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