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.

AAS Conference announcement

Here's the official announcement of the American Astronautical Society's upcoming conference in Houston, TX.
"Celebrating Fifty Years - But, What's Next?"

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Skeptical (and despised) Environmentalist

This Times Online profile of Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, is interesting in a couple of ways. One is that Lomborg drew enormous fire from environmentalists and climate scientists for his work challenging the numbers behind most global warming scenarios, but he has persevered. Right or wrong, he remains a voice challenging the current majority view. That is as necessary for good science as it is for good government. The other is that he advocates policies that result in net contributions to the welfare of people over those that sound good but don't end up changing behavior - and he puts most responses to global warming in that category.
I'm no expert on climate change or the degree to which it's human-caused, but I try to point out a couple of things. One is that this situation is incredibly complex and doesn't translate accurately to the kind of simplified presentation shown in An Inconvenient Truth. The other is that sincere dissent should not be criminalized - which some environmentalists have demanded, literally, for global warming skeptics.

Easier dental work?

Harvard researchers report they've come up with a way to kill the pain of dentistry without the numbness and drooling that results. It's interesting because the solution is a well-known plant extract used in a new way - based on one researcher's intuitive "What if?" thought. The result: a compound made up of capsaicin (extracted from red peppers), which binds to receptors on pain-sensing neurons - and ONLY on pain-sensing neurons, not those directing touch, movement, etc. - and allows an anesthetic called QX-314 to infiltrate those neurons. There's a lot of work to be done yet to go from rat experiments to human trials, but the story is a good illustration of how the inventive process works.

One More Sputnik Item

In a good article in Scientific American, JR Minkel neatly summarizes the Sputnik story. The article does say Sputnik was short for "simple satellite," which it wasn't, but Minkel makes the important point that there wasn't a lack of aerospace technology on the US side. There was just no impetus for government to put funding in the right places until Sputnik went up.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Sputnik Generation

Before we leave this 50th anniversary celebration, I should point out some great articles and links. The title link is to an article by James Oberg on the lessons we have learned - and not learned, or mislearned - from our space efforts of the past half-century. Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log ( includes a series of excellent entries about what's happened since Sputnik and what we should expect in the next half-century. Finally, New Scientist offers a great collection of material at

More Avian Intelligence

We've come to think of birds as clever enough, able to use a stick for a tool or figure out how to open a backpack zipper. But a new study with miniature cameras attached to crows has shown the birds make tools, bending, shaping, or stripping twigs and grass leaves to suit their purposes. They also use grass to rummage around on the ground for food, something never reported before.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Greetings to all who are excited about the past, present, and future of space exploration.
Co-author Erika Lishock and I appeared on the radio/Internet program The Space Show last night to talk about this anniversary's meaning, and that show is archived at
To put it all in a nutshell: no matter how big our other problems and concerns, humanity must never forget to look up and outward. It may sound romanticized, but it's still true: cultures which take their eyes off the horizon will never be what they might have been. We can still do great things together that benefit all of humanity.

Ad astra,
Matt Bille

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Sputnik and the Hams

Amid the current flood of articles on Sputnik, I noticed one that told a side of the story I hadn't really heard: that of the amateur radio community at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (then under contract to the Army) and its frantic efforts to establish the truth about the reported satellite. A series of improvisations, including the use of a metal window screen as an antenna, made that contact possible. The group would go on to make the first contact with Explorer I on January 31, 1958.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Saber-toothed cat not much of a biter

The saber-toothed cats (popularly called "saber-tooth tigers") were among the most fearsome-looking mammals ever to prowl the planet. But a new study says that, based on computerized reconstruction of saber-tooth skulls, the cat didn't have a strong enough bite to make those canines the primary weapon. Instead, Smilodon fatalis likely took down its prey with its forelimbs and claws and used the "can-opener teeth" to finish it off.

Sputnik and Science

A good article from explores how the Space Age has spurred science education and scientific discovery. As NASA astrophysicist David Thompson puts it, "Sputnik made everybody think about science and technology more seriously."

Monday, October 01, 2007

Book of the month - The Physics of the Buffyverse

Yes, I'm serious. Jennifer Ouellette's book exploring physics through the activities of our favorite vampire slayer is fun, very well written, and genuinely informative. In the course of explaining everything from relativity to string theory, the author plays with the notion that, if you make one huge assumption - the supernatural characters have access to some mystical source of energy - a lot of things in Buffy's world could actually happen. So don't read this in a spooky graveyard.