Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meet Mireya Mayor

I wrote about Dr. Mayor in Shadows of Existence because of her lemur discoveries on Madagascar. Since then the "female Steve Irwin" (she doesn't mind the nickname) has pursued animals all over the world, including Africa, South America, and even the fringes of American cities. Mayor will do whatever it takes to study rare species in the remotest regions of the world. And she likes some very unloved animals, like tarantulas. Girls looking for a science role model could hardly do better.

Great painting of the biggest flyer of all time

Calling it "Big Bird Goes Postal," the fellow who styles himself "The Optimisitc Painter" has produced a great concept of the biggest flying creature ever. He writes, "Quetzalcoatlus is a Pterosaur, and so far as we know, the largest animal known to have flown. Once you start imagining something as tall as a giraffe with the wing span of a Cessna flying about it begins to boggle the mind." He based it on Dr. Darren Naish's paper with Mark Witton that argued pterosaurs did not swoop down and snatch up prey but walked most of the time like colossal land-based storks.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

HOW much to catalog species?

Two researchers at the Universidad de Sao Paulo in Brazil have produced an estimate of how much it will cost to find and classify every one of the estimated 5.4 million species still uncatalogued. The number: $263B, including the cost to train more taxonomists. (Despite my interest in living things, I can't help thinking people who spend their time trying to differentiate all those near-identical tropical beetles have the most mind-numbing job on the planet. I salute their perseverance).

New beetle named for T.R.

From an Arizona State University press release: "A new species of a rugged darkling beetle – Stenomorpha roosevelti – was named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt on the 100th anniversary of a speech he gave at Tempe Normal School, now Arizona State University."

How do new species arise?

Biologists have been working on this question forever. (Darwin, despite the title of his book, really didn't nail it down). Now the computer geeks are having a go at it. Network theory indicates geographically localized mating increases diversity, but this works against assortative mating (mating with genetically similar individuals). This clash of forces fragments species into new ones. It's a lot more complicated than that, but this is an interesting insight.

Iran claims it built flying saucer

Seriously. Iran says it has a flying saucer. The government claims the unmanned Zohal (Saturn) was made for 'aerial imaging.' Why a flying saucer? Why illustrate it with what looks like a pasteup photo from the 1950s? Who knows? It's just nice to have some news from that part of the world that's not totally depressing.

First photo of Mercury from orbit

NASA's MESSENGER probe has sent back the first photograph of the planet from a spacecraft in its orbit. It's not the most interesting landscape, from the layman's point of view. (The large crater dominating the photo is named Debussy.) From the planetary geologist's point of view, though, this is a treasure trove, just the beginning of the data they expect on our most enigmatic planet.

History Files: Was the Civil War Inevitable?

There are Americans who think the Civil War was avoidable, or even imposed by the North. This new book is the latest to make the claim. I dabble as a historian when I'm not dabbling as a science writer, and I can't visualize how events could realistically have unfolded other than they did.
In 1861, the Southern states would not yield on the right to bring slaves into Federal territories, as per the Dred Scott decision, and the nation had just elected a President and a Congressional majority that, while not posed to outlaw slavery where it existed, had promised not to permit slavery in the territories. Well-meaning suggestions like the Crittenden Compromise were built on air: while issues of federalism, states' rights, etc. stoked the flames of the war, the extension of slavery was a central point on which neither side would compromise. (Don't read what Confederate leaders wrote after the war insisting slavery was a side issue: read what they said and wrote in 1861, when they were adamant it was THE issue.) Most Yankee soldiers joined the army to preserve the Union, and most Confederates to fight for for states' rights and independence, but everything except the extension of slavery could have been compromised on.) My point is that we need to be very careful in revising history: such action is sometimes justified, but not here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

This book looks fascinating

Definitely at the top of my list; The Species Seekers. Will write a review when I have gotten my hands on it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Future tech - what's real?

Physicist Michio Kaku has a cool job. When he's not working on string theory, he's on the Discovery Channel predicting the future of technology. Internet in your contact lenses? Yes. Longer lifespans? Cloning of extinct animals? Yes and yes. Warp drive. Too bad about that one....His new book looks good, though.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book review: The Great White Bear

The Great White Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear
by Kieran Mulvaney
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

If Richard Ellis (author of On Thin Ice) is the polar bear's biographer, Kieran Mulvaney is its Eyewitness News reporter, making us feel as though we're watching the bear's life cycle closeup. Mulvaney threads the life story of a particular bear (initially a pair of siblings) through an adventure combining his own first-person experiences with interesting bits of polar bear lore through the centuries. Everything from Arctic exploration to the science of ice formation comes into play to fill out the picture.
I thought I was well-read on this animal, but Mulvaney shoots down some things I thought were true, such as the idea the bears hide their black noses with paws or an ice block when stalking a seal. He provides some striking incidents from recent bear studies: I had no idea a hungry bear would smash the roof of a den to commit cannibalism, or that there was an incident where a bear used an ice block as a tool to either bash open a seal's refuge or actually brain the seal (no one is sure which). Mulvaney thinks the bear is in major trouble from climate change: it's too much of a specialist to adapt to changing conditions the way a generalist species like the brown bear could.

If you want to know this unique predator better, pick up this book.

NASA, in hard times, forced to waste money

Remember the Constellation program for new rockets? It was canceled last year. But NASA is still spending $1.4M a day on it because Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) has successfully inserted language in the Continuing Resolutions being used to fund the government in the absense of a FY11 budget saying the agency has to keep spending oin the program at 2010 levels. The irony here is that most of the money doesn't even end up in Shelby's state (home of the Marshall Space Flight Center) but in Utah, where solid fuel booster maker ATK has its headquarters.
A check of Senator Shelby's website shows no references to Constellation dated later than November 2010.

Texas find pushes back dates of first Americans

For a very long time, archaeologists were certain the first settlers arrived in North America 10-12,000 years ago. Recent finds have made that untenable, pushing the date back to some 14,000 years BP (before present). New finds from Texas include stone tools from a soil layer 1.5m below that left by Clovis people 13,000 BP. The archaeologists reported the tools could be 13.5 to 15 thousand years old. They claim to have been very careful in watching for any indications sediments became mixed or overturned with time. If they are right, it pushes the migration further back, since the people who first came across the Bering Sea "land bridge" presumably needed hundreds or thousands of years to spread as far as Texas.
COMMENT: Remember the scene from the first X-Files movie allegedly set in Texas 37,000 years ago? Still fanciful, but not AS fanciful as we thought.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Attack of the giant rabbit

Yep. On the island of Minorca (off Spain) there was once a giant bunny. Now 12kg is not enormous for a mammal in general, but it is for a rabbit (they average 2 kg). One of the downers in this fluffy bit of news is that you might not recognize the animal as a rabbit. It didn't hop and apparently had small ears. (That reminds me a bit of the largest of the rodents, the capybara, with small ears relative to its size when compared to rats and mice). But this is a reminder that animals are not bound to appear the way we think they should! The wonderfully named Nuralagus rex, (roughly, "Minorcan king rabbit"), died out about three million years ago.

El Chupacabra - not much mystery left

I never paid much attention to the chupacabra business. My main objection was that no one ever heard of the darn thing until the 1990s, and animals don't just appear out of nowhere on a populated (and long-inhabited) island like Puerto Rico.
Benjamin Radford doubts pretty much all the animals of cryptozoology, and sometimes I think he's too quick to close a file. But I'm with him on this one. Critters labeled chupacabra involve what you might call Type 1 (odd-looking canids) and Type 2 weird-looking predators with spines down their backs. Radford attributes Type 1 to oddball, often diseased canids, and Type 2 to the movie Species. He may be two for two here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sensational claims about fatal Soviet mission

If NPR thinks this is journalism, they DESERVE to be defunded.

There are still mysteries about the old Soviet space program, which was wrapped in secrecy and presented to the world as a monolithic, smoothly functioning machine rather than the pioneering but messy effort it really was. Sill, the claims in this article, reported apparently without caution or fact-checking, are extreme. Komarov's fatal Soyuz 1 mission was risky and ended in tragedy, but here it's presented as murder, or suicide depending how you read it.
"Everyone knew the mission would fail?" Come on. There's no real evidence for this or the other claims. (Another historian has pointed out that the sound clip offered on this site seems like a splice of three different transmissions. The article says only Komarov's heelbone was found: and then shows a shot of a charred body in a coffin. It gets worse from there.
My own opinion as a space historian: this is nonsense.
(Reminder as usual- All opinions represent only the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen)

An orgy of trilobites (really)

Four hundred million years ago, trilobites were a spectacularly successful group whose hard shells have fossilized in the billions. We now know that they molted, changing shells as they grew, and that the molting period was the perfect time to get together with the opposite sex. Fossil aggregations show that gigantic numbers of trilobites gathered and simultaneously molted and then, well, went at at each other. One paleontologist explained, "We find trilobite beds that we can trace across distances of 80 miles (130 kilometers), all the effect of a single event. The numbers of individuals caught in those must easily be in the billions." So essentially they tossed off their "clothes" and engaged in the largest crustacean orgy in all of history.

Can LHC send matter back in time?

Tom Weiler of Vanderbilt University says, "Our theory is a long shot, but it doesn't violate any laws of physics or experimental constraints." What theory is this? That when the LHC produces the long-sought Higgs boson, it will also produce a companion particle, the Higgs singlet. Weiler will watch for evidence that Higgs singlets and their decay products appear at the same time, which would mean the decay products are produced by singlets which "travel back in time to appear before the collisions that produced them." M theory, the current version of string theory, says that Higgs singlets should be affected by gravity but not by any other force - meaning they could move in time.
COMMENT: OK, it's not Admiral Kirk going back to the 20th century to save the whales. But the point is this may show time is not a relentless one-way arrow. It may have exceptions. And who knows where that insight may lead in the future?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How big can a bat get?

Dr. Darren Naish posted a Tetrapod Zoology blog on the vesper bats (Vespertilionidae), which make up some 410 of the 1,110 known species of bats. (New species are still cropping up.) Anyway, that led to an interesting series of expert comments on the question of why bats are not bigger than they are. Some of the "flying fox" fruit-eaters may have wingspans of 1.8m, and there have always been claims, though without supporting evidence, of larger ones. Naturalists Ivan Sanderson and Gerald Russell, along with two African helpers, saw a specimen twice in one day that they estimated was 4m. Is that practical?
These comments postulate a number of reasons, including thermoregulation, nutrition, and the physics of echolocation, why bigger bats than 1.8m might not work, although it seems to me there is room for argument. I don't expect we'll ever see a plane-sized bat, though. As I commented on Naish's thread, "There has to be a structural limit to each type of animal wing just like there is to each type of airplane wing (over a certain size, you have to add more spars, different construction methods, stronger and lighter materials, etc., and this is easier to solve with fixed wings than with flapping wings). If pterosaurs could get to 10m+ with a wing that seemed less well supported and braced than that of bats, though, I always wondered why bats didn't get bigger."

Friday, March 18, 2011

NASA Planetary Science: the outlook is gloomy

NASA planetary scientists are not very cheerful. The James Webb Space Telescope and Mars Science Lander are far over budget, sucking money from other programs. There is unlikely to even be a Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget, just a Continuing Resolution that allows spending at the FY10 level. What's worse, though, is that the budget for FY12 and beyond - even if fully funded to the President's current proposal - reduces science mission funding over the next five years. Cornell University's Steve Squyres puts is bluntly: "If that budget were actually implemented, it would mean the end of flagship class science at NASA in the planetary program." The Administration's proposal gives almost $1.5B to NASA's planetary science division in FY12 but less than $1.2B for FY16.
COMMENT: The debate between human and robotic spaceflight in terms of major NASA missions, may be over: we will have neither. Maybe that's an exaggeration, and there's more to space than NASA, but let's hope Congress decides this budget is not what the American people want.
(Opinions, as always, are strictly those of the author as a private citizen.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The future of nanosatellites/microsatellites?

I had a paper accepted for the Conference on Small Satellites this coming August. I'm inviting comment and speculation.

We've seen spacecraft for some uses shrink considerably, to the point where 1-kg CubeSats can do useful science. The military, through the TacSat and ORS programs, is flying relatively small (<400 kg) craft with multispectral imaging and other high-tech capabilities, while Army SMDC has put up its own communications nanosatellite. Computers on chips, carbon nanotubes, etc. have already brought dramatic breakthroughs. What's in the future, 10-30 yearsdown the road? Cooperating swarms, ever-tinier spacecraft, deep-space micro-constellations, or things we haven't even put on drawing boards yet?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What makes an animal a pet?

Turns out it's not just close association with humans tat makes a species a good pet. It's a long period of acclimation and breeding that actually puts companionship in the genes. Biologist Dmitry Belyaev and his colleagues have compressed thousands of years of such evolution into decades, producing foxes that "naturally" love human company. This is more than just domestication, too. Geneticist Greger Larson says that while "domestication" "implies something top down, something that humans did intentionally...the complex story is so much more interesting."

Is this Atlantis?

It was hard to write that headline. I never took Atlantis seriously. The ONLY historical source was the two dialogues by Plato, who never even claimed he was reporting actual history.
But here we are in Spain, using advanced technology to map sites of circular communities that at least resemble the classical description, although far smaller. Were they built by people who remembered Atlantis after a tsunami inundated the original site? That's one idea.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

And Discovery is home

The first Shuttle orbiter to be retired, Discovery, is home. After 39 missions totaling roughly a year in space, Discovery touched down from its final two-week trip precisely 17 seconds behind schedule (Late-night wits asked the airlines to take a lesson here). There are 148,221,675 miles on the craft, which NASA reports is in excellent condition (a reminder that the two orbiters lost in flight were not worn out and their tragedies were due more to human error than anything else). The orbiters Endeavour and Atlantis have one more mission each. NASA's procedures for draining, decontaminating, and otherwise preparing an orbiter for a museum will take two months for each craft.
COMMENT: I wanted at least one more mission, taking up the human centrifuge (NASA did get one added to take up the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer). The centrifuge, intended to support one of the main jsutifications of the ISS by researching the long-term effects of space on humans, is an expensive piece of scientific hardware that will sit on Earth until someday being scrapped.

First new seabird in 89 years

New birds keep turning up at a rate of two or three a year. But there have been no new seabirds for 89 years. Now ornithologist Peter Harrison and his colleagues report there is one. It's a small black and white storm petrel from Chile, near the seaside town of Puerto Montt. Harrison notes that Charles Darwin sailed along this coast and never noticed the bird. The population is estimated in the thousands: people have seen the birds for centuries, it appears, without taking a close look.

New genus of stingray discovered

This is new species day here at the sci/tech blog, and here's a cool one: Canadian professor Nathan Lovejoy and his co-authors have described a new genus of stingray, with two new species, from the upper Amazon. The genus Heliotrygon is the first new genus of stingray form the Amazon basin, a region known for hundreds of new fish in recent years, in over two decades. The new type is distinguished by "large size, pancake-like appearance, having a distinct pattern of lateral line canals on the ventral surface and a degenerate spine" (meaning both new species are stingrays without stings). Length is up to 0.5m.

New species of "jaguar catfish"

Remember the film The Life Aquatic, with its man-killing "jaguar shark?" Well, that does not exist, but we do have jaguar catfish showing patterns like the big cat. The newest species comes from the Amazon, where is has been christened Stenolicnus ix - "ix" being a Mayan term describing a jaguar. OK, there were no Mayans in South America, but it's a cool choice anyway.

New species of "zombie-making" fungus found

Four new species of the weirdest life-form on Earth (and that is saying something, as this blog regularly visits truly weird ones) have been described from the rain forests of Brazil. The zombie fungus infects an ant and forces it to do the fungus' bidding, in effect. The fungus is not just a parasite: it takes over, and the ant leaves its nest to climb up on a plant and lock in place while the fungus grows a stalk from the ant's head that releases more spores to infect more ants. (A human-controlling version was featured in TV's The X-Files.) Scientists don't know how it works, and the degree of symbiosis involved is astonishing. How did the fungus ever develop a life cycle based on controlling another species chemically?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

American lion wasn't a lion

Panthera atrox is known as the American lion, a fearsome Ice Age predator even larger and scarier than the modern African lion. It could weigh 350kg. (I saw the fossils once in a California museum, and just say I don't want one for a pet.) The affinity between the two felines has always been considered so close that some specialists call the extinct type Panthera leo atrox. A new study has overturned this classification. It turns out the ancient "lion" comes from a line distinct from all the modern big cats. The animal is closest to the jaguar Panthera onca. Being a giant jaguar, though, isn't any less impressive.

Unique name for a new beetle species

From the pacific island of New Caledonia comes Arsipoda geographica - the first species named for a magazine (as far as I know). Entomologists are, well, swarming over the island, which has a very diverse insect fauna including some ancient lineages going back to when the island was part of a supercontinent.

Microfossils, major arguments

This business with Richard Hoover and the reported microfossils in meteorites ... well, just say the meteors are flying thick and fast. Most of the experts who have weighed in think what he has reported are either natural formations or the remains of Earth bacteria that contaminated the samples. Hoover insists he took extreme measures to avoid such contamination, but that's not really the story now. The technical aspects have gotten lost in arguments about qualifications, peer review, the online journal involved, etc., etc. It's all very human, I suppose, but the focus should be on whether Hoover did in fact find evidence of E.T.

Amateur astronomers image spacewalking astronauts

The just-concluded STS-133 mission featured some coverage by amateur astronomers who took pictures from the ground so sharp they show individual astronauts on EVA. Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands and Martin Lewis of the UK managed this feat.
COMMENT: This is so cool....

Monday, March 07, 2011

Captain Kirk starts Discovery's last voyage

The shuttle Discovery has left the ISS to come home for the last time.
Today's wakeup music for the crew was the theme from Star Trek, with William Shatner intoning:
"Space, the final frontier. These have been the voyages of the space shuttle Discovery. Her 30 year mission: To seek out new science. To build new outposts. To bring nations together on the final frontier. To boldly go, and do, what no spacecraft has done before."

A fitting farewell.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Meteorites, fossils, and controversy

This is not the first time a scientist has claimed evidence for life in a meteorite. It was claimed a long time ago for Earth and more recently for Mars. This new paper is interesting because 1) techniques for studying meteorites and possible fossils they are in are more advanced than ever, and 2) An accomplished scientist, Dr. Richard Hoover of NASA, has made the claim of microfossils resembling Earth cyanobacteria in meteorites. (Also, #3, it was published in the online Journal of Cosmology, not in the famous journals you might expect, and the reasons for that are controversial.) Hoover is the Astrobology Group Leader at the Marshall Space Flight Center who is, among other things, recipient of the Gold Medal of SPIE (Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers) for his work in extreme ultraviolet optics. Does not getting publication in Science or Nature mean the paper is not solid? Well, Hoover never tried those outlets. Lana Tao of the Journal of Cosmology does not precisely say why he didn't, but repeats some JoC arguments that large journals are distracted by the need to be profitable and that they tend to defend the status quo. I don't think the status quo argument is valid (after all who published the paper naming the controversial "Hobbit" from Flores?) and other criticisms of these journals don't actually say anything about the validity of this particular paper. Neither does Tao's point (in itself quite true) that the big boys have rejected some papers which later turn out to be very important.
I'm not enough of an expert to judge how good Hoover's work is. I'll leave that to others. But he's making a rather Earthshaking claim, and the way he's making it is bound to stir debate - which is, in itself, a good thing.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Second Air Force X-37B launched

USAF news release:
"In the latest step to improve space capability and further develop an affordable, reusable space vehicle, Air Force technicians launched the second X-37B here March 5, officials said. The Orbital Test Vehicle-2 launch comes on the heels of the successful flight of OTV-1, which made an autonomous landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 3 after 224 days in space. According to officials, post-flight analysis of OTV-1 revealed OTV-2 needed no significant changes, but detailed assessments of the first mission are ongoing. "Launch is a very demanding business and having what appears to be a successful launch is always welcome news," said Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs Richard McKinney, adding he is pleased with the vehicle's initial status reports. "It is important to remember that this is an experimental vehicle; that this is just the second launch; and that we have just started what is a very systematic checkout of the system." Mr. McKinney explained the second X-37B flight will help Air Force scientists better evaluate and understand the vehicle's performance characteristics and expand upon the tests from OTV-1."

COMMENT: The Air Force, of course, is not saying exactly what experiments the OTV-2 is carrying. However, the mini-space shuttle has a lot of potential uses, civil, scientific, or military. I'm curious to see how fast they can turn around these vehicles and relaunch one that's just flown.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

DARPA's robot folds itself into a boat or a plane

OK, it's a tiny prototype that still needs wires conencting it to the computer. But DARPA's shape-shifting "flat robot" is just COOL.

More Eastern Cougar thoughts

In writing about this on Cryptomundo, Loren Coleman expressed his thought that the ruling was politically motivated - the FWS didn't want to expend the resources on the Eastern cougar.
Loren wrote, “All future sightings of large, tan, deer-colored felids in the Eastern USA now will again exist in that shadowy zoological limbo occupied by the Ivory-billed woodpecker and Bigfoot.”
My thoughts in response:
Well, not exactly. This case is different because the FWS is not declaring all sightings invalid. They are saying that validated sightings are of cougars from sources other than the original Eastern subspecies stock.
Of course, a fair question is, “If a sighting is valid but the cat is not caught, how can anyone be sure where said cat came from?”
The FWS answer is essentially that breeding populations would have left more evidence than we now have. That brings up a couple of complications. One is that the cat is notoriously elusive, and I wonder just how sure the FWS can be. The other, as someone pointed out on Facebook, is that it may not matter: if escaped, released, or wandering cougars establish a population, then you still have a population of a protected animal and must regulate it (although you don’t have a population of an ENDANGERED animal, which is where politics come in since the latter must be protected and regulated much more extensively.)
The politics do exist. I’ve reported before how a friend of mine, an excellent witness who knew his bears, reported literally bumping into an unmistakable grizzly bear in Colorado and was told very frankly by a state wildlife person that it would be a huge headache – for the agency, for hunters, and for landowners – if he insisted on his story. (He gave up.)
And just to complete the maze of complexity here, if you do find a breeding population, how sure can you be they are NOT original Eastern cougars? The genetic differences between the three Continental US cougar populations are minimal – some argue nonexistant.
Given that it’s established there have been SOME releases/escapes, and some Western cougars pushing east of the Mississippi, I don’t think we’ll ever know if genuine Eastern cougars have survived. I think they have, but how could it ever be proven?
Finally, I wonder if the FWS experts, while no one expressed the thought, had an unconscious bias based on the fact this was not the ivory-billed woodpecker: this was a local population, really, of an animal doing very well elsewhere on this continent. If it wasn't clear whether the subspecies identification of cougars is valid in the first place, did it matter to the survival of the species whether they found any genuine Eastern cougars?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Is the Eastern Cougar extinct?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has decided the answer is "yes." While agreeing there are some confirmed sightings, they have put all these down to escaped/released pets or, in states like Illinois, cougars sneaking back in from the west.
The obvious question is, "If there's a confirmed sighting and the cat is not caught, how do you know where it came from?"
The FWS experts rely on the theory that a breeding population should have left more evidence than we have, but I don't know. This is a pretty darned elusive animal. I suspect the extinction label is premature.

Who first broke the sound barrier?

Well, officially, Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 in 1947. Did someone beat him to it?
In this enjoyable Skeptoid article, Brian Dunning breaks down the possibilities, all concerning claims made for planes in power dives (Yeager did it in level flight, and there has been no argument that he was the first to do that).
One idea is that a German Me-163 rocket fighter did it during WWII, but Dunning rejects this common Internet-posted claim. He argues the Komet, one of the earliest delta-wing planes, could not have done it: the design and the control surfaces were such that the plane could have hit the sound barrier only in an uncontrolled dive ending in death, not in a recoverable maneuver as claimed only in a 1990 book, not verified in any captured German test records.
An intriguing report says Hans Guido Mutke, a German Me-262 jet fighter pilot, believed he'd passed the sound barrier only in retrospect, after he'd read of Yeager's experiences and the phenomena he'd encountered passing through the barrier. This falls into the "highly unlikely but not impossible" bin. The Me-262 was not designed for supersonic flight and would likely have torn apart or been destroyed by the phenomenon known as "Mach tuck," in which the nose is forced downward until the pilot loses control.
American pilot George Welch believes he broke the barrier twice before Yeager's flight by diving steeply in the XP-86 prototype fighter plane. Since Welch did the same thing again, properly instrumented and verified, in the same aircraft AFTER Yeager's record was set, it seems likely he did it before Chuck as well. Likely - but not proven or provable in the official sense.
None of this detracts from the quantum leap in capability pioneered by the X-1 and Chuck Yeager. He still holds the official record and likely always will.

What's the highest wind speed ever?

I get fascinated sometimes with the records of the natural world - highest wave, biggest elephant, what have you. This article looks at the claims for the highest wind speed ever recorded.
The official highest ground-level speed measured directly for a wind anywhere in the world is from Mount Weather in New Hampshire in 1943 - 231 mph.
The highest verified wind in a tornado (NOT measured at ground level, but at some hundreds of feet from the ground) is 318mph, taken by Doppler radar in Oklahoma City in 1999.
There are two claimants for the Mount Weather record, one from Australia, one from Guam. The highest measurement, from Australia in the 1996 cyclone Olivia, was 113 m/s or 253 mph. In both cases, the records were not accepted officially, in part because the represented speeds more than double the sustained wind at the time, a freakishly unlikely (though not completely impossible) circumstance.
One is tempted to say that there have been higher wind gusts, only no instrument or observer survived to report them. That's probably a true statement, and the continual improvement in weather instruments makes it likely there will someday be a new official record, but for now - Mount Weather rules!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Who was Yuri Gagarin?

This Russian blog provides a wealth of detail about a man who is world-famous but not well known as a person - Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. In this portrait, Gagarin emerges as a man who had plenty of technical skills but excelled in the intangibles - qualities Chief Designer Sergei Korolev sought in his cosmonauts. He could handle such tortures as spending 10 or 15 days in an isolation chamber where he could speak to no one. Moreover, among Gagarin's specialties were coolness, a sense of humor, and the equanimity to handle becoming a national icon. And everyone agreed he LOOKED properly like an ethnic Russian and had a classically Russian name: in the politics of the time, that mattered too.

Thanks to JSC historian Mike Ciancone for passing this along.