Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hot-blooded dinosaur fight, Round 217

Who you callin' cold-blooded?

Nothing, not even the status of Flores people, has consumed science the way three-plus decades of debate over whether dinosaurs were endothermic (warm-blooded) or ectothermic (cold-blooded) has. Evenr since Desmond and Bakker wrote the key popular books (The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs and The Dinosaur Heresies, respectively), scientists have loosed volleys of facts and opinions at one another. There is general agreement that dinops were more mobile and active than we once thought, but is endothermy required for an active lifestyle in a big animal? The latest argument comes from a new direction, arguing that growth rings in the bones of dinosaurs look more like what we see in mammals (which grow more steadily than the start-and-stop development common in reptiles) and that, with the single exception of sauropods (so huge that normal rules might not apply to them in a sense: they may have been effectively warmed just by the movements of thse tons of muscles), dinosaurs show a common pattern consistent with behind warmblooded.
COMMENT: I've always liked the warm-blooded idea: these huge animals drifting through plain and swamp like ground-dwelling blimps never made much sense to me.  Having read dinosaur books since the first grade, I naturally have formed some layman's opinions. Most of the dinos were warm-blooded, and by the way T. rex was an active predator, not some ridiculously over-armed scavenger! 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Farewell, Lonesome George

The Pinta Island tortoise is extinct

George endured many lonely decades as, most herpetologists thought, the last of his kind.  He held that unenviable position for 40 years (he was somewhere over 100 when he died). 

Aliens and faith

Would ET affect our religion?

Humans are, overwhelmingly, religious (or at least spiritual) folks.  I've read a fundamentalist magazine arguing that ET is not out there, because God would have told us through the Bible, or at least the Bible would not have implied that the universe was made for humanity alone.   
I never saw that.  The Bible didn't tell us a lot of things, even if you accept it as divinely inspired. If there are intelligent beings, great: we can have a fascinating discussion about spirituality (or lack thereof.) 
Apparently there was a very interesting panel discussion on this at SETICon 2.  Astronomer Seth Shostak noted, "We haven't been the center of the universe for a while now."
I like what a Baptist theologian (not on the panel) was quoted as saying: "If a couple has one child, and then they decide to have a second child. Is that second child any less special?" In other words, finding other intelligent species doesn't lessen us in a theological sense.
Maybe we can trade missionaries. 

Cool - and weird - fish fossil

An intermediate form of flounder?

Flounders and other flatfish are bizarre enough: one eye migrates to the other side of the head.  What's weirder is that no one knew how this started - there were no forms in the fossil record with one eye partially migrated.  It's hard to swallow the such a mutation could have arisen in a single leap.  Well, not we have an apparent intermediate form, found, as so many important fossils are, in a forgotten museum drawer.  "The left eye of this single specimen, a 50-million-year-old fish called Heteronectes, has migrated toward the top of the skull, but not all the way over."
How weird is that?  Still unclear - how useful an eye in that position would be. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bigfoot and "Wild Man" myths

Ben Radford talks folklore and human belief

Ben Radford of SI is quoted and linked to in this article about the global "wild man" belief, a thread of our consciousness that's expressed in our desire to belive sasquatch and yeti and other creatures, perhaps early versions of ourselves, are still eluding civilization and living a freer existence.  Everything said here is true, and it's important to remember.  It's also true, though, that whether we are disposed to believe has little impact on the evidence - only how we interpret the evidence.  If there were a very strong Wild Man myth or none at all, it makes no difference concerning whether the Big Guy is stomping the Pacific Northwest or not. 

Hey swimmers, we found some more sharks!

Sharks more diverse than thought

A team of scientists have found there are many more species among sharks than we knew of.  That on the one hand gives us more and better information to use in studying them. One the other hand, it meas some that we thought were doing ok are actually less numerous.  After taking DNA from 4,283 specimens of sharks and rays, researchers found 574 species, vs the 495 they thought were represented by that sample and that 495 was only a chunk of the 1,400 or so thought to exist worldwide. (1,400 is a considerably higher number than we are used to reading, but there have been a lot of small types discovered and some significant species-splitting already in recent years.)  An interesting note in this article is sounded by another scientists who thinks this team may be off using genetics alone to map the shark family tree.  (As I have observed before, there is not universal agreement, or even a majority agreement, about precisely defining species based on differences in DNA.)
Meanwhile the sharks aer just going about their business, as they have for 400 million years.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review: Area 51

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen (2012)

As an aviation/space buff, I wanted to like this. As someone who has written aerospace history, I could only be dismayed by the way a ton of research was undone with careless misreporting (constantly referring to a Horten "flying disk" when it was a flying wing), exaggeration (no nuclear "Mars-bound" rocket was ever overheated, because nothing close to a space-going nuclear rocket, as opposed to a ground-bound reactor demo, was ever built), and the sheer incredulity of seeing a previously respected journalist discuss the a "Soviet/Mengele" Roswell crash theory as if it might be true. The section on atomic testing has been disputed, but I'm not an expert there, so I won't comment on it. (And is "escorted by destroyer battleships" a typo? One hopes so.

The author does better on the airplanes, with some interesting stories of Oxcart and the SR-71. Oddly, there is no mention of the reports from the past few years the might indicate really unusual test aircraft/UAVs.

I appreciated the thick bibliography and the many sources provided, but I couldn't get past the UFO stuff: if an author would report that as even possible fact, how does the reader know whether to trust anything else in the book?

The idea that Mengele created some kind of child-mutation for Stalin is absurdity layered on falsehood. Mengele never could have produced such prodigies because Mengele had no idea how to do science and there were no results from his barbaric wartime experimentation. The evidence of contact between Megele and high-level Soviets is zero. The chances Stalin had a flying disc with a totally unknown propulsion system, far beyond 2012 technology let alone 1947, is zero. The chances Stalin would have risked a superweapon that could have dropped a nuke on Washington on a demonstration of fake alien contact, where a malfunction would mean the US captured the craft and learned all its secrets, was zero. The chances the discredited Bob Lazar knew anything about real alien contact is zero. (I detect a trend here.) The Russians made a saucer to fake an alien spacecraft, sent it to the US, and left Russian writing on it in plain view? What happened to the author's instincts and practices as a journalist when presented with this tale?

It's one thing to relate that someone who claims he once worked in the area told her this story. It's another to refer to it throughout the book as a possibility, when it just isn't. Did she ask independent aerospace engineers and biomedical researchers to comment on the plausibility of the story? If not, why not? This book would have value if she'd left this story out or treated it as the fantasy it is: implying there is something to it ruined the rest of the book for me.

Matt Bille, lead author, The First Space Race (Texas A&M, 2004)
(NOTE: As holder of a current DoD security clearance, I should add that I speak only from open sources: I've never seen classified material on these particular topics.)

Do you feel being shot in the head?

OK, thriller writers, this is for you.  It's  is a bizarre topic, but someone thought it worth research, and it points up that there's a lot we don't know about pain, consciousness, and neurological damage.  There's sort of a consensus that a bullet to the head in a location causing quick death won't be felt, but about half of people shot in the head survive (obviously Gabby Giffords is a notable recent example) and some feel pain and some don't.  The writer reports: "There is one rare effect, called the Krönlein shot, where a high powered shot messily opens the skull but neatly ejects the whole brain on the ground. "  I felt no urge to find pictures. The good side of all this is how many people, like Congresswoman Giffords, survive wounds that would have been treated only with a shot of morphine a couple of decades back.  The bad news is that we humans are still finding reasons - or, often, nonreasons - to make this field of study a medical neccessity.

Neat graphic: Space ships compared

How humans have left Earth

This cool graphic shows the silhouettes, to scale, of the vessels humans have used to climb to space: spaceplanes (including three canceled ones), space stations (though Mir and Skylab are missing), and capsules.  The ISS, as you'd expect, dominates the field on sheer size.  One many readers may not recognize is Skylon, a British proposal to build a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) spaceplane.  The designers think they have an engine design that overcomes the problem all previous designs have run into: that you can't carry enough fuel in any size ship to get the ship and cargo direct to orbit and back.  Sadly, I don;t expect success here: their technology is immature, and I don't think their math will hold up when you get into the real world, where you constantly tweak the structure of a huge vessel for various stresses and needs until your margin is gone.  But good luck, chaps!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Big Alaskan Antenna Attracts Suspicious Minds

Since I'm on fringe science today, let's think about the fringe that claims HAARP  - High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program - is a secret mind control/weather control device.  In fact, it was built under Air Force contract to "advance our knowledge of the physical and electrical properties of the Earth's ionosphere which can affect our military and civilian communication and navigation systems."
Those who see a dark hand in every unusual government project are not so easily mollified.  It's weather control, it's mind control, etc.  But the fact is, nothing about the facility is even classified. Anyone can go look at it (although tours are limited by availability of staff, there are Open House events for the public to visit.)
So as to its being a superweapon: in a word, nope. As big and science fictiony-looking (I can't think of a properly grammatical term) as this thing may be, the power is orders of magnitude lower than what you would need to make major changes to the ionosphere. It's a handy way for the USAF to do something very important: understand how radio communications propagate through the ionosphere and how disturbances in that layer (which it can create on a local ,temporary scale) affect those communications. Think about it: if we had a weapon that could change weather, human brainwave patterns, etc at a distance, don't you think the US would be doing rather better in its wars and other affairs?  Wouldn't we be DOING something with it?

While I'm in the neighborhood, I think the same logic applies to those who think the government has all kinds of superweapons based on the work of the electrical genius Tesla.   If some of his really nasty ideas, like death rays, were practical, why are we still building fighter planes and artillery? Because the man was a genius doesn't mean all his ideas were good ones.

Aquatic Apes? Not Us

Dr. Darren Naish takes on the Aquatic Ape Theory

The AAT has been swimming around the edges of the anthropological pool for a few decades now. It got a little publicity boost with the Animal Planet show on mermaids last month.  It has its die-hard adherents, but, as Naish, explains here, it's basically crud.  Humans are terribly maladapted for water, and the few arguments made from physiology are wrong, misused, or coincidental; they don't make up any coherent pattern of features you'd find in a swimming, diving ape.  (The argument, for example, for hairlessness as an aquatic adaptation must seem pretty silly to seals: hairlessness occurs only in the completely waterborne mammals, like whales, not in the semi-aquatic ones.)  Anyway, I'll let Darren take this the rest of the way, but the AAT, while fun to think about, isn't valid science. It really never was.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Shuker and the black lion

Dr. Karl Shuker writes a great blog, ShukerNature.  His biggest-ever "hit" with readers wasn't about new species or lake monsters. It was about photos on the internet about a coal-black lion. A lot of people seem to have seen the photo but missed the description.  Someone uploaded to the Net a photoshopped version of a real lion photograph.
Alas, no one has a black lion, or photographic evidence of one.  Nonetheless, there are eyewitness claims that such a dramatic color variant exists.  It wouldn't be surprising if melanism occurred on rare occasions. It does in several cat species.  A raging debate exists over whether a truly black puma has ever existed, although there are a few photos of dark-looking examples, and my dad saw a black-looking one in Maine in the 1950s.
The most extreme example of an off-colored cat may be the  blue tigers once reported from China.  A blue has never ended up in a zoo or on film, but the color does, on extremely rare occasions, occur in lynx.

So people should keep an eye out for the legendary black lion.  You know how sneaky cats can be....

Thoughts on the ivory-billed woodpecker

It was the king of woodpeckers, a majestic bird.  Recent word is that we lost it twice: that the American and Cuban versions may have been different species.  The Cuban is, without doubt, extinct. The American is...well, almost certainly extinct.  It's sad to think we managed to screw up repeatedly. The Cuban was rediscovered in the 1980s, but too late to preserve enough habitat.  The American was videotaped in 2004 in Arkansas, a huge effort was made to find and save it, and ... nothing.(I think the taped sighting was valid: the experts are split, so the amateurs get to weigh in, too :) )  Sightings in TX, LA, and FL and intriguing, but nothing solid backs them up.
I met a woman once who had hiked with her father as a young girl in the early 50s in Louisiana. Her dad shushed her and pointed to a magnificent bird sitting on a stump "That's an ivory-billed woodpecker," he whispered. "Take a good look, because you'll never see one again." This is where we all are now: take a good luck at the few seconds of video from the ivorybill's rediscovery, because I don't think we'll see it again.

Friday, June 15, 2012

New species: strange and beautiful sponge

A new species from 950 meters down, this sponge's silicon strucure makes it reminiscent of abstract scuplture in glass... but even more beautiful. 

Sponge picture: a new deep-sea species found during a recent expedition

Oldest cave paintings - are they Neanderthal?

Secrets of a Spanish cave

Spanish cave paintings thought to be 25,000 years old and the work of Cro-Magnon humans have been dated much further back by a new technique - to over 40,000 years.  A sphere and several handprints in red pigment, found in the El Castillo Cave, are now considered the oldest cave paintings ever found.  While authorship can't be proven, some scientists think modern humans weren't in the area at the time - leaving Neanderthals as the likely culprit. We know some Neanderthals painted their bodies, but never before has a cave painting been attributed to them. 
So many mysteries about those who came before us....

The ''Panel of Hands'' in El Castillo Cave, Spain.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Space historian Roger Launius blog

From the NASM

I have known Roger since he was at NASA. We have disagreed, but he's been an invaluable resource to me as I took my first steps into space history.  I didn't realize until now that he had a blog, though.  In this entry, he discusses a panel he's moderating: "a discussion on Capitol Hill, Rayburn 2325, on Friday, June 15, 2012, 10 a.m. EDT, about “Commercialization of Space Travel and Human Participation in Space Exploration."  Near and dear to my heart - if I was in Washington, I'd head on over.

He also has an interesting entry here: review of a new book on a very important force in space exploration (at least it used to be), Soviet robotic probes

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How many cryptids are believable?

I put this one on some FaceBook crypto forums. It'll be interesting to follow the comments:
Here is something cryptozoologists don't discuss much. The whole basis of our field is the idea that we shouldn't dismiss reports of unknown animals, including large animals, without cause. We know there are many unknown species, and it's a pretty sure thing there are some large ones, even large land animals. But we don't talk about the fact that it seems well beyond possibility that every continent still has five or ten large-to-very-large animals undiscovered. For example, worldwide I do think we have at least one large primate, with the chance of a couple more: I don't think it's remotely possible that we've missed two or three large primates on US territory alone. I do think we have at least one very large marine animal, but not a half dozen. There are some interesting reports of very large creatures in big lakes, but the idea of a big creature in almost every large lake, even if we narrow it to lakes with multiple independent reports, is absurd. Yet in our zeal not to miss anything (a zeal I have often expressed) we overlook this impossibility of the whole planet still swarming with big (50kg+) unknowns. Thoughts?

Update: Wow, did I draw a crowd of responses when I put this on Facebook.  Loren Coleman, Chad Arment, and other well-known cryptozoologists chimed in.  We discussed the validity of reports, the question of how big things can be missed, and so on, but I don't think any of us has worked out the answer to the core question yet.  See:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bake sale for NASA

Scientists have tried everything else....

NASA gets less than a half of one percent of the federal budget.  That's not too much for exploring the universe... except that public perception is that the budget is far larger, and in fact it's been savaged by cancellations and cutbacks.  That's the reasoning behind the Planetary Exploration Car Wash and Bake Sale to be held by University of Central Florida and other institutions.  Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute puts it this way: "This is being done to attract media attention and to help focus Congress on repairing the damage of the deep cuts planned to NASA's planetary science program," said Alan Stern, the institute's associate vice president for research and development. "It's important these cuts be repaired to maintain U.S. leadership in this area of science, to prevent mission cuts, and to prevent student and research job losses."

COMMENT: I wish he hadn't mentioned jobs: NASA does provide a lot of jobs, but jobs  have become the sole criteria in Congress for shaping the agency (as in, "More jobs to the Center in my district.")  But the idea of giving even half a cent to the one agency focused on the long-term future and the place of humanity in the cosmos would seem to be a no-brainer.  Sigh.....

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Love those new species...

20 years of RAP team success

Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) teams have traveled to hotspots around the world, making rapid inventories of species whose environment is under threat.  Everywhere they go, new species descriptions follow - 1,300 so far. Here is a slideshow of 20 top hits - the tube-nosed bat, the walking shark, and other spectacular finds. 
COMMENT: The CI biologists' work is often arduous and rarely safe: two people drowned on one South American trip to a remote river area. These scientists and their support personnel are the SWAT teams of conservation, the smoke jumpers, the EMTs.  They are heroes. 

Space "visoneering"

Elon Musk of SpaceX

Interesting profile of SpaceX's Elon Musk, heir to past "visioneers" who sought to move the human species up - and out - through technology.  To Musk and those who think like him, the author writer, "the present is only a prototype."  SpaceX has proven its Falcon 9 medium booster with two flights and its Dragon capsule with two - they still have a lot of work to do,  but they have gotten further towards transport of cargo and humans in reusable spacecraft than any company ever has.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Nope, no faster than light neutrinos here

Discovery was an error

The same scientists who announced they had observed a beam of neutrinos traveling slightly faster than light have a new finding: Never Mind. The discovery was due to a faulty element in the fiber-optic timing system, but the thing to remember is that science worked the way it should.  Results were published and debated, other labs tried to replicate them, and repeated experiments by the original lab pinned down the anomaly.  Science triumphs.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Aquaman's Nightmare

Undersea "bug" is pretty destructive

Bathynomus is a creature from a science fiction film, a crustacean bigger than your foot that looks like it was designed specifically to give humans nightmares.  It turns out those super-sharp mandibles aren't just for food: they also satisfy whatever impulse it is that makes the creatures gnaw on rubber-coated power cables.  Scientists have caught these critters severing their connections to undersea camera experiments.  Why? Well, it could be something about the taste of rubber. Or it could be   they don't like us discovering their secret plan to rule the oceans...

Thursday, June 07, 2012

More bird species in trouble

Grim forecast

How many bird species are in trouble? BirdLife International says no fewer than 1,331.  Brazil alone has over 100, mainly because of deforestation.  Contrarians sometimes point out that most of the area marked deforested is not turned to concrete, but replanted with a crop or a cultured tree species, but the disruption even in these cases is huge, and birds don't take well to that. Ask the ivory-billed woodpecker, if you can find one: there were plenty of forested habitats remaining, but it apparently couldn't adapt well from old growth to secondary growth, and I think we lost it for good. 

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The business of space

The risks and rewards

This is a really good article looking at the business side of space.  The writer notes that a lot of the commercial effort so far hasn't attracted public notice, but the SpaceX Dragon success is changing that.  The article goes on to explain that space is potentially a high-reward arena of business, but we know it's high-risk, especially when human flight is involved. The entrepreneurs are moving ahead nonetheless.
(I think  there is a typo in this sentence: "SpaceX founder Elon Musk, for example, has said he envisions developing aircraft to take people to Mars." Aircraft, really?)

Thanks to Kris Winkler for this item.

Ray Bradbury: Farewell to an Original

Writer, poet, and visionary Ray Bradbury has died at 91.  From Fahrenheit 451 to Something Wicked This Way Comes to his TV and film work and his touching poetry of the Space Age, Bradbury helped us all to see farther, imagine more, and never be afraid of the future.  His countless accolades included the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, the O. Henry Memorial Award, and the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction  and Fantasy Writers of America. I have an autographed copy of his poetry collection, a special thing to me even though he did not sign it to me. Alas, I never met him: I had the chance at Utah State U. some years ago but felt duty-bound to go to the Small Satellite Conference awards dinner isntead.  Bad call on my part.   

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Belief in creation goes up

Gallup finds religious views rise

Despite changes in culture and new discoveries in science, the idea God created humans in their present form has ticked upwards 2% since 1982 to include 46% of Americans.  32 percent think God directed evolution to produce us, and 15% say no deity was involved.  
COMMENT: I do think there is a divine intelligence that influenced us to evolve into spiritual beings who believe in such things as beauty, altruism, and philosophy as well as having the need to seek a divinity.  I've read strictly mechanistic biological explanations for these things but have not been convinced. (That includes reading Dawkins, a brilliant man who created his own definition of what God was and then argued God as defined by Dawkins was irrational.)  I wonder if it's a universal condition that any beings evolving anywhere to a human level of intelligence would develop spiritual awareness.  Someday we'll drop on on the inhabitants of another planet and see if that's true: generalization from one species is certainly an iffy proposition. 
(Thought experiment. Assume you are Moses and God has given you the understanding that creation was a 14-billion-year process of evolution.  Are you going to try to explain this literally to a low-educated population? No, you'll write an allegory.)

Monday, June 04, 2012

National Museum of Flight

I spent an interesting morning (interesting enough to make me miss my flight home) at the National Museum of Flight at the Boeing site in Seattle.  A Concorde, a fomer Air Force One, an Apollo Block 1 capsule (a modified one used to test the new unified hatch after the Apollo 1 fire) and an Explorer 1 satellite model with the black-and-white-striped color scheme, which I discussed with Dr. Ron Hobbs, a friendly volunteer ambassador who promised to read my book mentioning why it's wrong.     I was extremely impressed: it's the best space collection I've seen outside the National Air and Space Symposium.
Museum site:

From top: Original Boeing plant: Fokker Eindeckker: Explorer 1 and Sputnik 1: Me in front of lifesize image showing the size of the R-7 booster that launched the first Soviet spacecraft.

The Space Industry's Prospects, 1959

FORTUNE magazine's view

Terrific article surveying the U.S.  Space Industry and its prospects.  I had read copiously on this era without coming across this article or the ARPA maneuverable manned spacecraft idea it mentions.  Some projections were overly optimistic, but this is an excellent source for understanding the mindset of the day: the view from industry is oft overlooked in favor of government sources.  (Although corporate sources can be hard to find: companies have a terrible record at keeping hold of their "old stuff."  I called around Daimler-Chrysler in 2003-4 without finding anyone who even knew one of their divisions had built stages for Saturn V.)

Friday, June 01, 2012

Scary: people think mermaids show was real

Animal Planet was trying to entertain, but...

Yes, some people thought the mermaid mockumentary, cheap CGI, altered voices, long-discredited Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (come on, wouldn't we humans at least be decent swimmers if we'd once been merpeople?) and all, was real.  Sigh. 

Star Wars: When Galaxies Collide

The sky in the far future

A mind blowing collision between the Milky Way and Andromesda will totally reshape the night sky.  We're going to miss it by a few billion years, but NASA created these awesome images of what it it'll look like.