Saturday, June 30, 2007

New claim for oldest human relation in Europe

How far back does the human lineage stretch on the continent of Europe? Scientists at an institute in Spain claim the answer is "a great deal further than we thought." A single pre-molar, discovered this past week at the Atapuerca site in the Burgos Province in northern Spain, reportedly came from strata over a million years old. Anthroplogist Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro believes it could date back as much as 1.2 million years.
Comment: This would certainly be an important find, if de Castro has it right. Some scientists will not doubt raise eyebrows at the rush to announce the discovery immediately - long before further analysis to corroborate the find is complete, and even longer before the find can be described in a scientific journal.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Who's My Mummy (sorry, couldn't resist that title)

A single tooth has led to the identification of ancient Egypt's most powerful woman. Egyptologists were sure the pharaoh Hatshepsut was one of two female mummies found a century ago in the same tomb in the Valley of the Kings, but which one? The answer emerged when a broken tooth in a box holding the pharaoh's internal organs was matched to a gap in the mummy's teeth. Hatshepsut ruled as pharaoh for 21 years during the 18th Dynasty (1550 to 1292 B.C.) Hers was a prosperous time, and Egyptologist Dennis Forbes wrote in 2005 that she was perhaps "history's first great woman" and "without a doubt... the first great female ruler." Examination of her mummy revealed she was about 50 years old, overweight, and diabetic when she died of bone cancer.

Solving the Tunguska Mystery

One of the great natural mysteries of the world is the origin - and resting place - of whatever celestial object hit Siberia in 1908. The Tunguska explosion flattened trees over a 2,000 square kilometer area. While most scientists currently accept the idea of a stony asteroid exploding 5-10km above the surface, it's hard to visualize the celestial visitor being completely vaporized. Yet no one has found either a definite impact crater or a definite fragment of the intruder. A team led Luca Gasperini, of the Institute of Marine Science in Bologna, Italy, reports they may have found both.
Lake Cheko, 300 meters wide and 50m deep, shows an unusual, steep-sided configuration unlike other lakes in the area. This lake, about 8km from the epicenter of the blast, has been tentatively identified as a crater. The expedition reports detecting a large solid mass about 10 meters beneath the sediment on the lake floor. Is this our first piece of the Tunguska object? Hopefully, we will find out. Gasperini's team will return next summer with equipment to drill deep beneath the lake and bring up samples of the mystery mass.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Recreating the Neanderthal Genome

First the disclaimer: this advance is not going to lead to live Neanderthals walking around, although you wonder when you look at some U.S. professional football teams or European soccer fans.
Now the news: Svante Pääbo and his team at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology believe they can sequence the entire Neanderthal genome. They may be able to reconstruct that of other species, like the mammoths and "cave bears" that once roamed Europe, but the Neanderthal project is definitely the "headliner" here. The German scientists report they have new techniques from getting "clean" fragments of DNA from specimens many thousands of years old and preventing them from being contaminated by modern microbes or human researchers. This should allow them to stitch together a complete genome using fragments from multiple individuals. This could answer the most intriguing question about Neanderthals - whether they were simply pushed aside by modern humans, eventually withering to extinction, or whether the two subspecies of Homo sapiens interbred.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Case of the Headless Parrot

What may be the world's most mysterious bird has turned up - but the mystery has so far defied solution. Last year, ranger Robert Cupitt found the headless corpse of a small, drably-colored bird in Diamantina National Park, Queensland. It was a juvenile night parrot, a member of a species only very rarely reported and thought extinct by some authorities as long ago as 1915. Oddly (and inexcusably), it has taken months of delays and arguments between agencies and private groups to get a proper team set up to investigate the bird's survival. Birders blame the delay on a decision by the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency to keep the find quiet to avoid a flood of unqualified searchers coming in. That worked in the case of America's ivory-billed woodpecker, but in that case a search still began quickly.
Now the National Night Parrot Network will take up the cold trail and begin the arduous work of following up other sighting reports and searching for a "lost" avian species.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Voyaging north in search of life

Almost five kilometers beneath the Arctic ice cap winds a largely unexplored feature of the seafloor: the Gakkel Ridge, over 1,700 km long. We know little about the ridge itself and virtually nothing about the living species that exist on and around it.
A new expedition organized by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is setting out to change that. Equipped with NASA-funded remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) named Puma and Jaguar, the expedition will spend 40 days in July and August scouring scour the ridge for hydrothermal vent communities. NASA is interested because the technology used to plumb the depths of oceans on Earth might someday be used on Europa, Jupiter's ice-covered moon. A trove of new species is expected, and for good reason - everywhere new vents have been discovered, so have new life forms.

Houston, We're Home

The space shuttle Atlantis came down safely Friday after a day's delay caused by weather at the preferred landing site. When rain and clouds continued at Cape Canaveral, the shuttle was diverted to Edwards AFB, ending a long and successful mission. As the shuttle's commander, Colonel Frederick W. Sturckow, put it, “There were a lot of challenges on this mission and they were all surmounted."

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mars on 120 Euros a Day

The European Space Agency, in a cooperative program with Russia, is looking for six volunteers to spend up to 17 months away from the world. The "crew" will live in a closed-off habitat simulating a spacecraft traveling to Mars. Their only contact with Earth will be by radio - and, as on Mars, it will take 40 minutes to get an answer back from Earth. The goal is to get a better understanding of the group dynamics likely to develop in the cramped conditions of a long, stressful mission. The crew will have tasks to perform which will simulate, as closely as possible, with the exception of Earth gravity, the work involved in sending humans to Mars. Simulated emergencies will be thrown in. The crew, in short, will definitely have earned their daily stipend of 120 Euros by the time the mission is over.
So if you are a healthy European man or woman with a working knowledge of Russian and nothing to do for this next couple of years, this might be your opportunity to contribute to space exploration.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Landmark in Panda Evolution Discovered

American and Chinese researchers have found a skull, estimated at 2M years old, of the smaller ancestor of today's beloved giant panda. University of Iowa anthropologist Russell Ciochon, best known for his work on the mammoth prehistoric ape Gigantopithecus, said the "pygmy giant panda" was probably about three feet long, vs. the average of five feet for the modern panda.
(A poster on the cryptozoology blog Cryptomundo asked a whimsical, yet seemingly reasonable question: whether a "pygmy giant panda" would sort of even out to be just a "regular panda.")

Atlantis heading home

After the balky Russian computers on the ISS passed a final round of tests, the space shuttle Atlantis has been cleared to return home on schedule. Despite the computer glitch and the need to fix a small tear on the shuttle's thermal insulation blanket, the three-spacewalk trip was a great success. Touchdown is set for Thursday at 1752 GMT.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

In Orbit, Things are Looking Up

The balky computers operated by the Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are all back on line this morning (Sunday). The docked space shuttle Atlantis is likely to leave on Tuesday, although it could have stayed longer if the ISS needed assistance. This mini-drama in orbit pointed out to us all that space travel is still complex and dangerous, but also that human ingenuity can help us adapt to and overcome the most hostile of environments.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pluto demoted again

It's been a bad year for Pluto. First it was demoted from "planet" to "dwarf planet." Now it's not even the biggest dwarf. The dwarf planet Eris, based on observations of the size and orbit of its tiny moon Dysnomia, appears to have about 1.27 times the mass of Pluto.

Ups and Downs in Orbit

The bad news from space today is than an $83M Atlas V booster carrying two National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellites on a classified mission has placed its payload in the wrong orbit. The booster, launched yesterday from Cape Canaveral, shut down its upper-stage motor prematurely. Pentagon officials told Aviation Week the satellites can use their on-board maneuvering fuel to get into an acceptable orbit, although this will reduce their mission life. One unnamed official was quoted as saying, "The Atlas V people have a lot of explaining to do." (The Atlas is provided by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance and uses a Lockheed-Martin upper stage.)

Meanwhile, the Russian and American crews camped on the International Space Station had a good day. The balky Russian computers, after a few days of nerve-racking unreliability, seem to have settled down, with four of the six computer "channels" restored. At the same time, the astronauts of the docked shuttle Atlantis have stapled down the 10-cm flap of loose insulation on the thermal shielding blanket covering on of the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Heavyweight Enters the Space Tourism Race

The European aerospace giant EADS has entered the race to build a practical space tourism craft. Designing and building such craft (none of which has flown yet) has so far been the province of small and medium-size enterprises, most of them startups. EADS's Astrium division, prime contractor for the Ariane booster family, plans a craft with both jet and rocket engines, capable of landing and taking off conventionally and taking a pilot and four passengers to 100km. Astrium Chief Technical Officer Robert Laine took a swipe at his company's American rivals, suggesting most are lacking in the engineering department or in their business models. He said, "There are those who think you can design a rocket plane in a garage. Suffice it to say that that is not our niche." Bert Rutan, developing American rival SpaceShip Two, thinks it's EADS' business model that is lacking, and the European craft will be so expensive to develop that it won't be economically viable. Start your engines....

A Raptor to Run From (not that it would help you)

New from the Gobi Desert is a fossil of a predatory dinosaur that dwarfed its known relatives.
Chinese discoverer Xu Xing wrote that, after he found a leg bone he could not identify, "When I went back to my geologist colleague Lin Tan's lab to check the skeleton, I was shocked. I said to Tan, 'It is not a sauropod, it is not a tyrannosaurus, it is a tyrannosaurus-sized oviraptor. We have a gigantic chicken!' "
Gigantoraptor erlianensis stood almost five meters tall, weighed about 1.4 metric tons, and was well armed with claws. It had no teeth in its beaklike mouth, though, and paleontologists are not sure what kind of diet the creature had. It's believed to have had feathers, mainly for display, on the arms and tail. It is several times the size of any other dinosaurs in its family.
University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno commented, "But what kind of environment on Earth was this animal adapted to? It's off the charts, and with no teeth what did it eat? Did it use those long legs to escape from predators? It's clearly a pre-flight bird, but no one would have predicted its evolution, so the door seems open to a new way of living for a new kind of dinosaur."

Tool Time on orbit

Russian computers on the International Space Station have developed a series of glitches, perhaps due to the feed from the new American-built power systems installed by the Space Shuttle Atlantis crew. The two cosmonauts on board and their mission controllers hope to successfully reboot the system tomorrow (Friday). In a worst-case scenario, the station might need to be abandoned temporarily, but that is considered very unlikely at this point. (A report just in at 2300 EST says the computers have been partially reset.)
Meanwhile, American astronauts James Reilly and John "Danny" Olivas will perform a spacewalk tomorrow, with one objective being to make a minor repair on the Shuttle's thermal insulation blanket.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Goodbye, Mr. Wizard

Don Herbert, who as "Mr. Wizard" introduced two generations of students to science through TV shows, films, and books, has died at 89. Herbert's original NBC show, "Watch Mr. Wizard," began in 1951 and stayed on for 14 years, covering almost every branch of science with experiments viewers could often replicate at home. The show was revived in new versions several times, most recently on Nickelodeon in the 1980s.
I was too late to catch the original show, but I saw Herbert's work on 16mm film in my school days. Herbert did great service for science and education. There have been worthy followers, like Bill Nye, but there was only one Mr. Wizard.
Thanks to Loren Coleman for circulating this item.

Monday, June 11, 2007

VIsiting Ancient Rome

Tourists can now find their way to the landmarks of ancient Rome - or tour the city from their armchairs - thanks to “Rome Reborn 1.0.” Created by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, this exercise in virtual reality took 10 years and $2 million to create. It displays the city in amazing detail as it appeared in A.D. 320 (This is over 350 years after the mos-dramatized period, the era of Julius Caesar, but represents the height of the city's size and wealth under the emperor Constantine.) So before you reach for your passport, reach for your mouse.

Shuttle repairs slated

The mission of the space shuttle Atlantis has been extended two days to allow astronauts to repair the 10-cm rip in a thermal insulation blanket. At least two shuttle flights landed safely with similar damage, but mission managers in the post-Columbia era are taking no chances.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Nessie or not?

The footage taken by Mr. Gordon Holmes, apparently showing a swimming animal in Loch Ness, got a lot of media play in the past week. At this site on the cryptozoology news site Cryptomundo, enlarged and clarified bits of the video have been posted. They appear to show it is an animal and not just the effect of two wakes crossing. However, there is really no sense of scale, something the videographer really couldn't help since he was zooming in on something he saw on open water. The object could be an otter or one of the seals occasionally known to wander into the loch.
Long-range, unclear photos and videos of cryptozoological creatures have turned up online so often lately that cryptozoologist Loren Coleman coined the terms "blobsquatch" (an image in which an indistinct blob is supposed to be a sasquatch) and "tubesquatch" (suspicious or inconclusive video posted on YouTube or elsewhere on the Net). Meanwhile, the BBC distributed 50,000 cameras to people attending a music festival called "Rock Ness" and encouraged them to try capturing the "Loch Ness Monster."
I doubt (though I do not dismiss the possibility) that either sasquatch or Nessie will turn up in the flesh, but, if they do, they should have something to say about all the people who have exploited them. They might even be due some royalties.

"Jim, this man's blood is green."

In another reminder of just how complex the human body is and how many strange things can happen, doctors in Canada cut into a patient to install an arterial line and were startled when dark green blood emerged. Green blood shows up in some invertebrates and, of course, the most famous of TV science fiction characters, the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock from Star Trek.
Spock's blood is supposed to be green because his hemoglobin is based on copper, not iron (which actually would be highly inefficient). In the Canadian case, the 42-year old Earthman on the operating table was suffering from a very rare condition, possibly caused by using too much of the migraine drug sumatriptan, called Sulfhaemoglobinaemia. When this occurs, the red cells stop bonding with oxygen and bond with sulfur compounds instead. It's not fatal, as it resolves itself in the normal turnover of red cells, but it certainly is startling. Look for it to turn up on American television (probably Grey's Anatomy or House) next season.

Atlantis on schedule, with one concern

The Space Shuttle Atlantis is looking good in terms of making its scheduled rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). The two craft will dock this afternoon (Sunday) to exchange a crew member and deliver and install a new power module with two solar panel "wings" on the station. Three spacewalks are planned as part of the week-long construction task.
There is some concern over a 10-cm "flap" where the corner of one of the heat-shielding fabric blankets near the Shuttle's tail has come loose. At least two shuttles have safely re-entered with similar damage, but NASA is evaluating the problem. If mission managers decide a repair is needed, the astronauts have procedures and tools to either tack down the fabric or put a cover of heat-shielding material over the spot.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

An honor for a cryptozoologist

Cryptozoologists, those who pursue the uncaught, unclassified, or presumably extinct animals of the world, run the gamut from amateur enthusiasts to Ph.D scientists. One of the latter is England's Dr. Karl Shuker. He has posted a letter announcing the receipt of an unusual sort of recognition: seeing his name attached to a tiny creature that looks a bit like a pineapple with a snout. Congratulations, Karl!

Hi everyone,

As readers of my books The Lost Ark (1993) and its successor The New Zoo (2002) may recall, loriciferan discoverer Prof. Reinhardt Kristensen (the loriciferans were the first of two entirely new phyla of animals revealed by him!) very kindly promised to name a new species of loriciferan after me - there were several new species that were still awaiting formal names and descriptions.

I was recently asked by a correspondent whether 'my' loriciferan had ever been named and described, and I was happy to confirm that it had. It is Pliciloricus shukeri, and in case anyone wishes to read about it the bibliographical reference to the paper in which its description appears is as follows:

Heiner, Iben, and Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen. 2005. Two new species of the genus Pliciloricus (Loricifera, Pliciloricidae) from the Faroe Bank, North Atlantic. Zoologischer Anzeiger, vol. 243, no. 3. 121-138.

Power without wires

Ever wish you could just set your cell phone down in your office and have it charge up without plugging it into anything? Well, it's feasible, according to MIT scientists who have demonstrated using wireless power to run a light bulb. "WiTricity" uses a clever manipulation of magnetic resonance to do the job efficiently instead of directly sending power via radio-frequency signals. For now, it's just a very neat trick, but the potential applications are very broad indeed.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Atlantis in orbit

My misgivings about the repaired external tank on the shuttle Atlantis were, fortunately, all wrong. The STS-117 mission had a perfect on-time liftoff from Kennedy Space Center and was in orbit nine minutes later. On board for this service mission to the International Space Station (ISS) are commander Frederick Sturckow, pilot Lee Archambault, and five other astronauts - one of whom, Clayton Anderson, will be staying on the ISS while Atlantis returns with astronaut Sunita Williams. The 11-day mission, which will add a new segment to the ISS, carries one unusual item - a metal cargo tag reading "Yames Towne." This came from the historic settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, established 400 years ago.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Closing the ultimate "Cold Case"

"Otzi," world-famous "Iceman" who died on an Italian glacier some 5,000 years ago, was originally thought to have died of exposure. Then, in the best TV-series fashion, someone found an arrowhead lodged in his neck. Now the cause of death has been pinned down more precisely. A Swiss team using a CT scanner on the well-preserved mummy found a lesion on an artery at the arrowhead site. Otzi, a generally healthy man of about 45, never had a chance after receiving the wound. He simply had bled to death.
Whodunit? That we shall never know.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Seeing the "Lord God bird"

A new documentary is coming out concerning the presumed extinction, search for, and rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker Campephilus principalis. It's titled Lord God Bird, which is a bit confusing because it's not based on Philip Hoose's excellent book The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. The ivory-bill got the nickname "Lord God" or "Good God" from the exclamations people supposedly made when they got a look at the nation's largest woodpecker.
For now, the Voice of America has posted the story along with links to the 1935 film of two ivory-bills - a clip which was long believed to be the last film of an ivory-bill anyone would ever record - and the video taken in 2004 that many (though not all) experts accepted as proof the bird still lived.

Out of Place Animals

This interesting article by Denis Cuff of the Contra Costa (CA) Times collects some examples of animals that show up where they shouldn't be. They range from a heron that hopped onto a commuter train to a manatee swimming off New York to a greater sand plover which apparently flew the Pacific Ocean to end up on the wrong continent. These cases include many examples of odd or unexplained behavior which leaves experts as befuddled as the Laysan albatross which, in 2003, was found walking down a street in San Mateo, California.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Space Shuttle Launch - Systems Go, Fingers Crossed

The space shuttle Atlantis has been given a go for launch on June 8, after a three-month delay due to hail damage to the external tank's foam insulation. This will be the first launch of 2007, which means, among other things, that the tightly scheduled slate of missions intended to finish the International Space Station and retire the Shuttle in 2010 is probably impossible to meet. Given that debris from the ET doomed the shuttle Columbia, there was some controversy over the decision to repair Atlantis' external tank (ET) at Kennedy Space Center instead of dismantling the shuttle stack and waiting for the next tank to arrive. Workers had to re-cover some sections of the ET and fix thousands of holes, dents, divots, and gouges.
NASA's Associate Administrator, Bill Gerstenmaier, put it this way: “Even though there are a lot of dimples on the tank, they’re very low mass. It has a slightly higher risk due to the number of repairs. It’s as good — almost — as a regular tank that we would go fly."

COMMENT: I'm not an engineer, and the people working on the Shuttle are among the best engineers you can find on this planet. That said, this decision makes me nervous. I'll be watching June 8 with fingers crossed that all goes well.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Dozens of new mammals - really!

Dr. Darren Naish has published in his terrific blog, Tetrapod Zoology, a four-part article on the astounding series of mammal discoveries made by Dr. Marc van Roosmalen in the Amazon region.
While van Roosmalen is well known as a conservationist and for describing new species of monkeys, his work goes far beyond that. He has, for example, described the largest new mammal to be found since the early 1990s, the Giant peccary Pecari maximus. Awaiting description are a dwarf manatee, a possible new dolphin, another peccary, a tapir, and new species of deer and monkeys (many more monkeys). Most intriguing of all is the black and white jaguar (not a melanistic example of the common jaguar, but a distinct species which Bill Rebsamen so stunningly illustrated for my recent book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (on which I corresponded with van Roosmalen during the research phase.)
It's possible, even likely, that some of the many specimens von Roosmalen has or is tracking down will prove to be something less than full species. He has, however, made a gigantic and underappreciated contribution to zoology. He has demonstrated that, as Bernard Heuvelmans, the founder of cryptozoology, once wrote, "The great days of zoology are not done."
Van Roosmalen's new website is a "must see"

R.I.P. - Homer Joe Stewart

One of the leading "rocket men" from the era of Sputnik and Explorer has passed on.
Dr. Homer Joe Stewart taught at Caltech and contributed to rocket propulsion and other disciplines at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which he co-founded, for many decades. He had retired from the school in 1980. After WWII, he worked on rocket and missile propulsion systems for the WAC Corporal, Corporal, and Sergeant missiles, among other projects. In 1955, he chaired the Stewart Committee, which, in a controversial decision second-guessed ever since, selected the Navy's Vanguard satellite proposal (based on its potentially greater scientific return) over competing Army and Air Force ideas to become the nation's first satellite program. Stewart encouraged the Army team, headed by Wernher von Braun, to keep working on its idea in case Vanguard faltered. While Vanguard eventually became a significant success, it had a critical failure in a launch attempt shortly after Sputnik 1, and the Army team, in cooperation with JPL, was given the go-ahead to get something up as fast as possible. That project, on which Stewart assisted, became Explorer 1. Homer Joe Stewart was 91.
COMMENT: Erika Lishock and I would have liked to interview Stewart for our book on the first satellites, The First Space Race, but he was already in poor health and was not available. He made major contributions to defense, aerospace engineering, and the exploration of space. We salute a truly great man.