Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Exciting week in space

All kinds of space stuff is going on.

China says its next lunar probe, in 2013, will have a lander.  It's been decades since anyone (Soviets, actually) put down a robotic lander.
Meanwhile, Russia has a new price on seats for orbital tourists.  The first such seats cost $20M - the latest cost is $150M.  Used to be, you could have your own space program for that kind of money. (Actually, in the modern world of microsatellites, you can.)

A privately owned lunar lander? There are plans for that, too.  Polaris is the first lander built in response to the Google Lunar X-Prize to have a contract with a launch date. A SpaceX Falcon is planned to take it up in 2013. 

Meanwhile, we learned the Apollo lunar landing flags - five out of six, anyway - are still standing.  (The exception, alas, is the very first flag, Apollo 11's.)  Take THAT, "Apollo hoax" idiots.

Finally, check out these NASA videos about the upcoming Mars Rover landing - narrated by Star Trek actors William Shatner and Wil Wheaton.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives, but Bill Shatner is on his fourth or fifth.) 

Friday, July 27, 2012

More "grolar" bears spotted

In my interviews for MonsterQuest a few years ago, I predicted we would see more grizzly-polar bear hybrids as thinning ice pushed the polars south and civilization in general pushed the brown bears north.  Giving those circumstances, I take no pleasure in being right. There seems to be a lot more fraternizing going on.

More Hybrids Spottted in the Wild

As one bear biologist says, “You know that these hybrids may be out there somewhere, but seeing both a hybrid and a grizzly bear so far north standing right there beside each other on the sea ice, was amazing. I really can’t describe in words what it felt like.”

"Prehistoric monster" (ok, massive sturgeon) caught

The white sturgeon is one explanation - likely, I feel, to be the right one - for the reports of giant fish from Alaska's Lake Iliamna. There are no records of catches in the lake, although there is one from Bristol Bay and many from the Gulf of Alaska.  Here's a monster of a sturgeon from Canada.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Meet the newest mammal

Most new mammals are, not surprisingly, small ones. But they keep popping up.  Meet Christine's Margareta rat (Margaretamys christinae), fresh from Indonesia.  It's the fourth species in the genus Margaretamy, which is unique to the island of Sulawesi.  The mountain range where it lives, though, is threatend by logging and farming.  Hard to find a new mammal that isn't threatened, really...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Elephants: Not out of the jungle yet

Poaching resurges

Several times, we've thought we were en route to eradicating elephant poaching, thanks to law enforcement and restrictions on trafficking ivory.  But in Africa, especially Central Africa, it's back.  2011 might have been the worst year ever, with thousands of elephants dying - and in early 2012, hundreds were killed by a single gang in a single episode. China and Thailand, the biggest markets, have failed to enforce laws. 
COMMENT: What can we do? We can give/encourage aid to programs protecting elephants in their habitat, public and private. We can't let this happen.  We can't let the world's biggest land animal be reduced to a handful of zoo specimens.  Go to a zoo sometimes and take a good look.  If you haven't seen a live epephant in a while you'll be awed.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Farewell, Sally Ride

In this June 1983 photo provided by NASA, astronaut Sally Ride, a specialist on shuttle mission STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the shuttle Columbia flight deck.

This is a shocker. Farewell to Sally Ride: a great explorer, a pioneer, and a science educator. Hers was a life that made a difference in the world, and we have lost her far too soon.
Godspeed, Sally Ride.

Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Is Dead : NPR

NPR: "Ride was a Ph.D candidate at Standford when she answered an ad to become a NASA astronaut. She became the first American woman in space when she blasted off in the space shuttle Challenger in 1983."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Saquatch - not enough science being done?

TV show criticized

Brian Regal has a bone to pick with sasquatch hunters, especially those on Finding Bigfoot.  He complains the show and others like it elevate the amateur over the professional sceintist and the sensational over the provable. 
He has a point, though his criticism of amateurs is overly harsh.  If you follow news of new species discoveries, a lot of them still come in from amateur insect-hunters and herpetology hobbyists and the like. Just like "professor" does not automatically mean "ivory-tower irrelevant academic," "amateur" does not mean "scientifically useless." Ask the asteroid/comet hunters.
There's no reason a show on cryptozoology can't include rigorous science front and center, though, and Regal - who does not totally dismiss sasquatch - is right in saying that not nearly enough of them do. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: The Great Sperm Whale

The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

by Richard Ellis
 U. of Kansas, 2011
Herman Melville said of the sperm whale, "Of all the great whales, his is an unwritten life." Not anymore.

I'm a longtime fan of Ellis' writing, so it was no surprise I loved this entry in his works on marine life. I'd read a great deal on this animal, including Ellis' own earlier books, but I had no idea just how bizarre Physeter macrocephalus really is. It has countless features (like the single forward spout) that don't appear in other whales, and a nose/spermaceti organ so remarkably weird it belongs on a creature from another planet. It wasn't until the last decade that scientists gave credence to the startling fact that sperm whales hunt squid in darkness by finding and then stunning them with sound. The sperm's evolution is very well traced, showing many transitional forms (including the fearsome Livyatan melvillei), but there is still a lot we don't know about how this animal came to be so unique.

As always with an Ellis book, this one is a mini-reference library, with a bibliography running 23 pages. Also as always, Ellis' own drawings and paintings bring the whale to life in a way the photographic record (which was sparse until remarkably recently) can't quite capture. (Ellis' postscript on how one paints a whale mural is a fascinating bit of "bonus footage" that comes with the book.)

Everyone is curious about how big the whale gets. Ellis rejects the idea that bull sperms were historically larger than the 62-foot modern record, but he admits that a pair of 11-inch teeth in a museum (8 inches is big) make one wonder just what the all-time record was. Ellis does not mention one oddity, the old reports of aberrant sperm whales with true dorsal fins - these may be in error, but I would have liked Ellis' analysis.

I gave this 4.5 stars on Amazon rather than 5 on a couple of minor flaws - the occcasional wrong word has slipped through editing, and there is some repetition. Another odd slip is that Ellis gives Charles Townsend's estimate of the casualties of New England Yankee whaling on page 238, but doesn't point out it's drastically wrong until page 291.

The sperm whale really is, as Ellis says, "The ocean's most magnificent and mysterious creature." Pick up this remarkable book and meet the monarch of the seas.

The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Madagascar's lemurs - it's no DreamWorks film

As silly as the Madagascar films from DreamWorks are, they've made people more aware of Madagascar the real place.  As Russell Mittermeir shows in this item, though, the island's many rare species of lemurs are becoming rarer as the environment degrades on what can only be called a fast track to hell.  The northern sportive lemur population is 18. That's it. 18 in the world.  So enjoy the film, but support conservation. 

AeroAstro: Farewell to a Pioneer

Smallsat company closed down

Every revolution has its heralds, and Rick Fleeter was one of the key people behind the the microsatellite revolution - doing space missions with far smaller satellites in innovative ways. Fleeter's impact was lasting, but his pioneering company is taking its last breath.  AeroAstro, which he founded in 1988, was acquired by Comtech. As of the last Conference on Small Satellites, Comtech AeroAstro was still an enthusiastic presence, even though Fleeter had sold all his interest long ago.  But the company only had one funded satellite contract and the US Navy just unfunded it, so Comtech is shutting AeroAstro down.  The revolution (though battered, bruised, reformulated, and dismissed many times) lives on, but those of us who see the value in it are sorry to see AeroAstro vanish from the ranks.

Infographic: Missions to Mars

This is really cool.


Almost to Mars....

Rover approaches Red Planet

Less than three weeks from Mars, the rover Curiosity is attracting a big audience of the curious. Some are nervous about the "Skycrane" technology intended to lower the one-ton rover to the surface. Thanks to the gravity differentce, it wasn't even possible to completely test the system on Earth. If this doesn't work, a huge chunk of planetary probe budget will have been spent on nothing.  No pressure....

Why does the universe exist?

A review of a book that is definitely on my must-read list:


We've all wondered. Someone in the comments said a brain formed of the "something" will never be able to explain why "something" exists.  Maybe it's a problem we ought to set aside so we can deal with concrete realities?  Naw, that would be no fun.  Humans HAVE to wonder about this question: whether we approach it from science, secular philosophy, or religious philosophy, it is worth pondering because asking the question is what marks us as sentient beings.  We can't lay it aside. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A nasty new sea snake and other species

Sea Snake part of this collection of news

News of new species is collected on this page in a simple, accessible format. The star this week is   Hydrophis donaldi, a sea snake which is not only venomous but has spines on its scales.  It's a unique creature, and herpetologists still have a lot to learn about it. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Lemurs on the brink

Primates in trouble from habitat loss

Lemurs are fascinating, a clutch of primates that exists in only one place - Madagascar - and includes species the size of mice up to an (extinct, or almost certainly extinct) type the size of a black bear.  Additionally, we keep discovering new species, nearly every year.

The lemurs, though, are not doing well as a group.  Their habitats are shrinking, to the degree that experts say 90 of the known 103 species belong on the Red List of threatened species. Poaching is widespread: national park boundaries are being ignored by loggers. 

This belongs on any list of the world's top conservation priorities. Lemurs, due to an island home, can't flee destruction as some other animals can.  If we lose them in Madagascar, we lose them forever.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Arsenic and old life? No.

Science - science done right - allows for rebuttals, challenges, and overturning previous conclusions. Last year, NASA made a big deal out of the report that a microorganism had turned up which still reproduced even if highly toxic arsenic were substituted for phosphorous in its makeup. 
Never mind.

Two new papers have been published that contradict the previous findings. One says the original team's samples were contaminated, screwing up results, the other saying the creatures don;t die with arsenic "installation," but they don't reproduce, either.

Despite all this, Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute is sticking to her guns. She's convinced that further study will show the original finding was right.

Good science can be messy.  This is a good example.

New way to see nature: portraits of icebergs

I've never thought of icebergs as subjecta for a painting.  But artist Camille Seaman has.  “They are like humans in that each one reacts to its environment and its circumstances in its own way," she says.  And these are stunning, absolutely stunning, visions of the great nature-made ships that roam the oceans.  Anythign that helps us get a new slant on nature is a good thing,

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mystery solved, mystery created - Auroras do make sounds

Sound and light show

The claim that sounds accompanied the aurora borealis was long dismissed as folklore.  But now we know.  Microphones set up in an area of frequent auroral activity recorded a variety of "clapping" sounds along with pops and bangs and "sputtering."
How are sounds produced by the energetic particles creating the Northern Lights? Ah, that's the NEW mystery. 

New species named for Bob Marley

Latest Carribean crustacean

Bring on the fresh crab - with reggae music.  OK, not a crab, but a crustacean, albeit a tiny parasitic one. Its namesake: Reggae legend Bob Marley.  Scientific name: Gnathia marleyi. 
Scientists have to get creative in name species: we now have way more species than we have Greek or Latin words to apply to.  So we have:
 - A lichen named for President Obama
 - A frog named for Prince Charles (frog, prince, get it?)
 - Not one but two insects named for Steve Colbert
 - A trilobite (ancient, get it?) named for Mick Jagger
 - and a fly named for Beyonce. 

If we ever find the Loch Ness monster, maybe we'll name it for longtime monster hunter Tim Dinsdale - or maybe for Vladimir Lenin (a dinosaur, get it?)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Darren Naish takes on ReptileEvolution.com

Popular site is not good science

We all love dinosaurs.  A site called ReptileEvolution.com has become the Web's top destination for dino info, but Dr. Darren Naish argues this is a very scary thing. The site features spectacular illustrations of creatures which, according to Naish, fly in the face of everything that virtually every paleontologist in the world believes. (Even to my amateur's eye, they are ridiculously impractical, festooned with ribbons and feathery growths that could only get in the way.) The site's author, a fellow named Peters who had a great career as an illustrator of (realistic) extinct creatures, relies on a photographic analysis technique (he does not examine actual fossils) by which he sees all kinds of soft tissue features no one else can discern. 
So you have been warned.  Because someone publishes material they have put a great deal of sincere effort into does not mean they are right, or even in the ballpark. 

Here's a look at some of Peters' creatures.  Can't swallow this....
And don't get me started on the vampire pterosaur
Again, Naish is the expert here, but even to an amateur this looks bizarre.  

To be complete, though, Peters is standing his ground in this blog.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Government feels need to deny mermaids exist

Fallout from bad TV show

Well, I'm glad the government has no pressing business, like war and health care, and can focus on whether an Animal Planet TV show with bad CGI mermaids was real. 
Mermaid beliefs go back a long way, with Columbus among other witnesses (although the Admiral of the Ocean Seas was quick to comment that they were not as comely as legend made them, which is accurate to a degree when you're looking at Carribean monk seals). Occasional seemingly sincere reports of something  of this type have been laid to misinterpretations of marine mammals.  The classic mermaid form makes no zoological sense, and most of those who delve into cryptozoology don't even think about them.  (A few cryptozoologists suggest a primate adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, which might not be completely impossible but has no evidence behind it.)  A spate of mermaid-like reports from New Guinea, concerning a creature locally called ri, was very properly investigated by cryptozoologists and identified as a population of dugongs. So mermaids will continue to populate the seas of legends, which is where they belong. 

Monday, July 02, 2012

The God particle?

Welcome to the universe, Higgs boson

It's important for physics, but the Washington Post ran its dumbest headline of the year (that's an impression, I've not done a search) in saying the finding of the Higgs Boson "explains the universe." No. What this finding from CERN (which is described as the "footprint and shadow" of the boson rather than direct evidence)  does is provide important evidence toward validation of the Standard Model of physics, which describes the building blocks of the universe.  The Higgs is, in essence, the reason other particles have mass.  Description is not quite the same as explanation.  It is, however, a huge discovery.  It's like knowing a city was made of concrete and brick: you can predict what kind of buildings can be created there, how long they'll last, and much else.  Physicists now have a much more complete "toolbox" to apply to their problems.  If I'm reaching for metaphors here, it's because this really is a big deal.  Next year's Nobel Prize for Physics can probably be engraved now. 

Sunday, July 01, 2012

More on Iliamna and sharks (wait, not really)

Shark in sort of general area proves what?

A while ago, someone suggested a Pacific sleeper shark (a slow-moving but pretty awesome species, which may get to be 8 m long) as a candidate for the Lake Iliamna monster, more often presumed to be a tall tale or (as I think) a white sturgeon.  In King Cove Lagoon, a brackish sea-connected lake hundreds of kilometers away, a sleeper shark having some trouble with hte shallow waters was videotaped.  It's an interesting story, but claims it validates this fish's presence in Iliamna don't seem valid to me. 

Original article

By the way - thanks to Thomas Cook for sending me some information on Lake Iliamna I had not seen before, including his own correspondence with scientists and officials.

Pumas roam Kentucky?

Cougar on the Dark and Bloody Ground

I've always thought it likely the Eastern puma has, just barely, escaped its official extinction.  Two sightings  in the Ashland, Kentucky area have put authorities on alert.
As Doubtful News' Sharon Hill notes correctly, it's common to have puma/cougar/mountain lion sightings that turn out to be caused by smaller cats or by dogs seen under difficult conditions.  And I'm not one of those cryptozoologists who insists "where there's lots of smoke, there must be some fire." But I think that's the case concerning this cat. There have been some very good sightings in KY, TN, and elsewhere, and the protection of habitat and explosion in the deer population bode well for puma survival.  I don't know about the Ashland cat, but I don't automatically write off such encounters.