Friday, September 28, 2007

Retrieving Mammoth DNA

Attempts to retrieve DNA from the bones and dried flesh of frozen mammoth remains have always been hampered by the post-death bacterial contamination, which meant up to 90 percent of what was recovered was not from the mammoth at all. A new study shows that retrieving DNA from an oft-overlooked source, hair shafts (previously thought to have almost no readable DNA), yields 90 percent mammoth DNA. This breakthrough will make it much easier to understand what ancient mammals - including ancient humans - were like through DNA analysis. It may also move us a step closer to the once-crazy idea of cloning mammoths or other creatures so they can walk the Earth again. One scientist on the project said of such cloning: "It's just a matter of time and money now."

A new Dawn for Space Probes

Boldly going where no machine has gone before, NASA's Dawn probe lifted off from KSC on an eight-year mission to study two unexplored celestial objects: the asteroid Vesta in 2011 and the dwarf planet Ceres in 2015. Principal Investigator Christopher Russell of UCLA said, "Dawn will travel back in time by probing deep into the asteroid belt. This is a moment the space science community has been waiting for since interplanetary spaceflight became possible."

Astronauts: The Next Generation

From Press release: "Space Adventures, Ltd., the world's leading space experiences company, announced today that famed game developer Richard Garriott, son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, has begun preparations for a "commercially active" mission to the International Space Station (ISS)."
COMMENT: OK, it has a whiff of a stunt about it. But it's still cool to have the first child of an astronaut make a space voyage. One more little step in the opening up of space.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Satellites and Cryptozoology

Benjamin Radford has an interesting suggestion for cryptozoologists: that the image-scanning software being used to search the ever-increasing supply of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery for pilot Steve Fossett be used to comb lakes and forests for signs of "cryptids." While a sasquatch might not show up, a family group might, and a large animal on or near the surface of a lake should eventually get captured in a lucky shot.
COMMENT: I must voice one quibble here. Benjamin is a well-informed and scientific writer who's skeptical on cryptozoology and many other topics, but that's no excuse for setting up a subject for ridicule by referring to a "12-foot Bigfoot," when no serious cryptozoologist thinks we have small King Kongs roaming the Northwest.

Turmoil for the Mars Science Laboratory

The most complex spacecraft ever developed for a trip to Mars has been "descoped" because of cost overruns. The $1.7-billions Mars Science Laboratory has lost its Descent Imager and had other experiments "defunded," meaning that no more money will be forthcoming and the development team will have to make do with the budget it has. Planetary scientists are naturally furious, but NASA Headquarters has made it clear there's no money to cover a $75M overrun. The probe is scheduled to be launched in 2009.

New Species from Vietnam

Since the early 1990s, a flood of discoveries has poured out of Vietnam, often from remote regions bypassed by the decades of warfare in that region. The latest round is not as spectacular as the finding of the 100-kg Vu Quang ox, but it reminds us of the bioversity yet to be cataloged. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has announced 11 new species of plants and animals including a reptile dubbed the white-lipped keelback snake, two butterflies, and five orchids. All came from Thua Thien Hue province in central Vietnam.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Upcoming Space Show appearance

I and Erika Lishock, my co-author on The First Space Race, will be on the radio/internet program The Space Show on Wednesday October 3 (the night before the Sputnik 50th anniversary). The show is from 7-8:30 PM Pacific time. It's live on AM 11550 in Seattle and is available on the Web live at
Thanks as always to Dr. David Livingston for having us on the program.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Obituary: Alex, the talking parrot

Alex, an exceptional African gray parrot, has died in his cage at Brandeis University at the age of 31.
Alex was the subject of a decades-long experiment to see if a parrot could go beyond mimicking words and apply them to objects and events the way humans do. The answer was a limited, but still impressive, "yes." Alex learned over 100 words and could use them in simple sentences and even conversations, such as asking for the red box out of a collection of differently-colored shapes. He could count up to six and apparently understood the concept of zero. "He was so extraordinary in breaking the perceptions of birds as not being intelligent," said his lifelong trainer and lab partner, Irene Pepperberg, who compared his intellect to a five-year-old child's.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this story.

Velociraptor - feathers and all

It appears the stars of Jurassic Park should have been decked out in feathers.
Alan Turner, of the American Museum of Natural History led a new study of a velociraptor forelimb found in 1998 which discovered quill knobs - which anchor feathers on modern birds - on the fossilized bone. “Finding quill knobs on velociraptor, though, means that it definitely had feathers." Turner said. "This is something we’d long suspected but no one had been able to prove.” The link above includes a really cool - and scary - illustration.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The "hobbit" as separate species

Well, it's time for Round 457 in the debate over whether the remains of a 90-cm primate called Flores man, Homo floresiensis, or "hobbit" represent a few microcephalic humans or a new species. This one sounds pretty convincing. (Granted, I've always been in the separate-species camp, so perhaps I'm too easily impressed, but some experts are saying the same thing). A team led by Matthew W. Tocheri of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has concluded the wrist bones of the Flores specimens are very similar to those of apes like the chimpanzee and early human relations like the autralopithecines, not like those of modern humans. Not all dissenters have been convinced by this study: some, most notably Robert D. Martin of the Field Museum, insist the cranial capacity of the most complete Flores specimen, LB1, indicates insufficient brain power for any sort of "normal" (non-pathological) examples of a human species.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

When is an animal "discovered"?

One of my fascinations is with cryptozoology. When researchers pursue "cryptids," as the uncaught or unclassified are called, an interesting question arises: when you declare victory? When is an animal "discovered?"
I had an interesting exchange on this with anthroplogist/cryptozoologist Dale Drinnon, who thinks me something of an idealist about the way science works. Admitting that that is true, here are my thoughts.

It's easy to say that a certain cryptid has been discovered - to our satisfaction - and thus is no longer a cryptid. But saying it has no impact on science or conservation, and thus does not accomplish anything concrete.
While some zoological scientists may be too restrictive in what they accept, there is at least a standard for formal discovery and acceptance - a holotype available for physical examination and a paper published in a refereed journal. Granted, the zillions of tropical insects, etc. don't all get papers on them specifically, but the significantly-sized animals usually put on crytpid lists would all rate publications. And the insects and spiders and so forth at least turn up on the databases kept by the IUCN, the USFWS, etc., providing "evidence of acceptance."
Photographs or seafloor trackways have on occasion gained some acceptance as type specimens, but not in any of the controversial cases cryptozoologists spend most of their efforts on.
Without that standard, anyone can declare, say, the yeti discovered to their satisfaction, based on reports and sometimes hard evidence that, for whatever reason, is difficult to access. The trouble is that everyone's opinion is essentially equal, and there's no meaningful impact on science, conservation, etc. made by declaring a species discovered. (There would be if, say, George Schaller said it, but cases where a widely recognized authority endorses a cryptid as discovered (not just deserving of investigation, ut discovered) are rare indeed.)
Even having a scientific credential does not mean one's opinion has any measurable impact - Jeff Meldrum's endorsement of sasquatch, for example, has not led to funding for sasquatch investigation and conservation, has not gotten the animal in textbooks, etc.
My own inclination is to declare an animal "discovered" only when the two-pronged standard of an available holotype (at least in the form of a DNA sample) and peer-reviewed publication is met. Those standards are not magically correct, and may overlook some valid species, but they are the closest thing there is to a formal standard accepted worldwide.
And that, of course, is just one person's opinion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

NASA opening astronaut applications

NASA has opened up its application system to select the next class of astronauts. The basic requirements? A bachelor's degree in math, engineering, or science and three years' experience. In practice, this is the most competitive job hunt on Earth and those selected will have much more extensive resumes. The chosen class will have to have patience, too: they likely will not get to fly any Shuttle missions and will be doing nonflight duties until well into the Orion CEV program.

Look, up in the sky! A new bat!

A large, very distinctive new species of bat has been described from the Philippine island of Mindoro. Flying foxes are the world's largest bats, with wingspans on some types in the range of 180 cm. The new bat has orange fur and three white stripes on its face. An American-Filipino scientific expedition caught the type specimen after hearing of its from island residents. As zoologist Jake Esselstyn put it, "A local resident of [the town of] Sablayan first described the flying fox in great detail to us, but we were unconvinced until the species showed up in our nets." Now it's in the Journal of Mammology as well.

The Shuttle heads for launch

Although it's not certain just when. NASA's decision to replace leaking seals on the shuttle Discovery's starboard main landing gear will take time and may imperil the launch date of October 23. It might slip considerably further. The shuttle is slated for a 13-day mission, with the main goal being to deliver and attach a new Italian-built node to the ISS.

Happy 150th birthday, Tsiolkovsky!

OK, I'm a day late - the Russian space theorist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born on September 17, 150 years ago. It merits repeating that the founder of modern space-travel theory was a poor, almost totally deaf rural mathematics teacher who was fired by an imagination that kept him awake nights working out equations and concepts ranging from large hydrogen/oxygen-powered rockets to staging, space stations, and space suits. The world will owe him a debt for all time.

"Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." - Tsiolkovsky

Item I add just to show that I know it: English-speaking readers may look at his surname and assume the "T" is silent, but it's not. The Cyrillic character beginning his name is pronounced "ts."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Google Launches a New Moon Race

The X PRIZE Foundation and Google Inc. have announced the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a robotic race to the Moon with up to $30M in prize money at stake. The winner must land a privately funded robotic rover on the Moon and meet several requirements including sending video, images and data back to the Earth while traveling at least 500 meters on the lunar surface.The $30M is broken up into a $20 million Grand Prize, a $5 million Second Prize, and $5 million in bonus prizes for additional mission objectives.
COMMENT: This is wonderful stuff. I don't know if you can do this mission for $20M, but there are companies in the small "Newspace" field that will certainly try, just as the did for the original Ansari X Prize. My early favorite, if they choose to compete, would be a team of SpaceX Technologies (launcher) and a small-vehicle specialist like SpaceDev.

Japanese probe off to Moon

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), supported by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., has launched the nation's heaviest, most ambitious lunar probe. The Lunar Orbit Explorer "KAGUYA" (SELENE) went up from the Tanegashima Space Center on an H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 13 at 10:31:01 a.m. on September 14, 2007 (Japan Standard Time).

Bad news for the Florida panther

Florida wildlife officials confirmed that the 15th Florida panther this year was killed on by a vehicle, eclipsing last year’s record of 11 panthers killed by vehicles. The panther was a two-year-old male discovered on I-75 just west of SR-29. After hitting a bottleneck of 20-30 surviving animals, the Florida panther has climbed precariously back to 90-100 cats in total. However, no species can handle having 10-15% of its population killed every year. The panther's case is a reminder that even an intense, well-funded conservation program may not succeed unless accompanied by the provision of adequate habitat with minimal road hazards.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A kilogram isn't what it used to be

The agreed-on international physical standard for the kilogram, a cylinder kept in airtight conditions in a locked vault in France, has lost weight. Losing 50 micrograms isn't much - about the weight of a fingerprint, as one writer put it - but it's baffling. As physicist Richard Davis of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures put it, the master kilogram and its many copies used around the world "were all made of the same material, and many were made at the same time and kept under the same conditions, and yet the masses among them are slowly drifting apart. We don't really have a good hypothesis for it."

Species on the Edge

The IUCN has released its annual Red List of threatened species worldwide. It's not fun reading. The number of animals and plants threatened with extinction is 16,306, up 200 from last year. The number of documented recent extinctions of species is now 785 this year. Another 65 species are hanging on only in captivity or in cultivation. The Yangtze River dolphin, which was declared extinct only to have one sighting report come in afterwards, is "Critically Endangered and Possibly Extinct."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Disturbing news for the gray whale

This is not a good time to be a gray whale, individually or as a species. As if the recent news that some idiots killed one off the Northwest coast of the U.S. with a machine gun wasn't depressing enough, there's no reason to worry about them all.
In 1994, the gray whales of the eastern north Pacific were removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in a step considered a major success for conservation. The population was up to 20,000 individuals, considered equal to its historic (pre-modern whaling) level. But a new analysis of the whale's DNA indicates the original population was much larger, perhaps five or even six times as large. That it's apparently leveled off at around 22,000, combined with the small but increasing numbers of underfed animals observed, indicates things aren't as healthy and stable as we'd hoped. Some researchers suspect that warming has damaged the Arctic ecosystem and cut the crustacean population the grays depend on. It's too early to be sure, but there's definitely reason for concern.

The Viking Past

Archaeologists are opening a Viking burial mound in Norway to analyze the bodies of two women placed there over 1,100 years ago. The bodies were found in 1904 along with a longship, now in a museum, that told us much about the Vikings. The longship was apparently the grave for a queen, buried with another woman who might have been her daughter or a servant. The bodies were re-interred in 1948.
COMMENT: This kind of story, and others like the current display of an Incan princess, always bring up the question of how ancient human remains ought to be treated, and whether there's a chronological dividing line between burials that are and are not OK to disturb. It's a given that there is much cultural, medical, and scientific information to be gained by studying human remains, but there are ethical gray areas.
My view is somewhat stricter than that of most archaeologists (and, granted, I'm not an archaeologist at all). For what it's worth, though, I believe graves belonging to cultures still extant should be opened only in cooperation with representatives of those cultures. Graves of cultures unknown or no longer extant could be opened if there's reasonable expectation of important knowledge, but bodies should not be kept forever on display. After a period of study, they should be re-interred in or near the original site, or at least in a museum or other facility near the original site. This view is unrelated to any views about spirituality or an afterlife. It's just my thought about how to treat all cultures and all humans with a universal level of respect while still preserving the interests of science.

Trouble for a private space venture

It might be said that most private space ventures have trouble - hurdles from legalities to finances have laid low many a sincere effort to build new launch vehicles or innovative payloads. It's especially sad, though, to read that NASA declared Rocketplane Kistler in default for lack of progress and private financing for its effort to develop an alternative cargo services to the International Space Station. Bankruptcy appears quite possible. People at the two companies that eventually merged to form Rocketplane Kistler included well-known and respected names in the space engineering community. It now appears they couldn't quite get it done. If RpK does fail, it nevertheless deserves a salute as a valiant try, and its alumni will no doubt go on to contribute elsewhere. This leaves SpaceX as the only contractor under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Seeing Sputnik

A thread on brought to mind the question of what people were actually looking at when they "saw Sputnik."
In developing our book The First Space Race: Launching the World's
First Satellites, (Texas A&M, 2004) I and/or co-author Erika Lishock discussed this with a lot of people, including James Van Allen. The consensus was that Sputnik 1 itself
was never observed with the naked eye, except possibly for brief
flashes near dawn and dusk. (Jim Oberg has an authoritative article on this in the new issue of Astronomy magazine.) What the newspapers and everyone else
announced about where to look for Sputnik related to the core stage of
the R-7. Even this usually appeared as a small, although sometimes
very bright, point of reflected light.
This in no way diminishes the importance or impact of the experience
people all over the world had in watching a Soviet satellite (whatever
piece of hardware it was) track across the night sky. Among other
things, it was the experience of watching with the naked eye that
inspired the physicists and engineers at China Lake to start one of
my all-time favorite programs, the audacious shoestring satellite
effort called Project Pilot or NOTSNIK.
Alas, work schedules will force us to miss the big commemorations.
I'll make it to the AAS National Conference in November, which might
be called one of the "close out" American commemorative meetings, to be
on panel about what NASA's first 50 years offers in the way of
projections about the next 50.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

An Ocean in Space

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected enough water vapor to fill the oceans on Earth five times inside the collapsing nest of a forming star system. Astronomers say the water vapor is pouring down from the system's natal cloud and smacking into a dusty disk where planets are thought to form. The observations provide the first direct look at how water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it, begins to make its way into planets, possibly even rocky ones like our own. Dan Watson of the University of Rochester said, “For the first time, we are seeing water being delivered to the region where planets will most likely form.” The star system, called NGC 1333-IRAS 4B, is still growing inside a cool cocoon of gas and dust. Ice from the stellar embryo's outer cocoon is falling toward the forming star and vaporizing as it hits the disk.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item

An Impressive Ape

A team from the departments of Anthropology at two Turkish universities has recovered a new species of Ouranopithecus, a fossil ape from the late Miocene period. This might be the second-largest prehistoric ape (after the famous Gigantopithecus) known to science.
"A new great ape from the late Miocene of Turkey:" by Erksin Savas Gulec, Ayla Sevim, Cesur Pehlevan, and Ferhat Kaya: Anthropological Science 115: 153-158, 2007.
Abstract: An adult maxilla and partial mandibles of a hominoid primate recovered from the late Miocene locality of Çorakyerler (central Anatolia) are recognized as a new species of Ouranopithecus, one of the rare western Eurasian hominoids to have survived well into the late Miocene."
Thanks to Loren Coleman for putting this on the Cryptomundo page.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Yeti photos auctioned off

The most famous item of evidence in the controversial case of the yeti can be yours. The original prints of four footprint photographs taken in a high snowfield over 50 years ago by Eric Shipton will be sold by Christie's later this month.

COMMENT: While the evidence for the yeti is unsatisfying at best, no one has ever explained these footprints. Options:
1. An unknown animal.
2. Prints of known animals (or humans) expanded by melting and refreezing. This is easy enough to disprove experimentally. Tracks melt into a blob - they don't expand in a way that gives you clear edges and well-defined toes.
3. A hoax. No evidence Shipton and his companion Ward hoaxed the prints has ever been offered.
4. Simply, a mystery.

Ares 1 - How Boeing won

Boeing won NASA's ~$1B competition to build the Ares I upper stage, which will boost the Orion capsule into orbit, based on price. The ATK/LockMart bid scored higher in both the technical and managerial categories.
COMMENT: "Technically acceptable, lowest cost" - it's hard to picture this being a good idea for something this complex and this critical. I'm trying in vain to think of a case in history where a complex system contractor chosen on this basis turned out to be the right choice in the long run. Either the price will go up and negate the savings (remember the Advanced EHF National Team approach? The Space Shuttle?) and/or the contractor will be temped to cut corners and say "that's good enough." I'm not impugning anyone at Boeing, but the record on selecting a contractor based on price over one with superior technical and managerial scores is not reassuring. NASA may well have made the wrong call. Sure, they are in a tight budget situation, but for lofting a manned spacecraft, you either buy the solution you think is technically best and push Congress for enough money or you find you can't afford that solution and you give it up.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Steve Fosset is missing

Aviation daredevil Steve Fossett, the first man to make a solo, non-stop, unrefueled aircraft trip around the world, is missing. A massive aerial search is concentrated in western Nevada. Fossett had taken off Monday from a private airstrip near Yerington, NV and has not been seen since. Fossett holds over a hundred world records or world firsts, including his solo circumnavigation of the Earth by balloon.

The Croc Hunter: a sad anniversary

On September 4, 2006, conservationist Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray while diving off Australia.

The link above connects to a CNN site where people all over the world can express their comments.

My thoughts: Irwin was, as his critics said, a showman, but science and conservation need showmen. While Irwin’s enthusiasm perhaps clouded his judgment at times, there is no denying his impact for good. He took a global audience through countless lessons about wildlife and the environment, and he made it all fun. He demonstrated a love for creatures from snakes to spiders to (of course) crocodiles that helped him get across to everyone how important these “vermin” or “killers” are in their ecosystems.

Of special note to cryptozoological researchers is that Irwin also made a brief search for the presumed-extinct Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine: he found no evidence, but didn’t dismiss the possibility the world’s largest known marsupial carnivore was still out there somewhere.

We miss you, Steve.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Dr. McCoy, you dropped your gadget

One of the staple items on Star Trek was the array of devices Dr. McCoy had to repair internal injuries without the need to open up the patient. (In the original series, some of those devices were (this is true) fancy salt shakers.)
It can take a while for science to catch up to science fiction, but University of Washington engineers and doctors from Harborview Medical Center are trying to perfect a small device which could seal punctured lungs using high-intensity ultrasound. The first successful proof-of-concept experiment has already been done. Human trials have not begun, but the device offers promise for a host of uses if the technique of focusing ultrasonic beams to create a "hot spot" and cauterize leaks is proven to work on lung injuries.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Ultimate Question

Here's a great article and discussion on the ultimate question facing science (and religion, and philosophy): Why is there something rather than nothing? Doesn't the principle of entropy make nothing (or at least a dead, inactive universe) more "natural" and likely than this complex cosmos we live in?
One response to "Why?" is "Why not?" Another is that we have only one universe to examine, and that doesn't tell us anything about the possible alternatives. It's an endlessly fascinating (sometimes maddening) question.

Lucy - a Controversial Tour

Leading paleontologist Richard Leakey's voice is one of many raised against the decision to send "Lucy" - the 3.2 million-year-old partial skeleton considered the keystone of the current theory of human evolution - on an international tour. The fossil was flown out of Ethiopia in secret and is now in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Ethiopian officials say the tour will bring an important financial boost to the museums of the impoverished nation, but Leakey and others fear the fragile remains will inevitably be damaged, no matter how carefully they are handled.

COMMENT: I agree with Leakey that this was a bad idea. Yet, hypocritical though it may be, I'll try my best to get to Denver when the tour reaches my home state. The opportunity to see Lucy in person is one I can't pass up.

Russia Thinks Big in Space

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti has reported on the nation's new blueprint for space exploration - and it's an ambitious one. The plan envisions a cosmonaut on the moon by 2025, a lunar base seven years later, and a human expedition to Mars sometime after 2035.

COMMENT: The ghost of Sergey Korolev must be smiling. It's an audacious plan, every bit as ambitious as the U.S. Vision for Space Exploration. Whether Russia can pull it off, given the nation's economic and political challenges as well as the technical advancements required, remains to be seen, but nothing happens without a goal. It makes sense that something ambitious will eventually pull all the world's space powers into a joint program, but that, too, faces a lot of difficulties. The only thing we know for sure is that the next couple of decades should be very interesting.