Thursday, December 08, 2016

Farewell to a Hero: John Glenn

Once we had people called "heroes." They weren't Hollywood or sports recording stars. They didn't get rich. When their country called them to war, they went. When asked to risk their lives on the farthest frontiers of exploration, they went.  When they saw opportunities to make their country better, they stepped up.   Remember that song, "We don't need another hero?" Well, we do. We need more people like this.

Godspeed, John Glenn

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The most puzzling "sea serpent" of all time

Are there large and strange unclassified animals roaming the oceans of the world?  The best eyewitness evidence of this possibility came 111 years ago today from two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which has never been explained.
The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.
On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were fifteen miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about a hundred yards away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about six feet long and two feet high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
What did these gentlemen see?  Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck or a dorsal fin.
Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as about twenty feet long and eighteen inches thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a nineteen-foot eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at sixty feet long.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel over twenty feet long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The only “non-monster” hypothesis which has been advanced to explain the Valhalla sighting came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis has suggested that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.”
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The sixteen-foot megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) , while discovered quite a while back (1976) is a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. To cite the most recent example, the newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016, 
The whole sea serpent business is hoplelessly buried in hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Remembering Vanguard

On this day in 1957, America's first attempt to orbit a satellite ended in a spectacular fireball. But Project Vanguard, even though it was beaten to orbit by the Army's Explorer 1, was NOT a failure. Read the book that set the record straight, with answers from the people who were there.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Huge new species of freshwater fish

Arapaimas may be 3 meters long and weigh 200kg - and there are more species than we thought.  New research on these fish in the rivers of the Amazon basin has identified specimens with "highly distinct" genetic markers.  It was only in 2013 that new research confirmed long-reported (but dismissed) evidence of a second species. Now we have a third.
Even in fresh water, we don't know all the fishes. We don't even know all the big ones for sure!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dunkleosteus - the older it got, the meaner

Our favorite prehistoric fish, Dunkleosteus terrelli, was the apex carnivore of the Devonian.  Up to 9 meters long by some estimates (others make it 6 to 8), it had the ultimate set of choppers: guillotine-like biting plates growing directly from the jawbone.
So what did it eat? While the standard answer is "anything it wanted," new research covered in this article by David Moscato shows that the animal's jaws got heavier and its forward "fangs" sturdier as it got older. That implies a feeding strategy, seen today in the largest non-mammal predator in the world, the great white shark, of switching to bigger, slower prey as it gets older. For the Dunkleosteus, that may have included the largest fish available - other Dunks.  Cannibalism is not definite, though, as the bites found on the armor of Dunks may have come from intraspecific competition for mates (the arthodires pretty much invented modern male-on-female sex).
The Dunk remains one of the most awesome marine predators ever. The largest mosasaurs and megalodons may have been bigger, but they couldn't copy the Dunk's best feeding strategy - opening those jaws and letting the prey faint dead away from sheer terror.

Follow Dunk news on

Dunk figures from (top) Wild Safari and (bottom) Jeff Johnson. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Microsatellites - Revolution in Orbit (Chapter 1)

 I've been an observer and sometime participant in the microsatellite business since 1992, 
when I wrote my first paper on the topic.  The field grows and changes so fast it's very hard to keep up
 with the basic news, let alone all the accomplishments being logged. But where did it begin?
This is an intermittent series poking through some of the information I (and some co-authors like Erika Vadnais) have picked up in many years of looking at this topic, talking to the entrepreneurs and the engineers, and writing.  (Not included is information I/we developed on company time at our employers’ expense: companies get touchy about that.)  However, as authors of The First Space Race (NASA/Texas A&;M, 2004) (which developed out of a microsat history book project called Little Star, which we may actually get back to one of these years) we learned lot on our own time: enough to provide some historical context to a fast-moving industry.  

We'll go back to the earliest days in later installments, but I wanted to focus this time on the decade that is easily forgotten but was absolutely pivotal: the 1990s.
First. what's a microsatellite?  I like the common (but not universal) standard of 100kg or less for a microsatellite and 10 kg or less for a nanosatellite.   Back in the 90s, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) referred to “smallsats” as under 1,000kg or 500kg, either of which is hopelessly antiquated after decades of shrinking electronics and other components.  For a long time it was generally accepted a microsat would be single-string (no redundant components) and single-mission, but relentless miniaturization is slowly moving us away from those norms. 
I’m going to focus in this first segment on military satellites, because truly commercial microsatellites are a relatively recent development.  The pioneering Orbcomm UHF constellation by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) (which also flew the first small booster developed in the U.S. in decades, the air-launched Pegasus) orbited its first satellite, the pioneering Orbcomm-X (or Datacomm-X) in 1991, but Orbcomm for many years had commercial microsats to itself.   
To get back to the topic, the microsat didn't emerge out of nowhere. 
The first satellites, like America's pioneering Explorer I and Vanguard I of 1958, were small because they had to be (and military because no one else had the money and expertise).  Explorer I, America’s first response to the much larger Sputniks, was built into the fourth stage of the Jupiter-C launch vehicle. The satellite portion was only 84 cm long and 15 cm in diameter.  This section was made of 410 stainless steel, its bare sandblasted surface marked with white stripes of aluminum oxide.  Explorer 1 weighed 6.35 kg on its own and 14 kg if the fourth stage of the booster (which remained attached) was counted.

An Explorer 1 model with transparent display version of front section (NASA)

As boosters became more powerful from the early 1960s on, the U.S. military moved to orbiting increasingly larger and more capable payloads. In the decade from 1978 to 1987, for example, only six military microsats were launched.  (Four of these belonged to the Navy’s Transit navigation series, which operated from 1962 through 1996.)  
Beginning in 1987, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) (known for part of its history as ARPA), led a resurgence of interest  which resulted in  military proof-of-concept satellites of the late 80s and early 90s with clunky acronym-ed names like GLOMR, MACSAT, DARPASAT, LOSAT-X, and the MicroSat constellation. The most notable one of the early 1990s was the UHF store-and-forward communications bird called MACSAT, one of which was pressed into operational use in the first Persian Gulf War.  Despite this success, the Navy's proposal for a follow-on constellation, ARCTICSAT, was canceled. For the rest of the decade, the largest U.S. military space service, the USAF, basically laughed out loud at the idea these toys could be useful.  (OK, an organization cannot physically laugh, but the Air Force came as close as possible.)

Two MACSATs stacked for launch (DARPA)

NASA never abandoned microsats completely: the Explorer series moved from its original Army home to  NASA and continues today, and the Particles and Fields Subsatellite (PFS) series put tiny satellites into orbit around the Moon from Apollo missions.  NASA entered a new era in 1995 when MicroLab-1 (later turned over to the contractor, OSC, and redesignated OrbView-1) demonstrated that a microsat could provide environmental data.  The 68-kg satellite mapped thunderstorm activity and created moisture and temperature profiles by measuring the occultation of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals received through the atmosphere.
Military communications, as well as commercial telephone, broadcasting, and other applications, was generally provided since the 1960s by large high-capacity satellites in the geostationary belt.  Microsats were not going to add much here, but there’s another way to do commemorations. Low-orbiting satellites can receive comm over a theater and downlink it to a headquarters and vice versa (store-and-forward) or provide continuous “bent-pipe" communications with a constellation of spacecraft to ensure that at least one satellite will always be in contact with the user.  Such smallsat constellations were orbited by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s.  The concept was tested again by DARPA in 1991 when a single launch vehicle orbited seven 23-kg UHF MicroSats, creating a constellation providing continuous voice and data communication within a footprint about 5000 km wide. The entire system, including launch, cost under $20 million (M) in 1998 dollars. 
After Congress denied DARPA requests for $30M in Fiscal Year (FY) 1993 and $24M in FY 1994 requests for related projects, the DARPA "lightsat" program was essentially dead. This was despite the 1994 Air University study Spacecast 2020, which made another point in favor of such satellites.  If a large satellite has a nominal 10-year life and a microsat two years, the microsats  are able to go through five generations of technology improvement for every one generation of the largesat.  This has become more important as time and technology have progressed: every large satellite launched is essentially behind the technology curve thanks to years in preparation.  In 1998, Air Force Chief Scientist Daniel Hastings gave a strong endorsement to "smallsats."  While cautioning that “moving to smaller, distributed satellites is not a panacea for all problems,” he said, “The potential exists for really revolutionary changes in respect to moving to smaller systems.” He had no idea how right he was.
Other countries made experiments in this decade, too, and not only in communications.  One of the most interesting was France's 50-kg CERISE, launched in 1995.  This spacecraft monitored HF emissions to validate technology for a future operational signals intelligence microsat called Clementine (no relation to the U.S. lunar probe of the same name.)
The commercial world didn’t lack for pioneering entrepreneurs, but for quite a while Orbcomm was the only one that got serious traction. One of the pioneering commercial firms, predating Orbital, was AeroAstro, led by visionary/evangelist Rick Fleeter. Fleeter had no patience with approaches that just tried to shrink conventional satellites a little. He once observed that the military “thinks a small satellite is 900 kilograms. We think it’s 9.”  AeroAstro tried to shrink satellites drastically in the late 90s, marketing the 1-kg Bitsy spacecraft bus.  It was advertised as costing under $100,000 (plus payload), being customizable for applications including remote sensing, communications, space science, and technology testing, and taking nine months from ordering to delivery to a launch pad.  The vision, though, as so often happens, was ahead of the market. Useful payloads small enough and using only a few watts of electricity just were not ready yet, except for UHF radios. No Bitsy ever flew.   
One of the reasons microsats were dismissed in the 1990s was their inability to take anything but very low-resolution images.  This was considered a hard limit: the relationship between mirror size and image resolution (equivalent to the pixel size in electronic images) was inviolate. If you wanted a satellite that could spot a car (much less read the proverbial license plate), you needed a mirror diameter measured in meters.   In the 1990s, inventions like “folded optics” and the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) imager began a revolution which would lead eventually to the Planet (formerly Planet Labs) microsatellites in orbit today, in which images with three-meter resolution are taken from a satellite with a once-ridiculous aperture diameter of 10cm.      
Other advances drove miniaturization, including the reduction of computers to single chips and composite-based construction.  FORTE, a 215-kg satellite built by Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories and launched in 1997 to watch for the electromagnetic signatures of nuclear tests, flew the first frame made entirely of graphite-epoxy composites.  Compared to an all-aluminum structure, this reduced the weight from 64 to 42 kg.

By the end of the 1990s, the microsatellite revolution, despite halting and sometimes shaky progress, was advancing on a broad front.  Imaging, communications, electronic intelligence, weather, and other proof of concept satellites had established the potential utility of microsats, and the advance of technology – much of it in the consumer electronics industry – was enabling leaps in capability.  The stage was set for the real revolution – one that would be permanent. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shadows of Existence - 10 Years On

I published my last book on zoology and cryptozoology, Shadows of Existence, 10 years ago.  Hancock House, the small publisher in Washington State specializing in zoology, bird lore, and Western history, among other topics, had brought out my 1995 Rumors of Existence and offered a contract for this one, too.

What did I get right and wrong?  Here, in no particular order, are 20 things I thought in 2006 and how they have turned out..  

1. I wrote that I didn't expect any new hard evidence for any of the big stars of crypotozoology - sasquatch, yeti, and Nessie.  I was right. 

2. I had hopes something would emerge from the "sea serpent" data, perhaps an elongated eel. In fact, I was pretty sure of the eel or eel-like fish.  So far, no luck finding it.  

3. I expected many more new species of vertebrates, including mammals. I was right, although I suppose that was kind of general, so I don't get much credit for it.  

4. I held out a little hope for the Caribbean monk seal. That one I've given up on. Ditto Schomburgk's deer. Ditto the Tasmanian tiger: people still report it, but there's nothing new to go on.  

5. I was pretty certain we'd find better evidence of the survival of the Eastern cougar. A swing and a miss, and now the slow infiltration of cats from the West may be obscuring this question. 

6. I was hopeful about the Japanese wolf. I've not given that one up yet, but the case hasn't advanced much. 

7. I dismissed the Minnesota Iceman, a position that I feel is much stronger now that the model has turned up.  

8. I plumped for an unknown population of sturgeon for the "monster" of Lake Iliamna.  I still think that one's on the money.

9. I didn't think any of the famous "lake monsters' would be proven. So far, they haven't.  

10. I was unsure about the identification of the mysterious Mesoplodon Species A as the adult form of the Peruvian beaked whale, but scientists are pretty unanimous on this one.  

11. I argued Wilson's whale likely represented an unknown cetacean, and I still think it does, or did. 

12. I thought at least one of Peter Hocking's big cats from Peru would prove to be a new species. I was, alas, wrong. 

13. I wrote that it was time to bury the giant octopus, and it seems to have been. 

14. I thought one or two more species would come out of Vu Quang. They haven't, but unexplained horns are still unexplained: there is, or was, at least one more species.

15. South Africa's mapinguari intrigued me. It still does - somewhat.

16. Ditto for Sumatra's orang-pendek, which has a stronger case - a very strong case, really. I think we'll find it.

17. I agreed with authorities who thought new beaked whale species were still out there.  They have turned out to be right, and I don't think we've met all the cetaceans quite yet.  

18. I thought a strikingly marked manta that turned up in footage from the TV show Survivor might be linked to the elusive maybe-species called Beebe's manta.  I no longer think so, having learned that manta markings are more varied than I'd realized. 

19. I thought the "Bloop" sound could represent an unknown and very large species of animal. Apparently not. 

20.  I suggested more coelacanth populations would be found. I was right on that one. 

It's not a bad record, really. I was proud of the book, and still am.  It got very good reviews, including an excellent one from Sharon Hill's highly respected Doubtful News blog.  Bill Rebsamen's vibrant illustrations helped bring it to life. Bill went on to create a great creature and a great cover for my cryptozoological horror novel The Dolmen.    

So, I am moving on, with more nonfiction and fiction projects related to the mystery animals of the world. These have taken much longer than I thought, but stay tuned! 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book: A Dena'ina Legacy

A  Dena'ina Legacy: K'tl'egh'i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky, 1st Edition

 Alaska Native Language Center: 1994

This is a collection of stories, some true, some mythical, and some from that intriguing land between the two.  Kalifornsky was a self-taught scholar born in 1911, and the memories of his people tapped for this compilation dated back to the mid-1800s and, through oral storytelling, much  further back. Each of these tales from Alaska is presented on opposite pages in Dena'ina and in  English. Dena'ina grammar is quite incomprehensible for an English-only reader like myself, but you can pick up a little of the rhythm in the Native-language stories and through the translations. Many stories tell of defining moments in the history of the Dena'ina, from creation thorough the first encounters with white people and up to the present. Most of the stories have a moral point applicable to any culture and time.  Respect for nature and for the spirits of every animal and fish a hunter takes is a recurring theme.  Apparently legendary creatures like the little Mountain People will make readers wonder if there's a historical source and what it might have been.  The Dena'ina are a diminishing people in the modern world, but I hope this collection helps people realize that their heritage of wisdom,history, and humor should not perish.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

IWC Takes Steps for the Whales

A lot of interesting things happened at the International Whaling Commission meeting. Commissioners voted to:
- Tighten the scientific whaling loophole 
 - Pursue creation of a huge South Atlantic whaling sanctuary
 - Research the problem of the abuse of aboriginal whaling quotas. 

Four draft resolutions were debated to follow up on these actions and strengthen the IWC itself. :

The progress made was not as definitive and wide-ranging as proponents hoped (e.g., the scientific loophole was not closed), but it WAS a step forward, 

Monday, November 07, 2016

Off Topic: VOTE

As American elections draw near, may I offer one last thought from one citizen. 
My father in law took the brunt of an enemy shell on Saipan so you could vote. 290,000 men and women died facing Hitler and Tojo so you could vote. Americans have died on their home soil and all over the world so you can vote. I spent four years in a missile silo holding the keys to Armageddon so you could vote. A 19-year old Afghan woman cast the first vote in the first election held in her lifetime because American, NATO, and Afghani troops died to secure the vote. People in rebellions worldwide have fought dictators with stones and bare hands so they could have a government they had a chance to vote on . 
I'm a realist: I know that voting can be tainted, its results minimized, its mandates sometimes ignored or its chosen candidates corrupted. But no one can say in America in 2016 that we do not have clear choices. The impact of your votes - OUR votes - will be historic, the effects worldwide. We're choosing aldermen, state representatives, mayors, senators, congressmen, and a President. We're voting on school bond issues, state constitutional amendments, local ordinances, and the raising and use of public funds. 
There's a lot wrong with America, and we can't fix it all by voting. But we sure as hell cannot fix it WITHOUT voting. Voting this week is taking the next step into our country's future.
Please vote.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Off topic: Wisdom from Harry Chapin

I thought we all could use this.

The late Harry Chapin on life and his grandfather

"My grandfather was a painter. He died at age eighty-eight, he illustrated Robert Frost's first two books of poetry and he was looking at me and he said, 'Harry, there are two kinds of tired: there's good-tired, and there's bad-tired.'
He said, 'Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day that you won. You won. But you won other people's battles, you lived other people's days, other people's agendas, other people's dreams and when it was all over there was very little "you" in there, and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn--you don't settle easy. Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. You lost. But you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy--you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say "take me away."'
He said, 'Harry, all my life I've painted. God, I would've loved to be more successful, but I painted and I painted, and I am good-tired and they can take me away.'
Now, if there is a process in your and my lives in the insecurity that we have about a prior life or an afterlife and God--I hope there is a God. If He is-- if He does exist He's got a rather weird sense of humor, however. But let's just-- But if there's a process that will allow us to live our days and will allow us that degree of equanimity towards the end, looking at that black, implacable wall of death, to allow us that degree of peace, that degree of non-fear, I want in."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Whaling War

The world's whaling nations - and those that are just sort of interested, apparently (the International Whaling Commission includes nations with no whaling traditions) are gathered to debate continuation of the moratorium on taking large whales (sperms and all the baleen whales).  Japan is arguing furiously for an expansion of its "scientific" whaling, taking advantage of a clause allowing limited taking for scientific research that,has, in practice, created a loophole big enough to sail a factory ship through.
There are essentially two points of debate. One is whether the conservation of whales demands we maintain the near-moratorium (in addition to the scientific clause, some whaling by aboriginal peoples in coastal waters is allowed, including in Alaska.)  (Smaller whales and dolphins, BTW,  are not covered and are still subject to major hunts in Japan, Norway, and elsewhere.)  The other major question is whether it is ever morally acceptable to harvest some of the world's most intelligent mammals, given that, while they are certainly useful to aboriginal communities, no human population absolutely needs whales to survive.

The minke whale, subject of most current whale hunting (NOAA)

At the very least, we need to maintain the moratorium and close the "scientific" loophole. Japanese whalers who claim they take only minke whales (the second-smallest and  by far the most numerous of the baleen whales) under the science clause have in fact taken other species, as meat in Japanese markets has been proven by DNA sampling to come from humpbacks and other species.  (In one case, there was no question because a sample found in a market in 1993 could be identified as a specific whale: an incredibly rare blue/fin hybrid, killed off Iceland in 1989.) That can't happen by mistake. It can only happen by deliberate negligence. Japan argues much legitimate science has come out of its program, including the astonishing discovery of Omura's whale, a 10m long animal described only in 2003. Japan's opponents argue the science hasn't been nearly worth the cost to get it.
I argue that, even if the science exemption was valid, Japan has forfeited the right to use it by taking species they say they are not taking.  Japan argues they are being singled out, since Norway takes several hundred minkes under a formal objection to the moratorium (an artifact of the Vienna Convention which governs treaties: to summarize, you can lodge a formal objection and do something prohibited, but the other signatories have the right, individually or collectively, to impose sanctions and otherwise pressure you.)
But the fact Norway has been treated a little easier than Japan doesn't make Japan right. It just makes Norway also wrong. Protecting the large baleen whales still in great danger (blue, fin, etc.) requires that whale be kept off the market.  That does mean sacrificing any science coming out of hunting, but as non-invasive approaches including the use of UAVs keep becoming more capable, it's an acceptable trade.  Anything other than continuing the moratorium keeps up the pressure on the huge, smart, and emotional animals we nearly wiped off the planet.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

First look: script for Leo DiCaprio's new Captain Planet movie

Hey, kids! Remember the old Captain Planet(TM) TV show, with our weird-looking hero constantly saving the planet, even though the writers were so dumb they showed friendly aliens "saving" a Steller's sea cow by imprisoning it on a beach, where it would have died almost instantly?

Well, environmental scold/hero Leo DiCaprio is bringing it to the big screen!

We have an exclusive peek at the draft script.


Captain Planet's whale friends help him push the giant polluting mega-yacht Leo is sharing with his Hollywood friends back to the dock. With a crunch, it slides aground, never to sail again.

Leo, with a party to make on the Riviera, calls for his private jet, but at the airport he discovers one of the Planeteers somehow canceled his jet's reservation and replaced it with a seat on a commercial plane that's fifty times as fuel-efficient.

Wiped out, Leo goes home to his mansion, where he finds the useless wings of ballrooms and party spaces have been bricked up so only a suite of rooms adequate for any one person, well insulated, is left available.

"Damn you, Captain Planet," he says. "This 'do as I say, not as I do:' stuff used to be FUN."

So remember, kids: being an environmentalist is important! (It really is: we don't need Gaia to tell us the planet's in trouble.) But being a REAL one who practices what he preaches is priceless!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Latest wave of species from the Amazon

A recent expedition has cataloged another 60 plant and animal species from the Amazon basin. An expedition of 70 scientist and support personnel to the Serra da Mocidade National Park several months ago has made its first report. Three mammals, one bird, one frog, and six fish joined 22 aquatic invertebrates joined a haul that also included fungi and terrestrial plants.  The mammals are small, but all mammal finds are significant, and bird discoveries, once expected to tail off to nearly nothing long before now, keep coming in at a rate of two or three a year. 
Conservationists have said it for a long time: before you protect nature, you have to know what's there. Kudos to these explorers for adding to our knowledge. 

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Space Age began....

October 4, 1957....
A bugler sounded off at a remote launch site in Russia.
A slightly modified ICBM, the R-7, was readied for launch.
An 84kg satellite was powered up, its arming key removed, its batteries activated, its transmitter coming to life.
And with a road and flash that rippled for miles through the cold fall night, the Space Age began.
Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer, the man whose very name was a state secret, watched with tears in his eyes. For this he had ensured purges, imprisonment, the gulag, and come out of all that more determined than ever to put the Motherland into space.

Sputnik display in the Boeing museum in Seattle (my photo)

Engineers cried, "It's off! Our baby is off."

Erika and I were proud to make our own contribution to bringing this age to life for modern readers.


Saturday, October 01, 2016

Apollo 11 Model Rocket Celebration

A concept for NASA and space organizations to celebrate the great achievement of Apollo 11: coordinate space enthusiasts to launch model rockets at exactly 0932 EST on July 16 next year, the moment of the launch. Think of it: hundreds of thousands of launches simultaneously, tied to lessons on space? Wouldn't that be inspiring and awesome?

High Strangeness for New Species

New species are turning up in a never-ending stream. Some are interesting but routine.   Scientists in India think they have five new species, of fleas, nice for them, but not unexpected.  
 A new genus of freshwater crab found in a Chinese pet market got a little more attention because it's bigger and really handsome-looking (photo in article here) as well as being important to carcinologists,  Some new species are more startling.  Bees who chew their way into sandstone to excavate burrows?  Totally wild.  New mammals always make news: this new rodent from Sikkim, a species of pika named Ochotona sikimaria,  is important and, of course, cute.   
Finally, a new ant might not be important by itself, but an ant found in frog vomit? OK, it doesn't live in the vomit or stomach of the poisonous frog in question - it was eaten, and thus not surprisingly dead.    And new ants are everywhere. But I can't recall a species discovered only because another species threw up.  

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Science in fiction: The Judas Strain

The Judas Strain by James Rollins

This takes over the #1 slot with me among Rollins novels: it improves on City of Bones with tighter, better-focused action and, I think, more sound science.
What appears to be a natural phenomenon at Christmas Island in the Pacific - a kind of algal bloom that's more deadly than any seen before - turns out to involve the nefarious Guild, a (real) historical mystery going back to Marco Polo, and the quest for the ultimate biological weapon. Some of the "wisdom of the ancients" stuff is still farfetched (they knew about DNA how?) but this novel only relies on it enough to make the story work. The biological science is scary, very scary, and plausible. Rollins works in known parasites like the liver fluke that go through multiple host species and posits a virus with a similar lifestyle that, like some parasites living on insects, rewires the host (human) body to serve its needs.  (One such ant parasite, a fungus, was the genesis for the X-Files episode "Firewalker.")  I'm hardly an expert on virology or infectious disease, but the whole thing struck me as involving reasonable yet terrifying extrapolations.
The technology throughout this novel works fine: a last-chapter connection between continents on a low-power device initially struck me as absurd, but then I started working it out, and realized you could do it, and do it clandestinely, by bypassing the usual military/intel satellites and hiding it in a civilian system like ARGOS. That was reassuring, as I sometimes feel Rollins treats global communications almost as magic. The details of architecture and history are everywhere convincing, and the heroes have to rely heavily on their brains as well as their guns and gadgets to solve the mystery. Also, one of the early chapters wins some kind of ingenuity award for the cleverest use of a natural "weapon" to take out bad guys.  Rollins usually works in some cryptozoology, which in this novel appears in the form of a new but not unlikely species of killer death squid.
Overall, this is the best-written of the Sigma series, one I had an easy time following but a hard time putting down.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

New species name accepted without physical type specimen!

This is a very unusual case. I don't know how broad the ramifications are. But having a physical type specimen was always a requirement to get a new species name accepted by zoologists.  (Two exceptions I know of: a bird that was examined and blood taken, so DNA was retained as the type specimen, and then the bird was set free: and one case (there may be more) using trails on the seafloor as evidence for an unseen invertebrate.)  
Now we have a name accepted based on a photo with no DNA or body in hand.  Cryptozoologists should not start jumping up with photos of Bigfoot because there is a caveat: the specimens were trapped and observed closely while being photographed, but escaped. This could get interesting.   

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 - The Human moment

Amid the stunning carnage of 9-11, what I remember most is a human moment. I'd returned home after a short workday, somewhat stunned, and my ten year-old, Korey, came bubbling up and said, "Yay! Day off from school tomorrow!" Then she stopped smiling and asked why I was crying. I told her her day off was because a lot of kids her age had just lost their moms or dads, maybe both, forever. She said, "One of those kids can live here. They can have my room." 
The most brutal evil cannot overcome simple human love.

I'll get back to whales and space probes next entry. Promise. 

Tom Paxton's song "The Bravest" is a must-listen (done here by
Liz McNicoll).  

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Not one giraffe, but four?

Various attempts to classify giraffe species and subspecies have been made, based on location, coat patterns, number of horns, etc., but zoologists today basically agree they are all part of  the single species Giraffa camelopardalis. Or at least they did agree.  A new DNA analysis indicates that, while the differences in morphology are relatively modest, there are actually four species. 
A study of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of giraffes in Namibia, intended to help differentiate subspecies and thus clarify breeding lineages for conservationists, stunned the scientists involved with its results. The southern giraffe, northern giraffe, reticulated giraffe, and Masai giraffe - the northern being the "original" G. camelopardalis - have been named.  

My friend Dr. Valerie Beason, a genetic expert who didn't work on this study but knows a lot about this area (it was her team that validated the uniqueness of a second species of clouded leopard), commented, "Each day it seems the world of genetics gives us a gift.  This is great news not only for the Giraffes but for those species that share their ecosystems.  As new conservation measures instituted to protect the giraffes will benefit them." 

Nature - it can be wild. 

My kids feeding the reticulated giraffe herd at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. 

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Farewell to the thylacine

The Earth's largest modern marsupial predator was declared extinct 80 years ago today. I'm quite certain it lingered a couple more decades: some good sightings indicate it may have lingered into the 1980s or even the 1990s.  I wrote in both my books that I hoped the animal survived still, and there are a few indications it might somehow have a surviving population on the Australian mainland even if the Tasmanian animals were all gone..  But on balance, I don't have much hope.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Book Review: Sex in the Sea, by Marah J. Hardt

Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep 
by Marah J. Hardt
St. Martins, 2016

If you're going to understand the ocean ecosystem and its countless living components, you have to understand how marine creatures reproduce. Some species need precise conditions that human actions increasingly interfere with; some synchronize their activities based on cues we've been unable to identify: some produce one offspring at a time, others many thousands.   

A lobster courting a female will spread his claws as if bowing and wait until the female approves him by tapping him on each shoulder with a claw: it looks weirdly like being knighted. In the actual act of mating, those lobsters are strikingly tender, while our smiling friends the dolphins may go in for gang rape. In the depths,  there are fishes whose mates are completely absorbed into their bodies: humans sometimes joke about how men are nothing but a pair of testicles, but anglerfish males are exactly that. Bone worm males are so tiny they live in the females' bodies: no dating app needed if your guy is always on call like a bacterium in your own bloodstream.  (To understand the comparative sizes,imagine if humans dispensed with external sex and male babies shrank to the size of aspirin tablets to begin their adult lives.) Ecologist Marah Hardt takes us on a trip from fish orgies to right whale threesomes, from species whose organs are practically invisible to the whale penis that chased researchers around inside a boat (I am not making that up.)

All these details are fun and fascinating, but Hardt never lets us forget they are part of a story: of the endless inventiveness of evolution, of the ever-present drive to survive, and of the interconnectedness of life in great oceans, from the microbes to the monsters.  A terrific and thought-provoking book.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Snotbot: the Newest Tool of Cetacean Science

I write often in this space about how we need a better understanding of cetaceans, their habitats, and their needs if we are to conserve the 90-ish species of whales and dolphins around the world.  (New species are still being added.)  I've recently worked on satellite-based sensors, but here's another option - Snotbot.
The spout of a cetacean is not water. It's a complex mix of exhaled breath, some water vapor, and - as in the breath of humans - molecules of mucus and other substances that give a clue to the host's health, respiration, stress, and even exposure to toxins.  But how to capture a whale's exhalations?  Snotbot is a an ingenious solution developed by the Ocean Alliance.  It's a weird-looking contraption, a mini-drone that takes advantage of the explosion in UAV technology to let researchers stay up to a half mile from their sensitive subjects and make passes through their spouts without the whales even noticing.  (If you think about it, why would a surfaced whale ever look up?)
Supported by an army of citizen contributors, including my Project WHALES teammate (see article below) Laurie Baker, Snotbot, with scientists from the Ocean Alliance and volunteers from Olin College, has already been field-tested.
What to know more? Here's a video featuring no less an explorer than Patrick Stewart, aka Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise.  (Fun Fact: the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation meant Picard to be a descendant of the Piccard family of marine explorers, one of whom made the first dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in 1961).  If you want to follow the first expedition, go here. Snotbot is giving us a window into the lives of whales and dolphins that no other tool can.

Sail on, Snotbot!

The Snotbot logo and its unique tool (image Ocean Alliance)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Novel review: The Bone Labyrinth, by James Rollins

James Rollins
The Bone Labyrinth

I like to review novels that lean a lot on science and technology and tease out fact vs. fiction. The thrillers of James Rollins are definitely in this category.

Rollins is working a familiar formula here - the discovery of ancient knowledge with impact on modern science - but he works it like no one else. Globe-trotting adventure, thrilling escapes, interesting characters, and lots of high-tech gadgets are on plentiful display.  Another thing that distinguishes Rollins from some competitors is sheer writing ability. Rollins has always been good with the action, but in this novel he hits his high point in creating living, breathing characters we feel for. 

The best character here, though, is not human - it's a genetically modified gorilla named Baako. Baako's inner thoughts are believable and his interaction with his human friends is not just emotional, it's heart-rending. We share every moment of an ape researcher's despair when a Chinese maniac prepares Baako for vivisection.Along the way to this pivotal scene and the following rescue (you knew there would be one), Rollins introduces mysterious human ancestors and human-ape hybrids (not created by crossing the animals, that's been discredited, but by careful gene editing, adding traits of one to the other, which is scarily plausible.) He does, this being fiction, take it further than fact allows (no, the ancestor once called Meganthropus was not eight feet tall. Or seven. Or maybe even six).  Rollins no doubt knows the name is obsolete, but it's more fun to deal with "Meganthropus"  than with "one more of those endless Home erectus variants." 
Rollins' novels  rely heavily on science and technology. The latter is good as always. The former is a mix. Rollins does enormous research and finds obscure details to ground his narrative (yes, Neil Armstrong really did go on an archaeological expedition to Ecuador.) The challenge for the reader is that Rollins presents both good science and fringe/crackpot science, and he says in his Afterword that he believes at least some of the latter to be true. Even the ultimate crackpot theory, that the Moon is artificial, gets a sympathetic ear, although Rollins doesn't endorse it.  
Another odd mistake is that Rollins surely knows better than to call Gigantopithecus a gorilla when it was related to the orangutan (I tried to find current scientific opinions to the contrary, but could not, except for those who hope Giganto = sasquatch (Rollins does a nice job of teasing a possible Yeti connection).). This confusion, and occasional gaps in the logic (how did they get that vanload of chimps out of China?) forced me in my Amazon review to take off a half-star: I was tempted to give it five for sheer entertainment value.
Despite the inclusion of fringe science, the reader of this book will learn a great deal about the latest in genetics, animal communication, and a dozen other fields. I write science and history, so I have some concept of the research involved here. Every Sigma Force novel shows the results of what must total several man-years of hunting for, reading, and analyzing information. So kudos to Rollins for a world well crafted, especially in this book.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Media coverage for Project WHALES

My day-job company was nice enough to fund a look at what space-based resources cab do for whale and dolphin conservation and science.  Project WHALES (Whale/Habitat Advanced Location and Environment Smallsats) examined space-based resources for tracking tagged whales and for advances in environmental science, imaging, and so on that would be of use.

The Marketing and Communications Department found a writer from IDG Connect interested in putting the project in an article, and here we are.
Coverage by existing ARGOS satellites and ground systems: very useful, but with gaps that increase as you approach the equator. (NOAA)

Humpbacks are one of many large species still needing protection.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Greenland shark - long-lived behemoth

In nature, large animals tend to be long-lived.  There are exceptions (sponges and clams are among the oldest living animals, and some corals may live over 4,000 years), but whales were the longest-lived vertebrates we knew of. One bowhead whale made it to an estimated age of 211 before (of course) a harpoon ended its career.
Now we find a fish - a shark, to be exact - which lives a low-energy lifestyle in deep cold waters of the Arctic might be the oldest vertebrate anywhere.  The sleeper sharks are probably the world's biggest sharks after the huge filter-feeders, the  whale shark and basking shark.  The Greenland shark, (Somniosus microcephalus) records its age in accumulating tissue layers in the eyeball.  One shark recently tested, a 5-meter giant, was approximately 392 years old. Even more outrageously, that may be the average for Greenland sharks. Somewhere in the dark seas may be a shark 500 years old.
There is some difference of opinion in how many species of sleepers there are (one figure is 17), but they are widespread. The oft-cited website Fish Base says they are found in Arctic, Sub-Arctic, and Sub-Antarctic, waters, plus continental shelves in cold seas, and even in tropical waters.  Pacific sleepers may reach 8m (per a sighting from the submersible Nautile off Japan)  and maybe bigger: if the huge fish sighted by the crew of the submersible Deepstar 4000 in 1968 was, as some authorities think, a sleeper shark, it was estimated at over 10m, maybe over 11.  (If they are wrong - and the crew of two men reported bigger eyes and different tail shape - there is a still-unknown fish the size of a bus out there.)

Kilometers beneath the icy seas off Greenland, the great shark hunts prey near the seafloor. (Image NOAA)

So a tip of the hat to the Greenland shark - and to the animal alive today that might have seen the first post-Columbus Europeans to reach North America sail by.