Monday, May 28, 2018

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Steve Brusatte
William Morrow, New York, 2018. 404pp.

In Rise and Fall, the latest in dinosaur science is presented in a highly readable science book doubling as a rip-roaring adventure tale. The story of dinosaurs, not just as fossils but as real animals, is masterfully presented here by paleontologist Steve Brusatte.  I've been reading dinosaur books for 50 years (they were, literally, the first books I ever read), and this volume belongs on the desk of every dino-lover.

The first thing Brusatte does, superbly, is to put the dinosaurs into context. From the end-Permian extinction through the first phase of the Triassic period, the dinosaur-to-be lineage was one of several vying for dominance, and not as the favorites. Dinosaurs ascended through adaptability and luck, radiating into niches all over Pangea. They left the sea and, initially, the sky to reptilian cousins, but their dominance of the land became absolute. As the world transformed several times over the next 150 million years, the dinos changed with it. They developed thousands of species (a new one is described, on average, every week, one of many things I didn't know before reading this book), culminating in the monstrous predators like T. rex and the stupendous sauropods of South America that grew longer than blue whales. In modern-day China and elsewhere, they also produced relatively tiny forms that adapted to flight and endured as birds.  Brusatte interweaves his science with dramatic tales of the great adventures and colorful lives that unfolded as people sought out new fossils and argued over what they meant. We also meet today's leading dinosaur palentologists in quick, incisive sketches that explore the frontiers of dino-science.
T. rex is the only dinosaur that gets its own chapter (and why should it not)? Brusatte weighs in on the controversies over whether T. rex had feathers and whether it hunted in packs, arguing for "yes" and "yes." (Also, did you know young rexes grew at the rate of 5 pounds per day? Neither did I.)
At the end, he takes us on a harrowing journey with the last dinosaurs as they watch death bloom from the sky.  Brusatte mentions other theories about dinosaur extinction but is adamant the global disappearance of fossils in the same era, geologically speaking at the same moment, is decisive.
The author reminds us repeatedly that dinosaurs are not merely skeletons or film stars (taking several shots at Jurassic Park along the way: indeed, he's a little too harsh, given the modern dinosaur-science revolution was far from mature). They were dynamic, evolving, living, breathing animals that ruled the Earth for a thousand times as long as modern humans have been dominant. The science will continue to evolve, but it's hard to imagine a better treatment of dinosaurs in a mere 350 pages of text is on the horizon. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Alan Bean and Sally Ride

Today we say farewell to Alan Bean, aviator, moonwalker, and artist, dead at 86.  The date also reminds us of the loss of his fellow explorer, Sally Ride, who would have been 67 years old today. 

Bean, uniquely among the moonwalkers, was an artist in his space time. After retiring from NASA, he took up painting full-time.  John Glenn said, "He saw the same monochromatic world everyone else did. But he, with his artist's eye, was able to see the intrinsic beauty." I won't post any images of his paintings here, due to copyright, but they are amazing, many with the marks of the rock hammer and a mold of a boot he wore on the moon.
See them on his website here
His NASA biography is here.
Sally needs no introduction: the first American woman in space, and the first woman ever whose flight was earned and not a propaganda stunt (with all due respect to the courage of the two Soviets who preceded her, they were sent up to upstage rival America.)  Post-NASA, she dedicated herself to science education and died of cancer in 2012.
Her official NASA biography is here.

With apologies to Willie Nelson:

My heroes have always been astros
And they still are, it seems
Forever in search of
And one step ahead of
The world and its best hopes and dreams.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The monster waves are out there

A century or so ago, scientists were skeptical about sailors' tales of truly enormous waves. They're not skeptical today: there are debates about just how high waves can get, but no doubt that monsters can lurk in the oceans.  

An instrumented buoy just recorded a wave almost 24 meters (78 feet) high in the Southern Ocean some 700 km south of New Zealand. This was the largest wave ever definitively measured in the  Southern Hemisphere.  As with most such waves, it was formed in a storm, where the complex mathematics of wave science show the occasional monster arises when the force of several waves combines into one.  The sailors' saying that every seventh wave is a giant hasn't been borne out by science, but there's a titanic amount of energy in play.  By the way, the popular term "rogue wave" doesn't have a precise definition: according to NOAA a rogue wave is any wave that's  "large, unexpected, and dangerous." 

Swordboat captain Linda Greenlaw once wrote that "What's the biggest wave you've ever seen?" is a dumb question because captains are a little busy during big-wave conditions: they just divide sea states into "'This sucks" and "This really sucks." Nevertheless, the biggest wave on record was measured with surprising calmness and precision.  This king of waves was spotted in 1933, when officers on the bridge of the oiler USS Ramapo triangulated a wave at 112 feet (34.1m) from trough to crest during a severe Pacific storm. This wasn’t a wild guess: as laid out carefully in the captain’s account, it involved a bridge officer sighting a horizon-filling wave dead astern and lining its top up with a boom on the mainmast. It sounds clinical, but it must have been terrifying even to a 477-foot ship. (Given the conditions, the measurement was still not "exactly exact," and the wave may have been a few feet shorter - or taller.)

A 90-foot-ish wave was photographed crashing over the deck of the supertanker Esso Languedoc in 1980. The wave that hit the RMS Queen Elizabeth II during a hurricane in the Atlantic in 1995 was estimated at 95 feet (29m). In 2000, the British research ship RRS Discovery measured a wave of the same height in the Atlantic west of Scotland. A few years later, the RMS Queen Mary took a hit from a rogue wave estimated at 92 feet high. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan fostered a wave in the Gulf of Mexico that, according to pressure sensors deployed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, was in the 90-foot range. 

Many huge waves are seen but unmeasured: famed explorer Ernest Shackelton, in a small vessel in the Southern Ocean in 1916, saw a wave so large  "I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted, 'For God's sake, hold on! It's got us.'" They survived, barely.

Waves that strike a seaside cliff or lighthouse will wash much higher than the wave's actual height, making the wave size a guess, but it must have been an extraordinary wave  that hit the Eagle Island lighthouse off Ireland in 1861. According to contemporary claims, the wave smashed windows 66m (220ft) above the normal sea level, 40m of which was a cliff and the rest the lighthouse itself. A wave hitting the Fastnet Lighthouse in the same region in 1985 splashed 47m (154ft) above sea level. 

Waves not born of storms can become huge, too, mainly in certain areas of the world where bottom topography, shorelines, and/or reefs can concentrate incoming water. One such place is Nazaré in Portugal, where last November a Brazilian surfer named Rodrigo Koxa rode a 24.4 meter (80-foot) wave. There are requirements for photography and documentation for official records, and Koxa's wave is the largest ever confirmed as such a record even though there are online videos claiming to be of larger conquests.  Surfing legend Laird Hamilton rode a wave at Cortes Bank in the Pacific he told author Susan Casey (see her book, The Wave) looked to be not only past the 100-foot mark but closer to 120 (36.5m), but there were few witnesses and no photographs. 

Fortunately for mariners, the 200-foot (over 60 m!) waves described in the Preston-Childs thriller The Ice Limit don't exist, despite those authors' normally praiseworthy efforts to put in correct scientific detail.  It's hard to imagine they could, given the sheer mass of water that would have to pile up and the force or gravity tearing it down.  But we used to think 112-footers didn't exist, either. 

(The Ramapo account is from Lt Cmdr R.P. Whitemarsh, Proceedings, August 1934. Reprinted in Gardner Soule, Under the Sea, Meredith Press, NY 1968)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Kangaroo rat un-extinct

When scientists suspect an animal has gone extinct, they desperately hope they are wrong.  Sometimes, happily, they are wrong. No one had seen the ridiculously adorable San Quintin kangaroo rat (Dipodomys gravipes) of Baja California since 1994.  About 12cm long, it was a once-populous species ground down by habitat destruction and other factors until there wasn't anything left of it. 
Now we know they are still there, thanks to four specimens trapped in 2017.    It's good to have the little critter hopping around in the desert again.