Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Neil Degrasse Tyson - interview

Astronomer Tyson pushes space science

Tyson has stepped into Carl Sagan's shoes as the public defender of the embattled scientists who seek to explore the universe, whether by telescope, by probe, or by spaceship.  The cuts just announced at NASA will devastate the jewel in our national space science crown, the missions to Mars.  It would not happen if Tyson was in charge.  If I'm a new President, this guy is on my list for NASA Administrator. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What to make of LENR?

The whole "cold fusion" thing

Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) - whose investigators hate the term "cold fusion" - is either a field rife with errors or the dawning of a new era for humanity.  (I suppose it could end up being of real but minor utility, but that's no fun to speculate on.)
Some very capable people in the US Navy, NASA Glenn Research Center, and other organizations are poking into this quite seriously, reporting excess heat, elemental transmutation, and other effects from room-temperature apparatus that shouldn't be producing any kind of nuclear effect.  The emerging thinking is that this is not fusion at all, but some manifestation of electroweak interactions - that is, previously unsuspected effects of the "weak force" that causes radioactive decay, not the "strong force" involved in nuclear fission and fusion.  I was in a meeting a while back where politely dueling physicists differed over whether any of the positive results (there have been negative findings, too) are valid or even possible. If the results are valid, the possibilities are almost endless - clean, unlimited energy, with all that goes with it.  If they are wrong, it's probably the largest scale example in history of the "N-rays" problem - that is, that even highly qualified scientists are not immune to subconscious bias that leads to  finding what they want to find. 
The whole business is immensely complicated, not least by the economic stakes and the claims of two companies to be selling working LENR power devices - devices shown off in carefully controlled demonstrations, the way "zero point energy" companies do it, with skeptics allowed to observe but not to poke around in the demos to see if they might be rigged. 

New Documentary looks interesting

COMMENT: Unqualified as I am to analyze the claims of the physicists and nuclear chemists, I still feel comfortable in offering the opinion that the devices for sale will never be independently proven to work.  As for whether the effect (and there are many types of effects reported from different types of experiments, so I am generalizing here) is real, I have to come down on the side of the skeptics so far.  But I wouldn't close the door, not when there are some well-qualified people on both sides.  Fingers crossed. 

Faster-than-light neutrinos? No? Darn!

Looks like a hardware error

The claim that a neutrino beam traveled faster than light appears to have been undone by problems in the hardware involved.  A faulty connection between a hardware board and a fiber-optic cable may have introduced a timing error.  Interestingly, it's not clear how much error, and in which direction. More experiments are planned to nail it down, but the possibility of a conventional explanation for an Earth-shaking finding looks likely to be true.  Darn.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New species: Nepali musk deer

As reported on Cryptomundo

The rarest event in zoology is discovery of a large land mammal.  Rare, yes, but it still happens.  Here's today's example, a new species of musk deer from Nepal. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

New planet: water, water, everywhere

Science fiction world discovered

Science fiction writers have many times used the idea of a planet entirely covered by water,  Now scientists think they've found one.  Forty light years from Earth lies  GJ 1214b, a planet 2.7 times the size of Earth but only half as dense.  There are a couple of possible explanations, but the discoverers lean to a rocky planet with a stupendous amount of water.  That's a little counter-intuitive, since the planet is only 1.6 million miles from its star compared to Earth's 93 million. And thus, it would be far weirder than a waterworld. Ice would exist as a result of pressure, not cold. The envelope of the planet would be steam.
COMMENT: Hot or not, this has some interesting implications. After all, "extremeophiles" on Earth live in boiling-hot water.  Until we can go to GJ 1214b, the science fiction writers should get busy.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

More new life - new amphibian family

Digging up species in India
Few people really like cacelians. This legless amphibians look like giant fat worms.  Only the herpetologists and hobbyists pay them much mind.  Be that is it may, it is not every day that a new family of vertebrates is named.  Digs over a wide are of India netted the new types (550 specimens of them), previously overlooked because they never poked their head above ground.
Can you see the SyFy Channel movie?

Deep Life - WAY deep

How deep can life exist in the oceans?

Well, we know from the old Trieste expedition that even the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench holds life.  (Pilots Piccard and Walsh thought they saw a flatfish, though most scientists think they misidentified a holothurian (sea cucumber). 
See cool graphic here
How much life goes that deep, though?  In other words, are deep dwellers rare or common?
Near the 10.9-km-deep Challenger Deep is the newly discovered Shinkai hydrothermal vent, the deepest such vent known so far.   5,680 meters down, a submersible (the Shinkai 6500) Japanese and American scientists found much more life than they expected, sea anenomes, long-armed crabs, white clams, snails, and comb jellies. They were not surprised to find life by this low-temp (non-volcanic) vent, but they were very surprised at the amount of biomass the area could support.
One thing we keep learning about the Earth: if life is at all possible in any location, life sets its foot (or pseudopod, or whatever.)  Keep finding the new species!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Last words (or numbers) from Alex the parrot

The world's smartest African Gray Parrot
Ever since a good friend gave me a book on the late Alex the parrot (thanks, Kris) I've been a bit fascinated by this birdbrain's brain.  Alex could use numbers the way a toddler  might, grasping the concept of addition and subtraction.  In this article, we learn that Alex reportedly displayed the ability to add as high as 8 and sum the numbers of jellybeans shown to him momentarily and then hidden under three cups.  That puts Alex firmly in the primate category of brains - in fact, this level has only  been shown once in a chimpanzee,  Otherwise, it's exclusively human. Or so we thought.

Come see the dinosaurs

Dr. Darren Naish reviews newest book

We can never get enough dinosaurs.  Illustrator Greg Paul has given us many of them, taking dinosaur art in new directions - some of them controversial.  Naish's blog here is a review of Paul's Dinosaurs - A Field Guide.  Paul is famous for his meticulous visual reconstructions, and some examples of his artwork and that of other leading dino-illustrators is included here.  Naish feels Paul has dinosaur taxonomy VERY wrong. Not being any sort of expert in that, I'll set it aside and recommend dino-lovers read this blog post to learn about some of the current controversies as well as the differing ways of portraying our favorite extinct animals.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Gigantopithecus - the awesome ape

Extinct 300,000 years ago?

We have only teeth and jawbones of the largest primate that ever lived.  Gigantopithecus blacki, when it stood up, might have been 10 feet tall.  It weighed 1,200 pounds, twice the size of the largest gorillas.  Current speculation makes it a giant knuckle-walking orangutan relative, but there's a great deal we don't know.  The name gigantopithecus crops up a lot in speculation about sasquatch, since this is one ape that really was towering and could  - could - have been upright.  .  Why did it go extinct? Its diet may have been too specialized: it focused on bamboo, as pandas do.  The panda has hung on through the periodic die-offs characteristic of bamboo, but maybe Giganto wasn't too lucky. It might also have suffered from competition with the smarter, more agile Homo erectus.  All that aside, though, this is just an awesome creature.

The mystery of Washington's Eagle

The "great eagle"
No less an authority than Audubon described a giant species of North American eagle, similar in appearance to an immature bald eagle but with some anatomical differences as well as a difference in size. The now-lost type specimen, which Audubon shot himself after having seen this eagle four times in the wild, was a meter tall with a wingspan of 3.1m.  As Karl Shuker recounts it, authorities contemporary with Audubon accepted the species, and some reported seeing it themselves.  An occasional report of a giant eagle still surfaces.  Is America's largest raptor extinct, or still, just possibly, hanging on? 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cryptozoology and learning

Boy, did I set off a kerfluffle on the National Assn. of Science Writers list by suggesting schools take advantage of the public interest in cryptozoology.  My argument was, even if you think lake monsters or sasquatches can't be real, you can turn students loose to analyze the capability of an ecosystem to house such creatures.  Some people felt that school should totally ignore "pseudoscience," while another person joined me in recalling how a teacher used a "fringe" subject to introduce a worthwhile topic. I stand by my argument. Investigating ape food sources in the Northwest or the niche for a large land predator in Australia can be  highly educational.  And cryptozoology, I pointed out, is not always wrong....

More STEM students!

Mulling the shortage

Do we need more science and technology graduates? How do we get them?  You can't just say, as this author does, "raise salaries." Who dictates that in a non-totalitarian system?  But we do need mroe homegrown talent, I think. It's good if this article sparks more conversation.

Monday, February 13, 2012

While I'm on conspiracy theories...

That OTHER conspiracy theory is nuts, too
Some more science here
Nothing special about the date, I just felt like throwing this out there today.  I was at the Newseum in DC last week and gazed on the battered, twisted broadcast antenna that had stood on the roof of the World Trade Center. It's a very moving exhibit. 
So much that's published on this is simply crap. No expert agrees with the single flake who says he found thermite residue. (And "nanothermite" does not exist, BTW). No one saw workers tearing into the cores of the buildings to plant bombs. There is aircraft wreckage all over the Pentagon and the lawn, if you go beyond carefully cropped photos.  WTC7 suffered debris hits and fires capable of taking any building of that sort down. No skyscraper fires had ever brought WTC-type towers down because no skyscrapers were ever hit with big planes full of jet fuel.  Heat most definitely does melt or weaken steel - how do you think we make cars out of the stuff?  There's a "too small" hole in the Pentagon picture because the cropped photo shows the second floor hole only. A few people think they heard explosions, but why are there thousands who didn't? (Kinda like the TWA 800 thing, where a few witnesses who thought they saw somethign like a missile have become "hundreds," while the hundreds who saw no such thing are ignored.)  All kinds of official blunbers and tunnel-visioning of threats, thus allowing all this to happen, don't change WHAT happened any more than they made Pearl Harbor a conspiracy (another endlessly refuted conspiracy claim).
For everyone with technical credentials who thinks the story is wrong, there is an overwhelming number, with far better credentials, who say it's right.  The towers simply did not collapse at more than freefall speed, no one documented the alleged pools of molten metal, we definitely did three airliner engines out of the Pentagon, etc., etc.
And yes, when an incredibly complex and catastrophic event like nothing else in history happens, we will always find some oddities, coincidences, and phenomena never seen before.  "Falsers" simply keep repeating the same claims, over and over, no matter how many times they are refuted. Either the refutation is wrong or it proves the conspiracy.  Science and logic can't win here. 
That's all.  And no, I'm not going to debate it. It's history, over and done with. Think differently if you want. 

Moon hoax claims never die - but they should

A thorough refutation

Every scientific blogger should post this occasionally as a public service.  We went to the Moon. To suggest otherwise implies a conspiracy of many thousands of people, in which no one EVER talked, and which the Soviets would have taken great delight in exposing.  As Agent Scully used to say on The X-Files, "You're giving the government too much credit."  Nevertheless, this idiocy will apparently never die. Even the fact that recent probes have photographed Apollo artifacts and footprint trails haven't shut up the people determined to believe the unbelievable. 
I watched the Apollo launches myself. You wouldn't have doubted the capability of the Saturn V's if you'd been there.  Apollo 17 lit up the sky so dramatically I still have the picture vividly in my head 40 years later.  The only mystery about Apollo is why we lost our way and never went back.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Two monsters that ain't so

Two videos have been making the Internet rounds here.  One is of an Icelandic lake monster, or so it is purported: the other concerns a putative woolly mammoth crossing a river in Siberia.

Lake Creature

Hmm.  The Icelandic one was intriguing for the first few seconds - it made me recall that Jeremy Wade of River Monsters had reported a scary nighttime encounter with a big fast-moving shape in the fog on that same lake.  But then it starts to look like a bunch of solid objects tied together, either by a hoaxer or by natural action if it's caught one some sort of mini-tide or wake-crossing-line.
The other - well, Siberian mammoths have been reported alive before (Jack London wrote a short story about this) but I've heard of no interesting reports since WWI, and never gave the subject much thought.  This one looks like a long, shaky shot of a bear with a fish in its mouth wading a shallow river, with maybe some CGI help when the camera zooms in and something vaguely like elephant east appear.

So I think the score is Skeptics 2, Monsters 0 on this flap.   Which is too bad.  I'd love to learn the big woolly guy is still with us.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A penny for your Martian thoughts

Lincoln penny as a calibration target

One of the cameras on the rover now on its way to Mars has a calibration target attached that the Principal Investigator thinks will help people understand what they are looking at in the hoped-for imagery. In addition to a standard calibration target and color samples, the camera will show a Lincoln penny for scale and color reference. The penny is from 1909 and represents the first issue of Lincoln pennies, made in the centennial year of Abe's birth. 
COMMENT: Cool idea.  We often say the space program has to pinch pennies, and here is the literal proof of that - but I think the concept of showing something everyone is familiar with alongside the close views of Martian rocks is a very good one.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Revisiting the past of lunar exploration

Missing spacecraft reappears
In 1967, Lunar Orbiter 2 was put in a trajectory that ended with a crash on the "dark" (unobservable) side of the Moon.  NASA has wondered ever since exactly where it was and what its impact site looked like.  (Some UFO buffs, of course, had their own answer.)  Now they know - it's really a pretty neat, near-symmetrical impact site.

NOTE: Fox put out a headline saying this was the first video ever of the Moon's "dark side."  Folks, read a book. It's nowhere near the first, and the misleading term "dark side" should be stricken from every medium.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Weirdest life forms of 2011

Meet the one-eyed shark
Given that National Geographic collects huge amounts of information from all over the world, a creature has to be REALLY strange to make theie "10 Weirdest" list.  But something has to be chosen, so here they are:
1. Cyclops shark (a 56-cm shark foetus with a weird condition called cyclopia)   .2. “Glam rock” chameleon (a very colorful type from Madagascar), 3. Albino trapdoor spider. 4. Demon bat. 5. Mind-control fungus (really). 6. Pancake sea slug. 7. Vampire flying frog (easily the best name for a new species, maybe ever.) 8. Devil worm. 9. Big-lipped worm. 10. “Pink meanie” jellyfish (no word on whether it also has a blue form).

Mother Nature is a tinkerer, isn't she?