Friday, March 27, 2020

Odds and Ends: Science and Survival

Odds and Ends March 27, 2020
By Matt Bille

It’s been such a crazy year so far, with the dominant threat of coronavirus wrecking the whole world’s plans.  (LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS!!!) But there are other things going on, some of them memorable. 

I posted on FaceBook the question of a little oddity that turned up as I read Glynn Williams’ excellent book Naturalists at Sea (full review coming).  William Dampier was a British naturalist, self-taught but brilliant, whose voyages took him around the world three times.  (Some of that time was spent, incidentally, as history’s most inept pirate.) About 1700, in Australia's Shark Bay, he was present when a shark was caught whose stomach contained [his spellings] "the skull and boans of an hippopotamus." He specifically mentioned the jaws, lips, and teeth as identifying features. Dampier does not seem to have recorded the size or species of the shark. What could a man who wrote many volumes of exhaustive and precise notes of plants and animals all over the world have mistaken for a hippo?
German zoology expert Markus B├╝hler likely solved it when he suggested the dugong. “For a naturalist from 1700, who has never seen a dugong and who had likely also not exactly superior experience with hippos, it seems really not too far stretched that he would consider that a dugong´s head belonged to something hippo-like.”  OK. It was cool while it lasted.

If you forget the required measurement for social distancing, it’s four Bluff Creek sasquatch tracks or a little over one coelacanth. 

According to the article in Science, the most prestigious journal in America, by Gretchen Vogel, “This tiny head, 14 millimeters long (including the beak), belongs to one of the smallest dinosaurs ever found.  …”  Oculudentavis khaungraae (eye-tooth bird) is an amazing find.
It’s one of the most controversial follis ever, though. The scientific controversy is that not everyone agrees it’s a dinosaur. Some suggest it’s an early true bird, some that it was a lizard. That will be argued out in future papers. The tough one, though, is that many publications debated covering it because it’s from Myanmar, where the province it was mined in. and from which it was smuggled to China, is mired in a brutal separatist conflict and funds one side or the other depending on who's in control of that bit of ground at any given time.
Joshua Sokol reports on that here.  
Read The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams for the big picture of dinosaur smuggling and sales. 

Want to read an old-but -great book in wilderness survival? Try Cache Lake Country: Life in the North Woods, by John J. Rowlands and Henry B. Kane (Norton, original edition 1947).  

Rowlands recounts his North Woods adventures in a friendly campfire style and along the way includes instructions, with drawings, on how to make everything from a shelter to a water-cooled refrigerator, all with materials from the wild and the kind of gear a camper could lay hands on way back in the 1940s, before all the flashy modern stuff was even thought of.  My dad had a copy of this when we were kids, and we loved it. It vanished, but I turned up a used one. It’s on Amazon as paperback, Kindle, or FREE audio book, although the hardback is now costly. 
“There’s a Cache Lake for everyone, but it won’t be found by a four-lane highway.” – John Rowlands.

In a year like this, I’m sorry I’m not up in Cache Lake Country myself.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Anniversary: Vanguard 1 satellite

“Nothing ever built arose to touch the skies unless some man dreamed that it should, some man believed that it could, and some man willed that it must.”   - Charles F. Kettering

  It’s often forgotten that long before Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer, launched Sputnik 1, an American satellite program was underway.  This is a story Erika Maurer and I were honored to chronicle in the NASA-sponsored publication of The First Space Race (Texas A&M, 2004).

The Stewart Committee assembled in 1955 selected Project Vanguard in what might be termed the ultimate Army-Navy game.  Vanguard, to be run by the Naval Research Laboratory, was to orbit a scientific satellite during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY).  The Navy and the Soviet Union pressed towards the goal of the first satellite (with the Stewart Committee loser, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, left, for the moment, on the bench). 
That competition has been second-guessed, then and now, and some annoyingly persistent and unproven claims have been made about it.  Since we have an opportunity here to mention those, and it’s my blog and these irk me, there are three such claims:

  1. The Committee (in some versions, directed or pressured by President Eisenhower) picked Vanguard because it was the “more civilian” satellite, with the National Academy of Sciences being the official sponsor even though the program was hosted and carried out by NRL.  The idea here (logical in itself) is that a civilian satellite would have more of a chance to establish a lasting principle of free overflight through space. But while the Stewart Committee was well aware of this logic, there’s no evidence they acted on it.   There’s also no evidence Ike pressured the Committee in any way. 
  1. That dislike of German engineers under the ABMA’s famous Dr. Wernher von Braun carried the day. Again, no evidence. Whether one or more people held an unconscious bias, or a conscious one never spoken of, is unknown and unknowable. 
  1. That Ike wanted the U.S. program slowed down so the Russians would establish freedom of space. Again, the Committee, the National Security Council, and the President were aware of this thinking, but Ike more than once criticized Vanguard for being behind schedule. The “slow down” idea was disproved by Ike’s post-Sputnik action of calling his R&D chief, Donald Quarles, on the carpet and demanding to know how the Russians came in first. 
Erika and I are convinced that, in this case, the official version of events is the true one.

On 4 October 1957, Korolev successfully placed a satellite in Earth orbit.  The spacecraft itself was an unimpressive-looking sphere, not much bigger than a basketball.  What it signified, though, was enormous.  The first phase of the first space race was over.  The Soviets quickly followed up with the far larger Sputnik 2.
Project Vanguard hustled to develop a response to the Soviet Union – and a questioning American public.  Everyone knew Ike had approved Project Vanguard but also that he’d watched with growing impatience as its timetable slipped and costs mushroomed.  Vanguard never had an explicit directive to be first, but it was widely assumed the Soviets were behind us in technology and so the first satellite would be American.
On December 6, 1957, what had originally been meant as a non-orbital Vanguard test vehicle but now fitted with a tiny satellite, attempted a launch from Cape Canaveral in full television view of the entire world.  The result was an embarrassment:  a massive explosion two seconds after launch.  Vanguard’s director, John P. Hagen, was remarkably reserved in his response: “Nuts.” The satellite, built quickly in a minor engineering miracle by a team led by Roger Easton, fell forlornly to the sand. Easton carried it back to Washington, where it languished, seemingly unwanted, in his house. (Years later, the Smithsonian put it on permanent display.)

NRL newsletter article

The Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s Explorer 1 became the first American satellite on January 31, 1958.
Vanguard did not give up. On March 17, 1958, on its third try, the program put a satellite into orbit.

“I heard a tremendous roar, as if a fire had started.  Suddenly, books, shoes, and other things flew over the balcony down into the hangar.”
- Propulsion engineer Kurt Stehling on the Vanguard celebration at Cape Canaveral

 In October 1958, the U.S. created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to run civilian space programs.  This organization eventually absorbed the Army and Navy satellite programs.  The NRL reconstituted a Satellites Techniques Branch under Martin Votaw, and the Lab continues working on small satellites today. 
Vanguard has been categorized as a flop. It wasn’t. It went over time, it went way over budget, and it had a launch failure at the worst possible moment, but that shouldn’t obscure its contributions, which echo into 2020 and well into the future. 
First, there was the rocket. The Vanguard launch vehicle, still the smallest ever to successfully orbit a satellite, pushed technology hard.  The margins were miniscule, and the rocket met with success only after great effort (and considerable infighting) by the Glenn L. Martin Company and the NRL team. The second and third stages, the Able and Altair, mated to a Thor missile first stage, became integral components of the longest-running and most successful American booster family, the Delta rockets. Vanguard’s engineering DNA was still traceable in the last Delta II launcher, flown in September 2018.
Vanguard’s satellite design packed a lot into a small space. There were two designs: the full-sized satellite and the miniature one.  Of the full-sized (24-lb) satellite that would become Vanguard 2, Constance Milton Green and Milton Lomask wrote in their book Vanguard: A History, that "Miniaturization, today a commonplace of technology, was a novelty in 1955. The Laboratory's proposal, however, hinged on it. satellite casing weighing eight pounds would carry miniaturized instruments weighing ten pounds for accumulating scientific data…Minitrack equipment weighing two pounds… and two pounds of telemetering equipment."    
There was a recognition even then that some power source besides heavy, short-lived batteries was needed for spacecraft. The first miniature Vanguard "grapefruit" satellite drastically shrunk the original design. Weighing only 3.25 lbs, it carried six solar cells into space and proved the utility of this brand-new technology. The satellite also had a mercury battery, two radio transmitters, and a temperature sensor.  The claim has been made that the NRL originally didn’t want solar cells, but an Army researcher put pressure on them. Roger Easton, discussing the satellite 50 years after launch, reported he had checked into this (and of course, he was also THERE) and it was groundless.  The occasional suggestion that Vanguard 1 was essentially a rickety thing slapped together that somehow worked also irked Easton and other program vets. The ingenious design of the satellite, using every cubic inch of space, and its long active life transmitting from orbit (until 1964) stand as refutation to that idea.
Then there was the tracking system.  Minitrack was another achievement led on the design side by Easton, who deserves his own biography (although his son Richard put a lot of the story into his book GPS Declassified, cited below).  Minitrack was a north-south line of 14 stations, built by the Army Corps of Engineers and stretching all the way down to Argentina. It was a predecessor to the Naval Space Surveillance System (NAVPASUR), created for more accurate tracking of Soviet satellites. That system (somewhat convolutedly) led to an Easton-led satellite project called Timation and then the invention of GPS. Richard Easton says, “I think the most important legacy of the Vanguard 1 satellite is the solar-powered transmitter. The second was Minitrack, leading as it did to Space Surveillance and eventually to Roger Easton’s Timation satellite and then onward to and GPS. But that was a long process.”

NRL Minitrack Station at BlossomPoint, MD

(Side Note: Victory has a thousand fathers (and mothers), and credit for GPS is a complex matter given the long gestation and many contributions leading to the Air Force-deployed operational system that changed the world. If one person and one program were absolutely essential, though, they would be Easton and Timation.)
The Vanguard program would end with the 52.5-pound Vanguard 3, launched on September 18, 1959. 
The full-sized satellite had a second life: it lent its structure, or bus, to NRL’s SolRad (Solar Radiation) satellites, along with its telemetry equipment and other technology. SolRad is best remembered for having a once-classified secondary mission as the first electronic intelligence satellite, called GRAB (Galactic Radiation and Background), which studied Soviet radar emissions, but it also did important science.  SolRad was the first satellite built by the revived Satellite Techniques branch.  The series opened with the launch of SolRad 1 on June 22, 1960 and put 11 satellites in orbit.
Not bad for a “flop.”

Key References
Constance McLaughlin Green and Milton Lomask, 1969.  Vanguard - A History (Washington, DC:  NASA SP-4202, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969).
Kurt Stehling, Project Vanguard (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1961).
Richard D. Easton and Eric F. Frazier, GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones (Potomac Books, 2013).
Richard Easton, online discussion, March 2020.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Review of The Whale in Fact and Fiction (1967)

Review: The Whale in Fact and Fiction
Robert K. and Martha L. Moffett: Harlan Quist, 1967

Why go back and review a book written for the junior high school level in 1967? Because it’s a window to the past of cetology and the public. What did we know in 1967? Judging by this book, what we did know was sort of reasonably accurate, but what we didn’t know filled oceans.
First, the book itself: it’s episodic rather than a survey, with one chapter devoted largely to the Essex sinking and major chunks on the whaling industry and a selection of cetacean. The rorquals get their day: among other tidbits, the authors mention a harpooned blue whale 113 feet long and a reported 70-foot right whale. “The dolphin” and “the porpoise” get introduced (albeit without trying to break down the number of species), and the beluga and narwhal have their moments. The orca is praised for its intelligence (plus the story of Namu is included) but damned as a “cruel” and vicious predator.  The writing is good, the illustrations a decent selection, and, while whaling (like captivity) is not tied to any moral questions, the authors bemoan the overhunting and near-extinction of larger species. The history of whaling is the book’s most interesting and best-done section.  
The rest of the book is a selection of writing on whales, including a Japanese whaling tale, a humorous poem, a bit from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Deep Range, the diary of a whaling captain’s wife, and of course a bit of Melville.  It is, in summary, not a bad book for its intended audience in 1967.
Now, to what we knew, or what the authors believed true. According to this book:
·         The dwarf/pygmy sperm whales are regarded as one species, known only from strandings and never seen at sea.
·         The small cetaceans are all happy-go-lucky: no one knew some species can be, by our standards, murderous thugs.
·         The giant squid-sperm whale battles are not one-sided.
·         Orcas will stalk and try to kill humans deliberately.
·         Gray whales attack small boats on sight thinking they pose a threat. (News to the tourists who routinely pet them now).
·         Little was known of whale ancestry and evolution: the (misspelled) Archoeoceti get two pages.
·         The beaked whales are either too poorly known or not interesting, as they never get mentioned. Neither do the pilot whales. 
·         The bowhead is a less-used name for a type of right whale.
As I said, an interesting look back.  

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Review: In Oceans Deep by Bill Streever

IN OCEANS DEEP: Courage, Innovation, and Adventure Beneaththe Waves

By Bill Streever

Little, Brown, NY, 2019: 303pp.

In Oceans Deep: Courage, Innovation, and Adventure Beneath the Waves - Streever, Bill
This is a very good if somewhat episodic account of humanity’s descent beneath the sea by every means we’ve found: diving suits, free-diving, submarines, submersibles, habitats, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).  Streever is well-qualified to write this book: he is not just a science writer, but a biologist and a diver whose resume includes SCUBA diving, saturation diving as a young oil field worker, and free diving, a new sport to him (he takes us along as he learns it).  

There are fascinating facts and stories throughout this book, and some bits like the evolution from towed dredges to ROVs for exploration and the development of our understanding of “caisson disease” (the bends) stand out as especially well-explained.  He recounts some of his interviews with significant personalities in marine exploration and laments that some, like James Cameron, were unreachable: writers rarely if ever include such misses, and to me as a writer it’s very interesting. Of particular note is his talk with Don Walsh, one of two men on the Trieste when it dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. I didn’t realize what a shoestring operation that was. (Walsh thinks the flatfish he reported, generally believed to be a sea cucumber, might still have been a fish.) Streever elicits a striking comment from Dr. Sylvia Earle, who said the barely-surviving Haitian fishermen Streever was with had choices other than catching too-small conchs and lobsters but he didn’t ask what those were. (To be fair, Steever managed only a short telephone conversation.) He’s fascinated by new technology, like the latest nuclear submarines and ROVs: he even buys a small ROV himself to explore its utility. I expected a bit more detail on hard-suit diving and at least a mention of liquid-breathing experiments.

Somehow, I didn’t like the book as a whole quite as much as I liked the parts.  Maybe it needed just a bit more context on how the various segments of marine-exploration history affected the big picture of how we see and use the oceans. Also, while there are 21 pages of fascinating chapter notes, it’s very strange to find no bibliography.  
Streever, who closes with a review of recent environmental developments, obviously loves the ocean, and he knows it better than most of us ever will.  All quibbles aside, this book is a voyage worth taking.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Sale on The First Space Race

Only $4.85 for the papaerback on Amazon!
(Or you can post a comment or email if you want a signed copy)!  

Join the first generation of humans ever to reach beyond the atmosphere!  Come back to when space was a complete mysteryand visionaries, generals, and engineers collaborated in the U.S. and U.S.S.R., undaunted by rivalries, failures, or unknowns, in a world-changing race to Valhalla. 

Buy now!