Friday, March 26, 2010

Ayala wins Templeton Prize

Geneticist Franciso Ayala has won the Templeton Prize for work that advances both science and religion. Ayala argues the two are not incompatible - essentially, one asks how and the other asks why.
This drew the normal virulent protests from people like strident atheist Richard Dawson, who argues it demeans science to connect it at all with the "fantasy" of religion. What amuses me here is that Dawson uses the same approach for which he slams religious thinkers - the argument from authority. A religious thinker might say, "I KNOW there is a God, therefore all thinking proceeds from that point." Dawson's view is, "I KNOW there is NOT a God - therefore all thinking proceeds from that point."
I'm with Ayala on this one.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

First "truly amphibious" insects found

Fourteen species of moth - newly discovered in Hawaii - have a bizarre habit in the caterpillar stage. They are true amphibians. As an entomologist described it, they walk from water to land and back, behaving the same way, as if the two mediums were not significantly different. It's not clear yet how the animals breathe underwater, but they have no problem with it.

From Siberia: Another Human Species?

A bone found in Siberia has, in the first round of DNA and physical analysis, been categorized as neither modern human nor Neanderthal. Sometime between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago, a child aged around six years died in a remote cave. Interestingly, both modern humans and Neanderthals lived in the same area at around that time. The discoverers were careful to say they were not claiming a new species just yet, but the evidence suggests there was another offshoot to the human family tree, one that did not lead directly to us but coexisted the relatively recent past.

COMMENT: This location is well north of the Pamir region, where a humanlike primate called the almas has long been reported, but it does make me wonder. There's a great deal of eyewitness evidence for the almas, although no physical evidence (the skull of an alleged almas-human cross has been argued about forever, with some cryptozoological researchers saying it's out of the human range and others saying there's no significant difference.) One problem with the almas being a real creature is that locals in some areas make the animal sound common, almost boringly so. Good physical evidence should have been relatively easy to come by, even given the ruggedness of its habitat.

SpaceShip2 takes wing

VERY cool photos of Burt Rutan's genius and Richard Branson's money coming together in the first captive-carry flight of SpaceShip2, on track to start carrying passengers on suborbital space hops around 2012.
Guys, if you want a writer on a flight to describe it to the public, I can make myself available....

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Senate considers restructuring of NASA money

Space exploration is much broader than just NASA programs, and NASA is much more than just human spaceflight. Still, human spaceflight is the flagship mission, and the Obama administration's proposal to phase out NASA's ability to launch its own astronauts is sparking all kinds of conflict. One Senator suggest the money taken from the Constellation program and now pointed toward commercial human spaceflight be diverted instead to a new heavy-lift rocket that could boost Saturn-class payloads to the Moon and Mars.

Internet fuels trade in rare species

The Kaiser's spotted newt is a species with an estimated world population of 1,000 - and annual sales of 200 via Internet sites. The amphibians go for $300 apiece in the pet trade. The 175 nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, has just banned all traffic in them. The newt is only one of many species which are in greater danger because they can be bought and sold anywhere in the world thanks to the power of the Web. CITES delegates voted down a US-sponsored ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna, the most prized source of sushi in Japan. Delegates adopted voluntary changes to the conservation plans for tigers, which have dropped to some 3,600 in the wild.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Is the "hobbit" debate over?

The "pro" side in the debate over whether the diminutive "hobbits" from the island of Flores were a species separate from Homo sapiens seems to be winning. New research indicated the ancestors of the Flores people had been there as long as a million years. A million years of isolation means there was no chance they were H. sapiens. What species did those ancestors belong to? Homo erectus? Something even older? It's one of the great scientific mysteries of our time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Africa's newest bird species: the eyes have it

More on the newest African bird species, Laniarius willardi, initially noticed because, while very similar in appearance to its fellow shrikes, it has "unique blue-gray eyes." Several new birds are discovered each year, with South American species predominating.

SpaceX makes a giant leap

Space Systems/Loral signed a contract with upstart launch provider SpaceX for the delivery of a large communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit (GEO). It's quite a coup for SpaceX, especially considering its Falcon 9 booster has yet to fly. The first Falcon 9 is on a pad in Cape Canaveral. It had a successful hot-fire test of the nine first-stage engines, but the first launch has slipped as company engineers seek to eliminate a problem with the shedding of cork insulation.
COMMENT: Anything you do in space takes longer and costs more than you thought, but reports are SpaceX will deliver this launch for about half of the $100M or so charged by other commercial providers. Good luck, guys.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Life under Antarctice ice sheet

Under an ice sheet almost 200m thick, many kilometers from the sea, one would expect to find no life beyond the single-cell variety. So NASA scientists were stunned to find a 7.5-cm shrimplike amphipod and a jellyfish in liquid water when they drilled a hole to the bottom of the ice.

Interesting spaceplane test upcoming

The USAF/Boeing Orbital Test Vehicle is slated for an April 19 launch. The media and others are harping on how this is a "secret" program for space weapons, but the effort isn't classified: it just has not been trumpeted in press releases. That's being low-key, but it's not being "secret." The OTV, about 9m long and just under 5m in wingspan, is a testbed for possible future, more capable, reusable unmanned spacecraft.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A real test for space solar power?

Space solar power satellite have been proposed for a long time, but obstacles ranging from cost to solar panel technology and transmission efficiency have kept it from becoming a contributor to Earth's energy needs. At last, however, projects in Japan (using microwave beaming of the energy) and Europe's EADS Astrim (using an infrared laser) are on the way toward becoming space test systems by 2015.
COMMENT: I don't know how well this will work out. The environmental impact statements alone will be huge projects. But it's worth testing, and it can only be tested thoroughly by putting a satellite in orbit and trying it. the way, NASA, where's the American demonstration satellite? We should be among the explorers of this potentially important technology, and we have done design studies and computer sims and so on, but we should either create a demonstration satellite or coordinate with Japan and/or EADS in a joint project.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

MicroSpace News: AIA wants ORS small launchers

The Aerospace Industries Association has released a new white paper arguing for increased acquisition of small launchers. The AIA says this would support Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) and make the space industrial base healthier.
COMMENT: No argument from me. I was working on ORS before anyone coined the name.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

British big cats - they ARE out there

The British government, after reviewing 100 reports made since 2005, has concluded there are in fact non-native or alien species of big cats loose in England. No bodies of large cats like pumas or leopards have turned up, but there are some good images (like the one accompanying the linked article) and killings (such as that of a roe deer which was dragged over two fences) that couldn't have been done by any animal native to the U.K. The government emphasizes this is not a matter of a dangerous species establishing a population, but of escaped or released animals scattered over the country. Big cat researchers note that the animals have been reported for decades and, given feline life spans, some breeding is going on.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Whatever happened to the Minnesota Iceman?

Way back in 1968, a 1.8m, hairy, non-human "corpse" was first exhibited in a Minnesota carnival. It made a big stir in the then-nascent business of cryptozoology, especially when zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans named it a new species after he and Ivan Sanderson had spent considerable time observing and photographing it through the ice block in which it was maintained.

Despite the interest, or maybe because of it, the "original" creature was "replaced" (according to showman Frank Hansen) with a model, and then vanished entirely. No one has seen any sort of Iceman exhibit for four decades.

Some cryptozoologists still think the original was a genuine unknown primate, while others dismiss it as a fake from the beginning (a view to which Sanderson eventually subscribed). Hansen told several different stories about the thing's origin and now refuses to discuss it at all.

The single most interesting question to me concerning the Iceman isn't what it was, but where is it?

If it was a genuine animal, there's no sensible reason for some collector to be keeping it unviewed in a freezer, not when modern media would ensure a big payday for revealing it (even if the importance to science did not motivate said owner).

If it was a fake from the beginning (as I think likely), it was a good fake, made up with some care (and cost), so why not bring it out of storage now and let the highest bidder publicize the solution to the mystery? (OMNI magazine once named the late Disneyland model-maker Howard Ball as the craftsman.)

Even if there was both a real animal and a fake, there still seems no reason to be keeping either one sequestered.

Suppose for a moment the animal was real. If it was a corpse that was illegally imported, that would have explained some secrecy and obfuscation, but the statue of limitations concerning any crimes involved lapsed a long time ago. (Even if it was provably Vietnamese, as Heuvelmans once theorized on the basis of no particular evidence, the worst thing that could happen is that Vietnam could officially ask for it back. The US government wight well agree, but the owner would have already made his big payday from the American media, so - so what?) If it was an animal killed in the US, any legal sanctions that might apply for killing an animal for which no hunting season existed have likewise long since lapsed. The only statue that never runs out is murder, and, whatever the thing was, one point of universal agreement is that it was not Homo sapiens sapiens, the only creature covered under any murder statute anywhere in the world.

I suppose it's possible that, fearing legal trouble, the owner might have dumped the original exhibit (whether a corpse or a model) a long time ago. If so, I'm sure he's kicking himself for that after seeing what the tabloids will spend for an exclusive story these days. (Hansen went back and forth on whether he owned it or was showing it for a mysterious wealthy individual (who would have had WHAT motivation, exactly, for letting a carnival drag his priceless scientific treasure around for 25 cents a look?))

There are cases where expensive art objects have vanished and are in the illegal hands of some irrational rich person who does nothing but admire the work and cherish the fact that only he will ever see it. That seems pretty way out for a dead animal and ridiculous for a fake one... but you never know with humans.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Is there a NASA Plan B?

There was a lot of press the other day suggesting the NASA Administrator had ordered up a "Plan B" to preserve parts of the Constellation program if Congress refused the Obama Administration's request to kill it. Mr. Bolden, though, has said he's loyally supporting the Administration's budget and has not ordered up alternatives.
COMMENT: The negative response from Congress has been stronger then I expected - some of it has gotten downright nasty. Bolden is performing as his job requires, but it's hard to believe that, at some level, NASA officials are not discussing a range of things that might be implemented depending on what Congress finally does.

A cool collection of fossils

A slide show of 17 interesting specimens, including a new species of tyrannosaur and an anceint turtle from China with (really) a shell (plastron) covering its underside but no carapace protecting its back.

Monday, March 01, 2010

New bird species from Laos

In the last 20 years, 18 new bird species have been described from Asia. The newest is a pretty little green and yellow avian from Laos, a warbler designated Phylloscopus calciatilis. The species name reflects the fact the bird has been found so far only in areas of limestone.

Recently described clouded leopard is filmed

The Sundaland clouded leopard, recently distinguisehd as a separate species from the "original" clouded leopard, has been captured on video for the first time in a reserve on the island of Borneo.

"Bush Blitz" hunts new species in Australia

Scientists and volunteers will be combing the remote regions of Australia over the next three years on a $10 million program to document the continent's biodiversity.
COMMENT: It will be interesting to see what they find. There will be new species of plants and small invertebrates, to be sure, but the recent record of discoveries and rediscoveries in Australia makes it plausible to expect new vertebrates, including mammals.

Anyone can find a new species

In this case, a glossy white shell about 3cm long, picked up on a beach by a 5-year-old English girl, appears to be new to science.

New NASA Chief Historian is... well, not me

NASA sent a notice that the Chief Historian vacancy I had applied for has been canceled. I assume this means there's not enough money allocated for the History Office (there never is) and they are just going to add the Chief title to someone who is already on staff. But I took the shot, and technically, I was not rejected :)