Monday, January 31, 2011

What is a "cryptid," anyway?

"Cryptid" is a word coined by cryptozoologists (no surprise). It refers to any animal which is reported but not confirmed, including never-caught species and presumed-extinct ones. Michael Woodley here examines the use and misuse of the term. He rejects Dr. Charles Paxton's advice, which is that theorizing about cryptids is pointless, and we should use reports, not hypothesized creatures, as the basics for theorizing.
COMMENT: I see Charles' point. For example, cryptozoologists are not really studying a "cryptid" called sasquatch, they are studying reports of large unclassified primate. Sometimes, there is something to be said for focusing the discussion with at least a general outline of a "cryptid," but it's unscientific to name a solution, to the exclusion of other solutions, when there is no animal in hand.
This reminded me of how the late Grover Krantz aimed to spark scientific discussion when he published a paper naming a specific presumed-extinct species, Gigantopithecus blacki, as the source of sasquatch reports. The problem is that he named it based on footprints when we have only teeth and jawbones of Gigantopithecus and no one can say what the feet looked like. Almost no one in the anthropological community accepted such a reach, and it did not do anything to burnish the reputations of cryptozoology in the "mainstream" scientific world, nor the reputation of Krantz (who was a genuine expert with well-respected work in human evolution.) Still, Krantz was never sorry he did it: he thought he achieved his primary objective.

Origin of the Chupacabra

I never thought the chupacabra (that is, the spiny-backed, blood-sucking animal, as opposed to the oddball canids tarred with the same name) was a real animal. It turned up in the 1990s, on an island of all places (Puerto Rico), and real creatures just don't pop out of the ground. There wasn't even any folklore about them before that. Ben Radford here traces the idea of the "goatsucker" to the creature in the movie Species. I'm not sure this is original with Ben, as I seem to recall some cryptozoologists floating it a year or two back, but I do think he's right here.
It was cryptozoologist Loren Coleman who mused that the chupacabra was "cross-cultural, sort of like Jennifer Lopez." This raises the interesting idea of a spiny-backed monster judging American Idol. I'd watch.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Skeptic Visits the Cryptozoology Museum

An enjoyable visit to Loren Coleman's museum by self-proclaimed skeptics who nevertheless think it was a great experience, recommend it to everyone, and even pitch for donations. Um... an important note. That is NOT a life-size replica of a yeti, it's a sasquatch. VERY few even among the cryptozoology community think sasquatch and yeti reports concern the same animal. Skeptics should be more careful about terminology.

Meet the Science Cheerleaders

Is "science cheerleader" a contradiction in terms? Nope. On this site, NBA and NFL cheerleaders are cheering for science policy, science education, and greater involvement in science by students and adult citizens alike. And yes, there are videos of attractive women cheering for science, for those who like that sort of thing. GO TEAM!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The gorilla that walks like a man

All gorillas can walk bipedally a little if they need to. But in England's Kent Zoo, a male named Ambam apparently decided this bipedal thing was really cool. He has become a very popular exhibit because a human-like walk has become normal for him. With their short legs, gorillas are not going to do any long-distance running, but it's speculated that Ambam liked having the vantage point to see things before his fellow gorillas - a keeper approaching with food for example.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A one-fingered dinosaur?

Yep. A very small dino from China has stubby little arms (stubbier and littler, in proportion, than T. rex arms) with a single finger on each hand. It may have dug up terminite mounds with its long digits. Linhenykus monodactylus died out with the rest of the dinos at the end of the Cretaceous period - unless it died of embarassment amid the laughter of other dinosaurs first.
COMMENT: Seriously, the thing looks ridiculous. The platypus has more dignity.

New jelly species: the "Pink Meanie?"

The jellies, or sea jellies (or jellyfish, a term marine biologists have tried to banish without success) include an astonishing variety of forms, from animals that can hardly be seen at all to species three meters across. The new species found off Florida, Drymonema larsoni, is so different from its nearest kin that a new family had to be created. (Different due to "allometric growth of the bell margin distal of the rhopalia, an annular zone of tentacles on the subumbrella, and ontogenetic loss of gastric filaments," if you want to know.) It was nicknamed the "Pink Meanie" for its unusual diet: other jellyfish. And this species is huge, up to a meter across. Not a creature to mess with.

Puzzle: Hybrid minke whale

Sometimes closely related species (and even some non-closely related ones) hybridize successfully. But here's a puzzle: hybridization of species from opposite ends of the Earth. How does a northern minke whale even meet an Antarctic type? The two both venture to equatorial waters, but six months apart (their respective winter seasons). So someone's migration time was drastically off. We don;t know why. This article also asks whether the hybrid found in 2007 was a fluke (get it?) or part of a trend. Again: we don't know.

NASA Remembers

Tomorrow is NASA's Day of Remembrance, when the astronauts of Columbia, Challenger, And Apollo 1 are honored.

I wrote this one year after Columbia:

Columbia: Per Ardua ad Astra

One year ago….

Waking on a clear weekend morning here in Colorado, casually logging on to check my Email, seeing the AOL banner, "NASA Loses Contact With Columbia." Turning on CNN. Watching more CNN. Explaining it to my daughter, then 11. Wondering how it had happened, what it would mean.
A year later, the technical answers are out. The human answers, as always, are not simple. They drift out in fragments over the course of history, debated, challenged, finally settling but never quite settled.
Worth it? Of course it was not, in any logical sense, worth losing seven people for a science mission whose returns would not have been of great importance. Death, as Ulysses S. Grant once said of war, "is cruelty and you cannot refine it." Nor can you romanticize it. Nor, when there gross errors in judgment made, can you excuse it.
I submit, however, that any calculation about the worthiness or foolishness of the voyage is incomplete, nay, unfair, unless it takes into account the desires and motivations of the voyagers. The seven people on Columbia did not just accept the risk of venturing, in a craft built by fallible humans, into the most hostile realm we know. They sought the risk. They spent years training, competing, and sometimes demanding the right to take the risk. Whatever judgments we might make on the costs vs. the returns of their efforts as explorers, the explorers themselves had no doubts. Every one of them was a bright, accomplished, highly educated human being. Not one was foolish enough to think there was no risk, or low risk. Not one hesitated. Indeed, they did everything they possibly could to qualify themselves to stand out among their peers and earn the chance to risk their lives in a cause they deemed worthy.
By that standard alone, they were the best our species had to offer. They were sent forth into the last unknown ocean, explorers in an age when most people in their society place high value on safety, comfort, and surety.

Godspeed, Columbia.

Matt Bille

Monday, January 24, 2011

Follow the Whale

At this link from Oregon State University, you can follow the path of Flex, a radio-tagged Pacific gray whale. What is interesting about Flex is that he's following a migration route never before documented for his species. What is he up to in the northernmost reaches of the Pacific?

Newest wild cat is actually TWO wild cats

Until 2007, the beautiful clouded leopard was believed to consist of one species (Neofelis nebulosa). In that year, scientists showed the species living on Borneo and Sumatra was distinct, and it received a new scientific name (Neofelis diardi). It is so little known the first video was released only in 2010. Now the species needs to be split again, as further study has shown the cat known as the "Sunda clouded leopard," is two cats. The Sumatran and Bornean populations, it turns out, are also distinct. The more we learn, the more we learn there is to know...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alien hand syndrome (for real)

Alien hand syndrome sounds like bad fiction, but it's difficult reality for a New Jersey woman whose left and right hands often act in opposition to each other, without her conscious intent. Her left hand has even punched her. It seems her brain hemispheres are not operating together. They are competing for dominance.

Cold fusion returns?

Italian researchers claim they have gone beyond the original (and much criticized) experiments in cold fusion (often called low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR). They not only have produced cold fusion, but have a marketable product that produces 31 times the energy fed into it.
They made the claim at a press conference after their paper was rejected by a journal and their patent was rejected by the Italian government. The chief complaint is that they can't explain the mechanism by which the LENR are produced. Do they really have something, or is this another dead end?
COMMENT: I hope they have something real, but I'm waiting for an independent verdict.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Giant new crayfish from Tennessee

Important new species are everywhere. That's something I've harped on in this blog since the beginning. Now a really surprising one has literally crawled out from under a rock in Tennessee. (Someone else has already used that line, but I don't care.) Hiding in freshwater stream beds is a crayfish twice the size of known species. That's still only 12.5 cm long, but it's pretty amazing no one has ever noticed a crayfish that should stand out from its fellow appetizers. Never stop looking!

Lake of Mystery

A note on Antarctica's huge, deeply buried Lake Vostok. Russian researchers are drilling (it's summer down there) the first borehole to sample the lake's waters. They expect to find new species -not, unfortunately, the dinosaurs of popular imagination, but a new ecosystem on the one-celled level. It's potentially exciting and important stuff.

Microspace News: Nanosail-D deploys!

The little solar sail that could has not only come back from its presumed demise, but has deployed its 100-square-foot sail. It's the first solar sail deployed in LEO (there have been failures, and Japan's IKAROS is testing one out on its trip to Venus.) It's a step forward for a promising technology and for the use of tiny satellites to carry out important testing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The animals we've lost

A photo essay on ten animals believed lost in the last decade: two amphibians, three mammals, and five birds. Farewell to the Pyrenean ibex (subject of an attempted cloning procedure), the colorful Spix's macaw, Holdridge's toad, and too many more.

New Zealand's butterfly man

Collecting butterflies is a hobby for some - an obsession for others. This charming article tells the story of a man who has made over 3,000 collecting trips, 20 of them to other nations, and netted over 200 new species.

Microsat News: NanoSail-D suddenly turns up

NanoSail-D, a Cubesat-based nanosatellite carrying a solar sail experiment, was written off after it failed to eject from NASA's FASTSAT after launch last month. Yesterday, it suddenly ejected. Engineers are unsure of what happened here, but are now hoping the experiment will "wake" and start sending data. Help is being sought from the global amateur radio community in the search for signals.
The NASA release says:
"The NanoSail-D science team is hopeful the nanosatellite is healthy and can complete its solar sail mission. After ejection, a timer within NanoSail-D begins a three-day countdown as the satellite orbits the Earth. Once the timer reaches zero, four booms will quickly deploy and the NanoSail-D sail will start to unfold to a 100-square-foot polymer sail. Within five seconds the sail fully unfurls."

COMMENT: Solar sail experiments are on a very unlucky streak. Fingers crossed.

Microspace News: Kedr microsat celebrates Gagarin

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight. One of the first events in the celebration of this half-century of achievement is the launch of the 30-kg microsat Kedr. Named for Yuri Gagarin's call sign, the microsat will go up on the next Progress craft to the International Space Station. A cosmonaut will hand-launch it from there. It will broadcast greetings in 15 languages, using the ham frequency of 145.95 MHz.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Revisiting the yeti

Teisha Rowland's Biology Bytes column (I'm no longer sure of the difference between a column and a blog) gives a brief survey of the history of the yeti. Rowland is clearly skeptical that there's anything stomping around in the mountains, and sasquatch partisans will object to her quick dismissal of that animal. Rowland thinks many yeti sightings and reports can be laid to other Himalayan wildlife, and her point is that we should not overlook conserving the known in our speculations about the unknown.

Drilling for hobbit DNA

Anthropologists would love to have the DNA of the "hobbit," Homo floresiensis, but the 18,000-year old bones have not yielded up their secrets. Two earlier attempts to recover the hobbit's genome have failed, but new sampling techniques and a premolar tooth that's been kept in cold storage may mean the third time is the charm.

Monday, January 17, 2011

James Hansen: not the best spokesman for science

OK, NASA's James Hansen is the most famous of climatologists. Whether you think he's right or wrong on climate change, though, his government position is giving him the platform to spew rants that democracy is the problem and the Chinese style of dictatorship is the answer (never mind millions of people murdered, eh? And you didn't visit Tibet, I'll bet) for the world's future.
Nobody cares what I think, but, Hey, Doc? You're an ass. Climate change needs to find a spokesman who is at least rational.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Vatican reconciles God and the Big Bang

Dan Brown's novelistic version of Catholicism vs science is falsehood piled on fabrication, but it's true enough that the two don't exactly agree on everything. Pope Benedict is the latest to try to bridge the gap. Echoing something his predecessor once said to Stephen Hawking, Benedict said there was no problem with the Big Bang (which was proposed by a Catholic priest in 1927, BTW) but that before a universe described by physical laws burst into being, the Creator had shaped the moment. Some physicists argue that there simply could not be a "before" the big bang: the concept is meaningless. That's not much easier to get your head around than a supernatural Creator, is it?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

One of rarest cats rediscovered

The Bornean Bay Cat (Catopuma badia) is one of the world's beautiful "small cats." It's also, after a photograph in 2003, unseen, endangered, and possibly extinct.
It's back.
As Loren Coleman reports here, only twelve specimens have ever been collected, and the first live specimen was not caught until 1992. There are none in captivity now. But just-released photographs have confirmed the cat is, at least, alive. Hopefully they will give a boost to conservation efforts.

US shuts down its most powerful collider

The Large Hadron Collider has been in the news as physicists search for the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the "God particle," a theorized building block of the universe. The Tevatron in the U.S., wile less powerful, is America's pre-eminent physics instrument and also has a chance to discover the Higgs (a sure Nobel Prize event). Now we're shutting it down. Budget cuts.
COMMENT: We can, it seems, no longer afford our leadership in science and technology. Just one citizen's depressed opinion.

Evocative video of what space exploration is about

Not made by NASA: made by someone who wants the agency to recapture the wonder. You have to see it.

Preserving Antarctic exploration history

Antarctic exploration captivated the world a century ago the way space endeavors do today.Robert Falcon Scott left for the South Pole in 1910 and never returned. I did not know this bit from the BBC, republished by Keith Cowing on NASAWatch:

"In 1910 Scott relied heavily on school children to fund his expedition, with schools sponsoring a sledge dog or set of skis, in return for the honour of having their name transported to the very bottom of the world."

Now school children are among the donors for an effort to preserve Scott's historic hut. The United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) raised £3.5m to ensure the preservation of the hut and associated artifacts.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thunderstorms shoot out antimatter (believe it or not)

A lighting associated phenomenon in thunderstorms, called a terrestrial gamma ray flash, results in beams of antimatter shooting into space. The phenomenon was discovered by NASA's Fermi satellite.
Tell me if NASA's release sounds like science fiction: "On Dec. 14, 2009, while NASA's Fermi flew over Egypt, the spacecraft intercepted a particle beam from a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF) that occurred over its horizon. Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor detected the signal of positrons annihilating on the spacecraft -- not once, but twice. After passing Fermi, some of the particles reflected off of a magnetic "mirror" point and returned."
COMMENT: You know, sometimes even I'm at a loss for words.

Hubble studies giant green blob

Get a load of the strange glob of gas now under scrutiny by the Hubble Space Telescope. (picture at title link.)
This was another amateur discovery: Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch teacher, found it while participating in an online galaxy-classification program called Galaxy Zoo. The bizarre stellar gas cloud is so weird it's simply known as Hanny's Voorwerp (Dutch for Hanny's Object). It looks rather like one of those unclassified interstellar phenomena that the crew of Star Trek:TNG seemed to run into about every other week.
"Look at the heavens, and never cease to wonder..." (me)

The Shuttle tank struggle

NASA has announced it will install a new set of stringers in the affected area of the shuttle Discovery External Tank (ET) to take the load off suspect ones. I really didn't like this when I read it: I would have said take the stack apart, install the next available tank, and send this one back to the manufacturer to be overhauled. However, NASAWatch's Keith Cowing publishes a comment from former Shuttle manager Wayne Hale that explains the rationale:
"...until root cause is understood, all the remaining tanks are suspect; going to the next tank in line would likely have the same condition. Understanding the cause and fixing all the remaining tanks is required. Second, this is hardly a hurry up launch fever situation. The shuttle team is methodically working through the problem. They have delayed the launch from early November repeatedly because the solution is not in hand. They are exercising very good judgment and not rushing. Working through difficult engineering problems can be painful to watch, but my observation is that they are doing what is prudent and proper."

Good luck, guys.

The vampire tree frog (fun new species from Vietnam)

The vampire tree frog, like some others of its type, can glide a bit between branches using its splayed-open feet and the membranes between its toes. What gives it the name, though, is the large black fangs that adorn the tadpoles. Does Vietnam make horror movies?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Russian architect's interesting "Ark"

Russian architect Alexander Remizov has a unique new idea for "green" buildings. It doesn't look like a building at all. Instead, what he call the Ark looks like a partly unfolded, plastic-covered Slinky, or maybe a section of vacuum hose. It uses the latest tech, including wind power and transparent solar panels, to be efficient, but he says it doesn't need any unusual structural materials. They could be built large enough to house 10,000 people.
COMMENT: Unknown is whether anyone will finance a test of the idea. I hope someone does, at least for a small-scale trial. The idea that anyone could come up with a really new idea for a building is a little startling if you think about the millennia humans have been building stuff. Green construction is usually based on modifying longstanding ideas: this guy might have come up with the most radical notion since the geodesic dome.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Journal publishes high school papers

The Concord Review is a unique journal: it publishes outstanding history research papers by high school students. Publisher William Fitzhugh created the Review and keeps it going on subscriptions, donations, and his own money. He publishes the top research papers sent to him from all over the world. One problem: fewer teachers in the U.S. are assigning research papers. Fitzhugh says, “Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace. Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.”
COMMENT: I salute you, sir!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Are we part Neanderthal after all?

The last study I blogged about on this topic said humans and Neanderthals didn't interbreed. Well, anthropological paradigms never seem to last very long. Comparing the human and Neanderthal genomes, the researchers quoted here reported we moderns have a minimum of one to four perceent Neanderthal DNA, and it could be higher. It brings up countless questions: why did these two types mate? When? Where? Was it consensual? (Distasteful, but you have to ask - humans in conflict tend to do very nasty things to each other.) And how did Neanderthal DNA end up all over the ancient world, including places like China where Neanderthals, as far as we know, never existed? And is there still an argument for separate species, or does having 99.7% identical DNA mean there's no doubt any longer? There's a lot more research coming on this one, I'm sure.

Thanks to Dale Drinnon for calling my attention to this article.

Friday, January 07, 2011

New life exposed in Antarctica?

A huge large chunk of ice has broken off the Antarctic mass, and Australian biologists see opportunity. (In this case, it has nothing to do with climate change, by the way.) An expedition is going after new species that may have been exposed for the first time after a major change in the ice cover. A collision between ice masses broke off a chunk 40x80 km. Now, as one scientist puts it, The calving of the iceberg has exposed parts of the seabed that haven't been available to us for study in our lifetimes. So we just don't know what we'll see under there - they've been buried under 400 metres of ice for the last 80 years or so."

Turkish scientists find 21 new aquatic species

As a reminder that discoveries are made all over the world, this account covers a fish a cave shrimp, and 19 other animals described by the Water Products Faculty at Ege University in Turkey. According to Dr. Ă–zdemir Egemen, "I believe there are many other species waiting to be discovered. Our country is among an elite few countries in terms of richness in underwater life.”

COMMENT: I do wonder about the translation at one point in this story. It says they found "seven aquatic reptiles." Turtles, perhaps, or maybe it meant "amphibians?"

Lessons from the Black-Footed Ferret

The Futures Channel offers science and math lessons for gradeschool kids based on compelling real-world examples. In this case, it's the recovery of the black-footed ferret. Not only does it have lots of pictures of an incredibly cute animal, but it explains how the species came back from the brink of extinction (indeed, it was presumed to BE extinct twice), but leads into math and science problems as students consider the population growth, variables involved in recovery, etc. Great stuff!

A couple more examples:

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Stories I love: Amateur finds planets

Peter Jalowiczor isn't an astronomer - just a British utility worker with dedication and ingenuity. Using two personal computers to chunk through four years of information collected and released by the University of California's Lick-Carnegie Planet Search Team in faraway California.
The result: Four new exoplanets have been discovered. As he explains the technique:
"I look for faint changes in stars' behaviors that can only be caused by a planet or planets orbiting about them. Once I identify likely candidates, I send the details back to Santa Cruz."
COMMENT: Even in the high-tech world, the amateur explorer still matters.

Solving the spacecraft blackout

If you've studied space flight, or just watched Apollo 13, you know the scary moment when the plasma sheath around a reentering space craft cuts off all radio communications for three or four minutes.Aleksandr Korotkevich of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics in Moscow, though, thinks he can solve it. The trick is to turn the plasma sheath, which reflects away from of the RF energy but also absorbs some of it, into a giant antenna. No one knows if it will work until it's tried with an actual spacecraft, laboratory simulations notwithstanding, but it's very clever and just might solve a big problem.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sumptuous early book on marine creatures (mermaid included)

Louis Renard's 1718 book on the sea creatures of the East Indies, according to this book-lover's blog, is remarkable in several ways. It's beautiful: it's extremely rare: and there's a lot of license taken in the illustration of creatures the author never saw. Renard advertised the book as showing creatures drawn from life, including the mermaid. His mermaid is actually kind of interesting, as it shows a much longer fishlike body and tail than normal (there's a little of the oarfish about it, albeit not an accurate oarfish.) Anyway, enjoy the illustrations.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Plenty of new dinosaurs, too

It's not just living species that keep turning up. We're still learning about dinosaurs, too. Scientists in Utah named eight species in an amazing year for paleontology. My favorite name: Seitaad ruessi. Apparently "Seit'aad" is a desert-dwelling monster in Navajo folklore. It's an early sauropod, ancestor to famous beasts like Brachiosuarus, and was found in a sandy area where no one would normally look for dinos.

Two species of African elephant

This debate has been going on for a long time, but maybe this will settle it. A new paper in PLoS Biology argues the savanna and forest elephants of Africa are different species. Indeed, they diverged millions of years ago. They do still interbreed, though. And although researcher David Reich said, "We'll need to rewrite some basic biology textbooks," I don't think the more controversial pygmy elephant has ever really gotten a fair hearing despite pretty good evidence.

Astrobiology at Yellowstone Park

Here's a really cool little online guidebook from the University of Montana on the study of "extremophiles" in the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone and the insights they give us into possible life on other worlds. Extremophiles in general are fascinating, and they've done a good job here of explaining their significance.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

What Cable TV really needs

There seems to be no end of TV shows on ghosts, cryptozoology, and other "phenomena" that say, "Let's see what's out there." (I argue cryptozoology does not belong with the other topics, since it deals with falsifiable hypotheses and is therefore a real science when done right, but the point of this post is the same whether it's ESP or Bigfoot.)
What we need is a show that examines these topics in depth, not just breadth. How could certain things happen? Is the science plausible? If the science isn't plausible, are people reporting things that aren't there? What's the science behind that? Psychology? If we're looking at a creature, what's a plausible food web like? What species might be its ancestors, and how has the whole line remained hidden? Some shows do a good job with particular bits of evidence, like the way MonsterQuest got an expert to look at the MacFarlane's Bear remains, but there's no show that goes deeply into the science, psychology, and sociology of the paranormal. If you have to postulate a supernatural explanation (I don't claim there can't be such a thing), is the evidence so overwhelming that no other option will do?
I don't know how you fund a show like that, but there are hard science series on astronomy and nature that get done. We need one that really looks deeply, with objectivity and open debate among experts, at the "fringe" topics.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Not out of Africa?

It's been pretty close to an article of faith among scientist that the anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humans) first emergent in Africa. But fossils showing three primate families inhabited Libya 39MYA are being interpreted as indicating the primates may have been busily evolving elsewhere before this point and then moved into Africa - where they eventually produced humans. Christopher Beard, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History , points to a paucity of earlier African primate fossils and thinks these primates came from Eurasia and thrived on the new continent.
Beard has previously made this proposal on different evidence, the discovery in 2005 of a primate called Ganlea megacanina in Myanmar:

COMMENT: I'm not about to weigh in on whether Dr. Beard is right, but this does remind us how much is still to be learned about primate ancestry.

Listing all those plants

American and British botanists have compiled a global list of land plants - all 300,000 known species. It's the most complete survey ever undertaken. Clearing out a mass of taxonomic underbrush built up over centuries, they determined which names were valid and threw out 480,000 duplicate names. Knowing what plant is what and which ones are where is a very big deal, not just for botany, but for plant-based pharmacology and for conservation. Now they are at work naming those plants which have been documented but never properly named. As one researcher noted, this is complicated because people in the field are always bringing in new plants - even trees!

Four more cracks on Discovery's tank

The NASA and contractor engineers who have been crawling over the External Tank (ET) for the shuttle Discovery have good and bad news. Good: The cracks that postponed the shuttle's launch have been fixed and the area strengthened. Bad news: there are four new cracks (or previously undiscovered ones) on the other side of the tank. The latest (February 3) launch date may or may not be practical. What is unnerving is that they're not sure of the root cause of the cracks. Fingers crossed guys, and MAKE SURE it's good to go.