Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Neil Armstrong, died on this day 2012

I watched the liftoff live in person (Thanks, Dad), fell asleep for the first step, watched the return live on TV. There could have been no better choice for Earth's hero..

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cryptozoology, culture, and folklore

How do we know whether to evaluate a cryptozoological report, especially an old one, in the light of the witness's or recorder's culture? Does it matter if the culture has a strong "monster" tradition?  The always-interesting Sharon Hill gave her take on this in a Doubtful News post this week.
I thought that was a very good take, reminding us that we can't just assume what we want from old accounts, be they presented as facts or legends. (By the way, if you think all cryptozoology is nonsense, keep reading anyway: this isn't about whether it has value as a science, but where the reports in it originate and how to treat them)
The "Father of Cryptozoology," Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, offered a good example about cultural and linguistic context.   He said a future reader shouldn't take literally a modern description of an animal that had "fire in its eyes" and ran "like lightning." The animal might be a normal, real creature - a lion, say - but if you don't understand the language and its fondness for metaphors and similes, you might look at that and chuckle, "Silly myth. 21st-century people would believe anything. “ (Arguably, we do, but to continue...)  The point is there's no easy rule. 
Sasquatch poses a good example. Sasquatch-like creatures are widespread in Native American lore, but the origins and meaning of these stories are difficult to evaluate, especially for the non-Native (or, for that matter, the modern Native disconnected from old traditions, which is hardly uncommon.)
The Salish word from which “sasquatch” is derived refers to a supernatural creature, not an animal. At the same time, many Native cultures didn’t recognize the sharp divide we scientifically-minded moderns do between natural and supernatural entities, so the situation is confused further.  (On the other hand, zoologist Ivan Sanderson wrote in the 1960s that, when one Indian was asked about the subject, the reply was a derisive, “Oh, don’t tell me the white men have finally gotten around to that.”) 
Sharon wrote, referencing Michel Meurger’s 1989 book Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis, “I admit surprise to find out that the maned serpent is so old a concept. Meuger says the origin of today’s sea serpent concept is a product of the Enlightenment drawn from Nordic stories of giant snakes. “  
This is a unique and valuable book, but there's one thing the author seems to treat lightly when discussing the Scandinavian lindorm and other creatures of legend, and it's the same thing Prothero and Loxton skipped over in their generally excellent book Abominable Science when discussing the mythical hippocampus. That is that a legendary creature may influence a future witness's interpretation of a sighting, but it also may not. The authors in both these books present the legendary forebears of reported cryptids as important even though a particular witness may be living generations later and may have never heard of the story. Jay M. Smith pursues a version of this in Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast, about a wolflike creature that killed many people in pre-revolutionary France.  The cultural background he described and used to frame the beast stories is alleged to have influenced peasants who may have not had the least idea of what increasingly free newspaper publishing in Paris meant, or indeed that it existed. (Sociologists in general tend to irk me by assuming a specific incident is related to a bigger trend when it may not be.)  (Another book, by the way, that doesn’t get into cryptozoology but provides a valuable overview of the whole “why we like monsters” question is Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters.)
To go back to sea creatures, the lindorm and its cousins, for example, seem to me likely to have precisely zero bearing on the one of the most famous sightings, the 1905 Nicoll/Meade-Waldo case. This is one of the "gold standard" cases, in which two qualified natural scientists on a yacht off Brazil spotted a long-necked animal they were certain was an unidentified species. What we know for sure is that the witnesses saw an animal, and one of two things happened: either they accurately described an unknown species or misidentified a known species. You can argue either way, but there's nothing to indicate tales told by their ancestors were involved. It's worth noting in this case that Meade-Waldo was aware of another "sea serpent" sighting, the 1848 encounter by the HMS Daedalus, and thought that creature might be the same (although the Daedalus reported no fin and his creature had a very prominent one.)  So, while ancient legend had no bearing, it might be that another cryptozoological report did. A lot of modern cryptozoologists write the Daedalus episode off to a giant squid, which it probably was, but it was very much an unknown in 1905.

That leads us down another interesting path.  Let's do a little thought experiment.  Say I am hiking near my home in Colorado and spot a big, dark, lumbering figure from a distance.  I know it’s at least human-size and on two legs, but that’s all I can be certain of at this distance and lighting. If I knew nothing of Bigfoot, I might consider two possibilities: a human and a bear.  Since I do know of Bigfoot, even though I'm skeptical about it, I am likely to think of three possibilities.  Having three vs. two options, no matter what they are, creates some (if hard to define) increase in the possibility I might misidentify the animal. 
Now, let’s go one further: creatures we know are legendary.  If I think I see a huge winged fire-breathing thing, it’s either a dragon or it isn’t. If I didn’t have the legend of the dragon, I couldn’t put such a thing into any handy context at all.  I would essentially have to make up my own legend.  In this case, science would come to my rescue: dragons as commonly depicted have unrealistic proportions for a flying animal, and a flying animal that size isn’t possible at all in our gravity and atmosphere, therefore I didn’t see one.  If I didn’t know the science, I might be more inclined to lean on the legend.  The 21st century, with the internet and global television empires, has created a situation where everyone knows the major creature legends, or some snippet of them: Merguer couldn't have imagined such a world in 1989.  

Where does all this leave us? In an unsatisfactory fugue, really.  I reject the idea that cryptozoological reports can be dismissed if the beast as reported bears some resemblance to a legend, but I also  acknowledge the existence of a legend makes it somewhat more likely I might ascribe an uncertain sighting to something it isn’t.  Know the context: know the language: know the culture and the trends: but never forget an individual report might have nothing to do with any of them. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Of Whales and Satellites

It would be really cool (and useful) to track whales via satellite imagery. Of course, the whales have to cooperate by being at or near the surface.  Assuming they are, can we spot them and tell that they are whales?  The Ikonos satellite service reports its WorldView2 satellite can spot whales. WorldView2 has a maximum resolution of 50cm, so a whale is going to appear of decent size: a whale showing 20m of back at the surface will be 40 pixels long and maybe 6 pixels wide (wider if the flukes are showing.)  There is a lag in how often one satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) can look at a given patch of ocean, though, so it can't keep continuous track of a pod.
Planet Labs can keep continuous watch on an areas when it's finished deploying its nanosatellites (5kg each (really) and offering 3-5 meter resolution),  A whale may be only a pixel wide and a few pixels long, though, I had a chance to ask co-founder and CTO Chris Boshuizen about it at the Conference on Small Satellites. He's looked at this because people have sent in Planet Labs images and asked if some objects visible are whales.  Chris doesn't see whale-tracking from his satellites as practical: a whale is, at best, a tiny smudge indistinguishable from a boat. Planet Labs started out not intending to image watery areas at all but now goes out 40 km from all coastlines.  We also discussed whether whales, with their blubber insulation, have enough of a heat signature to be spotted in the infrared band (he doubts it).  He can spot pollution plumes in the water and sediment flows, though, so Planet Labs, which has a strong ecological mission, can contribute to the study of inshore habitats.  Thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer my questions!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Cecil, and bigger issues

If I call myself a writer on science and nature, I need to say something about Cecil. It's a tragedy this lion was killed, and a crime the way it was lured. Everyone involved should face appropriate legal punishment. This is a moment we should seize, though, to talk about all the issues involved. Should we allow any trophy hunting?
Hunters argue the huge license fees support often-impoverished local communities: opponents argue that money ends up with corrupt officials instead. The lion is, at the least, a threatened species: it's not in imminent danger of vanishing, but its numbers go down every year, with the most vigorous animals, the huge males, being hunted the most. I'd say the US should go beyond requirements of the CITES treaty and ban import of lion trophies as we do of elephant tusks. A TIME magazine piece notes some blame should go to Zimbabwean officials who created the poverty in their once-thriving nation in a political land-grab that broke up productive farms and game ranches because most were white-owned, plunging the whole nation into extreme poverty where people will do anything for money or food. The leads to another issue: should we give so much ink and airtime to Cecil in a land where thousands of children are starving? I have no pity for the professional poachers who make millions supplying traditional-medicine markets: shooting on sight is a tempting remedy. But there are local people whose children are hungry and will do anything, including poach a lion.
I don't have the answers to all these issues, but we should talk about them. Mourn Cecil, but not only Cecil: think about how to prevent poaching, balance human and animal needs, and build a sustainable future for all.

Since part of the problem is the poor and corrupt system prevailing in the nation housing the park from which Cecil was lured, I have an idea I trot out every now and then for international parks: start with a half-dozen wild areas the conservation world can agree are vital and create an agency (UN, maybe, or something seen as less corrupt, like the OECD, which isn't thought of as a conservation agency but could be become one in the ecotourism era), to fund and administer on a continuing basis on an equal footing with the nation (if there is one) owning the site. The Galapagos and Okavango might be good places to start because of the universal recognition of their importance: you could also start with the most endangered spots instead: Conservation International maintains a list. There would be all kinds of problems in practice, but exporting "America's best idea" on a cooperative international seems wiser than having so much preservation depend on year-to-year grants and political changes.