Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Whales Got Very Big, Very Fast

Fast in evolutionary terms, anyway. Today's filter-feeding giants appear only 2-3 million years ago in the fossil record.  Why? According to these scientists, it was pretty simple: unlimited food.  With predators, mainly orcas, getting 8-9 m long and hunting in packs, size provided protection, but getting big is a defense that can only work if there is no shortage of food. As the lush plants of the Mesozoic let plant-eating dinosaurs grow to 30m and more in length, having a "license to krill" (I love that pun, although I did not invent it), let blue whales push the 100 metric ton mark.  

Blue Whale (image NOAA)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fun fiction: Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child

Lincoln Child
Doubleday, 256pp

  This outing for "enigmaologist" Logan offers a lot of fun for his growing number of fans. While it has slow spots and not every twist is a surprise, readers will learn more about Logan in the course of his effort to relax and write a monograph on history at a retreat that is a little too close to some strange, savage murders. Investigating at the behest of a new and interesting character, a philosopher-forest ranger he knew at college, Logan finds a hidden laboratory run by a mad scientist (as in, not so much crazy as literally MAD at everyone) and a local belief in lycanthropy. This sounds cliched, but the Logan novels are out to put a new spin on classic horror tales, and Child keeps it fresh. The atmosphere is wonderfully real and creepy. There is some interesting real science, some way-out invented science, a little bit of the paranormal, and some nods to the old Hammer Films universe as Logan risks his life to figure out who or what is haunting the remote Appalachian forest. As a science writer and a novelist, I appreciate the way Child can meld the real (gene therapy), the speculative (what if full moon effects are not mythical after all, we've just not studied them right?), and the horrific.  

Friday, May 12, 2017

A mind-blowing dinosaur fossil

Fossil news seems to come in too fast to keep track of these days, but this chance discovery pretty much froze paleontologists in their trackways.
One of the best fossils ever
A Canadian fossil of a nodosaur (think the iconic Ankylosaurus with no club tail but some big shoulder spikes) was buried in a shallow sea in fine sediments under conditions that offered extraordinary preservation. Scientists can see where the horn spike ended and the keratin sheath began and extended from it. They can count the scales on its body.  "It looks like a sculpture" seems to be a common comment. Five years of painstaking work, totaling some 7,000 man-hours (not unheard-of in paleontology!)  were needed to free up, clean, and reassemble the front half of the animal. That's all we have, but scientists are happy to take it. The skin is there. Even traces of its coloration remain. It's a marvel. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: Hunting Monsters by Dr. Darren Naish

Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths 

by Darren Naish

(paperback edition, 2017, Sirius)

As a cryptozoological reader of some 40 years and writer of 20+, and a correspondent of Dr. Naish, I looked forward to this book, and I'm hardly disappointed. Naish offers a very good skeptical analysis of the whole cryptozoology business, even if I think it could have been a little better. 
One point a reader will notice early on is that there is so much ground to cover that the author can only touch on many points in passing. Skipping over the Great New England Sea Serpent, a touchstone of the sea monster topic, is an example. 
Naish starts with whether cryptozoology is, or can be, scientific, and agrees it can be but isn't often. He begins and ends with the point cryptozoology exists in a cultural milieu and is influenced by folklore, tradition, etc. as well as modern innovations like the Internet. This isn't entirely original and he credits influences including Dr. Charles Paxton, whose work I greatly admire, and folklorist Michel Meurger, who I've always thought overreached the subject.
Naish is not closed-minded about this. He has himself put forward new species concepts over the years to explain cryptozoological sightings, including a cryptid seal and a giant orangutan, but in his blog Tetrapod Zoology and elsewhere he's uncovered or been offered new information and has generally come to conclude the "star" animals are not physically there. This book explains his reasoning well.
When he offers an explanation, I'm not always entirely convinced: the "finning" seal (a seal waving one flipper in the air for cooling) for the Valhalla sighting, for example, is clever, but I can't look at the first-hand original drawing and get a seal out of it. (As you can tell, I enjoy sea serpent lore more than the rest of the subject these days.) The opposite is true of the HMS Daedalus sighting, which I think we can put to rest.
The subject is vast and Naish can't help that, so the bibliography is essential: it's pretty good but could have been more extensive.

Lest anyone think I'm damning with faint praise, this is an excellent and important book. If it doesn't hunt down every major cryptid, it will make the veteran cryptozoology reader think hard and will give the new reader an excellent starting point grounded in good science.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

A golden sturgeon?

The white sturgeon of the Fraser River is an impressive creature, known to reach over 3 meters and approach 400kg,and claimed to reach 6 meters.  It comes in definite or reported shades of green, brown, or black (never white - go figure).  But a gold sturgeon? It exists, and this video proves it. Fortunately, the two fishermen who caught it did the right thing and released it to continue to grow and, perhaps, enchant people in the future.  

Sometimes it's ok to just look at nature and say, "wow." 

"Normal" white sturgeon (Wikimedia Commons - photo by Joseph Tomerelli)

Don't forget the role of the giant sturgeon in myth and legend, captured by Longfellow in this case of an improbably big and improbably colorful sturgeon (purple fins?)

Forth upon the Gitche Gumee,
On the shining Big-Sea-Water,
With his fishing-line of cedar,
Of the twisted bark of cedar,
Forth to catch the sturgeon Nahma,
Mishe-Nahma, King of Fishes,
In his birch canoe exulting
All alone went Hiawatha.
  Through the clear, transparent water
He could see the fishes swimming
Far down in the depths below him;
  On the white sand of the bottom
Lay the monster Mishe-Nahma,
Lay the sturgeon, King of Fishes;
Through his gills he breathed the water,
With his fins he fanned and winnowed,
With his tail he swept the sand-floor.
  There he lay in all his armor;
On each side a shield to guard him,
Plates of bone upon his forehead,
Down his sides and back and shoulders
Plates of bone with spines projecting!
Painted was he with his war-paints,
Stripes of yellow, red, and azure,
Spots of brown and spots of sable;
And he lay there on the bottom,
Fanning with his fins of purple,
As above him Hiawatha
In his birch canoe came sailing,
With his fishing-line of cedar.
  "Take my bait," cried Hiawatha,
Down into the depths beneath him,
"Take my bait, O Sturgeon, Nahma!
Come up from below the water,
Let us see which is the stronger!"

  From the white sand of the bottom
Up he rose with angry gesture,
Quivering in each nerve and fibre,
Clashing all his plates of armor,
Gleaming bright with all his war-paint;
In his wrath he darted upward,
Flashing leaped into the sunshine,
Opened his great jaws, and swallowed
Both canoe and Hiawatha.

Death by sea serpent?

Death by Sea Serpent?
In the modern (post-WWII) history of “sea serpent” reports and claims - and there are still reports, albeit rarely - we have only one report of involving human fatalities. This story appeared in the May 1965 issue of Fate Magazine.
In a first-person account, Edward Brian McCleary claimed to have had a terrifying experience on March 24, 1962 off Pensacola, Florida. McCleary and four friends paddled a life raft out to dive on a wrecked ship. A sudden storm came up, forcing them away from land. At night, a fog closed in on them. In the fog, they hear something moving, and then saw what looked momentarily like a “like a telephone pole about ten feet high with a bulb on top” in the fog. The object was, however, a plesiosaur-like animal. More specifically, “The neck was about 12 feet long, brownish-green and smooth looking. The head was like that of a sea-turtle, except more elongated with teeth. There appeared to be what looked like a dorsal fin when it dove under for the last time. Also, as best I am able to recall, the eyes were green with oval pupils.”
This creature proceeded to kill McCleary’s companions one by one. McCleary alone managed to make it to a protruding mast of the wreck they were diving (the U.S.S. Massachusetts), where he clung until daylight.
The Massachusetts sits today in only 26 feet of water in the Fort Pickens State Aquatic Preserve, with portions of the ship still protruding from the sea. McCleary still lives in Florida, though he apparently has not spoken on the subject of the attack since his article came out. He did report the deaths at the time, says the authorities and reporters told him to leave out the sea monster. One body was recovered. The man had died by drowning.
What are we to make of this? If, as some crypto-researchers (myself included) believe, there is at least one large unclassified marine creature behind sea serpent stories, then it would not be surprising if a specimen occasionally took a man in the water, even if humans were not normally its prey. It happens with sharks, as we all know. All we have as evidence is McCleary’s account.  
The plesiosaur-like creature striking its victims from the fog sounds like a scene from a bad horror movie, but then so does a shark attack. The very plesiosaur-like sketch McCleary made of his creature shows the head joined to the neck at an odd 90-degree angle (not an impossible angle, perhaps, but one has to reach all the way to a giraffe, not a marine reptile, before one comes up with a real match). It’s a very troubling detail that McCleary does not explain by what light he saw enough to his creature to describe it.
What is, just for a moment, we take the tale as factual? It's fair to say some degree of observer error is to be expected. If we take his sketch as a general, not an exact, representation, than some other reports might be of the same animal. (The 1893 report of the steamship Umfuli comes to mind.) Reports from the Gulf of Mexico are rare, although an online source reports the story of Ray Angerman, whose church youth group saw a similar animal from a bridge near Panama City.
A sea creature report from this area which still interest me was made by naturalist/writer Thomas Helm in 1943. However, Helm described a mammal which does not resemble McCleary’s sketch at all. (Bernard Heuvelmans classified this as an example of his “Merhorse” type, while the Umfuli’s was a “Long-Necked." )
As so often happens in cryptozoology, we are left with a story with no corroborating evidence. That story, as unbelievable as it sounds, still could be true.  But at best, we have a whole lot of "not quite impossible"s.  Until and unless we get a specimen of a creature that matches McCleary’s beast, though, we must write this off as "likely a fabrication," but we landlocked humans all love a mystery of the sea.
Helm, Thomas. Monsters of the Deep. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co. 1962.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. New York: Hill & Wang, 1968.
McCleary, Edward Brian. “My Escape From a Sea Monster,” FATE, May 1965.
Online sources including,,, and (for the Ray Angerman story)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Echoes from the Ivory-bill

I've never been quite convinced the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is extinct.  
It may be wishful thinking, or it may be that a story I heard 20 years ago lingers in my mind.  I was in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science talking to a woman sculpting an elk.  The story she told me is that years after the last supposed confirmation of the ivory-bill (1950, Florida) she'd been a girl of about 10 hiking in the Singer Tract in Louisiana. Her father put a finger to his lips to shush her and pointed to a magnificent red, white, and black bird on a stump in front of them. The witness, Ruth Laws (or Lowes: I didn't write down the spelling and haven't been able to locate her) said her father whispered, "That is an ivory-billed woodpecker. Take a good look, because you'll never see one again." She never did.
This bird may be extinct. It may very well be functionally extinct - that is, there are some individuals, but not enough to continue the species.  People like Michael Collins of the Naval Research Laboratory spend years of their lives searching for the birds.
Collins thinks he's found them
His videos, according to other experts, are not definitive: the birds in them could be ivory-bills, but they are too far from the camera to tell, so they might also be pileated woodpeckers, although the behavior certainly fits.
There are good reasons we all want the bird to be found. The nickname "Lord God bird" was applied based on the exclamations of countless witnesses. One admiring  expert, ornithologist Dr. Lester Short, wrote that, "If the woodpecker world had royalty, the ivory⌐bill would be king."
The bird had a specialized diet, based on beetles living in dying or recently dead trees in Southern forests. When these forests were cleared, the birds had a difficult - maybe impossible - task in adapting to secondary growth. 
Still, reports lingered - in Florida, in Arkansas, and in other states. Ornithologist John V. Dennis had a good sighting in East Texas in 1966.  Dr. Jerome Jackson got responses to recordings of ivory-bills in 1987 and 1988.  In Cuba, a bird was conclusively identified in 1986, although an extensive search in 1993 found nothing, and that seems to have been the last of the Cuban birds (sometimes considered a separate subspecies).  (Or was it? Ornithologist Tim Gallagher led an expedition to the island in 2016, although proof remained elusive.) 
In April 1999, David Kulivan, a graduate student in wildlife biology, spotted a pair in Louisiana's Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. The sighting was convincing enough to result in a major search, without luck. The Louisiana  Ornithological Society put out an ivory-bill T-shirt captioned, "I Want To Believe," a mantra from the The X-Files.In 2004, a sighting and video from Arkansas led to the official announcement of the bird's rediscovery by U.S. government authorities. (The result, published in the leading journal Science, might be the most famous paper ever published about birds.) The identity of the bird in the video has since been questioned, though and the species, once again, seems to have disappeared.   
And so it goes - scattered reports, calls, distant images and videos. The ivory-bill has become the sasquatch of the bird world - widely sought, wiedely believed in, but not quite there in evidence the scientific world can widely accept.
I think it's still there.
Because I want to.

A partial ivory-bill bibliography:

Anonymous.  1993.  "Ivory-billed woodpecker extinct," Oryx, October.
Editors, “The Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Heads to Cuba,” Audubon, April 11, 2016,
Cadieux, Charles L.  1991. Wildlife Extinction. Washington, D.C.: Stonewall Press.
Caras, Roger A.  1966.  Last Chance on Earth. Philadelphia: Chilton Books.
Cokinos, Christopher.  2000.  Hope is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds.  Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher. 
Discovery News, "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Search Ends," April 15, 2010,
Fitzpatrick, John, et. al., “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America,” Science, June 3, 2005, v.308, p.1460
Hoose, Philip. 2004.  The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
Jackson, Jerome. 2004.  In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian. 
Jackson, Jerome. 2002.  “The Truth is Out There,” Birder’s World, June, p.40
Lammertink, Martjan, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, John W. Fitzpatrick, M. David Luneau, Jr., Tim W. Gallagher, Marc Dantzker. “Detailed analysis of the video of a large woodpecker (the "Luneau video") obtained at Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas, on 25 April 2004,” February 8, 2006,
Louisiana Ornithological Society.  2000.  "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Sightings at Pearl River WMA?" LOS News, February.
Martel, Brent.  2000.  "Birder Says He Saw Rare Woodpecker," Associated Press, November 4.
Mayell, Jillary.  2002.  “’Extinct Woodpecker Still Elusive,” National Geographic News,, February 20.
Short, Lester.  1993. The Lives of Birds. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Short, Lester, and Jennifer Horne.  1986.  "The Ivorybill Still Lives," Natural History, July.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

U.S. Science Funding: FY17 does well

Sources including SCIENCE magazine have parsed the funding in the new continuing resolution covering FY17, and it's not terrible - in most ways.

The big cuts feared by science advocates are not in this bill.   NASA does more than ok with $19.653 billion for the whole fiscal year. Indeed, NASA does a lot better overall than was projected by the last Obama budget, with the biggest increase coming in the Exploration account, which includes human exploration, a favorite of the new  President. Planetary science went up, and Earth science, a likely future target, gets the same amount as in FY16.

Basic and applied research goes up, and both military and civilian agencies benefit. The EPA's research budget took a major hit, though, and the Department of Energy's fusion-power research was hammered, which has international implications given the consortium on the ITER experiment would have to push out their deadlines (at best) without U.S funding.  (Also, my personal opinion is that anything that moves us closer to fusion power needs a MAJOR increase, not a cut.)   The Congress controlled by the President's party poked him in the eye, sharply, with a $2 billion increase for NIH.  

President Trump's FY18 budget is another matter: it's the one that slashes much more funding for the EPA and biomedical research, among other things.

So the major battles lie ahead...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Thanks to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference

A great 2017 conference!

A few takeaways from the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, shared for fellow authors:
Agent Sam Morgan agreed with a quote from Dean Koontz I mentioned (that you can have one big improbability in your story if you nail down all other details in reality) and added that, for any kind of thriller,"You get one coincidence. Just one."
Agent Donald Maass emphasized that in any interaction between people, there are always multiple levels of emotions at work, never just one emotion.
Maass also took issue with the pessimistic view of the long odds against getting published because you can change the odds. How many books you write,how many agents you query, how hard to work at your craft, etc. - it's not like a casino where a thousand to one guarantees you lose.
Author Jennie Marts emphasized the need to use every tool available on your Amazon author page and your individual book pages to make you look good, to tell your story, and to promote your other books.
Also Jennie Marts: You begin to define your "brand" with the first work you publish in any form. Keep the big picture of what kind of author you want to be in mind with everything you do. The "brand" you project is a promise to your readers about what they will get if they buy your books.
From multiple sources: While you should try to make your query letter and proposal perfect, one error won't kill you. One agent scratched out two whole paragraphs of my one-page query letter but asked to see sample chapters.
Multiple sources: In adult fiction, a white guy like myself can write characters from many cultures if you avoid stereotyping, but most publishers are not open to someone like me writing middle grade or Young Adult fiction including foreign or minority cultures. (Comment: I understand the concern, but it seems to me that that may be TOO sensitive: researching a book is one of the best ways to learn about another culture and introduce it to readers. See: Dana Stabenow.)
 From author Laura DiSilverio: we under-use setting in defining characters. People decorate, not only houses, but cars, cubicles, etc. with things that can help readers understand them. Another good way to expose character is taking people out of their chosen or normal environment: how do they react?
Consensus of agents and editors: avoid prologues unless they are really good and can't just be part of Chapter One: it's usually best to avoid them even then. (Comment: William Kent Krueger is a brilliant user of prologues.)

Myself, at the costume-optional Friday night dinner, as wizard Harry Dresden, with agent Donald Maas (agent for Harry's creator, Jim Butcher, to whom he sent this pic).

Author Travis Heerman: Stephen King (not present :) ) says all first drafts can be cut 10 percent. Also, revision should genuinely be "re-visioning," not just line editing. Use beta readers, reading aloud, text-to-speech, or any other tool to ensure you look at it it in different ways. This takes time and you MUST be willing to commit to it for a good book.
Editor panel: Publishers grind everything through a profit-and-loss equation at some stage, but you can't control that: control what you can (writing a good book). Also, for fiction, a good enough book can make the cut even if the author doesn't have a major social media presence and followers: for nonfiction, it's much more important.
Thanks again for a great conference. #PPWC2017

See you all at 2018 Conference. One guest already confirmed: favorite author (okay, co-favorite with Dana Stabenow) Jim Butcher. 

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.