Saturday, August 31, 2013

Walking With Sharks

Yes, there are walking sharks.  No, not like the Asian walking catfish, the foot-long "monster" that invaded Florida some decades back and could emerge briefly on land. (I lived in Florida then and was disappointed I never found one:I had to content myself with Zaat: The Walking Catfish, possibly the worst monster movie of the decade. In one unforgettable scene, the guy in the walking-catfish suit is wearing sneakers.)
The walking sharks (a.k.a. bamboo sharks or longtail  carpet sharks) are, from a movie monster point of view, even more disappointing.  They never top 65cm long and never emerge from the warm Southern Pacific waters. However, from a scientific point of view, they are very interesting indeed, and we've just found a new species.  (Took me a while to get there, I know.)
The shark Hemiscyllium halmahera isn't a flashy critter, being brown with darker camouflage banding, but you notice when it uses its oversized paired fins to crawl like a salamander along the bottom in search of sea cucumbers, small cephalopods, and whatever else it can grab.  We may be seeing a flashback to the ancient days when the first amphibious fishes, the rhipidistian crossopterygians (try saying that three times fast), presumably driven by evolutionary competition, increasingly adapted to shallow water... and some poked their snouts out of the water into the weird new environment we call "land."
And any time we find a new shark, it's cool anyway. Ask Paul Clerkin, graduate student, who found eight new species while accompanying a fishing vessel and sifting through the bycatch under the aegis of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories Pacific Shark Research Center. Says Clerkin,  “Sharks haven’t really been explored as much as we think."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

RIP, Bruce Murray, space explorer

I never met the great planetary exploration leader Bruce Murray, at least not that I recall, but I couldn't let his death pass without a note.  Murray steered the Jet Propulsion Lab, formerly an Army contract research center, into its glory days of solar system exploration.  Murray was an early and successful advocate for allotting some of the precious mass on interplanetary spacecraft to cameras: not just for the scientific return, but to involve the public.  And did it ever work.  Those of us old enough to remember Viking will recall those first pictures from Mars forever. He was instrumental in keeping JPL and the robotic missions alive when human spaceflight, especially the Shuttle, threatened to eat the entire NASA budget.  Murray cofounded the Planetary Society, wrote six books, and had an asteroid named after him.  He was nicknamed Admiral of the Solar System, and he deserved it.

Sail on, Admiral.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: Below, a solid new "creature" novel

Ryan Lockwood
Pinnacle, 2013

Most "creature" novel authors make a lot of mistakes. They rush to get to the creature, they ignore, handwave, or invent the science, and/or they present us with cardboard human characters who readers wish would just get eaten and be done with it.
Lockwood doesn't make any of those mistakes. His technical details of the sea and diving are very interesting, the science behind the animals involved is stretched only a little, and he takes his time introducing a believable story about believable people.
Lockwood's creatures, the Humboldt squid, are a real species, and they do most of what Lockwood has them doing. They are smart, pack-hunting animals 2-3 meters long, that communicate with flashes of color. Lockwood makes them a little too smart and much too emotional, but otherwise they are believably scary. This is a species that could do a lot of damage if it ever collectively decided to check out a new food source like, say, humans. (There have been some scary encounters, and possibly a few unrecorded human deaths, as people study and fish for this numerous and well-armed (the pun is unavoidable) species.)
The book drags in spots, with a little too much lecturing thrown in.  And there are nitpicks: destroyers don't and can't carry guns you could fit a soccer ball into. But overall, kudos to Lockwood. He's given us a first-rate thriller and a little ecological lesson into the bargain. I'll look forward to the sequel.

Book Review: Rocket Girl

Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist

George D. Morgan

Prometheus, 2013 

George Morgan's book about his mother is fascinating, and especially so to me since I coauthored a history of the era in question that Morgan used a source.  I just couldn't get comfortable with his way of telling the story.
To say the most important thing first, Mary Sherman Morgan's invention of hydyne was a critical contribution at a critical time in the Space Race.  The new fuel enabled the Jupiter C, a booster based on Wernher von Braun's Redstone missile, to put Explorer I into orbit.  And none of us knew anything about it. My coauthor Erika and I spent years researching this era and never heard of her.  In part it was because the government documents of the time never mentioned who at her company produced the idea, and in part it was because she was so stone-silent about it for the rest of her life.  Still, I feel bad that we didn't include her in our book The First Space Race
To say she was a woman in a man's world is putting it mildly: there were 900 men and Mary.  Her determined climb from a dirt-poor North Dakota farm to her work in complex chemistry makes for a story that should have been told long ago.  I never knew the fuel problem was as difficult as it was: Mary and her colleagues were not allowed to vary the flow rates, change any machinery, or tinker with anything except the chemistry itself. Yet they had to produce a significant performance increase, and thanks to her encyclopedic knowledge of chemicals and ability to intuit and then calculate how they would behave, they did. The chapter on engine tests was fascinating, and the one on Explorer I's launch is an oft-mistold tale that's presented accurately here: I'm glad The First Space Race helped Morgan do a great job with it.
Morgan's story of his own generation of the family, including the discovery of who his mother really was for a major part of her life and meeting a sister Mary once gave up for adoption, is very touching.
There are some unfortunate factual errors. Specific impulse is a measure of efficiency, not power. The Jupiter C had four stages, not three.  The short-range Redstone was far from being an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and no knowledgeable person would have referred to it as one.  No Redstone was never loaded with sand, although the top stage of one Jupiter-C variant was, and that tiny "scaled Sergeant" fourth stage certainly could not have held a ton of it.
Morgan's technique of novelizing the story, with made-up characters and dialogue, severely damages the book's value as history because it's not clear what is fiction and what is fact.  I realize the approach arose out of the dearth of first-person information (again, Mary never said a word even to her children about her work) and the book's origin as a stage play: in a play, there is no choice but to invent at least some dialogue. It can lead readers to believe, though, that Russia's Sergei Korolev was determined to beat ex-enemy von Braun into space, whereas the authoritative sources on Korolev, James Harford and Asif Siddiqi, give no hint of that. The melodramatic reaction of a fictitious Army colonel to having a woman on the project needlessly amps up the sexism when the factual situation was dramatic enough.
I'm glad Morgan wrote this book.  He's a good writer, and this story cried out to be told.  I just wish he'd done it a little differently.

The slippery, surprising world of squid

Cephalopods are a diverse group, which is like saying Godzilla must leave a lot of dino dung on the Japanese landscape: the description is wholly inadequate.
Squid in particular fascinate a lot of humans.  The giant squid and colossal squid are of course the main subjects of popular culture and bad movies.  (There are a couple of squid-related novels out: Ryan Lockwood's Below is pretty good even if, like Peter Benchley's giant squid in Beast, his Humboldt squid are a little too smart and way too  emotional. Below works very well because the Humboldt squid, 2-3 meters long and a voracious, pack-hunting, communicating animal, really could be scary as hell if it ever collectively decided to find a new food source. Scarier than Benchley's 100-foot giant squid, in fact, because giant squid may be dangerous but they are rare compared to the Humboldt. And Lockwood, unlike many "creature" novelists, spends plenty of time developing realistic human characters. So kudos to him. Greig Beck's 2010 novel   Beneath the Dark Ice is well-reviewed, but I haven't read it yet.)
We catch squid, eat them, dissect them, and put them (the smaller ones, anyway) in tanks, but their world isn't our world.
While it's estimated there are 300-ish species in the order Teuthida, new ones are described every year, and we learn many new things about species we have classified.
Take, for example, Grimalditeuthis bonplandi, a translucent species about 15 cm long that lives in the Pacific. It was described from trawled (dead) specimens, but it's been captured on video for the first time, and it has a surprising habit. 
While we think of all squid as having eight shorter arms and two long food-grasping tentacles, there are a number of variations on this plan.  The vampire squid (okay, maybe not technically a squid, depending on who you ask), has two "luring" tentacles, very long, thin spaghetti-like appendages with luminescent tips, used to entice prey close enough to be grabbed.  G. bonpladi has only one such tentacle, with no luminescence, and lets it wave around in the current to either stimulate tiny light-bearing invertebrates to just look like a food object far tinier than the squid itself. When something the right size move in to grab the lure, the squid jets in and uses the stronger arms to attack.  Or so we might presume. It hasn't been caught in the act of feeding yet.
Squid are a critical part of the ocean ecosystem, and who knows what the ocean would look like if we wiped out their primary nemesis, the sperm whale? (Sharks and other fish also eat squid, but we're wiping them out as I write this.)  We have a lot to learn....

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Titan II - Part 3 of 3

I've talked about the Titan II ICBM and the preparation we underwent to operate it.  When we were certified - a process the Strategic Air Command (SAC) took damned seriously - I and a few others of my class went to stand the Cold War watch in the 373d Strategic Missile Squadron. The 373rd’s motto was “Custodes Pacis,” “Guardians of Peace.”  We felt it was a good choice. 

Titan ICBMs had their share of fame, although it usually involved disasters or other bad news.  There were two movies made about Titan missiles.  The made-for-TV Disaster at Silo Seven (1988) was lame but could have been worse.  The 1977 feature film Twilight’s Last Gleaming proved that.  If there was anything remotely accurate in this story of an ex-general commandeering a missile site that appeared vaguely based on Titan I, I missed it.  Titan crews hated the film as passionately as B-52 crews hated 1990’s By Dawn’s Early Light.  (Note the unimaginative use of the same source for the titles.)   Almost as much as everyone in SAC hated the ridiculous War Games.

For a system that should have been retired when I was in grade school, the Titan II still had many years left.  There were often tiny pinhole leaks of fuel or oxidizer, and we had to keep an eye on the warning “sniffers” and other indicators.  We always felt sorry for the Minuteman crews because they almost never saw their missiles.  We went out in person to check over our birds and their support equipment every day.

The Titan II’s age, not surprisingly, meant it developed a few quirks.  I once called Job Control (the maintenance dispatch center) to report I was showing two warning lights indicating bad circuits on the missile or the umbilicals connecting it to the diagnostic equipment.  The appropriate specialist informed me it was impossible to have those two lights on at the same time.  I asked, “Well, would you like me to unscrew one of the bulbs?”  On another occasion, the old van-sized diesel generator in the silo refused to shut down after a test.  It kept going even when the maintenance team shut down all possible fuel sources.  When Job Control asked what additional help I wanted, I wearily said, “An exorcist.”  It eventually turned out a gasket had failed and the machine was consuming its own lubricating oil.

 I was lucky, though.  We never had a serious accident.  Actually, the whole Titan business never had one after 1979.  Things were just too stringent.  Accidentally putting a hand through a maintenance access door into the silo before lowering and securing the work platforms on that level could and did end a career.

It was with some regret we watched the Titans start going off alert.  (Drastic regulations were put in place tro mkae sure none of the important items left the complex as souveniers, even though the sites were going to be blown up under START requirements.  All I have a is an old copy of a laminated locator board used to track visitors and maintenance teams.)
Most of our missiles were still up in 1986, when I headed for a new assignment at Grand Forks in North Dakota.  I left the 308th in 1986, the year before the last missile was taken off alert.  The wing produced a book entitled “End of an Era.”  On the cover, with a Titan II, was a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Titan II, unlike the tyrannosaur, was destined to roar again.  No one had launched a Titan II since 1976, when the supply of test missiles ran out.  While 140 Titan IIs had been built, the 53 in the silos and three spares were all that remained.  Even before  the birds had been pulled off alert and shipped out to California for storage, ways to use this resource for space launch began to surface. 

 Obviously, the Titan II made a very good space launch vehicle.  At least, it did back in the decade it was manufactured.  It took some work to turn it back into one.  In 1986, Martin Marietta Astronautics Group was given a contract to modify and launch up to 14 missiles. 

To turn a Titan II into a space launcher, the second stage needed to be modified for a new payload interface.  A payload fairing was needed, along with adapters for different satellites.  The guidance system was upgraded, and the engines were inspected and reconditioned.  Appropriate command, telemetry, and destruct systems were adapted from hardware designed for other vehicles.

The destination of the reborn Titan IIs was Space Launch Complex-4 West at Vandenberg.   On 5 September 1988, the first new Titan II launch vehicle was fired into space.   The Titan IIs were used mainly for launches to polar orbit.  Their capacity to such an orbit was over 4,000 pounds.  

Lee Brandon-Cremer with Titan II at Norton AFB

And, somewhat surprisingly to those of us who had nervously cared for the Beast, they worked. Perfectly.  Every time. The Titan 23G, as the launch vehicle was called, launched 14 times from 1988 to 1994, always from Vandenberg AFB, where we had received advanced crew training years before.  It orbited weather and scientific satellites and, most significantly, the Clementine lunar probe in January 1994, a brilliantly successful mission that started NASA on the bumpy road of its "better faster cheaper" philosophy.

The Titan II launch complex at Vandenberg, which we always called "Charlie site," is still there and can be visited by escorted public tours. There is no missile, though.  One site at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, is maintained as museum, complete with inert missile.  If you get a chance, don’t miss it.  It's the best way to appreciate the engineering marvel called the Titan II. 
For more information, see David Stumpf’s excellent book, Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Titan II - part 2 of 3

The Titan II was an outstanding space launcher and ballistic missile.  How does one run such a complex device and its silo full of support equipment? Very carefully. 

Training for the Titan II ICBM Combat Crew force was a long task.  We headed first to Sheppard AFB in Texas for technical training.  We learned missile systems, electronics, propulsion, and such mundane things as the care and feeding of air conditioners and diesel generators.   

At Vandenberg AFB, for the second half of training,, the enlisted troops were split into two tracks depending on specialty, while the officers trained for our initial role of Deputy Commander.  We had a lot to learn, from Emergency War Orders (EWO) training, to thick books full of checklists (ANY deviation from the checklist was, in the SAC world, a career-limiting move), to sessions in a trainer simulating almost any emergency one could dream up. 

We also had a very somber lesson about what it was we were going to do.  Every crewmember had to sign a statement saying that he or she (Titan II crews were fully sex-integrated by then) could employ nuclear weapons if the President so ordered.  Before signing it, we watched films on the effects of nuclear weapons, from the destruction of houses built near American nuclear test sites to graphic footage of the casualties of nuclear warfare in Japan.  I watched, thought, said a prayer for guidance, and signed the form.

The Titan II ICBMs were deployed the Strategic Air Command in wings of 18 missiles each, with each wing divided into two squadrons.  The 308th SMW was based at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas .and was activated 29 November 1961.  When I joined the 308th, it was under 8th Air Force, an affiliation I wore with pride given what the Mighty 8th had done in World War II.

I had the honor of serving in the 373rd Strategic Missile Squadron.  The 373rd was famous among missile squadrons mainly for the “haunted missile site.” That site was 373 SMS Complex 4, or “three-four” for short.  Three-four was near Searcy, Arkansas, a town I don’t recall ever actually seeing.  On 9 August 1965, when 373-4 was undergoing maintenance work (no missile was present), a welder cut a high-pressure hydraulic line with his torch.  The resulting flash fire killed 53 civilian workers.  After an investigation was completed and new safety rules imposed, the missile site was repaired and returned to duty.

A few odd occurrences, naturally magnified in the telling over the years, seemed to cement the site’s reputation.  “A guy found all his tools put back in his toolbox when he was the only person on that level of the silo.”  “You can hear footsteps on Level 3.”  “A security policeman once shot at a glowing figure in the crow’s nest.”  (The crow’s nest was a little platform, mounted on a high pole, for weather instruments.)  “Stanford Research Institute once investigated and found there were nine different entities out here.”

All these stories turned out to be imaginary or highly exaggerated.  The author must report, with regret, that his year spent as one of the crews assigned to this site produced no sightings, or sounds, or anything else out of the ordinary.  An enlisted crewmember with artistic talent, though, rose to the occasion when it was decided that blast doors leading from the entry stairwell/elevator shaft into the Launch Control Center could be painted, analogous to the way nose art is painted on aircraft.  A very good rendering of a haunted house with a missile protruding from its roof was painted on the blast door.  Presumably, it is there still.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Titan II - Defender and Explorer

The Titan II ICBM came to mind the other day when David Darling posted on FaceBook a photo from the Gemini program.  The old Titan did two jobs - three, really.  I admired it as a booster and an exploration vehicle, but I knew "the Beast" intimately as a ballistic missile.
I pulled somewhere over 200 24-hour "alerts" underground near Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1980s.  I commanded a four person crew, two officers, two enlisted.  Unlike the Minuteman missiles still on alert today, the Titan's crew was responsible for just one missile, and the command center was connected to the silo by a long cableway.  We walked out every day to inspect the aging warrior, which was supposed to have been retired by 1970 but was still on alert because there was no agreement in DC on its successor, which eventually became the Peacekeeper ICBM. 
If you were a space buff, you already knew something about the Titan II.  When NASA decided to follow its one-man Mercury capsule with the two-man Gemini, the Air Force's Titan II was the only American vehicle with the power to lift it.  The Titan II (first launched as a missile in a test in 1962)  went through hundreds of changes to become "man-rated," the biggest of which was getting rid of a longitudinal shaking or "pogo" effect.  The resulting booster had a perfect record for placing the Geminis in space: two unmanned and ten manned launches between 1964 and 1966.  (Spaceflight was, of course, all-"manned" in those days.). It went on to develop into the Titan III and Titan IV that carried the heaviest NASA and Defense payloads outside of the Apollo stack. 

Yes, it really was this awesome.  (USAF) 

Maybe I shouldn't speak reverently of a missile that could, as we well knew, kill millions of people. But however shaky the moral calculus of Mutual Assured Destruction was, it worked.  From WWII to the demise of the Soviet Union, no one on either side turned a launch key, and a large part of the reason was because they knew the other guy had time to turn his, too.  We did the job.

The LGM-25C Titan II was a two-stage bird over 100 feet tall and 10 feet wide.  The reentry vehicle containing what was euphemistically called the physics package was covered in fiberglass-like ablative material, and the whole thing was much taller than I was and had an unmistakable menace to it.  The big Aerojet LR87, an engine with twin combustion chambers and nozzles, burned nitrogen tetroxide and an equally noxious hydrazine blend called Aerozine-50.  These were hypergolics, meaning they ignited on contact, meaning you didn't want to let them come in contact or you got something like the 1979 accident at site 374-7, where a silo door weighing 700 tons was flipped aside like a poker chip in an explosion that killed one man and produced a cloud of nitrogen tetroxide (a BFRC, or "big 'friendly' red cloud") that scared the hell out of central Arkansas.

NEXT: Training and life with the Titan II underground.

Friday, August 16, 2013

And another new mammal pokes its head out...

From a museum this time.

It's not unusual to find new species in museum collections - the world's largest gecko and longest-legged spider were described that way. (How did the spider get overlooked? I am trying to picture a curator saying, "Ho hum, foot-long spider - file it over there.")

Now we have this little fellow.  The New World's newest mammal is the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), which has actually been in zoos but has been overlooked because it looks fairly close to another species. Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, found the specimens in Chicago's Field Museum that sent him on a quest for the living animal: and here it is, from Ecuador's cloud forests.

Welcome, little guy. 

A bit of a detour...

I usually keep this blog to science and writing, but here's a bit of wisdom that struck me as so profound it deserved repetition. 

A story told by my favorite singer, the late Harry Chapin:

"My grandfather was a painter. He died at age eighty-eight, he illustrated Robert Frost's first two books of poetry and he was looking at me and he said, 'Harry, there are two kinds of tired: there's good-tired, and there's bad-tired.' He said, 'Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people's battles, you lived other people's days, other people's agendas, other people's dreams and when it was all over there was very little "you" in there, and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn--you don't settle easy.' He said, 'Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you don't have to tell yourself, 'cause you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy--you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say "take me away."' He said, 'Harry, all my life I've painted. God, I would've loved to be more successful, but I painted and I painted, and I am good-tired and they can take me away.'
Now, if there is a process in your and my lives in the insecurity that we have about a prior life or an afterlife and God--I hope there is a God. If He is-- if He does exist He's got a rather weird sense of humor, however. But let's just-- But if there's a process that will allow us to live our days and will allow us that degree of equanimity towards the end, looking at that black, implaccable wall of death, to allow us that degree of peace, that degree of non-fear, I want in."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

From the Conference on Small Satellites

Sorry I've been hard to find lately on this blog, but there is so much going on here at Smallsat.  Yesterday's breifings covered a half-dozen ways to solve the launch problem, from new ridesharing agreements to a Japanese air-dropped-and-ignited rocket to Virgin Galactic's plan to fire s small expendable rocket from beneath the WhiteNightTwo carrier aircraft they will be using for tourist flights (the plane will fly with the SpoaceShipTwo passenger plane in human testts later this year,)   We heard a full session of microsatellite contellation plans, from NASA's five-microsat"fractionated (distributed) architecture" solar weather warning mission to science done with "femtosats" weighing less than your iphone.  Exciting times!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Newest shark - the Carolina hammerhead

The scalloped hammerhead shark is a well-known denizen of the U.S. East Coast. When a paper published in 1967 noted a specimen with an unusually small number of vertebrae, no one thought much about it.  As often happens in science, though, subsequent specimens eventually drew ichthyologists to reexamine whether there might be more than one species. By jingo (does anyone say that anymore?), there is.  The newly designated Carolina hammerhead has 83 to 91 vertebrae, while the scalloped hammerhead has 92 to 99. It's a case of cryptic species: species which look very similar on the outside but turn out to be distinct.  This matters, not only to the sharks, but to conservationists who are trying to determine whether each species is healthy and how to manage their habitats. 
The are over 350 species of sharks, and new ones are described every year. These are usually tiny deep-water sharks, but scientists don't doubt some big ones are out there, too.  (Okay, not Megalodon - that's too much to hope for.)
A 2007-8 study in Australia confirmed - seriously - 100 new species of sharks and rays in the local waters, including a 2-meter shark with a preference for fresh water. 
So, a little late for Shark Week but always timely, welcome the newest shark - 3.5 meters long, 180 kilograms or so, and living an inoffensive life (to humans) all its own.

Read more here:

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Review: Abominable Science!

Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero
Columbia, 2013

Loxton and Prothero have written a very good book, which I reviewed on Amazon as a 4.5 star effort (I'll explain why I had to downgrade it just a bit) that goes on the "must reading" list for anyone interested in cryptozoology. I've been following this field for decades now without seeing anything that fills this niche - that of the scientific, skeptical (in the good sense of the word) consideration of the entire field and its most spectacular maybe-creatures.

Prothero, a geologist and paleontologist, and Loxton, a skeptical science writer (and a superb illustrator, as the reader of this book will discover), start with the question of whether cryptozoology is a science or pseudoscience. They come down mainly on the latter side, arguing that cryptozoology as often practiced includes some of the sketchiest "science" being written today. They do nod to the recent discoveries in the animal world as evidence of what real field zoologists are accomplishing. (I do wish to note that "the beaked whale" (they mean the pygmy beaked whale, Mesoplodon peruvianus) is only one of several cetaceans described in the last two decades.) The existence of a reported creature is a perfectly valid subject for science, but, in the instant-analysis age of the Internet, the science is often poorly done at best. The authors also point out there's a tendency in much cryptozoological writing to place too heavy a reliance on the details reported by eyewitnesses.
I argue, as I always have, that cryptozoology is a science because it deals in falsifiable hypotheses, but it's hard to argue against the claims of sloppiness in the execution of it.
Then it's on to the creatures, a chapter each for Bigfoot, the yeti, Nessie, the sea serpent, and mokele-mbembe. I accept the point, reinforced in the authors' much-appreciated response to a couple of queries from me, that a single book can only cover the most pivotal cases and must leave out many details even then. However, while I agree with the thrust of the argument in all cases save perhaps the sea serpent, there are some nits to pick amid the generally excellent text.
The authors ask good questions about sasquatch, including why wildlife biologists never come across it and why one of the foundational reports, William Roe's seemingly sincere declaration, was never actually investigated. They agree with Greg Long's debunking of the Patterson film, although they should have mentioned that Long's book presents two contradictory accounts of the suit (a modified theatrical costume vs. a heavy horsehide suit)without reconciling them. They class the most famous sasquatch prints, the Bossburg "Cripplefoot" tracks, as a hoax by the notorious Ivan Marx, while acknowledging forthrightly that eminent primatologist John Napier had a different opinion. They argue that it's not true we don't find bones of other animals, like bears (even some sasquatch hunters have found dead bears) and that saying Bigfoot buries its dead is special pleading unsupported by even the slightest evidence.
The authors dismiss the yeti, pointing out correctly that it's very hard to find good evidence for an unknown animal in the jumble of differing reports and folktales. They suggest the Shipton footprints were a hoax, although there's only the most indirect hint of this. They deserve kudos for not suggesting the clear print shot in closeup was a product of melting/refreezing: skeptics like Joe Nickell who argue this have apparently never experimented. (I have, and it doesn't wash: as Loxton and Prothero point out, though, this IS the explanation for some "yeti" trackways.) I have another nitpick here: one shouldn't cite climber Reinhold Messner's belief that the yeti is a brown bear and not mention he thought it was a bizarre bipedal whistling species, not an ordinary Ursus arctos.
The Nessie chapter won't surprise anyone who's read prior skeptical analyses of this much-discussed subject. Suffice to say the authors consider it a mixture of hoaxes, claims made for tourists' benefit, and misidentifications. They are certain all the photographic evidence, including the Dinsdale film and the Rines photographs, can be safely dismissed.
On to the sea serpent, the authors correctly report the saga began as a compendium of now-known creatures and heroic myths. Whether there's a core of unexplained fact in the hundreds of recorded sightings is the question, and the authors argue strongly that, if you can technically never disprove the sea serpent, you can still safely dismiss it. Two of the omissions here, though, are startling: the New England serpent of 1817 and the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo sighting of 1905, which are foundational episodes in any argument for the sea serpent. While they analyze and reject two other "touchstone" cases, the Daedalus sighting and the Cadborosuarus events, they ignore the other two. Loxton explained they meant to include the New England case but it just got lost in the crunch of writing a book that was 200 pages over the specified length and two years behind the original deadline: I can sympathize, but the New Englander still needed more than a passing mention. On Meade-Waldo, Loxton (who wrote this chapter) advised me that they left it out because it didn't fit in with the main sea serpent story: in other words, it was an outlier in which the animal as described was something other than the classic sea serpent. I can kind of see the logic, but I strongly disagree with it.
On to the African dinosaur, mokele-mbembe. The authors pretty much shred the case for this animal, and I agree on every count: the images could be anything, the contamination of local witnesses is long since a forgone conclusion, and the ecology and paleontology don't work. Loxton and Prothero win this round pretty convincingly.
The authors conclude with their somewhat differing views on whether cryptozoology is a harmless diversion or contributes to the problem they see in general rejection of science and the willingness to believe the unscientific, even the irrational. While treading cautiously on religion (although the previous chapter discussed the creationist motive behind some mokele-mbembe activities), they make a strong case that, in areas which we can all agree should be about science, there is in fact a lot of bad science and a lot of irrationality.
There are 56 pages of endnotes and citations tacked onto this book: the authors clearly gave it their all. If I've pointed out some flaws, I want to come back around to the main point of how good and how important this book is. Even cryptozoologists who think the authors are flat-out wrong on one or more major animals need to read this skeptical but not closed-minded work. It's a superb contribution.

UPDATE: Veteran Bigfoot hunter Danny Perez has found that William Roe, while there is no audio or film recording of him, did talk to the newspaper and to his family members about his event, and Perez found a photo of him.  This evidence by itself doesn't prove Roe was truthful or correct, but it does ground the story in some reality.

Matt Bille is a writer and historian living in Colorado Springs.  His latest work, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library, includes 400 reviews by a friendly skeptic of works in cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and fiction.   Website:

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Small Satellites, Big Ideas

As a space guy of sorts, one of the topics I've made a favorite is small satellites, the smaller the better. I'm endlessly fascinated by the increasing capability we can put on increasingly small satellites.  Even imaging, which we used to consider "unshrinkable," is achieving resolutions up to 1.5m (that is, they couldn't read your license plate, but they could keep tabs on your car) from satellites down in the 15kg range. 
I'm headed off next week to the Conference on Small Satellites, where the fans of this technology gather from all over the world.  Utah State University's Space Dynamics Lab in the metropolis of Logan Utah is the center of the world's preeminent annual gathering of people who develop, launch, and operate microsatellites. (The terminology gets a bit confusing, what with nanosatellites and femotsatellites and the rest, but "microsatellite" is generally held to mean satellites under 100kg, and that's a good reference point.)
The point, however, is not that you can make a satellite smaller, or that smallsats are always they best way to do a mission. They're not always the solution, and some things like high-resolution imaging can't be done that way. (Yet.) It's about a mindset of being willing to experiment with unorthodox ways to accomplish something, and seeing what you can accomplish if a launch vehicle can now carry 4 or 8 satellites instead of one. 
The U.S. military, which is sometimes curiously reluctant to embrace new technology without a compelling reason, is hesitantly advancing in this field. Universities, priced out of conventional satellite approaches, are embracing it wholeheartedly, and even high schools are getting into the act, thanks to a remarkable little standard satellite "bus," or framework, called the CubeSat.  Satellites can cost in the tens of thousands rather than tens of millions of dollars, and NASA has a praiseworthy (see, I just praised it) endeavor to help educational and scientific CubeSats find cheap or no-cost launches.
I'm sort of rambling on here, but the point is, as Space News once astutely quoted me as saying, that a space agency is no longer necessarily a large government or corporate organization. A space agency can be a smart kid with a soldering iron and an American Express(TM) card.  And no one can predict where that's going to lead. 
People are even listening (a few of them, anyway) to my crazy ideas, like this one.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Newest mammal (again!)

How many times have I run a headline about "newest mammal species?" I think I'm making my point. 

Here's the newest.

 In the journal Zootaxa, we meet the Laotian giant flying squirrel (Biswamoyopterus laoensis). It comes from (sadly) a bushmeat market in Loas (technically now the Lao PDR).  The black and brown mammal was spotted by a team from the National University of Laos. Its exact habitat is unknown, as is its conservation status, but frankly there isn't a mamml in this region that isn't threatened - read Sy Montgomery's heartbreaking Search for the Golden Moon Bear. However, the first step in protecting any species is showing that it exists.  So best of luck to the squirrel and its discoverers and defenders.

Megalodon: Shark is No-Show

I enjoy Shark Week even though I know they are dramatizing the handful of shark attacks on people, which are almost bizarrely rare given the number of people in the water on the world's beaches. (Of course, the fact that we are dramatically reducing the number of sharks every year may be part of it,  too.)
Now I love Megalodon, easily in my Top 3 extinct animals (with Dunkleosteus terrelli and, of course, T. rex.)  But the key word is extinct.  If Discovery wanted to make a fiction "mockumentary," they should have said at the beginning that that's what it was. Just as on their mermaid shows, they're going to send speculation rocketing around the internet that a living Meg is real.
Viewers deserve better than this. Hell, the shark deserves better than this. 
(I leaned toward Meg too speculatively in my 1995 book Rumors of Existence, BTW.  My fault.  And one of Loren's Coleman's field guides said I was a partisan of the living-Meg hypothesis - part Loren's fault, but also part mine.  To be clear: There ain't no Meg.  Sadly.)

Sunday, August 04, 2013

"Last of the Curlews" really was the last

In my 1995 book, Rumors of Existence, I held out hope for the Eskimo curlew. While the bird hadn't been definitely identified since one was killed in Barbados in 1963, there were enough sightings to keep the U.S. and Canadian wildlife authorities from declaring it extinct.  This was despite a 1954 novel and later television special, The Last of the Curlews, that chronicled the lives of the world's last curlews.  Now, Canada has joined the US and IUCN in writing the species off.  It was once a very numerous creature (if never as numerous as its compatriot, the passenger pigeon), but was exterminated through deliberate, if sometimes unknowing, human action.  (The 1963 specimen, incidentally, was saved for a museum by an American ornithologist named James Bond, whose name his acquaintance Ian Fleming thought perfect for a spy.)
A sad farewell.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Spaceships of the imagination: my Top 5

For longer than there have been real spaceships, there have been imagined ones.  Lucien of Greece used an actual sailing ship (caught in a whirlwind) for the first science fiction story around A.D. 120.  Jules Verne used a giant cannon  with a shell-shaped spaceship.  (It's too bad no one could have survived the launch, but the SpaceX Dragon capsules remind me a bit of the shape.)  As we moved into the 20th century, though, science started informing science fiction.  And the results were often really cool.

My Top 5 ships from fiction

1. The obvious - the U.S.S. Enterprise. A lot of thought went into what may have been the first non-aerodynamic ship in film/TV SF history: that is, none of the fins and wings of Buck Rogers and his ilk. Gene Roddenberry and Matt Jeffries were not engineers, but they did a good job of working out a practical bridge and building outward from there. They borrowed the front section shape from (really) the coil on an electric stove.  But it worked. (I do wonder if the bridge might be better on some projection from the saucer for an ever greater field of view...hmmm.) And just for fun: Could we build it for real?

2. The Nostromo from Alien.  Finding this article is what got me thinking here. The Nostromo had clearly seen heavy use: it gave the impression of being a beat-to-hell ship that didn't have many years of service left.  The article has designer Ron Cobb explaining how he came up with the freighter.

3. The Eagles from the otherwise forgettable series Space: 1999.  I always thought the modular ships with detachable command sections and fuselage/cargo containers (a bit like Skycrane helicopters and their detachable cargo pods) were superbly utilitarian. The reason we don't use such low-slung ships in our lunar concepts is that the low gravity makes the "wedding cake" lunar lander design workable, but I think once we get to moving substantial loads around the moon (whenever that happens) we might very well go to something more like the Eagles.

4. The military landers from Aliens. Technically, they are UD64 Cheyenne dropships.  They have cool ramps and armored personnel carriers, they are armed to the teeth, and to an ex-Air Force officer and longtime space aficionado/historian like me, they just look right. 

5. The Valley Forge from the movie Silent Running.  It was original, believable, and had forests on board. The original was crafted of parts from 800 model kits and was 8 meters long. Alas, it no longer exists.  But it had forests.  Enough said. 

You'll note I avoided CGI spaceships, as good as many of them are.  All these were done, in their original incarnations, with models.  Because believable, highly detailed spaceship models are also cool.  (OK, I've seen the original Enterprise, and it wasn't very detailed. But it was a breakthrough design, and it was a ship I'd like to serve on. As long as there was no red shirt involved.)