid

New Zealand fishermen have hauled up the largest-ever-landed specimen of a true "sea monster" - the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. The animal, which was snagged while trying to eat a Patagonian toothfish off a hooked line, was estimated at 12 meters long with a mass of 450 kilograms. Dr. Steve O'Shea, one of the world's leading teuthologists, had this to say: “I can assure you that this is going to draw phenomenal interest. It is truly amazing."
The colossal squid is not to be confused with the giant squid, Architeuthis dux, which reaches greater lengths but is not as heavily built. It has been estimated the M. hamiltoni may grow as long as 14m, while A. dux has been verified at 18m and reported at up to half again as long.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

NASA and private space firm join forces

From NASA's press release, dated today:
"NASA officials signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday with a U.S. company, Virgin Galactic, LLC, to explore the potential for collaborations on the development of space suits, heat shields for spaceships, hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of traveling five or more times the speed of sound. Under the terms of the memorandum, NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley, and Virgin Galactic LLC, a U.S.-based subsidiary of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, will explore possible collaborations in several technical areas employing capabilities and facilities of NASA's Ames Research Center."
COMMENT: This is smart thinking on NASA's part. The agency is not getting, and apparently is not going to get, the funding it needs to develop all the technology needed for future exploration. Collaboration is a must. It's also a welcome change from the days when Dan Goldin was NASA's administrator and dismissed private space efforts as a joke.

Exoplanets "very different beasts"

We have now counted 213 planets circling other stars, and teams using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have now studied the atmospheres of two Jupiter-size worlds. Their findings were amazing - extreme weather (I mean REALLY extreme) and no sign of water. David Charbonneau of Harvard calls there planets "very different beasts ... unlike any other planets in the solar system."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

THEMIS mission successfully launched

An exciting and innovative NASA science mission based on microsatellites is now in orbit. THEMIS uses five identical spacecraft, which will be placed in highly elliptical orbits to provide data simultaneously from multiple points on the Earth's aurora and magnetic field.

As NASA puts it,
"THEMIS is a mission to investigate what causes auroras in the Earth's atmosphere to dramatically change from slowly shimmering waves of light to wildly shifting streaks of color. Discovering what causes auroras to change will provide scientists with important details on how the planet's magnetosphere works and the important Sun-Earth connection."

A really cool video animation is available here:

The five microsatellites (dry mass 77kg) are incredibly sophisticated, packed with instruments and with booms that telescope out as far as 20 meters. The prime contractor, Swales, explains the spacecraft in detail at this site:

Good and Bad News on Science Literacy

Michigan State University professor Jon Miller reported some good news to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1988, according to his research, only about 10 percent knew enough about science to understand media reports. By 2005, the figure had grown to 28 percent.
The good news was offset by a rise in the number of people who believe in pseudoscience such as astrology and things that, at the very least, cannot be proved, such as extraterrestrial visitors.
COMMENT: Prof. Miller lumped "belief in Bigfoot" with fortune-telling, etc., and I must object cryptozoology does not belong there. Cryptozoology deals in falsifiable hypotheses (e.g., there either is or is not a large unclassified North American primate) and thus is a legitimate branch of zoology, even if overenthusiastic holders of particular ideas are often unscientific in their approach.

World's rarest rhino heads home

Andalas, the first Sumatran rhinoceros born in captivity in more than a century, will leave his adopted home in the LA Zoo to fly to Indonesia and help repopulate the species. Born in Cincinnati in 2001, Andalas is headed for Sumatra. There he will meet, and hopefully mate, with two female rhinos at a sanctuary in the Way Kambas National Park. The Sumatran is the smallest, in some ways the most primitive, and definitely the most endangered rhino in the world. There may be less than 300 animals living.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

U.S. Science and Technology funding

The U.S. Senate is wrapping up consideration of House Joint Resolution 20, the House-passed bill providing appropriations for FY 2007 for all programs not yet funded under regular appropriations acts. Only the Defense and Homeland Security appropriations were passed at all last year, and this is an omnibus effort to roll up all remaining funding from now until October. Not surprisingly in this situation, no new S&T efforts were funded, and NASA especially is experiencing extreme pain.
Some highlights:
Department of Energy Science budget: Provides $3.80 billion for scientific research, $306 million below the Administration’s request, but $199 million above the FY06 enacted level.
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS): Provides $978 million, $33 million above the Administration’s request and $16 million above the FY06 enacted level.
Smithsonian Institution: Provides $783 million, $26 million below the Administration’s request, but $16 million above the FY06 enacted level.
National Institutes of Health (NIH): Provides $28.83 billion, $581 million above the Administration’s request and $600 million above the FY06 enacted level.
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): Provides $669 million, $88 million above the Administration’s request and $78 million below the FY06 enacted level.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Provides $3.88 billion, $194 million above the Administration’s request, but $42 million below the FY06 enacted level.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): Provides $16.25 billion, which is $545 million below the Administration’s request and equal to the FY06 enacted level.
National Science Foundation (NSF): Provides $5.92 billion, $104 million below the Administration’s request but $335 million above the FY06 enacted level.

New Parrot Species a Fake?

Professor Gale Spring, scientific photography expert at Melbourne's RMIT University, has suggested the discovery of a new species, the blue-browed fig-parrot of Queensland, Australia, may have been based on fake photograph. Queensland Environment Minister Lindy Nelson-Carr had joined naturalist John Young in announcing the discovery. Young’s Exhibit A was a photograph of a bird which resembled the known red-browed fig-parrot, only with a blue rather than a red forehead. Professor Spring, though, looked at a high-resolution digital image and pointed out differences in the texture of the feathers around the bird's head as opposed to those elsewhere on the body. He suggested the picture was altered, and his suggestion was convincing enough that the Queensland government has distanced itself from the matter. Spring has asked to examine the original photograph, but Young has turned him down without offering a reason. So for now, what seemed like a dramatic find rests in a limbo of uncertainly.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Stone Age Chimps?

A team led by archaeologist Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary in Alberta reports that a layer estimated at 4,300 years old has yielded evidence chimpanzees, as well as humans, figured out the stone tool business a long time ago. While tool use by modern chimps is well established, the almost-nonexistent chimpanzee fossil record has given us no clues about when the apes learned this skill. Now diggings in the African nation of Ivory Coast indicate nuts favored by chimps were cracked open with rocks in an area that shows no sign of human habitation.

The Science of the Lizard

I wasn't going to link to Dr. Darren Naish again so soon, but there was no way I could resist this one. The world's most entertaining paleobiology writer has collected scientific thoughts on the world's favorite impossible creature, Godzilla. Naish documents how some scientists have devoted their spare thoughts to the taxonomy and anatomy of Japan's famed atomic reptile. Among other tidbits, we learn here that, structurally, the original Japanese creature with his tree-trunk legs is actually a tad more realistic than the sleek theropod of the 1998 American film.
COMMENT: In other dino-science milestones, The Annals of Improbable Research in 1995 published a learned (ahem) scientific paper titled, "The Taxonomy of Barney."
Actually, as a parent, I always wanted to make a film called "Barney vs. Godzilla," in which the Purple Pest tries to drive off Godzilla by singing his incredibly inane "I Love You" song, which spurs Godzilla to melt Barney into the pavement with his atomic breath and then stomp the remains into a layer about half a molecule thick to eliminate all chance of resurrection.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Princeton ESP Lab to Close

The only parapsychology research center affiliated with a major U.S. university, The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, is closing after 28 years of exploring ESP, telekinesis, and similar topics. Skeptics have consistently argued the lab produced no significant results, and some Princeton officials and faculty viewed it as an embarrassment. The lab's founder, Robert Jahn, has just as consistently insisted the lab had proven the existence of the phenomena involved. "If people don't believe us after all the results we've produced, then they never will," he said.
COMMENT: The sad thing about this subject, from a scientific point of view, is that it should not have been difficult for Jahn and his critics, like Martin Gardner, to agree on a set of controls for cheatproof, randomized trials with agreed-on standards for what results would have been considered significant. For some reason - perhaps the personalities or the absolutely fixed beliefs that clash on topics like this - it never happened. Now the skeptics will claim vindication and the believers will insist some results from the lab have never been explained, and that debate will linger for decades.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

War and Medicine

Will Rogers once said, “You can’t say that civilization don't advance. In every war, they kill you in a new way.” As this article highlights, they also heal people in new ways. This article's point is not to claim that medical advances are worth the destruction of war - that would be insane - but to explore how human beings are endlessly inventive in their quest to advance technology (or do a little bit of improvisation) to save lives.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

NASA's FY08 budget: Not much better

The President has proposed a 3.1 percent increase in the NASA budget for FY2008 compared to the budget request for 2007. The problem is NASA is not going to get the small increase it asked for for the rest of the 2007 FY (see earlier post). Even if this FY08 budget gets passed (nothing is assured there, except maybe the Earth Science portion), NASA will be faced with trying to recover from the cuts imposed in 07. It's going to be a tough year, especially with NASA trying to recover from the public relations disaster of astronaut Lisa Nowik's arrest and, as NASAWatch's Keith Cowing points out, the expected efforts of sensationalist media to taint all of NASA with the affair concerning what is, I believe, the only active astronaut ever arrested for anything more than traffic violations in the 46 years of the agency's human spaceflight program. See as Keith follows both stories.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Bonanza of Marine Life

Scientists with the Panglao Marine Biodiversity Project have discovered a trove of new species of molluscs and crustaceans around Philippine island. Researchers from 19 countries, led by Philippe Bouchet of the French National Museum of Natural History, reported, "Numerous species were observed and photographed alive, many for the first time, and it is estimated that 150-250 of the crustaceans and 1,500-2,500 of the molluscs are new species.”

Of Apes, Humans, and Culture

An excellent article by Kirsten Vala explores the question of whether apes have culture. She cites an authority who outlines four factors in what humans call culture and notes that chimps and orangutans exhibit thee of the four. It is our use of symbols that remains as the key differentiator between us and our closest primate cousins.

COMMENT: One conservationist wrote that humans can no longer be distinguished as "the tool-using animal" or "the language-using animal," since we have found other mammals can have both traits. He suggested we redefine ourselves as "the credit card-using animal."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Abe Lincoln's Nerves?

One of the fascinating things about history is how modern science allows us to look back and view long-dead people in a more complete light.
Historians and scientists have long bandied about medical diagnoses of President Abraham Lincoln. Chronic depression has been proposed and disputed; Marfan’s syndrome has been proposed to account for his disproportionately long limbs and large hands; and now a study of genes from Abe’s descendants has led to the idea he might have had a nerve disorder, ataxia, which could have accounted for the awkward, lumbering gait remarked on by Lincoln’s contemporaries. That gait seemed out of place for a man who, even as President, liked to show off the strength from his rail-splitting days by holding an ax out at arm’s length for several minutes, parallel to the ground, holding it with only his thumb and forefinger.
We may never have full knowledge of great figures from the past, but this kind of detective work is endlessly interesting stuff.
NOTE: It’s off topic, but anyone interested in Lincoln should read a superb book by Doris Kerns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As hard as it is to imagine Abe is underrated, Goodwin makes the case that he is.

Friday, February 02, 2007

A Sad Anniversary for Space

We are closing out what has is always the saddest week of the year for those involved in the US space program. NASA held its official Day of Remembrance for fallen astronauts on January 29.
Forty years ago, on January 27, 1967, three men died when Apollo 1 caught fire on the launch pad during a test.
Four years ago, on February 1, 2003, NASA lost seven astronauts (six American, one Israeli) when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry due to damage from debris created at liftoff.
Twenty-one years ago, on January 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger was destroyed during liftoff in a catastrophic accident traced to an O-ring seal in one of the spacecraft's solid rocket motors.

We cannot romanticize death, and we should never try. Nevertheless, there is no word that fits better than "heroes" for the men and women of these missions. They were the best our species had to offer, explorers who knew they were taking risks. We can honor their memories, and we can do what they would wish: to carry on the exploration of the universe.

Our explorers
Apollo 1
"Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee
Michael Smith, "Dick" Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik
Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawa, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.


The Consensus on Climate

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has weighed in with an assessment to which 113 nations contributed. The resulting document says it is "very likely" (at least 90 percent certain) that climate change is caused by use of fossil fuels. The resulting temperature increases is estimated at 2.5 to 10.4 F by the year 2100. Ker Than, writing for, adds context to the debate, documenting information both sort-of-comforting (other events have changed the Earth’s climate much more than anthropogenic global warming) and very discomfiting (the Earth will carry on pretty much without even noticing what happens to a few billion smart primates over the upcoming centuries).

NASA budget - bad news

I mean, REALLY bad news.
The House-passed bill covering the rest of the FY 2007 budget chops NASA funding $550 million from the amount proposed by the Bush Administration, which had already been under attack as a virtual zero-growth budget that hit space science especially hard. “It's a double whammy," said the Planetary Society’s Louis Friedman of the $16.2B budget. "First the science underpinnings to the NASA exploration architecture were removed; now the whole enterprise seems to be collapsing."