Thursday, July 31, 2008

Breakthrough on Mars

For the first time, a Mars probe has finally, directly, definitely confirmed the existence of water ice in the Martian permafrost. The AP reports the Mars Phoenix Lander's scientific team broke out champagne at the news, which comes after several glitches had slowed the analysis.

MIT may point way to solar future

Electrolysis - splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen by the use of an electric current - is an old technology. What's being reported by an MIT chemist, though, is a long-sought advance - a cheap catalyst that will enable the reaction to occur at room temperature and pressure. Without the need of current processes to heat the water under pressure, this could make it much more economical to "split" water using solar power and store the resulting fuel for use when the sun isn't shining. The technology has a long way to go to demonstrate large-scale practicality and economic viability, but it reminds us once again to never underestimate human ingenuity.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Happy 50th, NASA!

On July 29, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the legislation creating NASA. Since then, the agency has seen triumph and heartbreak, accomplishment and tragedy. It has extend the human view of the universe in ways once thought impossible and put human footprints on the Moon.
Here's wishing the men and women of NASA another 50 years of great explorations.

Footnote: NASA has no budget for FY2009 and not much chance of getting one. It will likely have to limp on with one of those flat-funding monstrosities Congress calls a Continuing Resolution. And legislation reauthorizing the agency and renewing its charter for the next half-century is crawling through Congress. And yet, NASA carries on, thanks to the dedication of its people. We owe them better.

Newest monkey now most endangered

The large monkey known in Tanzania as the kipunji was discovered by science only three years ago. Now the Wildlife Conservation Society has determined there are not many more than 1,000 of the creatures, and their habitat is shrinking. The species lives in a range of less than 18 square kilometers, under siege from illegal logging and poaching. According to Dr. Tim Davenport, Tanzania Country Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, "The kipunji is hanging on by the thinnest of threads. "We must do all we can to safeguard this extremely rare and little understood species while there is still time." The WCS is increasing its efforts to protect the animals' habitat.

A Whole Lotta Lemur

We think of lemurs as cute little primates, maybe the size of a cat at most. Not so Hadropithecus stenognathus, an extinct 50-kg giant. This article documents how scientists at Penn State used computerized tomography to get a "virtually complete" skull by gluing together bone fragments found in 2003 with, incredibly, the partial skull of the same individual found in 1899. As one put it, "This is very much a modern research story. We did all the work with the help of computers and neither all of the scientists nor all of the specimens were ever in the same room."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Unveiling the WhiteKnightTwo

The WhiteKnightTwo, mothership for the space tourist carrier SpaceShipTwo, was unveiled by designer Burt Rutan and backer Richard Branson. The futuristic four-engine, twin-fuselage jet will start flight tests later this year. SOme 250 people have put down deposits on a $200,000 suborbital ride to space.
Notable on the linked page is a link to a blog post labeled "Richard Branson Unveils Cool New Way to Die."

Farewell to the lion?

Bruce Hughes of the Colorado Springs Gazette wrote this wrapup on the Colorado Springs lion case. The animal has essentially disappeared in a cloud of puzzlement. I appreciate his quoting me, though I don't think I said exactly the last half of the final sentence. Or I'm sure I meant something that sounded rational and profound at the time. Anyway, until and unless there are more sightings or other evidence (like someone admitting having lost track of a big chow dog in the area, or a better set of lion pawprints than what DOW now says they had), the case is not moving toward any certain solution.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Unknown creature tracked underwater

I always like coming across the little nuggets that remind us we don't know everything about the natural world. Dr. Bruce Robison of the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute once told an interviewer he thought we had so far missed at least a third of the large animals in the oceans (though he didn't define "large.")
In the fascinating new book Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling (Da Capo Press, 2008) Andrew Darby chronicles the long and often bloody interactions between humans and whales. He also includes this item in his discussion of the now-closed whaling center on King George Sound in Albany, Western Australia. In the 1970s, when whalers like Captain George Cruikshank followed sperm whales with sonar, they often watched something they coulnd't identify in the 4000-meter-deep Albany Canyon.

"'The mystery bugger,' they called it...They would pick it up always at the same spot, and follow it by sonar as it cruised through the canyon, leaving a larger imprint on the screen than a whale. The creature would almost break the surface and then disappear. It was no air breather. It might have been a giant squid, or a giant shark. They never found out." (p.96)

MicrospaceNews: The student satellite revolution

Student satellites date back to INJUN-1, developed in the early 60s by students under the supervision of Dr. James Van Allen. As this excellent post by science journalist David Chandler notes, though, there are more student programs and related investigations today than ever before. From the now-ubiquitous Cubesats to NASA Ames' American Student Moon Orbiter, students have never had more opportunities for hands-on design, building, and operation of spacecraft.

MicrospaceNews: THEMIS explains the aurora

NASA"s fleet of five THEMIS microspacecraft, by providing simultaneous observations of the Earth's magnetic field from multiple points, have explained what starts the Northern and Southern lights dancing. The triggers are magnetic "substorms" about a third of the way from the Earth to the Moon. In this region, the magnetic field lines are stretched until they "snap back" into a new shape in a process called magnetic reconnection. This process releases the energy from the solar wind captured and stored by the magnetic field lines and directs it back toward the planet, creating the curtains of energetic particles which become visible in the polar regions.

COMMENT: THEMIS is a great demonstration of one of the space science benefits of microspacecraft: the ability to deploy an affordable constellation of instruments for multi-point observations.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Manta Rays - a new species (or two)?

Dr. Andrea Marshall has been studying manta rays for five years. Mantas fascinate people because of their strangeness and their sheer size (specimens over 7m across and weighing over two metric tons are on record).
Mantas have traditionally been assigned to one species (Manta birostris), although there are questions about whether the distinctly marked variant called "Beebe's manta" should qualify as a species in its own right, and at least two other species (Manta ehrenbergii, Manta raya) have been proposed at various times. Now Dr. Marshall is convinced she has ended this confusion by determining there are at least two species, and there may be three.

As a release from her supporting organization, "Save Our Seas," puts it:

"The two species have mainly overlapping distributions, but their lifestyles differ greatly; one is migratory and the other is resident to particular areas along the coast. Other differences between the two species lie in their colour, skin texture, reproductive biology, and the presence of a non-functioning type of sting on the tail of one of the species."

The commonly known species is the one tending toward (though not exclusively residing in) coastal zones. The migratory animal is larger, and very little is understood about it.

COMMENT: Here we have, in the 21st century, the discovery of one of the largest fishes on the planet. It can be argued that, when Dr. Mitchell publishes her formal paper naming the new species, it will be a reclassification rather than an entirely new discovery, but this does not diminish the impact of her findings.
It's interesting to note that this episode, with its determination of new species based in part on range and migration, is reminiscent of the debate over whether "resident" and "transient" orcas are members of the same species. In that case, too, there is speculation about a third, poorly understood, population which may qualify as a species. That a huge fish and a huge marine mammal raise similar questions is a thought-provoking hint about how much we still have to learn about the denizens of the sea.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Intriguing results of "open science"

Can scientific specialists throw a question, problem, or paradigm out to a mass audience and get useful information back? Sometimes, yes!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Colorado Springs Lion: That Darn Cat

Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Brian Hughes called today to discuss the unexplained lion sightings near the Springs. I'll link to his next article when it's posted.

What's that bug?

The gardens surrounding London's Natural History Museum are being overrun by a miniscule red-and-black insect. The interesting part? The museum's world-class staff of entomologists don't know what it is. The insect has been around since last year, and it remains unclassified. The museum's collections manager commented, "We waited to see if the insect would survive the British winter. It did and it's thriving, so now we had better figure out what it is."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Is a cryptozoologist a job?

This lighthearted piece from the Toronto Sun looks at jobs where anyone can claim a professional-sounding title without any real standards. I would like to know who the self-described "cryptozoologist" is who told the author the monster in Beowulf was a T. rex. That would have made for a real short epic. ("Taste my sword, you foul...AAAGH")

Chasing the biggest fish

A National Geographic project has scientists around the world studying the biggest freshwater fish and how we can ensure their survival. It's not even clear we know all fish over 6 feet (1.8m) long, the project's basic size criterion, and even less clear whether we know just how big some of them get. This article profiles the search for a freshwater stingray that may be over 4 meters in "wingspan."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mars had water - a lot of it

There has been a long-running debate about whether Mars had flowing surface water despite its small size and thin atmosphere. Recent probes and studies have given the "yes" side the advantage, and NASA scientist now think they've settled the topic. Spectroscopy from Martian orbit has detected compounds made in the presence of water in greater proliferation than anyone expected. Mars had large lakes and flowing rivers, which persisted for many millions, even billions, of years. Brown University scientist Jack Mustard declares, "It wasn't this hot, boiling cauldron. It was a benign, water-rich environment for a long period of time." The implications for life - or at least fossilized microbial life traces - are obvious. Future rovers, two of which (one NASA, one ESA) are in preparation, have rich targets to explore in the search for such traces.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The world's newest primate takes a bow

It’s not surprising that Madagascar, home of several recently discovered lemurs, has yielded up the newest primate – and one of the smallest. The tiny mouse lemur from the protected forest area of Makira has been christened Microcebus macarthurii, after the MacArthur Foundation, which provided funding for the studies leading to the discovery.

MicrospaceNews: UK space contest fires up students

A contest run by British National Space Centre and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. to see what team of 14 - 19 year-old students could design the best 1kg science package for a satellite has produced six finalists. According to SSTL’s Dr. Stuart Eves, "The competition entries we have had so far are hugely encouraging. Any of the six finalists could make their idea literally 'out of this world' by winning the prize of flying their experiment on one of SSTL's satellites in 2010." The finalists have presented their ideas to the UK’s Minister for Science and Innovation, Ian Pearson.
COMMENT: The involvement of a Cabinet-level official shows how seriously this initiative is being taken. Would that NASA could attract that kind of attention in inspiring the next generation of space engineers! Maybe the teams working on NASA’s new ASMO challenge (see below) will get to present their results to the NASA Administrator, which would certainly be encouraging in its own right as well as garnering more press attention.

MicrospaceNews: GAO weighs in on Operationally Responsive Space

The GAO finds, "DOD is making some progress in developing the ORS concept, but whether it will meet warfighter requirements is unclear, principally because the concept is in the early stages of development and not commonly understood by all members of the warfighter and national security space communities."

Meanwhile, DOD acquisition czar John Young has pulled some of the space acquisition decision-making back from the USAF and NRO into the new Space and Intelligence Capabilities office. Running this new office is Young protégé Joshua Hartman, who is known for his support of ORS funding while a Congressional committee staffer.

COMMENT: It’s not unusual for a new concept to have growing pains and for the relevant bureaucracy to take a while to come to grips with it. For ORS advocates, persistence will be everything.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lions and Bears, Oh, My!

The wildlife business here in Colorado Springs is pretty busy this week.

First, we had the lion (see previous post). Authorities are pretty well convinced this was a large dog, a Great Pyrenees or or a Chow, with the former being closer to lion size but the latter providing a closer match in appearance. It remains odd that no one has reported a large and expensive dog missing, and odder still that the DOW expert has not clarified (or at least has not been quoted in the news media) how the agency's experts came to describe tracks found during the search as lion prints six inches across. That seems to put them out of the dog range even if you assume an expert confused canine and feline impressions. (Such confusion is possible if you have smudged or faint impressions, but, as I mentioned yesterday, if the impressions weren't clear it seems improper to declare an ID in the first place.)

Then we had the bear. Black bears are very rare in the city of Colorado Springs, but one somehow wandered into a well-built-up area and was almost hit by a police car, after which he lodged himself in a tree. When he was nudged out of the tree with a firehose, he ran through the glass front of a Circuit City store. The bear is headed out of town, with authorities keeping an eye on him to make sure there are no incidents.

The combination led the DJs on 106.3 FM this morning to say things like "I'm waiting for the chupacabras sightings" and "Where is the Loch Ness Sasquatch in all this?" Since we are fudging the line between zoolog yand cryptozoology already, I should follow up on my comment yesterday about how many unexplained lion sightings take place. See Mysterious America: The Revised Edition by Loren Coleman (NY: Paraview, 2001). I've not covered that topic in my own books, thought I spent considerable time on the related issue of the problematic Eastern cougar.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Colorado Lion?

An interesting scene unfolded today in my home county (El Paso County, Colorado, home of Colorado Springs) a few miles east of my domicile. Numerous reports and two cell-phone camera snaps of an "African lion" had a posse of officials searching by foot, vehicle, dog, and helicopter for a dangerous foreign feline. People from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the sheriff's department, the police department, and the state Division of Wildlife, along with experts from a sanctuary called Big Cats of Serenity Springs and a number of local volunteers, scoured the county east of Colorado Springs for most of the day.
Early on, there seemed no doubt it was a lion (for the record, neither the zoo nor the sanctuary was missing any lions). According to Michael Seraphin of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the photos and some tracks were enough to determine not only that it was a large cat, but that it was an African lion (Panthera leo) and not a mountain lion (Puma concolor), a natural resident of these parts.
And then the whole thing kind of petered out. Officials announced there was not, after all, evidence for a lion, and they blamed a large dog, likely a Great Pyrenees.

The alleged culprit matches the size of a lion (a big one being roughly equivalent to a medium-sized lion) but not the rest of the description. Some have shaggy hair on their very robust shoulders, which might give the impression at a glance of a slight mane, but the color of this dog is white, varying no darker than a pale yellow. And they are not common dogs - someone should have reported one missing.

(There’s a photo at of a slightly yellowish example, named, interestingly, Lion.)

As to the reported paw print, the spokesman for the Division of Wildlife was definite about calling it a lion's. If the prints were clear, an expert should not have confused canine with feline spoor. If they were smudged or faint, he shouldn’t have been venturing an ID at all.

This leaves the whole matter a bit confusing. There have been a surprising number of "African lion" reports in places across the U.S., almost never resulting in the discovery of a lion. Some have been identified as dogs, others left unexplained. Some cryptozoologists go so far as to postulate the survival of the North American lion Panthera leo atrox, but I think this is stretching the evidence considerably, given that fossils of this cat disappear about 10,000 years ago.

I'll report more if any further evidence turns up. For now, we have a mystery.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

MicrospaceNews: NASA considers new student satellite program

NASA Considers Development of Student-Led Satellite Initiative
MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. -- NASA is considering the development of a university-based, student-led satellite development initiative to begin passing the space exploration torch to a new generation.
The American Student Moon Orbiter, or ASMO, concept invites students, faculty and industry leaders in the U.S. with experience in university-based, student-led spaceflight projects to respond to a Request for Information which is planned for release this month and will remain open for at least 90 days. The orbiter will be a small satellite that could orbit the moon and carry scientific instruments designed and developed by students. It is aligned with NASA's lunar exploration agenda. Under the ASMO concept, teams would learn directly from NASA mentors as part of a diverse, nationwide, higher education initiative that enables students to design, build, launch, operate and own a small spacecraft and its payload. Students would acquire in-depth experience with satellite mission protocol and procedures, communications and project management. NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California and NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland are leading the ASMO initiative.
"NASA is laying the foundation for a multi-generation exploration program that eventually will see humans settle our solar system," said Ames Center Director S. Pete Worden. "To sustain this vision, we need the next crop of scientists and engineers to engage their minds and get hands-on experience."

COMMENT: Anything that re-engages American students in space exploration while developing hands-on expertise is a very good idea. It will be downright criminal if the agency doesn't follow through. Go AMSO!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

MicrospaceNews: Update on Canada's NEOSSat

Here's an update on Canada's exciting small satellite mission, the asteroid-hunting and satellite-tracking NEOSSat (Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite). David Cooper of prime contractor Dyacon notes, "NEOSSat requires remarkable agility and pointing stability that has never before been achieved by a microsatellite. It must rapidly spin to point at new locations hundreds of times per day, each time screeching to a halt to hold rock steady on a distant target, or precisely track a satellite along its orbit, and image-on-the-run."

MicrospaceNews: Surrey's latest endeavors

This item discusses the next group of five microspacecraft to go up from pioneer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. It also has a great line from founder Sir Martin Sweeting, who discusses the reception his ideas about very small spacecraft got in the early days of Surrey. "This was in 1978-79. People thought we were pretty crazy. They said it would not be possible and even if it was it wouldn't be useful. And they were the polite ones."

Animal collecting in China's hidden valley

The latest of the Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) expeditions mounted by Conservation International penetrated into the most remote area in all China (technically, in Tibet), the Medog river valley. Getting to the valley required trekking 140km and crossing two mountain passes at 4,200m. Warmed by air currents off the Indian Ocean, the valley offers tropical rainforest conditions in a most unlikely place. Scientists collected hundreds of specimens of small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. They are certain new species are among their haul. As Peking University biologist Wang Ho put it, "Medog is not only a biodiversity hotspot, but also the real frontline of scientific discoveries."

COMMENT: Being a field biologist takes a dedication most of us don't think about as we look at animals in books or in zoos. The RAP teams have been all over the world, often risking and occasionally losing their lives in the service of discovery and conservation.

Fossil-hunting in a coal mine: a scientist's odyssey

This story from the Bangkok Post follows Dr Yaowalak Chaimane and her team as she makes one fossil discovery after another in a very challenging environment: Thailand's largest coal mine. One of her recent finds is Siamoadapis maemohensis, a new genus and species of primate from the Miocene ear. The animal shares intriguing similarities with the modern lemurs of far-away Madagascar. In addition, she comments, "The dentition of a Siamoadapis maemohensis is extremely unique. Normally all animals have premolars with teeth smaller than its molars but this primate is different. The teeth on premolars are exactly like its molars."

COMMENT: This is a fascinating story of perseverance and dedication. Dr. Chaimane has to walk five kilometers every day just to get to the new face in the hot and filthy pit mine, where she collects hundreds of kilograms of lignite, dust, and debris. But the discoveries keep her going.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

New book on SpaceShipOne

It's not like me to recommend a book I haven't read yet, but it's hard to see how Dan Linehan's new book SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History could be anything but fascinating. Linehan promises a book full of "illustrations, photographs, and behind the scenes" information. The publisher does indulge in some hyperbole by describing the project as "classified," which would no doubt be a surprise to the government. On a poignant note, the Foreword is by the late Arthur C. Clarke. I have this one high on my reading list.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Farewell to Dr. Eric Guiler

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has written an excellent eulogy for a great scientist: conservationist, zoologist, and cryptozoologist Eric Guiler. Guiler, who was 85 at the time of his death, was the world's leading expert on the presumed-extinct Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus). Guiler spent decades gathering evidence that the species was not extinct, although near the end of his life he believed that, while the animal had certainly survived its official 1936 demise, it might now be truly gone. Guiler was the longtime chairman of Tasmania's Animals and Birds Protection Board and worked with many other aspects of wildlife and habitat conservation, but it was his work (including two books) on the thylacine for which he will be most remembered.

COMMENT: I think Guiler proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the thylacine was not extinct in 1936, but he may well be right that the scattered individuals he tracked in subsequent decades no longer make up a viable population, if indeed any still exist. Much of what we know of this enigmatic marsupial is due to Guiler. I hope he has his answers now.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Paper as strong as steel?

Lars Berglund of the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology has taken a look at a long-existing process - the making of paper - and found that we're not doing it as well as we could. Current paper-making machines damage the cellulose fibers and produce paper that's not nearly as strong or enduring as it would be. Berglund's "nanopaper," made from pure extracted cellulose fibers, has a tensile strength nearly equal to that of stainless steel. It's a long way from being an industrially-viable product, but it offers the possibility of using paper in applications now using non-renewable resources.

COMMENT: I like the ingenuity here - "Let's examine something we've been doing for centuries and see if we can improve on it." On the other hand, the prospect of indestructible junk mail looms large....

Merge Earth sciences agencies?

Former heads of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey are recommending that the agencies be merged into a new Earth Systems Science Agency. NOAA and USGS each have responsibility for different areas of earth science, which these leaders argue are better dealt with by a single agency that can cross-pollinate expertise as well as exert more clout in the battle for funding. Former USGS head Charles Groat pointed to the challenges the nation faces in energy and in protecting the environment as rationales for the change, which, practically speaking, would have to be dealt with by the new President after his inauguration in January.
COMMENT: I see the rationale, but let's not be too hasty. Sometimes you can merge two agencies or companies which have built up individual expertise and see it diluted rather than strengthened. Each agency here is very good at what it does, which means the upper-level civil service management is effective. It might be dragged into bureaucratic turf wars and general confusion. So it's an idea to examine carefully.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

MESSENGER rewrites the book on Mercury

Plantetary scientists who have analyzed the data from the MESSENGER probe's initial flyby of Mercury are "astonished." Mercury was always thought to be, essentially, a dead lump of rock: no water, no internal geological processes like vulcanism - heck, at one time we thought it didn't even rotate. Now we know it was shaped partly by volcanos and that its thin atmosphere, according to sample ions scooped up in MESSENGER's first visit, does indeed contain water vapor. A study of flyby data also confirmed a theory that Mercury has a liquid core.
MESSENGER science team member Thomas Zurbruchen said of the water: "Nobody expected that. I don't know a single person that did. We were astonished, just astonished."
How exactly does this sun-blasted planet boast water of any sort? There are three theories. The water may have come from comets; it may be the results of chemical reactions between the solar wind and the rocks of Mercury; or the planet may maintain (like Mars but on a much smaller scale) subsurface water ice in the polar regions.
COMMENT: This data (from the first flyby, remember: MESSENGER will be studying the planet for a long time yet) reminds us how much we have to learn. We are still learning basic information about a planet in our own solar system, information that contradicts the expectations of scientists who have studied the planet for many years. What else lies in the infinite realms beyond Earth, awaiting discovery?

The end of the world is coming (NOT)

This story updates the efforts by a single lawyer with a physics degree to stop the Large Hadron Collider project because the LHC may create mini-black holes or other phenomena that might destroy the Earth. The latest safety review has, once again, dismissed this as nonsense. What is really interesting here are the comments, which illustrate that fear of "big science," however unjustified in a particular case, has never gone away.

Friday, July 04, 2008

MicrospaceNews: A New Microsat Builder

Clyde Space LTD is not a completely new company. This Glasgow-based firm has been building power systems and other components for small spacecraft, but now it's ready to make the leap into building and operating microspacecraft of its own. Assuming fundraising works out, ScotSat-1 will be a 5kg satellite to be launched into LEO in 2010. Clyde Space founder Craig Clark is working with the University of Strathclyde on an instrument package. Clark told an interviewer, "It's got to be something a bit special. We're not just going to put some electronics in box and say: Ooh, we've just launched a satellite'. That's not going to show Scotland in the right light. We want to show what a great engineering nation we are. So it's going to be something that will push the boundaries of technology. At the end of the project, we will have a product we'll be able to sell to other people."

COMMENT: Montgomery Scott would be proud of that thinking. My best wishes to this new venture.

See also:

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Uncovering George Washington

Archaeologists had to excavate three likely locations, but they are confident they've finally found the long-lost remains of George Washington's boyhood home. The site at Ferry Farm, just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, yielded evidence that matched descriptions from Washington's letters, including the traces of a fire in 1740, and accounts from the Civil War, when Union troops massed at the farm. The one and a half story house measured less than 12 by 18 meters, but it was a comfortable home for the times.

COMMENT: Washington was a fascinating, multifaceted man - much more than just a good general, or even a good President. This is a facinating opportunity to learn more about the environment that shaped him.

Gravity waves and tornados

Are atmospheric gravity waves - the "ripples" created when any force disturbs the ocean of air surrounding Earth - strong enough to affect the weather? I was surprised to learn the answer was "yes." As meteorologist Tim Coleman explains in this article, a gravity wave created by, say, a sudden wind shear, will "push" on a rotating thunderstorm and compress it slightly out of shape. He says, "There is also wind shear in a gravity wave, and the storm can take that wind shear and tilt it and make even more spin. All of these factors may increase storm rotation, making it more powerful and more likely to produce a tornado." Doppler radar can track both the waves and the thunderstorms/tornados and observe this dynamic in action.

Thanks to Kris Winkler for sending me this item.

A thought on human history

This blog often visits paleontology and archaeology, and I came across this reminder today of how we need to approach our study of both.

"Consider the earth's history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King's nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history."
- John McPhee

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Hunting Russia's Wildman

This blog tracks a small expedition from the UK-based Centre for Fortean Zoology as its members trek through the Russian wilderness in pursuit of an unknown primate locally called the almas or almasty. The evidence turned up so far in the Caucasus region has been of the intriguing, rather then the conclusive variety, but I wanted to showcase this effort to point out that cryptozoologists are not just armchair amateurs. Many go, at their own expense, on difficult and sometimes very dangerous field searches. This expedition has had two brushes with death already, not to mention hassles with everything from altitude sickness to government bureaucrats as they penetrate an area the UK Foreign Office has advised its citizens to stay out of.
COMMENT: I salute your dedication, gentlemen. Good luck and good hunting!

100th anniversary of the Tunguska event

One of the most fascinating happenings in scientific history took place precisely 100 years ago. This was the Tunguska event, a cosmic collision that devastated 2,000 square kilometers of a (fortunately) remote and lightly populated area of Siberia. The force of the blast was estimated at 200 kilotons of TNT. When scientists finally got to the site, they were puzzled. They had assumed it was a meteorite or perhaps a comet, but there was no impact crater. Over the decades, this would lead to speculation as wild as antimatter, mini-black holes, and alien spaceships. It's now generally thought the cause was a stony meteorite that vaporized with explosive force 5-10 km above the ground, although some researchers still think a comet was more likely.
COMMENT: Whatever the Tunguska object was, it reminds us our existence on this planet is fragile. That's an important thought to keep in mind as we consider dangers from other Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that may appear in the future.

Farewell, Robert Seamans

From the NASA History Division:

"The NASA History Division is saddened to note the passing of Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Jr. on Saturday, June 28. During a very distinguished career, Dr. Seamans served as the NASA Associate and Deputy Administrator during much of the 1960s. He wrote two books that the NASA History Division published, an autobiography and a managerial account of the Apollo program. Please see for links to these two publications, a link to the NASA Administrator's statement on Dr. Seamans' death, and biographical information about him. "