Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Salute to the Kepler space telescope

Kepler was retired today, after control problems made it untenable to keep the mission running. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has discovered 2,600 planets and looked at half a million stars, giving us a far better (and more enthralling) view of the galaxy than any previous mission.  NASA estimates "that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars." An enormous archive of data (the spacecraft sent 678 gigabits) is yet to be analyzed. Approved in 2001 (the 9-year development is not too unusual for complex science missions), it was seemingly done in 2013 when a reaction wheel failed, but engineers were able to work around it.  In 2016, news reports claimed it had discovered an "alien megastructure" (now identified as a dust cloud moving around a star, important but not admittedly not as much fun.  In 2013, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was launched and has taken over the planet-hunting mission. Congratulations to NASA Ames, JPL, Ball Aerospace, and all others involved.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Book Review: Vaquita

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez
by Brooke Bessensen
Island Press, 2018

The vaquita, the world's smallest cetacean, once numbered thousands of animals in the Sea of Cortez. Then it was hundreds. And then it was a handful so small that every death could be the tipping point to extinction. (The estimate in this book is 15: there is a new study saying it might be as high as 30, but it's small comfort.)  It was only discovered by science in 1958, and it may be the second species of cetacean to be driven extinct.

The author, with endless determination and at no small risk to herself, explored both the world of the porpoise and a web of greed and corruption as deadly as the gillnets that may be the last thing the last vaquita ever sees.  Illegal fishing for the totoaba, a human-sized fish whose swim bladder is worth more than cocaine on the Chinese market, continues despite official proclamations, laws, and even a unique agreement by Mexico to allow Sea Shepherd ships to confiscate illegal nets. For every effort or official announcement of more protection, there is a corrupt government official, a crime lord, and/or a desperate or greedy fisherman willing to circumvent it.  An astonishing narrative has sprung up among local fishermen: that the vaquita does not exist, being only a prop for some kind of American-Mexican plot to turn the region into an oilfield. A laudable program to pay fishermen to use safer gear or switch to non-fishing businesses is spotty in practice thanks to corruption, endless delays in permits and paperwork, and the unending demand for totoaba (whose population is also shrinking fast).  
Brooke Bessesen explores the world of the local villages, where she meets people who risk everything to save the species and people who simply will not talk about it, plus those who doubt its existence (she notes fairly that many younger fisherman have never seen one, but many who know better have talked themselves into the myth). She chronicles the efforts of conservationists, artists, and educators to support the animal, and the desperate and heartbreaking attempt to save the vaquita by captive breeding.  
Bessesen ends on a determined note: we may or may not save the vaquita (the odds, while not yet zero, are not good), but she will tell its story. She will not let its spirit die. 
If the heroes in this book do not inspire you, you have no heart: if the villainy does not infuriate you, you have no soul.  That's how memorable this book is.  

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book Review: Spying on Whales

Book Review:  

The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

Nick Pyenson
Viking, New York.  322 pp.
This is a superbly written one-volume introduction to whales through the personal experiences of the author’s adventures and hard work in studying them, whether the whales in question are fossilized (the author is a paleontologist and the fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian) or living. 
He describes numerous challenges in the fossil-hunting field, like trying to get a stunning bonanza of fossils weighing countless tons out  of Chile before the area was bulldozed, and smaller but memorable moments like having his four-year-old son discover a fossil whale skull. 
He relates his first adventure in trying to tag a whale (he did) and some pioneering work at an Icelandic whaling station. (He wondered if it was ethical to work with a whale “fishery,” and finally decided the whales would be killed no matter what he did, so it would at least give their deaths some meaning if scientists used them to learn about the animals and contribute to knowledge useful for conservation.)  There he and a colleague discovered that, after a century-plus of killing hundreds of thousands of whales, some species had a sensory organ connecting the jawbones at the tip that was not only undescribed in any of the literature, but was a TYPE of organ never described in any animal. (You can think of it as a jelly doughnut with fibers (papillae) inside, all of which grow out of one side and connect to the other side.)  It’s amazing how recent much of our knowledge of whales is and how much we have yet to learn.
When trying to understand the behavior of whales, he discusses a problem I’ve never seen explored in any depth in many years of reading on cetaceans: we don’t know what “natural” behavior for the great whales looks like. No one knows how feeding, diet, migration, ranges, etc., looked like before humans started the wholesale slaughter. The behavior and habits we are still trying to document might be radically different from what they were in, say, 1700. This applies to their only predators, the orcas, too.  Did the orcas which today specialize in salmon or seals always feed on those, or was it different when there were many times (almost a hundred times, for blue whales) the number of baleen whales available to pursue today? What were the deepsea floor communities that gather on “whalefalls” like when thousands more whales every year were dying natural deaths and sinking?
Pyenson effectively traces the failure of conservation efforts until recent decades and the problems whales still face from many human-caused effects. He also recounts being part of the fundamental work of figuring out the nutrients vs. metabolic costs involved in lunge feeding on fish and shrimp by the giant rorquals.  One of the outcomes of this analysis concerns the maximum size of whales: it turns out the largest blue whales are about as big as whales can be. Any bigger, and the energy expended can’t be adequately recouped. Pyenson thinks the measured maximum length for a killed blue of 109 feet is about the limit, while the largest whale ever cut up and weighed piece by piece, at 136.4 tons, is somewhat short of the maximum, as this whale was “only” 89 feet long. (He wrote about this in the New York Times, and I blogged on it here.
His work on this topic is also a reminder of how the sciences can cross-fertilize each other. When trying to understand how whales’ pleated throats expanded to take in swimming pools full of water and then contracted to strain it, the whale scientists brought in Jean Piven, a “particle physicist turned parachute experimenter.” Piven joined with them to help calculate, from his design and testing of many types and sizes of parachutes, how the throat expanded, what the energy expended was, how challenging it was to filter that mass through the baleen, and what the muscles and the tongue had to do to make this system work. Pyenson also describes the information gained from some of his fossils at the Smithsonian, explaining technical biological terms and functions in language non-experts can understand. 
The bottom line: I learned things on every page and had a fascinating time doing so. While Pyenson doesn’t try to cover every species, I ended up with a much better idea of what a whale really is and why whales look and act as they do. A marvelous achievement.    

A scary ride to space

While space travel will never be entirely safe, there has never been a human casualty in orbit or beyond.   Every human life lost in space exploration was lost in ground training and accidents, on reentry, or on launch.  The transition between realms is the scariest part.  (See my review of the heartbreaking yet enriching book Bringing Columbia Home). 
The Soviet/Russian approach to space has been to stick with proven designs, upgrading them gradually, and building dozens of similar capsules and hundreds of boosters that designer Mikhail Tikhonravov would recognize from his 1957-built R-7.
While four cosmonauts were killed in reentry accidents in the Soviet era, launch became routine.  Still, the escape tower on  Soyuz launchers was used twice, in 1975 and 1983, to pull away from malfunctioning boosters, and now we have a third effort.  (No escape rockets on U.S. capsules have ever been deployed, although it's fair to note the Shuttle HAD no escape system when Challenger failed.) 
Then last week, one of the Soyuz's four attached boosters had a problem. The rocket's boosters (liquid-fueled like the main stage) existed because Tikhonravov and engine designer Valentin Glushko could not get large enough engines from Soviet manufacturing and metallurgy of the times to produce very large rocket engines and needed to cluster smaller ones, a process we covered in our book The First Space Race.
Anyway, this 1950s design was still in use thanks to the Russian philosophy of reusing successful designs pretty much forever. One booster apparently had a failed detachment and swiveled into the main body instead of out and away. Cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and astronaut Nick Hague (Colonel, USAF) handled it in the best tradition of space flyers, keeping calm,taking the right actions, running the checklists, as the capsule became a giant, spinning artillery round until the parachutes deployed. 
There is of course an investigation, but the U.S. allowed itself to get into a post-Shuttle world with no way to transport astronauts to the ISS except to buy pricey seats on Russian vehicles.  They will continue to use this route after the booster is declared safe again, because they have no choice: Commercial Crew vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to be flying, but the budget was stretched out, as was the schedule.   Let's hope the price for that decision isn't too high. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cryptozoology odds and ends

I don't call myself a cryptozoologist anymore: the field once looked like it was on the verge of applying widespread scientific rigor, but now only a minority of cryptozoologists seem to approach the business with both of the mindsets necessary: curiosity and skepticism. The latter gets left out too often, and I run the other way when people try to explain lack of physical evidence by invoking something never proven to exist, apparitions. (If it's not zoology, it shouldn't be cryptozoology, and if's there's no evidence after prolonged searches, the logical conclusion is the thing doesn't exist.).
Nonetheless, I like cryptozoologists for their sheer stubborn optimism, and I keep an eye open for developments. Here are 10 items from January to October 2018.

  1. First, a reminder that there is only one real museum for the field, the International Cryptozoology Museum (ICM)in Portland, Maine. The ICM does try to collect all the hard evidence available, as well as media coverage, pop culture, etc. 
  2. Loren Coleman and company at the ICM have added a CryptoStore where you can buy anything from a plush Bigfoot to a cryptozoology books to action figures. 
  3. Some coverage of last year's conference at the Museum. Another article here and a TV report here.  
  4. Next year's conference will be in the spring: the Museum is doing some fund-raising here.
  5. The University of Utah's Chronicle is running a "cryptid of the week" storyline.  The example here is, of course, Bigfoot, in a short article written by Marshall Faulkner.
  6. Cryptozoologists hate hoaxes, of course. This one of a Georgia "carcass" created by an artist got a lot of press.
  7. There's a fun-looking animated film out I haven't seen yet, about finding a tribe of yetis and being the outsider as a human. It's called Smallfoot. Cryptozoologists will note there are almost no reports of white yetis, and that's not surprising.  Yetis, if they existed, would not live in the snowfields and high passes, just cross them while going between valleys where's actually food, so white would not be an advantage. The snow-white Yeti, though, is embedded in pop culture now. 
  8. A fun news article on the cryptids of Saskatchewan, including sasquatch and the lake creature named (unfortunately) Ogopogo. "Ogopogo" is a fun name, but not one that will help the topic be taken seriously by the scientific world.  (Of course, we have bandicoots and wallaroos, and the fish called the sarcastic fringehead sound pretty funny, too.)
  9. Cryptozoology has become a common enough part of the culture to be used as an introduction to other topics - even, in this case, to dog-headed demon sculptures. 
  10. There are more and more cryptozoology-themes events around the country, including this one, the Bigfoot Bonanza
  11.  I get one to add one self-promotional item in every list. My well-reviewed cryptozoological novel The Dolmen is still available! 

Monday, October 08, 2018

Book Review: Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Fossil Legends of the First Americans
Adrienne Mayor

  • 488 pages
  • Princeton University Press (May 1, 2005)

  •  Mayor is a scholar of the overlooked chapters of history and prehistory, such as historical Amazons and early automata. Here she asks what Native Americans thought of the fossils in fossil-rich North America, and uncovers a treasure trove of anecdotes, myths, and fossils.

  • The Native contributions to fossil lore were long overlooked, and most are lost. Early fossil hunters sometimes paid Indians to lead them to fossils, but few thought the locals had anything to offer as far as understanding or even interest, dismissing them as mere curiosity collectors or primitive object-worshipers. (The great George Gaylord Simpson, writing in 1942 and 1943, was especially harsh on the idea the peoples who'd been on the continent longest had learned anything useful.) Mayor, though, finds interest in fossils existed over the continent. If Native Americans lacked the European-American scientific method to put things into context, many tribes considered fossils very important. They gathered fossils, traded them, incorporated them in sacred and everyday art, and speculated about what kind of beasts had left them behind. It was logical to attribute them to monsters of legend, since there was no other cultural context to put them in, at least after the human conquest of the continent had (according to somewhat disputed orthodoxy) wiped out mammoths and other beasts. They understood these bones came from many types of giants/animals, which various tribes identified as including the great thunderbirds and both land and water monsters. Storytellers filled in the background with legends about how these creatures killed each other or, rarely, were killed by humans. 
  • Fossils are kept even today in medicine bundles and other Native-held artifacts, although many more have been taken to museums (sometimes with the consent of local tribes and sometimes not: Mayor reports some tribes considered them part of the story of the earth, and removing them was disrespectful or would lead to misfortune). An early point of contention was that bones eroding away in the air had to be removed, according to scientists, for preservation, while some Indians objected this was interfering with a natural cycle. Mayor went to great lengths to talk with paleontologists, tribal historians, old shamans, and others who could shed light on the connections of the past. The controversies continue into the present, with the battles over Tyrannosaurus Sue and other specimens. While it's possible to wonder whether Mayor puts a bit too much stock in Native understanding of the fossils, she takes time to deconstruct such frauds and myths as the cave full of red-haired mummified giants in Nevada that conspiracy-lovers (and some sincere cryptozoologists) think were hidden or destroyed. She notes there are a few Native claims of unfossilized dinosaur bones, although these may be due more to linguistic / translation difficulties than to reality. 
  • My main nitpick in this book is illustrations. While maps of each region Mayor covers are provided, it would help the reader to see some of the crucial small areas mapped in more detail. There are many photographs and drawings here, but I found myself wanting more: perhaps a companion volume of art and photography would be an interesting future project.
  • If the book's not perfect, it is a (literally) groundbreaking work that shows how much we've overlooked that is still accessible. Mayor knows how to document: the Index and Notes take up 100 pages, so there are plenty of additional sources to delve into. Hopefully this book creates more respect for Native Americans and for the fossils of dinosaurs and ancient mammals they saw and gathered. Much has been lost, but much remains to be explored.

Monday, October 01, 2018

To the Vaquita, on the edge

The vaquita porpoise is slipping away. A few years ago, there were a hundred. Two years ago, there were 50-60. Now the best estimate is 12.

Apology to the Vaquita

All you ever wanted
Was a space of your own
One little patch of ocean in the endless ocean
One place without nets and sudden, drowning death
We could have spared for you
That space of your own
We could have carved it out
Of our fishing and commerce and wealth
Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve
Cared sooner, cared more
We care now
I hope we haven’t seen the last spout
The last calf
The last tail-flip
“We’re sorry” Isn’t nearly enough
“We learned” seems more important
Your legacy is a lesson
Like the ones you taught your calves in a bright-blued sea
We’re sorry
It cost your lives to learn our lesson
Have we learned it?
Is still in session.

-          Matt Bille, 2018