Saturday, December 31, 2022

Interview with On The Track

 My New Years' hello to all. Jonathan's quirky podcast split our interview about the new book and zoology over two shows. This is the first, and my segment starts at about six minutes in. Enjoy!

Friday, December 16, 2022

New dolphin subspecies named

 In the eastern Pacific, we have a newly named subspecies of the bottlenose dolphin, the Tursiops truncatus known to millions by virtue of being the dominant species in (controversial) aquarium exhibits. The new subspecies is T. truncatus nuuanu is unusually small for a bottlenose population and hangs out between Baja California and the Galapagos islands. See the video report here

Map copyright unknown, fair use claimed.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Cryptozoology Museum moving to Bangor

I have a liking for the International Cryptozoology Museum, by far the most comprehensive of its kind, and for Bangor, Maine, where I was born. The ICM is moving from Portland to Bangor, the new home of director/founder Loren Coleman.

Loren Coleman at his museum home. (Photo ICM)

There's nothing like the ICM. It houses hundreds of thousands of items, from correspondence and newspaper clippings to Bigfoot casts and cryptid sculptures. It's valuable to zoologists, folklorists, natural historians, and more.  My friend Loren and I have differences over some of the cryptids, but he's sincere (you can't say that about a lot of people in cryptozoology) and doing a great service even if you think cryptozoology is nonsense. I donate money every year and encourage others to do so.  There's a video clip with the article here.

"The International Cryptozoology Museum has, as its primary mission: to educate, inform, and share cryptozoological evidence, artifacts, replicas, and popular cultural items with the general public, media, students, scholars, and cryptozoologists from around the world."

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Lighting the Biggest Candle: Russia's Moon Rocket

 The Soviet Moon Rocket: Lighting the Biggest Candle Ever

The Soviets had their plans for the moon, too. Their spacecraft, showing the traditional Russian preference for proven technology, was a modification of their orbital Soyuz spacecraft, and the same heritage is visible in the lander. Only two cosmonauts would make the trip, and lander only carried one, but from a prestige viewpoint this didn't matter. After Apollo 11, this hardware was basically stuffed in a bunker and no longer spoken of. The Soviets claimed they'd never been in a race for the moon, and even such knowledgeable people as Walter Cronkite believed them.

U.S. intelligence, of course, knew better, and they knew why the race became hopeless for the USSR: the N1. The N1 was the equivalent of the Saturn V, a booster that could carry an entire lunar mission on one launch. It was the bottleneck for lunar ambitions.

N1 mockup on the pad in 1967 (NASA)

Unlike the spacecraft, the N1 was like nothing the USSR had ever built.  The Soviets were superb at building reliable medium-lift rockets in quantity, but every stage of the N1 was new. It suffered from a problem that had always plagued Soviet launchers: the metallurgy and skill to build giant engines like the Saturn V's R-1 was still beyond them.  So they did what they knew how to do by clustering engines.

The first stage of the N1 had a stunning 30 engines on it. Unlike SpaceX rockets, which deliberately use this approach to hold costs down by mass-producing reliable engines, the Soviets didn't have a choice, and, with 1960s technology, tried to make it work. 

The Soviet human spaceflight program started late on the N1, in October 1965. Only three months later, Sergei Korolev died. Like a combination of Wernher von Braun and James Webb, Chief Designer Korolev was the organizational and technical genius who made the human spaceflight program work.  Without him, individual design bureaus and leaders squabbled over titles and responsibilities and, of course, budgets. His successor, Valery Mishin, was not up to the job: the program's highly capable key engineers, Valentin Glushko and Mikhail Tikhonov, could do only what the fractured command structure permitted. This exacerbated an already challenging effort.

Designers opted for a new engine, the NK-15 (whose creation bypassed the experienced engine maven, Glushko), with 24 in a ring and six in the center. The plumbing and control systems were nightmares. The first stage was never fired in a test like the recent Green Run of the SLS. Only the individual engines were tested.

This was a fatal decision. Thirty engines running in a huge structure moving in three dimensions at high speed created torques, vibrations, fluid dynamics, and other forces engineers could only make rough estimates of, and many they had not even guessed at. There were four test launches: two in 1969, one in 1971, and one in 1972, when the rocket's reason for existence was no longer clear. All failed in first-stage flight.

The remaining booster hardware was broken up. Some of the knowledge and technology went into the Energia booster, which itself had only a few flights. The greatest rocket-building effort by the nation that led in space for years produced, in the end, little of importance.

Monday, November 07, 2022

Kingdom of the Ants

 Ants are amazing. They have a division of labor. They have armies and make war. They raise food. They hold slaves. And they build, Thier underground cities are impressive. But nothing like this.

This leafcutter nest in Brazil required removal of 40 tons of dirt. Tons. By ants. Millions of them. The excavation area, once scientists had poured cement into the abandoned nest and let it harden, covered 500 square feet and went down 26 feet. The city had ventilations, "gardens" for growing edible fungus on collected leaves, garbage dumps, and, of course, a royal chamber. 

The city, excavated. Realize these are humans walking around in a city built by ants (YouTube, educational use claimed) 

My favorite bit in this article is biologist Joe Parker's explanation of whether and how the ants know what they're doing: a "behavioral algorithm." He says, "That algorithm does not exist within a single ant. It's this emergent colony behavior of all these workers acting like a superorganism. How that behavioral program is spread across the tiny brains of all these ants is a wonder of the natural world we have no explanation for."


Wednesday, October 26, 2022

UFOs A Bit of History

UFOs are a hot topic right now. Is there anything to them except errors by people and equipment? I don't know. The new NASA panel looks like a pretty solid group of scientists, and Department of Defense is interested again. Arguably, with new hypersonic, suborbital, orbital, and energy weapons, it's vital for DoD to take a good look whether aliens exist or not.  

But they are not a new topic. Here are some of my notes. 

The U.S. armed services have been concerned, at least off and on, with UFOs since World War II. Pilots over Europe reported glowing fireballs or torpedo shapes following them. These, dubbed "foo fighters," sometimes maneuvered around the planes but did not attack (except in some wild rumors). They were widely believed to be some kind of advanced German surveillance device.
Not long after the war, the first wave of modern UFO interest started with private pilot Kenneth Arnold's report of nine shiny flying craft near Mount Rainier. (He said they MOVED like saucers skipping across water, the term the press picked up: he thought they were crescent-shaped).
That same year came the worst press release of all time, an Army Air Force claim to have recovered alien craft at Roswell, NM. Subsequent clarification that these were parts of high-altitude balloons only sparked dire warnings of a coverup. Annie Jacobsen's book Area 51 got national publicity in 2011 with an unproven and utterly absurd claim we discovered a Soviet craft crewed by deformed children from a Stalinist experiment.

UFO Photo from McMinnville, Oregon, in 1950 (public domain)

The late 1940s through the 1950s were, for UFOs, simply out of this world. There were hundreds of sightings (or many more, depending on who's counting). Some were by military or airline pilots, and the descriptions varied greatly, from saucers to triangles to zeppelin-like. A friend of my father's, flying over Japan during the occupation, reported chasing a translucent circular craft that outdistanced him. A famous early event concerned Captain Thomas Mantell, who died in 1948 while chasing a UFO over Ohio. An investigation concluded Mantell was chasing a then-secret Skyhook balloon, far above the reach of his F-51, and became so consumed by the chase he flew too high and passed out from lack of oxygen.
There was a flood of magazines, newspaper reports, conventions, serious scientific discussions, and pressures on the military, which seemingly did not know what to do with the subject and often ridiculed it. Still, some military leaders worried about advanced Soviet or alien craft, and there was a 1950 directive requiring reporting of unusual objects including missiles, aircraft, meteors, and UFOs. I don't know about what's in force now.
There were "contactees" who claimed aliens of many descriptions had talked to them. They became celebrities. I met one of the original contactees by chance in 1976. He was a nice, normal fellow, long out of "the business:" I was well read on the subject, but I would not have connected him with the contactee of the same name except that he had his old paperbacks on display.
Eminences like Dr. Hermann Oberth, mentor to Wernher von Braun, spoke up: "Of course UFOs are real, and they are interplanetary." (Pravda, on the other hand, told Soviet citizens that reporting UFOs was promoting Western propaganda.) In the 1960s and ever after there were claims astronauts had sighted UFOs. Skeptic James Oberg, originally a NASA engineer and then a highly respected freelance writer, tracked these down relentlessly and found they were of other spacecraft or debris the astronauts were initially puzzled about. NASA as a whole stayed out of the UFO business as much as possible.
The Air Force at one point in the 1950s made, then canceled a plan to put cameras in the noses of F-94 fighters kept on alert. There were a couple of reported cases of military pilots firing on UFOs, to no effect - not surprising, since the objects were likely balloons or astronomical objects. A missile officer once told me of his Alternate Command Post aircraft crew being seriously freaked out by a color-changing UFO that kept pace with them for over half an hour. The navigator finally concluded they were seeing Venus through a bit of atmospheric haze.
Speaking of missiles, there were and are claims of UFOs monkeying with missile command and control. As a former Air Force missile officer, I sympathize given the ability of these systems to throw up unexpected and strange combinations of warning lights, etc. but the aliens must have been able to manipulate encoded devices through buried and shielded cables without leaving a trace, and without any apparent point to it.
The Air Force created Project Blue Book, which ran from 1952 to 1959. It's been debated how serious Blue Book was about really digging for facts, given that the staff was as low as two men and the funding was insignificant. Blue Book DID classify a couple of dozen sightings as "unexplained." A contracted once-and-for-all study in 1968, the Condon report (The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects), almost entirely dismissed the topic, although some of the explanations were reaches (e.g., an airliner's report of a large "ship" which smaller craft apparently entered or merged with was considered "an atmospheric phenomenon on so rare it has never been reported before or since." Well, maybe.)
The military happily washed its hands of the business and considered it over and done with.
As we know, they were dead wrong.

Some classic books of the early years include my favorite, astronomer J. Allen Hynek's 1972 The UFO Experience. Captain Ed Ruppelt's book on his years with Project Blue Book is still available, as is the Condon Report in paperback form. Psychiatrist Carl Jung (!) wrote a unique book, UFOs: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, about 1969 (not sure when the first edition was), and Paris Flammonde wrote an excellent 1971 book, The Age of Flying Saucers, which put the topic up to that date in sociological context, which of course included Cold War fears. There are hundreds of others, and new ones are coming out like shooting stars.

Monday, October 24, 2022

New Undersea Ecosystem: The Trapping Zone

 The newly-discovered Trapping Zone is a strange place. 500 meters down on the underwater slopes of the Maldives, small organisms gather in huge clouds, apparently trapped by the terrain.  Tuna, sharks, and a host of other predators concentrate on them here. Scientists think there must be similar zones elsewhere in the seas, and it's a rich area for research.  Let's hope the government protects them so they are not also rich areas for fishing in an ocean where so much has been depleted. Educational use claimed.

Monday, October 17, 2022

An Idea Too Far: The Orion spaceship

Many space programs have been proposed and canceled since the Space Age began 65 years ago.  None was more visionary - and probably more impossible - than Orion. 

The idea of Orion came out of the national laboratory at Los Alamos in 1957, caught on with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), and was backed by the Air Force for several years.  General Atomics, a division of General Dynamics, also spent its own funds on the project, attracting leading physicist Freeman J. Dyson to assist with the design work.  Dyson predicted that “huge projects and whole empires” would come out of Orion.  Someone at ARPA must have thought so too, since the agency in 1958 put an initial $1M on contract to study the idea.

The basic concept was a spacecraft shaped like a short, squat artillery shell with a huge pusher plate and shock absorbers on the aft end.  The scale was enormous: the pusher plate alone would weigh 1,000 tons.  A magazine carrying hundreds of nuclear fission devices of yields up to five kilotons would spit them out into the center of the plate, where they would be ignited, vaporizing the propellant (which could be any inert matter available cheaply in large quantities, even such mundane items as ice or dirt).    Engineers estimated they could get up to 70% of the energy of the explosion converted into thrust against the pusher plate.  For versions with people aboard, crews of up to 150 people were considered.  The specific impulse (a measure of a rocket’s efficiency, abbreviated as Isp and stated in seconds) was estimated at anywhere from 2,000 (over five times what the best chemically-fueled engines could offer) to 50,000, depending on the design of the vehicle and the yield of the nuclear explosives.

Orion never got further than flying a three-foot-diameter model propelled by chemical explosives.  The unknowns confronting the project, as well as its potential costs, were staggering.  For a while in 1959, it was the only major space project left in ARPA after NASA had taken over civilian spaceflight and the military missions had been handed back to the Services.  At that point, no one outside ARPA wanted Orion.

In 1959, the Air Force took another look. Some Air Force officers liked the idea of putting our strategic deterrent on a space platform, out of range of any Soviet weapons.  One illustration showed no fewer than 500 ICBM warheads being dispensed by an Orion ship. 

At the Special Projects Office of the Air Force Special Weapons Center at Kirtland AFB, the overseer of the Orion contract was an Air Force officer and physicist named Lew Allen, later to become Air Force Chief of Staff.  In the late 1950s, the world had not yet grasped how dangerous atmospheric nuclear explosions were.  

In 1959, Air Force officers and physicists produced a study called “Military Implications of the Orion Vehicle.” It examined what, assuming the propulsion technology worked out, Orion-type ships could do for DoD in LEO, geosynchronous orbit (GEO), and deep space.  It was briefed to military audiences including the Air Staff, and a highly receptive General Thomas Power, then Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC). 

General Power was a solid believer in the importance of space to future Air Force plans.  He signed off on SAC Qualitative Operational Requirements (QORs) titled, “Strategic Aerospace Vehicle,” “Strategic Earth Orbital Base,” and “Strategic Space Command Post.” The concept of space-based nuclear deterrence was so intriguing that Power declared, “Whoever controls Orion controls the world."

Orion (image NASA)

In those days, what SAC wanted mattered a lot.  In the years before SLBMs and ICBMs arrived in significant numbers, SAC’s bombers made up the huge majority of the American nuclear deterrent.  In some years under Ike, SAC received over 40% of the US defense budget.  Power got Air Force funds to ensure continuation of Orion design studies, with the intent of launching a hardware R&D program when the design work was sufficiently mature.

When President Kennedy took office, though, his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, took a strongly negative view of Orion.  He limited its funding to studies only. 

There were plenty of reasons to be wary of Orion, even though the physics looked workable.  An Orion spaceship would take off from a pit on the Earth’s surface using small nuclear bombs all the way up through the atmosphere.  Even some officers who liked the idea of Orion eventually became wary of the fallout, literally and figuratively, of testing such a system in the United States.   With the October 1963 signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting “any nuclear weapon test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion” in the atmosphere and space, Orion became all the more problematical.  

A late version of the idea was to put a scaled-down Orion on top of a Saturn V booster, lofting it into space without any nuclear explosions (although still with many nuclear devices on board.)  This spacecraft would have weighed about 100 tons and would join with a separately launched crew vehicle in orbit.  Orion briefings attracted some interest from Wernher von Braun, but, in December 1964, NASA notified the Air Force it was staying with chemical rockets.

The Air Force was unwilling to fight for Orion by itself, and the project quickly died.  About $11M had been spent.  Nuclear pulse propulsion, using either fission bombs like Orion or cleaner fusion bombs, has been studied several times since, but without attracting any significant military or NASA support.  Orion, while it still has a few believers today, was consigned to the dust bin of intriguing but ultimately impractical space programs. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Sputnik 65th Anniversary

 Sputnik 1: October 4. 1957, the day the world changed.

On October 4, 1957, the 84-kg Object PS 1, as the Soviet Union called it - or Sputnik 1, as everyone else called it - rode a modified R-7 ICBM into space and into global headlines.  What happened next? Many momentous things.

R7 and Sputnik display at Museum of Flight (Matt Bille)

The Sputnik program's creator was Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, leader of Soviet long-range missile and space programs. Despite having done an undeserved and almost fatal stretch in a gulag for "sabotage," he was a Russian patriot who, like his counterpart Wernher von Braun (of whom he once wistfully said, "We should be friends"), had one eye on missiles and one on spaceflight. (No one outside the USSR knew who Korolev was.)

Korolev had an explicit commission to beat the United States to the first satellite. He was spurred on by a belief that a US Jupiter-C reentry vehicle test flight was a failed satellite attempt. When the initial satellite design, "Object D," was initially too big and unreliable to launch in 1957, Korolev's right-hand man, Mikhail Tikhonravov, suggested they instead fly the simplest possible satellite. The lead designer of the satellite itself was Nikolai Kutyrkin. The launch was a success, and Sputnik 1's famous "beep" - described by LIFE magazine as "a cricket with a cold" - was heard worldwide. (Object D later become Sputnik 3.)

As Korolev congratulated his comrades, saying, "The road to the stars is now open!"

Radio operators around the world tuned in and millions scanned the night sky. The satellite was too small to be seen with the naked eye, but the core of the R-7 booster had followed Sputnik into orbit and was spotted easily. This visual proof magnified the satellite’s impact. Reports that Sputnik caused panic in Western nations were exaggerated. However, influential American media outlets, most notably LIFE and US News and World Report, published alarmist critiques, which succeeded in raising the public’s concern.

Sputnik 1 sent shock waves through U.S. and allied governments. Missile experts correctly deduced the launcher was a powerful ICBM. The Soviet Union had announced the first flight of Korolev’s ICBM a few months earlier, but U.S. intelligence had been unsure of the announcement's validity. Now there was no doubt.  If the little sphere caused consternation among governments, it also excited scientists who knew that the Earth satellite concept, long a theoretical possibility, had at last been proven feasible. British author and space visionary Arthur C. Clarke recalled that it was "...a complete shock, but I realized it would change the world." The international impact of Sputnik was unexpected even by the Soviet leaders. At first, the official newspaper Pravda gave the launch only a brief mention. Only after it became clear Sputnik had caused a global sensation did the satellite earn banner headlines. A CIA assessment stated that Sputnik had immediately increased Soviet scientific and military prestige among many peoples some governments. Soviet diplomats and politicians made the most of the resulting admiration.  President Eisenhower reassured the public that the U.S. satellite program had not been conducted as a race against other nations and Sputnik raised no new security concerns. In private, he called his advisers on the carpet for an explanation of why the "backward" USSR had gone first. Ike refused demands from some Congressional and media alarmists for an all-out crash program in space, calling only for $1 billion in extra funding for American missile programs.  A consequence the Soviets didn't foresee was the effect of Sputnik on international law. Before Sputnik, the right of transit through space above a nation’s territory was an unsettled question. Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, pointed out that the Soviets had done the United States an unintentional favor by establishing the concept of freedom of international space. Not one government protested the overflight of Sputnik. "Freedom of space” was eventually enshrined by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  Sputnik's success gave Korolev vast resources to devote to his dreams of spaceflight. The price imposed was the need to keep the successes coming to maintain leadership in this new field. Korolev responded with new satellites, lunar probes, and in 1961 the launch of the first human into orbit. Sputnik also galvanized the lagging U.S. space program. With the official U.S. satellite program, the Naval Research Laboratory's Project Vanguard, still struggling, the Army missile team headed by Wernher von Braun was given approval to launch a satellite. After a frantic effort, Explorer 1 was orbited in January 1958. The Pentagon created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to lead its space programs and the post of Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E). Civilian space programs, Eisenhower decided, should belong to a new agency. On 1 October 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence. It began pursuing numerous space endeavors, including science and applications satellites and its own human-in-space program. Sputnik’s launch was the beginning of the journey to the Moon.

Want to know more? Read The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites, at The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites (Volume 8) (Centennial of Flight Series): Bille, Matthew A., Lishock, Erika, Allen, James A. Van: 9781585443741: Books

Sunday, September 18, 2022

A Vet among Cryptids (Fiction)

All Creatures Weird and Dangerous

Timm Otterson, DVM 

 I've said that fiction allows for interesting speculation in the absence of hard data on cryptids. No book has made speculation more fun than Dr. Otterson's. Otterson mixes his experiences as a vet into tales of treating a trapped plesiosaur, a sasquatch that's been shot, an injured Chupacabra, a colony of mammalian merpeople (the most fascinating topic of speculation), and others. He fudges some "historical" facts on cryptids, but most of it is his imagination of how, to the best of his knowledge, he would treat such little-known creatures. There's one creature with magic, but everything else is zoologically-based and told so well he ALMOST makes you think this really happened. It's funny throughout, too. It's just wonderful.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Heart of a Placoderm

Friends know I love the ancient armored predator Dunkleosteus, which sort of resembles a steampunk submarine with a guillotine on the front. The Dunk was one of 300 species of placoderms. Now we have an amazing find in Australia - a placoderm's heart, with enough fossilized material to study in detail. Soft tissues don't fossilize nearly as often or as well as bones or teeth, but when conditions are right, paleontologists can find enough to teach them a great deal. In this case, they sound a slightly flattened heart compared to one like ours, described as S-shaped. The heart has two chambers. The releases so far don't include the species. From the drawings in this article, it's not Dunk, and I can find illustrations of a dozen species it COULD be, but I'll update that as soon as we know.   

Monday, September 12, 2022

9/11: Sentiment and Science

It's fading a little bit. The memories of those of us who were not in New York or D.C. have to be jogged a bit to remember just how hard the hit was 21 years ago, how incredulous it was, how little information there was.  I was in a software class at work.  Someone ran out and bought a little TV, and we called our loved ones and talked urgently as we watched.  

It was an incredibly complex event, unprecedented in countless ways.  In such an event, there will be extraordinary coincidences, like finding a hijacker's passport, and enduring mysteries. Who is the Falling Man? It's probably sound engineer Johnathan Briley, but we will likely never remove all doubt.

What is NOT a mystery is how the buildings in New York fell.  The most extensive investigation of a building collapse ever, with years of modeling, simulations, analysis, and camera and eyewitness data, has left no doubt.   A slew of expert regulations for future buildings have been established (not something you would do if you had any questions about the instigating event.) See the animation (video is here.) Read the reports by the most distinguished engineering bodies in the world.  Hear the deniers cite the same tired, explained points over and over and over: I'll grant that some are very sincere, but the massive weight of evidence is where it's always been (sometimes, governments actually tell the truth.) I'm not going to go (or argue) point by point, because the main points are as well established as gravity. Professor Bob Blaskiewicz pointed out that, in 20 years, doubters and deniers have not convinced the 3-5 editors needed on ANY mainstream journal to publish anything, as opposed to those doing their analysis with far more expertise and far better tools.

Farewell, my countrymen. It may be hard to remember details, but it is impossible to forget feelings. 

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Book Review: Adrienne Mayor's Flying Snakes & Griffin Claws

 Adrienne Mayor

Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws: And Other Classical Myths, Historical Oddities, and Scientific Curiosities

Princeton University Press, 2022, 448pp.   

Mayor is one of a kind. I’m an avocational historian with some skill at research and connecting far-flung dots. I mention that only to lend credence to my evaluation of Mayor as, not merely a professional at the confluence of these and other professions, but someone one on another plane of existence. As in her previous books (my favorite is Fossil Legends of the First Americans), Mayor connects stories, artifacts, and cultures in ways that might never occur to anyone else. We tend to study individual cultures and empires in school, and Mayor delights in showing how human culture has always been an interactive web shot through with tiny cross-filaments created by trade, travelers, legends, and the intersection of ideas and cultures.

The 50 essays contained here skip through eras, civilizations, and continents, bringing us tales of sea monsters, paleocryptozoology, ancient ghost ships, Amazon queens, possible fossil origins for mythical creatures like griffins, and the Golden Fleece. If she can’t always connect an oddity to a possible origin, or a story to a storyteller, she never fails to arouse the reader’s curiosity.

For example, countless storytellers have described their opponents as giants. It seems that, while the differences between tribes of men were certainly exaggerated, the way men tended to get larger as forces from the south and east worked their way towards Scandinavia did lend themselves to a certain mythologizing, and kings certainly gathered very tall men for royal guards. She explores countless other questions. Were the Carthaginians taught to be sworn enemies of Rome from the day they could walk? (There seems to be a propaganda element in there.)  How did Baron Georges Cuvier come to examine what he said was a fresh mammoth’s foot? (The mystery is unsolved.)

One of my favorite chapters is on the Greek response to being incorporated into the Roman expire. Such nations often lead a gray, low-profile existence, but the Greeks were entrepreneurs. Knowing the Roman fascination with Greek history, culture, and legend, they became rich off Roman tourists. They sold replicas (or fakes) of great art, reenacted plays, and plastered the country (really) with “Heracles slept here” signs while guidebook authors and large intercity cart rental agencies made small fortunes. Commercialization is not a new concept.  

Mayor’s writing moves along at the right pace, never bogging down and always hinting of “Wait ‘till you see what’s next!” In this cabinet of curiosities lies something for everyone, whether their interest is the origin of tattoos or the first foot fetishists.  This is the latest in a serios of marvelous books, and I hope many more are in the offing.

Monday, August 08, 2022

An Early Cryptozoology Influence: Strange Creatures from Time and Space

 Strange Creatures from Time and Space

John A. Keel

Original 1970

Reviewed: Sphere Books, 1976

My only interest in things sometimes grouped under "oddities" or "the paranormal" is physical cryptozoology, so I look at books from that angle.  Normally I only review cryptozoology books that stick with zoology.  Keel, though, had a great deal of influence, at the time of publication and 52 years later. 

Keel’s mind goes in many directions, often at once. He can be illogical, provocative, and sometimes very funny.  The philosophical blood of Charles Fort runs strong in him.  Where Fort was content to show his readers how strange the world is by sheer force of accumulated facts, claims, and stories, Keel went a bit further, and we’ll come back to that. 

First, to give the author credit, he put in a lot of roadwork.  He did a lot of traveling around the United States and some world travel as well.  He believes he has seen a yeti-type creature. He talked to many witnesses directly and did the emerging field of cryptozoology a lasting favor by recording some of those first-reported items here and elsewhere.  He also refers to a group of beasts that seem to hang around water, including what today is called Lizardman, as Abominable Swamp Slobs (A.S.S.), and I’m sorry that didn’t catch on. Keel is the literary father of “Mothman,” which he is certain is a very real thing but which he also recognizes, given the reported size, wingspan, and speed, can’t be a physical animal. Keel will always be known for connecting Mothman, however speculatively (as in, based on no evidence whatsoever) with the December 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River, in which 46 people died.   Keel often zooms off into UFOs and other topics, sometimes connected to “creatures,” sometimes not.  

Keel was an early proponent of “windows,” places where there are paranormal connections between this world and others that come and go, resulting in “flaps” of reports of UFOs, creatures, and other weirdness. That’s a million miles from zoology, but Keel believes there are also perfectly “normal,” if sometimes bizarre, animals in hiding around the world.  

All these decades later, Keel’s influence on flesh-and-blood cryptozoology has declined – you don’t see him quoted much in the related literature, but some of the reports are still interesting. His influence on the paranormal remains strong.  “Windows” are a permanent and prominent part of paranormal beliefs, even though no one has ever proved such a thing exists. Keel would have enjoyed that paradox.   

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Ju-gotta-be-kidding-me World: Dominion

I finally had a chance to see the year's blockbuster. I give it four stars for fun, one for plausibility.  

Thirty years after the original film,  dinosaurs have been scattered all over the world thanks to poachers and ... well, something else must have happened.  The only thing the dinos have in common is that they're inaccurate to varying degrees and that apparently all of them have some genetic memory of Chris Pratt's raptor-calming hand gesture. There are of course new dinosaurs, and some of them are fun.  The titanic Dreadnoughtus gets an appearance, as does the astonishing scissor-handed Therizinosaurus (scaled up to T. rex size, of course) and the scary Giganotosaurus, which Alan Grant tells us (wrongly) was the biggest predator of all time.  (It IS the biggest dinosaur audio-animatronic ever built, and the filmmmakers deserve kudos for that.) 

Oh, how did Alan Grant get into this? Well, his old girlfriend Dr. Sattler is the first  person on Earth to have figured out that giant prehistoric locusts are being bred by an evil genetics firm in Italy whose pesticide is the only one that stops them. Thank, you, Dr. Obvious.  Owen Grady and Claire Dearing show up trying to rescue a cloned girl from genetic experiments or something (it doesn't make any more sense in context.) Transportation and entire facilities just seem to be wherever the heroes need them, and any dinosaur can apparently pop up anywhere in the world.  Ian Malcom and Henry Wu are along to say supposedly important things and issue dire warnings. There are new characters, like pilot Kayla Watts, but they don't make much of an impression.

This is basically a kaiju  film, and the mindless fun (a LOT of it) comes from the action sequences. Some of these are wonderful: they don't have to make sense. The series has gone on too long to make us think any major character will die, but the film almost kills them in endlessly entertaining ways.  (Did you know a Quetzalcoatlus could effortlessly down a twin-engine plane without harm to itself? You still don't, but it's entertaining to watch.) There's no real reason for Owen to be hunting and lassoing dinosaurs on horseback, but it's FUN.  So is being chased through city streets by big snarling carnivores and throwing a torch into a predator's mouth, where it inexplicably blazes up much brighter. My favorite pre-dinosaur synapsid, Dimetrodon, shows up (only, um, what is a sail-backed animal doing in a cave?). At the closing credits, everyone more or less gets what they deserve, including a satisfying"it was really you along" thing with Grant and Sattler.

So go for the dinosaurs. Enjoy their antics and fights, and chases, and be nice to them: after all, they didn't write the plot holes.

Farewell, Uhura

Nichelle Nichols of the original Star Trek has died. 

Nichols broke many barriers on the show and in real life, including fighting for more equal pay (her castmates stood by her, and it happened), the famous first interracial kiss (it was a forced act thanks to alien captors, but it mattered just as much), and, above all, simply being the first Black woman shown in a position of authority (MILITARY authority no less!) on an American TV series.  Oprah Winfrey recalled being stunned at seeing her.  In a famous encounter, she told the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. she was thinking of leaving the show because Uhura wasn't getting to do much.  King strongly encouraged her, indeed practically ordered her, to continue: she was the only character on on television in whom Black children could see themselves.

The network certainly could have allowed Uhura a stronger role on the show, but this was 1960s American television, and ST creator Gene Rodenberry pushed her as far as he could get away with.  I was surprised they got away with one line in the original series episode "The Naked Time," where a virus made everyone live their fantasies: when Sulu, believing himself an 18th century swashbuckler, grabbed her and said "Ah, fair maiden!" she pulled away saying, "Sorry, neither."  (Interesting fact: Nichols was a singer with no TV experience before being cast at Lt Nyota Uhura, and she was able to sing a few times in the series. ) 

Nichols paved the way for countless women who DID get stronger roles. She also had some good bits on Star Trek: The Animated Series. She came back for the movies, where she and the audience had great fun with her performances (who can forget, "Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it"?)  She made other film and television appearances, including a very funny role as Cubs Gooding Jr.'s mom on the Alaska-set comedy Snow Dogs.  She came to many fan conventions, and I'll always regret not getting a photo and autograph the one time I could have.  She helped NASA recruit its first woman astronauts and used her fame to advance civil rights.   

I hope they name a distant, beautiful world after her some day. Where my heart is. Beyond Antares.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

July 20, 1969

Ah, Columbia, Columbia! 

The first to take us to another world.

The embodied hopes of a nation

The sweat of thousands of men and women

Do you somehow know you are more than steel?

I think you do.

May you, like your pilots and your makers,

Rest forever in honor.

I was lucky and honored to see Columbia launch and to see her again 50 years later. 


Saturday, July 16, 2022

Webb looks at the universe

 No human has ever seen the star nursery called NGC 3324, seven light years away, so brilliantly and in such detail. We may never get a better view. The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the new James Webb telescope has given us new eyes (infrared ones, at that) with which to see and understand the universe. The telescope was 20 times over budget: I would have canceled it. This time I'm glad such budgeting common sense failed. 

Below that image is Stephen's quintet, a fistful of younger galaxies bursting from their nurseries to take their place in the universe.  Webb will tell us more than any other mission about OUR place.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

A very cool one-of-a-kind Dunk trophy

Thanks to Dave Hayes, I have a one of a kind Dunkleosteus trophy mount.  Shown here with some of the more famous Dunk models for scale, this 3D printed sculpt is the largest Dunk head I own, and does a great job of balancing believable detail with size, coloring with dentition, and awesomeness with more awesomeness. 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Ancient Vampire Squid

 "The Ancient Vampire Squid" is a great title for a Sy-Fy Channel movie, or maybe a band, but here it refers to an interesting animal. The vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), is a little cephalopod that lives in depths of temperate seas, where it basically does nothing except pick up little bits of organic detritus (a.k.a. "marine snow"). It's not an octopus or a squid - it's weird enough to be in its own family (I guess no one invites it to picnics). It does have eight arms with spines and suckers and two tentacles, which have glowing, sticky tips. It can squirt bioluminescent ink. Despite its harmlessness, its "cape" of skin connecting the tentacles and its deep red color got it the coolest scientific name of all time, meaning "vampire squid from hell." Richard Ellis wrote a little e-book about it.

Where did such an oddity come from, in the evolutionary sense? Not surprisingly, fossils of small invertebrates can be rare and fragmentary. However, a new paper examining three good fossils from Jurassic-period France of Vampyronassa rhodanica finds the oldest known ancestor was an active predator, not a passive lurker.  More robust suckers on the arms were one clue: marine snow doesn't struggle. 

Maybe it's not finding a new dinosaur. But it's still fascinating.

Hat tip to Shannon Bohle for pointing me to this item.

Matt Bille

Monday, June 20, 2022

Responsive Space update

 Tactical space, tactical launch, responsive space, call it what you will, there's been a three-decade debate over how best to get American military payloads into space and put them to work quickly - or whether such a capability even matters.

The Air Force, which had a responsive space capability of its own in the early 60s (the Blue Scout program) never knew what to do with this topic.  

The service's main medium/heavy launch vehicle series of this century, the EELVs, were supposed to have a "rapid" capability but took over a year from start to finish of a "launch campaign." Congress pushed the Operationally Responsive Space program in the early 2000s, and it launched several satellites, but it was dismissed at the upper levels (granted, small satellites were not as capable as they are today) as not very important, and was eventually dismantled. 

Congress has taken a new interest, boosted by the achievements of the Space Development Agency and the increasing capability of very small microsatellites, in having the Space Force fly more demonstration missions and eventually create a budget line item. Check out the latest news

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Remember Sally Ride

 On this date in 1983, physicist turned astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in orbit. Salute her legacy.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Original World of Jurassic Park

As Jurassic World: Dominion stomps into view, with great visuals (albeit with some inaccurate dinosaurs) and the stupidest plot in the entire series, I take a look back at the two books by Michael Crichton that re-ignited the world's fascination with dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park

Crichton, Michael (1990: Alfred A.Knopf: 448pp.)

The first thing to note about this book is that it's not the movie.  The premise carries over, but Crichton's human characters are quite different. John Hammond is a profit-hungry tycoon who uses any means available (and a miniature elephant that's an interesting side story) to attract investors and open his park.  Ian Malcom is a brilliant but dour annoyance without much personality. 
The dinosaur-cloning is explained pretty well. Stephen J. Gould wrote of this book that, while dino-cloning couldn't really be done, Crichton offered “the most clever and realistic solution” in fiction. Chaos theory is important from the beginning. Malcom warns piling one sophisticated security system and protocol on another, combined with the uncertainties introduced by the dinosaurs, would lead to catastrophic failure. He’s right, although nobody likes a sourpuss prophet, and I thought “good riddance” when he was apparently eaten by a T. rex
Crichton’s writing and characterization are not spectacular, but his style works well, building tension and offering some great scares, and the jargon is kept at a reasonable level. The dinosaurs are a varied and entertaining lot, true to the science of the time, and this is where the world learned the word Velociraptor
The sequel, The Lost World (1995: Alfred A. Knopf, 393pp.) written after the first movie and setting up the second one, keeps most of the characters and brings Ian back from the seemingly-dead. (John Hammond, though, stays dead.) Ian is closer to Jeff Goldblum in this one. Dr. Richard Levine, a guy who wonders about real "lost worlds" where prehistoric creatures might have survived, catches on to the hushed-up events of the first book. It makes sense when he finds a new island of dinosaurs: the site in the first book was too clean, too showy, to be the facility where so many failures and mistakes must have happened as Hammond's company learned to clone dinosaurs.  
And so we move, albeit slowly, to Site B. There we learn more about how the dinosaur-reviving was done and, of course, witness a lot more death. There's a little too much information stuffed in for most readers, although yours truly devoured it.  The new characters, Levine (whose disappearance on Site B sparks the plot) and action-scientist Sarah Harding, don't make a lasting impression. (It is worth noting that Harding gets a role played in 99% of prior science fiction by a man.)  The smart-bratty stowaway children are annoying. I almost thought it unfortunate that Crichton, like Spielberg, never crosses the line and feeds kids to dinosaurs.  
The T. rex is still the boss species, and Velociraptors are zooming around. We do, though, we get interesting new species including what a character thinks of, not surprisingly, as "A goddamn Stegosaurus" and a predator with previously unknown chameleon-like abilities. Modern paleontologists don't believe that's a thing, any more than they think T. rex could only see prey if it moved, but it's not so absurd that it takes us out of the story. The action sequences are very good, and there are plenty of thrills and scares.  Publisher's Weekly gave it a so-so review, then mentioned the first printing was two million copies, and it's hard to argue with success.
And so the Jurassic Park franchise catapulted dinosaurs back into popular culture, apparently to stay. 

Matt Bille