Sunday, June 29, 2014

NASA keeps things hopping - in and out of the atmosphere

In the coolest recent test of gear that may get us to other planets (and by "us" I of course mean "me," or maybe that's wishful thinking), NASA flew a balloon carrying a rocket booster and an inflatable ring called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator.   The impetus here is that the thin atmosphere of Mars, which right now is the only planet where human life support is just extremely difficult rather than impossible, puts a limit on the cargo mass that can be delivered via parachute. The inflatable part of the LDSD "flying saucer," when accelerated to Mach 4 some 40 km above the Earth, performed perfectly under conditions simulating, as far as is possible on Earth, a high-speed delivery through the atmosphere of the Red Planet to the point where speed and atmospheric density are low enough and high enough, respectively, so conventional parachutes can take over. Given it takes about a million dollars to send a kilogram to Mars, we don't want to waste any cargo in landing accidents - let alone the astronauts who will one day make the trip. 
So while NASA is getting beat up (with some justification) for not having an executable vision for solar system exploration, there's some comfort in knowing that farsighted scientists and engineers are still thinking ahead.

LDSD in the lab (NASA photo)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

One, two - three new mammals?

Could be. 
A crowd-funded (!) expedition to the Torricelli Mountains of Papua New Guinea placed 40 trailcams and may have gotten pictures of three new mammals. In the words of ecologist Eaun Ritchie: "We certainly got an image of what we think is a new species of sort of small kangaroo, dorcopsulus wallaby. Think small dog-size wallaby if you like. There's also things like bandicoots and rodents that don't appear to be in any of the books that we know about."
It's still a big planet....

Book Review: The World is Blue, by Sylvia Earle

National Geographic, Washington, DC, 2010 edition. 319pp.

Earle, Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, here provides a highly readable and compelling “state of the oceans” report.  The facts and figures are all here, but they are mixed with anecdotes and vivid descriptions of marine life to keep the reader in the right context.  Earle argues for more protected marine reserves (they covered less than one percent of the ocean when she wrote the book, an improved but still fragile two percent here in 2014), better regulation of fishing, and many other measures to halt the sharp decline in ocean productivity and biodiversity.  (One of her best points is that American hunters can take millions of ducks every year because there are enough protected marchlands and flyways to ensure the duck population can stay healthy.)   She touches on all the major groups of marine life and describes the latest in submersibles and other technology, although she points out there are far too few vessels, crewed or robotic, to properly explore the oceans.  Through all this runs a thread tracing the development of marine conservation efforts, in the U.S. and internationally.  One of my heroes of exploration and conservation, “Her Deepness” has here made a contribution that should be read by everyone interested in marine life and conservation – which essentially means everyone, since the Earth (as she quotes another scientists as pointing out) IS a marine habitat.

A snapshot of U.S. networks' online science news

CNN was the first all-news network, the first 24-hour news source, and has a founder (Ted Turner) who's been prominent in environmentalist activities.  So it's a real disappointment to look at their online science coverage.  Space geeks know they fired the great Miles O'Brien and the rest of the science office in a stupid cost-cutting move.  Looking at their online offerings right now (24 June 2014), CNN's abandonment of science news is a shameful abdication of the responsibility to keep people abreast of what's happening on their planet and in their universe.  A scan of today's pages reveals there is ONE science story not related to heath/medicine or computers, and that one is a way-down-the-page link to a misleading headline of a NY Times article about the discovery of water deep beneath the Earth (like most headlines on this topic, it talks about an "underground ocean" when we're in fact talking about zillions of scattered molecules.)
A snapshot of the others as of 24June:
CBS ( = Front-page tab for SciTech (heavy on tech, but science is there)
Fox news = Front-page Science tab, with separate Health and Technology and a lot of content in specialty areas like paleontology
NBC news = separate Science, Tech, and Health tabs, plus they have the marvelous Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log
MSNBC = can't find anything at all besides consumer tech and health.
ABC news = natural science stories are hidden under the Tech tab.

So using ease of access to science stories as the only criterion, Fox, and NBC get As, CBS a B, ABC gets a C, and CNN and MSNBC get Fs.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sharing the planet with sharks

Sharks are scary.  And, frankly, they should be.  We humans are scared of sharks, not just because some species have killed people, but because, by definition, if you encounter a shark, you're already in a realm evolutionary biology didn't prepare you for.  You are at a disadvantage from the start.
We are well north of 400 species of sharks and counting.  New ones are proposed in scientific literature every year, although the last really huge and distinctive shark, requiring a new genus, was the bizarre megamouth (Megachasma pelagios) caught accidentally by a U.S. ship in 1976.  The really odd thing about this case was that there were no sightings, strandings, reports, or even folklore hinting at the shark's existence before that date, although the numerous specimens gathered since then indicate there must have been strandings where the shark wasn't identified.
Here in 2014, one shark getting a lot of ink is one that will not be discovered, at least not alive.  Megalodon (no relation to megamouth) died out millions of years ago  but was brought back, in a sense, by a fake documentary on the Discovery Channel, which used to show only factual science programming and so misled a lot of people despite some rather fuzzy disclaimers.  There are some intriguing sighting reports of huge sharks, though most can be blamed on the harmless whale shark, which reaches 15m, and the basking shark, which is almost the same size. One that I still wonder about was that recorded by  Dr. D.G. Stead, who questioned witnesses of a sighting in 1918. Lobstermen spoke in awed tones of a ghostly white monstrosity that gobbled meter-wide lobster traps whole like popcorn.  Stead noted that some of the estimates of length were "absurd" (one man said 300 feet!) but still felt the men had met "a vast shark." The coloration is almost as much of a mystery as the size in this case.
How many of these species are dangerous to humans? I've seen counts as high as 33 species, but it's hard to sort out: humans are often bitten in circumstances where no one has a good look at the shark or can identify it. Even very small sharks may bite (like most other fish) in the right circumstances. The great white, oceanic whitetip, bull, shortfin mako, and tiger sharks are most often accounted dangerous to humanity. Of these, the whitetip may be the one people hear least about, but it was probably the chief predator in two really horrendous episodes, the predations of sharks after the sinkings of the Nova Scotia and the Indianapolis in World War II.
The blue shark (one of my personal favorites, a beautiful animal and one of the most streamlined creatures in nature) is often feared but rarely fingered as a culprit. Other species like gray reef, nurse, and lemon sharks, while not as large or deadly as their already-mentioned counterparts, figure in many of the "shark bites man" cases. 
You are, statistically speaking, unlikely to die of shark bite even if you spend a great deal of time in the oceans. Sharks kill about ten people a year. Crocodiles kill a hundred times as many people. Snakes may kill 5,000 times as many.  Even if you leave off the far greater numbers of people killed by disease carrying insects, snails, etc., it's pretty clear sharks rank as amateurs in the human-killing business. 
Again, this is about evolutionary biology.  Sharks are adapted to search for particular prey.  Most of the time a fatal human encounter is precipitated because the shark mistakes a person for a seal or something else on the normal menu. Nonfatal encounters are often the result of a shark biting at something in murky water.
That's not to say there are no shark attacks - incidents where a shark has a good view with its eyes and the rest of its marvelous sensor suite, targets a human, and seriously wounds or kills him or her.  Those certainly happen, and it's crazy to approach large sharks casually. The point is that such attacks are freakishly rare in most of the world. The Nova Scotia and Indianapolis episodes were the result of dumping large numbers of humans into the sea where sharks could hardly overlook the buffet thus presented.  (The death tolls in each case are known - 852 on the former and 879 on the latter - but the percentage of deaths caused by sharks will always be guesswork. Likewise for the 1943 case of the Cape San Juan, where many of the 825 people who died in the water were shark meals.)
It's common for many sharks to be killed by local authorities when there's a death on the world's beaches.  Countless sharks paid for the famous 1916 episode that inspired Jaws (although the perpetrator was most likely a bull shark, assuming it was only one shark.)
Most recently, seven human death in three and a half years caused the government of Western Australia to spent over a million dollars (U.S.) on a program of catching sharks via baited hooks in 2013-4.  The catch was reported in June 2014 as 175 sharks. Those over three meters - 50 of them - were deemed dangerous and killed.  The cull, however, caught no great whites, the species actually blamed for the recent human deaths. Tiger sharks made up most of the catch.  It's not at all clear this controversial effort made any difference to human safety, although it's being extended anyway.
Any human v. shark accounting is a very one-sided affair.  It's been authoritatively estimated that humans kill 71 million sharks a year, mostly for the sharkfin soup trade. The number may be higher.  The population of sharks obviously can't withstand this onslaught forever. Many nations have moved to protect particular species and block off habitat.  There is occasional good news, like the June 2014 report that great whites off the U.S. east coast are much more numerous than previously believed. And not all sharks are in trouble: small deep-water species have no economic importance.  However, as long as facilities like this fin-processing factory in China operate, sharks overall are in dire need of increased human assistance.
There remains a great deal of public fascination and fear about sharks. Witness the coverage of a single shark, "Katherine," a 1,000-kilogram-plus great white tagged off Massachusetts and most recently headed for the Gulf Coast of Texas, an event which seemingly has people stirred up as though she was Godzilla.
It's very safe to say we don't know all the shark species of the world yet.  It's also, though, clear that many of the best-known species need help.  The insanity of the soup trade (especially given that the actual shark fin in a bowl of such soup can almost be measured in individual molecules) and a myriad of other dangers threaten to effectively remove two of the ocean's biggest filter-feeders and several of its apex predators from the food chain. We don't know exactly what the results will be, but they will be serious.  They could be catastrophic. 
"Sharks are for study, not soup" should be our motto.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Latest new bird flies in

Indonesia has yielded the newest bird species known to science.   The Wakatobi Flowerpecker (Dicaeum kuehni) comes from a smaller island off Sulawesi.  It is not a "just sighted" type of discovery, as it was confused with another flowerpecker from Sulawesi proper, but it's an interesting example of biodiversity. The Wakatobi bird shows no sign of interbreeding with its smaller relative: they are separated by a strait 27km wide that the birds could cross (and presumably did at some ancient point) but do not. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Music of the celestial night

Sarah Brightman will pay a whopping $52M to become the eighth space tourist to ride a Russian rocket to the ISS.  She's not talking much about what she'll do there, but I assume she'll try to work out arrangements to provide some kind of live performance and recording. It'll all have to be done with the onsite equipment, though: professional-quality mikes, recording equipment, and so forth are not the kind of thing space tourists can bring. They are limited to personal essentials.  Also, they can't disrupt the operations of the science station. Finally, the acoustics in a metal can crammed with equipment are nothing to sing home about. Still, I hope she can arrange something to encourage support for space exploration and interest in the ISS mission. She's a marvelous singer (Andrew Lloyd Webber described her as having a pop voice with an operatic range) and has been working to arrange this since 2012, so it's not a flirtation she's likely to abandon. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

A cryptozoological thriller - Under the Dark Ice (review)

Beneath the Dark Ice
Greig Beck
St. Martin's, 2010

This is the first novel I've read by Beck, and I enjoyed it.  His subterranean ocean food chain is questionable, at least in its capability to support so many big predators (Warren Fahey did a better job with Pandemonium) , but this is a fast, well-written adventure thriller with a mix of survived and evolved prehistoric animals that keep the pages turning as the human characters try to escape before they are eaten. A couple of the creatures, especially the Big Bad, aren't quite believable, but others are, and Beck sure as heck makes them all scary.  Beck gets an extra point for creating a believable romance between characters who have just met, a tricky feat to pull off for any author: lesser writers would use the idea as a clumsy excuse for adding sex.  There is lots of cool military technology, some of it real today, the rest plausible in 5-10 years, and military/tech adventure readers will eat this one up.  I couldn't quite believe Beck's main military character, Alex Hunter, has the abilities he does, but he's well-written enough that I didn't care too much.  Bottom line: this book is  a lot of fun. I gave it 3.5 stars on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

New spaceships on the horizon

At the recent Space Symposium (formerly National Space Symposium), Boeing had a full-scale mockup of its cool CST-100 human transport on display (right next to the even cooler Lynx spaceplane).  It looks essentially like a bigger Apollo capsule with a greatly improved interior. Then SpaceX grabbed the spotlight by unveiling what CEO Elon Musk called a flight article - in other words, real and complete - Dragon 2.  He may have been exaggerating a little about this being flight hardware, but there's no question SpaceX is well along toward being the first of the Commercial Crew units to fly humans. 
Senator Richard Shelby, in a blatant example of promoting business in his state at the expense of the taxpayers, has proposed language that will require SpaceX and the other commercial firms to provide cost and pricing data on every component of their vehicles. The Commercial Crew program was created to buy services to orbit as a commodity, creating a much faster, cheaper pipeline to orbit than sending people up on government (U.S. or Russian) spacecraft.  Shelby, who thinks everything related to the U.S. belongs on government vehicles like the Space Launch System and the EELVs being built in his home state, would wreck this premise and cost taxpayers billions.  Boeing, with its military experience, has the infrastructure in place to figure out and provide all this data: SpaceX and Sierra Nevada do not.  Shelby saw an opportunity to crush SpaceX as a competitor on price.  What's scary is that he might get his way.

Below: Boeing capsule at Space Symposium

Friday, June 06, 2014

Book Review: Daedalus and the Deep

Another entry in the recent wave of sea-creature novels is Matthew Willis' Daedalus and the Deep.
(Cotero Publishing, 2012: 248pp.) It's a unique and rather delightful book.
Willis takes as his starting point a true event, the report of a "sea serpent" by the HMS Daedalus in 1848.  He fictionalizes Captain Peter McQuahe as Robert MacQuarrie, and the other names used are all fictitious. Our protagonist here is Ensign Colyer, a teenage girl passing herself as her dead brother Tom.  Such things did happen in the Royal Navy on occasion, and Colyer is an engaging hero among a crew of well-drawn male characters.
Willis asks what might have happened if the corvette had not merely reported the serpent but chased it hell-bent, determined to secure it for the honor of England, its Navy, and the ship's captain.  Along the way we get all kinds of detail on how such a ship was equipped and sailed in those days. Indeed, there's sometimes a little too much detail, and I found myself skipping occasional paragraphs even though the subject interested me.
While trying not to spoil the plot too much, it's important to say there is a science fiction (one may say fantasy) element throughout this book. It's not by accident that the Daedalus and the creature came together, and their running fight over many days and thousands of miles is driven by the creature as much, or more than, by Captain MacQuarrie. 
The result is a very enjoyable read. Willis writes well: there are only a couple of clunky sentences here and there.  You will put this book down having enjoyed a rousing adventure story, an original slant on the sea serpent motif, and an engaging introduction to the days of sail.  Well done, Mr. Willis.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A month beneath the sea

Two decades ago, there were several long-dwell scientific habitats scattered on the continental shelves of the world. Now there is just one, Aquarius Reef Base off the Florida Keys.  Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, will dive today to join a five-man crew for a 31-day stay.  Cousteau will help with experiments while filming the underwater odyssey.  It's a worthwhile mission, though it highlights the restricted funding for underwater exploration worldwide.  The last great frontier on Earth has only one outpost of Homo sapiens, and even it was almost shut down for budgetary reasons in 2012.  It only survives because of frantic fundraising efforts and some support from NASA, which sends astronauts there to train. Space explorers get used to the confined space, hostile environment, and weightlessness-like underwater conditions to prepare them for space station flights.
Cousteau calls his effort "Mission 31." Here's hoping it won't be "Mission Final" for Aquarius. 

UPDATE: Mission 31 was a complete success.  Here's hoping it brings a reappraisal of how atrophied the human presence on the seafloor has become.