Saturday, June 27, 2020

Interesting blogs: Bad UFOs

Robert Sheaffer has a long-running blog, Bad UFOs. taking a skeptical look at claims of UFOs and related stuff,or, as the subtitle puts it, "Reflections on UFOs, skepticism, and practically anything else by Robert Sheaffer, author of the book "Bad UFOs," plus the "Psychic Vibrations" column in The Skeptical Inquirer)."
I don't follow UFOs much any more, because the late Phil Klass' curse on UFO researchers, "You will never know any more about UFOs thank you do now," has basically been proven. We don't. We have curious incidents (the Navy videos, for which conventional explanations have been advanced but are still a little startling), but nothing new, just endless internet claims and images and just plain crud.  No dead aliens, no live aliens, not a scrap of metal that can't be of Earth origin. Ho hum.  
Sheaffer has never lost interest.  He has the blog and also has the UFO Skeptic's Page. (He also houses papers by James Oberg here: Oberg has debunked all the"astronaut UFO sighting" claims.)

So if you get interested in a claim or report, you might want to pop over and check out his work. He doesn't cover all the reports - no one could - but the big oft-repeated claims of abductions and so forth are treated. 

NOTE: None of this is to say there are no UFOs. There obviously are observations of things not yet identified and which may never be identified.  But there is no good evidence any are alien spaceships, or that they are all technically "flying," or"objects." I suspect there are some electromagnetic or atmospheric phenomena hiding in the data, but we're unlikely to see it among the "spaceship" craze.  .

Monday, June 22, 2020

BookReview: Cryptopedia

The Cryptopedia: A Dictionary of the Weird, Strange, and Downright Bizarre  

Jonathan Maberry and  David F. Kramer, 2007. Citadel, 320pp.

This is a fun book and a good reference for those who like the odd corners of the human experience and the things that dwell therein.  

Hundreds of terms in fields from cryptozoology to ghosts and UFOs are defined in entries ranging from a sentence to a couple of paragraphs. The authors rarely dispute or support anything, sticking mainly to objective descriptions.  Interspersed are short essays on foo fighters (that one offers a fascinating first-hand report I've never read of), to the best ghost movies, the effect of Tolkien’s writings on elf folklore, superstitions about cats, etc., etc.  This is not an in-depth encyclopedia: there are few footnotes, few endnotes, and few sources.  So if you want to write about, say, the voodoo pantheon, this is not the place to find details, but it is a handy reference to tell you what terms and names fall in that area and who Bakulu is (you may not want to know).  Some seriously creepy illustrations are included. Mr. Kramer is a horror writer among other pursuits, and Mr. Maberry is a prolific writer of horror and other fiction with a particular fondness for cryptozoology.  You’ll enjoy spending time with this tome. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Visit from a giant squid

So, down in South Africa, a giant squid washed ashore, apparently very recently deceased and nearly intact. Teuthologists love this kind of rare event, because they rarely get a chance to examine intact giants. Until 2012, there was no film or video of a live one.  When this one was spotted by beachgoers, the curator for marine invertebrates at Iziko Museums of South Africa hurried out and got it into a freezer for study. He estimated the animal was about 4 m long and weighed perhaps 330kg. That might not trigger everyone's definition of "giant," but the average weight of a human is 62kg, so imagine encountering this at sea. UPDATE: Rereading this, the estimate of 330kg is way too high - it did not come from the scientist but from the person who found it on the beach. Thanks to Markus Buhler for pointing this out. 
Everyone asks how big Architeuthis dux gets. It's (probably) not the most massive squid in the sea: the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, Latin for "What the hell is that?"), with its heavier build, takes that crown.  Architeuthis is the longest squid but not the longest marine invertebrate, since we know of a sea worm - the bootlace worm, Lineus longissimus - of 55 meters. The lion's mane jelly can have tentacles trailing for 36 m, an a siphonophore drifting in a giant spiral through the ocean 600m down, spotted earlier this year off Australia, was guessed to be about 45 m. 
A paper by Igner Winklemann et. al., published by the Royal Society, offers these estimates for the giant squid: "while claims have been made of individuals measuring up to 50 m in total length, a more realistic estimate is a maximum total length of 18 m for females, with males reaching slightly smaller sizes."
The 50 claim is sourced to Richard Ellis' book on the animal, which does not claim they get that big, only that it's been reported. (Ellis, 1998,The Search for the Giant Squid, from The Lyons Press). Basically the source for 50m is one guy, a WWII sailor named A.J. Starkey.  However, the late Peter Benchley wrote that a distinguished teuthologist once told him squid of  50 feet (46 m) were "highly probable," so that's intriguing.)  
The 18 m is from a paper by Claude Roper, who spent a lifetime on this creature. (Roper CFE, Sweeney MJ; Nauen CE1984FAO species catalogue, vol. 3. "Cephalopods of the world. An annotated and illustrated catalogue of species of interest to fisheries." FAO Fish Synop. 3, 1–277.)
And that is where we leave our enigmatic friend for today.  

Below: Squid Sculpture in Newfoundland (Pixabay, labeled as free for use, photographer unknown).
Newfoundland was the site of several famous squid strandings and encounters. in the late 19th century,
Squid Sculpture, Statue, Giant Squid

Below: the ultimate squid, the legendary kraken. (Pixabay, labeled as free for use, artist unknown)

Boat, Kraken, Tentacle, Octopus, Squid

Oh, and because it's mandated by law that all squid article must include this, here's Tennyson's take on the kraken.  He manages to imbue it with even more dramatic imagery than the old Scandinavian sailors who clamed it could be mistaken for an island. 

The Kraken

Below the thunders of the upper deep ;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth : faintest sunlights fleeAbout his shadowy sides : above him swellHuge sponges of millennial growth and height;And far away into the sickly light,From many a wondrous grot and secret cellUnnumber’d and enormous polypiWinnow with giant arms the slumbering green.There hath he lain for ages and will lieBattening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,Until the latter fire shall heat the deep ;Then once by man and angels to be seen,In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Modern Cryptozoology (and some reviews of yours truly)

Sharon Hill's Modern Cryptozoology blog is always worth reading. It's a collection of reviews and other information by a scientist who knows there are discoveries awaiting us but finds most claims (and many of the books she reviews) wanting.  
She describes her topic as one that's not so much a branch of zoology as a study of folklore, natural history, and related fields: the belief is as interesting as the creatures. 
She adds, "It also includes many paranormal or supernatural ideas even though much weight is placed on being scientifically-minded." That's true for many people interested in the topic. Readers will know that I'm not big on that: "If it's not zoology, it's not crytozoology."  It is, though, part of the cryptozoology phenomenon. 
She is the author of Scientifical Americans, a good book about the way we tend to believe things cloaked in scientific language even if they are less than scientific
Naturally, I appreciate that this blog gives some positive reviews to work by this writer.   
Rumors of Existence is "a solid sourcebook" and "Straight up, easily understandable information about animal knowledge." 
Shadows of Existence is  "worthwhile for the cryptozoological-minded and far better written than the majority of crypto books – sound and solid." 
I'll take it. 
She also includes some snippets from my own reviews of books, as here on Karl Shuker's The Beasts That Hide From Man.
So it's not surprising we think well of each other's writing.  Visit Modern Cryptozoology. If you like the topic, it's well worth your time. 

Monday, June 08, 2020

Kathy Sullivan, from Shuttle Challenger to the Challenger Deep

Space travel is a great achievement for anyone, given the selection process and training that astronauts must excel in.  Astronauts belong to a very exclusive club of explorers, but there's one club even more exclusive: ocean explorers who have gone to the greatest depth of the seas, to the bottom of the Challenger Deep.  Until this week, there were only seven members in that club. It's been expanded now to eight, and Number 8 is a big deal.  
Dr. Kathryn Sullivan has now become a member of both clubs. That puts her in a new club, with a memebership of exactly one person.
Sullivan spacewalked outside the space shuttle Challenger in 1984 on one of her three trips to orbit, becoming the first American woman to do an EVA. On STS-31 in 1990, she helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. Just another day at the office for Sullivan, who went on to be Payload Commander for STS-45, a Spacelab mission focused on Earth science. 
She moved on to other achievements, including heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration (NOAA). 
Now, in a submersible called the Limiting Factor, from a host ship named Pressure Drop (why should Elon Musk have all the fun with odd names?) as part of an exploration effort by a group called Caladan Ocean, she and pilot/submersible builder Victor Vescovo (who'd been there once before) touched the bottom of the sea. 
Sullivan had pre-NASA submersible experience, having studied fault zones off California and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge among other targets, but had never been near this depth.  She wrote on Facebook that the depth gauge read 10,915 meters or 38,810 feet.  That's a fun number for me to think about because I used to run 10K races.  It's hard to believe humans can go that far down, where pressure is over a thousand times what it is at sea level and very, very few creatures can live. It's a voyage so - well, challenging - that the first visit by a craft carrying humans was made in 1960 and there was no second trip until James Cameron did it in 2012. 
One more bit of symmetry: the Challenger Deep is named for the British exploration vessel Challenger, which discovered it, and the shuttle was named after the ship.
It bears repeating that Sullivan, who was an oceanographer and geologist before she shifted gears to become an astronaut, is the only human being, man or woman, to have been to that height (~600 km) and that depth.  While astronauts have trained in underwater facilities, and Scott Carpenter of the Mercury program became an aquanaut, Sullivan went "below and beyond" and will have this "first" forever. 

Sullivan in her astronaut days (NASA)
Kathryn D. Sullivan - Wikipedia

Sullivan in one of her natural habitats, space, on STS-31 (NASA)
Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan on Oct. 11, 1984 Spacewalk | NASA

Oh, and she has a new book! I'll review it soon.

Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut's Story of Invention by Kathryn ...

I don't know what she will do to top this (go to Mars, perhaps?), but based on her life so far, she's likely to push more new frontiers.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Review: Becoming Wild, by Carl Safina (Updated)

By Carl Safina
Henry Holt, 2020, 384 pp (hardcover)

Dr. Safina throws out a challenge to our thinking with just the title: Animal cultures? Creating beauty? Achieving peace? They’re wild animals!
Yes, they are, but they are far more complex than we used to think, and the reader will learn a lot on these topics and others in this fascinating follow-up to Beyond Words. The book tells of Safina’s travels and observations of three species, with asides about many more, and offers information and speculation on what ties their societies together.
At the core of Safina’s ideas is animal culture. We all know that many animals learn by watching their parents. Safina documents that this is not always a simple “monkey see, monkey do” process.  Adults often spend a great deal of time tutoring the young, and the sum of what goes on here, as each population passes down (or changes) its ways over generations, is culture. Chimps in one territory crack nuts a certain way: chimps a mile away do it differently, and both pass down their own approaches. Chimps (the biggest section on specific animals is devoted to chimps) have different social structures, too: in some the aggression of the alpha male, his acolytes, and his rivals creates tension that can explode into bloody fights and straight-up murder.  In other populations, the female hierarchy is more important, and internal fighting is less common.   In all populations, Safina learns to his own surprise, a lot of time is spent in behavior that promotes peace and moving on from spats. Why do differences exist within the same species, with the same genes, in adjoining territories? Culture.
Culture requires a body of knowledge and behavior that must be taught and the intelligence to teach/learn it. The sperm whales, chimps, and scarlet macaws of this book display self-awareness, affection toward some individuals and indifference/hostility to others, and do many “human” things (chimps even have human-like wars, although that hasn’t driven the invention of complex weapons, so good for them).   As Cicero put it two thousand years ago, “What an ugly beast is the ape, and how like us.”
Safina spends time with three examples.
Sperm whales: The most surprising item, for me, (and I’m decently well-read on sperm whales) was the breadth and intricacy of sperm whale society. Recent and rapidly-developing knowledge shows pods not related by blood are connected by clan ties that span oceans and include different behaviors than other clans.  A “coda” sent by a whale on interspecies acoustic transmissions is like the header on an internet data packet, in this case identifying the sender’s “name” and clan.   Sperm whales’ language is complex, evolving, and makes it easy for whales and humans who’ve listened long enough to identify individual voices. What, Safina wonders, did they say when whaling ships arrived and started harpooning them?
Scarlet macaws: For anyone (like myself) who hasn’t been studying birds, the richness of these South American birds’ individual lives and personalities is startling.   The differences extend to group matters such as using particular salt-rich clay sources in different ways for no apparent reason. Like whales and chimps, macaws have distinct dialects. While their “spoken” communications are not as sophisticated as the whales’, they and the chimps can gesture with bodies, limbs, and heads in ways whales can only do when they are close together. 
Safina makes his most interesting leap of all from watching these birds. He thinks they don’t develop flashy colors just to be noticed by the opposite sex: it goes deeper, to the point where they appreciate beauty much as we do.  Beauty, he believes, can drive behavior and even speciation. 
This takes some thought. It’s a fascinating idea, and I wish he had explored a bit further (if sufficient knowledge yet exists to do that) how far this idea of beauty reaches. Birds may find beauty in their own species and in their elaborate dances, songs, and bowers, but are we the only ones finding beauty in the rainforest dawn and the symphony of animal sounds, to mention two examples Safina uses, or do, say, elephants notice it too?  Ray Bradbury wrote a poem (yes, he was a poet, at times a superb one) about how animals may notice or navigate by stars, but they don’t see the beauty and promise  “of looking at those fires / our soul admires.”   He concludes “we’re first, the only ones / whom God has honored with his rise of suns.”  Too anthropocentric, or spot on?  And can what animals may find beautiful really differentiate them to the point of speciation? The answers are elusive, but credit Safina for opening the door.
Third come the chimps.  One more note on them: they can take cultural teaching to a quite unnerving level.  Captive chimps teach each other the wholly unnatural learned behavior of sign language.  The original chimp champion of sign language, Washoe, was seen teaching how to ask for a treat, not just by demonstrating, but by grasping a younger chimp’s hand and moving his fingers into the correct position, repeating this until she was satisfied he’d gotten it.      
Safina closes, as he always does (and must, really), with the point that a lot of this intelligent, cultural, learned behavior and the body of knowledge involved is going to vanish along with the animals that knew it.  (To add a thought of my own, imagine a future where signing is the primary chimp language because the only survivors are captives.) We are still learning how much we affect the environment. While people knew human-created noise could bother and hurt whales, for instance, we didn’t know until recently what it did to their sound-dependent culture. Safina ends by mentioning one human distinction: only we can ask what’s ahead for the planet, and only we can decide on the answers.
Safina’s written a beautiful and important book. I haven’t mentioned, because the details are so interesting, how lively his language is: you don’t need to be a biologist to appreciate the way macaws appear “like dancing flames.”  The reader departs the book with, not only knowledge, but impressions, the kind that linger in our brains and are harder to create and convey that “Chimp A did X.” 
I was left with two questions. One, described above, is about beauty. The other is whether the author may be taking some speculation too far, misinterpreting instinctive behavior (whatever that term really means) for cultural learning.  I sometimes felt he was getting into fuzzy territory. Does a chimp teaching a juvenile how to crack nuts actually form the thought, "This is important and he needs this for survival, so I will do it," or does she do it with no conscious idea why?  Safina does note, especially with the sperm whales, that there’s a lot we don’t know about what he called in the subtitle of Beyond Words “how animals think and feel.”
Read this book. Give it to friends. Give it to your kids, if they’re old enough. It’s that compelling.
If you want to know more or donate to The Safina Center, see

UPDATE: I asked Dr. Safina about my question of whether animals were making conscious decisions to teach the young or just acting out of habit or instinct without thinking it over.  His response: "The answer to the question about teaching is, when they show a youngster what to do (something they don't always do), no explanation fits except that they do it in the spirit of helping. I don't think they think "It's important to survival." Culture is the answer to the question: "How do we live here, where we happen to live?" It doesn't need to be more or less than that."