Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 Cryptozoology stories of 2008

Loren Coleman has posted a Top 10 list of cryptozoology news stories for 2008. Painfully, but not surprisingly, the top story was a target of popular ridicule - the Bigfoot hoax by Tom Biscardi and those two strange primates from Georgia, people who were brazen enough to call a press conference where they had to produce their alleged sasquatch corpse - and, of course, did nothing of the sort.

Ranking #6 on the list was the Colorado Springs "lion" sighting. I had a little hand in that, being quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazatte, and it is still a bit of a mystery. While it's possible someone mistook a big Chow or similar dog for a lion, and the cellphone camera pics don't rule this out, no one ever found either a lion or a large and valuable dog, and no animal possibly involved was ever reported missing.

By the way, I almost never say anything like this, but Loren's Cryptozoology Museum, a home for countless artifacts from sasquatch casts to movie props plus 40,000 books, is in deep financial trouble, mainly due to our friends at the IRS. There simply is nothing in the world like this collection, and I hope readers will go to, check out the story, and write the Museum a check.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NASA report on Columbia crew is out

NASA's Spacecraft Crew Survival Integrated Investigation Team has published its report, available at:
The report on lessons learned from Columbia states that the crew was incapacitated almost immediately from decompression, without even time to lower their helmet visors. As NASA PAO describes the report, "The team's final report includes 30 recommendations to improve spacecraft design and crew safety. The recommendations cover a broad range of subjects from crew training, procedures, restraints and individual safety equipment to spacecraft design methods and recommendations regarding future accident investigations."

COMMENT: One recommendation (already put into effect) is that Shuttle crews be trained to activate personal breathing systems and close visors at the first sign of a problem. I'm missing something here. Why are crews not required to be in fully pressurized suits, visors down and sealed, with an independent air supply, during every reentry?


It was pointed out to me that the report says:

"The launch and entry suit was added in response to the Challenger accident, rather than as a part of the original vehicle design. The ACES was the successor to that suit. The suit protects the crew in many scenarios; however, there are several areas where integration difficulties diminish the capability of the suit to protect the crew. Integration issues include: the crew cannot keep their visors down throughout entry because doing so results in high oxygen concentrations in the cabin; gloves can inhibit the performance of nominal tasks; and the cabin stow/deorbit preparation timeframe is so busy that sometimes crew members do not have enough time to complete suit-related steps prior to atmospheric entry."

Granted, the engineering changes for a mod like this will not be attempted now, with the shuttle scheduled for retirement, but the oxygen level problem could be fixed by a tweak to environmental control system (making it, essentially, run slightly less efficiently during the last hour of flight), the timeline adjusted a few minutes to permit the additional suit-related steps, and, as to the gloves, the gloves of the ACES suit, like all pilot/astronaut pressure suits, are specifically designed to permit use of the control stick and other critical controls while fully pressurized. The crew's actions would be less efficient, but not prohibited.

I know the folks who did this report and the CAIB and Challenger ones are infinitely more qualified than I am, but I'm still missing the logic here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I posted this comment on NASAWatch, and Shuttle Program Director Wayne Hale took the time to respond and note that my suggested setup is not possible with the environmental control system built into the Shuttle, but will be possible with Orion. Thanks, Wayne.

An end run around the Ares launcher?

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has provided documents to the Obama transition team showing the Atlas or Delta EELV rockets can replace the controversial NASA choice, the Area I, in launching the Orion capsule.
COMMENT: A ULA official who shall remain nameless told me last year that NASA had been very forceful in telling the company the decision-making was over with and ULA (which currently gets some of its business from NASA, though most of its revenue comes from DoD) had better not even think about studying this issue, much less advocating on it.

New NASA report on Columbia due out

NASA is scheduled to release a new report on the Columbia disaster at noon EST today. It's not clear what the new information is, but this report says it includes more detail about the pre-breakup phase and biomedical information on the astronauts. I'm not sure whether that will be scientifically useful, or just grounds for a new round of sensational reporting about the death of the crew.

Monday, December 29, 2008

New gorilla population named one of top discoveries

This article in names the Top 5 Incredible Scientific Discoveries of 2008. The eclectic list includes:

- Determining the rate of ice melting in the Arctic
- Filming the movement of a single electron
- Identifying new links between birds and dinosaurs
- Determining how many items human memory can consider simultaneously (three or four)
- and, of greatest interest to zoology (and cryptozoology), the identification of a huge new population of gorillas - up to 125,000 of them - in Rwanda.

This last item still boggles my mind. More than a hundred thousand gorillas. It's not only great news for the species, but it trashes the notion that there cannot be any large animals still be hiding from the eyes of science.

I was surprised not to find confirmation of huge amounts of water ice on Mars here - it belongs among any list of major discoveries.

Finding new species the hard way

This local feature on LSU ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty, who recently discovered a new species of blind fish on Madagascar, highlights the challenges of traveling to the world's remote locations, such as meeting some of the world's nastiest pathogens, in pursuit of science.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

NASA's course: Neil Armstrong's View

Neil Armstrong had a letter in the Wall Street Journal for 27 Dec 08 in which he voiced optimism for the future of NASA. I can't link to the individual letter, only to the page, and can't reprint it for copyright reasons, so I will have to offer a digest of it.

His message to the incoming national leadership can be summarized as "You're not engineers: make the policy decisions and let the NASA folks work out the right path." He thought the transition team members "are neither aerospace engineers nor former program managers and cannot be sufficiently knowledgeable to make choices in the technical arena." He felt the agency, despite the constraints of finance, had the needed talent to succeed, and had developed a workable path to the Moon and Mars that should not be interfered with.

COMMENT: Armstrong's basic point - that political leaders should not try to be the engineers - is a good one, and I hope his letter will have some impact there. It would have been nice, given public pronouncements from Armstrong are guaranteed a wide readership, if he'd added that flat or declining NASA budgets would not permit the the engineers to pursue any path but the cheapest one (which invariably carries a high degree of risk). I've stated my personal opinion before - I hope President Obama will push for the significant increases for NASA that Candidate Obama promised, but I am highly skeptical that he will.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Protesting CNN science cuts

The National Association of Science Writers, to which I belong, joined three other science journalism organizations in an unprecedented protest to CNN concerning the cable titan's intent to cut its science unit entirely. I suppose this could be seen as self-serving, but taking science journalism at an important news network out of the hands of people like Miles O'Brien and putting it in the hands of people who also do cute stories about kittens is a disgusting abdication of responsibility (notice CNN didn't cut its entertainment "news" people).

Big celebrities, bad science

Science editor Steve Connor of the UK Independent takes big names to task for dumb science statements in 2008. Politicians get chided for making connections between vaccines and autism (Obama and McCain both made unsupported statements) or for not understanding the value of some kinds of research (Sarah Palin). Hollywood types and celebrity diet gurus get served as well, as Connor complains about statements claiming the body can be "detoxified" by diets or (thank you, Demi Moore) "highly trained medical leeches." (Who gets to train the leeches?) Finally, no such article would be complete without a mention of Tom Cruise and psychiatry.
COMMENT: Comment would be superfluous.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Strangest Science of 2008

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log asks visitors to vote for the strangest science stories of 2008. Contenders include:
- The discovery of a 2,700-year-old marijuana stash
- The bizarre Bigfoot costume hoax
- A Japanese scientist who taught beluga whales to make different vocal sounds for different objects
- The induction of near-death experiences in the laboratory (actually, I remember undergoing one in a chemistry professor's lecture hall)
- The translation of a Greek joke book written 1,600 years ago, which includes (really) a version of Monty Python's "Dead parrot" sketch and puns that still work in English.
- My vote probably goes to the creation of transparent fish... which have actual uses in cancer research, but could lead to a new Monty Python sketch with a pet shop owner and a customer arguing whether there are actually fish in a tank or not.

A Christmas gift for endangered rhinos

One of the most endangered large mammals in the world is Rhinoceros sondaicus, the Javan rhinoceros. Ujung Kulon National Park in West Java, Indonesia, holds about 60 of the animals, and only three calves had been documented over the last three years. Now conservationists are happy to report they have made a mistake. A new survey turned up four more calves, indicating not only slightly greater numbers overall but much more energetic breeding activity than had been suspected. Coming on top of the 2006 discovery that the species still existed, at least in tiny numbers, in Vietnam as well, the species - while still on the critical list - has at least a slightly better chance of survival than seemed the case a few years back.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

1906 Bulletin by USGS on Lake Iliamna

One of my favorite mysteries in cryptozoology concerns the alleged giant fish of Alaska's Lake Iliamna. An illustration of how useful Google Book Search can be to historical research is this bulletin from 1906. (The original spelling and punctuation is preserved in this excerpt.)

Bulletin By Geological Survey (U.S.): "Iliamna lake, largest in Alaska, a few feet above sea level, about 60 miles long and from 15 to 25 miles wide between Bristol bay and Cook Inlet. Named Shelekof by the Russians as early as 1802 but now universally known by its native name Iliamna, locally pronounced Lamna. According to Martin, Iliamna is 'said to be the name of a mythical great blackfish supposed to inhabit this lake which bites holes in the bidarkas of bad natives.' A Russian map of 1802 calls this Shelekof while Clark lake, supposed to to have been discovered in 1891, is shown and called Ilima lake."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas present from NASA to SpaceX and Orbital

NASA's pre-Christmas press release:

"NASA has awarded two contracts -- one to Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and one to Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. -- for commercial cargo resupply services to the International Space Station. At the time of award, NASA has ordered eight flights valued at about $1.9 billion from Orbital and 12 flights valued at about $1.6 billion from SpaceX.
These fixed-price indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts will begin Jan. 1, 2009, and are effective through Dec. 31, 2016. The contracts each call for the delivery of a minimum of 20 metric tons of upmass cargo to the space station."

COMMENT. Private space companies have been agitating for years for NASA to get serious about the goal, going back to the Reagan administration, of handing off some serious spaceflight responsibility to private enterprise. I've been one voice (okay, a very minor one) urging that the idea deserved a tryout on a meaningful scale. Well, now it's reality, and we will learn whether the firms involved can really provide delivery, on schedule and on budget, to a customer in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) (which, just to make it more fun, resides at a most inconvenient inclination, thanks to that move-the-space-station decision which will be argued over forever). So hearty congratulations to Orbital and to SpaceX. Now let's see if you can put your launch mass where your mouth is.

December 24, 1968: Earthrise

One of the most famous photographs ever taken is 40 years old. William Anders of Apollo 8 took the iconic "Earthrise" photograph as the spacecraft orbited the Moon. Apollo 8 was not in the original Apollo program, but was an idea born in the effort to get everything on track - and show real progress - as the program recovered from the Apollo I fire. Apollo 8 was a brilliant success. It reminds us how much we as a species can do when we put our intellects to a great task.

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with, Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth." - Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, after the crew completed a Christmas Eve reading from the book of Genesis

"From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It wasn't a miracle: we just decided to go."
- Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell, after the Apollo 11 landing in 1969

Amateur finds golden hoard

BMW engineer Nadine Ross had taken a vacation from her native England to volunteer for a month at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. In the last week of her stay, after helping find some pottery and glass of mild interest, she probed under a large rock in a parking area. She came up with nearly 300 beautifully preserved golden coins from the 7th century A.D.
The dig's Israeli supervisor told the press, "This is one of the largest and most impressive coin hoards ever discovered in Jerusalem - certainly the largest and most important of its period." The coins show the Roman Emperor Heraclius, who was believed in his era to have restored the True Cross of Christ to its native city after it had been carried away by Persian attackers.
COMMENT: I never tire of stories of dedicated amateurs who make important advances for science, whether the story involves a presumed-extinct frog, an ancient tomb, or a new asteroid. The recent focus on science as something done by large teams from well-funded institutions (think the Large Hadron Collider or the Mars rovers) can obscure the fact that science is people - professional and amateur.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New species -and new forest - found

A British scientist using Google Earth to study conservation projects was surprised to see a forest that was new to him. Indeed, no scientist, apparently, had ever been aware of the 7,000-hectare patch of green on a spot known as Mount Mabu. While the forest was known to local people, word if it had never reached the ears of science.
According to this article, "In just three weeks, scientists led by a team from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew found hundreds of different plant species, birds, butterflies, monkeys and a new species of giant snake."
(Hmm.... A giant snake? The article goes on to say this is a new species of Gaboon viper, a nastily poisonous but not gigantic reptile. )
Jonathan Timberlake, who led the Kew expedition, believes this is not the only such preserve waiting for someone to notice it.
"We cannot say we have discovered all the biodiversity areas in the world, there are still ones to discover and it helps to find new species to make people realise what is out there," he said.
COMMENT: A new species is one thing, but a new forest? It's a good reminder of how much we still have to learn about this planet, and of how helpful the new tools of the digital age can be.

MicroSpace News: Little thrusters can mean a lot

Progress in further miniaturizing spacecraft and increasing the capabilities of very small spacecraft require a host of technological advances. An example of such an advance is this new microthruster propulsion concept, which comes from an international team of university-based engineers. Instead of having separate heating elements and needing to pump liquid propellants over them to get ignition, electrical energy is fed directly into the monopropellant, saving weight and complexity. As Ming-Hsun Wu of the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan put it, "This is the first time that electrolysis has been used as an ignition mechanism for a microscale liquid monopropellant microthruster and the results turned out to be pretty exciting."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Chasing New Species

This entertaining article hops around the globe to highlight news of new, rediscovered, and mystery species.

Latest on the "Hobbit" - New Species theory reinforced

The latest round of research on the "Liang Bua hominins (Homo floresiensis)," known worldwide as the "hobbits" of Flores island, published by Karen L. Baaba and Kieran P. McNulty in the Journal of Human Evolution, reinforces the view that these people constituted a separate species, and were not the result of dwarfism or microcephaly in an insular population of modern humans. A study of cranial size and shape across a variety of primates, living and extinct, indicates "LB1 [the only cranial specimen from Floes - MB] best fits predictions for a small specimen of fossil Homo but not the for a small modern human."
COMMENT: This business will not be resolved until we have more cranial specimens from Flores, but I've always felt the separate species advocates had the best of the argument.

MicroSpace News: Congratulatiosn to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX

From the press release:

"HAWTHORNE, Calif., Dec 17, 2008 -- Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has announced the appointment of Gwynne Shotwell as President, effective immediately. In her new position, Shotwell will be part of the Office of the Chairman and CEO and report to Elon Musk, CEO and CTO. As President, she will focus on the operational activities of SpaceX, including sales, marketing, manufacturing, launch operations, legal, government relations and finance."

COMMENT: I've known Gwynne for several years. She was at Microcosm and Aerospace before SpaceX. The lady is scary smart. Congratulations, and good luck with a new year of Falcon 1 launches, not to mention development of the Dragon and Falcon 9.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why do beaked whales have tusks?

Male beaked whales of most species have prominent teeth, or small tusks, which are visible even when the mouth is closed. (In one weird species, they actually curve in enough to restrict how far the mouth can open). Why do they exist? They are not used for feeding and don't have any other critical use, though some males scar each other with them. Some cetologists now speculate they evolved distinctive placement and form, varying between species, because that helped females distinguish between species that are often so externally similar that even experts need have trouble telling them apart.
COMMENT: Why tusks as a differentiator? Why not color, or dorsal fin shape, or something else more obvious? And do they really differentiate visually anyway? This article captures some of the debate on this. It also gives me an opportunity to mention two of the cetologists quoted here, Drs. Robert Pitman and Merel Dalebout, and give them a nod of recognition (not that they need it) because they were happy to answer questions from some science writer they probably never heard of while I was writing Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (2006).

Of Gen Y and PowerPoint

This is an interesting thread on NASAWatch because it touches on a couple of topics. One is the generation gap between workers, how different generations really are, and how an organization gets the best out of a multigenerational work force. There are links to a PowerPoint (sorry, I don't know how to make the little trademark symbol with this blog software) presentation and a rather bare-bones report on how NASA is approaching this. The second, which Keith Cowing brings up based on the first, is why everything seems to be in PowerPoint and whether engineers are learning how to communicate in depth in written documents these days.

COMMENT: I work for an international consulting firm where a PowerPoint "deck" is THE standard format for reports: products written out in Word or similar programs basically don't exist. I've learned to work well with this format, but I'll never like it. PowerPoint, to me, is a great gadget for presentations: it's not very good for depth and detail, unless you have hundreds of slides. "PowerPoint Engineering" was criticized by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board: if complex technical questions must be reduced to bullet points, context and depth are inevitably lost, and minority or dissenting views are usually part of what gets left out. Future historians are going to be hard put to reconstruct what our generation of humans did and thought from corporate and government archives. For that matter, I often can't reconstruct what people did five years ago. Indeed, I talk to authors who can't reconstruct their own work. That's why I keep a lot of hard copy as well as electronic records from every study effort of mine. I hope that habit spreads.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Retire or extend the Shuttle?

It's not an easy call either way. Mike Griffin has always been afraid (with good reason) that money to extend the Shuttle's life past 2010 would mean cuts to the Constellation program. This news item states that a NASA report to be released today "projects that extending the program until 2015 would cost up to an additional $13 billion and could increase the chances of accidents with astronauts aboard." President-elect Obama's team has asked about a range of options, from extending the Shuttle to scrapping it on schedule and accelerating Constellation to killing the Shuttle AND cutting the scope of Constellation by scrapping the Ares booster program.
COMMENT: The last is, I think, the most likely outcome. While I never liked the Ares I and would be in favor of man-rating a Delta or Atlas launch vehicle instead, I think what will happen is that the whole Constellation program is going to be starved and stretched out while the Shuttle is retired anyway. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm quite sure that I'm not.

President Bush on Creation and Evolution

It might be said that an outgoing President's views don't matter much, but this is an exception, since George W. Bush has been for a long time one of the most prominently Christian figures in public office. In an interview with ABC's "Nightline" program, Bush pronounced himself a believer in the importance of the Bible, but "not a literalist." He explained concerning creation and evolution, " "I think you can have both. I think evolution can — you're getting me way out of my lane here. I'm just a simple president. But it's, I think that God created the earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution."

A poll on this story indicates the readers of the site are generally in strong disagreement with the President (whom I am, in general, in agreement with, though I would not have used his phrasing). Of 5,800 self-selected respondents, 89 percent felt creation was "just a primitive story."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A thousand new species from SE Asia

This blog has covered some new species from Southeast Asia, including a 30-cm spider and a startling pink millipede, but just how many species have been discovered in the valley of the Mekong river, which flows through much of that region? The WWF added them all up and found there have been over a thousand in the last decade. Think about that. This astonishing number tells us that, despite all the environmental harm we've caused, a great deal of the natural world is still out there waiting to be explored and classified. The link above includes photos of some examples, like the brilliant green viper Trimeresurus gumprechti (one of 22 new snakes), the Laotian rock rat, and a tree frog, Chiromantis samkosensis, which is colorful not just on the outside, but on the inside, thanks to its turquoise bones and green blood (!)
Oh, and the viper was spotted crawling through the rafters of a restaurant. Seriously. That ought to count some points off a Michelin Guide rating.

Cryptozoologist of the Year named

Loren Coleman gives the honor to Dr. Andrea Marshall, who discovered a huge and striking new species that had been (sometimes, anyway) in plain sight. No one before her had made much of a study of the manta populations off the coast of Africa. When Marshall looked at them thoroughly, she discovered they included two species, one coastal (this was the known species) and a larger, deeper-water denizen which could be distinguished by its more triangular fins, its lifestyle (migratory), and its sheer size (up to eight meters across and weighing up to two metric tons). Marshall did something important to all of science: looking at something no one else had examined and finding what no one else had noticed.
I nominated Debbie Martyr as runner-up for her rediscovery of the Sumatran muntjac and her continuing progress in solving the mystery of the orang-pendek - the likeliest, in my view, of all the cryptid primates to prove a new species.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

MicroSpace News: Bring on SwampSAT

I covered earlier in this column the welcome release of NSF grants for microsatellite technology projects. The University of Florida has used NSF funding to create the Advanced Space Technologies Research and Engineering Center at the UF College of Engineering. Their first flight hardware is a $100K, 1-kg microsat designed to tackle the problem of precision attitude control of a vehicle with very little room for a conventional attitude control system. The university is not spilling all the details of their idea in the press (even in the College of Engineering's own press), but SwampSAT will be ready for launch in 2009 to test a possible solution.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dwarf crocodile is three species

In the latest example of applying DNA to taxonomy, a team from the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History was looking into the distinctiveness of populations of the African dwarf crocodile, which had been split off on morphological grounds into separate subspecies. Looking at dwarf croc DNA samples from all over the African continent, researchers discovered that, not only were the two subspecies more properly described as full species in the genus Osteolaemus, but there was a third species no one had distinguished. The scientists sequenced over 4,000 more base pairs of DNA (both mitochondrial and nuclear) from more than 80 individuals to work it all out.

Under Lake Ontario, an archaeological mystery

A hundred and fifty meters beneath the surface of Lake Ontario rests a newly discovered mystery. A 19th-century schooner, 17 meters long, rests upright on the bottom in surprisingly good condition. No one consulted so far, though, has been able to shed any light on the vessel's name or its origin. Video from an ROV indicates many of the ship's fittings were removed before it sank, perhaps indicating it was in the middle of a conversion for some other role when disaster struck. The vessel is distinctive because of its use of a daggerboard, a wooden extension to the keel which could be raised or lowered. There's no record of any daggerboard ship on the lake, from any time period.
COMMENT: As we explore the Earth's wild places and the universe around us, this find reminds us that we always have more to learn from exploring our own history as well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Day Science Stood Still?

Alan Boyle's ever-entertaining Cosmic Log looks at the new movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. I haven't been anticipating this film. The 1950s original, a beautiful little two-character drama, is classic: this one looks like another CGI spectacular with lots of explosions and tiresome eco-preaching. However, Boyle notes, the creators did endeavor to get some of the science right, and actress Jennifer Connelly in particular tried to make her astrobiologist character believable. So maybe I'll see it after all. At least on DVD.

UPDATE: The first reviews are in. DVD is looking like the good option.

One small step toward fusion

Creating electricity by fusion reactors, while devilishly difficult, is viewed by some experts as the only long-term answer to providing sustainable "green" power to the Earth in sufficient quantity to run cities and industries. No one has yet built a fusion reactor producing more energy than it consumes. Within the most common design being pursued, a superheated plasma must be kept away from all contact with the sides of donut-shaped chamber - without creating energy-sapping turbulence within the plasma, and without using an enormous amount of power. Now two MIT scientists have demonstrated a potential solution using radio waves. The problem? It works, but they don't know how. Without understanding the theory involved, they can't prove that the method will scale up for use in commercial reactors.
COMMENT: Commercial fusion remains probably a couple of decades off, but every advance like this brings it a little closer. If President-elect Obama is serious about long-term energy independence, fusion research needs a boost. The initial costs are high and the rewards are years away, but the logical case for investing here is very strong.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How mammoth can a mammoth get?

This entertaining article by Loren Coleman introduces us to the Songua River Mammoth(Mammuthus sungari), a NE Asian species that appears to have been the largest proboscidean ever to walk the Earth. At 5.2m high and 9.1m long (tail tip to trunk tip), it weighed some 10 tons or more and must have been awe-inspiring to a hunter armed only with a spear. It still loses out for the title of "Largest Land Mammal Ever" to Paraceratherium (a.k.a. Baluchitherium or Indricotherium), which roamed some of the same territory, but it doesn't lose out by by much.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Space: The Commercial Frontier

Several companies are preparing to tap what they see as a promising market in suborbital rides to space. Blue Origin is the quietest of these, building a vehicle with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' investment money and spending almost nothing on tooting its own horn before it has an actual working spaceship. (Good for them). The company is, though, reaching out to offer suborbital microgravity rides for scientific projects. Blue Origin has invited contact from scientific and student organizations seeking space on projected Research and Education Missions (REM), which will be flown in addition to the passenger missions. Leonard David, whose excellent article collects what we know about this very private firm's plans, reports that REMs might be available as early as 2011.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Name your own bat

Many name-the-species sales have involved creatures 99% of the population doesn't care about, but Purdue University has jumped on board by offering the right to name seven new species of bats. The university hopes this will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for research and conservation. For those with chiroptophobia, there are also two South American turtles up for grabs.

MicroSpace News: More on ORS satellite

Goodrich will be building the next (and first officially operational) satellite using the Operationally Responsive Space moniker for DoD. ORS Sat-1 will, in the not-very-helpful terminology offered by Goodrich's Tom Bergeron, "...provide valuable operational capability to commanders in the field and will utilize capabilities proven on Goodrich's portfolio of ISR solutions."

COMMENT: It will be interesting to see if this satellite earns the name ORS, or whether, in transitioning from R&D pathfinders to "operational" satellites, this becomes a more typical stretched-out, cost challenged, budget threatened program.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Big slip for Mars Polar Lander

NASA's flagship mission to Mars, the Mars Polar Lander, won't be fully tested and ready by the planned October 2009 launch date. That pushes it to the next window of opportunity, when Earth and Mars are in the optimal alignment for a mission. That comes in 2011. The slip will add further costs to a mission beset by a series of overruns and descopings.

Dinosaurs at the poles

How did dinosaurs, traditionally thought of as tropical or subtropical creatures, survive near the poles? After all, it was chilly up there (and down there) even in the Mesozoic. The annual mean temperature at the poles was about 41 F or 5 C - balmy compared to modern climates, but too cold for for what we used to think were basically cold-blooded animals.
One idea was that dinos living near the poles made long seasonal migrations, as many modern birds do. Fossil evidence, though, as well as a comparison to modern polar land animals, indicates that many species did not migrate, or at least did not migrate as far as we thought. As Phil Bell of the University of Alberta explains, "Many types of dinosaurs were surviving in polar latitudes at the time, and getting along quite fine. They were not physically able to remove themselves from the environment for a variety of reasons and had to adapt to the cold, dark winters just as the rest of us mammals do today." Bell and co-author Eric Snively have shown us all, once again, that we have a lot to learn about our favorite fossil creatures.

Friday, December 05, 2008

British Columbia's sasquatch hunters

This very skeptical but not unaffectionate portrait of sasquatch hunters in Canada's western province includes some good give-and-take between the believers and skeptics.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What if birds or reptiles had produced the human-level brains?

This is about the most interesting thread on any blog I've seen lately (Darren Naish's blog Tetrapod Zoology is always interesting, but this entry is really really interesting). What if mammals had not produced the top intelligent species on the planet (us)? What if mammalian evolution had gone wrong, or dinosaur evolution had more time to work with? Naish tracks this idea through its original concept (a bipedal dinosaur evolved from a brainy species called Troodon) through his own "avisapiens" and some concepts by other researchers on brainy descendants of known dinos or birds. Someone ought to collect all these and do a book on them.

Giant pterosaur discovered - in museum

A pterosaur with one of the coolest scientific names ever - Lacusovagus magnificens, "magnificent lake wanderer," has been described from a fossil found in Brazil but overlooked for years in a German museum. The species had a wingspan of five meters and is the largest known member of a clan of tootless flying reptiles called chaoyangopterids. It doesn't match up to the greatest of the flying reptiles - the mind-boggling Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a span up to 12 meters by some estimates, and the similar-sized or perhaps even larger Hatzegopteryx thambema - but it's a major find nontheless. And, like I said, it's just plain cool.

Oldest-ever insect imprint found

A very clear imprint of a dragonfly-like insect, found on a rocky outcrop by a Tufts University geology student in Massachusetts, has been dated to approxmately 312 million years. It may be the oldest such imprint knwon to science.
Discoverer Richard Knecht explains, "It's not a dragonfly but picture a dragonfly-like body. We're looking at something related, maybe a mayfly. They have the same body plan." Tufts paleontologist Jake Brenner adds, "It's unusual to see a flying insect make such a deep impression in this muddy sediment. We don't have many good body fossils from this time period with these early flying insects. The level of detail is really unseen in continental deposits."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Cougar killed in Louisiana

Again, officially, there are no cougar populations east of the Mississippi, except for the Florida variety. At this rate, though, officials sure are keeping busy doing necropsies on bodies of cats that don't exist.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Journal of Air and Space Law now online

A release from my old friend Joanne Gabrynowicz at the U. of Mississippi School of Law indicates the Journal of Air and Space Law will be available online via university and law libraries with the proper account.

32 years of the world's most important writings on space law have just become more easily accessible. Today, volumes 1 through 31 of the Journal of Space Law, spanning from 1973-2005, was added to the HeinOnline Library.
The Journal had a number of on-line companies from which to choose. It chose HeinOnline, first and foremost, because its contents are more widely available to libraries around the world. Its subscription rates make Hein Online contents more accessible to libraries with modest budgets. Over the years, we have received comments from lawyers and students alike saying they could often access a HeinOnline account when they could not access some of Hein's larger, more expensive, competitors. Now, like the University of Mississippi School of Law Library, any library with a Hein subscription can make the Journal accessible.
After speaking to a number of law librarians, the Journal also learned that many of them prefer the Hein format that provides an image of each original page, in its original full-page format. This preserves the original page as an historical and legal record and also facilitates more accurate citations.
The National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law is now engaged in a project that will create a searchable, cumulative index for all of the volumes, back to 1973. When completed, the index will be available on the Center's website. In the meantime, searching on HeinOnline can be done by title or author name, as well as full-text searching of the collection or select periodicals.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Video of an "alien" squid

The squid family Magnapinna (housing one genus with four known species, counting one that has been observed but not yet named) is little-known and is often compared to creatures from some other planet. With huge fins and ten identical spindly tentacles dangling from "elbows," these squid certainly look like nothing else on Earth. Here we have a video, provided by Shell Oil, of one of the animals in the Gulf of Mexico. That this family, with individuals known to range up to 7m in overall length, went undiscovered until just ten years ago is a testament to how much we still have to learn about the inhabitants of the oceans.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Success at the ISS

The most recent space shuttle mission is forever going to be known for the lost tool bag. The bag can be spotted from Earth and has its own websites. Really. See as just one example.
That's a shame, because the crew of the Endeavour accomplished a huge amount of work, along with the ISS astronauts, to make the station fit to expand from three crewmembers to six. The ISS now has a repaired solar-wing joint, an advanced water recycling system, its first refrigerator, and a second toilet to go with two new habitation areas. Congratulations to all involved.

Water spouting from a Saturnian moon?

Water is the Holy Grail of space exploration: wherever we find, it, there is at least some possibility of life. As we chase underground deposits on Mars, though, another body is appearntly spouting huge geysers of the precious compund into space. Saturn's strange Enceladus is jetting masses of dust and gas - and, some researchers now argue, liquid water.
COMMENT: Out seemingly familiar solar system is turning out to be like the universe at large - not just stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

Rare giant turtle saved from being on menu

In Dong Mo Lake (also known as Ho Hoan Kiem) near Hanoi, Vietnam, dwells a huge freshwater turtle. It was once thought to be a legend. When its exstence was confirmed, some scientists suggested it represented a new species. That turned out not to be so, but close enough: it was a Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (rafetus swinhoei), a member of the most endangered reptile clan on Earth. There may be only four such turtles in the world, and their future is bleak.
It almost got bleaker when recent floods washed the Hanoi turtle out of its lake. Conservationists searched frantically for two weeks until a fisherman announced he had the 70-kg reptile and was effectively holding it for ransom. Nguyen Van Toan claimed he already had a big offer from a restaurant. He was, however, mollified by a reward of about $200 and some new fishing nets. The lonely ruler of the lake is back where he belongs.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The end of the cave bears

Often, when a carnivorous species dies out, one contributor is its specialized diet. That seems to have happened in reverse with Europe's huge cave bear, which was largely vegetarian. Martina Pacher of the University of Vienna and her colleague Anthony J. Stuart of the Natural History Museum, theorize that climate change about 27,800 years B.P. reduced the available vegetation and caused the 1,000-kg bears (Ursus spelaeus) to slide toward extinction, followed by the mammoth and other species. Europe's race of brown bears (Ursus arctos), true omnivores, made it through all right.

NASA, money, and Mars

Keith Cowing has a somewhat dispiriting but important collection of notes and sources here on NASA's chronic inability to project costs adequately and the way the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) seems to be the source to pay for other directorates' sins as well as its own (of which it has many). A possible two-year slip in the Mars Polar Lander mission seems the next likely domino to fall. Cowing puts it more bluntly, calling the cuts and postponements to science missions "the slaughter of the innocents" and noting that "Eventually, you run out of innocents to slaughter." He links to an op-ed by former NASA SMD Associate Administrator Alan Stern arguing that the agency has gotten used to preparing unrealistically low cost estimates to get missions approved with the assumption they'll be bailed out later (which does not always happen). Stern admits to being a culprit at times. It's not a problem unique to NASA - see virtually every report on DoD procurement.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pygmy tarsier rediscovered

A tiny, adorable primate, missing for decades and often considered extinct, has been found by an American expedition to its historic range in Indonesia. Texas A&M University anthropologist Sharon Gursky-Doyen notched a kind of scientific first by becoming the only person ever known to be bitten by the mouse-sized species.

Eastern cougars on the prowl

Officially, no population of cougars, pumas, etc. exists in the Eastern U.S., except for the handful of cats hanging on in Florida. That position, though, is getting harder to defend, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking another look. Two new examples, as posted at the handy news site Cryptomundo:

A cougar in New York, with an unmistakable photo (although it's not clear the photo comes out of the same event as the sightings in the news article quoted):

A cougar killed near the state line between Georgia and Alabama:

It's often hard to be definitive about whether a given cat has spent time in captivity, even when you have the body. It's impossible when all you have is a photo. Either way, I think the evidence keeps mounting that a few cats hung on in the East, probably supplemented by released/escaped captive animals of Western origin, and the explosion of the deer population is helping this scattered part-hybrid, part-native population to slowly rebuild its numbers. That means the reports will keep getting more numerous and more solid until the government scientists start agreeing with the cryptozoologists.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New dolphin from Australia

In another example of how what scientists find is often quite different from what they look for, Dr. Luciana Möller of Australia's Macquarie was trying to unravel the relationships of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from Australian coastal waters. The DNA, though, diverged more than she expected: so much that dolphins from southern Australia should should be considered a new species, even if they look very much like their cousins around Australia and around the world (the bottlenose dolphin gets around).
COMMENT: This is important stuff, but it raises anew the question of what degree of difference, and/or what specific differences, are adequate to prove that populations are separate (non-breeding) species. I asked two scientists of my acquaintance that question, and both Ph.D.'s threw up their hands.

Decoding mammoth DNA

The always-readable Nichols Wade had a good article in the NYT earlier this week on how we've taken one small step toward possible mammoth cloning - and how the debate about whether cloning will ever be practical continues unabated. "A large fraction" of the extinct pachyderm's DNA has been recovered from fragmented specimens using new machines and techniques. One of the men announcing this advance, Penn State University's Stephan C. Schuster, estimates he could recover the entire genome for another $2M and clone a mammoth for $10M.

A new (albeit extinct) penguin species

What Sanne Boessenkool of the University of Otago in New Zealand wanted to do was understand the history of the rare yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes). What she found when analyzing old bones was that some of them didn't come from New Zealand's only known penguin. Instead, they belonged to a species that went extinct in historical times. It seemed the species, now named Megadyptes waitaha, was the dominant form of New Zealand penguin until the Polynesians showed up around the 13th century. The larger M. waitaha was eaten out of existence, and the yellow-eyed penguins settled into their niche.

LIFE photo archives on line / space trampolining

LIFE magazine has teamed up with Google to put into a free online archive thousands of photographs, dated from the 1860s to the present. Not surprisingly, there are some great space photographs in the collection. Here's one from a 1960s experiment I never heard of: an athlete bouncing from a trampoline while wearing a space suit to help understand the way astronauts move in microgravity.

Exploration via rubber duckie

Scientists studying glaciers in Greenland had a problem. Meltwater often ran into channels within or under the glacier, and they didn't know where it came out, an important data point in understanding the effects of increased melting on the Greenland ice cap as a whole. There was no budget for anything like miniature robotic vehicles, which likely would not have survived anyway. The solution? Dump 90 $2 toy rubber ducks into the water. The ducks have vanished into/under the glacier, and Dr. Alberto Behar and his colleagues are waiting for someone to find them. The ducks may travel 30 miles to open water, or they may be stuck or diverted along the way. It's data either way, and this episode is a great example of human ingenuity at work.

UPDATE: As of December 24, no ducks have been recovered. This is disappointing, but they may yet surface, and even if they don't. showing there is no passage under the ice to the bay is still important information.

Spectacular meteor (story w/video)

This celestial visitor lit up hte skies over Western Canada in an awesome display that was fortunately captured on video. The space rock, estimated at up to 10 tons and the size of a desk (iron meteorites are really dense), did not hit the ground intact but shattered into hundreds of pieces at low altitude.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Glaciers on the Red Planet

Planetary scientists report Mars may have more water ice than anyone thought, locked in glaciers buried beneath the surface. The glaciers may have been frozen for 200 million years and may have as much water as the Great Lakes of North America. The find, made using ground-penetrating radar from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, may be a major boost for future human exploration. We've known Mars has ice beneath its soil, but the glaciers offer the possibility of tapping a huge store in one location rather than having to process large amounts of the Martian terrain for thinly spread ice.

Found: The grave of Copernicus

The great astronomer Copernicus accurately located the Sun and Earth in the solar system, but locating his grave has been a challenge. It's known he was buried in a Roman Catholic cathedral in Frombork, Poland, but the grave wasn't marked. Now a Polish archaeologist reports that remains disinterred in 2005 have been matched to Copernicus' portraits and other information, including a DNA from a hair sample that likely belonged to him. The skull has been used to build up a computer-generated portrait (see title link) of what the eminent scientist looked like at the time of his death.
COMMENT: OK, we found him. The article does not say what the plan is, but I hope he will be reburied soon with appropriate honor. I've never liked the idea of relics of the dead being displayed or stored. It's not about the deceased so much as it is about human dignity in general. It's legitimate to do tests, such as X-raying mummies or taking DNA from Kennewick Man, for valid scientific purposes, but the remains should then be re-interred, if at all possible, with respect for the culture the person belonged to.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shuttle success at the ISS

The STS-126 mission to the ISS is off to a very promising start. It's an ambitious mission: 15 days, four EVAs, and several major hardware additions to the space station. After a Friday launch that included a little concern about debris (the Shuttle, fortunately, shows no sign of meaningful damage), the Endeavour is docked at the ISS and has begun transferring everything from a cargo modules to a $250M water recycling system to a better exercise machine. It's all part of getting the ISS ready for a six-person crew rather than the current complement of three.

Why Nessie matters

This article by Brian Morton is unnecessarily harsh on Nessie and her believers, but it it makes an interesting point: what does the famous and elusive inhabitant of the loch mean to Scotland and to all of us? To Morton, "The curious thing about Loch Ness studies is that all the debunking in the world doesn't seem to make a dent on the phenomenon." Nessie represents an ancient past and a modern mystery. He wonders if Scots cling to the legend of the loch because they no longer have any other common identity. It's a question that Americans have asked about sasquatch and Japanese about the Honshu wolf.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

First Extrasolar planets imaged from Earth

One distant star has three planets, another at least one. Not news perhaps, we've detected extrasolar planets before. But now we humans have out first-ever direct visual images of worlds far beyond out own. Two teams - one using the Hubble Space Telescope, the other a pair of telescopes in Hawaii - have given us these historic images.
The Hubble image shows the star Fomalhaut and a planet three times larger than Jupiter. The ground-based image showsthree much larger planets circling a star called HR 8799. (Don't despair if what you seek are "Class M" planets like ours: it's only logical that the first exoplanets we see will be the biggest ones. There may be a host of smaller ones around these same stars, waiting for our tools to grow sharper.)

MicroSpace News: Cubesat Launch Opportunity

Passing on this release for all you CubeSat builders out there:

>The Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) at the University of Toronto Institute
>for Aerospace Studies would like to formally announce a launch opportunity
>in July 2009. This opportunity will be part of the Nanosatellite Launch
>Service 6 (NLS-6). NLS-6 will include one 7 kg spacecraft from SFL.
>Currently there is sufficient mass margin available to accommodate
>additional spacecraft, as follows:
>- Two Single Cubesats
> -- OR --
>- One Triple Cubesat
>We would like to open this launch opportunity and invite all interested
>parties to consider joining us as Launch Partner.
>We expect to finalize the Launch Services Agreement before the end of
>November 2008. We are currently looking at July 1, 2009 as the spacecraft
>delivery date to the launch site.


> Mr. Freddy Pranajaya
> Manager, Advanced Systems Group
> 416-667-7700 or 416-667-7890

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How do you collect whale snot?

If you want to know whether a whale is healthy, it helps to know what bacteria are normally found in said beast. But scientists rarely get to sample healthy whales in the wild. The solution? Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse of the Zoological Society of London and her colleagues have come up with a novel idea. A whale's spout is a bit like a human's blowing his or her nose: the normal bacteria exist in the mucous exhaled along with stale air and whatever else. So they have a small remote-controlled helicopter they guide through the exhalations of whales to catch droplets on Petri dishes.

COMMENT: Human ingenuity never ceases to amaze me. It's what gives me hope for our species.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Farewell to the Phoenix Lander

One of the most successful missions ever to Mars has ended. The Mars Phoenix Lander lasted for five months, two months beyond its scheduled mission life, and returned a plethora of data on Mars, most famously about the presence of water ice just under the surface. The Martian winter diminished the power coming from the MPL's solar panels until the probe ceased to transmit. NASA will keep "listening" in case a lucky sunny spell enables the lander to "phone home," but scientists are more than happy with the data they have so far.
Congratulations to NASA and its contractor team for a great mission.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Census of Marine Life reports more finds

The fourth report from the 10-year Census of Marine Life (which began in 2000) is being published. This episode, like the previous reports, includes a great deal of information on new species and the previously unknown habits of old ones. The Census, including work done before the new project kicked off, has enumerated some 230,000 species of an estimated one million living beneath the seas. Recent findings include the odd habits of great white sharks - going as deep as 300m in frequently repeated excursions whose reason is unclear - new zooplankton, comb jellies, bacterial mats, etc., etc. Also, we've learned that many species of octopus have ancestors in the depths near Antarctica, from which they have radiated northward.

Unique discovery of new gecko

French scientists have discovered a new species of gecko by hatching an unidentified egg brought thousands of kilometers from its birthplace.
The 7.5-cm lizard, dubbed Lepidodactylus buleli, began life as an egg discovered in the Vanuatu archipelago of the south Pacific and emerged from its egg in Paris. It's the first lizard species ever discovered this way.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Is the President-elect a "Geek?"

This WIRED blog puts forth the case our next President is the first "geek dad" to hold the office. Not only is he a fan of technology in general (he has promised to appoint the government's first Chief Technology Officer and raise NASA's budget), but he greeted Leonard Nimoy with a Vulcan salute.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Old Soviet (!) space Christmas card

This card shows Father Christmas in his sleigh behind Sputnik 3, a Soyuz capsule, and a Vostok. Pat Flannery, who posted this link, dates the card to about 1967.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Cloning of frozen mice - are mammoths next?

Cloning of modern mammals is done using intact cells. One of the big obstacles to cloning mammals from remains like frozen mammoth cells is that the cells are never whole. They burst from the freezing of the water inside them.
Japanese scientists, though, have now gotten around that, successfully cloning live mice from cells frozen for 16 years. It's still quite a jump to cloning mammoth cells frozen thousands of years ago (we still need a surrogate mother, presumably an elephant, and it's not clear elephant and mammoth are close enough for this to work), but the idea is edging into the realm of possibility.

New Fungus could make biofuels practical

There has been a lot of attention paid lately to "biofuels," but often without consideration for the economics involved. Gathering, transporting, and converting surplus crops and other plants into diesel fuel can end up costing more, in money and in fuel, than you get out of the process.
A newly discovered fungus offers hope for a practical low-cost, high-efficiency production process.
The fungus Gliocladium roseum, found in a South American rainforest, is the most efficient producer of "waste" (from the fungus's point of view) ever seen in the natural world, and it can use almost any plant matter. Gary Strobel of Montana State University, says, "The fungus can even make these diesel compounds from cellulose, which would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment."
COMMENT: It will be years before a commercially viable process comes out of this, but there are many lessons to be learned, including the importance of conservation (what if this forest had been cleared out?) and the need to continue our exploration of the natural world.

Monday, November 03, 2008

One more Ares note for the week

With the Shuttle nearing retirement and some uncertainty about relying on Russia for U.S. access to space, NASA managers are brainstorming how the Constellation program can be sped up by up to 18 months. The chief idea on the table, according to this article: reduce testing, including up to five flights planned to test the upper stage. The result would be a LEO-capable Orion/Ares stack, with development of lunar-capable Orion versions postponed.

COMMENT: I lack the vocabulary to properly describe what a bad idea this is. Cutting testing to produce a schedule that is STILL longer than the original confident proposals put out by NASA and ATK is, historically, a recipe for failure with a complex system like Ares/Orion.
I know I am oversimplifying here, but the point of Orion was a single flexible craft for multiple missions, and the Ares already had a flight test schedule that was, in light of the work SpaceX needed to get a smaller new rocket to orbit, minimal. In my humble status as just another taxpayer with an opinion, I say: junk this idea. Live with a schedule slip if the alternative is a truncated testing program.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Farewell to explorer Jacques Piccard

Swiss deep sea explorer and inventor Jacques Piccard, one of the only two men ever to descend to the deepest point of the oceans, has died at 86. He and Don Walsh went down almost 11km in the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960, and no human has ever repeated that feat.
The son of a father who set balloon altitude records in the 1930s, Piccard raised a son, Bertand, who is carrying on his adventuresome spirit in areas like aviation. Piccard introduced thousands to the underwater environment by developing a tourist-carrying submarine that operated for decades. He made major contributions to ocean conservation and protection.
Piccard's family was honored by Gene Roddenberry when he chose the name for Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the TV program Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was mentioned on the show that Picard's ancestry included famous explorers.

Goodbye to a great man.

The seemingly eternal Ares-1 issues

SInce I covered the objections raised to Ares-1, I should throw in this reference, where NASA managers defense both the concept and the program as progressing well. They make some fair points about how all complex systems encounter challenges and involve differences of opinion between experts. That said, however...
COMMENT: They somehow seem to talk around the fact that original budgetary and schedule projections are not only long exceeded, but continue to to change as the program is replanned and new issues come up. Yes, every rocket has issues and problems, but we're ending up with massive expenditures for a rocket no more capable, and no more specifically suited to human flight, than commercial alternatives that could have been man-rated at a lower cost.

"If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road: and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
- C.S. Lewis

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Name a Species for yourself

Or for anyone or anything else you like. For as little as $650, for example, you can affix the name of your choice permanently and officially to a new species of midge. Funds go partly to the researcher who discovered the species and part to the World Wildlife Fund (a.k.a World Wide Fund for Nature). The organization behind this plan, Name a Species LLC, reserves the right to reject "inappropriate" names.

COMMENT: Not a bad idea at all. There are millions of insects, for example, awaiting discovery and naming, and it's a clever way to fund research and conservation. It can also be used for one-upmanship, as has already happened among scientists: ichthyologist John McCosker wrote that impish colleagues have given the specific name mccoskeri to notably unhandsome species like slime eels.

Latest astonishing Hubble photo

Scientists have nicknamed this celestial wonder the "Perfect 10" image. It does look like a numeral 10, and its beauty defies superlatives. Hubble's WFPC2 camera (thanks to a recent remote repair job from the ground that overcame a major glitch in the space telescope's operations), imaged these two gravitationally interacting galaxies known together as Arp 147.

Latest on the stem cell question

Erin Richards reports on a new technique that can, according to the authors of the referenced paper, reliably transform adult stem cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). One commenter points out that this not only avoids the ethical dilemma of embryonic stem cells but could bypass rejection problems if the cells are used for human repair, since the iPS cells could come from the patient's own body.
COMMENT: I don't claim the expertise to say whether the iPS technique could provide cells capable of doing all the same things embryonic stem cells could do, but it's important to take a long look at any option that provides the benefits without the problems in this minefield of research. It's also important to point out two things that often get misstated in the emotional debate. One is that it's not true the US government forbids or even restricts such research, only that federal money can be used only for work with a limited number of existing cell lines. There are projects all over the US using state or private funds. The second is that this is all still about potential. Years of research in the US and around the world, including large projects backed by government funds in countries like South Korea, have yet to produce a single product or process that has entered human trials.

Friday, October 31, 2008

"Race" - a scientifically meaningless concept

OK, race obviously still has meaning from a social point of view. But as this timely and important article by Dave Brody of points out, it has no scientific validity. He writes, "The notion that there’s a “race gene,” or even a definitive cluster of racially genetic material that might predispose a baby to any trait other than fuzzy placement in a wide range of two types of melanin (red and brown skin pigment), is not now scientifically supportable." He notes that Senator Obama's story of a multiracial background with roots in Kenya is effectively "the story of all of us."
While we are still in the early stages of a thorough understanding of human genetics, ".... already, it’s clear that nothing in the human genome can be categorized the way your college application insisted on inventorying you: White, Black, Asian, Latino, Native American."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Extinct" muntjac rediscovered by Debbie Martyr

I've been incredibly remiss about posting this - one of those things that just slips out of your mind. Readers will recall that Debbie Martyr is a dedicated conservationist in Sumatra, where she works to save endangered orangutans, tigers, and other species while probing the mystery of a possible new ape locally called the orang-pendek.
When some of Martyr's team recovered a small deer from an illegal snare, she knew it was unusual. She took photographs and sent them to taxonomist Colin Groves (also no stranger to my readers). The result was the rediscovery of the Sumatra muntjac (Muntiacus montanus), first discovered only in 1914 and not seen since 1930.
Congratulations for this important milestone in conservation to Debbie and Colin, and thanks to Loren Coleman for posting the news and associated correspondence.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another round on Ares-1

The Orlando Sentinel has done a good bit of research on NASA's Ares-1 rocket and reports that, while engineers and astronauts agree it can be made to fly, no one believes the current budget (far over the original budget) or the 2015 timeline. One engineer complains managers "think they can mandate reality" (a disease not restricted to NASA) and astronauts complain about the reduction in redundancy of systems on the Orion CEV driven by problems with Ares.

COMMENT: I have to be clear here, as I've worked for companies with NASA clientele and need to reiterate that this is my opinion as a private citizen, space historian, and general space buff. Any rocket has problems in the design and testing phases (ask SpaceX) but this thing scares me. NASA leadership seems committed to tweaking the design into eternity rather than to swallow the sunk costs and seriously consider that another alternative might be safer and, in the long run, cheaper. I'd rather live with a longer gap in US crew launch capabilities than accept an unreasonable risk to the crews if a marginal design is forced to fly for reasons based mainly on budget and stubborness. What happens next depends in part - but only in part - on the election. As a voter, I don't think either Presidential candidate will be able to push up NASA's funding significantly, meaning not enough to either perfect Ares-1 or replace it on anything close to the current schedule. (I would not be surprised if a President Obama reversed course and slashed human spaceflight, or allowed Congress and OMB to slash it, given the need to fund other domestic commitments he's made.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lunar Lander prize won by Armadillo Aerospace

Armadillo Aeropsace won NASA's $350,000 prize for the Lunar Lander Level 1 contest. The lander had to go from one pad to another, refuel, and return, with 90 seconds of hover time at an altitude of 50 meters or more both ways - all within a total time limit of 2 1/2 hours. It sounds easy if you add that the pads are only 100m apart, but it's taken years and millions of dollars for a team to win it. Hopefully it's another step along the road to more advanced reusable space vehicles.

Still howling over Yellowstone wolves

Thirteen years after wolves were returned to Yellowstone, they remain controversial - in the park and out. The current Fish and Wildlife Service heads think the population in the northern Rocky Mountains is healthy enough to be delisted from the Endangered Species List. Environmentalists are headed for court.
COMMENT: One thing everyone can agree makes at least some sense, I think, is this comment from FWS wolf coordinator Ed Bangs: "All wolf stuff will always be in court. Wolf stuff has nothing to do with reality; it's all about symbolism." Wolves are a symbol - love them or hate them.

If there's a sasquatch, what is it?

Scientific speculation is an endlessly entertaining exercise and sometimes leads to important insights. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman started a good thread on Cryptomundo with the question (I am paraphrasing him here): "If we assume there is a large upright North American primate, what was its ancestor?"

Now we don't have much to go on here, as we have no ape fossils from Siberia, where the presumed species must have crossed over. The primary candidates for ancestry, Coleman writes, are Gigantopithecus and Paranthropus. The former, a gigantic orangutan relative (it might have stood up 3m tall), is normally reconstructed as a fist- or knuckle-walker, not a habitual upright critter like sasquatch, but its sheer size makes it at least potentially a source for a descendant which got slightly smaller and changed posture. Paranthropus is a complex topic. About 1.6m tall, it was big for its time, during which (and this is debated among anthroplogists) it spread eastward from Africa under the successive names Austrolopithecus robustus, Paranthropus, and Meganthropus. Here you have an upright primate that must have grown larger. Either candidate must have migrated far to the north from its known habitats in Asia. The lack of further evidence is important but not damning: gorilla fossils are nonexistant, but no one doubts we have big apes roaming Africa.
If we set aside for a moment doubts about sasquatch's existence, this is an interesting exercise.

Here's what I wrote in on Cryptomundo:

(earlier poster) has a good point - “insufficient data.” IF we assume there is a sasquatch, then it had to have evolved from something. Giganto was an obvious favorite because its estimated size would cover the range reported for sasquatch, but it still seems likely Dr. Russell Ciochon is right and that an animal this size used knuckle-walking. (I quizzed him once on Dr. Grover Krantz’s reconstruction of it as a biped, and he felt Krantz had inferred too much from the shape of the jawbone, given that jawbones and teeth are all we have.)
Could the sasquatch ancestor be something else, maybe from the Paranthropus line? Certainly. But we just don’t know.

Here are two thoughts I can’t recall seeing discussed.

1. You’d think that, sooner or later, someone would have to discover preserved Giganto tracks. It seems odd we don’t have any, given that we have preserved tracks of ancient humans and their much smaller primate ancestors. Giganto was apparently widespread, at least on the Asian continent. It likely has to do with preferred habitats, but it still bugs me. Comparing Giganto tracks to alleged sasquatch tracks would tell us a lot.

2. If we assume Paranthropus or a relative as the ancestor, why did it get so big? This is an interesting question because the creature must have established itself first in the Arctic regions (on both sides of the Bering Strait, as it gradually migrated to North America). The species didn’t just take a running start in SE Asia and keep going until it hit moderate climes in North America. Bergmann’s Rule suggests that growing large would be a likely adaptation to that northern habitat. In contradiction, though, no tribe of known humans which settled at high latitudes ever got big. They got compact and stocky to minimize skin area relative to body mass, but they never grew big.
So many puzzles….

Later post by me:

To get back to the original point, it is, at this point, not critical what guess we make about the ancestor, but it’s an animal and therefore must have an evolutionary ancestor. It could be Giganto, it could be Paranthropus, or it could be an offshoot of some other line we know of OR of a line we have yet to find fossil evidence of. They key is to find the extant species, if it exists. It’s possible that, in the meantime, paleontologists will turn up fossil evidence of an interim species, like a Paranthropus relative in Siberia. We need something closer to the present day and location to make any strong connections.

Subsequent posts by others included claims by one witness of multiple encounters, where a sasquatch got habituated to him to some degree (Jane Goodall's chimp work was mentioned as a comparison), and the claim that modern physical evidence has been gathered but suppressed. I've always thought this ridiculous, and I responded to both points thus:

OK, we are off track, but I thought this was an opportunity to share a couple of thoughts from an admitted armchair (or library, as I prefer) student of this business and see what folks with field experience think.

Point one: Pardon me, but the comparison to Goodall is inaccurate. No one has done what Goodall did - find the species and stay out there until the species accepted her presence, then provide voluminous documentation, including photos/film and the accounts of other researchers, including students and photojournalists, who stayed with her. (Granted, this requires some source of support.) I don’t reject anyone’s personal account without reason, but it is only that - one personal account, which zoology is not going to accept, even in the aggregate, as proof of ANY species without better supporting evidence.

Point Two: As to the claim made above about extant but unavailable supporting physical evidence (bodies or parts thereof) that’s been deliberately suppressed, this is an extraordinary claim of its own, which requires proof. The idea that any scientist who had in hand physical proof of a spectacular species would reject the idea of becoming famous as its discoverer because other scientists would shun him is absurd. They’d be breaking down his door if he had an actual type specimen. Professional disapproval may explain the reluctance of some zoologists to consider the subject without hard evidence: it does not explain the alleged action of any scientist to hide or destroy physical evidence which would put him or her in the pantheon of heroes with Goodall, Darwin, Simpson, et. al.

The thread marches on - see the title link above for more.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Reasons to haunt used bookstores

One never knows what lies in your local used bookstore... not unless one looks.
I passed through Colorado Springs' delightfully cluttered Hooked on Books the other day, and what caught my eye? A 1958 paperback edition of Professor J. L. B. Smith's Old Fourlegs: The Story of the Coelacanth. First published in 1956, this little gem told Smith's own story of how the famous fish was lost for 60 million years, found, and almost lost again.
This edition was from Pan Books, London, and had a price of three shillings sixpence printed on the cover. Someone had pasted in a 1960 clipping of the recent find of another coelacanth specimen. Altogether a charming find. The bookstore owner notes that, based on their price tag, it had been in their shop for several years, overlooked by all (including, embarrassingly, me on several prior visits). Now it has a proper home.
The moral of the story: Keep your eyes open, and patronize your local bookstores.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Photo from Australia - spider eats bird

OK, so it doesn't EAT the whole bird, but it apparently caught and killed it. The golden orb weaver in this photo is hard to judge exactly, but my first thought was it was nearly the size of my hand. A pretty impressive arachnid. The picture just looks wrong - even though we know there are spiders capable of killing small birds, it seems like a reversal of the "birds eat bugs" natural order to have it displayed so graphically. A reminder that nature always has another surprise for us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MicroSpace News: The Next Small Thing

The first CubeSat-based satellite development project project funded by the National Science Foundation, the Radio Explorer (RAX) is well underway. SRI International has joined with the University of Michigan, whose students are helping to design and assemble the space hardware. One of the principal investigators explains, "This project will help us better understand space weather processes, how the Earth and sun interact and how this weather produces noise in space communication signals -- noise that translates to lower quality telecommunications capabilities and error in GPS signals." RAX is being built on a bus made of three connected CubeSats.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

NASA's IBEX is off

NASA's 462-kg Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) blasted into orbit on a Pegasus booster on Sunday the 19th. The spacecraft, based on Orbital Science's popular Microstar bus, will track the solar wind to map the outer boundaries of the solar system.
COMMENT: In addition to the kudos due to NASA and its contractors for the new space probe, it's important to note this is the 26th consecutive successful launch in the Pegasus series. While the Pegasus boosters never came close to original cost projections (as low as $4M at one point - they are roughly 6x that now), they represent a superb engineering achievement that has played an important role in space exploration and utilization.

India heads for the Moon

India will become the latest nation to join the "Moon Rush" of recent probes to our natural satellite. Chandrayaan-1 should blast off today on a mission to study the Moon from lunar orbit. The sophisticated science craft carries 11 payloads to study lunar topography and geology. Five of those payloads are Indian, while six are from partner nations.

Amphibians- the broader view

This update on the big picture of amphibians mixes reports of critical concern with pockets of hope. International efforts like the Amphibian Ark are trying desperately to save species that may no longer be viable in the unprotected wild. In the last four years, 366 species have been added to the IUCN's Red List. At the same time, new discoveries keep hopping into view. Herpetologist Claude Gascon says, "There are now about 6,200 species - that's 10% more than we had five years ago, and that's probably between 50% and 75% of what there is, because a lot of places remain to be explored. In Papua, New Guinea and Madagascar, for example, there are probably as many species waiting to be discovered as we know of now."

A happy day for amphibians

There is widespread scientific concern about declining frog populations, especially in the tropics. So it's a good day when scientists report the rediscovery of an "extinct" frog - and add three new species to boot. From the Upper Pastaza Watershed in Ecuador, Ecuadorian herpetologists present Atelopus palmatu, a species of harlequin frog not seen since 1937. Added to the new species, this find will hopefully give new impetus to an interagency, international effort now underway to create a new nature reserve and replant lost rain forest in the area.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fake Bigfoot sells for $250,000

The final chapter of the dumbest, most overhyped hoax in the history of cryptozoology closed with a costume selling on eBay for $250,000. The Georgia guys and Bigfoot "searcher" Tom Biscardi, who managed to get the national media to attend a press conference to see a display of a commercially-available sasquatch costume dressed up with some animal guts, had the last laugh in one sense when the fake sold for a quarter of a million dollars. (The original conspirators, though, apparently will get none of the money, and it's not entirely clear who will.) The buyer's name was not announced, which is understandable.
COMMENT: I sometimes muse that cryptozoology has no need to look for weird things in the far corners of the world: A stranger species than Homo sapiens americanus is unlikely to be found anywhere.

UPDATE: The $250,000 bid for the hoax costume has been revealed as - guess what - a hoax. It's not clear what's going to happen to this thing now.

World's longest insect discovered in Malaysia

A newly described Malaysian stick insect, named after the local naturalist who brought it to science's attention,has set a record for the longest living insect species. Phobaticus chani (Chan’s megastick), was named by Britain's Philip Bragg in honor of naturalist Datuk Chan Chew Lun. Chan, an avid collector of insects who sought species from farmers and others, recalled, “One day in 1989, I met a farmer who handed over this huge stick insect he found somewhere at Ulu Moyog in Penampang district and I realised that it could be a totally new species." The species was named 19 years later, an unusually long but hardly unknown time lapse between collection of a type specimen and its final identification and description. The insect's body is some 35cm (14 inches) long, and the animal can stretch out to 56 cm if its long skinny legs are extended for and aft.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

DARPA cancels hypersonic Blackswift

DARPA and the Air Force requested $120M in FY09 for the joint hypersonic demonstrator program called Blackswift, expected to lead eventually to a high-speed global reconnaissance capability missing since the SR-71 was retired and possibly other applications like hypersonic missiles and possibly even manned strike aircraft. Congress provided a total of $10M, basically because the project did not promise a near-term operational payoff, and DARPA pulled the plug.

COMMENT: To go on a rant here (in my "strictly private citizen's opinion" capacity) Congress has been shortsighted about projects like this since the 1980s. If it does not lead immediately (and at a perceived low cost) to a new capability, the legislative branch kills it. The 535 members of Congress seem collectively incapable of realizing that some technology investments take time to pay off, and DoD has been unwilling or unable to fight the long and difficult campaign to explain the promise of hypersonic technology and the need to invest in research that may take a decade or so to lead to a quantum leap in operational capabilities. Imaging the global recon and strike capability we could have had by now (not to mention the boon to commercial transport and civil space) if the National Aerospace Plane had been funded. It's sad and inexcusable.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No proof "Yeti" of India's "ape man"

OK, it's a terrible pun.
But it's an interesting case. Hairs found in northeastern India were alleged to belong to the region's unknown upright primate, the mande barung. In one of the few cases where such evidence has made it to an impartial scientific lab, the hairs were identified by DNA analysis as belonging to odd-looking goat known as the Himalayan goral. As primatologist Ian Redmond points out, though, the find is still important. It demonstrates that this threatened species of mammal can be found hundreds of miles south of its presumed range, which has important implications for conservation.
COMMENT: OK, science did not find the Mande barung. But it learned something useful. The kind of exploration and testing involved in cryptozoology often does this, even if a new species is not found.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

MicrospaceNews: Jim Benson, R.I.P.

Jim Benson, founder of the "new space" firm SpaceDev and a tireless promoter of space commercialization and innovative space technologies, has died due to a brain tumor at 63. Space Dev worked on small satellites, hybrid propulsion, and numerous other concepts and technologies advancing "small space" and commercial space. He founded the nonprofit Space Development Institute and served on the board of the California Space Authority.

COMMENT: I knew Jim since the 90s. He was always thinking, always helpful, and endlessly optimistic. Jim was part dreamer, part entrepreneur, and all "space nut." We will all miss him.

Ad Astra, my friend.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

New Worm Species evolve to eat poisonous metals

Worms in the UK have evolved rapidly into new species capable of using an abundant food supply - poisonous heavy metals. Abandoned mine sites in England and Wales have spawned earthworms which ingest soil with lethal levels of metals like copper and lead - and even arsenic - and excrete them in a less dangerous form. Mark Hodson of the University of Reading says, "These worms seem to be able to tolerate incredibly high concentrations of heavy metals, and the metals seem to be driving their evolution." British researchers are investigating whether the worms (identified as new species but yet to be formally names) could be introduced to polluted land, such as old industrial sites, to help make it fit for other forms of life.

New UAV follows an ancient design

American researchers are working on a new type of UAV, called the Pterodone, that will look pretty startling. Taking their cue from a Cretaceous pterosaur named Tapejara wellnhoferi, the team is focused on a highly flexible, wing-warping design that will look weird, but will offer greater efficiency and near-silent flight.

Threatened Extinctions: the news isn't good

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes an annual assessment of species under threat, called the Red List.
This year, the IUCN examined 44,838 species. Of these, 16,928 are in trouble. Despite some bright spots, such as an improvement in the African elephant's numbers, the number of endangered species has reached a new high. It has reached a new high every time the report has been issued. It's not always clear which species are worse off than a year ago and which ones make the list "merely" because we have better information about them. Almost a quarter of the world's mammals are subjects of concern, according to this inventory.
COMMENT: It's all (or mostly) about habitat. Even direct threats, like the African bushmeat trade, would be lessened if there was more habitat for animals to retreat and hide in, further from human encroachment. There are no easy answers, especially in desperately poor nations, but most of the questions, in my view, have always pointed to the need for a global effort to increase the protected habitat set aside for plants and animals. That does not rule out regulated hunting or other limited human uses of some protected areas, but it means conservation has to be the top concern in managing habitat of threatened species.

THANKS TO Kris Winkler for this item.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

MicrospaceNews: Report on SpaceX's Falcon I Flight 4

SInce the world's first private launch to orbit has implications for everything from microsatellites to space commerce, I thought it appropriate to reprint here, in part, Elon Musk's press release on the recent flight.


A week spent reviewing data has confirmed that the flight went really well, including the coast and restart. The mood here at SpaceX is just ecstatic! This is the culmination of six years of hard work by a very talented team. It is also a great relief for me, who led the overall design of the rocket (not a role I expected to have when starting the company). I felt a little sheepish receiving the AIAA award for the most outstanding contribution to the field of space transportation two weeks before this flight.

Orbit was achieved with the first burn terminating at 330.5 km altitude and 8.99 degree inclination. The goal for initial insertion was a 330 km altitude and a 9.0 degree inclination, so this was right on target! Accuracy far exceeded our expectations, particularly given that this was the first time Falcon 1 reached orbit.

The primary purpose of the second burn was to test the restart capability and then burn as long as possible. The upper stage coasted for 43.5 minutes and then burned for 6.8 seconds, which is 4 seconds longer than needed to circularize. Most of the burn was actually done sideways to avoid creating a highly elliptical orbit, hence a change in inclination to 9.3 degrees. The final orbit, confirmed by US Space Command, was 621 km by 643 km.

As an added bonus, we picked up several minutes of video and data from the upper stage when it passed over Kwajalein one orbit later, which showed the stage to be in good condition.

While Falcon 1 was the world’s first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to reach orbit, I would like to acknowledge and express appreciation for the role of DARPA, the Air Force and the ORS Office of the Department of Defense. They played an important role as early “beta” customers of Falcon 1. There are many individuals in those organizations, as well as in NASA, NRL, FAA, USAKA/RTS, other departments of the US government and the private sector to whom we owe gratitude for their support and advice. You didn’t have to help, but you did, often at risk of career and credibility, so you have my deepest thanks.

The next flight of Falcon 1 is tentatively scheduled for March next year and will carry a Malaysian primary satellite, as well as US government secondary satellites, to near equatorial orbit. Flight 6 will probably be a Defense Department satellite in the summer and Flight 7 a commercial satellite mission in the fall. In 2010, I expect the launch cadence for Falcon 1 to step up to a mission every two to three months."

Monday, October 06, 2008

Anyone for a flying sub?

OK, most readers are too young to get that reference to the long- and deservedly-buried TV program "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." But the folks at DARPA have never been afraid to think out on the edges of technology. The agency does, in fact, want to find out if a single craft that can operate on the surface, underwater, and in the air is possible.
COMMENT: This is one of those things that makes us techno-geeks say, "Go for it. If it works, it will be REALLY cool." Not to mention very useful to the Special Ops gang.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sputnik 1 turns 51

October 4, 1957... the Space Age began.

Erika Lishock and I had the honor, thanks to Roger Launius and others at NASA, of chronicling the steps to that milestone in our book The First Space Race (Texas A&M University, 2004). The late Dr. James Van Allen was kind enough to contribute the Forward, which we believe is the last thing he wrote for publication.

Rather than revisit the technical events, I wanted to comment on a couple of ideas that have arisen since the event: that the U.S. "let" the Soviets launch first, and that the first U.S. program, Project Vanguard, was chosen because it was less military than the competing project (which very likely would have beaten Sputnik to orbit) offered by Wernher von Braun and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.

The argument that President Eisenhower welcomed or allowed a first Soviet launch is not correct. If it were true, Ike would not have called DoD's (and the nation's) point man on the satellite programs, Donald Quarles, on the carpet and demanded an explanation. Ike's chief of staff wrote that the President was pretty hot about it. Quarles pointed out how the Russians had "unintentionally done us a good turn" related to space law, and Ike saw the logic but was no less incensed that we'd handed the Russians a propaganda coup. No one in the government, then or ever, confirmed any sort of slowdown - only a debatable decision by the Stewart Committee, which opted for the more complex Vanguard, with its promise of better scientific return, over the Army proposal which became Explorer.
(It is true that only a minority of the Committee members had actual
rocket expertise, and most likely accepted the Navy's claim it could do a satellite program nearly as quickly as the Army.)

Nor is it true that a top-level decision had been made to direct the choice to the "more civilian" Vanguard. If it had, Quarles would not have listened to a plea from von Braun and his commander and reconvened the committee for another round of presentations and a second vote.

Sometimes, believe it or not, the Government's official version turns out to be exactly what happened.

Matt Bille
author, The First Space Race: Launching the First Earth Satellites
(Texas A&M, 2004)

Bigfoot turns 50

OK, so Bigfoot-type reports did not just begin 50 years ago - they go back a century or more before that. But this is the 50th birthday of Bigfoot as a media phenomenon.

On October 5, 1958, the Humboldt (CA) Times ran a photograph of a road construction worker named Jerry Crew holding the cast of a huge footprint. Crew had found prints like it on two occasions at the site his company was working in Bluff Creek, CA. For the first time in print, the term "Bigfoot" was used. A phenomenon was born.

So where did that print come from? The family of a man named Ray Wallace, after Wallace died in 2002, claimed that Wallace had "invented Bigfoot" by making the original tracks, and they showed the press the wooden feet Wallace had supposedly used to make said tracks.
The problem? Oddly, none of the "Bigfoot Hoax Solved" articles that flooded out mentioned that, if you put Wallace's fake foot next to a surviving cast of the Crew track, they don't match. They're not even close. Only the cryptozoologists pointed this out, and no one paid much attention. (See the comparison photos at the title link.)

That doesn't mean Wallace had no role. It's possible he had carved earlier, now-lost feet which did match the Crew cast. But whether the tracks in the woods were made by Wallace, another hoaxer, or an unknown primate, their appearance in the Times set off a modern American mystery that still attracts the curious, the determined, the skeptical, and the exploitative.

COMMENT: There are two possible situations behind this whole business.

Option One is that a huge upright ape, of which we have no fossil record, is hiding out in the still-wild corners of North America, and doing such a good job of it that no specimen has ever been killed, accidentally or deliberately. (Claims of specimens found or taken but lost have no more weight than any other sighting report.)

Option Two is that hundreds of people have mistaken something mundane for a huge upright ape and that a startling number of hoaxers all over the continent have left fake prints, encouraged rumors, and told false tales to the press (and, in some cases, to legal authorities.

Neither of these alternatives seems credible, but one has to be true. I lean toward the second, but I sincerely hope for the first.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Ig Nobels are out!

The annual Ig Nobel prizes honor "research" that "can not or should not be repeated." (Actually, they also include some real research with applications if the project is weird enough.)
One project honored this year showed armadillos can displace artifacts in archaeological dig sites.
Two studies of Coca-Cola were honored. One showed it was an effective spermicide (ick), the other showed it wasn't. That's nothing unusual in the surreal world explored by the Annals of Improbable Research, which hands out the Ig Nobels. A doctor at Duke discovered placebos presented as expensive medicines worked better than "ordinary" placebos. And a British psychologist found that potato chips which make a better "crunch" sound are rated by consumers as tasting better. You the chip makers will want to put that one to work.
Science marches on!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Steve Fossett: Mystery Solved

Fossett's plane has been found, along with what appears to be his body. There is no more to say, except we know now for certain the world has lost someone who never quit pushing at the boundaries of our existence.
WIshing you eternal blue skies, Steve.

New Life in the Lab

This article brings us up to date on what's going on in synthetic biology, the field of creating/building/modifying living organisms to serve particular functions. Proponents argue a lot of the world's big problems can be solved by microbes performing functions like targeting cancer cells in the body or converting waste to fuel. Others point out the field raises a lot of questions about patent law, the consequences of accidental releases, etc. A poll shows that only about 1/3 of U.S. adults have heard of this work, and about 2 percent have read enough to understand it.
COMMENT: While the field does offer a lot of promise, it's not like the Large Hadron Collider fuss, where the measurable risk was very close to zero. The release or evolution of synthetic critters (and microbes can evolve pretty darn fast) does demand some safeguards and ethical standards, and a broadly accepted "code of conduct" for synthetic biology has yet to be put in place.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

New bird-dinosaur link: breathing method

The lungs of birds don't expand the way mammalian lungs do: they are air pumps, forcing air in and out of a series of air sacs anchored in small holes in the vertebrae, hips, and pelvis. This saves weight compared to having the large muscles and other structures involved in expanding the lungs. Now similar openings have been found in the bones of Aerosteon riocoloradensis, a large (9m long) dinosaur specimen from Argentina. The dinosaur was not a bird, but it breathed like one. Similar indications of air sacs have been found in the vertebrae of sauropods, but this discovery is the first in a carnivore and the first to include indications in the clavicles. It's one more link in the chain connecting birds to their ancestors, the dinosaurs.

A Clue to Steve Fossett?

Long after authorities gave up the search for pilot/adventurer Steve Fossett, and seven months after a judge declared him legally dead, the search is underway again. The catalyst: Three forms of ID, all with Fossett's name, found with $1,005 in cash tangled in a bush in eastern California. The hiker, Preston Morrow, found no sign of a plane, but government agencies and Fossett's pilot friends are gearing up to sweep the rugged area once more.

MicrospaceNews: More on the Chinese nanosatellite

Here is the Chinese satllite released in orbit for some slightly murky surveillence/comunications function.

Go to and Click the "Empty" button far right of menu bar

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Snow falling on Mars

The Mars Phoenix Lander has detected snow falling in the atmosphere above it. The precipitation melts before it hits the ground, but that may not be true everywhere on the planet.
Scientists are keeping the MPL very busy these days, trying to cram in as much sampling, assaying, and other work as possible before the short days coming in November and the long polar night in December rob the craft's solar panels and freeze the instruments in an ordeal the lander is not expected to survive.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Wow, my first-ever all-caps headline.
Falcon 1, Flight 4, is in orbit. A 165-kg instrumented dummy payload was placed in orbit by the two-stage booster. A relieved CEO Elon Musk reported, "Fourth time's a charm." Three previous flights had fallen short.
COMMENT: Congratulations to Elon, Gwynne, and the rest of the Space-X crew. We don't know yet where this will go, but the so-far-small company has big plans for NASA contracts, larger boosters like the Falcon 9, and human spaceflight with its Dragon craft. Here's a wish for continued success.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

More problems with the Ares program

The Ares-1 booster program recently completed Preliminary Design Review, or PDR. An internal communications log obtained by NASAWatch, though, shows this hardly went smoothly. Granted, every large program will produce contrary opinions - you will never get 100% of your people on board saying you made the right decisions. But the stuff on this log (the leak of which understandably infuriated NASA), is incredible.
Among the claims made are that NASA officials and engineers were still debating requirements at a design review, that element design reviews (called RIDs) were not complete, making it impossible to make a fully informed decision on how the complete system would perform, and that very important things like the oscillation damping issue were left out of the review. One participant wrote, "Organizing the review teams by WBS (work Breakdown Structure) prevented any team from obtaining a system level overview of what was going on. The result was a completely stovepiped review."
Then there is this item, which may be unfounded but which is astonishing to see in an official exchange of views: "I don't care who at NASA the RID coordinator is/was sleeping with personal abuse of team members is wrong!" and "Nothing was done (about the problem of the RIDs) due to the sexual relationship between the RID coordinator and a Sr. NASA manager."

COMMENT: All I can add to this is, "God help us all."