Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Him Tarzan. Him Chameleon!

A new species of chameleon has been described from a tiny patch of forest in Madagascar. That in itself is not big news, as the island's herpetofauna is a long way from complete (one authority reports he has an estimated 100 new species of frogs awaiting formal description.) But its German discoverers hope the name Calumma tarzan will help make this lizard a "poster species" drawing attention to the island's diversity and the need for better habitat conservation. Lead author of the formal descriptive paper, Philip-Sebastian Gehring, said, "The Tarzan chameleon is going to use his celebrity name to promote protection for this last patch of forest."

THANKS TO Beth Buczinsky, author of a cool nature blog I had not known about until now (see title link), for posting this on the Web.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bizarre new catfish from Peru

Loren Coleman and company at Cryptomundo have scooped me twice today on new species. Good for you, Loren.
This one, from a remote section of the Amazon in Peru, is really something. It's a big (looks 60cm or more?) armored catfish with outsized fins and a specialized vegetarian diet: it eats mainly wood that has fallen into the river. It has unusually-shaped teeth for scraping wood. Its other dietary item? The droppings of other catfish. Paulo Petry of the Nature Conservancy gets the credit for this find, which joins nine previously known species in the genus Panaque.

New species of turtle from southeastern U.S.

The Pearl River, which flows through Mississippi and Alabama, is famous as a possible habitat for surviving ivory-billed woodpeckers. It is also, though, home to the pearl map turtle, a new species. Northern Arizona University scientists have identified the animal as new based on geographic range, appearance, and DNA, and tagged it as Graptemys pearlensis. A good reminder that not all new species come from remote undeveloped places: some are right underfoot from an American perspective.

Farewell, astronaut Bill Lenoir

William Lenoir has passed away at 71. He was a backup crew member for Skylab, an engineer who worked on the Shuttle and on solar power satellites, and the flight engineer on the first operational Space Shuttle mission. Bill served two stints at the company I work with in my day job, Booz Allen Hamilton, with a timeout to be an Associate Administrator of NASA under Richard Truly. I can't recall that I ever met Bill, but I humbly suggest a rule I think all civilizations should take to heart: Explorers should be honored.
Ad Astra, Bill.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zoo hires gymnast to teach apes to climb

Seriously. Orangutans kept for years in an enclosure without anything to climb on became so terrestrial that, when an improved space with trres was provided, the apes didn't try to climb or swing. The zoo hired a Dutch gymnast to climb around in the trees in the hopes the orangs would follow suit. Umm... "monkey see, monkey do?"

Saturday, August 28, 2010

MIT offers robotic swarm for oil spills

It looks like a picnic cooler trialing a set of venetian blinds, but MIT's newest robot has an important job. Engineers at the school think their solar-powered robot, equipped with a sort of floating treadmill of a nanomaterial that absorbs oil, can be deployed in swarms to clean up an oil spill faster and cheaper than traditional skimmers. The robot, prototypes of which have been sea-tested, can either burn off the collected oil or leave it floating bags for collection.

Review: String Theory for Dummies

String Theory for Dummies
Andrew Zimmerman Jones with Dr. Daniel Robbins
Wiley Publishing, Indianapolis, IN (2010)
Andrew Jones has taken on a monumental task: explaining string theory, with all the underlying science and universe-wide implications, without much math and without any more technical terms than necessary. It’s impressive how well he’s succeeded. If that success is short of perfection, that only reflects, as he notes himself, how vast and complex the task is.
Jones opens by noting that some of the ideas presented here will be proven false. I like that: it prepares the reader for the convoluted story which begins with the first attempts at a science of physics and ends with a theory so esoteric that the mind really can’t grasp it the way we do most scientific notions (try visualizing “rolled up” dimensions some time).
Jones opens with the why of string theory: the way relativity and quantum physics have been stopped short by the unsolved mystery of quantum gravity. He then steps back to the origins of physics and leads readers through the fits, starts, progress, blind alleys, and reversals that led to string theory being discovered, abandoned, revived as superstring theory, and modified into its current form, M-Theory.
Any theory will eventually die off if it can’t be proven, and Jones explains the possibilities and problems of testing string theory, including either by observing the universe or in particle accelerators on Earth. He spends a chapter on the arguments that string theory is unprovable, simply wrong, or both. String theorists are split on how (or whether) whether the traditional scientific requirement that a theory be falsifiable applies to a theory of things we may never be able to observe directly. Another chapter looks at the main competitor, loop quantum gravity. There are string theorists and LQG theorists who think there is an underlying connection and they might both be true, while others are convinced the opposing camp is more of a groupthink cult than a scientific approach. Other chapters cover the implications if strong theory is correct: what it means for parallel universes, the Big Bang, time travel, and other concepts of scientific and popular interest.
Jones closes by outlining the ten questions he suggests any “theory of everything” must answer and introducing the most influential people in string theory.
There really isn’t a conclusion that sums up where Jones and his Ph.D. physicist co-author think the whole argument stands today. I was looking forward to that: the information is in the Introduction and Chapter 1, but there’s no law against recapping it. There also isn’t a glossary, an omission which I don’t understand.
The basic question in evaluating a book like this, though, is whether it leaves a nonspecialist with a better understanding of the topic. I do understand it better, much better. If you’re curious about this whole business of string theory but are not interested in getting a graduate degree, String Theory for Dummies is well worth your time.

Friday, August 27, 2010

NASA's big news: first confirmed multiplanet system

Well, NASA promised a big announcement for Thursday. It was scientifically important, but I'm not sure it rated the hype. The Kepler space telescope had identified what NASA researchers called the first confirmed multiplanet system (two planets so far, both gas giants) outside our own. The impact was blunted a little bit by European scientists announcing earlier in the week that ground-based telescopes had identified a multiplanet system. Also, once astronomers began discovering exoplanets (400+ at last count), the public naturally assumed these were not all one-planet systems and discovery of a multiplanet system was inevitable. None of this is meant to put down the important work being done by the Kepler team, just to note I'd hoped for more. There may be more: Kepler scientists report they have a third signature from that system that may prove to be another planet, this one a rocky world only about 1.5 Earth diameters.

New deep-sea wonders

Three weeks' use of an advanced ROV with a color camera off Indonesia has revealed a colorful seafloor ecosystem populated by rare and unusual creatures. One scientist estimated the expedition had found "...at least 40 new species of deep-water coral and at least 50 new species that include benthic shrimp, crabs, sponges, clams, barnacles, anemones and sea cucumbers." Sea spiders 20cm across crawled near stalked sea lilies, a group once abundant in many ocean areas but increasingly hard to find. Add a lavender fish "walking" on the bottom and a pink-spined carnivorous sponge, and there's something interesting for any marine life aficionado.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Even outer space can't kill them...

No, that's not a line from a 1950s movie. It's a description of how hard it is to kill some bacteria. Sure, Lysol will probably do it, but experimenters took bacteria from English cliffs (still clinging to rock shards) and put them in experiment boxes on the outside of the International Space Station. Eighteen months later, heat, cold, radiation, and vacuum had done...nothing to them. Wherever we go in the universe, it seems, we will take out bugs with us.

How do rocks move?

Well, they don't of course, not without help. But in Death Valley, rocks slide across the dried out lake bed (playa), leaving distinctive trails. But no one has ever seem them move, and it's not confirmed yet exactly how they do it. Theories include UFO aliens (what are they doing, playing tic-tac-toe?) and prankish college students. Science is now reporting that, in the winter, it can get cold enough for a thin coating of ice to form on the rocks, creating a slippery surface in contact with the ground and allowing wind to gradually nudge them around. Well, it's good to have a puzzle solved with a prosaic, rather boring explanation. Or is that always true?

Candidate for "World's smallest frog" discovered

OK, maybe it's the smallest. It's hard to have a contest in these types of things, and there's one from Cuba which may be smaller. But herpetologists are jazzed nonetheless for Microhyla nepenthicola, a frog which had actually been collected before - but the tiny specimens were assumed to be juveniles of some other species. The species hangs out (or hops about) in the Kubah National Park on the island of Borneo. Their tadpoles grow in liquid inside pitcher plants. A big member of the species may be 12 mm long. Yep, millimeters. There are some startling photographs in the title link that show just how small it is.

Africa: Discoveries Await, But They Don't Come Easy

Melanie Strissany is posting on the NYT's "Scientists at Work" site - sort of a cross between a blog and a field journal. She has undertaken a venture in the Congo region looking for new species of fish and trying to figure out why local fish, most notably cichlids, have branched out into such a huge number of species. The lower Congo, she says, is "hyperdiverse." She adds, "...every trip I have made to Congo has resulted in new findings and the discovery of more fish species new to science — and I have a strong hunch that this time is going to be no different."
COMMENT: Science is far from becoming merely a computer-desk pursuit. If you go to this site, look down the right side at the many previous scientists who have cataloged their expeditions here. There's plenty of fascinating stuff!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ray Bradbury turns 90

Happy birthday to one of the unique storytellers and intellects of our time, a man who has never stopped urging us on toward the stars.

Help NASA pick crew wakeup songs

A long-time NASA tradition is the playing of music from the ground to start astronauts on their day. ("Free Falling" and "Rocketman" are popular. I'm quite sure Donovan's "The Intergalactic Laxative" is not going to get picked.) Anyway, the public can submit original songs or the names of published songs as wakeup music on the last two Shuttle missions. My vote: "Orbiting Jupiter" by Cheryl Wheeler. Lyrics:

Can humans be - superhuman?

This collection of examples, from a firefighter who lifted an SUV off the ground to a man who runs marathins at -20 degrees F, makes us wonder what the limits of out bodies really are. Are we settling for too little in developig our physical abilities?

NASA has planet-hunting news

NASA has scheduled a press conference for Thursday to announce "big news" about an "intriguing planetary system" located by its Kepler observatory. Kepler, launched in 2009, has identified more that 700 candidate star systems but scientists have been working to distinguish stars with planets from binary stars.

"The fact that we have not yet found the slightest evidence for life — much less intelligence — beyond this Earth does not surprise or disappoint me in the least. Our technology must still be laughably primitive, we may be like jungle savages listening for the throbbing of tom-toms while the ether around them carries more words per second than they could utter in a lifetime." - Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Strange new bugs are out there, too

Dr. Karl Shuker reports on two strange creatures of what is sometimes termed "micro-cryptozoology": finding insects and other small arthropods. He punctures on myth - that of a shrieking foot-long centipede that sounds like it might come from Skull Island, and describes an unsolved mystery of a creature reported at close range (as in, it ran over the explorer's fingers) but not caught: a tiger beetle, bright red and the size of "a baby's finger" which has evolved to mimic the shape of an ant. Lotta weird stuff out there...

Evidence for new ape species?

The Center for Fortean Zoology (CFZ, with the "Fortean" being a reference to an indefatigable 20th-century collector of oddities) is a British-based cryptozoology society which goes about everything with typical British tongue-in-cheek humor. One of the CFZ's pet (ha-ha) interests is the unclassified ape, the orang-pendek, reported from Sumatra and thereabouts. The CFZ's Adam Davies has led several field expeditions in pursuit of evidence, and now reports results.
readers of this blog may recall I posted on the announcement hairs had been recovered in 2009 from an orang-pendek sighting. As with hairs found in 2001, they have been analyzed by interested scientists and reported out as having DNA similar - but not identical - to orang-utan DNA.
One of those scientists, Lars Thomas, says, "The significance is quite enormous no matter what the result is basically, because if it turns out to be orang-utan this proves that there is orang-utan in a part of Sumatra several hundred kilometres from the nearest population of orang-utan. If it turns out to be a primate that looks like an orang-utan but isn’t, it’s an even greater discovery because that proves that there is another great ape living in Indonesia."
The orang-pendek is very respectable as mystery animals go. Internationally known tiger conservationist Debbie Martyr has reported seeing the reddish, habitually upright primate several times, and the renowned Dr. John MacKinnon once came upon tracks of a small, unidentified primate walking bipedally. Anthropologist Dale Drinnon, in a comment to the CFZ side, suggested that a small type of orang-utan with a normally upright posture could solve several unexplained animal reports, not just on Sumatra but in surrounding land masses. Martyr and others suggest it's a new type of gibbon, although the DNA results cast doubt on that (assuming the hairs are indeed from our quarry).
I wrote to the CFZ's Adam Davies after he sent me this announcement and asked the obvious question. If analysis indicates a new species here, when are we going to see the results in a peer-reviewed journal like Nature? Surely the topic is important enough for a journal to accept it if the science is well done, and the peer review process (though not perfect) will mean scientists with no connection to CFZ will be validating the DNA results.
Adam replied, "As ever, you ask good questions,I don't know the answer yet,but I will ask. I have met Henry Gee from Nature magazine before, and we got on very well. Lars is still carrying on the testing, and hopes to get better info. I promise you that I will let you know, when I know." (He added that information on the expeditions he has led, and future ones, is also available at another site, www.extreme-expeditions.com.)
So there you have it. Promising, but not yet definitive. Adam has promised to keep me in the loop and I shall do the same for you.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Footage of alleged Aussie mystery cat

Australia, it sometimes seems, is simply riddled with unexplained catlike predators. Panthers, lions, and unknown striped beasts - you name it, it's been reported. This account in the Australian press shows a still of what certainly looks like a mountain lion (Puma concolor), a North American species that seems to have somehow gained a toehold in Australia. (Abandoned mascots brought by American units in WWII are one theory.) No one has caught or killed such a cat, but tracks and dead livestock, combined with eyewitness accounts, make a strong case that something is going on.

Sea creatures of California

From the San Diego Reader, posted by someone on www.cryptozoology.com, is this delightful collection of "monster" tales - hoaxed and sincere - from Southern California. They include flying beasts (one of which was shot and turned out to be a condor) and a variety of snakelike and un-snakelike creatures reported on the beach and offshore. A fisherman's tale of a fat, sluggish ten-foot eellike animal is interesting to me because it's so unusual and low-key for a "sea serpent" report.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Animal pioneers in space: a retrospective

Nice link from Newsweek with a pictorial review of some of the animals that went into space ahead of humans, from a Russian rabbit nicknamed "Brave One" to the famous chimpanzee Ham. These were, of course, unwilling astronauts, and such experimentation nowadays is hotly debated. But they were important in the days when no one could be sure humans could live in space, and there was no practical substitute for the animal approach.

Missed the Persied meteors? Look again.

Watch this lovely time-lapse, shot at Joshua Tree National Monument, CA to see last week's meteor showers compressed into a stunning cosmic light show. Photographer Henry Jun Wah Lee has given the world a permanent record of a phenomenon a lot of people (me for one) couldn't see for whatever reason (clouds and light pollution here in Colorado Springs).

Strange long-haired gazelle photographed

Everyone who's seen African nature documentaries knows the striped Thomson's gazelle, a small antelope that attracts - but often outruns - the big cats. No one has ever seen a "Tommy" like this, though. The young female photographed in Kenya has longhair all over its body in place of the normal short coat of the species. It looks a bit like an antelope-shaped goat. You never know what will come out of the cosmic card-shuffling of genetics, but what's interesting here is that there is no record of this condition being seen before in this species.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Amatuers discover new pulsar

As my regular readers (both of you) know, I love stories about achievements of amateurs or "citizen scientists." In the age of big government and big corporate projects, amateurs are seemingly forgotten. But amateurs are still out there. They discover new species, map the ranges and changing habits of birds, discover asteroids, etc. Now two such devotees of science, using a professionally developed software in a volunteer mass computing project, called Einstein@Home, have pinpointed a new pulsar. It's a big deal. As astronomy professor James Cordes put it, "No matter what else we find out about it, this pulsar is bound to be extremely interesting for understanding the basic physics of neutron stars and how they form."

THANKS TO Dana Stabenow for posting this on FaceBook

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Something stirring in the "sea serpent" world?

There is no "sea serpent" if one means an actual serpent. Whether there is some form of large elongated marine mammal, be it eel or seal or whatever, yet to be classified is a much more interesting topic.
Cadborosaurus, the name given to a creature oft reported from the Pacific Northwest off Canada and the US, has popped up again with the claim that a school or herd of Caddys was filmed last year in an estuary off the Gulf of Alaska. A group of marine creatures, certainly, was filmed, but are they clearly outside the realm of known species? Longtime cryptozoological researcher John Kirk has seen the film and thinks we have a breakthrough here. Unfortunately, the rest of us must wait until a still-untitled cable TV show in September to see it for ourselves.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Actor reports "prehistoric" fish

Every once in a while, swimmers and divers report running into very strange things. Actor Ving Rhames is one of those people. What he saw while snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef scared him out of the water - for good. He says, "I saw something I don't know what it was to this day. My mind couldn't relate to what it was... If I saw it and knew it was a shark I wouldn't be as afraid but I saw something that looked prehistoric and I haven't been snorkeling since. It was a combination of a catfish and something with a large oblongish-type head. It came towards me and I froze and it just went away. I haven't done any scuba diving since either."
COMMENT: I don't know what Rhames saw, as the description does not bring any known species quickly to mind (ok, possibly, just possibly, the bizarre and very rare megamouth shark?), but he makes an important point. We don't know everything in the water. It may be we know "most of the big stuff," as one scientist put it, but we don't know all the big stuff. No marine scientist would stand behind a claim that we do.

Monday, August 16, 2010

And in the northern seas...

Off Newfoundland, a joint Canadian-Spanish expedition is turning up more new species (they don't know how many yet) of sponges, corals, and other marine invertebrates. The expedition's submersible is probing the bottom at 3,000 meters. Expedition scientist Ellen Kenchington says, "It's been really spectacular. It's really changing our perception of the diversity that's out there."

Book by pioneering primatologist

Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer by Mireya Mayor

I don't have my copy yet, but it looks good. I've written before about Mayor's discovery of new species of lemurs. The origin of the title: Mayor was once a cheerleader for the National Football League's Miami Dolphins. Now a Ph.D. primatologist, Mayor is turning up a lot on the National Geographic Channel.

Marine Life Census rolls on

Here's another piece on the Census of Marine Life, with some new observations by the scientists involved. The first group of papers is out, and the census will formally end this October. The exploration won't though: 60-80% of marine species have yet to be collected at all. The project's senior scientist believes "most of the big stuff is known," but note he said "most," not "all."

Friday, August 13, 2010

New monkey from South America

Add another new primate to the lists. From the Amazon region of Columbia comes a newly described kind of of titi monkey, Callicebus caquetensis. An odd-looking titi was first noted in this area 30 years ago, but terrorist activity, among other things, kept it from being pinned down until now. The Caquetá titi is about the size of a domestic cat and is considered critically endangered.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Army tries to shrink satellite AND booster

The US Army is eyeing nanosatellites costing $300K-$1M for a variety of missions. Well, I've been advocating that for years. What surprised me here is how they are trying to shrink the launch vehicle down to a "nanomissile" which would be the smallest, cheapest orbital launcher ever built. I'll be very interested to see firm specs on this critter.

Lovely new bird from Gabon

This jewel, the flame-throated African forest robin is the newest species of bird known to science. The brilliant orange-red plumage covering the bird's throat is what immediately sets it off visually from any other species, and its song, morphology, and DNA all distinguish it further. Stiphrornis pyrrholaemus was discovered during a biodiversity survey of protected areas in the country's Gamba region.
COMMENT: It was predicted back in the last decade that bird discoveries should tail off to maybe one or two species a year. They show no sign of doing so.

NASA examines nuclear voyage to Jupiter

Engineers at NASA's Glenn Research Center, inspired by the spacecraft in the movie 2001, looked at the real prospects or a piloted craft capable of trips to the outer planets. The abstract of their 51-page study begins:

"A conceptual vehicle design enabling fast, piloted outer solar system travel was created predicated on a small aspect ratio spherical torus nuclear fusion reactor. The initial requirements were satisfied by the vehicle concept, which could deliver a 172 mt crew payload from Earth to Jupiter rendezvous in 118 days, with an initial mass in low Earth orbit of 1,690 mt."

The finding: there are real ways do do this. It's a long way off and may never be more than a study, but what matters is that people are looking seriously at these types of long-range questions.

The title link will take you to a page where you can download the entire study.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Congratulations NASA and ISS

In a spacewalk stretching more than seven hours, two U.S. astronauts on the ISS removed a balky ammonia colling-fluid pump and cleared with way for a final EVA to install the replacement. The third and hopefully final spacewalk will come Sunday. The cooling problem has forced a shutdown of some ISS systems and experiments.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rat study: sex = brain development

Researchers report rats who get a lot of sex develop more neurons and more robust connections between brain cells. Not makign any comment, just can't resist throwing this one out there.

Complex in-space repair underway

The crew of the ISS has no easy task after a major cooling pump module failed. There are spares on board, but it's taken two spacewalks and will require at least one more to remove and install all the necessary hardware.
COMMENT: On the one hand, this shows how complex and difficult it can be to keep a large human-occupied structure in space: on the other, it shows what human beings can do on site when things hit the (temporarily shut down) fan.

Uncertainty surrounds former NASA head O'Keefe

Reports are contradictory: have we lost former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe in that plane crash, along with Ted Stevens? O'Keefe (he was at NASA 2001-2005) steered the agency through one of its darkest hours after the Shuttle disaster and helped foster a new approach (the Vision for Space Exploration) that might have delivered great things if either the White House or Congress had cared enough to fund it.

UPDATE: Senator Stevens and four others died, but Mr. Keefe survived.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Great book: Nature's Ghosts

Nature's Ghosts
Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology
Mark Barrow
University of Chicago Press, 2009

Early Europeans, like many Native Americans, viewed North America as a place of incredibly diverse and seemingly inexhaustible natural riches. Settlers couldn't believe the abundance of birds and fish and useful furry animals. How that view slowly - very slowly, in fits and starts and with many advances and retreats - changed to a modern view of conservation, losing many key species along with way, is the subject of Barrows' well-written and thorough treatment. I've not come across a book like this, which introduces people both famous and forgotten, organizations that evolved into modern conservation forces, and the contradictions of naturalists who worried about extinction even as they shot and collected every specimen in sight. You know of the work of John James Audubon and Aldo Leopold, but Victor Shelford? John C. Phillips? The American Committee for International Wildlife Protection? I thought I was fairly well read on this topic, but there are surprises on every page, and there are 82 pages of endnotes to reinforce the 360-page main story. This is a landmark work.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Hunting the beaked whales

I don't mean hunting in the Captain Ahab sense: that's illegal, and the very rareness and shyness of the beaked whales as a group prevents much killing from going on. This site is a resource for the most mysterious of mammals. (The News column seems not to have been updated in the past year: I hope that's rectified soon.) Beaked whales are one of my favorite groups of animals because they have kept so many secrets. We don't know how many species there are, or their ranges, or many of their habits. We don't know much about the cryptic species known as Mesoplodon Species A and Species B. (OK, some top cetologists think Species A has been pinned down as cospecific with M. peruvianus, but I'm not really on board with that yet.) Much of the news concerns strandings, because strandings and a few marine observations are almost all we've got to work with.
Ah, mystery...what would science be without it?

Oyster catches bird!

Actually, according to Dr. Darren Naish's collected data, it happens a lot. Bivalves which snap their shells together at the right time can damage the beaks of birds. Occasionally, they clamp shut and stay that way, while the bird can't eat or sometimes can't fly. Sometimes the bird drowns.
COMMENT: Nature: It's a hell of a way to make a living.

Full ocean census still elusive

After ten years of work, the Census of Marine Life reports that - well, it's not done. Everywhere scientists have looked there are more new species, and sometimes they go back to presumably explored places and find yet more. As Dr. Sylvia Earle (who has the wonderful title of explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society), puts it, "A conservative estimate of ocean species is 10 million, and it may be 50 million or more. Less than five percent of the ocean has been seen, let alone explored." Of the species found already, it will take, by one estimate, 200 YEARS at the current level of effort just to publish formal descriptions. (A DNA barcoding system has been applied to more rapidly catalogue the specimens for now.)

If Higgs boson is real, who gets the Nobel?

This is really interesting, because Dr. Higgs is not the only person who worked out that the Higgs boson should exist. Five other men did it about the same time. With the LHC operators hopeful they will soon detect the important particle, confirmation of the results will likely win someone a Nobel prize. But who? There are six people involved, and the Nobel can be given to a maximum of three. The American Physical Society, which does not have that rule for its awards, named all six winners of the prestigious J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics. But let's face it, the Nobel is THE gold medal, and there are already lively arguments about how to award it.
COMMENT: It would be funny if the LHC produced really weird results that led physicists to conclude the Higgs either doesn't exist or is not that important. Either is highly unlikely, but physics gets REALLY weird at that scale....

Living algae inside salamander cells

It's not quite like the alien xenomorph lurking inside a human host, but it's bizarre nonetheless. For the first time, photosynthetic algae have been found living inside the cells of a vertebrate. Algae inside the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) are living in symbiosis, providing additional oxygen to the cells as they do their photosynthetic "thing." It was thought to be impossible for such symbionts to live there because of vertebrates' active immune systems, and researchers still don't know why the rules don't apply in this case.
COMMENT: Nature is like the universe: not just stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

An upcoming Happy Birthday to Neil Armstrong!

Neil Armstrong, one of history's most courageous explorers (and one of the most modest) turns 80 on August 5th. Armstrong has said he thought his work on fly-by-wire control systems for aircraft was a bigger contribution than his lunar landing. He DID make a major contribution to a technology now used by thousands of aircraft the world over, and he should be remembered for that, but nothing will eclipse his calm, professional leadership of the greatest voyage of discovery in modern times.

"The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited." - Neil Armstrong

Monday, August 02, 2010

Origins of the human-animal bond

Pat Shipman, a paleoanthropologist at Penn State University, is trying to figure out why we started keeping animals around and how it affected the evolution of our species. She said, "It takes a very long time to domesticate animals. To actually do it for the motivation of getting food, you'd have to be planning at a ridiculous time depth." There is a companionship value, an affection, that not even the most advanced of apes display as normal behavior (the gorilla Koko and her kitten were newsworthy because they were unusual). There's quite a mystery to be solved here.

COMMENT: I think it was Isaac Asimov who once wrote in a story how intelligent species from different planets could recognize each other: "Only intelligent beings put other beings in cages."

Did the Kepler mission find Earth-like planets?

I hesitated to blog this one for a while because the news seemed to be kind of a mess. News reports and at least one associated scientist said NASA's Kepler orbiting observatory had found hundreds of "Earth-like" planets. That didn't really make sense. Kepler can determine size and orbit, but that's a long way from declaring it Earth-like Out of the muddle comes the correction that "Earth-sized" (less than 3x the diameter of the Earth) was meant. So it's still big news, just not AS big as it seemed.

Newest mammal is from Madagascar

Dr. Darren Naish reports on the world's newest mammal (or, at least, the most recent one to be described). From the marshes near Madagascar's Lake Alaotra comes a mongoose christened Salanoia durrelli Durbin et al., 2010. The animal was first spotted by researchers from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and named for conservationist Gerald Durrell. Naish adds a good discussion of how species are delineated: the new one is very close genetically, to the existing brown-tailed mongoose, but morphological and behavioral evidence is combined with that DNA difference to make the case for a new species.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The fascination of wolves

Why do wolves fascinate us so? A nonfiction article by me on the mystery of wolves (an updated and expanded chapter of my 2006 book Shadows of Existence) was posted, with illustrations by Bill Rebsamen, on paranormal fiction author Lynda Hilburn's blog.