Sunday, March 27, 2022

Review: Karl Shuker's Mystery Cats of the World Revisited

Mystery Cats of the World Revisited: Blue Tigers, King Cheetahs, Black Cougars, Spotted Lions, and More 

Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker

Paperback, 2020 Anomalist Books, 414pp.

Dr. Karl Shuker’s well-researched Mystery Cats of the World (Robert Hale, 1989) instantly became the top reference (for many cases, the only one) for those interested in that topic. It's very hard to find now: I'm fortunate to have a copy.  

Shuker  adds a great deal of information and countless new illustrations in Revisited, so it's far more than just a revised edition. It's the NEW definitive reference for zoologists as well as cryptozoologists. Nothing, from the mysterious Iriomote wildcat to the strange-looking woolly cheetah to odd-looking cats in ancient art, is outside Shuker's interest. The cryptozoological mysteries are here, too.  What is a "water-leopard?" Could saber-tooth cats have survived?  Ahd what do we know of my favorite mystery, the Queensland tiger-cat or yarri?  Shuker writes well, and his background as a trained zoologist shows in his analysis of the cats and their potential origins or plausibility. As usual for a Shuker book, the sources are well-cited (if uneven in their reliability) and a ton of reference material is there for the more dedicated student of pussycat puzzles to pursue. 

Bill Rebsamen, as always, provides some great artwork. The very thin paper makes some of the photo-illustrations less impactful than they might be.   If I haven't mentioned it enough already, this is the best book ever published on such cats, and is unlikely to be dethroned in the coming decades. 

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Wernher von Braun's 110th Birthday

March 23 is the 110th birthday of Wernher von Braun.

In WW2, this talented engineer and manager headed the team that developed the V-2 rocket. (The V-1 was an unrelated Luftwaffe development.) After the war, he was imported with 117 others as part of Project Paperclip and worked with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, where he developed short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and was instrumental in launching our first satellite, Explorer 1. He went on to NASA when that agency took over the ABMA team and was essential in the design, development, and execution of the the Saturn V program and other aspects of Apollo. He left NASA when the post-Apollo programs, especially sending people to Mars, vanished off the planning boards. He died in 1977. 

There is no denying the importance of his work for space exploration or his genuine, lifelong enthusiasm for those efforts. There's also no denying he lied about his actions during the war. While joining the Nazi Party and accepting an SS commission were largely forced on him, he continued his deadly work without protest (not, of course, that protest would have done him any good, but there is a Faustian theme that's unavoidable). He didn't create or supervise the slave-labor production program at the Mittelwerk, but he did see it in action. He argued to the SS commander on the utilitarian grounds that prisoners would produce better work if treated better, but when he was brushed off, he dropped it. When Germany disintegrated, he led his staff on a long, dangerous trek to hide key technology and tons of studies and design work until he could surrender to the Americans. The Project Paperclip staff and Army G-2 went light on the questioning in their urgency to get rocket engineers to the US. Ironically, the V-2's technical innovations had largely been matched by America's Robert Goddard, but Goddard couldn't get the funding to build missiles. 

Von Braun and staff helped test captured V-2s and went to work on American missiles. He fought hard for the Army team to get the assignment to launch America's first satellites, but a commission picked the Naval Research Laboratory's Project Vanguard. When Vanguard was compromised by technical problems and a famous failure, von Braun was given the green light to launch an American satellite to match Sputnik 1, and did so on January 31, 1958. The Army lobbied hard to keep the ABMA team, but it was transferred to NASA Marshall, and the rest is space exploration history. 

Von Braun might appear in the dictionary as the definition of "complicated." He believed his service his country in wartime was acceptable despite his disapproval of the war and the savagely evil conduct of his government. He enjoyed all the hedonistic delights of being a young baron, but once he married in 1947 he remained faithful for life. He had served Hitler and developed weapons but was a practicing Christian. (Interestingly, Hitler in hindsight should not have backed him: while the V-2 was deadly and frightening, the resources would have done more for the war if devoted to airplanes.) His V-2 staff worked clandestinely on space exploration ideas, and he was arrested at one point by the SS for allegedly slowing development of rocket weapons (this was, oddly a favorite charge in Stalin's purges). Von Braun pointed to this arrest as evidence of his lack of enthusiasm for war, although it was also a political ploy by SS leaders to take control of the program. The extent of his wartime activities and knowledge did not come out until the 1970s. 

Surprisingly for a German aristocrat, he adapted quickly to the American need to sell programs politically, emphasizing the wonders of space exploration and the terror of Soviet missiles to the right audiences. He believed strongly in a "Skunk Works" type of operation where everyone was together and he and other leaders walked the shop floor. He adapted his management style successfully to the needs of the enormous Saturn V program where a Skunk Works wasn't possible.

 Everyone who worked on space with van Braun liked him. Despite his aristocratic origins (he was, after all, Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun), he was able to befriend and motivate everyone from sheet-metal workers to Presidents. He was outgoing, strong-willed, had a dozen side interests, and was a leader in encouraging the Germans transplanted to Huntsville to become part of the community to mitigate anti-German sentiment. His dynamism unquestionably moved American space exploration ahead by at least several years. 

Von Braun died relatively young of cancer and did not write a memoir, although he left huge archives of plans and correspondence. To read his story very much as he would have written it himself, read Wernher vonBraun: Crusader for Space, by his friend and teammate Ernst Stuhlinger (who helped with my book The First Space Race) and Frederick Ordway. To read the definitive biography, add Michael Neufeld's Von Braun: Dreamer of Space Engineer of War. The former was attacked by Mittelwerk survivors, among others, for whitewashing him: the latter was attacked by von Braun relatives and friends for being unfair to him, but I think it's the most thorough examination we'll ever get.  

 No matter what your judgement of him, space history would have been very, very different with

out von Braun.

Friday, March 18, 2022

A unique Dunkleosteus sculpture

 From George Lafaye via Etsy comes this unique Dunk, a clay hand-sculpt over a wire armature. It's not the most accurate modeling job: among other things, the lower tail lobe is extended to be part of the stand.  That extra set of anal fins is problematical, and the surface detailing is minimal.  I'm not sure any fish ever had this color pattern.  On the other hand, it's altogether charming, the dorsal is in the right place, the tail is the right type, and did I mention it's cute? 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

64th Anniversary: Vanguard 1

The Vanguard satellite program, announced as the first (and then only) official U.S. satellite program in July 1955 for the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, had a rough time.  The budget rocketed (I can't help writing that) from $20M to $110M; the technical hurdles on the all-new launch vehicle were seriously underestimated; after Sputnik's launch in October 1957 led to a hurried effort and a globally-publicized failure in December 1957, the Army's rival effort was green-lighted, and Explorer 1 was  launched on January 31 as America's first satellite. The ultimate authority, President Dwight Eisenhower, was incensed by Vanguard's budget problems but thought the program, once announced, had to be continued for national prestige. 

The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Vanguard engineers were a determined bunch, though, and after another failure they put Vanguard 1 up on March 17. (The program gave numbers only to successful satellites.)  Vanguard 1 was called the "grapefruit" satellites, as it was a 1.46 kg miniature of the 9.98kg satellite originally envisioned, and post-Vanguard 1 launches used this type. 

Roger Easton, one of primary contributors, and the NRL went on to create the first navigation satellites and contribute (opinion on credit is sharply divided, with the Air Force basically established in official histories as having all the credit and NRL objecting vociferously) to GPS.  The Vanguard program, while certainly troubled, was not a failure. Its launch technology was used in developing many subsequent vehicles including the workhorse Delta, and the satellite bus was likewise adopted for other projects. Important science was done, and the Minitrack satellite tracking system remained in use for many years. Vanguard 1 is still in orbit: Arthur C. Clarke wrote it would be undoubtedly collected for a museum, and that still may happen someday. 

You can see the protocols back then were not as strict as today: Roger Easton took the satellite home for some adjustments, and this is his son Richard (red jacket) posing with it!

Richard Easton's book on GPS is must reading.

Read the story of the race for the first satellite here:

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Will We Ever See "De-Extinct" Mammals?

 Thanks to a $5M gift to the University of Melbourne (Australia), a lab is being established with the goal of bringing back the extinct thylacine (a.k.a. Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf) and developing genetic techniques that might help save rare species. Professor Andrew Pask will head the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab. 

Pask said the lab will "work with stem cells, gene editing and surrogacy, to assist with breeding programs to prevent other marsupials from suffering the same fate as the Tassie tiger," which offers great benefits even if we never see a live thylacine again.  An interesting sidelight on this species is that sightings have continued since its presumed 1936 demise: it certainly lasted into the 1940s and maybe much longer, but it's hard to believe any are left after countless searches turned up nothing.) 

The last known thylacine in 1936 (Public domain

Bringing back extinct species is a very, very tough nut to crack. It's been around as an idea for a long time.

One way to do it is by back-breeding living animals that carry some of the extinct type's genes until you bring out the right characteristics. Serious attempts were made with the quagga, a version of the plains zebra; the aurochs, the ancient cattle painted on cave walls; and the tarpan, an extinct breed of wild horse. These have gained varying degrees of success.  I've seen reconstructed tarpans, known as Heck horses after the breeders,  in a zoo: indeed, the tarpan reconstruction effort has been carried out twice from different stock.  But is an animal that looks like an aurochs or a tarpan the real thing, or sort of a walking Xerox (for those old enough to know that I mean)?

Drawing of a Quagga, showing its brownish, incomplete striping. The Quagga Project, a back-breeding effort started in 1987 is getting closer to the right look. (picture in public domain)

Genetic engineering has opened new possibilities, even if they don't include bringing back dinosaurs.  We have DNA fragments from long-extinct animals, but the full genome only from those which died recently enough that we have well-preserved specimens. (In specimens preserved in formaldehyde, though, the chemical breaks down DNA.)  Assembling a full genome from creatures like the mylodon or giant ground sloth, from which hides thousands of years old have been found, is possible in theory, but one interested geneticist, Russell Higuchi, said when Jurassic Park came out that the problem was like reassembling, in the dark, a shredded encyclopedia written in a foreign language, all without using your hands. Technology like CRISPR is making it more practical, but how much more  remains to be seen. A Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo, was cloned  in 2003 with material from the last known member of its subspecies, which had been biopsied two years before its death in 2000. The mother was a closely related subspecies, of the Iberian ibex (a.k.a. wild goat), but the resulting animal died soon after birth. An endangered gaur (a.k.a. Indian wild ox) was cloned in 2001, although that calf died of dysentery two days after the apparently successful cloning. 

 A plan to bring back the woolly mammoth has garnered $75M from venture capitalists and  (really) Paris Hilton.  This has been proposed before. The approach that was long in vogue was to insert the genome of a mammoth from a frozen specimen into the egg of an Asian elephant (the closest living relative) and get a hybrid. Future generations would, following the same plan, become more and more mammoth until the result is almost a mammoth, assuming the line didn't die out to to inbreeding.

Woolly mammoth. The Woolly Mammoth Revival Project wants to bring the species back. (Public Domain)

Even if fertilization and implantation work, which may take countless tries (it took hundreds of attempts to get the unfortunate bucardo), one or two lost pregnancies could derail such a scheme. The logistics are especially difficult because Asian elephant pregnancies can take 22 months. The elephants are probably not big on the whole idea. Neither are animal rights activists or some scientists. The newest effort, by a Texas firm called Colossal Biosciences, plans to use artificial mammoth wombs, but first needs to invent and perfect this costly technology.  

The most famous fictional discussion of de-extinction by cloning/genetic engineering is in the Jurassic Park universe.  Another fictional take on the whole business appears in a well-researched thriller by Jonathan Maberry, The Dragon Factory. Rogue (of course) scientists trying to create better soldiers have brought the technology to such a level that, not only can extinct species be brought back (one man observes that dodo does not, in fact, taste like chicken) but can create a unicorn from a horse with a little messing around.  (See my review in my book Of Books and Beasts. You knew I was going to get that in somewhere.) 

Might we someday see a revised ancient (or modern) mammal? It may be impossible. Or it may take a long time and a lot of money.  Or we just might encounter so many obstacles that we call the whole thing off.  

Matt Bille

Matt Bille - SciWriter, LLC