Thursday, May 31, 2012

SpaceX does it again

First private spacecraft from ISS splashes down

Another round of congratulations to Elon Musk and his team.  One success in visiting the ISS doesn't prove long-term viability of this system for human transport, but it's a huge first step,  great achievement, a feat previous unmanned capsules (which are discarded after one use) have never reached.  I know SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell slightly, and I sent her a congrats with the note that "It must be a unique experience to realize you'll be in every space history book written from now on." 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What's Batman doing under the sea?

Another mystery invertebrate

Comb jelly and ctenophore are the guesses... but it sure looks like Batman dropped in to visit Aquaman. 

The fourlegged fish


"Alive" after 360M years - at least on computer model - the long-extinct icthyostega shows how it became one of the first vertebrates to leave the sea and conquer the land. 
Clumsily, as it turns out.  It seems icthyostega didn't lumber along like a reptile or an amphibian.  It was sort of a giant mudskipper, half-dragging itself in the new environment.  Oh, well, Neil Armstrong didn't exactly look at home on the Moon, either....

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Journey to the (real) center of the Earth

Using seismic data to probe mysteries

We know the Earth's core is not the jungle realm of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the bizarre rockspace of The Core (an indescribably terrible movie that manages, among other crimes, to  waste Hilary Swank.) But what is it?  Why and how does the core rotate faster than the rest of the planet? How is it losing heat to the surrounding rocks at 2-3 times the rate we thought it was (and that fits with current geological theory)? It's extremely weird down there to begin with. At 35 million atmospheres of pressure, terms like "liquid iron" lose their meaning: as geologist Bruce Buffet puts it, “If you could put on your safety gloves and stick your hands into the outer core, it would run through your fingers like water."  The core houses currents and even, in a sense, weather, all occurring in this spinning, Mars-sized sphere.
In other words, there are major scientific mysteries about our own planet, as well as the distant ones.

Zoos: Who Makes it Onto the Ark?

Changing role, hard decisions

Zoos - the good ones, anyway - have moved to embrace their pivotal role in conservation and the breeding of endangered species and prioritize that over the old idea of having examples of as many species as possible. In my home of Colorado Springs, this means the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo keeps a breeding colony of black-footed ferrets and a family of Amur leopards, among other things.  But for all zoos, it means making hard choices. Given that budgets have ceilings, zoos housing endangered species have to choose. Some species are not going to be chosen, and their captive populations will die out. Also, there is no getting around the fact that zoos have to attract the public, a point the St. Louis Zoo makes about keeping its non-endangered camels (who don't mind being outdoors and thus visible all year round) and spending $18M on a new pool for sea lions (not endangered in the wild, but wildly popular with visitors).  I don't envy zookeepers who are trying to walk this tightrope. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

More new species from New Zealand

What's down under in Fiorldland

I've reported on new species from New Zealand and it surrounding waters before - there's still an air of mystery around the land of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  The latest story comes courtesy of a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) probing an area called Fiordland.  It found thriving fish populations (no word yet on whether any are new species), endangered red coral, and a host of invertebrates, some of which do look new to science.  This is in an area just off shore, frequented by cruise ships, and yet never properly investigated.  Environmental protections are being discussed.
COMMENT: Another example of two adages: 1) There's always more life than we knew, and 2) You can't protect something until you know it's there. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

History: Radar Women of the RAF

Seeking operators of the Dowding System

One of the key technologies of WWII was radar. In the early days of the war, the Americans, Germans, Japanese, and others had radar projects, but the first nation to really put it to widespread use was Great Britain: and it was critical. The Dowding System, a net of radars, other sensors, and communications gear, gave the outnumbered RAF a vital edge over the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. The Association of Royal Air Force Fighter Control Officers is now seeking the operators, largely women, who made all this work.  Without them, England might well have lost the battle as fighters guided only by visual sightings chased German formations all over the country rather than so often being in the right place at the right time for an ambush.

Friday, May 25, 2012

"Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond...."

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, this turtle was definitely king of its pond

Largest freshwater turtle fossil

Researchers compare this exintct beast to a Smart Car in size... smaller than the great oceangoing Archelon, but still darn impressive. 

More on that jellyfish/blob/thing...

What was it?

It seems that Deepstaria enigmatica is not the only candidate.

"We've got us a Dragon by the tail."

OK, that's not quite "One small step for man," but it's a very big step forward in the commercial use of space.

ISS Captures Dragon

Four hundred kilometers over Australia, the International Space Station's robot arm snagged SpaceX's Dragon capsule and brought it in to dock.  After unloading 500kg of supplies, the astronauts on the 6-person ISS crew will load in experiments, trash, and other "downmass" and next Tuesday they will release the Dragon to reenter and spashdown.

Congratulations to Elon, Gwynne, and the crew at SpaceX.  Welcome to the history books.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Best short article ever for those wanting to publish books

I rarely diverge from sci/tech news in this blog, but I am a writer, and lots of people with an interest in this topic would like to publish their own thoughts. Herewith a great article demystifying pulishing of all types.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mysteries in Lake Iliamna

Of seals and monsters
Lake Iliamna has a seal population estimated at 280.  Where do they go when the lake freezes over? Alaska Natives think they must have a cave somewhere. Others think they swim out via the Kvichak River.  This naturally leads to speculating about the lake's other large inhabitant - the "Lake Iliamna monster." Probably an undocumented species of sturgeon, but we don't know, and one man is even planning a deepwater camera experiment to find out whether it might be a sleeper shark instead (my opinion: No).  If I had to bet money, though, I  would say that some large fish exists here behind the monster legends and sightings. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Oxford will test "yeti" DNA

This one is so unique I'll put the press release in here in its entirety.  These folks are going to be deluged with tissue samples. Wil lthey find anything? They are testing hair from Sumatra's orang-pendek, which I think has a very good chance of being a real primate.  But yeti? Sasquatch?  It's a fascinating project.  I hope they find something, but negative results would also be scientifically important... if not very exciting. 

ADDED: Before we get to the press release, he're's some good background: Ben Radford's article on why unknown-primate DNA and hair samples have not panned out.  Two lessons he hits on: some experts can be wrong; and "unidentified" does not necessarily mean "new species."
Radford on the evidence

Now, back to England

Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project

As part of a larger enquiry into the genetic relationship between our own species Homo sapiens and other hominids, we invite submissions of organic material from formally undescribed species, or “cryptids”, for the purpose of their species identification by genetic means.
The project is divided into three phases.
DNA ANALYSIS PHASE September – November 2012
PUBLICATION PHASE November – December 2012
SAMPLE SUBMISSION  Sample submissions are invited from institutions and individuals. In the first instance, please send details of the material you would like to submit to one of the Principal Investigators. These should include:
· Your name, institutional affiliation (if any), postal and email addresses and other contact details.
· A physical description of the specimen: (Hair, tooth etc). Photographs welcome.
· Its provenance: A short account of the origin of the sample, when and where (with coordinates if known) it was collected and how it came to be in your possession.
· Identification: Your opinion of its likely species identification, and your reasons.
· Authority: A statement that you are entitled to send the specimen for analysis and that we have permission to publish the results.
In order to avoid misidentification of samples due to contamination, our preferred material is hair, although tissues will be considered.
After reviewing your submission, we will send you a sampling kit with instructions. Please do not send any materials without first hearing from us. They will not be analysed nor returned.
You may choose whether to be identified as the donor of the sample, or to remain anonymous.
At the end of the submission phase, the most promising samples will be selected for DNA analysis. You will not be charged for the analysis. Unselected samples will be returned.
The process of DNA analysis is destructive. Any unused material from selected samples will be returned or, if you prefer, will be submitted for curation as part of the Bernard Heuvelmans Cryptozoology archive in Lausanne.
Results from DNA analysis will be prepared for publication in a peer-reviewed science journal. No results will be released until any embargoes on publication have passed.
Prof. Bryan Sykes
Professor of Human Genetics
Wolfson College
University of Oxford
Oxford OX2 6UD
United Kingdom

Dr. Michel Sartori
Musee de Zoologie
Palais de Rumine
Place de Riponne 6
CH-1014 Lausanne

Space Race: Enter the Dragon

SpaceX's Falcon 9 lifts off.

Saving the elusive Saola

A great discovery now on the edge

The most striking land mammal find since the 1930s was the 100kg saola - hard to classify (it needed a new genus) but very beautiful.  The text of the WWF's latest (scary) report on it follows. 

WWF: 20 Years After Its Discovery, Mysterious Mammal Continues to Elude Scientists  PRWeb -
Critically endangered saola face extinction in Vietnam without increased protection

Two decades after the discovery of the saola – one of the most spectacular species discoveries of the 20th century – the rare large mammal remains as mysterious as ever. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns that the species, found in the mountains of Vietnam, faces extinction unless protection efforts are intensified. The saola is a primitive member of the Bovidae family, which includes antelopes, buffalo, bison, cattle, goats and sheep. The species is recognized by two parallel horns with sharp ends, which can reach 20 inches in length. They have striking white markings on the face and large maxillary glands on the muzzle that may be used to mark territory or attract mates. The greatest threat facing the saola comes from illegal hunting. Saola are caught in wire snares set by hunters to catch other animals, such as deer and civets, which are destined for the lucrative wildlife trade, largely for sale in urban restaurants. "We need to take urgent action to ensure that saola don’t vanish as the result of poaching,” said Dr. Barney Long, WWF’s Asian species expert. 
The saola was discovered in 1992 by a joint team from Vietnam’s Ministry of Forestry and WWF surveying the forests near Vietnam's border with Laos.The team found a skull with long, straight horns in a hunter's home that they identified as a new species.The find proved to be the first large mammal discovery to science in more than 50 years, and one of the most spectacular zoological discoveries of the 20th century.
“Saola are incredibly elusive animals, and combined with their low number are nearly impossible to find,” added Dr. Long. “Even though we know the general area where they live, we’ve still never seen one in the wild – and the handful that have been caught by locals have not survived for any length of time.”
Twenty years later, little is still known about the saola’s ecology or behavior. In 2010, villagers in the central Laos province of Bolikhamxay captured a saola, but the animal died several days later. Prior to that, the last confirmed record of a saola in the wild was in 1999 from camera-trap photos in the same province. The difficulty in detecting the animal has prevented scientists from making a precise population estimate.  “If things are good, there may be a couple of hundred saola out there,” said William Robichaud, Coordinator of the Saola Working Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “If things are bad, the population could now be down in the tens.”  Since the discovery of the saola, Vietnam and Laos have established a network of protected areas in the animal’s core range, and some reserves are pursuing innovative solutions to tackle rampant poaching, with support from WWF. A new approach involving community forest guards in the Saola Nature Reserve in Vietnam’s Thua Thien Hue Province is delivering positive results. Since February 2011, the newly established team of forest guards patrolling the reserve has removed more than 12,500 snares and close to 200 illegal hunting and logging camps.  Efforts to save the saola have reached a greater level of urgency since another of Vietnam's iconic species, the Vietnamese Javan rhino, was confirmed extinct in 2011 due to poaching for its horn.  “The lack of significant demand for saola in the wildlife trade gives great hope for its conservation,” said Robichaud. “But we still need to act. One of the rarest and most distinctive large animals in the world has been quietly slipping toward extinction through complacency.” 
WWF is the world’s leading conservation organization, working in 100 countries for nearly half a century. With the support of almost 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat climate change. Visit to learn more.

Dragons are Go!

Another page in space history was turned today.  In the first private ISS mission, Falcon 9 rocket, with an unmanned Dragon resupply capsule for the International Spacre Station roared perfectly off its pad at Kennedy Space Center.

Oddly, at this writing, doesn't have an update yet.  Guess everyone is still waiting for the adrenalin to come down a bit. 

Mission timeline from here:
Day 1/Launch Day: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches a Dragon spacecraft into orbit from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

- Day 2: Dragon orbits Earth as it travels toward the International Space Station.

- Day 3: Dragon's sensors and flight systems are subject to a series of complicated tests to determine if the vehicle is ready to berth with the space station; these tests include maneuvers and systems checks that see the vehicle come within 1.5 miles of the station.

- Day 4: NASA decides if Dragon is allowed to attempt to berth with the station. If so, Dragon approaches; it is captured by station's robotic arm and attached to the station. This requires extreme precision even as both Dragon and station orbit the earth every 90 minutes.

- Day 5 - TBD: Astronauts open Dragon's hatch, unload supplies and fill Dragon with return cargo.

Nine days or so later, station will be inthe best location to give Dragon an accurate return trajectory, and off it will go - home to Earth.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bacteria live long by slowing to a crawl

Barely alive, but doing well

We've learned in the last few decades that life can push into environments we thought impossible.  But recent finds 30 m below the Pacific floor showed that we also have to think about time scale as an environment.  The bacteria being studied now slow life down far more than we thought possible - as if they were "in suspended animation," as one scientists put it, except they live - just barely.  The previous generation of scientists, with less sophisticated tests, might well have found these creatures and decided they were merely corpses. We have no idea how old the individual cells are - a thousand years, ten thousand, more? Endlessly fascinating.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

SpaceX almost makes it

SpaceX's Falcon 9, the first private rocket slated to take supplies to the ISS, has been delayed several times, mostly by software issues. Elon Musk and his people wanted to leave nothing to chance, to make sure failure was not an option. 
They haven't failed, but they must feel a bit snake-bit after getting to within one-half of a second of launch before a sensor in one of nine first-stage engines reported an overpressure. The rocket was shut down.  It will be May 22 before they can try again.  (The Falcon 9 was designed to survive the loss of an engine - engine-out capability is one of its selling points - but this is an important flight and there was no wish to take risks. Also, an engine pressure being too high is particularly worrisome - if the engine actually explodes, shrapnel can take out other engines.)
So to  Elon and Gwynn and the rest of the gang- hang in there.  Make it work.  I think you will. 

Can a blow to the head change the brain in a good way?

Savants are not always born

I have no background in medicine, but it fascinates me as much as it does most people. This article is more interesting - and more baffling - than most. It cites examples of people who get hit on the head and then have talents they didn't have before.  Are we tapping into some kind of genetic memory (which shouldn't be possible), or what is happening here? The weirdest case concerns a pianist who handles complex pieces beautifully (there's a clip here) with no training.  Think how many years go into training that - keeping in mind it's not just knowledge, but physical skills, the ability of fingers to act in perfect coordination.
It makes no sense, really.  But some things don't, despite all our advances. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Phineas Gage: New light on a baffling injury case

Man survived iron rod through brain

In 1898, Phineas Gage was stuffing gunpowder into a drill hole with an iron rod to help blast rock clear for a railway.  A premature explosion thrust the 6-kg rod clean through his skull and out the other side.  Instant death, right? Well, no.  Gage survived - but he was a different man, his personality changed from affable to irascible. Now a neuroscience team led by Jack Van Horn of UCLA has figured it out. The rod destroyed about 4% of the brain tissue but ten percent of the "white matter" that links the major lobes together.  While it remains amazing - doctors at the time understandably called it a miracle - that Gage lived another 12 years, the case sheds some light on modern research about what damage in a given location does to the functioning of the whole brain - and being. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rare new monkey species spotted in China

New type of snub-nosed monkey

From the Nu river along the border between China and Myanmar comes a new report on the fifth known species of snub-nosed monkey. It's not "new new" - that is, the species Rhinopithecus strykeri was announced in late 2010 - but it represents a population of 50-100 animals previously unknown, a major boost to a species thought to number under 300 individuals. A Chinese primatologist, Dr. Long Yongcheng, hoped the find will lead to better cross-border cooperation in conservation. He argues the species must be protected, saying, "Any species extinction will affect the ecological balance and imbalance of a system, as well as impact all living organisms, including humans."
Amen, Doc.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Biodiversity news - it's not good

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has issued its 2012 Living Planet Report, and it's bleak. The report is a broad one, but its biodiversity section says the the average Earth environment has lost 30 percent of its diversity of animals, plants, etc. The decline is acute in  tropical species, with tropical biodiversity down by 60 percent since the 1970s.  (As to the overall report, Jim Leape, WWF International director general, summed it up by saying, "We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal." ) Some  13 million hectares of forest are lost each year: much of this land is is still plant-covered, bu the diversity of any forest replace with agriculture or tree farms is clearly going to drop off a cliff.
COMMENT: This doesn't mean we've lost 30% of our species: it means the diversity in any given area is down, which is bad enough.  Documented species extinctions average one species a year, although we're doubtless losing many more given the still-uncounted number of tropical insects occupying very small ranges. The WWF report recommends the usual - have rich countries reduce their footprints - but someone needs to take note of the fact that this has been recommended for decades, never adopted, and thus never going to be adopted, at least not as a stand-alone measure.  There's not enough attention given here to the need for specific technologies that let people make the best use of the resources they have  - Dean Kamen's combination Stirling-cycle heat engine/evaporator for producing electricity and water from cattle manure is an example.  (I was at a speech a couple months ago where Kamen described how he's planting these in developing nations using the infrastructure developed by Coca-Cola bottlers.  )
As C.P. Snow states in Two Cultures:

"The only weapon we have to oppose the bad effects of technology is technology itself. There is no other. We can't retreat into a nontechnological Eden which never existed... It is only by the rational use of technology -- to control and guide what technology is doing --that we can keep any hopes of a social life more desirable than our own; or in face of a social life which is not appalling to imagine." - C.P. Snow

Scientist films rare sight

Extreme weather has always been a human fascination. Even in the age of weather satellites, it's not completely predictable, and it's certainly untameable. NOAA scientist Tim Osbon caught a very rare sight off Louisiana when he filmed two waterspouts being born.  One hopes he ducked for cover after that.... Speaking of Wild weather, I'm reading the book Halsey's Typhoon, but Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.  Gripping stuff....Admiral Halsey thought his modern ships could ride out anything.  In 1944, he was proven dead wrong. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Demon Fish, by Juliet Eilperin

Great book on the fish people love to hate

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks
Pantheon; 2011

The human relationship with sharks is complex. Dangerous? Yes.  At war with the human race? If so, it's a one-sided war, and we're wiping them out.  Juliet Eilperin's book doesn't go deeply into the types and taxonomy of sharks. She's more interested in how humans relate to the 300+ species belonging to this enigmatic group. (She does relate that no fewer than 46 species have been proposed based on results of an 18-month DNA study.)  From ecotourists to shark hunters, the species Homo sapiens is the focus here.  There's a lot to learn here, and not all of it is bad.  Sport fishermen are at least aware of the issues,  scientists are pushing further in the quest to understand sharks, and tour guides have learned to make money while leaving the sharks alone. She also examines the seemingly mystical relationship of some Pacfic Islanders to their dangerous neighbors. 
The good news, though, is still outweighed by the wholesale destruction of sharks worldwide.  There are many accounts of the fishing - legal and illegal - for sharks, along with bizarre episodes such as members of the Unification Church poaching thousands of baby sharks from San Francisco Bay.  Before I read this book, I knew about the trade in shark fins, but I had no idea how damned wasteful it is: only a single rod of cartilage from the fin is even used in shark fin soup.  Her exploration of this trade, and how deeply it is ingrained in Asian cultures, is the most memorable feature of a superb, multi-faceted book that takes an original view of a long and problematic interspecies relationship. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Are there still big cats out there?

Naish's take in 2007

I came across this while while reading Dr. Darren Naish's blog on an African maneating lion of stunning proportions: the cat, now in Chicago's Field Museum, weighed an estimated 249kg.  (A normal adult male averages around 180 kg).  Since I've wandered onto that fascinating subject, see here.

Now, back to unknown big cats.  I didn't reference Darren's 2007 column just because it cites me.  I thought it a good jumping off point to mentioning that not much has happened in the big cat area of cryptozoology since then.  We have some reclassifications, including debates on whether particular tigers are subspecies or full species, and the discussion of whether there are introduced American pumas living in Australia (I think there are) or surviving U.S. Eastern pumas (again, I think yes) has benefited from new reports and other evidence.  But wholly new big cats might have reached a dead end with Peter Hocking's still-unresolved Peruvian cat skulls, which he reported came from new species but others have suggested came from oddball jaguars, perhaps with previously undocumented coat patterns.
Marc van Roosmalen's belief in a solid black, white-throated jaguar is interesting: I think it more likely than not that we'll get a specimen some day.  But I fear the search for wholly new species of big cats may have petered out. 
Hopefully, I'm wrong again.

AIP Report: NASA legislation is not good news

Tight budgets ahead

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) produces reports on legislation affecting science and technology.  They've now released a report on NASA legislation so far in the quest for an FY13 budget. 

Overall, the Administration asked for a cut in the NASA topline to $17.1 billion (B).  The House has recommended $17.6.  The Senate recommended $19.4, although the apparent increase is caused by the transfer of weather satellite programs from NOAA to NASA.  Looking across the budgets so far, Space Technology and Science do OK, while Education, Exploration, and Space Operations, and Aeronautics will likely be funded at or below the President's request in the upcoming conference committee. 
One item of special interest is that the Senate bill "allows for the transfer of up to $14,500,000 to the Department of Energy to re-establish facilities capable of producing fuel needed to enable future missions" - in other words, plutonium oxide (not the form used in weapons) for radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs).  Despite the controversy that attends anything labeled "nuclear," anything out past Mars inescapably requires an RTG: solar panels are just inadequate that far out, and the nation has almost none of it left.
NASA is being blasted by space scientists and advocates for cutting Mars missions.  The Senate tries to mend this by adding $110M for Mars exploration.  We'll see how this holds up. I hope it does.

Monsters of the Imagination

 From the magical mind and ahead-of-his-time talents of Ray Harryhausen....  (Have to log in to Facebook to see this 4.5 minute assemply of classic clips, but it's worth the effort.)

Friday, May 11, 2012

In the desert, a ghostly piece of history


I like history almost as much as science and technology, so this blog branches out on occasion... On this occasion, searchers came across a P-40 in plain sight but overlooked for 70 years. The hot, dry environment preserved the plane.  Royal Air Force flight sergeant Dennis Copping landed successfully, created a shelter with his parachute... and vanished.  Searchers have found no trace of him.  The shifting desert sands have presumably hidden his body, and it's surprising they didn't hide the plane.  New discoveries of relatively intact WWII aircraft are very rare today - not surprisingly after governments and amaturs have been looking for so long. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A real mystery creature filmed

What is this invertebrate?

Ben Radford did a good overview here, so we'll start with that.  As he notes, marine biologists generally think this is Deeperstaria enigmatica, but it looks bigger than that weird creature's known 60cm size. 
Here's the species

But how much bigger? Hard to tell.  There is still some mystery about this beast, and it's a good reminder of how little we know about the depths.

Lobsters remind us of the wacky world of genetics

Blue, orange, and calico!

On extremely rare occasions, a lobster will turn out some color other than "bottom camouflage." This article shows us three: the blue lobster (a brilliant, lovely blue), the orange lobster (orange before being cooked!), and, one I definitely never heard of, the calico lobster with yellow and orange spots.
The genetic card deck is dealt out in very strange ways.....

2500 Posts in the Sci/Tech Blog!

We passed 2,500 posts the other day.  I know I don't have many followers, but I appreciate evey one of you.  I hope I do a little bit to remind everyone how much of the universe, from Manhattan to Mars, remains for us to explore.  Press on! 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Gardner's Inivisible Gardener Thought Experiment

The late skeptical intellect Martin Gardner once posed this conundrum: one that, being a Christian, I ponder from time to time. 
Essentially: "We find a lovely, organized garden in the woods.  We can't see the gardener nor observe him in action. We employ every sensor, test, and alarm possible, and we still can't detect him. We can't see any action like weeds being pulling out of the ground by a visible or invisible force. How is such an insubstantial gardener different from no gardener at all?" 
Gardner's preferred conclusion that there was no gardener, however, is based on the preconception that we should be able, in some way, to catch the gardener at work.  There are actually two possible solutions:
1) a gardener who is so different from us no test can spot him or directly observe his work and
2) No gardener at all.
Possibility 1 is one we cannot test, but neither can we say as a fact that there is no such gardener. Possibility 2 is unsatisfying because we have not solved the problem: we still have to come up with an explanation for the garden, one that does not require a gardener.  A) Maybe we can.  B) Maybe there is one, but our science is not yet advanced enough to find it (possible but unprovable).  C) Maybe we can't find it at all.  In cases B or C we are still at a loss - we still have to explain the garden. 
Martin's thought experiment is certainly thought-provoking. But the answer to it is not as simple as be believed.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Book review: Tracking the Man-Beasts

Joe Nickell's latest covers things that walk like men
Prometheus Books, 2011

Well-known skeptical investigator Nickell pokes into an interesting if loosely related collection of topics: sasquatch, yeti, vampires, werewolves, etc.  (Nickell's bio says he's been referred to as "the real-life Scully."  Sorry Joe, I've heard you're a great guy, but Scully was hot - a thinking man's babe. You, not so much.)
Naturally, my interest is in the cryptozoological stuff, although folklore of monsters and such is always fun.  (Among other facts: the claim of a "real" zombie created with drugs isn't much better substantiated than the coming zombie apocalypse. I can't figure out the zombie craze, anyway. They are, almost by definition, the most boring of humanlike monsters, since they lack the pathos of a good vampire or the cunning of a werewolf.) 
Nickell, not surprisingly, doesn't think much of any of the apelike or manlike cryptids of the world.  While the relevant chapters in this book are too short to cover the subject in depth,  I wasn't terribly impressed even on points where I agree with him. You can't spend a couple of days in the woods and expect it to contribute in any meaningful way to proving or disproving the existence of a particular species. Think how long it took Dian Fossey to find the gorillas, and she knew they were there.  And investigators should apply the same standards to all claims, regardless of which side they agree with. Nickell tries to paper over the impossible gap between the two accounts of the Patterson-Gimlin film suit (commercial costume vs. homemade horse-hide), and his drawing of the figure points to things like "suit-glove" interface that  I can't see on any blowup of the actual film - which he doesn't include. I happen to agree the film figure is likely a guy in an ape suit, but it's a darn good ape suit, and I don't think the mystery behind it has been solved.
Then we get to the "melted out" explanation for the Shipton Yeti track.  Why, of all the people who have written about this track, am I the only one who has actually attempted to replicate it in snow?  (Results: you can't.  ) 
Joe has done a lot of good with his investigations of pseudoscience.  This particular book just didn't make an impression on me. 

Bigfoot, Nessie by the numbers

Doubtful News examines surveys

It's weird, in a way, to ask if people "believe" in a creature. The creature is either real or not, and it doesn't care how many people think it's out there.  Neither, properly, does science: reality is independent of polls.  But polls are taken, and are interesting to peruse. Here Doubtful News looks at recent polls on Bigfoot and Nessie.  So, to quote a blog that quotes the surveys (Okay, I admit this is the lazy way to do it, but the facts are the same): "three-in-ten Americans (29%) and one-in-five Canadians (21%) think Bigfoot is “definitely” or “probably” real." and "17 per cent of Britons believe the Loch Ness Monster is “definitely” or “probably” real — 24 per cent in Scotland."  Sharon Hill wonders to what extent the numbers are skewed by recent films, TV, etc. which of course they could be.  (Someone should take a poll on mermaids before and after the upcoming Animal Planet science fiction show about a mermaid being found. )  She also asks if "real" necessarily refers to the physical creature, although I think most of those polled assume that's what they were being asked.
Grover Krantz once explained, "I don't believe or disbelieve.  I have certain knowledge that causes me to conclude." Whether one agrees with the late Dr. Krantz on his conclusion, the fact that a large number of people believe these creatures exist is very interesting by itself. If you believe the surveys are real. 

Of mermaids and aquatic apes

Animal Planet visits mermaids

Animal Planet on 5/27 is doing basically a science fiction program on the premise that we've found the body of a mermaid.  It might be fun: I never saw their dragon show on the similar premise, but I know some people thought it was fun, while other thought it was real.  This will no doubt get the same mixed reception.

The special also will present (uncritically, I suspect) the Aquatic Ape Theory that humans went through an aquatic phase of evolution.  Now it's not totally out of the question that primates COULD have spawned an aquatic offshoot, and it's fun to speculate on.  But presenting the AAT seriously as a scientific theory is... umm, I think the technical Latin word is "crap."  Humans are terribly maladapted for aquatic existence:  marine predators would have viewed us as a free buffet.  To mention just one objection, the radically different salt excretion system proposed would have required a line of development unlike all other mammals - and then disappeared and saw us go back to normal kidneys.  Right....

Saturday, May 05, 2012

No croc - this critter was huge

Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni

This newly identified species from East Africa might have been the largest of the "true crocodiles" - that is, the largest ever member of the genus Crocodylus.  (The famous "supercroc" belonged in another genus.) Christopher Brochu, the describer, says, . “It may have exceeded 27 feet in length. By comparison, the largest recorded Nile crocodile was less than 21 feet, and most are much smaller. It lived alongside our ancestors, and it probably ate them." It wouldn't even have to chomp or tear a human up - it could have swallowed someone whole.  Crocodiles love it when there's no mess after dinner...

Killing Bigfoot?

Is the only good sasquatch a dead one?

A kerfluffle on the sasquatch websites lately concerns whether it's proper to kill a member of the species in order to prove its existence and get protection for the the rest of the population.  A couple of people claim to have had the animals in their sights but couldn't shoot because the primates looked too human.  Then there's the "Sierra Kills" claim by someone who says two specimens were shot in California but were, of course, covered up by the shooters.  The story is ridiculous, but it does raise a real question about type specimens and whether you need a whole animal for a scientific description.
In the modern era, you can get away without shooting a specimen, but there are requirements that are perhaps harder to meet.  A bird has been described and accepted when it was live-trapped, photographed close up, a blood sample was taken for DNA, and the bird released back into the wild.  Close, repeated video surveillance would possibly work - but only if the surveillance produced images so clear that all possibility of fakery was removed, or if scientists with no perceived  bias were brought in to join the observing team.
So if there is a North American ape - an unlikely but not impossible situation - it needn't be killed. But you'd better get alternate proof so solid it will convince everyone. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

As if dinosaurs didn't have enough problems...

Outsized fleas plagued biggest land animals

Dealing with asteroids, Tyrannosaurs, and shoving enough food in their mouths was bad enough, but the world's biggest-ever land animals also had to deal with fleas.  Fleas ten times the size of modern ones, equipped with long claws to hold onto the edges of scales while their built-in hypodermicc needles poked the skin between to suck out blood. 
COMMENT: My daughter Corey follows Buddhism and thinks all life is sacred.  Well, perhaps it is sacred, but that doesn't mean it's all necessary.  We modern creatures are perfectly happy to do without these mega-fleas.