Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Re-creating Germany's Stealth Fighter

A lot of the material out there on German "wonder weapons" is overhyped or simply invented. There were significant advances made in aircraft, though, and the Horten Ho229 would have been a big leap if it had gone past the prototype stage and into mass production. Enthusiasts at Northrop Grumman built a replica from German blueprints and the materials available in 1945 Germany. They found that, as advertised, the plane would have been hard to pick up on WW2 radar.
COMMENT: Would it have won the war? No. The Allies would have beaten it the same way they beat other German jet and rocket planes - using the numbers and range of their fighters, especially the P-51, to shut down its airfields and ambush it on takeoff and landing. But it was one heck of an impressive technological advance, and it would have driven the Allies to distraction for a while.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Wild lynx kittens born in Colorado

Another bit of good conservation news from my home state: the effort to transplant the lynx back to Colorado has resulted in the first litters recorded since 2006. And you have to see the lynx kitten in this article to believe how darn cute it is.

Wandering off topic: SF movie remakes

The redo of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" converted the original (a taut, sincerely felt two-character drama) into a special effects / eco-preaching mess. I'd overlooked the news of a "Forbidden Planet" remake in the offing, but it's coming. When I first saw the original just a couple of years ago, I thought, "I hope they don't remake it. The story can't really be improved, or at least it won't be - the remake would just graft CGI and sex onto a well-written and -acted classic." Silly me. Of course they are going to remake it.
There's a lot of interest in cryptozoological circles about the remake of one of the best cryptozoology-themed movies of the 50s, "The Creature From the Black Lagoon." Are we going to get the same good story, with better science? Of course not. We're going to get a creature mutated by pharmaceutical waste. Making classics politically correct doesn't improve them.
(One thing that sometimes does improve with time: I like butt-kicking leading ladies much better than the passive victims in films like "Creature," but that alone is not a good enough reason to mess with success. And the original of "Day" had a better female lead than the remake anyway.)
Science fiction can be a great tool for entertaining people while introducing important scientific concepts. Filmmakers seem only interested in the first half. OK, those 50s classics were limited to the science and scientific vision of the times, but they were such good stories it didn't matter as much. Yes, I'm applying a double standard, and I don't care. To any filmmakers who wander across this post: if you're going to do science fiction, either new or remade, put some science in it. Real science, not looks-cool-but-impossible stuff (yeah, Star Trek, that means you) or simplistic preaching. It won't turn people off. There is intelligent life in the American public. You're just not trying to communicate with it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Quote for the day: space exploration

B.C. cartoonist Johnny Hart:
"Cutting the space budget really restores my faith in humanity. It eliminates dreams, goals, and ideals and lets us get straight to the business of hate, debauchery, and self-annihilation."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Alan Bean: A Moonwalker's Artistic view

Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean has become an artist whose painting of the space program have fetched up to $175,000. For Bean, though, any commercial success is unimportant. What matters is capturing the days we set foot on another world. As this article in the NYT puts it,
"He has had to give up the hyper-rational way of seeing the world he had learned as a Navy test pilot and engineer. He has trained himself to see things not as they are but as they feel to him, to translate emotions into colors and to resist his scientific urges."
Bean builds models of every scene he paints to get shadows and other physical features just right, but he varies his palette to try to convey the feelings each scene inspires.
COMMENT: It works.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tiny new bat from the Comoros

An international team inventorying the wildlife of the Comoros archipelago (where the coelacanth was discovered in 1938) has added a tiny mammal to the reference books. The new bat Miniopterus aelleni weighs only five grams. Kitti's hog-nosed bat, from Thailand (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) weighs only two grams, so this isn't a record. But it's startlingly small nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reviving the tiger - one gene at a time

OK, scientists have determined it is not possible to resurrect the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), from the genetic material available in museum specimens. But they have done something important. They have been able to reassemble a single gene from this extinct marsupial and put it in a living animal (a lab mouse) to see what its function was. So far, it does not appear to do much of anything when spliced into a mouse, but that's not the point. The point is that, on a very limited scale, something with great implications - the resurrection of extinct genetic material - has proven possible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

E.T. is phoning - and he's mad

In today's sample of news that makes people question the existence of intelligent life on Earth, the Examiner warns that NASA's plan to smash a probe into the Moon may precipitate conflict with "known extraterrestrial civilizations."

"Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."
- Calvin and Hobbes

NASA's budget... this never gets better

I don't spend much time on the blow-by-blow of NASA's budget - you can get that on a lot of sites. But I sometimes can't help lamenting that the agency just can't win. The 2010 budget showed a one-time, almost-adequate increase - and the House voted to slash that. (Aren't you House leaders in President Obama's party?)

Microbes awake after 120,000 years

Microbes have been revived after spending 120,000 years frozen under 3km of Greenland ice. It makes planetary scientists think about the ice left under the surface of Mars from the times the planet had liquid water.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A real creature behind "merpeople" tales?

Cryptozoologists sometimes speculate that behind the stories of mermaids and mermen there might be (or might have been, at one time), some kind of sea mammal with an oddly human appearance. It seems unlikely, though, especially because of the mermaid sightings stories (which, incidentally, do persist until the present day) where the upper half of the creature is almost indistinguishable from a long-haired Caucasian female. (The only difference that sometimes gets reported is the existence of taloned hands.)
Any mammal that has evolved into an aquatic lifestyle is simply not going to look like a terrestrial human because the environments and adaptations are different. Even if you assume a formerly terrestrial primate somehow evolved to have a tail, the upper half would not look human. It would look somewhere between the ancestral primate and the known aquatic mammals. The long hair in particular would be pointless. The same is true even if you subscribe to the highly speculative (and, in my view, not credible) Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT) that our own ancestors we through a seagoing phase. An ape or even a primitive human that stayed with the marine lifestyle would not present the appearance of a modern human.
I think it most likely these stories are what most scientists think they are: some honest misidentifications or seals or manatees plus some deliberately exaggerated accounts of same.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chimps make and hunt with spears

That's the slightly mind-boggling report from researchers watching a chimp population in Senegal. Chimps trim the leaves off branches and sharpen the ends with their teeth to make spears used to poke smaller primates (bushbabies) out of hollow tree branches and trunks.
Interestingly, the method is used by adolescents and not by adults. Also, they don't do a very good job of it: of 22 occasions when chimps were observed using this technique, they got a bushbaby out of its hiding place exactly once.
COMMENT: We used to think only humans made tools. And we thought only humans had language, although the definition of language is not universally agreed on. What is left that is uniquely human, besides the use of credit cards? OK, there are philosophy and theology. And television. No, I have no idea where I'm going with this.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The wolverine returns to Colorado

Some good news on the wildlife conservation front in my home state. The wolverine was exitrpated in 1919. It took 90 years for one to pop up again, but wolverines are legendary for their toughness and resilience. Welcome back.

Good discussion on fusion reactors

AN excellent discussion, with some very informed posters and varying opinions, on whether fusion power is practical and, if so, which of the many desings put for is likely to provide it.
COMMENT: This is something I keep goign back to. If there's a reasonable chance that we'll get to a working reactor, it's worth the high up-front R&D investments in the most promising designs. No other potential energy source has the advantage of near-limitless capacity that a practical fusion reactor would give us.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Go, Go, LRO!

Two NASA spacecraft are on their way to the Moon after a successful launch on Thursday June 18.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has separated from its Centaur upper stage, while the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), stayed attached as planned. LRO should go into lunar orbit Tuesday and begin its studies. For the next four months, the Centuar stage and LCROSS will stay linked. At the end of their portion of the mission, they will separately be crashed into the Moon to allow scientists to study the resulting ejecta for evidence of water.

COMMENT: This is an ambitious mission, one that serves as an important precursor to the will-we-ever-fund-it return of humans to the Moon under Project Constellation. Congratulations and good luck to all involved.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Celebrating amateur scientists

While I'm on the subject of Popular Mechanics articles, I have to tout this one on amateur scientists and the contributions they are making on everything from space launch to hummingbird migration.

High-tech carrier construction

This fascinating Popular Mechanics article looks into the new technology applied to the Navy's newest carrier, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, slated to launch in 2015. In addition to the technology on the ship, such as electromagnetic catapults, the article shows how the 100,000-ton carrier is being designed and constructed with the newest technology. This includes virtual reality rooms allowing engineers in different cities to collaborate and to try different configurations. A simulation program nicknamed "SimCity" for carriers" explores how well the ship will function, from refueling planes to feeding sailors, as various designs and parameters are tweaked. Finally, author Noah Shachtman takes a look at how all this is being transformed into metal with the help of the world's largest crane (it lifts 1,050 tons.) Really, really cool.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Japanese Wolf

In this excellent three-part series for Cryptomundo, Brent Swancer updates the saga of the Japanese wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) a.k.a. the Honshu wolf, the Hondo wolf, or the yamainu. He shows the animal almost certainly survived its official 1905 demise, but by how long? Could it survive today?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fiction review: "Terminal Freeze" by Lincoln Child

Terminal Freeze (Doubleday, 2009)
by Lincoln Child

I've always liked the joint Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child novels a bit better than any of the solo efforts by either writer. I still do, but this cryptozoologically-themed thriller is a very good entry on Child's part.
When I read the blurb, I thought, "Monster thaws out from ice? How overused and hokey is that?" It's still overused and hokey, but Child puts an original spin on it, adds some good writing, and the result is highly enjoyable. Child works in interesting technical details about things like filmmaking and ice-road trucking, along with some cutting-edge science and some that's a bit too speculative. For example, "ice-fifteen" is legitimate: it's a hypothesized (though not yet observed) form of ice with weird properties. On the other hand, the idea of a large animal being flash-frozen so quickly that it survives because no ice crystals form in the cells seems too much of a reach: even the best-conditioned Ice Age mammals we've found frozen have been obviously and unquestionably dead. A final discussion between characters, though, leaves us with a delicious new possibility that could explain why this animal doesn't react like everything else we know. Some of the characters seem stock, but Child redeems them with the right touch of human unpredictability. (With most authors, for example, the tough old Army sergeant would have stood his ground and died in his boots.)
Overall, this novel is just what I think Child wanted it to be: an absorbingly fun read that's also a bit of a homage to Arctic thrillers like Howard Hawks' 1951 film "The Thing."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Teenage girl discovers supernova

I love stories like this about amateurs contributing scientific discoveries. Maybe someday I'll have to write a book on it.
This case is more unusual than most: a 14-year-old amateur astronomer with a small telescope pointed "real" astronomers to a rare type of supernova. Alex Filippenko of the University of California said of the find by Caroline Moore, "Coincidentally, the youngest person to ever discover a supernova found one of the most peculiar and interesting supernovae ever. This shows that no matter what your age, anyone can make a significant contribution to our understanding of the universe."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A new kind of cloud?

How can you have a new kind of cloud? People have been watching the skies for centuries. The current classification of clouds has been unchanged since 1951. Still, this cloudscape photographed by an Iowa woman in 2006 is being advanced as a new "subspecies" of cumulous cloud.
COMMENT: I don't know much about clouds, but to give a precise scientific opinon, this certainly looks kind of weird.

Boy hit by space rock

In one of the few instances in human history of a person being hit by a celestial object, a German teenager has been struck by a fragment of rock. The red-hot missile was about the size of a pea. The encounter left Gerrit Blank with a 7.5-cm scar on his hand. While there are many old stories of human-meteor interactions, the only authenticated case before Blank's is apparently an American woman struck and bruised in Alabama in 1954.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

MicroSpace News: Boeing's CubeSat

CubeSats, those handy little 1kg gadgets, keep getting more sophisticated and capable. This Boeing press release notes the company's CubeSat TestBed 1 has been sending back data for more than two years now.

From the press release:

"The breakthroughs we've made with CSTB1 are enabling us to advance the development of NanoSat capabilities," said Scott MacGillivray, program manager for Boeing Nano-Satellite Programs and CSTB1. "We've downloaded more than 1 million data points to date, including dozens of photographs by CSTB1's small camera with a lens the size of a pencil's eraser head, and we continue to receive data on the extended-life characteristics of key components."

"Our success in demonstrating this new capability shows how NanoSats can perform valuable tasks to support Operationally Responsive Space needs," said Alex Lopez, vice president, Boeing Advanced Network and Space Systems. "As interest in NanoSats continues to grow, our accomplishments position us well to offer customers an affordable, viable option for specific satellite missions."
Boeing's next CubeSat demonstration mission, CSTB3, will be the first of a family of spacecraft designs representative of Boeing's new Tensor small-spacecraft avionics architecture, which will be the core of a wide array of missions.

CSTB3 is larger (approximately 4 kg and 10x10x30 cm) than CSTB1 and will demonstrate larger spacecraft capabilities such as higher communications bandwidth, three-axis control, onboard autonomy, and advanced dynamic power management. CSTB3 is expected to be flight-ready this summer.

Meet the Swimming Orangutans

In general, apes hate the water. Orangutans were generally thought to be like the gorilla, the chimp, and the rest. But one population, in Borneo, has become very fond of water. They don't just go in after food (we've recently learned that some gorillas will wade into water after a favorite snack). These orangs play. They roll in mud, dip into the water from tree branches, and sometimes wade in and then actually swim. These amazing photos make it clear orangs will do nearly everything humans will do in a swimming hole.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Celebrity names for new species

Entomologist Quentin Wheeler thinks it's good publicity for science to name new species after leaders and celebrities. There is, after all, no shortage of insects needing names.
Wheeler has named bugs after Darth Vader, President George W. Bush, and others. The latest? A Venezuelan beetle named Agaporomorphus colberti for comic-pundit Stephen Colbert.

New species: Keeping up with the fishes

It's important to pause every once in a while and sample the world of new species great and small.

The title link gives us a new wrasse from Brazil, a very attractive species named Halichoeres sazimai after Brazilian ichthyologist Ivan Sazima.

A new electric knifefish from Brazil and neighboring countries:
(COMMENT: "Electric Knifefish" would be a great name for a rock band.)

And a continuing stream of discoveries of fish and inveretebrates from Antarctic waters, which one scientist described by saying, "There are some quite weird things down there. One sea cucumber species has this big protuberance sticking out of it. No one really knows what it's for." Another species "looks just like a sea anemone on a stick."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

NASA Administrator's background

This NYT editorial complains that incoming NASA Administrator Bolden has less of a deep technical background than outgoing Mike Griffin. This is true, but exactly which technical decisions of Mr. Griffin look like smart choices right now?
The Administrator needs enough background to understand engineering matters, and Bolden has that. He doesn't need to be able to design spaceships himself.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Science Ahead!

Well, not so much science, really. Space travel expert Kevin Fong explained to New Scientist that there's not much about the space opera one can connect with scientific or engineering reality. Among other things, the Cylon ships could easily outmaneuver the Colonial Vipers because the latter are limited by the G forces their human pilots can handle. Fong notes that any real-life long-distance space voyage in the near future, such as a trip to Mars, is likely to involve people crowded for a long time in a small volume. It does not sound nearly as much fun as crusing through solar systems on a ship with a big crew and lots of room (Although, if NASA is reading this, I, for one, would still volunteer).
According to Fong, the psychology of the show, such as the way humans fray at the edges under relentless Cylon attacks, is where its scientific truth likes.
SEXIST COMMENT: Of course, it also helps that Starbuck is really hot.

What's next after talking mice?

German researchers have developed a strain of mice endowed with a gene called FOXP2, which is necessary for human speech. All it's done with the mice is throw their voices off a bit, but Mark Leyner, writing for the NYT, wonders what this will lead to. Talking mice? (Maybe Disney has a hand in this research.) Other talking animals? He suggests that one cow talking about slaughterhouses on Oprah is likely to wreck the beef industry. (As to other animals, I do NOT want to know what my cat thinks of me in words, although she expresses herself fairly well with a superior look of disdain.)

THANKS TO Kris Winkler for this item.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

What's up in Lake Champlain?

A lot of analysis is going into a puzzling cell phone video.

I think that the evidence is very poor for a large unknown beast living in a viable population in this lake, although this does not totally rule out an occasional visitor of some kind wandering upriver to the lake. This video? It looks funny - not as in faked, but as in puzzling. It’s not an easy ID to make. It seems too big for an otter or beaver. I’m not sure we can rule out “swimming deer plus wake effects,” but it’s not an obvious deer/moose either.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sea serpent for sale

An 80-foot green sea serpent, made of of some $3,000 worth of PVC pipe, wood, fiberglass, etc. It's spectacular.

Oldest art in the Americas found in my old home town

Vero Beach, on Florida's east coast, is where I grew up and went to high school. We knew there was an archaeological dig site from an old Native American find called Vero Man: I even did a little hunting around the area in hopes of coming across something the experts might have missed (no luck).
However, an amateur fossil hunter has put Vero on the scientific map. His find: a 10-12,000 year old bone engraved with a mammoth or mastodon. One anthropologist, Dr. Barbara Purdy, called the discovery by James Kennedy “the oldest, most spectacular, and rare work of art in the Americas.”
COMMENT: In addition to a chance to nod to my home town, this story points up a common theme of mine: that the amateur still has an important role in science. Congratulations, Mr. Kennedy!

Species hunting in Papua New Guinea

Professor John Lane is spending his summer vacation on the isalnd of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. He was there two years ago and discovered the small island had a population of tree kangaroos, something never documented before. Now he wants more evidence, inluding a live-trapped specimen, because it's starting to look like the New Britain tree kangaroo may be a new species. He also expects to net new species of insects, particularly butterflies, on the little-explored island.
Lane is intrigued by local reports of some kind of large, odd-looking flying creature. The late cryptozoologist Scott Norman thought he saw one of these in PNG a few years ago. It was called the ropen and was occasionally conjectured to be a surviving pterosaur. Lane isn't about to endorse Mesozoic suvivors, but he'll keep his mind and his eyes open.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

More on validation of cryptozoology

I'm having a refreshingly scientific and calm dispute with this skeptical author. My latest:

The fields you lump together as pseudoscience are not all comparable:
UFOs: no testable hypotheses
Ghosts: no testable hypotheses
Parapsychology: some testable hypotheses, some disproven, some still unresolved – disputes over what constitutes signficant test results
Astrology: Some testable hypotheses, which have been disproven

Cryptozoology: All hypotheses are testable. Some proven, some disproven, most still unresolved due to inadequate resources to test them.
As to what I’m calling “proven” examples, keep in mind cryptozoology is not simply the monsters, but any theorized new animal whose existence is hypothesized by cryptozoologists – who may nor may not have the same opinion as most “mainstream” scientists on a given possibility.
– Cryptozoologists, like many ornithologists, long theorized the ivory bill was still alive, for example.
– Cryptozoologists have long argued the Eastern cougar survived when very few non-cryptozoologists agreed, and evidence is swinging strongly in the cryptozoologists’ direction.
– Van Roosmalen’s giant peccary (sorry, I typed in “tapir” in an earlier comment when mentioning this species) is a good example of a new species cryptozoologists hypothesized about before it was confirmed.

Thus, the common example of whether there is such a beast as sasquatch – a hypothesis some cryptozoologists argue for and others argue against – does not invalidate cryptozoology no matter which way it is finally determined.

MicroSpace News: Next SpaceX launch date set

A SpaceX press release announces a new data for a Falcon 1 launch containing a microsat with an advanced imaging capability.

"Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Astronautic Technology (M) Sdn Bhd (ATSB) of Malaysia announce a new launch window has been set for Falcon 1 Flight 5, carrying the RazakSAT satellite to orbit. The launch window opens Monday, July 13th and extends through Tuesday, July 14th, with a daily window to open at 4:00 p.m. (PDT) / 7:00 p.m. (EDT).
Falcon 1...will place the RazakSAT satellite, equipped with a high resolution Medium-Sized Aperture Camera (MAC), into a near equatorial orbit.
RazakSAT was designed and built by ATSB, a pioneer and leader in the design and manufacture of satellites in Malaysia. The satellite is expected to provide high resolution images of Malaysia that can be applied to land management, resource development and conservation, forestry and fish migration."