Thursday, April 30, 2009

A parrot with rhythm?

I've mentioned Alex the genius parrot, but here's a different kind of bird. Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, dances. His YouTube performance to "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys (well, no one said he had taste) is a global sensation, and researchers who tested him by varying the music report the parrot is, indeed, following the beat. Why is not clear, but it seems to have something to do with the ability and inclination to mimic voices: an African gray parrot (like Alex) and a few other animals have done it, but monkeys and other creatures who are not natural mimics can't be coaxed to dance. It's another reminder of how puzzling the mental world of animals remains despite all the research.

THANKS to Kris Winkler for alerting me to Mr. Snowball's abilities.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A sad comment on NASA

From an upcoming article in The Atlantic Monthly:

"American politicians now mostly avoid the old conditional trope “If we can put a man on the moon”—because we can’t, not anymore.
The Vision for Space Exploration really doesn’t have any; nor does NASA. In 2002, the agency shut down its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program, whose scientists had been allowed to brainstorm such far-out notions as wormholes and warp drives; five years later, the agency closed its Institute for Advanced Concepts, a less mind-blowing outfit but one that also encouraged thinking light-years down the road."

Thanks to Peter ( for passing this along.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Top 10 Scientific Discoveries from Apollo

This isn't new, but, as we debate how and when to go back to the Moon, it's important to understand what those brief trips 40 years ago taught us.

See the title link for the NASM site's details on all these discoveries.

The Moon is not a primordial object; it is an evolved terrestrial planet with internal zoning similar to that of Earth.

The Moon is ancient and still preserves an early history (the first billion years) that must be common to all terrestrial planets.

The youngest Moon rocks are virtually as old as the oldest Earth rocks. The earliest processes and events that probably affected both planetary bodies can now only be found on the Moon.

The Moon and Earth are genetically related and formed from different proportions of a common reservoir of materials.

The Moon is lifeless; it contains no living organisms, fossils, or native organic compounds.

All Moon rocks originated through high-temperature processes with little or no involvement with water. They are roughly divisible into three types: basalts, anorthosites, and breccias.

Early in its history, the Moon was melted to great depths to form a "magma ocean." The lunar highlands contain the remnants of early, low density rocks that floated to the surface of the magma ocean.

The lunar magma ocean was followed by a series of huge asteroid impacts that created basins which were later filled by lava flows.

The Moon is slightly asymmetrical in bulk form, possibly as a consequence of its evolution under Earth's gravitational influence. Its crust is thicker on the far side, while most volcanic basins -- and unusual mass concentrations -- occur on the near side.

The surface of the Moon is covered by a rubble pile of rock fragments and dust, called the lunar regolith, that contains a unique radiation history of the Sun which is of importance to understanding climate changes on Earth.

Obama calls for more S&T spending

THe President called for spending 3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on government-run science and technology programs. Details included - a new President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, a tripling of the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships" and help for clean energy research and science and math education.
Mentioned only in passing was NASA - no mention of the agency's missing Administrator or its chronic underfunding (and whether you like NASA or not, there's no doubt it is saddled with more missions and deadlines than its budget will allow, and no relief is in sight.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ultimate model rocket flies

A fellow named Steve Eves has launched and recovered a 1/10 scale Saturn V - 36 feet tall, 1600 pounds, flying on nine solid-fuel motors. It's a beautifully sculpted replica, different from the original in appearance mainly because of the large fins needed (since, unlike the real Rocketdyne F-1 liquid-fuel engines used on the moon rocket, its engines aren't gimbaled for steering). The altitude reached was over 4,000 feet. Eves' aim was to honor the Apollo-Saturn program, 40 years after it put a man on the moon.
Congratulations, Steve. It was a great endeavor.

Great videos at the NASAWatch title link: More information on Steve and his rocket at

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Seal with feet" discovered

We have a walking whale and a walking fish in the fossil record. Now we have a species that may be ancestral to all the pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) or at least close to their common ancestor. Welcome Puijila darwini, the newest Missing link" (a.k.a. transitional form) in the mammalian family tree.

Hobbit skeleton replica on exhibit

This article includes a photograph of the H. floresiensis remains (reproduced precisely as models from 3-D CT scans of the originals) with modern bones for comparison. This report on a new symposium also revisits the controversy: is this just a dwarfed modern human? The famed Richard Leakey says he is increasingly (though not yet definitively) convinced this is a new species, while anthropologist Dean Falk says the pathological explanation has been "dispensed with" from her view. She adds, "It's not just that their brains are small; they're differently shaped. It's its own species."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Vote: What's the Greatest Mystery in Science?

Over at, they've put up 14 contenders for the greatest mystery of science.
My vote: Does Alien Life Exist?
Currently leading in the voting: How did the Universe begin? (OK, that would have been my second choice.)

MicroSpace News: Cool NASA microsat launches soon

In the interests of finding anything positive happening on the NASA front, I'm please to pass along this press release.

April 24, 2009

Rachel Prucey
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.



MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. - NASA engineers and project scientists are ready for the May 5 scheduled launch of the PharmaSat nanosatellite and will be available for interviews.... The PharmaSat nanosatellite will fly as a secondary payload aboard the U.S. Air Force four-stage Minotaur 1 rocket that will launch out of NASA Wallops Flight Facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport located at Wallops Island, Va. PharmaSat is about the size of a loaf of bread and weighs approximately 10 pounds. It contains a controlled environment micro-laboratory packed with sensors and optical systems that can detect the growth, density and health of yeast cells and transmit that data to scientists for analysis on Earth. PharmaSat will also monitor the levels of pressure, temperature and acceleration the yeast and the satellite experience while circling Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. PharmaSat's primary goal is to help scientists better understand how effectively drugs work in space by studying how yeast responds to an antifungal treatment.
For the more information about PharmaSat and other small satellite missions, visit:

NASA News: I was wrong. It could get worse.

According to Chris Bergin on, Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley has proposed huge changes to make the Full Operational Capability date of 2015 (itself already a budget-driven a two-year slip from the original schedule). The changes include: "deleting the Ares I-Y test flight, making Ares I’s first stage disposable, switching from Orion 4 to Orion 3 as the Full Operational Capability (FOC) date, along with a host of additional changes.." to get the first astronauts up by 2015.

COMMENT: I always note that comments in this blog are my personal opinions as a private citizen. Sometimes I need to really emphasize that - like now. Cutting, in effect, two test flights, after the test plan has already been truncated once, is a very unwise notion that smacks of being budget, not schedule, driven. I get annoyed with schedule slips like every other space-watcher, but schedule slips are preferable to eliminating tests. Computer simulations don't replace flying - ask SpaceX. Either give Ares-Orion the budget to do things right or don't do them.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NASA News: Nothing to cheer about

In this little compilation of black-hole cheer from NASAWatch, we are reminded that the agency has no administrator; it has no immediate prospects of getting an administrator; it has no hope of fulfilling its missions on schedule given the budget provided, as witnessed by a new two-year slip in the Ares V heavy-lifter; and, last but not least, the marginal Ares I booster is so much more marginal than even pessimists like myself thought that the Orion CEV capacity may have to be cut from six astronauts to four.
COMMENT: Maybe part of the reason the agency lacks an administrator is that, in the small pool of people with the talent, knowledge, and experience to do the job well, the President can find no one who actually wants the job under the present circumstances. Then again, there's nothing in any of the news stories linked here to indicate he's actively looking.

How to become Batman

Could a real person become our most famous unsuper superhero, Batman? The University of Victoria's E. Paul Zehr, a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology, put considerable effort into working that out. Assuming a real person, like the fictional Bruce Wayne, started off with no health problems and unlimited money, access to top instructors, etc. Zehr (a martial arts expert himself) looked at the main disciplines Batman needs to be familiar with, plus the strength and conditioning work, plus the training exercises, etc. needed to get him ready to put his skills to use instinctively in split-second situations. The verdict: Becoming Batman would take at least 15 years. The real bad news? The accumulated effects of all those injuries would mean a Batman's "useful life" as a crimefighter on the street would be short.
COMMENT: Ah, well. Most of us would rather get bitten by a radioactive spider anyway.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Astronaut and the Little Grey Men

Former Apollo astronaut Ed Mitchell has made some waves by announcing that there really was a UFO crash at Roswell, NM, and we have definitely been visited by extraterrestirals. Mitchell, known for his wide interests and his performance of ESP experiments on Apollo 14, has talked about this subject before, but this is his most definite statement. Unfortunately, his reason for beliving this is the alleged word of one unnamed admiral.

COMMENT: At some (admittedly subjective) point, the ongoing absence of alien-spaceship evidence does become evidence of absence. The late Philip Klass once pronounced a curse on UFO researchers: "You will never know any more about UFOs than you do today." Over 60 years into the modern version of this phenomenon, we really don't know more than we did in, say, the 1960s.

That doesn't mean there is nothing worth studying. It's certainly possible some still-unconfirmed atmopspheric phenomena, such as Klass' hypothesized plasmas (presumably a larger, more stable cousin of ball lightning), does contribute to UFO sightings and is of interest to science. So keep an open mind on natural phemomena - but demand hard proof of little grey men.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Creepy science video: huge centipede kills bat

Seriously. In Venezuela, this 35-cm cave centipede plucks a bat out of the air with its forelimbs, poisons it, and eats it. The makers of horror movies should take note.

Did humans learn toolmaking from hobbits?

The modern humans whose remains have been recovered from the island of Flores appear to have made tools by flaking volcanic tuff and chert very much like the H. flores, or "hobbits," that preceded them. In this provocative article, Elizabeth Culotta of ScienceNOW reports on a study suggesting that, on this island at least, the precursor species developed the technique and the H. sapiens copied it from them.
COMMENT: There is, of course, some argument in the scientific community that all the humans on the island have been modern ones and the hobbits are based on misinterpretation of the fossils. I'll add my usual comment that, if anyone cares what I think (maybe my mother does), I'd say that so far the separate-species advocates have the upper hand, but the case can't be considered settled until we have another cranium that looks like the LB1 specimen.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The biology of the Cloverfield monster

Ph.D. biology student Carlo Artieri here takes a shot at evaluating the monster from the film Cloverfield. Whether the animal is from space or the oceans (the movie is never totally clear on that) it doesn't work as a practical vertebrate. But it was a lot of fun.

How do you stuff an elephant?

Or, more specifically, how do you get the skin of an elephant, create a proper "mannequin" to support it, and put it all together so it looks like a live multi-ton mammal is about to stomp through your museum? That puzzler is answered here by the always-readable Dr. Darren Naish.

New lichen named for President Obama

President obama has been honored by the scintific world in a unique way. His name adorns a new species of lichen. The journal article is titled "Caloplaca obamae, a new species from Santa Rosa Island, California."

Kerry Knudsen, lichen curator of the University of California, Riverside Herbarium, named the species, which he found about two years ago, for what he called the President's "support of science and science education."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Return of the Pink-Headed Duck?

Ornithologists have long wondered about the fate of Asia's pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea). There have been only scattered sighting reports since 1936, none of them universally accepted, and some experts believe the species is extinct.
Birder Richard Thorns was the latest person to go pink-head-hunting. He sent a digital image to Cryptomundo showing what looks tantalizingly like a pink-headed duck, although Thorns is cautious in saying only that he is trying to identify the bird in the image. At the least, this should spark some interest in further expeditions to this lake in northern Myanmar to find out if the duck is indeed still with us.
COMMENT: If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck.... OK, never mind the old saying. It DOES look like a pink-headed duck, although the distance and magnification required gives us an image that is not quite distinct enough to identify the bird for certain. Here's a toast to hope.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

All-female ant species

To all the ladies sick of the dating world, take heart. Males are not really necessary.
While asexual reproduction occurs in many kinds of "lower" animals, biologists have always believed a species could not dispense with males altogether because all-female reproduction without the additional genetic material males provide is basically cloning. As the same set of genetic instructions is copied over and over, the accumulation of small defects would eventually catch up to the species. The tropical ant Mycocepurus smithii, though, has found a way around this. How and why are still unknown.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Starship engineering is no simple task

Astronomer Seth Shostak is in favor of space exploration, but, in this op-ed, he points out that starships capable of carrying humans are a long way off. We are not sure that faster-than-light (FTL) travel is even possible. We can definitely travel faster than we do today, but anything past Mars is likely limited to robotic probes. He makes an interesting suggestion for the collection of information from our galactic neighborhood: "re-energize NASA’s development of nuclear-powered rockets, with the intention of building a craft able to send clusters of micro-bots into deep space at velocities of, say, one-tenth light speed."

COMMENT: I'm all for the idea about nuclear propulsion and small probes, although it's very hard (impossible, really) to give up on the idea of some day traveling to the stars ourselves. In the near term, though, Shostak's probe concept reflects an idea Kris Winkler and I described in a paper to the Conference on Small Satellites in 2006 about the use of microspacecraft as part of the Vision for Space Exploration.
See the op-ed version at:

I was also involved in a study of future NASA propulsion investments that concluded nuclear fission was our best chance to break out of the restraints of chemical propulsion.

We can still do this, people. Earthly problems don't require us to take our eyes off the stars: just to be smart about how we get there.

THANKS to Kris Winkler for sending me this article.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Karl Shuker's blog and the Wyoming mummy

Dr. Karl Shuker's blog is a must read for cryptozoology enthusiasts. In this entry, he looks at legends, reports, and artifacts relating to claims of very small people in North American prehistory - or, as he puts it, "Babyfeet" as opposed to "Bigfeet."

COMMENT: I greatly respect Shuker, but he's incorrect in reporting that the one unquestionably existing "mummy" of a tiny human - the 40-cm corpse displayed for many years in Casper, WY - is an adult. He seems to be relying on a claim by the late author Frank Edwards that the skull was of an adult human. Edwards claimed "scientists" had confirmed this, but did not cite any sources or even give a name. Dr. George Gill of the U. of Wyoming examined the specimen and identified it as a microcephalic infant. (Oddly, no one seems to know where this curiosity is now.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Looking for a ghost planet

Was there once a planet orbiting near Earth - a world which crashed into ours, with the Moon forming from the collision? It's not a widely supported theory, but it's intriguing enough that NASA's twin STEREO probes are taking a look. The hypothesized planet Theia would have existed at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point,and it should have left asteroid-sized traces of itself. What will we find....?

Internships to work on Cubesats

Cubesats, those insanely useful 1-kg spacecraft buses developed by Bob Twiggs at Stanford, are hot stuff these days. Want a sumer internship with SpaceX to work on them?

> From:
> To:
> Date: Fri, 10 Apr 2009 23:22:50 -0700
> Subject: [CubeSat] SpaceX Internships
> Greetings Cubesatters!
> SpaceX still has a few open internships for this summer. If you're a
> Software, Hardware, Mechanical, Aero, Dynamics, or Systems person and
> looking for a pretty awesome opportunity please get in touch with me.
> We're particularly interested in students who've had experience
> successfully building a cubesat.
> Internships are for the summer, paid, and located in Los Angeles. More
> info at;. Unfortunately, due to US state department
> requirements you must be a US citizen or permanent resident.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Scientific words from science fiction

Here's a lively topic: what words used in science and technology today were created in science fiction? (Did you know "robot" is from a play written in 1920 by Karel Capek called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) while "robotics" came along two decades later in an Isaac Asimov story?) A lively discussion follows the "Top 9" list.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Dracula" fish has re-evolved "biting plates"

Biting plates - pointed extensions of the jawbone that perform the function of teeth - have not been seen in some 300 million years, not since the days of the placoderms back in the Devonian. That's why a tiny (<25mm) minnow from Myanmar has startled icthyologists. In place of the teeth its nearest relatives lost some 50MYA, the male Danionella dracula sports tiny versions of the biting plates prehistoric monsters like Dunkleosteus terrelli carried. Discoverer Ralf Britz, of the Natural History Museum in London, says, "This fish is one of the most extraordinary vertebrates discovered in the last few decades."

Ruling on jaguar may be relevant to Eastern cougar

In a ruling that may have some relevance to the Eastern cougar, a judge said the Interior Dept. could not decline to protect jaguar habitat just because the number of jagaur sightings was low. No one doubts that occasional jaguars turn up in Arizona and New Mexico: if it's established that even occasional cougars turn up in the Eastern states, there seems to be a precedent here.

NASA: Who's In Charge Here?

OK, someone is technically in charge as Acting Administrator, and Chris Scolese is doing a decent job by all accounts. An acting chief, however, is not in a position to implement long-term visions or major program changes, both of which are likely in the works under the Obama administration. Granted, the President has an awful lot on his plate, but we seem no closer to a new Administrator now than we were last November. That's inexcusable for a national flagship agency like NASA.

New species: Mini-viper from Vietnam

Now joining the reptile world: Protobothrops trungkhanhensis. Only 73cm long, with a small triangular head, this viper from the Trung Khanh National Park in Cao Bang is the fourth known member of its genus.
Thanks to Chad Arment for correcting the original version of this post. The news item called the reptile a rattlesnake, and I posted that without recalling that rattlers don't exist in Asia.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Collecting those new species reports

I hate to look like I'm mooching off Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log today, but he's jsut on a roll of interesting topics lately. This post collects many recent announcements of new species: the individual items have been in this blog, but Boyle saves me and you the the rouble of hunting them down. He adds a discussion of biological hot spots and the question of how to direct conservation resources.
Great job, Alan.

The really big ideas in science

Cosmic Log this morning reports on a fascinating symposium where some of the biggest names in science discussed some of the biggest questions. (I had not heard of this event, and I REALLY wish I could have been there.)
Silicon-based life on Titan? Other types of life (no DNA) in inhospitable niches on Earth? Darwin and morality?
This will give you enough to think about all day, if not for much longer.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

North Korea fails again

The Kwangmyongsong 2 satellite - assuming it does, in fact, exist as the payload of North Korea's second orbital launch attempt - is in the Pacific somewhere past Japan. Aimed at Low Earth Orbit (LEO), it appears to have joined its predecessor in UEO (Underwater Earth Orbit).
The North Koreans made it further than on their first attempt. This three-stage booster appears to have arced over Japan, separated from the first stage successfully, and then fallen prey to an underperforming second stage.
North Korean government, of course, claims the satellite is in orbit and successfully transmitting data.
There is a lot of debate about whether this was a satellite launch or a missile test. It seems highly likely it was both. A satellite would be a prestigious accomplishment, worth the effort in the government's eyes, and it could have been accomplished while testing an IRBM with a modified third stage and a satellite payload.
The scary thing is that NK was warned by absolutely everyone, including its sort-of-patron China, not to do this, and they did it anyway, and nothing is going to happen to them. Sanctions are meaningless against a nation whose rulers are starving their people to death.
The sad thing is that, had NK come out from under its cloak of Stalinism and started acted like a civilized nation, South Korea would have been more than happy to work with them on a real civil space program.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

UFOs and nukes: no truth is out there

This newspaper story is getting a lot of play on the Internet. It claims UFOs monkeyed with America's Minuteman nuclear missiles, apparently studying or testing the circuitry while crews stared at the erratically blinking lights on their consoles.
COMMENT: I rarely visit the subject of UFOs, but I don't discount it. I think there may be something to some UFO stories, in the form of unclassified atmospheric phenomena. Every now and then, though, one comes along that makes me throw the B.S. flag. While there have been some UFO reports (the most likely cause of which seems to be astronomical) around missile bases, none of this story makes sense.
Minuteman silos do not, and never have, contained "10 nukes." (They contain one missile with one to three warheads.)
There is no "silo" named "Echo Capsule" or "Alpha Capsule."
Whoever wrote this has no idea how a Minuteman wing is structured.
Author Robert Hastings, who claims to have 100+ witnesses to this and related stories, says, "I think it’s significant that not one person I’ve ever talked to has ever reported being leaned on to shut up — not one."
Yep, it's significant. It means that there's nothing worth refuting.

Good news for rare dolphin species

The Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) is a rare and vulnerable cetacean. Frequenting the coasts of Southeast Asia, Australia, and Indonesia, these beakless dolphins hunt fish and crustaceans, sometimes using the peculiar technique of expelling a jet of fast-moving water from their mouths to stun or direct fish they are pursuing. One population, in the Mekong River, is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and the species as a whole is considered Threatened. In a rare good news story from the cetacean world, though, it turns out the species is in much better shape than anyone thought. A healthy population of at least five thousand animals has been documented in a mangrove forest region on the shores of Bangladesh.
(FOOTNOTE: Dr. Karl Shuker has reported that one aquarium has four very odd examples, with no teeth, that may belong to an unconfirmed subspecies of the Irrawaddy dolphin or even a different species.)