Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MicroSpace News: Colorado students will build space weather satellite

After 50+ years of operating in space, we don't know everything about the space environment and the "space weather" created by solar flares and charged particles.
The University of Colorado at Boulder has put out this press release:
"The University of Colorado at Boulder has been awarded $840,000 from the National Science Foundation for students to build a tiny spacecraft to observe energetic particles in space that should give scientists a better understanding of solar flares and their interaction with Earth's atmosphere."
UC-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) has built several spacecraft and many instruments with student participation. (I've visited up there and was very impressed.) The Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment will be housed in a spacecraft weighing only 2.5kg. The mission will launch around 2012.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pygmy Sea Cow and Manatee news

Loren Coleman has collected two interesting related items. One is the discovery of a fossil dwarf sea cow, related to the immense Steller's Sea Cow but in the wrong hemisphere - near Madagascar, to be exact. Coleman wonders if occasional claims of primate-like sea creatures from this region, usually dismissed as mermaid-type legends, might have an origin in surviving or very recent examples of this species. Coleman also revisits Marc van Roosmalen's recent description of a living species, the Amazonian dwarf manatee. One expert looking at its DNA has rejected the 1.3-m species as merely immature examples of the known Amazonian manatee Trichechus inunguis. Van Roosmalen acknowledged a very close genetic relationship, but to him it showed only that the split between his T. bernhardi and the ancestor species had come recently (less than 485,000 years ago).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The critters of Avatar

Based on my first viewing of James Cameron's epic, I couldn't resist offering some thoughts on the ecosystem of Pandora.
Cameron's Avatar is not a perfect film. The plot is too derivative, not just of Dances with Wolves but of Disney's subpar Pocahontas. It was hard to keep a straight face in some of the talking tree segments.
Cameron, though, has created a visual feast with some terrifically interesting inhabitants, plant and animal. His Pandora has a lower gravity than Earth, enabling trees to grow to stupendous heights and three-meter-tall humanoids to leap and dart about the forest with the grace of spider monkeys. Cameron gives us four-winged semi-reptilian flying creatures, which is not too much of a stretch given that we know one reptile from Earth's fossil record that actually did adopt the four-wing design. It's interesting that some of his animals, such as the flying banshees, have respiration holes seemingly unconnected to the mouth or the organs of smell, wherever exactly those are. This breathing system may be a little less efficient than the multipurpose systems of Earth vertebrates, but the atmosphere of Pandora (not described except as poisonous to humans) might be rich enough in oxygen and other key gases to make it viable.
Most of the animals are hexopods (six-legged). Earth vertebrates don't have six legs because it seems the cost of maintaining extra limbs exceeds their utility, while far smaller creatures such as insects go with at least six legs (which are much simpler in construction and don't add as much to the total nutritional requirements as vertebrate legs do). It may be a combination of plentiful food and plentiful oxygen on Pandora reduces the burden. (Remember, insects got much larger in the days when Earth's atmosphere had a much higher oxygen level.)
Cameron's humanoids, the Na'vi, are an exception to the hexopod design (so are some of his flying creatures). To a degree, Cameron was hemmed in by the need to make the sentient race something human movie-goers can relate to. Really, what are the odds they would laugh and cry exactly like humans to express emotions? Cameron bent to the same necessity in giving the females some features humans would recognize as female, both facially and in having seemingly nonfunctional breasts. I kept wondering what Na'vi elbow joints are like, given that they draw their bows with the drawing hand facing palm out, which is awkward as heck for humans. I also wondered what the Na'vi evolved from: the only smaller primate-type things, the prolemuris, have six legs and not much of a resemblance. (Note to Cameron - the direhorses are too obviously horselike for all their strange features. I hate to say you didn't show enough imagination, but on this point...)
The really interesting part is that everything evolved on Pandora as part of a system: not magical but electrochemical, with trees sending messages over their root systems, the Na'vi being able to "plug" directly into the nervous systems of other creatures, and so on. The entire moon is essentially wired into one living network. There have to be some limits to this (trees wouldn't want herbivores tapping in to find the best trees to nibble on), and it's hard to figure out what evolutionary pressures might have driven this development. I'm going to have to read the Avatar book for more insights. The Na'vi can connect to both the four-legged and six-legged beasts.
Actually, I do have a thought on Pandoran evolution. I wonder if Pandoran life went from free-living microbes through a bottleneck where there was only one common ancestor to higher organisms. This might have been like a slime mold, which is made up of seemingly unrelated single cells but can somehow connect enough to organize into larger structures. Everything that came after somehow found it advantageous to keep and improve on the networking ability.
Oh, heck. Don't worry too much. Just enjoy the movie. It's a hell of a show.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Would Kirk's cannon have worked?

In a classic Star Trek episode, "Arena," Captain Kirk defeated an alien captain in a very bad lizard suit by pounding charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulfur into gunpowder and turning a bamboo tube into a makeshift cannon. Would it have worked? The Mythbusters guys will try it out on a new episode December 28. The preview here looks pretty cool.
PREDICTION: If they have the right proportions in the gunpowder components and a lot more time than Kirk seemed to have to grind and mix them, they'll get an explosion. But I think an explosion strong enough to propel big diamonds (Kirk's ammunition) with crippling force would likely have blown up the cannon in Kirk's face. Stay tuned!
UPDATE: The cannon was, unfortunately, "busted." The Mythbusters couldn't get the handmade gunpowder to explode, and, when they substituted commercially-made gunpowder, they blew up the cannon. It was a funny touch to put their Captain Kirk stand-in, their dummy Buster, in a red shirt: Kirk never wore a red shirt, but crewmembers who did were quickly offed (as was Buster when the cannon blew up). I always thought Starfleet must have the worst-trained security forces in history, since all they knew how to do was die. Maybe they had the same trainers who failed to teach Imperial Stormtroopers how to hit anything smaller than a spaceship no matter how close the range.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Loren Coleman's Top 10 Cryptozoology stories

Loren Coleman, the most prominent American cryptozoologist, names a Top 10 list of cryptozoological news items every year. The list for 2009 includes discoveries of several new animals, including a civet and the strikingly marked Galapagos iguana, the opening of Loren's own Cryptozoology Museum (it deserves its place: there has, until now, been nothing like a central repository for cryptozoological material), the obtaining of the first images of a juvenile coelacanth, and several cryptozoological expeditions.
COMMENT: Every year, what cryptozoologists want to see on this list is the discovery of a large (say man-sized or bigger) new species. And sometimes we get it (e.g., the Australian snubfin dolphin, van Roosmalen's peccary). Whether anyone has found sasquatch (or ever will) is not nearly as important as the fact that new discoveries, large and small, are still being made around the world.

First evidence for venomous dinosaurs

A turkey-sized raptor from China, otherwise an unspectacular find, appears to have been venomous. The fang-like upper teeth are grooved, as some snakes' are, and there are pockets in the upper jaw that could be for venom glands. The coral snake is an example of a modern reptile that uses such grooved teeth to deliver venom (as opposed to rattlesnakes, where the fangs are actually hollow and can inject venom.) Given that the modern reptiles developed poison armament twice (in the snakes and in the lizards), it's not surprising that dinosaurs, with a variety of forms evolving over 100+ million years, came up with it at least once.

Is Avatar's moon realistic?

The new film Avatar sets its lush world, not on a planet, but of a moon. Astronomers say that's not impossible, despite the barren example our own solar system offers. It worked for George Lucas and those annoying Ewoks on the moon Endor, and it could work in real life.

X-51 hypersonic Waverider passes a test

An umanned test vehicle designed to demonstrate hypersonic flight with ordinary jet fuel (previous demos have used hydrogen) passed its captive-carry test flight. THe Waverider (so named because of the way it "surfs" its bow shock wave) could be a prototype for a reusable first stage for Earth-to-orbit vehicles or for long-range conventionally-armed missiles.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Octopus and the coconut

The video linked to here has to be seen to be believed (and I dare anyone to watch it without laughing). An Australian octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus, to be specific) was seen gathering coconut half-shells discarded by humans and pulling them together to make a full sphere it can hide in.
This article is incorrect in saying this is the first known tool use by an invertebrate: wasps have been seen using a pebble to tamp down dirt. But it's amazing anyway. As one discoverer put it, what's so surprising is how the octopus seems to plan ahead: it will pick up a shell to use later, so "when it's transporting it, it's not getting any protection from it. It's that collecting it to use it later that is unusual."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reviewing the climate email mess

This work by the AP, based on a review of the entire 1-million-word archive of the emails swiped by a hacker from climate scientists, gives the best summary I've seen so far of this much-hyped series of events.
What they do not show is an active conspiracy to mislead people on climate change.
What they do show is unacceptable behavior, including attempts to suppress rather than debate skeptics, hide or destroy data, and sometimes fudge what's presented in the name of making the science look more certain and consistent than it is.
The underlying thread is that some researchers believed the message about the need to address anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is so critically important that it was all right to make science they already believed was solid into science that was completely consistent and beyond any doubt (indeed, so much so as to make skepticism an act of irrationality.)
This, of course, had the opposite effect once the emails were revealed. Skeptics can now say, "If these people were willing to violate ethical scientific behavior in these instances, how do we trust them at all?"

COMMENTS: My own reading of published evidence is that the general trend of the world is toward warming, with many local variations and occasional short-term reversals. It's a big planet with a very complex climate system, or rather a system of systems with all kinds of influences and feedback loops, not all of which we understand. I do think AGW is contributing to this trend, although I don't think we have as good a handle as people like the IPCC insist we do on how much AGW contributes and what immediate measures are needed. That's not an excuse for doing nothing, but it is important when we are weighing what resources to devote to stopping AGW vs. all the other human needs the world faces. (The blithe claims by some on the leftward end of the environmental spectrum that we need to address everything, and there's an endless supply of resources from wealthy countries and businesses we can tap, ignore economics as well as political reality. I also have no patience for the idea it's simple to have a win-win with green technologies solving everyone's problems. There are costs and tradeoffs to every potential part of the overall solution. Don't insult my intelligence by saying all we need are more solar panels and bicycles.)

These scientists, trying to put their work beyond doubt to convince people of the need for action, have done their cause no favors.The same is true for exaggerated estimates of warming and sea rise levels (thank you, Al Gore, who exaggerated predictions and put footage from a terrible disaster film into An Inconvenient Truth and passed all of it off as science), which draw climatologists into sometimes-public conflict. We do need action, and we do need to address this issue now, but this is a complex situation. Trying to misprepresent it as a simple situation is a very bad approach.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Norwegian sky spectacle was Russian rocket

A startling blue spiral that appeared in the skies over Norway has a prosaic explanation - a Russian missile test that went awary. It's amazing the result was so symmetrical, as if some alien intelligence was behind it - which is, of course, a theory still alive on the Web.

Nat Geo names top new species

The Top 10 news species of 2009 (actually, some of the entries concern multiple species), as selected by National Geographic. From the giant rat to the ghost slug, they remind us discovery is happening all the time.

80th anniversary of Science Fiction fandom

Couldn't let this pass without a mention. Eighty years ago today, an American club calling itself the Scienceers met for the first time. They were science fiction fans. Now SF fandom is a global industry. Interestingly, thr group met in Harlem and the president was African-American.

Another visit to the cryptozoology museum

A writer for the Web site BoingBoing visits the International Cryptozoology Museum. An interesting excerpt comes when he asks founder Loren Coleman if he "believes" in creatures like the sea serpent or Bigfoot:

"No, because belief, he has said, "belongs in the providence of religion." He just tries to keep an open mind in order to accept or deny evidence based on examination and investigation."

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Virgin Galactic unveils spaceship

For space geeks like myself, Christmas has come early. Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson have unveiled SpaceShipTwo (the first example being christened VSS Enterprise), a six-passenger suborbital spacecraft which, assuming testing goes well, will start carrying passengers in 18 months. Three hundred people have already plunked down cash to buy or reserve a $200,000 ticket for a 2 and 1/2 hour ride that will take passengers up some 100km and include five minutes of microgravity.

COMMENT #1: Would I plunk down $200K for this? If I had the money, I would have already done it.

COMMENT #2: I'm not one of the "private enterprise is always better" ideologues, but in this case... space geeks know of the countless efforts governments have made to do something similar to what Rutan and Branson have done. In less time and with less money than it took NASA and Lockheed Martin to half-develop and then scrap their unmanned X-33, Rutan and company have delivered flight hardware. Test results will be all-important, of course, but it looks like a great leap forward has been made by people of vision. Will governments learn something from this? History doesn't give us much cause for optimism.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Four new species of king crab

From a pile of untagged museum specimens, some over a century old, British Ph.D. candidate Sally Hall has pulled the evidence for four new species of king crabs, members of a family housing some of Earth's largest crustaceans. The four species represent four widely scattered areas of ocean.
COMMENT: This sort of find is important to zoology, more than most people realize. Going through old museum collections has yielded countless new species, including in recent years the world's largest gecko and the world's largest spider, and we don;t know what has been overlooked in museums and private collections around the world.

In case you are wondering, the new guys are:
Paralomis alcockiana, from the Atlantic Ocean,
Paralomis nivosa, from the Philippines,
Paralomis makarovi, from the Bering Sea, and
Lithodes galapagensis , the first king crab species recorded off the Galapagos Islands.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

World's smallest orchid - marvelous

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Even botanists must be thinking poetic thoughts about the newest species of orchid. It is 2.1 millimeters Less than 1/10 inch) across. The transparent petals are one cell thick. It comes from Cerro Candelaria reserve in the Ecuadorian Andes, in a country where over 1,000 - you read that right, 1,000 - species of orchid have been discovered in the last century.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

New Star Trek film; no science, lots of fun

I was re-watching Star Trek on DVD this morning. Anyone with the barest knowledge of science can't help but wince. (You can drive a ship intact through a black hole? What does that giant predator on the ice planet eat when it can't get humans?) Trek fans have to wonder at the violence done to a Spock character, who, while an officer and an instructor at Starfleet Academy, would permit himself an affair with a cadet. And the sheer ridiculousness of the series of events that make Kirk a starship captain is breathtaking.
Despite all that, it's a heck of a fun movie. Like Independence Day, it makes you overlook its flaws because the cast is obviously having so much fun that you are happy to turn your brain off and take the ride with them. Chris Pine as Kirk is enjoying himself so much you expect him to spontaneously combust. (And his character is a believable incarnation of William Shatner's Kirk in younger form.) The whole cast, for that matter, is perfect. So I give a three-phaser salute to J.J. Abrams and look forward to the sequel.