Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fusion - how and when?

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log looks at one of my favorite topics, fusion energy. The National Ignition Facility starting up this week is intended to keep our arsenal of fusion bombs current without actually testing any bombs, but it may also point the way to practical fusion energy.

The International Space Station: a stunning image

A gorgeous high-resolution image of the ISS in the darkness of space, bisected by the thin, beautiful blue line that represents our life support - the atmosphere.

Nine new species from Vietnam

Vietnamese scientists report discovering nine new species of reptiles and amphibians from a mangrove forest near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
According to the original article, provided at this link in English, the discoveries are: "water toad, green racophorus, black gecko, grey salamander, and five new species of snakes." (Racophorus is a genus of frogs.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Boyne on Luftwaffe advanced aircraft

The new issue of Aviation History includes a fascinating article by aviation historian Walter J. Boyne on "Radical Luftwaffe Weapons." In an authoritative (if much too short) article, Boyne separates fact from the wild semi-fictional speculation that often accompanies this topic. The Luftwaffe, given a couple more years, could have deployed some very advanced designs, although it's not at all clear which ones would have survived the difficult transition from paper to operational machine. The VTOL Focke-Wulf Triebflugel rotary jet on this issue's cover, for example, is really cool, but it's hard to imagine the slender wing/pylon structures connecting the fuselage to the jets could have been built to the necessary reliability and durability with the metallurgy and construction techniques available in wartorn Germany the 1940s. (And it it was such a great idea, why did the Allies who seized the plans never copy it?) There's so much craziness surrounding tales of German breakthroughs that it's refreshing to read a factual analysis, which is every bit as fascinating as the countless myths.

Friday, March 27, 2009

More on the "Undiscovered Pinnipeds" paper

Having read the paper, I should clarify that Dr. Naish and his coauthors Michael A. Woodley and Hugh P. Shanahan were not trying to explain all or even most "sea serpent" (SS) reports as pinnipeds, or even to prove that SS exist. SS identity was not the problem they were trying to solve.

They started with the question of whether there might still be pinnipeds left to discover and then looked at SS reports for sightings that might support the idea of unknown pinnipeds. They came away with the conclusion, based on statistical analysis, sighting reports, and other inputs, that there might be as many as three pinnipeds, all of them unusual and one truly spectacular, left to be discovered. One interesting inference is that we may have found all the “normal” pinnipeds (that is, the ones whose habits and appearance are what we expect for the order Pinnipedia).
You might say that what they did was take Dr. Charles Paxton’s statistical analysis of the "discovery curve" of marine animals over 2m long, which found there may be as many as 47 such animals yet undescribed (a figure he later revised downward) and apply it more narrowly, then add sighting data, to examine how many species in a certain group might be unclassified.
So to recap, this does not mean the authors are arguing all SS reports concern pinnipeds, only that a selection of what seem to be high-quality reports might refer to new pinnipeds.
The authors are to be commended for a new approach to the whole “mystery animal” question, creating a repeatable methodology others might apply to sharks, eels, whales, or other groups. It's not confined to marine animals. It could, for example, be used on birds, crocodilians, or primates, where it might shed an interesting light on the quest for unknown large primates that occupies so much of cryptozoology. (I found out I missed a publication from Michel Raynal that did apply a variant of this technique to whales, resulting in a predicted finding of 5 to 15 new species, the lower figure being not at all unreasonable given that we've had more than that described in the last two decades alone.)
Since I linked to Darren Naish's site in the first post, I link here to Cryptomundo for a sampling of the lively debate this paper has produced.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Asteroid sighted, then pieces recovered

For the first time, astronomers have recovered on Earth fragments of an asteroid that had been tracked in space. Asteroid 2008 TC3, the size of a telephone booth, was tracked until it vanished into Earth's atmosphere. Astronomer Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute's Carl Sagan Center correlated the object with eyewitness reports from the Sudan of a fireball exploding high in the atmosphere. 47 pieces were recovered from the Nubian Desert. The asteroid appears to belong to a rare and fragile type called F-class asteroids. Scientists are ecstatic about having pieces in hand to analyze the origin of these spacegoing mysteries.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Species from Papua New Guinea

Researchers from Conservation International have completed their latest assessment of a biological hotspot, in this case the Kaijende highlands and Hewa wilderness of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The CI investigators, with PNG colleagues plus helpers from American and Canadian universities, cataloged over 600 species, "a large number" of which are new to science. The new animals include jumping spiders, three frogs and a handsome gecko, with more awaiting classification.

Sea serpents = new pinnipeds?

Dr. Darren Naish and two co-authors are publishing a peer-reviewed sceintific paper asking whether unclassified species of pinnipeds (seals, sea lions) are indicated by "sea serpent" reports. THeir conclusion is that there may be as many as three species of pinnipeds, one of them upwards of 10m long, behind the serpent tales.
The authors analyze the rate of discovery of pinnipeds and other large marine vertebrates and report that new pinnipeds (the last truly new species was classified in 1905), statistically speaking, can still be expected. THey try to emphasize that the article is not about sea serpents, but about new pinnipeds, although they admit the sea serpent aspect is what's going to be featured in the media.
This paper may be a major breakthrough for cryptozoology, assuming at least one new pinniped turns up to bolster it with "ground truth" ("water truth"?) It's an impressive piece of work by any standard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

US survey shows changing attitudes toward space

Here's an interesting new survey on Americans' attitudes toward the space program (no military/civilian distinction is made, though some questions and responses apply only to civil space).
On the bad side, 19% of the small sample (360 people) say they have NO interest in the space program. Men tend to be interested more than women. When asked of the benefits the space program has brought, the most common answer is applications satellites.
When asked what mission NASA should undertake next, the largest group of respondents picked the hardest, most expensive option: Human missions to Mars.
Food for thought, indeed.

THANKS TO NASA historian Mike Ciancone for circulating this.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Space station: not an easy walk

Murphy's law applies in space, too. (An aviation version of the law is, "If it is physically possible to install a part incorrectly, someone will install it that way.") Saturday, two astronauts doing an EVA for an other wise very successful ISS construction mission accidentally installed a pin upside down, jamming an equipment platform in place. Another EVA Monday loosened the pin but couldn't get the platform to extend properly. Eventually, the astronauts had to come in and pack up for Earth. They will leave behind a station with its truss and solar wing installations complete, nearly ready for a six-person crew.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ancient sea creature one of the weirdest animals ever

Half a meter long, 500 million years old, Hurdia victoria looks like a cross between a lobster and a baleen whale. A big three-part shell projecting from the front of the animal's head gives it a bizarre appearance and puzzles scientists - the carapace looks like it should only get in the way. The carapace does not, as it does in every other arthropod so equipped, protect soft parts of the body. It looked like a hat with earflaps, worn in front of the head instead of on it.
COMMENT: As you can gather from my stabs at description, you really can't visualize this thing until you see the reconstruction. Follow the link and let me know what you think.

Friday, March 20, 2009

DId big dinos have trunks?

There are a lot of theories filling in the gaps between our knowledge of dinosaurs. One (not the most scientifically important, but interesting nonetheless) is that the big sauropods might have had trunks, like an elephant's but shorter. In today's edition of the superb blog Tetrapod Zoology, Dr. Darren Naish takes aim at this idea. The concept arose because sauropods had dorsally located nostrils, placed close to where a modern elephant has them. As Naish points out, though, trunked mammals, current and extinct, have other adaptations needed for a trunk, such as a skull that narrows distinctly from the tip to just before the eyes. Sauropods do not. Nor do they have attachment points for the specialized large facial muscles needed to operate a trunk. Finally, they don't need a trunk: their extremely long necks put the mouth wherever it needs to be without a trunk for grasping limbs, etc. (Yes, elephants' trunks have many other uses, but foraging is where the whole trunk thing began.)

COMMENT: Well, it was fun to think about while it lasted, but really, dinosaurs are fascinating enough as they are. And we do have so much yet to learn.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Where's my flying car?

Well, it's right here. The developer calls its Transition vehicle, which just had its initial test flight, a "roadable aircraft." The prototype is licensed as an aircraft. What it can't do, legally, is pull a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and take off from a public road to escape a traffic jam. However, if these get popular (they should go on sale in 2011 for under $200K), you know someone will try it.

A busy week for the Space Shuttle

After many delays, Discovery was launched and is now at the ISS, working construction tasks to move the station toward a six-person crew capability. The biggest task is adding a 16-ton girder to the station's main truss. The mission had a bizarre start when a bat, apparently injured, clung tight to the insulation of the external tank and would not be shooed away. NASA safety officials ruled it was safe to launch with the bat in place, and off the shuttle went. As it cleared the tower, the bat, despite all the buffeting and noise, was still there. Presumably, the uninvited passenger was shaken off (or roasted) and "ditched" involuntarily in the ocean at some point. It still probably set some kind of record for highest speed attained by a bat.

DARPA's exotic sensor programs

Remember how the "sensors" on scifi craft like the starship Enterprise could detect almost anything on a planet, even underground or inside buildings? DARPA is investigating two approaches to provide something close to those abilities. One would use airborne gravitometers to measure microchanges in gravity created by subsurface voids (bunkers or tunnels). The other would use radar signals bounced off buildings to "see" into the concrete canyons of cities, where normal radar can't detect anything but the buildings themselves, to track vehicles.
COMMENT: Tough challenges, but DARPA would say that's what the agency is for. Both would have immediate impact in war zones, and the tunnel detection has other uses, from nuclear inspection to drug smuggling. Good luck, chaps.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rare fossils indeed: Cretaceous octopi

Fossils octopi are almost nonexistent: only a single species is known. German scientists, however, have found three new species, based on five specimens from Lebanon. Invertebrates fossilize very poorly, and shell-less soft bodies like that of the octopus require perfect conditions - no oxygen in the waters where they fall to the bottom, no scavengers near to hand, and a fast covering of sediments. We now know an octopus of 95 MYA looked very much like its modern counterpart.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Vanguard 1

It was 51 years ago that Project Vanguard got its first satellite into orbit. As Erika Lishock and I documented in our book The First Space Race, the popular image of the program as a failure is undeserved. Yes, it went over budget - WAY over budget. But it made major scientific discoveries plus lasting contributions to launch vehicle technology.

Twinkle, twinkle, little sphere
Beyond the reach of eye or ear
Still above the world you fly
Oldest diamond in the sky...

OK, it's not Robert Frost, but it's heartfelt. Congratulations to Project Vanguard.

New species found on high

A stratospheric balloon experiment, launched and recovered by the Indian Space Research Organization, has yielded three new species of bacteria. The bacteria, one species of which was named Janibacter hoylei for astrophysicist and extraterrestial-life enthusiast Fred Hoyle, survive at altitudes where ultraviolet radiation would kill most Earth life forms.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Today's zoological oddity: the Whitefin Dogfish

What's odd about this small (40cm) deepwater shark? Well, in addition to light-emitting photopheres on its skin, a common adaptation of deep-sea predators out to lure prey, Centroscyllium ritteri has them on the undersides of its upper eyelids. Why would a fish "want" (evolutionarily speaking) to cast light into its own eyes? Would it want to light up its eyes when the lid rolls back to startle a predator? That doesn't seem to work. Neither, really, does any other theory I've read.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

New Species: Latest bird

The latest bird species to be added to the scientific lists is sort of a 200th birthday present for Charles Darwin. Not only is the date right, but the Vanikoro White-eye (Zosterops gibbsi) of the Solomon Islands is a member of a group Darwin himself compared to his famous finches for their ability to radiate into new species filling particular niches.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Daring whale rescue

"Bridle," a North Atlantic right whale, desperately needed to be free of the fishing gear entangling him, which included a rope through his mouth that inspired his name. But he wouldn't cooperate, fleeing from rescuers. So scientists tranquilized him - in the wild, in the ocean, using guns firing darts with 30-cm needles to get a half-liter of drugs into him. This highly risky maneuver(for the scientists and the animal) achieved its goal: a whale compliant enough to allow rescue, yet conscious enough not to stop breathing and drown. This blog post by John D. Sutter links to gotta-see-it video of the rescue.

Great whites used to be bigger

Great white sharks can exceed 6 meters (19 feet) in length and weigh over a metric ton. That's big enough to scare anyone, but now we know the species used to get bigger a well-preserved juvenile specimen over 5m long indicates the adult length used to be in the range of 9m. As Dana Ehret, lead author of the article describing the new specimen, puts it, "We now think that broad-toothed makos and fossil white sharks probably reached lengths upwards of 30 feet in the past, while the largest substantiated [living] white sharks are approximately 21 feet." The fossil also indicates the great white shark did not, as once thought, descend from the extinct giant Megalodon.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Peking Man: News and Mystery

A new study of the evidence surrounding so-called "Peking Man" (now considered a population of Homo erectus) found in China in the 1920s indicates the remains may have been 200,000 years older than thought, which changes the model for human radiation and also indicates our ancestor could withstand cold better than we knew. Where, though, are the actual bones of Peking Man, which vanished in 1941? As Loren Coleman recounts, there are plenty of theories, but we are no closer to solving the mystery than we were six decades ago.

NASA: A little less optimism

I said a few days ago that President Obama's FY10 NASA budget gave me a little hope for the agency. Now, I'm not so sure.
First, the President to an audience in Orlando the agency was "adrift" without goals. Not true at all: the goals have been set since the Vision for Space Exploration was unveiled in 2004, and Obama has apparently supported (at least, he has never repudiated) them. Second, a commentator on this NASAWatch thread points out that recent long-range budget plans indicate continued bad news for NASA. A 2004 projection indicated the agency's 2020 budget would be about $22B. The 2009 guidelines show it static compared to today at $19B.
I think "NASA" really stands for "Never Adequately Supported by Anyone."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Liquid water on Mars today?

Some scientists on the Mars Phoenix Lander think the craft may have found more than ice. Droplets that appeared on the legs while the craft was digging for Martian ice may be brine or clear water condensed from vapor released by the ice. It's controversial and unproven, and this article chronicles a lively scientific debate.

Igor, get me a used brain....

A very used brain, or at least its fossil, is now available. A fish that died in what is now Kansas 300 MYA left scientists a gift. Soft tissue fossils in general are rare, brain fossils even rarer, and this one is the oldest brain fossil known. One of the discoverers, John Maisey, explained its significance this way: "Now that we know that brains might be preserved in such ancient fossils, we can start looking for others. We are limited in information about early vertebrate brains, and the evolution of the brain lies at the core of vertebrate history."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Evidence chimps can plan ahead

The evidence comes from a chimp in a Swedish zoo who has decided he doesn't like visitors. Every morning, he calmly and methodically gathers a stash of rocks and concrete from his environment, breaking pieces off concrete boulders and, if the pieces are too big, breaking them into smaller chunks more suitable for throwing. When visitors show up, "Santino" gets agitated, dips into his weapons cache, and throws things at them. Researchers note Santino does not attack other chimps in range, only humans. Despite his strong arm, his accuracy is fortunately poor.
COMMENT: A chimp who throws rocks at people... will he get his own Internet news site?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Climate change - not quite a consensus

This article on a conference sponsored by the free-market Heartland Institute points out that, while there is a large scientific majority on the side of anthropocentric global warming (AGW), it's not a complete agreement. Despite accusations by people like Al Gore that the only objectors to AGW are tools of corporate interests, there is in fact still some scientific pushback against several AGW lines of argument.
COMMENT: I'm not saying the contrarians are right. But I'm glad they are still getting some coverage. Any scientific theory on which we're talking about basing a gigantic shift in the global economy must be continually forced to buttress its position and address any negative evidence.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Kepler roars into orbit

NASA press release:
"The Delta II rocket carrying the Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft lifted off on time at 10:49 p.m. EST from Launch Complex 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spectacular nighttime launch followed a smooth countdown free of technical issues or weather concerns. The Kepler spacecraft will watch a patch of space for 3.5 years or more for signs of Earth-sized planets moving around stars similar to the sun. The patch that Kepler will watch contains about 100,000 stars like the sun. Using special detectors similar to those used in digital cameras, Kepler will look for a slight dimming in the stars as planets pass between the stars and Kepler.
COMMENT: This should be a great step forward for science. If we want to probe other worlds someday, Kepler is likely to give us much more information on the location and types of planets worth visiting. Until then, it will tell us a a great deal about how planets and solar systems form and under what conditions planets can survive.

A cold fish (but a new one)

A Spanish scientist probing the depths of the Bellingshausen Sea, a zone off Western Antarctica where no one has sampled for fish life since 1904, has given us the latest new species. Retrieved from over 600m down was the pinkish Gosztonyia antarctica, a 30-cm animal which has shown the fauna in this area is surprisingly similar to that of the distant Eastern Antarctic.

Friday, March 06, 2009

It's Dino-Chicken!

Nope, not a third-rate superhero, but a chicken genetically "reverse engineered" to display more dinosaurian characteristics, like teeth and a longer tail. Paleontologist Jack Horner is behind the 5-10 year project.
COMMENT: Scientifically, I assume the point is that, if you can bring out latent dinosaur characteristics, you can establish more about the bird-dinosaur link. It's still weird...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Missed Earth by that much

An asteroid 50m across was spotted less that three days before it grazed Earth at a distance of only 71,000 km - just over twice the distance our geosynchronous satellites orbit. 2009 DD45 could have inflicted a blow similar to the Tunguska event of 1908, greater than the largest fusion device ever detonated.
COMMENT. This is a scary reminder of how chancy life in our cosmic neighborhood is. Our asteroid detection capability is grossly underfunded and our ability to alter the course of a large cosmic rock is close to nonexistent. Neither economic conditions nor the fears of "weaponization of space" should be allowed to block a major international program to ensure our survival.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sir David says it's not over yeti

Naturalist Sir David Attenborough, world-famous for his nature documentaries and books, told an interviewer there is one subject that's still a mystery to him - the yeti. He said, "I'm baffled by the Abominable Snowman - very convincing footprints have been found at 19,000 feet. No one does that for a joke."
COMMENT: He is referring to the clear tracks photographed in 1951 by mountaineers Eric Shipton and Michael Ward. A number of explanations have been put forward for the prints, none very convincing. While it's very troubling that no better (or even equal) prints have been documented in the last 58 years, these tracks remain, very simply, unexplaind.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Big cats in Colorado sanctuary

The Barbary lion, an extinct subspecies with a luxuriant dark mane, is the subject of an effort to breed back the strain from part-Barbary cousins around the world. Today I paid my first visit to the Serenity Springs Big Cat Sanctuary, a private rescue and retirement home east of Colorado Springs, which turns out to have a role to play in this matter.
(The sanctuary was checked during the Colorado Springs Lion episode last year, but had no escapes.)
The sanctuary is home to several "celeb-cats." One is a lioness from the film Secondhand Lions. Another is a small-maned male who was supposed to be in The Ghost and the Darkness but essentially staged a sitdown strike and was sent home.
For an oddball, there was a tiger who carried the gene that produces "white tigers" but had turned out with a normal coat. As a result of the inbreeding, though. the animal was a hermaphrodite who behaved like a male in the winter and a female in the summer. Dating must be problematical.
There was also a very large all-white tiger retired from the Tropicana hotel show troupe. His name was Snow Magic, but he was referred to as Snowman because Snow Magic seemed a little "foo-fooey" for a big male tiger. There are some 14 of these artificially bred "snow tigers" in the world.
Finally, there were a couple of real interest to me.
KK is an older male lion, a big, beautiful animal with a classic Barbary-type mane. The volunteer on duty today said KK was estimated to be 86 percent Barbary, and there were plans afoot to breed him with an almost-pure Barbary female in Morocco. The only uncertainty was whether KK was still interested in lionesses.
The guide mentioned in passing that one tiger at the center was Sumatran, and I reacted like Sam Neill when the host in Jurassic Park told him they had a T. rex. Daisy, a lovely animal with a short cinnamon coat, is believed to be pure Sumatran. I hadn't realized there was a Sumatran on the North American continent. (Actually, I realized when I looked it up that not only are there several dozen in American zoos, but I had seen three at the National Zoo a few years ago and forgotten about it. Still, it was startling to find one in Colorado.)
Visit the link above, and, if you're in Colorado, visit the Sanctuary. They love their critters and are doing great work.