Monday, November 28, 2011

Nest of the Yeti?

Structures found in Russia
If there are unidentified giant primates (called sasquatch, yeti, or countless other names in different regions), where do they sleep? One idea is that they build nests by twisting branches and small trees together as nests (some of which might be called crude mattresses)  in gorilla fashion, and even shelters, which known nonhuman primates don't make. An expedition in search of Russian "Yeti" evidence led, as Ben Radford of the Skeptical Inquirer reports here, to a split between the two most prominent North American scientific investigators, with Drs. Jeff Meldrum and John Bindernagel divided on whether structures found in Russia added to the evidence in favor of such creatures.
COMMENT: Such structures have been reported in North America. In areas where humans are at least occasional visitors, I thought they were likely made by kids making wigwams, forts, camp beds, etc. I did the same thing myself growing up in Florida.  That's not the explanation for all such sites, but maybe it applies more often than is usually realized.  Kids can push pretty deep into the woods seeking their own worlds.

Deep-sea fishing goes back a long way

East Timor find pushes back timeline
Humans, ever since their ancestors waded into streams hunting for food, have relied on the bounty of the world's waters. Fishing in the open sea, though, was only thought to go back about 12,000 years.   Not so.  Bone fishooks and fish bones from a site in East Timor show people were catching tuna, an open-sea species, 42,000 years ago.  The hooks have the basic modern shape, although without barbs.  There is no evidence to say the people involved told stories of the big one that got away... but no doubt they did.
COMMENT: This is one more bit of evidence of how capable ancient people were in marine environments. We know they crossed the sea to Australia some 50,000 years ago, and now we know they ventured away from the coasts to fish.  It adds plausibility to the idea (still not proven, though) that people might have come to the Americas by sea instead of by land bridge. 

The return from space

Three astronauts visit a small planet
The return to Earth from space has never been more beautifully documented than in this time-lapse video, set to the music of Peter Gabriel, following three astronauts as they descend toward Earth from the International Space Station. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Anti-Darwin site takes Onion article as reality

Referred to nonexistent news conference

The site is dedicated to refuting Darwin. Well, as Darwin explicitly said he expected would happen, some parts of his 1859 work HAVE been refuted or replaced by better theories, and other aspects are still mysteries.  I have sympathy with Lynn Margulis' point that "natural selection" has become a deified term that explains everything, instead of a basic idea that is still in the process of refinement.  (Finally, while I fully believe in evolution/natural selection of physical forms over billions of years, as a Christian, I think there was something more at work in producing beings - us - that are spiritually self-aware.  Yes, I know purely deterministic ideas have been put forth to explain our theological leanings. I just don't find them convincing.)
OK, that was a very long digression, so back to what inspired this post.  The author of this site seems to have, to put it politely, gone off the rails. In this article, he challenges the standard view of history, saying the Greek civilization never existed. His source: The satirical site The Onion, which published a humor piece saying National Geographic held a news conference to announce Greek civilization's record was faked.  Seriously, he believes this is real. 
(I could have made a Comment on the darwinthenandnow site pointing out the absurdity, but I'm more interested in just watching it and seeing how long it takes before the whole page disappears.)
The point: if you want to challenge science, fine: challenging existing wisdom is how science advances. But you have to use science, not fiction.

Onion article

Lynn Margulis, R.I.P.

One of the giants of biology, and one of the most prominent women in science, has died. Biologist Lynn Margulis was 73. She developed the initially-ridiculed theory of symbiogenesis - describing how variations could develop out of the sharing of genes with microorganisms inside a host body - which is now accepted as a major contributor to evolution. I've read some of Margulis' work for general audiences,  and she comes through as a brilliant intellect who could also explain things in a way a non-biologist could understand.  ( I shoiuld mention Margulis later doubted the HIV-AIDS link and rejected some key tenets of what Darwin said about how evolution worked, but her reputation was assured by her work on how evolution DID work).


Thursday, November 24, 2011

New mammal from Vietnam

Thanksgiving greetings!
The new species of ferret-badger from Vietnam was first spotted in 2006 in the form of an injured specimen that was rescued, but died, and apparently was not properly considered for new-species status. It was five years before another one was spotted, and now the official word is out.  There is nothing a zoologist likes better to celebrate a holiday than a new mammal! Welcome to Melogale cucphuongensis sp.nov, the fifth species in its genus.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Invasion of Mars Continues

Earth probes - plans and travails

Earth probes have far from a perfect record in reaching the Red Planet.  Part of this is simply that flying to Mars is hard (not to mention costing $1M a kilogram).  A cartoon made at NASA a long time ago showed a probe-eating monster, called the Great Galactic Ghoul.
The Ghoul is still at work, but Earth scientists never give up on exploring their #1 planetary destination. After Russia's innovative Phobos-Grunt mission to a Martian moon failed to leave Earth orbit (controllers have not entirely given up hope of salvaging it), Russia may join in planned US-European Space Agency (ESA) missions planned for 2016 onwards.  ESA is worried the US may pull out - and it might, given NASA's budget woes.
First, though, comes the next effort - the largest, most complex Mars rover ever, Curiosity, will he carried on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, to launch at 10AM EST this Saturday.  Go for Mars!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Kepler in the corn field

Farmers honor space program There are, it seems, seven "space farms" around the country where the corn mazes popular at Halloween have been designed to honor spacecraft. I'd never heard of this story before. Here is the Kepler telescope in a field in California. Kudos to America's farmers for this one!

Whale Fossils in the Desert = Mystery

Cetacean cemetary in Chile's Atacama Desert "I came here for the waters. For my health." "We're in a desert!" "I was misinformed." (OK, I used that reference last year for a fossil penguin found in a desert and no one laughed. So somebody laugh, please.) Dozens of whale skeletons have turned up in one tiny spot in Chile's Atacama Desert. Most are baleen whales, with a sperm whale mixed in along with a specimen of the bizarre "walrus dolphin," previously knwn only from Peru. Two to seven million years old, the remains (still being excavated) provoke an obvious question - what happened? The presence of other species would seem to rule out a mass stranding. Paleontologists never lack for mysteries.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Two rhinos declared extinct

Bad news for rhinos

The IUCN has declared that two subspecies of rhino are leaving the planet - and not from natural causes.  Tthe the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) of Central Africa is  "possibly extinct in the wild" while a subspecies of the western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) in Western Africa is extinct, period.
COMMENT: This is not only sad for the rhinos, but scary for conservation in general. If we can't protect small populations of conspicuous, easily tracked animals, will we even know if more elusive animals become extinct? And the Javan rhino, a full species, has lost its Asian mainland population and is hanging on by its toenails.  We need to work harder!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Finding the sasquatch film site

Where was the famous film made? There is no moment more famous in the history of sasquatch-hunting, probably none in cryptozoology, than the day in 1967 when Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin claimed to have encountered a large female sasquatch and displayed as proof a 16mm film. The film has become the most analyzed amateur movie in history, except possibly for the Zapruder film. If there has ever been a genuine film of a North American primate, this is it. If it's a hoax, it was expertly done. So exactly where did the filming take place? I had always assumed it had been gone over a thousand times, but apparently some doubt crept in. The Bluff Creek Film Site Project took four years, trying to narrow it down beyond doubt. Now they think they've got it. So now what? Well, having the spot narrowed down, even after 44 years, should allow for more accurate evaluation of the film. There are already whole books on this incident: I'm sure we can now expect more.

Metal 100x lighter than styrofoam

World's lightest metallic substance We know about aerogels, substances so light they are called "frozen smoke." But the boffins (I like that old british word) at the University of California have something more: a metallic substance composed of minitubes and so light the photo here shows it sitting on top of a dandelion puff. Where will this kind of research lead? Well, a kilogram of payload bound for Mars costs $1M to ship. Aerospace engineers might be the first users, but contruction engineers and carmakers also come to mind. We'll just have to see.

Faster than light? Weird, but not dead

CERN eliminates on source of error The report than neutrinos beamed from Switzerland to Italy had traveled faster than light (perhaps they had a craving for cannoli?) set physics abuzz. Several possible error modes were postulated. The folks at CERN say now they have eliminated one source of error. It was suggested the experimenters may have mistimed the moment of transmission. Now that's been ruled out. The original result may still be a mistake - most physicists still think it much be - but no one has proven it yet.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Europa: To a Watery Moon

Europa in the News Jupter's moon Europa has interested astronomers since Galileo found it 401 years ago. It has a surface of water ice, with a liquid water ocean, but that ocean was thought to lie at least 10km under the crust, too deep for a future mission to sample. But more sophisticated modeling, informed by studying ice sheets on Earth, indicates at least some bodies of liquid only 3km down: shallow enough to drill to. Among the possible discoveries: life, at least on a one-celled scale. Now, will the Europa missions proposed in the US and elsewhere for the 2020s get funded? That's as big a mystery as... well, whether there is life on Europa.

NASA: News is not good

Whatever you think of the Adminstration's NASA policy, when you combine it with the general fiscal crisis and Congressional priorities, the results are alarming planetary scientists. Participation in a joint Mars mission with ESA is up in the air, as are almost all planetary missions not already well into the pipleine. While Mars enthusiast Robert Zubrin's published claim that all future science missions were dead is an exaggeration, the recent House-Senate conference report on NASA offers an immediate budget cut with no prospects of restoration.  Given all that, funding the Webb space telescope and the Space Launch System is not going to leave much money for any new initiatives.
COMMENT: It would be nice to see the aerospace giants offer to fund some small science missions as a public service.  NASA, Lockheed Martin, Norhtrop Grumman, etc. all prosper when NASA prospers. 

Thanks, Beyond the Edge radio

We had a great interview Sunday.  I was a little apprehensive because Beyond the Edge radio includes all kinds of paranormal topics I don't get into.  But it was a superb interview, with a lot of time spent on why cryptozoology is (and sometimes is not) scientific and the role of the amateur in modern sceince (a lot more important than most people realize, whether it's asteroid-hunting or finding new insects.)  We also delved into my other passion, space exploration, at some length and made a brief venture into the crossover between developmental aircraft projects and UFO reports.  Thanks to Eric and company for a good time.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Interview on Cryptozoology

Catch me 8PM EST Sunday - thanks to Eric at Byond the Edge Radio for an invitation to discuss cryptozoology.  I consider myself an open-minded skeptic: a believer in the validity of cryptozoology, but a skeptica about claims that don't make sense from an ecological or zoological point of view.

"Join us as we return live Sunday Nights at 8:00 pm ET to 10:00 pm as Eric Altman, Lon Strickler, and the crew bring you the best in Alternative Talk Radio that promises to take you... Beyond The Edge. With the FRESH topics, great guests and an all around bizarre time, you never know what to expect! Tune in to find out what all the talk is about.

Listen live by clicking on the listen live and chat tab and click listen live or visit"

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Encounter Africa in Colorado Springs

Elephants need a new pad

The half-century old elephant barn at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is being demolished. The elephants, in the next phase of the zoo's Encounter Africa project, will reappear in spacious modern quarters.  Good going, Zoo!  The zoo has always been exemplary - more so in that it receives no public funds, yet manages to raise enough to provide quality habitats and programs such as black-footed ferret breeding. 

Now That's a Croc!

Now that's a croc!

A Phillipine village now claims it has the biggest live crocodile in the world. Pronounced to be over 6 meters (20 feet, 4 inches if you prefer) by an Australian expert, the crocodile is drawing tourists at 500 a day, and Guiness is looking into the new world record. 
COMMENT: It looks like it belongs in a Jurassic Park movie, not a pen in a remote village. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Human v Chimp - How different?

From House, M.D. -
Dr. Foreman: "Her oxygen saturation is normal."
Dr. House: "It's off by one percentage point."
Foreman: "It's within range. It's normal."
House: "If her DNA was off by one percentage point, she'd be a dolphin."

We're not that close to dolphins, but we've heard interminably that humans and chimps share 98% (give or take 1%) of our DNA with chimps. Well, then why are we different in many obvious ways? According to researchers at Georgia Tech, that nearly-identical genome is significantly affected by gaps (not physical gaps, but areas filled by "junk" sequences called retrotransposons) surrounding the genes and determining which genes are expressed (turned on) and which are not. That raises some interesting mad-scientist experimentation ideas for the writers of Crichton-type fiction.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Keeping students in a tough field

Everyone, including the President, thinks we need to graduate more engineers. But the dropout rate is double that for most majors. The causes include some obvious ones - STEM fields are tough and students often under-prepared - and some I would not have thought of, such as that grade inflation has made humanities degrees an easier route to a high GPA. This article recommends more innovative approaches to the "death march" first and second years, including more project-based learning.
COMMENT: I went to USC totally unprepared, and left Aerospace Engineering after getting a 2 on a 100-point calculus test. There were freshman projects, but I didn't get that far. I have always thought there was more one-on-one guidance and interaction needed: accept fewer students, give them more help, and you'll end up graduating more. But no one asks me.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Monkey business in China

I'm not sure what this is. Not a monkey, certainly. A loris, perhaps? Awfully cute.

Update: And the winner is... spotted cuscus! Not a native of China, so apparently a local zoo wasn't sure what to make of it.

Loss of diversity makes everything verse

OK, the pun was terrible. But the point is important. Why does life survive mass extinctions, and why does it take longer in some cases to recover species diversity than in other cases? Scientists looking at the Permian-Triassic extinction, 250 MYA, say they can trace cause and effect. Loss of diversity begets more loss of diversity, and recovery is slower when there are fewer species (in other words, fewer respoitories of unique genomes) to work with. It may be worse when it's the big (apex) predators and herbivores are the ones to go. As Prof Jessica Whitesides, concerned about modern extinctions, puts it, “We’re showing that low-diversity systems take a long time to recover. When you destroy links in the food web, effects exist that are difficult to see. Normally when people think of extinctions, it’s of single species. This is a systems approach.”

A new look at new species

This almost gets monotonous. Ho hum, another group of experts find hundreds of beautiful and exotic new species.
OK, it's not monotonous. It's wonderful. Explore!