Wednesday, April 19, 2017

And a new shark just swam in..

OK, that's not exactly accurate. It was discovered by DNA sampling of hammerhead sharks off Belize.  But there have been at least a hundred new sharks discovered since I've been following this for the last 25 years or so, and the number known is zooming toward 450. Some are found by DNA study, some identified in the field or from catches by fisherfolk. Finder Demian Chaplin notes, "...finding of a new species in Belize highlights that there could be more undescribed ones out there, each one facing a unique set of threats.”  Shark conservation is a global problem: predators are vital to healthy ecosystems, and we're not conserving very well. 

Example of bonnethead shark (Texas Parks and Wildlife)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Prehistoric Times revisits a great paleoartist

The new issue of Prehistoric Times (#120, Winter 2017) has a great article on the paleo-artistry of Zdenek Burian, including reproductions of two paintings containing Dunkleosteus terrelli (then Dinichthys) from 1955 and 1967.
I'm not reproducing them here for copyright reasons, but while he worked assiduously with paleontologists to make his illustrations (which appeared most famously in Dr. Josef Augusta's very influential Prehistoric Animals (1956), where Burian got co-credit on the cover), his Dunk is a little odd to me. It's the most smooth and streamlined Dunk I've ever seen, tapering perfectly like a nuclear submarine to an elongated teardrop.
That muscle and skin made the armor almost invisible is certainly possible, but the eel-like tail isn't very substantive, and I am certain the pectoral fins are too small: they needed to precisely control a ton of head/armor stretching several feet ahead of them. All that said, the illustrations are wonderful, bringing to life the great predator, its relatives, and its surroundings: I'm looking for a copy of Prehistoric Animals right now.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Interview: Liz Ruth, pilot of NASA's SOFIA

SOFIA - NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy - is a unique and rather amazing resource for science.  Operated for NASA by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), it's been flying since 2010. It carries a 2.5m infrared telescope exposed by opening an access door in the portside rear fuselage.  In January 2017, NASA published the first image from an upgraded instrument, the  High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-plus (HAWC+).

My college friend, Elizabeth Ruth, is one of the pilots for SOFIA.    Since she's she also a very smart and inquisitive person, I thought she also would be the right pilot to ask about how this singular instrument and its carrier aircraft are operated.  Take it away, Liz.

1.      You were an Air Force and airline pilot, then you didn’t fly for a few years. Can you briefly sketch your background and tell me what drew you back to pursue the SOFIA opportunity?

I was lucky enough to grow up on a Navy base in the middle of the Mojave Desert (pretty counter-intuitive though that sounds) during the 1960’s and 70’s. I was surrounded by scientists, engineers and pilots, the skies were full of airplanes, and sonic booms were a daily occurrence. I wanted to fly as long as I can remember, and the doors to that opportunity opened for me at just at the right time. I went to college on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and attended pilot training after graduation. I flew for two tours in the Air Force and then left active duty to become a pilot at United Airlines. My husband, who was also an Air Force pilot, started flying for Delta Airlines at about the same time. I flew for United for 16 years, then retired early to stay home full-time to raise my three daughters.

I knew that I would want to return to some kind of work once my girls went to college, but though I missed flying, I did not intend to return to the airlines. The seniority system they use meant I would have to start all over at the bottom, which I was not willing to do. I worked in a couple of office jobs and quickly learned that a Monday-Friday, 9-5 desk job was not inspiring to me at all. I felt I should be able to make a better contribution that took advantage of all my training and years of flying experience.

Serendipitously, I ran into a NASA pilot while I was traveling. We struck up a conversation and he told me about the positions at the Armstrong Center, including flying SOFIA. He said they were always looking for part-time pilots who have a military background and experience flying heavy airplanes. I knew instantly that this would be a dream job for me, and I met all the qualifications. Who wouldn’t want to work for NASA? He told me how to apply, we kept in contact, and a position came open. I had several interviews and a flight check ride and got the job. Once I was hired, I went through several months of training and now I am a type-rated 747 pilot checked out on SOFIA. So now I am back to where my dreams began—in the California desert, surrounded by scientists, engineers and pilots. I have had several cool jobs throughout my career, but this one is the absolute best.

2.      Had you flown the 747 before? Does it handle as nicely as most pilots I’ve read articles by say it does?

Yes it does! During my flying career in the Air Force and at United Airlines, I have flown most of the Boeing aircraft models—737, 757, 767 and 777. Though I always wanted to fly a 747, it just never worked into my schedule at United, so I am thrilled to get the opportunity now. SOFIA is a 747 SP. The SP officially stands for Special Performance but we call it the “Sport Model” . I would say that SOFIA flies like a big 737-200. It has plenty of power, no real quirks, and is very responsive. It is an extremely well designed airplane that has stood the test of time. I don’t know of any pilots who don’t love it.

3.      That telescope mount is pretty massive. How dies it affect the flying qualities of the aircraft, especially with the aperture open?

Believe it or not, we can’t even tell in the cockpit when the door is open or closed. We can’t even feel when it is in transit. This is another exceptionally well-designed piece of machinery.

4.      Can you describe for me the typical mission? How much science time do you get in, and how long is the entire effort, from arriving at the airport to departing?

It’s a very long night! The start time depends on what is being viewed that night, but typically we will take off shortly after sunset and land sometime before sunrise, with the actual flying time usually being somewhere between 9 – 10 hours. The preparation for the flight starts much earlier, of course.

Takeoff minus 3 hours: Crew Show and Briefing. The crew show time is 3 hours before takeoff time. We each individually review the flight plan and conditions for the night, then we conduct a formal flight crew briefing, which includes the pilot, copilot, flight engineer, flight safety technicians, flight operations engineer, mission planner, meteorologist and a representative for the mission director. We go over the status of the airplane, the flight plan specifics and the weather along the route. We make plans for contingencies such as aircraft or telescope malfunctions. The timing at each point is critical, so we also figure out if we can make any adjustments for a late takeoff. This will depend on the science priorities for the mission.

Takeoff minus 2 hours: Mission Briefing. The next step is the mission briefing, which includes the entire crew for the mission as well as the planners, engineers and meteorologists. We cover some of the same information for the scientists as we did in the aircrew brief, along with additional information that is crucial to them, such as the water vapor levels at each altitude. The scientists brief us on exactly what they are looking for with their instruments on each leg and which legs have priority if we have to make any adjustments for weather.

Takeoff minus 1 hour: Preflight and start. We all head out to the aircraft to preflight and prepare our respective equipment. The flight crew coordinates with the Mission Director every step along the way to make sure we are keeping on time. We close doors and start engines about 35 minutes before takeoff time to allow plenty of opportunity to troubleshoot any problems without delaying takeoff. We are usually the only airplane on the ground at Palmdale at that time of day, so there is typically no wait in getting a clearance for taxi.

Takeoff: We let the tower controllers know our “wheels up” time so they can coordinate with ATC for us to get up and out as per our flight plan. A precise takeoff time is critical to the success of the mission.

Climb out and level off: We work with ATC to climb without delay to our first altitude. This can be tricky if there is a lot of traffic around us, especially because we are not flying a normal kind of route, so we are crossing other airplanes’ paths. When we get straight and level, the mission crew runs the checklist with the flight engineer to open the door for the telescope. The first line of the flight is usually used to calibrate the equipment so they are ready for observations on the next line.

Inflight: Once the equipment is calibrated and working well, the scientists will start making their observations. If all the weather conditions are right (no clouds at altitude and no excessive turbulence) they can get 8-9 hours of observations in. At the end of the last line of observations, we flight straight and level for 5 minutes to cage the telescope, then the pilots can begin descent for the approach and landing.

Landing: After landing and taxi-in, the aircrew and mission crew depart the airplane and go to their respective offices to write reports. For the aircrew, these reports include filling out the electronic logbook for each of the crew members, talking to the mechanics and writing up any problems with the airplane, and writing a synopsis of overall success of the flight. This usually takes at least 30 minutes.

All told, the time from show to go is typically 13-14 hours.

5.      That’s not a new 747. How much effort does it take to keep it ready for these long missions?

We have a crew of aircraft mechanics and specialists at the Armstrong Center who take care of all the airplanes in the fleet, including SOFIA. They are exceptionally knowledgeable and are very good at creative problem solving, which is helpful when you are working with a one-of-a-kind aircraft. One of the most challenging aspects of maintenance is finding spare parts for such an old model of airplane. They know every source possible, including mothballed airplanes that can be “cannibalized” for parts. Our operations engineers make sure SOFIA is safe and mission ready while making decisions that are efficient and cost effective. It is a constant effort that they take great pride in.

6.      Do the pilots talk much with the scientists? Do scientists and technicians need to explain the telescope in detail to enable the flight crew to give them optimum conditions?

The pilots brief with the scientists before each flight and we are in constant communication with the Mission Director throughout the flight. We are very cognizant of the conditions the scientists need for the telescope to work best.  Mostly, we need to get as high as possible as soon as possible so we can get above as much of the water vapor in the atmosphere as we can for the most optimal infrared observations. There are constraints on the airplane, such as weight and air temperature considerations, that affect our ability to climb with a safe performance margin, and the pilots are constantly monitoring the conditions so we can climb as soon as it is safe. We are also on the lookout for any high-level clout tops, which would require closing the door to the telescope to protect it from moisture.

Turbulence doesn’t affect the telescope as much as you would think because of the way it is designed. The assembly is mounted on bearings in pressurized oil, so it stays pretty stable during the bumps. In rough air, it can look like the telescope assembly is bouncing, but it’s really the airplane bouncing around the telescope.

We have a carefully planned ground track, and we can’t deviate laterally without affecting the observations, so we work with ATC to make sure they don’t try to vector us off our heading. We are also constantly adjusting our airspeed and calibrating turns so that we stay within 2 minutes of the planned time at each point. We stay on headset with the Mission Director to coordinate all this with him or her.

7.      Do you (or do flight crews in general) usually have a lot of curiosity about the science and keep track of what’s being produced in terms of scientific results?

The flight crew’s job is to make sure we have the airplane safely at the right place at the right time so the scientists can accomplish their mission observations, so our main focus is on airplane operations. We all do a mission brief together with the scientists, so we know what the astronomers are looking at and looking for, but their level of knowledge is far beyond what we (or anyone below a PhD level in astronomy) can fully comprehend. They are good at giving us a high-level overview, but the specifics are pretty esoteric, like looking for one specific molecule in a gas cloud. I try to distill it down to a simple and concrete explanation so I can pass it on to ATC or other aircraft that hear our call sign (NASA747) on the radio and often ask, “What are you looking at tonight?”

Some of the observations will contribute to projects that have a very long timeline, so it will be years before we know the results. That said, one of the astronomers on a flight last month said he was able to get the information he needed to publish a paper in the next few months, which will be fun to see. NASA is good about notifying us when something concrete is published. It’s pretty satisfying knowing that you played a part in a scientific discovery.

8.      You started flying when it was very rare to see a woman in a military or airline cockpit. Are you the only woman flying SOFIA? Do you have an advice to young women about flying or science careers?

I am still a bit of an oddity in the cockpit, even after all these years. Right now, I am the only woman flying as a NASA Research Pilot at the Armstrong Center, out of about 30 total full-time and part time pilots who fly the various aircraft at the Center. This is actually close to the percentage of women flying professionally in the military and airlines at large, which has stayed around 4-5% over the last several decades.

It’s a mystery to me why more women are not attracted to the aviation field, or to STEM fields in general. One of the best things about being a pilot is that you are measured against an objective standard, which doesn’t depend on who you are, but rather what you can do. Pilots value and respect performance, and they will give you your due if you can perform. There is a real advantage to operating in an environment like that. The pilots, crews and scientists have made me feel very welcome at Armstrong. There are plenty of women scientists and Mission Directors, and we are all just part of the team.

My advice to young men and women is to follow what you love and find interesting. Dream and dream big—don’t put any limits on yourself. Someone is going to do the cool stuff, so why shouldn’t it be you? And then take the steps required to make that dream happen.

My favorite part of each mission is the Mission Brief, because I get to see the enthusiasm of the scientists describing their projects. It’s exciting and energizing! You will find that the top two attributes of a satisfying job are People and Purpose. This job gets an A+ on both. And for those creative types out there, just know that technical jobs require a great deal of creativity, imagination and beauty, so don’t cross them off your list.

 Last note from Liz:
If someone would like to talk to me more about my flying experiences, they can email me at   I am always happy to talk to students or anyone else interested in the flying world. I live in the San Luis Obispo area in California, which is on the coast halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Thanks, old friend!

Friday, April 07, 2017

Dolphin chefs tenderize octopuses

How do you eat a tough octopus - whose suckers latch onto you even after death - when you have no hands to hold it while your teeth tear it?  In one known case, a bottlenose dolphin choked to death trying to get too much octopus down its throat. So smart dolphins prepare their octopus. They smack it around, toss it, shake it, and generally break it down or tear it apart without letting it latch on.  Scientists Kate Sprogis and David Hocking documented several variations of this behavior.

The familiar bottlenose is one species known to "prepare" its octopus meals. (NOAA)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Manatees - Endangered or Threatened?

The Florida manatee (technically the West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus)), the floating sofa of the animal kingdom, has been downgraded from Endangered to Threatened.  This is a win, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service: it means the animal's existence is not under imminent threat. They point to aerial surveys showing more than 500 percent increase since 1991, with over six thousand now drifting around.  Some conservation activists, though, are afraid this will reduce the protection afforded to manatees by laws setting aside habitat and implementing low speed limit areas for boats, and those actions will shove the animal back into "endangered" mode.
I've seen them wild in Florida (and a really huge one, as I recall, being being rehabbed in Miami Seaquarium) and they are the most inoffensive things imaginable - seagoing Schmoos, you might say.  Their #1 enemy is the powerboat, The Feds say legal protections will not be reduced, although two Florida legislators have introduced legislation to look at the speed zone rules.  I hope we keep all the protections in place.  With all the bad news about conservation, the manatee, like the bald eagle, provides a reminder of what can be be accomplished.

The manatee (photo credit NOAA)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Submission to Society for Marine Mammology

I just submitted my first abstract, on the past and future of satellite tracking of cetaceans, to the SMM's annual conference.  It's a bit of a reach for a science writer, but what the heck.

I founded a project at my day-job company to look at bringing the whale and satellite communities together.  We think we have some results worth sharing that might help ships avoid whales and improve scientists' knowledge of many species.  Onwards!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Thylacine: hope is, alas, not evidence

We supposedly wiped out the world's largest marsupial predator (well, largest known: I still wonder about the beast aborigines called the yarri) in 1936. I think it's hard fact a few survived that date: an expedition in 1945 collected fresh tracks and scat. There's a good reason I put it on the dover of my first book.   A trickle of sightings on Tasmania, the Australian mainland and New Guinea have continued ever since, and I thought for a long time we were going to find the animal.  I gave up, I think, around 2010....  Dr. Karl Shuker collected many reports in his most recent book, although some were collected by Rex Gilroy, a cryptozoologist/ufologist whose reliability has been questioned.  There are serious amateur groups trying to find the animal, but the evidence, while widespread, does not much impress Sharon Hill, and I'm afraid to admit it doesn't impress me either: even an optimistic reading indicates it is weak.  Unfortunately, humans are WAY too good at exterminating things. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Interview: Geologist / Science Educator / Skeptical Thinker Sharon Hill

A real treat for readers today.  We have the first of a series of interviews I plan with scientists and engineers whose area of interest overlaps the topics of this blog (science education / oceans / zoology / space exploration.) 

Meet Sharon Hill, founder of Doubtful News.   Sharon and I have known each other for a long time and discussed and sparred on many areas of science, especially zoology/cryptozoology.  
“DN is a privately-owned, science- and evidence-based site brought to you by Lithospherica, LLC. We help our audience see beyond the news headlines and fantastic anecdotes.”

FB page:
Podcast: 15 Credibility St
Also launched SPOOKY GEOLOGY: Haunted places, earth mysteries, weird locations, anomalous phenomena      

Example of Current DN page headlines (12 March):
  • Alternative Medicine:  Burzynski ruling is in (Update: Pathetic punitive actions imposed)
  • 15 Credibility St #11: It’s One Louder
  •  Senator Rand Paul ridiculed small grant to study indigenous supernatural beliefs
  •  Charlestown beach carcass in Cornwall is a whale
  •  Philippine globster is mass of collagen, remains from marine animal 


Sharon, first and foremost you’re a scientist. What’s your training/education in geology?
I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Geosciences from Penn State University where I had a focus on geochemistry, but loved volcanology and paleontology. I’ve been with the state government of Pennsylvania for 24 years doing mining hydrogeology. My Masters degree is in education emphasizing science and the public, which has helped me relate complicated technical topics to the public and translate these concepts into effective policy and regulation.

What is the most interesting work you’ve done as a geologist?
I’m not much of a field geologist, logging drill holes or mapping features. I like the sociology aspects of science. Serious sinkhole problems 15 years ago in Pennsylvania forced me to dive into karst literature and attempt to understand this complicated and frustrating geological setting. At the time, it meant interacting directly and almost daily with the local citizens who were affected by this problem. It taught me how important it is for the scientists to relate to public concerns. The communities don’t care about the data or details, they want to know what it means to their health and safety and what it will cost them out of pocket. When streams, roads, and property were threatened by complicated geological factors, the scientific data directly related to people’s lives and well-being. It kept me up at night and I learned not only a considerable amount about hydrogeology but about how to serve the public as a scientist. It really is a public duty.

What drew you into working on science and skepticism?
Nature has fascinated me since childhood. My earliest memories include picking up rocks to see what was underneath, finding bugs on flowers, and being fascinating with animals both modern and prehistoric. It was always clear that science of some sort was my career path. I think that certain topics and authors led me towards a skeptical approach. My lifelong interest in the paranormal and cryptozoology crossed with my interest in science. I got frustrated and bored with the typical literature in those topic areas. It was unscientific, uncritical, and repetition of the same stories (and errors). The skeptical literature was far more intellectually satisfying. It provided a much deeper understanding of the issues which were far more complicated than “a person saw a Bigfoot”. It made more sense in terms of how nature works to examine these claims from various scientific perspectives and look for threads of evidence that led to a common conclusion. It was authors like Stephen Jay Gould writing about evolution and the pseudoscientific claims of Creationists that taught me how to approach these ideas with a critical eye. Skepticism is an approach that everyone takes towards some aspect of life. I say we should use it far more often.

Your site Spooky Geology is unique, all about unusual formations, fossils, and other geological oddities. Where did that inspiration come from?

It seems like a natural intersection of my interests. I noticed that many earth mysteries and superstitious concepts were associated with a lack of understanding or misunderstanding of geological processes. Spooky Geology is essentially a unique framework to discuss the science of geology. You can grab people’s attention with headlines about a “gate to hell” or “the earth is swallowing us up” and then explain what is really going on.
Two main issues frequently thrown about in paranormal circles related to geology are dowsing and the Stone/Water Tape idea of residual hauntings. No geologists were actually saying anything about those while amateurs were spouting off pseudoscientific nonsense and declaring these speculations to be facts. I decided to say something about it. No one has taken this angle yet, almost all my geology colleagues have no interest in it but it’s clear the public finds it curious. The blog is my way of collecting the various topics together with a science-based explanation but still using the amazing and colorful folklore and myths to shape the story into something people can relate to. My hope is that curious readers come for the good story and learn some actual science along the way.

What’s a really cool geology fact most readers won’t have heard of?
Oh, my. Most people have so little background in geology that they don’t even have a clue how old the earth is and how we know that. I have a rock on my shelf that is about 1 billion years old. One BILLION! I am constantly amazed I can touch such deep time. It’s a shame that not many realize how integral geology is to our lives. If it’s not grown, it’s mined in some fashion: we mine water, fuels, materials for buildings and roads, raw materials for electronics and household items. We can’t have modern society without geologic information. The earth provides us with these things but it also can kill us. Geology isn’t just about finding oil, it’s about knowledge of the earth itself. It’s critically important to humanity. We’ll always need geologists.

You used to be more involved the “formal” skeptical movement: CSI, The Amazing Meeting, and so forth.   I understand you’ve withdrawn from that.
Yes. I do not agree with the direction that the remaining two large “skeptical” organizations are heading. The James Randi Educational Foundation is basically defunct now. That was the only organization that had a promising goal to focus on education and critical thinking. The other two, CFI (including CSI, formerly CSICOP) and the Skeptics Society are too focused on secularism and science promotion. That’s not what is needed; there are other groups focused on doing that exclusively. We don’t need to preach to the choir with conferences and meetups, we need to find effective strategies to promote critical thinking and rational discourse to the public. It is DESPERATELY needed today. So, I decided to aim towards fulfilling my own goals to show that a critical view of questionable claims is practical and useful to society and to individuals. It will improve their lives. It doesn’t matter what religion you subscribe to, it’s more important that you understand why it’s important to vaccinate your kids and to not waste money and effort on conspiracy ideas, finding ghosts, and products and services that don’t actually work. I’m not about calling people stupid because they believe in this or that thing. It’s about unpacking why they believe and what I might do to help them understand it for themselves. I don’t want to be labeled as a “Skeptic”, that connotation is so negative when finding out the truth is a totally positive thing to do. In my podcast, 15 Credibility Street, we try to present a positive, useful method of thinking about questionable claims. I hope that people hear that we are just normal folks, not science snobs or closed-minded grouches. Being smart about questionable claims is prudent. Avoiding scams is admirable.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to science in America?  Is it the new Administration, or is it broader than that?
The challenge is cultural. Today’s society generally does not value thoughtfulness, intellectualism, and long-term projects that produce enormous results that benefit humanity. We all want short-term results, sound bites, and fun stuff fed to us. Entertainment and pleasure is the driving force in society. Science isn’t easy, that’s why everyone doesn’t do it and why it seems so remote, like a foreign language, to the non-scientist public. Scientists have failed to connect to people. Science institutions have failed to make their work accessible and meaningful to the person just living their everyday life. The US is in huge trouble with the current anti-science, irrational, and denialist attitudes of our leadership. Science informs us about how things are and how they are likely going to be down the road. To ignore it, defund it, and ridicule it is insane. I’m very angry that the education system and most parents fail to emphasize independent thought and critical evaluation. We have a population of blind followers who can’t think through a difficult problem. That does not bode well for the future. The culture must change so that methodical and careful research results in intelligent and factual discourse on world issues. We’ve got a ton of serious problems to fix. Science must inform policy or humanity will be doomed; country by country we will fall.

You and I have clashed on occasion about the value of cryptozoology. Do you think it can be done scientifically, and is anyone doing that?
Yes, it can. Recently, this has been done by Naish, Paxton and Sykes. But I don’t think that should be the goal. As you know, when amateurs pretend to do science, that really makes me mad. There is a reasonable method anyone can pursue. Cryptozoology should be done comprehensively, with an aim towards identifying the problem clearly and using multiple approaches. In that, I mean you don’t have to be a scientist to do useful work in investigating cryptids. You just need to not have this debilitating bias that some mystery animal is responsible. A disciplined approach is needed but it doesn’t have to be science. But that is not where the field is. It appeals to a belief system. Cryptozoology is a belief for most people; it’s based on desire to believe in mysteries and often personal influential experience that individuals interpret in a preferred way.
The proponents of cryptids like “dogmen,” or Bigfoot, or chupacabras do not really want to know what’s is likely going on (which is complicated and has various explanations, not just one) but want to only feed a preconception about a magical creature. That’s not amenable to scientific discourse. It’s akin to religion. Many times, people like me who want to see facts confirmed and multiple lines of evidence that point in the same direction talk entirely past those who just want to hear a good story and join in for fun. So, you see that there are difference spheres. We don’t have communication between these spheres and, thus, we make enemies of each other.
So many self-styled cryptozoologists have no idea about problems of perception, zoological plausibility, ecology and biology of wildlife, and especially the role of folklore and suggestion. All those aspects and more come into play when you are considering an extraordinary claim that a bipedal ape continues to exist, both everywhere and nowhere in the US, seen by people but leaving no reasonable traces. What is it that we really want to do with cryptozoology? Is it cultural, biological, paranormal? There are a buffet of choices in the field, some people randomly mix and match inconsistently. I don’t think they want science to weigh in (unless it gives their belief support) as much as they want to be invested in a belief that has some meaning to them.

Last question: What is one thing you’d like all readers to know about science and scientific thinking?
Science is the best way we have of knowing things about the world. I’ve had several people bristle when I say that but it shows they don’t have any idea how science works. It’s one of humanities greatest inventions that led us to countless other amazing inventions. Science has an ethos that, when followed, eliminates many errors that could deliver a wrong conclusion. Anyone can then check it and get the same answers. That’s reliability. Then we can build upon reliable information. We argue civilly and intelligently about it and we accept the most likely explanations as models of how nature works. If I could do something today about science in the US, I would institute critical thinking philosophy classes in elementary school. Kids are not learning how to figure things out. They are being fed a firehose of information by the media where only drops of it are worthwhile, true, and useful. We need the tools to make sense of what we hear, see, feel and experience. We need to know how to think through issues to make good choices. We need to know why scientific information is crucial for many decisions. We need to learn how not to be fooled. Not everyone will be a scientist, but we all should learn how to think our way competently through life.

Thank you so much. Any final comments?
Thanks so much for your support and conversations over the years. It’s good to know that collegial 
 discussions can still happen in our fast-paced, polarized world. I’m all for more of  it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Space Symposium coming up

The 3-6 April Space Symposium in Colorado Springs is one of the world's leading gatherings of space experts, organizations, and companies. Even the Exhibit Hall takes half a day to see thoroughly.

Check it out!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bringing back the ancient world

We're not going to see Jurassic Park in our lifetimes: recovering adequate dinosaur DNA and putting it to use is, according to all but a few scientists, hopeless, even if Michael Crichton made it as realistic as possible.  But what of animals we have tissue samples from - like the woolly mammoth? One maverick thinker in Russia, Sergey Zimov, argues we should bring back the mammoth as part of creating a new ecosystem in a warming Siberia - or, rather, recreating one that existed - to reduce "insulation" for the ground by converting from forest to grassland, reflecting more light in the summer and extending the reach of winter's cold to slow the thawing of the permafrost.  Crazy? Seemingly. Impossible? Apparently not.

THANKS TO: Kris Winkler for pointing this one out to me.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

New bird flaps in

A long quest has resulted in the finding of a bird ornithologist Gary Stiles spotted twenty years ago - but which science has never seen since. The alto de pisones tapaculo of Columbia is a small black bird, certainly not a very numerous one, but an important addition to the roster of avian species. It's not unusual for scientific efforts to track down once-spotted species in remote areas to last this long, or much longer.  Indeed, some birds, like John James Audubon's carbonated swamp warbler in the U.S. A colorful little bird, it was collected by the great ornithologist in 1811 but never seen since, and the specimens are missing. 

If this warbler was a real species and not some sort of hybrid or fluke, it must have been in its last days of existence - but we will never be sure. (Image below: public domain)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Microsatellites: Science CubeSats get smarter

The tiny modular satellites known as CubeSats (picture a square Kleenex(TM) box of metal and silicon) have opened up the universe to countless organizations, companies, countries, and schools. No longer is a space program a major undertaking by a large government: it's a high school class with basic electronics skills and a credit card.  Companies like Pumpkin sell low-cost kits that users can customize. CubeSats are often assembled into three-unit (3U) satellites, and 6Us and 12Us are appearing.  CubeSats have cost as little as $40,000 for the kit and $85,000 for launch, with labor and instruments extra. NASA has programs like the CubeSat Challenge to help educational institutions partner with the agency, just one of many such government-supported efforts.
At the same time, CubeSats are getting smarter. This 10cm-cube may hold just a radio beacon (a common first endeavor for an educational institution,)  It may have a web camera (one I worked on for my company had a camera included).  Or it may have very sophisticated scientific instruments. Agencies like NASA are making use of these satellites to supplement more expensive missions.
Morehead State University's CXBN-2 is a good example of a sophisticated 3U CubeSat. In a space the size of a breadloaf (plus unfolding solar panels) it packs instruments to measure the Cosmic X-Ray Background of the universe. The first dedicated X-ray astronomy satellite, Uhuru, launched in 1973 and was considered a very small satellite with a dry mass over 145kg. The CBXN-2 weighs 5.7.
Smaller and smarter - it's happening in space. Ad budgets tighten, more agencies will be looking to use these little wonders on planetary and even interplanetary missions.

The top end of CubeSats' NASA's 6U SkyFire lunar imager 

Thursday, March 02, 2017

What is an "endling?"

An endling is a new name for an individual that is the last of its species.  I suppose we needed a name, depressing though that is.  Coined by a medical doctor who campaigned for it in scientific literature, the word is catching on.  I have written about way too many endlings, like Martha the passenger pigeon, whom I saw at the Smithsonian, and Benjamin the thylacine, who was famous as an endling but probably was NOT the endling of his species, which adds a layer of controversy to the the whole business,

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

An award for an upcoming novel

My thanks to the Pikes Peak Writers Club/Conference (PPWC) for a first-place award in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category of the annual Zebulon Pike writing contest.  My novel Apex Predator, about the rediscovery of a prehistoric species in Alaska, is in search of an agent and publisher, and I hope this will be a big step forward.

A great writers Conference.

Monday, February 27, 2017

International Polar Bear Day

Cute? Yes. Deadly? Also yes. Nearing extinction? No, but it's declined, and the trends are worrisome.  I repeat here a review from 2009 of a book that explains the ice bear's world in a depth I could not undertake.  

Review: On Thin Ice, by Richard Ellis

On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear. 
Richard Ellis
2009, Knopf (New York).
Ellis, a writer, artist, and conservationist mainly known for his work on matters maritime, here turns his attention to Ursus maritimus. The polar bear is the largest modern land predator, albeit one that spends significant time in the water and depends on the marine food web.
The book is, not surprisingly, a very good one. It has Ellis' trademarks of thorough research (there is a typical Ellis bibliography, running 26 pages) and good writing. My favorite turn of phrase comes when, after reviewing how all sorts of polar bear parts are used for decoration and so on following legal hunts in Greenland, the author remarks, "In other words, nothing is wasted except the bear."
This book is a superb introduction to the polar bear, its world, and its interaction with humans. I had a pretty good idea from other reading how remarkable this animal and its adaptations are, but a lot of the bear-human history surprised me. For example, I had no idea anyone had, or could, train a polar bear team to pull a sled.
The most surprising thing for me, though, was how numerous the animals must have been centuries ago. Early European explorers didn't just see the occasional bear: they saw dozens, or, over a season, sometimes hundreds. I asked Richard if anyone knew the species' population before Europeans entered its realm. It may have approached twice today's estimate of around 22,000, but he cautioned there was no reliable number. All that's certain is that hunting and indiscriminate killing removed many thousands.
Ellis seems to have read every account by explorers, whalers, and everyone else who ever saw a polar bear. The bear's behavior is explored in depth, and some myths rejected. An excellent chapter explores why humans are so darn fascinated with the polar bear, along with the contradiction between our love for the adorable cubs vs. our willingness to kill adults even when they are not presenting a threat.
Then we get to the threatened status of the bear today. The species still numbers many thousands, and is not actually going to disappear anytime soon. However, there is no question that, as Ellis documents, climate change will affect polar bears more quickly and more severely than it will most species.
A side note is that, in an unaired portion of a 2008 interview I did for the series MonsterQuest, I hypothesized that declining ice to the north and more human development to the south would push brown bear and polar populations together, resulting in more "pizzly" hybrids. I tossed that off the top of my head at the time: I didn't realize that, as Ellis shows, more qualified people have advanced the same idea. A hybrid shot in 2006 is the first proven example of a cross occurring in the wild, but it likely won't be the last.
When Ellis discusses climate change, the reader gets the impression that it's a simple case of sometimes-hyperbolic but pure-hearted environmentalists vs. totally evil corporations and Republicans. I'm not about to defend the Bush environmental record, but there are debates about everything from the conflicting estimates of warming to the tradeoffs (never mentioned here) in outlawing oil and gas development in northern regions, and Ellis could have acknowledged that these subjects are complex even as he makes a persuasive case for action.
Essentially, then, the book has a zoology/history section and a policy section. The zoology/history section is wonderful. The policy section displays Ellis' passion for the bear in a manner that could have been given more context but is nevertheless gripping.
Summary: If the polar bear has an official biographer, it is Ellis. It's the same role Ellis played in his outstanding books about the great white shark and the giant squid. The result is a tome everyone with an interest in nature, bears, or the environment should read.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Rare View of the Moon

NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) took this image and accompanying video of the Moon painted by direct sunlight. It looks like a Photoshop compilation, but it's genuine.  It's a universe of wonders out there!  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Awesome Dunkleosteus

I've posted on this before, but I like to reconnect every once in a while with the most awesome prehistoric animal except for my first love, T. rex.  Dunkleosteus terrelli OWNED the seas of the Devonian, "The Age of Fishes."

I maintain the most popular page on the Dunk, here on Facebook.  Over 1,000 Dunk lovers have joined me.

Oddly, there is no book devoted to Dunkleosteus at any level.  It makes several appearances in fiction and popular culture, but it's still getting no respect compared to so many other prehistoric predators. That's a shame.  At a good 8 meters long (claims of 9 or 10 meters don't appear well-supported), the Dunk was a predator the likes of which the oceans never saw until the rise of the great marine reptiles.  The giant biting plates, so sharp one paleontologist said he could practically see himself in them today, constituted an implement of destruction never equaled since. We are talking about the functional equivalent of great sharpened fangs, only the size of traffic cones. The teeth of Megalodon or T. rex or Smilodon never came close.  With a head and forebody protected by bone some 5cm thick and with bone rings around the eyes, everything about the Dunk was built for combat.

Combat with what?

Once a Dunk grew to, say, 4 or 5 meters, the sharks of the day would not have been a threat.  Neither would the lesser placoderms,  Only other Dunks would have provided major competition. While paleozoologist Dr. Darren Naish once politely rebuked me for simplifying things down to "placoderms invented sex," they were the first vertebrates we know of to have male-female internal fertilization.  Did males compete for females? We don't know, but a clash between two armored submarines 8 m long must have been a terrifying spectacle.

Everything about the Dunk is scary, mysterious, or just plain awesome.  I hope you'll join me in following news of the study of this predator on Facebook and elsewhere.


My daughter Lauryn photographed this Dunk at the University of Nebraska museum.

Part of my collection of Dunk models and memorabilia.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

What are you doing to encourage the women and girls you know to learn about the universe?

The Snake on the Milk Carton

OK, the long-missing Cropan's boa of Brazil , the rarest boa in the world, was not put on milk cartons, but it was put on posters nailed up all over the Atlantic Forest area.  The snake hadn't been seen alive since the 1950s when two farmers practically tripped over one as they walked the dirt road to work.  They had seen the poster, so they grabbed the 1.7-meter snake and contacted scientists via WhatsApp information on the posters!   Herpetologists had searched the area many times without result.

The handsome female snake, basically brown with black and darker brown markings, was released with a radio tag attached.  The boas, closely related to the pythons, currently count 43 species. We are constantly finding new snake species (31 in 2011) but this rediscovery was celebrated just as much.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Note on the Van Allen belts

In the book The First Space Race, Erika Vadnais and I discussed the discovery by Jame Van Allen and his team of the lower Van Allen belt in early 1958 by a particle detector placed on the Explorer 1 satellite.  There are now known to be two belts, varying in thickness and intensity based on natural events (the Sun pouring out an increased volume of energetic particles) or human-made events ("pumping the Van Allen belts"), an effect most famously seen in the Starfish Prime nuclear test of 1962, which degraded or destroyed several satellites.  In 2013, NASA announced the discovery of a third belt.  The this belt was outside the other two, appeared only when a solar prominence had unleashed a very large flow of particles, and lasted up to four weeks.  It was once feared astronauts could be launched only through the polar regions, where the belt effects were weak or absent, but limiting astronauts' time in orbit and restricting them to an orbital altitude above or below the inner belt works, too.  Only the Apollo astronauts transited the outer belt, and they punched through it rapidly on their way to and from the Moon, limiting the exposure time and thus the exposure in rads to to a level that was survivable.  

Van Allen belts (in yellow) in 2013 illustration released by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center 

Wiley J. Larson and James R. Wertz (Editors), Space Mission Analysis and Design, 3rd Edition, Section 8.2, "Hardness and Survivability Requirements," 1 October 1999.
Fox, Karen. “NASA's Van Allen Probes Discover a Surprise Circling Earth,"
NASA press release, 28 February 2013.

Bille and Lishock, The First Space Race (Texas A&M), 2004.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review: Prophet of Bones

Prophet of Bones
Ted Kosmatka
St. Martin's Griffin, 2014 edition

This is the first novel I've read from Kosmatka, and I seriously couldn't put it down. Wow. Thrills, terror, science, and politics are all dexterously mixed in a world with one great difference from our own: science has proven religion is true and the Earth is 6,000 years old (or has it)? Kosmatka's novel is sort of like what you'd get if you mixed the writing brains of Scott Sigler, James Rollins, and the late Michael Crichton and then added even more talent. Kosmatka takes as his real-life point of departure the Flores "hobbit" bones, and the plot rockets forward from there.  As a science writer and novelist, I kept finding myself stopping just to marvel at the way the author had taken one of the more difficult sciences, genetics, and illustrated it in many different ways (including the explanation from an autistic scientist who visualizes genetic codes as a musician does music) along the way to probing the mysteries of human origins. The solution to this thriller is wholly original, the characters fascinating, and the plot a clever take on science vs. religion, only turned backwards and sideways from the way it's usually presented. The science will be too heavy for some readers, and I barely kept up myself, but I learned things all along the twisting journey of our heroes toward a destination they have no idea exists. This is a marvelous book in every respect. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

My simple take on the current EPA policy

It's not taking a political position at all - left, right, Democratic, or Republican - to assert that taxpayers should have open, direct, and transparent access to all research funded BY taxpayers that is not a critical military secret.

The loneliest whale?

Is this whale really lonely? Or does he just sing a little differently from everyone else? For all we know, this unique animal's 52Hz song might be irresistible to females, and he might have more company than he can handle. But no one can resist the image of a sad wanderer in the depths who  may be a hybrid, the only one of his kind.
Or maybe he just flunked music in his school.  (OK, a group of whales is a pod, but the pun is what's irresistible to me)

On NASA's Day of Remembrance

Since the Space Age began 22 astronauts and cosmonauts have died in flight or preflight.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

New crab species named for Potter characters

There are so many species being discovered, there's plenty of room to get creative. This new crab from Guam honors Harry and his nemesis, Professor Snape, with the name Harryplax severus.  No word if any are destined for the Hogwarts kitchens.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Happy Birthday, Tet Zoo!

Dr. Darren Naish's blog Tetrapod Zoology is like nothing else: an always-lively exploration of topics in zoology, paleobiology, and cryptozoology (Naish keeps an open mind about the latter but is not at all impressed with its results).    He can get very technical (he loves temospondyls) or very "pop" (exploring the idea of sea serpents.)  Even his most technical work, though, is understandable thanks to clear writing and deep knowledge of all his topics.  (In case you, too, are wondering, temospondyls are a subclass of unusual prehistoric beasts once classified as reptiles. I remember owning a set of plastic toy dinosaurs that included Eryops, a splendid example of the group.)
Before he was with the blog network of Scientific American, Naish's blog was a standalone enterprise, and this entry (on, what else, temospondyls) is an example of that iteration.  Many of the early items were collected in this book.  Whether the topic is Britain's largest dinosaur (discovered by Naish), the re-imagining of cryptooology as "speculative biology," the plausibility of Godzilla, or reports of giant orangutans, Naish will keep a science buff reading for hours, or days, or weeks.

Finally, I should note Darren contributed a great deal to the chapters of my book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology that concern hybrid, reported, or speculative cetaceans, and I am forever grateful.

Happy birthday, Tet Zoo!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Farewell, Gene Cernan

Goodbye to the last man on the Moon.
"I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

Ad Astra, Gene.

When did the first Americans get here?

This problem has always nagged at me. While I'm far from an expert and have taken no relevant classes, old estimates of human arrival in North America of 12,000-14,000 year BP, in my layman's mind, didn't seem to allow for all the human activity that went on in every corner of two vast continents. That included not only establishing populations but wiping out megafauna that withstood the onslaught of many large mammalian predators, from saber-tooth cats to the American lion to the largest and tallest bears that have ever lived (and the wiping out of the predators themselves). This date of 24,000 years BP seems in some ways more reasonable. It's also interesting to speculate how the very first people got here: was the ocean a barrier or a highway? Remember that humans went by boat to Australia some 50,000 years ago.

Traditional theory (NIH/US government illustration)

Does this paper have the real answer?


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Hawai'i's Dolphins and Whales

The Lives of Hawai‘i’s Dolphins and Whales: Natural History and Conservation

  • Robin W. Baird
  • University of Hawaii Press, 2016 (352pp.)

    This look at the cetaceans that live around the Hawai'ian chain is amazing in every way.  Well organized, well written, and stunningly illustrated with memorable photographs, it's the definitive book on its subject. 
    I've had the honor of talking with Dr. Baird about a paper I'm writing on cetacean tracking, and he's done extensive work in this area.  He includes contact maps that show which species are likely to be where (whether in the shallows or 3,000 meters down) and which are resident and which only transit the islands.
    Landlubbers, even relatively well-read ones like myself, then to think of one patch of an ocean as pretty much like another and an island as a big rock that merely supports some terrestrial and coastal species.  Baird opens by explaining clearly that things are a lot more complex. This area of the Pacific is a kind of desert and the island chain an oasis which alters currents, temperatures, phytoplankton populations, and other aspects of the surrounding sea.  This in turn greatly influences the suitability of the areas to its many species of cetaceans. 
    Seven species of baleen whales have been spotted around Hawai'i (only Bryde's whale appears to have a resident population), along with eighteen species of toothed whales (including dolphins), eleven of which have gone native. Baird, along with colleagues and volunteers, has been studying these animals since 1999, and every season spent in the islands has brought new knowledge of the individual species and the ecosystems they influence and inhabit. There's a good explanation of how cetaceans are studied in the area, including one tool I didn't know about: a laser that puts spots on a photographed animal 15 cm apart so size can be judged.
    Then come the species descriptions, every one of which offers something new. I had no idea that false killer whales not only engage in a game of “pass the dead fish" with prey but include visiting humans in the game, or that pilot whales sometimes grab humans to BE the playtoy, or that a sperm whale once deliberately rammed and sunk a 40-foot yacht for reasons completely unknown.  The descriptions of the enigmatic beaked whales are especially informative.
    Baird covers the conservation status and threats to each species as part of his descriptions: none of the Hawai’an population is in imminent danger of extinction, but many bear watching, and the impact of sonar and other human activities is worrying at best and needs more research,
    The photographs, some from above the water (e.g., a melon-headed whale's dorsal fin with a round hole bit clean through by a cookie-cutter shark) many underwater (e.g., an oceanic whitetip shark following close behind pilot whales) are all excellent, and some are jaw-dropping. 
    Baird writes with obvious technical expertise, but clearly enough for the interested nonscientist to follow, so this book will hopefully spread the knowledge of Hawai’ian cetaceans to a broad audience.  This is a magnificent achievement.