Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Welcome to Mars, Insight

The Insight lander, braking by aeroshell, parachute, and retrorocket into Mars' thin atmosphere, stuck the landing yesterday to send its first photos from the surface.  The eighth successful landing on the Red Planet since the Space Age began, Insight hopes to (or is hoped to: it's advanced, but I don't mean to grant it sentience) learn much more about Martian geology, internal temperatures, Marsquakes, and many more areas that will advance our knowledge of the planet and provide more clues in the search for life. Kudos to NASA, especially JPL, to Lockheed Martin and the other contractors, and to international partners (the seismometer , for example, is French.) Go Earth!  

Friday, November 23, 2018

Book review: Far-Out, Shaggy, Funky Monsters

Far-Out, Shaggy, Funky Monsters: A What-It-Is History of Bigfoot in the 1970s
by Daniel S. Green  
Coachwhip Publications, 2018, 1188 pp.

This is a unique Bigfoot book, and not only because you could stop a charging apeman by bonking him on the head with this monster-sized tome.  As the author says, the 1970s were the real heyday of Bigfoot / sasquatch / etc., when the modern interest sparked by the Jerry Crew report in 1958 had been raised to another level entirely by the Patterson-Gimlin film and the topic crew massive public interest and came close to scientific respectability.  Green has uncovered seemingly every significant report, sighting flap, footprint claim, book, movie, whatever and presents a year-by-year chronicle of North America’s favorite monster.  Scattered throughout are tidbits for the determined researcher as well as the casual curiosity-seeker. The Sasquatch Festival of 1938 is our (little-known) kickoff point for a short pre-1970s history, and then we get into the reactions to the P-G film and the real fun begins.  We see the sightings all over the country (a new one to me was a report by three Marines in 1973: young Marines like their jokes, but making a hoax official report? Hmmm.)    Green covers the first films and documentaries, especially the shoestring hit film The Legend of Boggy Creek, and of course the Minnesota Iceman first described in print in 1969 and the constantly changing stories attached to it.  The scientists who took an interest (pro or con, with a bit more attention here to the “pro”) are covered, as is the first serious scientific book, Napier’s 1973 Bigfoot, and the major tomes that preceded and followed it up through anthropologist Kenneth Wylie’s 1980 Bigfoot. Green introduces us to many of the colorful characters, like hunter/hoaxers from the late Jon Beckjord (who seems to have been busier than I remember – yes, I remember the 70s) to the still-at-it Tom Biscardi, the completely serious if not always scientific searchers for knowledge, and the people like Stan Gordon who connected Bigfoot to UFOs and other “high strangeness.” (One takeaway is that it is frankly astonishing that no one was ever shot in the swarm of armed amateur expeditions and hunting parties attending many major sighting events.)

The sheer weight of material Green presents here is enough to make anyone wonder whether there is in fact a real species behind all this, even as the nationwide distribution and endless differences in descriptions and footprints makes it hard to reconcile with a believable animal (or even more than one animal).   Publications others have largely overlooked, like the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper (still publishing today), are used as Green chases the tale all over North America, from Alaska down to the Honey Island Swamp Monster and the Florida Skunk Ape. He takes us through the initial wave of conferences and meetings, the beginnings of the “kill-no kill” debate, and of course more sightings, from Ogden, Utah, to Powderly, Texas (Green’s best section headline, without doubt, is “The Tunnel Monster of Cabbagetown.”)
Green doesn’t try to wrap all this up into any personal overall views at the end (I wish he had), but he leaves us with over 100 pages of annexes, blogography, notes, and do forth. The amount of research done for this book makes my head ache.   Green’s evenhanded, sometimes bemused approach and mass of data may not make many converts one way or the other, but he has created a cultural history of our favorite monster’s most famous decade in a volume that will not and probably cannot be surpassed. For those who can manage the hefty price of this hefty book, it’s a must-have reference for anyone interested in North American primate claims, cryptozoology, and the cultural phenomenon that was, and still is, Bigfoot himself, both monster and myth. 

A different kind of wolf?

Fascinating: this discovery of a unique Arctic wolf population doesn't establish a new species, but it does indicate the usefulness of DNA studies and the differences in populations of a worldwide species.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A thought about H.G. Wells

When I was a kid I read everything, including some of the earliest horror/SF novels. H.G. Welles is known as a pivotal AF author, but I have a soft spot for the horror fiction he based on science as it was then known. 
Wells' The Invisible Man was pretty effective: written in 1897, it had some of the tropes which recurred throughout horror fiction: the scientist who experiments on himself, the inability to control the results, and the efforts to reverse the process and be normal again. He'd already written The Island of Dr. Moreau, wherein a mad scientist's advances don't work out at all as he foresaw (shades of Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man) among countless other examples.
The science is always fun to review from a later perspective: Wells' invisible man wouldn't have been able to see if light didn't reach his eyes, a point made by a physicist in 1913. The idea of transforming vertebrate species via surgery looks pretty silly now, when we have all our advances in genetics and DNA manipulation and still can't do such a thing.
But Wells made good use of what was then known in science (he trained in biology), prefigured still-ongoing debates about scientific morality, displayed great imagination, and wrote interesting main characters (secondary characters don't fare as well, getting little development in these short novels). These novels were only part of Wells' contribution to the canons of science fiction and horror, but they were lasting, even if movie and TV projects inspired by them have not fared well.
To mention a few I've seen, David McCallum's 1975 Invisible Man series was interesting but never found an audience, while its successor Gemini Man was just silly, I haven't seen the SyFY series, which lasted two seasons: an interesting sidelight was that the hormone which caused invisibility came from the corpse of a sasquatch, explaining why the big ape hadn't been discovered.  There was a decent version of Island with Michael York, although there's nothing memorable about it: it was simply competent.  he bizarre tale of making the incomprehensible version with Marlon Brando has become a film in itself. But Herbert George Welles' place is secure.
Read his work for yourself at Project Gutenberg. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

New microbes are their own "supra-kingdom"

Taxonomy was simple when I was growing up. There were plants (which included bacteria) and animals, and that was it.  Then things started splitting. The fungi got their own kingdom. Then the bacteria. Then it got crazy, with domains and supra-kingdoms and kingdoms, with the broader name "domains" assigned to the bacteria, the archaea, and the eukaryotes (which includes all the plants,  animals, protists, and pretty much everything else most people have ever heard of).  The only thing we knew for sure is that we at least had specimens belonging to all the kingdoms on up, even if we didn't have all the species. 
For more than a century, there were a few microbes kicking around collections that were described by species names and sometimes grouped as a phylum (the level below kingdom) but didn't fit very well with other microbes. Now we know why: they weren't even in the same kingdom as anything else.  Two new species picked up on a Canadian hike by graduate student Yana Eglit provided her and fellow scientists with their first look at living hemimastigotes, and they were so weird there was nothing else to do except give them their own supra-kingdom. As they wrote in Nature (the world's most prestigious scientific journal - heavy stuff for a grad student!) "The previous ranking of Hemimastigophora as a phylum understates the evolutionary distinctiveness of this group." The authors' findings "place Hemimastigophora outside of all established eukaryote supergroups. They instead comprise an independent supra-kingdom-level lineage..."
Mind blown. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Obituary: Environmental Champion Nat Reed.

I can't remember whether I ever met Nathaniel "Nat" Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics as a teenager, he ran for governor. He lost the Republican primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Democrat Lawton Chiles, but that's beside the point.
The obituary from the NY Times gives a good summation. Reed's legacy is one you wouldn't expect from most Republicans these days. He was instrumental in drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration and the establishment of the EPA. As the obituary in the NY Times tells it, Richard Nixon wasn't especially concerned about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it. He gave Reed a relatively free hand, and some real good resulted. Reed also stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation. He remained active all his life, writing, speaking, and otherwise advocating for the environment. He recounted his work in the book Travels on the Green Highway.
Nat Reed was 84 and died in the outdoors he loved, slipping and striking his head on a rock while salmon fishing in Quebec's Cascapedia River.    Goodbye to a good man.

The Extinct and the NY Times

We're all aware of human-caused extinctions, with famous species like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Steller's sea cow as poster creatures. Where are we now in terms of our impact on vulnerable species?
Obviously, a lot of things are better than they were decades ago. In the U.S., the EPA was created with the power to list species at risk and direct preservation efforts. Truly extraordinary efforts saved the California condor, the Florida panther (still very close to the edge) and the whooping crane, but were apparently a little too late for the Eastern cougar, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and Eskimo curlew.  
The New York Times makes it easy to see all its stories on this topic.  The "paper of record" is a bit battered these days by controversies inside and out, but the science coverage remains definitely worth reading. Stories the classification of tigers, which is am interesting reminder that DNA evidence, which itself is objective and information-stuffed, still needs to be interpreted by the slightly fuzzy standards of a "species" and the very fuzzy standards of other taxonomic levels. Some say there are only two subspecies of Panthera tigris, while others vote for six. We know the Sumatran, which some experts call a separate species, is extinct,  as is the Javan tiger and maybe the Caspian tiger.  
Balancing this sadness is some rare (very rare) good news on the vaquita, the world's most endangered marine mammal, with a sighting including a calf.  
Other recent articles cover the biodiversity of reef communities, the establishment of Madagascar's extinct elephant birds as the largest birds ever (800kg is a lot of Thanksgiving dinners), and how the Asian market for sea cucumbers threatens species off Mexico. 
Finally, there's an obituary I missed, for an Interior Department official named Nathaniel Reed.  I can't remember whether I met Nat Reed, but when I was active in Florida politics he ran for governor. He lost the primary to Congressman Lou Frey, who was stomped into oblivion by Lawton Chiles, but that's aside from the point: the point is that he was instrumental in establishing the EPA and drafting, then pressing for passage of, the Endangered Species Act under the Nixon administration.  Richard Nixon didn't particularly care about the environment per se, but he wanted to be known as a champion of it, and he and Reed, to whom he gave a free hand, did some real good.  He stopped the plan for a major airport in sensitive habitat of Big Cyprus Swamp and co-founded the Everglades Foundation.  He was 84.  Goodbye to a good man.