Saturday, October 26, 2019

A new - and really shocking - electric eel discovered

The electric eel, while not technically an eel, has fascinated science and the public for centuries.  It's far from being the only electrcity-discharging fish (there are 250 more in South America alone, although they use their low electrical charges for things like signaling mates) but it's by far the most powerful.  It was always presumed to be a single species (Electrophorus electricus), but a new review of 107 specimens by American and Brazilian scientists has found there are three. One of the new ones, dubbed E. voltai, has upped the record for strongest known electrical discharge from the 650 volts known from E. electricus to 860!
The "eel" species are similar in appearance, but it was still surprising to find there were three. One scientist involved, C. David de Santana, said, "These fish grow to be seven to eight feet long. They're really conspicuous," he says. "If you can discover a new eight-foot-long fish after 250 years of scientific exploration, can you imagine what remains to be discovered in that region?"
Good question.
electirc eel

Electric eel E. electricus (image NOAA: a NOAA page reports they can grow to 10 feet, although no one source is perfect.)

Friday, October 25, 2019

Fossil bonanza in Colorado Springs

Just east of my home town of Colorado Springs, a mind-blowing fossil discovery has been made. Kudos to the people, including my friend Erika Maurer, who stopped the area from being converted to a dirt bike park until it could be checked out. That was three years ago, and it's amazing the museum paleontologists (from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, specifically) were able to keep it secret until they were ready to announce it in a journal and an exhibit. 
It's surprisingly difficult to find fossils from the million years following the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg)  impact. This is going to rewrite what textbooks say about that critical period. The discovery chronicles the critical time when the mammals started to exploit the niches left by the dinosaurs. Nova on PBS will show a documentary, Rise of the Mammals, to accompany a new museum exhibit.  Not-so-BTW, the first paper has appeared in Science, the most prestigious scientific journal in America (whether it's the most prestigous in the world is between them and Nature). 
Image result for kpg impact"
There will be many more papers, articles, new species, and new studies in the years to come. This is amazing stuff.  (Image: National Science Foundation)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Quantum computing era arrives

""Here, we report using a processor with programmable superconducting qubits to create quantum states on 53 qubits ... While our processor takes about 200 seconds to sample one instance of the quantum circuit 1 million times, a state-of-the-art supercomputer would require approximately 10,000 years to perform the equivalent task." .... (original paper here).
Scientists and engineers from Google and NASA Ames Research Center have published a paper (accidentally released and quickly yanked a few weeks ago) that shows they have achieved quantum supremacy, the first goal in a worldwide race to exploit quantum technology for computing, communication, cryptography, materials design, and potentially a lot more.
A normal bit in a computer is either in state value 0 or 1.  The qubit (a photon or electron) can be in any number of states: it's not a 0 or 1 (although it could be) but a matter of probabilities. . One way to look at it is that conventional or "classic" computing is ordinary multiplication and division, while quantum computing is calculus.   The quantum machines on the market now, called quantum annealers, are a kind of hybrid that helps with certain problems, notably optimizations (the classic traveling salesman problem), but on any scale, like the organizing of 5,000 microsatellites for optimal coverage and collision avoidance.  Quantum supremacy means building a computer that solves a problem no conventional computer could do within even the longest of useful time frames. 

Dr. Richard Fenyman was one of those who first laid out the challenge decades ago: “Nature isn’t classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature you’d better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly, it’s a wonderful problem because it doesn’t look easy.”

It's not easy.  A true all-purpose quantum computer needs thousands of time as many qubits as the Google making, but what matters is that the concept has been proved. The Google geniuses made a quantum computer that, as noted in the excerpt above, performed in 200 seconds a computation that would have taken a classical computer 10,000 years.  The  uses will come along slowly, not in a flood, and we don't know yet all the uses the computer could - and could not - be used for. 
One of the possible uses, cryptography, is the one that scares everyone.  Encryption is, in its simplest form, done with a numerical key (either identical (symmetrical encryption) or different (asymmetrical encryption) at each end.  Multiplying very large numbers together creates a mess a classical computer has to hack through by trying every possible combination (a " brute force'" attack), and some such encryptions will take the best of super computers millions of years to unravel  A quantum computer, with enough size/power (qubits) and adequate error correction capability (very important with the fragility of qubits) can do it in hours.   Quantum computers can be used both to factor (decrypt) existing codes and to create their own, which in turn will be hard for even quantum computers to decrypt.  
Quantum computers won't replace the ones in your smartphone or laptop: that would be like using a Ferrari engine to power a wagon.  But there's no question we've stepped into a new universe.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Some amazing art of Dunkleosteus and company

Prehistoric art is a fascinating topic.  Artists apply an enormous range of styles. materials, and knowledge to depict creatures we can't see in the flesh. Some try to get every detail down in a photorealistic approach: others turn up the "vividness" dial with an eye-grabbing palette to emphasize how amazing these animals were. 
Joe Winans is in the latter school, and his results are wonderful.  He does modern animals and other topics too, but his work on prehistoric types, especially (to me) Dunkleosteus, is breathtaking. Joe notes the Dunk work was done under the supervision of one of the real experts on this creature, Dr. Michael Williams of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  The animal's form looks pretty realistic to me: I think he has the always-problematical tail just right.  

See his work on Etsy here

And here's what I mean: a pastel drawing of an awesome creature.  (copyright Joe Winans: reproduced by permission.) 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Alexei Leonov, Explorer and artist

Farewell to the first man to walk in space, a two-time cosmonaut, the designated first moonwalker in  the eventually-canceled Soviet effort to land on the Moon, and an artist who spent much of his life trying to convey what he experienced.  I have this litho, thanks to co-author Erika Maurer from The First Space Race. Godspeed, Alexei.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Seals we no longer see

Mammals have invaded the sea many times. (Interestingly, this never worked the other way: no pure sea mammal has evolved into a land-dweller.)  Mostly, they've been successful.

 The sea otters made themselves at home on seas, shores, and in kelp forests, and the sea mink was doing fine until humans exterminated it for the “mink” part. The sirenians, the manatees and dugongs, are threatened but not yet critical, unless you count Steller's sea cow, which lasted only a few decades after humans found it.  The cetaceans have produced some 90 living species, with one definite human-caused extinction (China’s baji dolphin), and one species reduced to a dozen animals or fewer (the vaquita, of which I’ve written elsewhere). 
The pinnipeds - the seals and sea lions – were mostly doing all right about a century ago despite longtime hunting of some species. The Guadalupe fur seal was even declared extinct twice and refused to leave the stage: it’s rebounding and well protected today.  It’s been suggested in a few papers and articles that we don’t know all the pinniped species yet, and cryptozoologists have many times hypothesized a long-necked seal as the cause of “sea serpent” stories.  (I once had some hope for this myself, but no longer think it plausible.)

What brings all this to mind? Just over 11 years ago, though, the Caribbean monk seal was declared extinct.
Monachus tropicalis survived the first pinniped driven extinct by humans, the Japanese sea lion (Zalophus japonicus), by a few decades. This species became commercially extinct in the late 1940s after decades of uncontrolled hunting in its range in and around the Sea of Japan to harvest skins, oil, and other parts. Its demise was likely assisted by fishermen who, like many fishermen around the world in those days, shot their “competitors” whenever the chance arose.   The animal may have been eliminated as early as 1951, although it seems to have lingered into the 1970s, and a few unconfirmed sightings occurred in the mid-80s.  That was it. A search announced by South Korea in 2007 produced nothing, An International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List re-assessment in 2014 agreed with the consensus of extinction.     
The monk seal was the only pinniped endemic to the Caribbean, and the first New World mammal recorded by Christopher Columbus.  Columbus’ men killed eight of the abundant, large (up to 200 kg or more), curious animals they called “sea wolves.”   Unfortunately, other humans found them vulnerable too.  (Homo sapiens is not coming off well in this article.)
In 1911, the last large colony – about 200 seals on islands off Yucatan – was slaughtered.  A lone individual was killed near Key West, Florida, in 1933.  A small group of seals on islands off Jamaica was observed until the early 1950s, but vanished.  Except for scattered individual sightings, that was it, seemingly. The U.S. government, for one, lists no confirmed sightings after 1952.
In 1997, the last major survey effort was carried out. It offered some renewed hope. When 93 Haitian and Jamaican fishermen were interviewed about marine mammals, 21 included the monk seal, and 16 said they’d seen one within the last two years. 
Since then, however, there’s been nothing. The U.S. dropped it from the Endangered Species List in 2008 due to extinction. It’s been suggested some reports of Caribbean monk seals could be caused by California sea lions (Zalophus califonianus) from oceanic parks along Florida’s Gulf Coast. California sea lions are normally darker than monk seals, but their size ranges overlap, and the two could certainly be confused at a distance.  Some sightings may involve wayward members of other species.  In my first book (1996), I wrote hopefully of the Caribbean monk seal’s chances for survival.  In my second book (2006), I was still hopeful. But I’m convinced now it’s gone. In 2019, the expeditions have ended; the conservationists have long gone on to other species they can still save; the scientists, priests of knowledge, have written their obituaries.  The best way to honor this seal’s passing is to save its fellow marine mammals - while we still can. 

Adam, Peter, and Gabriela Garcia. 2003. “New information on the natural history, distribution, and skull size of the extinct (?) West Indian Monk Seal, Monachus tropicalis,” Marine Mammal Science, 19:2, p.297.
Boyd, I.L., and M.P. Stanfield.  1998. “Circumstantial evidence for the presence of monk seals in the West Indies,” Oryx, 32, p.310.
IUCN, “Zalophus japonicus,”, accessed 5 October 2019.
The Monachus Guardian (on-line journal) (2),
Naish, Darren. 2009. “Statistics, seals and sea monsters in the technical literature, Tetrapod Zoology blog,
Rice, Dale. 1998.  Marine Mammals of the World.  Lawrence, KS: The Society for Marine Mammalogy.
Swanson, Gail.  2000. “Final Millennium for the Caribbean Monk Seal,” The Monachus Guardian 3(1),
Walters, Mark.  1997. “Ghost of a Monk Seal,” Animals, November/December, p.23.
Seal image found, believed out of copyright