Monday, February 17, 2020

Book Review: Monsters of the Last Frontier

David Weatherly
Eerie Lights, 2020.

For a lover of monster legend and lore, this is a delightful book, with something interesting on almost every page. The book has a critical weakness (below) that prevented me from rating it as high aa it would otherwise deserve, but I read it avidly and was sorry when it ended.  Weatherly does not accept all the creatures here as real, but he doesn’t throw everything into the “hoax or myth” bucket, either.  Weatherly is always respectful of the First Nations/Alaska Native traditions but does not insist they have to be literally true.
Before I go on, I should mention Sam Shearon’s cover. The artwork, front and back covers, is gorgeous. 
The book is pretty comprehensive, covering everything from sasquatch to otter-men to thunderbirds (always a fun topic). It deals of course with the Iliamna Lake “monster.” Weatherly includes most of the stories I know of and a few I did not, although I wish there was some reason to believe the wilder “it snapped the fishing line” tales.  There are other water creatures of lake and ocean, as you’d expect in the state with the longest seacoast and the most lakes in the U.S.  I'd thought the biggest reported creature, that on the MV Mylark sonar trace, was almost universally discounted these days, but it still intrigues Weatherly.  A giant platypus report is, umm.. unique. 
 I've read some stories of large wolflike canines, known as waheela and other terms, and I agree with Weatherly that matter still merits some thought even though he has no new reports here. As to other critters, did you know an “African lion” has been reported from Alaska?
Hairy Man, sasquatch, call it what you will, there are plenty of hairy primates in modern reports and the stories from Native cultures.  He prominently mentions an old incident at Lake Iliamna which may be a hoax, but there are newer stories here, too, and they come from all over the state.
Weatherly, an Alaskan himself, has done a great job of collecting materials, and his writing is good. The only real disappointment is in the documentation. While many sources are mentioned in the text, they are not listed or detailed in any way that would enable readers to look them up. Indeed, the book has no footnotes, no endnotes, no bibliography by topic or chapter, and no index.  A couple of dozen books and three websites are listed, but that’s it. The website offers nothing more except the note David is “The Renaissance Man Of The Strange And Supernatural” and offers a lot of material on haunted dolls, ghosts, and other things. 
So, to cryptozoologists and other readers: buy it. You’ll enjoy it whether you believe it or not.  To the author: please consider a future edition with thorough citations.  I’d buy a few of those.       

Friday, February 07, 2020

Dr. Paul LeBlond: R.I.P.

Dr. Paul LeBlond has passed away. 
He had a long and influential career as an oceanographer and professor at the University of British Columbia (see his UBC bio here). He studied waves, salmon runs, and many other aspects of the ocean, and was conservationist who was recognized with an award from the North Pacific Marine Science Organization.  He was also a cryptozoologist, one of the founders of the unfortunately defunct  International Society of Cryptozoology and the still-thriving British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club.  He studied with an open mind reports of unclassified large aquatic animals, especially "Cadborosaurus." We met only once, but he was gracious with his time and we had much email correspondence. He came to believe there was a real species (Cadborosaurus willsi)  inaccurately called the "sea serpent" and published a (controversial) paper and two books on it. He was a friend and mentor to everyone in that field of inquiry. 

Waves in the Ocean, his textbook on waves

The second of his two books on Caddy.

Goodbye, Paul: I hope you have your answers now.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

A rocket-load of space news

As readers know, I'm a space nut, and to some degree an established one, with a lot of articles and papers and the book The First Space Race to my credit (or to shared credit as I often had co-authors).  So I try to keep up.  The space news these days is flying so thick and fast that it's all I can do to keep a general awareness.  But a few things stand out.   
The US Air Force has put together its plan to organize the Space Force.  Some people are opposed to Space Force, for reasons financial or diplomatic, but the debate should be carried on with the understanding that that the USSF is not doing, at this point, anything the Air Force was not already doing in space.  (The bucks may shift, but still no Buck Rogers.)  The Air Force and Space Force commanders will be equals under the Department of the Air Force, a structure something like the Marine Corps' role in the Department of the Navy.  
Then there are the microsats. I was right about this in the 1990s, but nobody was interested, when I wrote papers and studies about their promise for the future.  That caught some flak, especially concerning imagery, where "immutable laws of physics" decreed that mirrors on imagery satellites be huge to get high-resolution photos.  The critics reckoned without the ingenuity of engineers and their ability to advance technology.  A string of technical tricks like "folded optics" made the mirrors much smaller, and then the power of software an d processing put what used to cost a billion dollars into a shoebox, as the company Planet provides the kind of worldwide coverage militaries never could.  A new example consists of two 3-unit CubeSats (about 5 kg), Rogue Alpha and Beta, which, as Jeff Emdee, of The Aerospace Corporation says. “contain both visible and infrared sensing, as well as a laser communications downlink, that will allow us to explore operations in low earth orbit to benefit future system concepts.”  In a 5-kilogram satellite. When I started writing about microsatellites, that might have taken a thousand-kilogram spacecraft. Now even organizations like Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), famed for developing exquisite satellites costing hundreds of millions of dollars, has come around.
In-space propulsion is a knotty problem, and the gains come slower, but the tech is advancing nonetheless. Ion engines were a big step forward for craft that did not need rapid changes of orbit or acceleration.  One company is taking them further,  with tiny thrusters and nontoxic propellants..
Another question is whether the small satellite industry can be as profitable as it hopes, thus attracting more capital to take its capabilities still further.  Can the industry handle the debris problem? Can it keep growing as it is now? An interesting Space News report discusses that one,.
All for the moment, more to come! 

Monday, February 03, 2020

A Unique Astronaut Memorial

To Commander William C.McCool, US Navy, pilot of the space shuttle Columbia. Photo US Navy.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Spectacular New Species Claimed, but....

Sometimes you don’t know what to make of a new-species claim.
New species are created and “destroyed” all the time by taxonomists and biological scientists re-evaluating existing specimens, especially in the age of DNA analysis.  (There were once 86 named species of the brown bear in North America, not one.) Sometimes we get a real surprise when a pretty clearly delineated species has been overlooked entirely due to a similar-looking species, the most spectacular example being Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai, 2003).
Some animals are named and then disputed. Dr. Marc van Roosmalen has described many new mammals from Brazil, most of them without controversy, but there are sharp divisions over whether his dwarf manatee is real or a juvenile of the known species thereabouts. (There are similar doubts about his tapir and some of the monkeys, although everyone agrees he’d added much to primatology.) Here’s Dr. Darren Naish’s take.
Then we have a case from India which is considerably weirder.
Here at, we have the statement of an Indian conservationist that he’d proved the existence of a new big cat. If he’s right, there’s no overstating the importance of the find. While there have been large land mammals created or lost by reclassification, a completely new big cat would be biggest find since the Vu Quang discoveries of the 1990s, and maybe a lot further back than that. 
Its location is in the western Ghats, one of India’s major mountain ranges. The discoverer estimates only 30 exist.  If they do. Dijo Thomas isn’t making this easy to verify.    His website (a little disjointed looking, although it is an English-language site for a man for whom this is a second language)  states he “Discovered & Scientifically Proved a NEW Species  + New Family, 1. Neelagiri Kaduva, {Neelagiri Tiger = Tiger of the Blue Mountains} {as Big as Tiger} which is Critically Endangered, …”
It then adds, “Dijo Thomas also Discovered & Scientifically Proved Raktha Athika {as Big as Dog}, a Vampire Kangaroo, the New Species + New Family, closely Related to Kangaroo Family, in Pavaratty, Thrichur, Kerala, India ...”
OK. Stop right there. There are no kangaroos in the Asian mainland, anywhere.  Thomas posted a photograph of some poor caged mammal with mange.  (A palm civet has been suggested).  The support consists of photos which don’t appear to show any type of kangaroo.
It doesn’t help that Dijo Tomas claims “a NEW Species was Scientifically Proved without 1. Photographs or 2. Direct Sighting !!!!” based on a formula he invented called  Features Based - Species Elimination Method [FB-SEM]}.
So what have we got? From this distance, I think it most likely the gentleman is sincere but has let this enthusiasm get way ahead of his science. WAY ahead.  Are there any new animals involved? There could be, but most scientists would need a lot more information to buy in.
Or maybe there’s no science at all, since he also says,   I made some elephants obey me by giving instructions in my mind alone.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Anniversary: Explorer 1

The race to orbit ended with a victory by Russia's Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. But on this day, January 31, in 1958, the Unoted States answered with Explorer 1. Erika Maurer and I were proud to write the history of this dramatic contest that, as Wernher von Braun put it, " to man the gates of heaven." (His Soviet counterpart, Sergei Korolev, said it similarly: "The road to the stars is now open!")

Read the story here. 

Lost Astronauts: Salute to the Explorers

NASA held its Day of Remembrance for the astronauts who died in service to exploration: two Shuttle crews and the crew of Apollo 1, 17 brilliant, accomplished men and women.  While all three events involved technical failures on the spacecraft, all were, inexcusably, failures of management and leadership by people whose #1 job was making sure that, as astronauts braved the dangers of space, they had the safest possible equipment to take them there and back. 

The Explorers

Souls departing Earthbound life
Rise to heaven’s plane
Soldier, sailor, priest, or king
The destiny's the same
But in an even higher realm
With stars always in view
Meet those lost in exploration
Remembering how they flew

Komarov toasts Gus Grissom
And Resnik laughs with Clark
Ramon and Chalwa share a tale
As they look beyond the dark
Adams shares his glory days
With Husband and McNair
And always they urge us on
To rise above the air.

Don’t cling to mother Earth, they’d say
God has given us the stars
There’s a reason we aspire
To cross the celestial bar
We gave our lives
(we don’t regret)
To push back the frontier
Remember us by challenging
And conquering your fears

Patseyev, Onizuka
Anderson and Brown
Salute each new endeavor
That lifts us from the ground
To every new thrust into space
They raise their glasses high
And remind us we were always meant

To voyage beyond the sky.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Book Review: Underland by Robert Macfarlane

UNDERLAND: A Deep Time Journey 
Robert Macfarlane
W.W. Norton

We all know there's a world under our feet - animal burrows, mines, caves, and so on. But MacFarlane, in a series of adventures in which he probes the depths and complexities of that world (or, rather, many worlds), shows us a whole new way of thinking about the earth.  

As he descends into Italian caves, salt and potash mines that reach far our under the seabed, the catacombs of Paris, and the world beneath glaciers and icecaps, he meets cavers, miners, fishermen, Arctic hunters, and the  sceintists who search for neutrinos filtered through thousanmds of feet of rock and soil. He ventures (arduously) to a cave in Norway where red-painted figures dance, to a repository in Finland meant to store atomic waste for tens of thousands of years, to bunkers and fortresses, and to underground rivers where countless explorers have perished. I count at least three points where the author came close to losing his life.  He does all this to share thoughts on the surface world as, in effect, an alien emerging from the underland, and the superb writing - often reflecting the author's effort to grapple with phenomena for which existing language is insufficient - takes the reader along. We feel his journeys as much as we read about them. 
He spends a lot of time documenting the effects of climate shange in Greenland, including the appearance of ice caves, military bases, and prehistoric ice itself from places where they were thoguht buried forever.  Two items that especially held my interest were his introduction to the astonishingly dense, varied, and interwoven network of plants and fungi beneath the forest floor and the challenges of burying nuclear waste to shield future generations (I used to work with nuclear weapons). He notes that we bury things for two reasons - to preserve them for future use or to inter them for undisturbed rest.  
This isn't a book you can speed through. The dense, multifacted tangle of facts and feelings involved in each adventure will force you to slow down and think - a lot.  MacFarlane knows the history and literature of the underland throughout human existence, and his take on it will leave you looking very differently at the ground beneath your feet.  This is original, memorable, and just a superb book in every possible sense. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Intriguing new Dunk model appears online

This looks like a new contender for "best Dunk model."

These folks at Paleozoo Evolutionary Models are advertising a seriously great-looking Dunkleostus model along with a very good description page. They describe it as up to 9m long (it came close, although that specimen, from the Cleveland shale, is a decided outlier) and, I think, get the controversial tail structure right. It says you can buy this as a 200m model, but the Store part of the site reads, "Closed for Maintenance" and I can't find it through any other site. Does anyone know where it can be found?

Pictute posted as advertising, copyright PEM, fair use claimed

Image result for paleozoo dunkleosteus model

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Some Space Book Reviews (mostly good)


Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew

By Michael Leinbach and Johnathan Ward. Arcade Publishing, 2018
The Columbia disaster was a horrible day in history, made worse by the knowledge it was preventable.  The authors tell that story, but they also tell the story of hope and dedication and that old-fashioned and much-maligned thing called the American spirit. 

Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System: The First 100 Missions. Dennis R. Jenkins, published by the author, 2001.
What Jenkins did here is phenomenal. No other book on the Shuttle or any other spacecraft provides this level of authoritative detail. Every idea, version, and system is here in words and diagrams.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon, by Robert Kurson, 2018.  It's hard to express how much I enjoyed Rocket Men. I was an "Apollo kid" and something of a space historian myself, so I knew the story, but what the author does here is make us FEEL it. (Caution: there's another space history book called Rocket Men: not nearly as good.)

Live from Cape Canaveral: Covering the Space Race from Sputnik to Today
Jay Barbee, Smithsonian, 2007.  Journalist Jay Barbree had a front-row seat to much of the American program.  It's a fun read, although it feels a bit too much like the reader is on a rushed tour bus, hitting the highlights with some pauses for personal interludes. You will learn some new stuff, though!

I wanted to like this book by a respected (formerly, anyway) journalist on a fascinating topic. Some of the airplane test stories are good.  But a ton of research is undone with careless misreporting on several projects and a "Soviet/Mengele" Roswell crash theory that is batshit crazy. 

Riding Rockets, by Mike Mullane
Three-time Shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane has produced a unique memoir of his time with NASA. It offers more than you want to know about space bathrooms along with good portraits of fellow astronauts and his own stories: lots of fun.

Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by James Donovan,  Little, Brown and Company, 2019
There are more Apollo books than there are rocks on the moon, but stories can always be told better. There are mistakes in the pre-Apollo chapters, but the story of the Apollo program is first-rate, covering everything from personalities (to the engineering-focused Buzz Aldrin, "small talk was a foreign langiuage" - wow,has Buzz changed)  to politics and engineering.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ten new birds in one swoop

Discovery of a new bird is a big event. It only happens three or four times a year.  An expedition returning with 10 new birds - five species and five subspecies - is unheard of in modern times.

But it just happened.

OK, not "just." It takes years to formally describe a new species.  The expedition was in 2013, but scientists kept pretty quiet about it (amazingly so, really) until a publication in the msot prestigious American science journal, Science.  
We have, from islands off the east coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia:


Taliabu Grasshopper-Warbler
Taliabu Myzomela
Taliabu Leaf-Warbler
Peleng Leaf-Warbler
Peleng Fantail


Togian Jungle-Flycatcher
Banggai Mountain Leaftoiler
Taliabu Snowy-browed Flycatcher
Taliabu Island Thrush
Sula Mountain Leaftoiler.  

Scientists attributed much of the success of the six-week expedition to preparation and study before they got ther. They studied the land connections of prehistoric times, looking at which islands had been part of the same landmass (or not), plus information from collector from past centuries including Alfred Russell Wallace. 
The lesson: yes, there are still new species to find, and not just bugs. It's still a big world out there.  

Friday, January 10, 2020

At COSine this weekend

Great SF conference in Colorado Springs this weekend (17-19 January)!

Thanks to Alastair Mayer for adding me to the 1PM panel Saturday on lunar exploration. When will we go back to the Moon, and why? There's a lot of science content at this con to go with the Manticorian Navy and the T-Space universe and Guest of Honor Eric Flint's 1632 and... well, it goes on.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Book Review: To Reach the High Frontier

To Reach the High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles

Roger D. LauniusDennis R. Jenkinseditors Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1 Published by: University Press of Kentucky Pages: 528

This is an important book in space history, and not just because I had a hand in it. This is a very handy one-volume collection of the highlights of American launch vehicles up until the publication date.  Some of this ground, such as the histories of the Delta rocket and Space Shutttle, had already been fairly well-trod, but even here the authors provide new facts and insights.  Roger Launius, former Chief Historian of NASA, provides the Introduction and the first chapter, "Rocketry and the Origin of Space Flight." From there follow chapters by experts on Titan, Shuttle, Saturn V, Atlas, Delta, etc. All are excellent. A few that stood out for me in providing new information included "Minuteman and the Development of Solid Rocket Launch Technology," Andrew J. Butrica's "The Quest for Reusability," and the Epoilogue by David Spires and Rick Sturdevant on military-civilian partnerships in launch.  

I left until last, of course,  "History and Development of U.S. Small Launch Vehicles." In this 43-page chapter, Dr. Pat Johnson (engineer), Ericka Maurer (nee' Lishock) (engineer), Robyn Kane (cost analyist), and I covered the sounding rockets that predated the orbital launchers and their contributions, the pioneering Vanguard, Jupiter-C, Jupiter, and Thor, the long-working Scout, and the appearance of new and proposed small launchers like Pegasus.  Rwecognition is due to Pat for her exhautive survey of Scout and Robyn for her skill in comparing rockets of different eras on a cost-per-kilogram basis, while my frequent collaborator Erika and I, drawing on material that would become our 2004 book The First Space Race, wrote the main narrative, throwing in such interesting bits as 1958's then-classified Project Pilot (call it a prehistoric Pegasus).  For the expert and the lay reader, this book, which has plenty of techncial content but avoids equations for accessibility's sake, offers a concise introduction to the American vehicles that that launched and sustained the Space Age.  (On Amazon, the new hardcover appears to be is out of print, so the few available command a high price, but sellers of used books have them as low as $20.  So get yours while they last!)

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Thoughts on prehistoric models and toys

I grew up playing with those little dinosaurs that look ridiculous with what we know now: the upright T. rex, the perfectly symmetrical humped stegosaur, etc.  I was too early for the really good ones, which started appearing (to my recollections as a dino fan) in the 70s and of course exploded after Jurassic Park.  To take my favorite creature, Dunkleosteus, we have toys/models (the distinction isn;t always clear) from silly monstrous-looking one to the Mojo and CollectA figures that look like they'd take off swimming in a heartbeat. The people who produce these top-quality critters use artists who really know palentology and put superb craftsmanship into them. 

Mojo (L) and CollectA Dunks.

So, how do you decide what's worth buying? Source 1 is the Dinosaur Toy Blog, a wondrous corner of the Web in which you can get lost for hours looking at specimens and reading reviews. Second is Prehistoric Times magazien, which caters to both the scientist and the fan.  I'm not sure what's third.  There are some other blogs out thee with lesser reach than DTB, and of course there is this blog and the associated Dunkleosteus terrelli FaceBook page for reviews of Dunk models and toys.  

A last note here is that even models can be used for cool photo-artwork, and not just by filmmaking geniuses. Herewith a plug for my friend Aurora Rayn, whose page showcases what she can do with good commercial

models and imagination to produce photos that look like they were taken from life. She sells prints, so check it out! 

Book Review: The Dinosaur Artist


By Paige Williams

Hatchette, NY, 2018. 410 pp (278 text, 132 endnotes, index, etc.)

This much-praised book opens a window into a world those of us in the general dinosaur-aficionado community don’t know much about: the trade in illegally or quasi-legally trafficked fossils.  Fossil prices have gone through the roof, so the average hobbyist has to save a long time to afford a small T. rex tooth ($2,499.00 as of today on eBay) in a market full of fakes.   Williams explains how this situation arose, including the effect of movie stars like DeCaprio and Cage bidding huge sums for theropod skulls. 

Williams’ centerpiece is the famous case in which American fossil hunter/dealer Eric Prokopi went to jail for selling a Tarbosaurus bataar (a close relation to T. rex) shipped out of Mongolia with deceptive documents.  The main text begins and ends with Eric's story.
Williams takes us on long treks through the Mongolian desert, including the famed Flaming Cliffs site, where Roy Chapman Andrews and associates found the first confirmed dinosaur eggs almost a hundred years ago.  She also takes us through changing Mongolian politics and through the lives of Propokpi and his many associates.  We get to know people like the pioneering Mongolian paleontologist, Bolortsetseg Minjin, a woman who did more than anyone to make Mongolian fossils a national resource rather than an easily plundered source of “art” for auction in New York or horse-trading in the famed Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. (Williams emphasizes that the large majority of people and transactions at this show (now on my bucket list) are legitimate, but some strange things happen.)
The book also explores a never-ending source of tension in fossil hunting. One one side are the professional paleontologists, who prize documenting fossils in place before removal so they can visualize not jsut the dinosaur but its world. On the other are private fossil hunters, who are accused of taking fossils out of the vital context of location and strata and defend themselves by arguing they save many fossils that would otherwise be destroyed by weathering or development (both statements are true, but rarely so at the same time in the same dig site, so the tension's not going to end). Customs and other law enforcement personnel struggle to handle affairs involving changing laws, artifacts most of them know little about, and impossible-to-establish provenance (no one can match a fossil to a precise location once it’s been removed).

It’s all exhaustively researched and documented and end-noted. Williams clearly went to enormous lengths to unearth personal stories and the scientific, commercial, and legal context for them.

The generally sterling prose includes some odd bits. Williams’ seemingly pointless one-time effort at a phonetic rendering of a heavy Southern accent took me out of the story, as did the execrable mutant verb “centerpieced.”  The whole book doesn’t quite flow for me, as the side topics made me lose the main thread a couple of times. Don't forget to read the endnotes through: like post-credits scenes in Marvel movies, they hold some fascinating nuggets.  

On balance, it's a terrific book. So safari hats off to Williams for taking us on this journey.