Sunday, September 29, 2013

Space - The Busy Frontier

First, what's going on in space. The Cygnus module from Orbital Sciences Corp docked at the International Space Station with 600kg of supplies.  This makes it the second vehicle, after SpaceX's Dragon, to dock there.  One more step for free enterprise.

Then, what's going into space.  SpaceX's new medium-lift booster, the Falcon 1.1, made a successful first flight.  Congratulations to Elon, Gwynne, and the gang! SpaceX hopes to provide serious competition to Atlas and Delta for US government payloads, as well as expanding into the commercial market.  This is a huge step forward.  SpaceX's Grasshopper test vehicle, meanwhile, has made big strides showing it might really be possible to bring a rocket stage back and land it vertically.  I wasn't sure even this crew could solve that problem, but maybe they can.  Elon Musk think's it's a key to cutting costs for future launches. 

Carl Sagan once observed that the dinosaurs went extinct because they didn't have a space program (okay, though I'm trying to picture T. rex with those little arms in a space capsule....)  but we can MAKE dinosaurs in space. Astronaut Karen Nyberg has sewn the first toy ever made on the ISS: a stuffed dinosaur. Now, can she make the space suit?

It's a great day for our exploration of the universe.  Yes, we need to save the Earth.  It's our launching pad.  And from here, the stars...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Turtles, real fictional, and... ?

A turtle the size of an M-1 Abrams tank is in the news.  It's not real, but it's downright scary that a lot of people on the internet think it is. has this take on the story. It's making the rounds that a giant turtle from the Amazon has been captured and was seen being hauled on a flatbed. The weight is being given as 800 lbs, which is ridiculous: if this living igloo were real, it might weigh ten times that.  It's a prop from a Japanese monster movie.
Was there, or is there, any real turtle remotely close to tank-sized? No, but they come from an impressive line that's produced some mighty creatures,
Turtles have poked along in the oceans for a long time. The body plan emerged in the Permian with species like Eunotosaurus africanus, continued into the Mesozoic, culminated in the spectacular Archelon, a leathery-shelled Cretaceous denizen that could be 13 feet long overall and 16 feet across the flippers and weigh 5,000 pounds. The only rival for the biggest turtle was Stupendemys geographicus, a freshwater type that came along tens of millions of years later. 
The reign of turtles continues today in seven species of large ocean-going turtles.  The king of marine reptiles is the leatherback, which can be ten feet long and weigh up to a ton. It has an insulating fat layer that allows it to forage far north of other sea turtles, to the seas off Norway, British Columbia, and Kamchatka. It is desperately endangered thanks to a perfect storm of poaching, egg theft, the loss of nesting beaches, accidental catches in fishing nets and shrimp trawls, and the proliferation of plastic bags – a fatally inviting snack for an animal that lives off jellyfish. It can dive to 1,200m. There are still 20,000 to 40,000 nesting females, but these numbers compare to 115,000 as recently as 1982. The fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea calls them trunk turtles, a good name for an animal that looks rather like a giant's luggage.
leatherback turtle with head above water
The leatherback has been implicated in some “humped back” sea serpent reports, including some of the alleged denizen of Pacific Northwest waters, Cadborosaurus.  It is presumably also the source of some exaggerated stories of truly gigantic turtles collected by Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans thought there might be another species, which he  named after an indigenous Sumatran term translated as “father-of-all-the-turtles.” Island-sized turtles (or even planet-sized ones) appear in folklore and mythology, not to mention the flying jet-powered Gamera in the Godzilla movies - source of the internet legend I just mentioned. A titanic turtle gave good advice to Ang in Avatar: The Last Airbender (the great cartoon, not the lousy movie).
So here's to the turtles.  Long may they plod.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Popular Science mag: Wimping out on debate?

Popular Science has announced it will no longer accept online comments to its articles. The editors say,

"A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. "  And, they complain, many commentators are nasty and mislead the public.

OK, that happens.  In the era of spambots and political polarization, it happens a lot.  But the ability to challenge science - a necessary component of finding the truth - includes the ability to challenge well-established, near-consensus science.  I have an uneasy feeling that every generation convinces itself of something like this: "Well, the consensus against continental drift or in favor of stress-induced ulcers may have been wrong, but science TODAY is immune to that kind of error." Only it isn't, because despite all our advances in tools and techniques, science is still done by fallible human beings. 

Popular Science is a private entity and can do what it likes, but it is an influential entity, and I think the editors accepted a certain responsibility when they created an online presence and invited comments.  So is the publication bowing to reality or shirking its duty? My gut says the latter.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Life from space: Not yet (on Earth or Mars)

The controversial Journal of Cosmology has published a paper claiming a fragment of a diatom sampled via balloon from the upper stratosphere (22-27km)  indicates the now-deceased organism was deposited here by a comet.
A piece of a cell wall from a microscopic algae is not exactly solid, repeatable (so far) evidence for anything this dramatic. While the authors of the paper say all the right things about excluding contamination, the general scientific response is going to be that this must be contamination unless it's repeated - more than once.  Here's the paper
Meanwhile, NASA's Curiosity rover is not finding methane on Mars. Any type of life we're familiar with should excrete some methane, but we're still talking about sampling a tiny piece of the planet at surface level.  This is disappointing but not damning. Previous reports of methane on Mars indicated it was trapped in rocks or ice, and releases were occasional events, although whether the methane is of geological or biological in origin is unknown.  The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will arrive in 2016 to hunt for methane from orbit.  (ExoMars is a European Space Agency craft: it was supposed to be a joint project with NASA, but NASA, as is so often the case lately, pulled out as the planetary mission budget shrank.  We're going to reach the point where other spacefaring nations won't even think of doing a major mission jointly with NASA.  Inexcusable.)
The bottom line is that the Red Planet is not - yet - ruled out as a hiding place for past or even current life.  We'd know if we were there, of course...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Doubtful News reviews Shadows of Existence

Thanks to Sharon Hill of Doubtful News for a great review of Shadows of Existence - as Sharon so kindly says, a book written in 2006 can't be entirely valid in 2013, but most of it holds up very well.  Thanks, Sharon!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

History: General Chamberlain's medal

One of the most stirring stories to come out of the Civil War was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's defense of Little Round Top, pivotal in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. A Confederate conquest of Chamberlain's outnumbered 20th Maine might have enabled the rebels to roll up the Union line. As a Mainer, I take a special interest in Chamberlain, who went on to be Governor among many other accomplishments.
Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1893 (really, folks? It took 30 years?) and was given a new one when the Medal was redesigned in 1904.  What happened to the original? It was, somehow, found in a book at a church sale.  A little thread of history, restored.

A medal well-deserved

Book Review: Corey's Sea Monster

I like novels about cryptozoological subjects, and my friend Loren Coleman sent me this one a few years ago.  I'd overlooked it until now.

Corey's Sea Monster
by Rutherford G. Montgomery, World Publishing Company. 
This 1969 novel for young readers is the only time I've ever seen the dunkleosteus used in a novel, except for a brief appearance in one of Steve Alten's books.  While the marine biology is here is pretty sketchy even for 1969 (who knew it was easy to photograph a giant squid underwater? And what IS an electric eel doing in the Pacific?) it's fun.  Interestingly, the author uses the name of the related species Dinichthys, but the illustrations are clearly meant to be Dunkleosteus terrelli. Mr. Montgomery makes the modern version a pelagic (open ocean) fish that in one casem for reasons unknown, decides to hang out in a sea cave off California.  He also makes it glow all over with bioluminescence.  (Did Mr. Alten perhaps read this befpre he came up with his glowing Megamouth shark?) 
Modern teenagers will consider the book too tame, and divers will blanch at the way the young hero's father routinely sends him on deep dives alone to photograph dangerous animals, but it's a harmless diversion, and it was certainly an original storyline for its day.

Dr. Ketchum and "Sasquatch DNA," Round 21

I said I was done on this subject, mainly because I am not a DNA expert.  However, an extraordinary letter has been published, with Dr. Melba Ketchum writing to the journal Nature to request her paper be reconsidered after an original rejction. The money line is here:

"We even have high definition video of the donor of sample 37 sleeping in the forest and breathing at 6 breaths per minute (Supplementary Video 1). This sample was part of a field research study overseen by a PhD in wildlife biology so we are certain of the source of this sample and the video attached to it. We have a full facial video of her also that will be released after the paper publishes."

Now you might say someone from Nature should have looked at the video. I would have, even though I would have gone in very cautiously. (I would still look at it.)  But now that the paper has been published, albeit in a rather sketchy series of events in which Ketchum bought an online journal which has published only one paper, hers, there is no excuse for not publishing the video. If she doesn't post it, it'll be taken by almost everyone, including me, to mean that she doesn't believe in its authenticity herself.

She says repeatedly her evidence has passed peer review, but she recruited the reviewers. That's not done in science.  But DNA is something most people don't understand in great depth.  An alleged face-on full-motion high-def video would let everyone form an opinion and could instantly let qualified scientists pronounce a verdict on the case.  Note that Dr. Ketchum shows no doubt of the connection between the video and her samples: she said the animal in the video DID provide one of her samples, period. 

To Dr. Ketchum: if you seriously believe we have evidence of a rare new species which immediately needs government protection - which it would - then publish the video so it can get that protection.  Otherwise, the whole case is going to slide into limbo and eventually be forgotten.  I know there's no reason for Dr. K to listen to me: I am one of many writers/researchers on cryptrozoology, albeit one who takes pride in being thorough and scientific, and I think my books bear that out.  I don't know how I can be any fairer than I've been with this.  If there is an animal, and you want it protected, publish the proof.  Please.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: Kraken

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid    

by Wendy Williams

Abrams Image; 2011

Williams, a veteran science and environmental writer, has turned in a fun, engaging, and generally fascinating look at the cephalopods (squid get most of the ink (hah), but she spends some time with the octopuses, especially the giant Pacific octopus, and the cuttlefishes as well).  Much of the material in this book that was new to me concerned the medical utility of the squid. I knew we studied its huge nerve-cell axons, but I didn't know how fundamental squid have been to our understanding of the human nervous system and its diseases. Williams personalizes the book with stories and interviews with veteran teuthologists like Clyde Roper as well as field biologists studying the famous (and perhaps dangerous) Humboldt squid and running Squids4Kids, a program to ship squid to high school classrooms for dissection.  
We encounter are many fascinating facts along the way: I never knew that scientists had ground up and liquefied the ink found in a beautifully preserved 150-million-year-old fossil squid and used it to draw a picture of the animal.  Cephalopods, it seems, have been with us for up to half a billion years, thumbing their noses at extinction events (or so they would have done if they had thumbs, or noses) while evolving some unearthly features. These include skins capable of amazing changes of hue the animal never sees (squid don't see colors) and a brain that is, in essence, distributed through the animal's arms as well as the central gray matter. 
Concerning the latter, one topic that thoroughly fascinates William is the question of intelligence. Cephalopods are the smartest invertebrates on Earth, but how do they compare with the mammals, and how can we even figure that out with a creature whose intelligence is so different from ours?  There are even passing mentions of some tidbits for the cryptozoologists: there's a reference to a reported Pacific octopus weighing 600 pounds, and a theory that there may have been an octopus with a 150-foot arm spread - shades of the disputed Octopus giganteus from Florida and the Caribbean.
This is a terrific book. It doesn't cover all the topics I wish she'd included, but what is here will hold your attention like a tentacle holds a fish.

News on New Launch Vehicles - and Beyond

Congratulations to Japan on the launch of their new Epsilon rocket. The Epsilon is a "smart rocket" with most of the intelligence needed to control the launch on board: the launch can be directed from a laptop. 

Meanwhile, the first launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.1 - with first stage reusable technology to test for the upcoming Falcon 9R - has been slipped after an anomaly was discovered in a test. Elon Musk and company are taking no chances. This is the rocket they are bidding for USAF Medium launches: SpaceX is the first New Entrant to challenge for launches under the EELV program - a program only the government-sponsored Delta and Atlas rockets have participated in for the last decade. The Delta IV and Atlas V have an amazing record of success, but the cost increases have been enormous.  SpaceX can, it is hoped, introduce real competition: and Musk sees that as only the first step toward developing his Falcon 9 Heavy variant and someday using it to send humans to Mars.  If you're going to dream, dream big.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson doesn't think it'll work: he things space exploration is essentially too big and complex a task for the private sector alone.  Tyson is a scientist and visionary I admire greatly (and a great guy) but for once I'm not sure he's right.  Musk may be a dreamer, but he's gotten some pretty amazing things done.

Space is big enough for all visions to play a part.  Maybe someday on Mars there will be the Tyson-Musk Spaceport.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 - The Science and the Emotions

Here's an excellent recap of the science and engineering questions about 9/11 - and how, yes, this wrenching event happened pretty much the way the nation's top engineering and architectural experts said it did.

A few things to remember:
1. When an incredibly complex event that has never happened, and in many ways shouldn't have happened, DOES happen, there will be countless oddities and mysteries - some of which will never be definitively solved. (Look how the details of Pearl Harbor and JFK assassination are still being fought over.) Yes, that means that any official report will have some problems, too.
2. Remember that anyone can call themselves anything. When you see a name like Architects and Engineers for Truth, think about how large those professions are, what a tiny fraction of a percent are "truthers," and what a gigantic near-consensus of those professions believes.
3. In the last decade, not a single one of the masterminds - or the ordinary workers - who must have been in on this giant conspiracy has revealed anything.
4. Final bullet in the "truther" case: While I have not looked at any of those stolen/leaked US intelligence documents, the people who have pored over them and posted their analysis in the media and online have not said a word about finding even a hint of what would have been the biggest, most important, most evil and most unprecedented intelligence operation in US history.  Did we hide it from ourselves? Not likely.

No, I'm not interested in the usual 9/11 game of swapping lists of links.  You can call me closed-minded, but I've determined that, to my own satisfaction, I've read enough links, reports, and accounts to know what happened.  Unless there is new evidence - and there is not - the case is closed.

I'll remember the day as I watched it happen.  I'll remember the tributes: Judy Collins' song will stay in your mind forever, as will Tom Paxton's "The Bravest" and Alan Jackson's universal question, "Where Were You?"

And more than anything else, I remember my 10-year old daughter, Corey, asking my why I was crying. When I told her it was because a lot of children like her lost their moms and dads that day, she said.  "One of those kids can come live here. They can have my room."

"And a little child shall lead them..."

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Random notes on the fishes

Fish are interesting because they are such a wonderful example of adaptive radiation (32,000 species and counting).  The African ciclids are famous as being sort of Darwin's finches with scales, but I'm thinking of marine fishes at the moment. There are three living classes and two extinct ones, by the most parsimonious methods of evaluation.  They gave rise to some of the mightiest life forms on Earth. My favorite fish is one that is, unfortunately, no longer with us, the orca-sized predator Dunkleosteus, he of the imposing armor plating and teeth (ok, biting plates) the size of small traffic cones.  It also includes two creatures once thought to be30m long, though we now know they were smaller. One is the queen of sharks, megalodon, which lives on now only in bad movies and TV species.  The other is the filter-feeding Leedsichthys problematicus, a Jurassic species with huge pectoral fins among other interesting features. This animal may or may not have been bigger than the modern filter-feeding whale shark, but it seems secure in its place as the largest bony fish ever to live. (Indeed, paleontologists still debate why and how a harmless fish in a sea of huge marine reptilian carnivores got that big at all.)
Fishes I wrote about in my first book as new included the eelike Lamprogrammus shcherbachevi, which was identified in 1993 from four specimens caught between 1972 and 1991 in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans.  It is a rare mid-water and deep-water species: it deserves a re-mention because despite being reasonably large (two meters), it remains so obscure that some online descriptions of it include no species-specific illustrations.   (As a sometime cryptozoological researcher, it strikes me it would make a serviceable sea serpent if it was 15m instead of 2.  Hmmm, how do we know it isn't?  I'll get back to that in a minute.)
New species keep piling up.  We have the hopbeard plunderfish, which deserves to be mentioned on its common name alone, a chubby brown-splotched denizen of near freezing Antarctic waters, with catfish-like barbels. Another new species is the psychedelic frogfish, which has a great name and deserves it. Histiophryne psychedelica "bounces" off the seafloor with thrust of leglike fins and boosts its hop with water expelled from the gills.  All that and it looks like something from the movie Yellow Submarine, only stranger.  Another recent find, the striated frogfish, boasts changing coloration, a natural "fishing pole," and fins and other projections seemingly stuck on it at random. The whole frogfish family gets weirder from there.
Anyway, I said these were random notes, but here's the point I was going to get to.  The fishes are an ancient group containing most of the vertebrate species on Earth, but we still don't know many things, including how many types there are. Ask the scientists in the Census of Marine Life, who are still examining hundreds of potential new species. We also know that the larger species have been reduced, in some areas more than 90%, by overfishing and pollution, and we don't know how the chain of life will shake out even if we tightly regulate fishing and rely more on farmed fish (A strategy with problems of its own, but that's beside the point for the moment.)
I think it possible, and indeed likely, that the fishes hide something else from us still: an eel or eel-like fish, at least 10 long, responsible for countless reports of giant eels and "sea serpents."  Keep looking, scientists....

Friday, September 06, 2013

Godspeed, Ann Crispin

My talented, wonderful writing friend and mentor, creator (as A.C. Crispin) of great science fiction and fantasy, has lost her battle with cancer and crossed the last frontier.  I still remember when she was in town some years ago, sitting with her and my teenage daughter Corinne as Ann tried out dialogue written for Jack Sparrow for the prequel novel, The Price of Freedom, asking whether Corey thought she'd gotten the speech pattern right.  She encouraged my writing and made it so much better.  May God bless her, her husband Michael, and all her family and friends.

Ad Astra

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Titan II (part 4 of 3?)

I thought I'd finished my reminiscences about the Titan II ICBM and space launch vehicle, but I realized I left out Rocky Raccoon.  No, not the Beatles song, but the long-suffering mascot of Titan II ICBM Complex 373-5, Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas.
When I came on crew in 1982, Strategic Air Command regulations somehow were read as allowing stashes of adult magazines while forbidding mascots, posters, or anything that detracted from the utilitatian green and gray.  This was a nuclear missile complex, not a dorm... but rules were bent a bit.  The magazine stashes disappeared as more women appeared on crew and the higher-ups came around to the viewpoint that they were inappropriate, but Rocky stayed.
Rockey was a stuffed raccoon who looked like he'd been run over by a missile transporter. His begraggled appearance was the result of being constantly stuffed behind panels and consoles, only to be allowed out and restored to his perch on the missile monitoring consoles after visitors had left.  Rocky was of course occasionally noticed by visitors, but crews got away with it for a long time. My crew received a Standboard (Standards and Evulation) crew writeup once that included the directive, "Remove Raccoon." This, of course, was ignored.
No one was sure how many years Rocky had been out there. We credited him unofficially with 3,000 24-hour alerts, but that was just a guess. 
Finally, it had to end.  A man I considered a friend (until then) came out pulling duty with an instructor crew, and Rocky went into the trash. My wife made up a little cardboard headstone.  That didn't last long either.  Farewell, Rocky. For a raccon, you were a great crewdog.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Swimming "monsters" are all over the place

The pioneering cryptozoological writer Bernard Heuvelmans was once told that sea serpent sightings appeared in the paper because summer was "the silly season" when reported needed to fill the paper up and were happy to put in some fanciful topics.  No one can actually find such a pattern, and having more sighting reports of lake, river, and seacoast animals is pretty easily explained by the fact there are more people on and around the water in summer to either 1) see mysterious creatures, or 2) see things they mistake for mysterious creatures.
As Loren Coleman writes here, August 2013 got really busy.  Chronologically, in early August, David Elder, an amateur photographer, saw something in Loch Ness.  He got both still photographs and video.  Loren reports that Henry Bauer and Gary Campbell, veteran Loch investigators, think Elder photographed a wave or wake effect, which is probably right but, of course, disappointing. At Loch Morar, two people reported a 20-foot creature.  It was seen three times in two days and  photographed (alas, inconclusively).
Two men kayaking off Acadia National Park in Maine reported a "sea serpent" swimming by with a three-foot-long head covered with scales.  A swimming creature off that coast might well be a moose (despite their ungainly appearance, these big lummoxes are actually nimble on land and swim well enough that they are often seen crossing water to favorite grazing spots or whatever else turns a moose on.) The three-foot length could be the product of excited exaggeration. The scales are odd:  wet, ruffled-up fur can look like anything besides what it is, but I'm not sure about scales.   On the other hand, as cryptozoological researcher Jay Cooney points out here, elephant seal hide can look like scales, too. 
So do we have an outbreak of unclassified aquatic creatures, or just a coincidental conflux of mistakes?  The conservative choice is the latter, and I personally don't hold out hope for any of the "lake monsters." But I would like to have been in that kayak....