Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eyewitness accounts and finding new animals

This is not a new topic for me (or anyone who dabbles in cryptozoology) but it came to my attention when a thread began in the FaceBook group Cryptozoology, where one writer suggested that, not only are eyewitness reports insufficient to prove an animal exists, but that, by themselves, they are meaningless.

I think that's taking it one step too far  Eyewitness descriptions are, and have always been, one of the three major ways zoologists are led to new animals. There are really ONLY three ways (countless variations, but three main categories of events) in which a new animal CAN be discovered by science. They are 1) discovery of body parts (bones, trophies, things made from the animal's skin, etc); 2) scientific surveys where scientists are in the field looking for every animal in a targeted area; and 3) eyewitness accounts (either fresh or traditional) that alert scientists or explorers to the possibility of an animal and inspire expeditions to find it. Most of Dr. Alan Rabinowitz's mammal discoveries, for example, came from asking local hunters about their animals. Sometimes they could show him a trophy: other times, they described an animal they had seen and told him, or guided him, to where it could be found. As I said, there are many variations on these categories, but the idea that eyewitness encounters have not been crucial to important animal discoveries is certainly not valid.

(By the way, if you are curious what Dr. Rabinowitz has been up to, he's in the fight of his life: battling cancer while trying to save the tigers of Myanmar.  I'm in awe of the man.)

Such sightings serve as a starting point for investigators: they are not "proof" of a creature, but they can prompt us to ask interesting questions which we can then approach with the modern tools of science. The sightings of the chevron-marked beaked whale called  Mesoplodon Species A are a good example, leading eventually to an identification (which frankly still seems a little weak to me, but I have to yield to experts like Robert Pitman and company here) of this animal as the adult form of the pygmy beaked whale. Cryptozoology, properly understood, is the application of zoology, scientifically and objectively, to the discovery of new animals: the distinction is that cryptozoology opens the aperture a bit to open files on cases which are not quite as well attested as those leading to, say, the finding of the Vu Quang ox and company

What is the eyewitness report is not followed by anything more substantial? At what point do we toss it out?

Let's say it's 1908 or so, and you open a sea serpent file based on the report made by two naturalists on the yacht Valhalla. Interesting sighting, just published in the Royal Society's Proceedings - perfectly logical thing for a scientist to do. Then you wait. Do you close the file if twenty years pass without the animal being found? Probably not - the sea is a big place. Fifty years? Maybe - 50 years without a sighting was the old IUCN standard for extinction. 100 years? Well, depressingly, it's entirely logical to close the file. (I haven't quite, but I recognize I'm on shaky ground). In other words, how long does it take for absence of evidence to become evidence of absence? Maybe there should be a 50-year standard, but the cahow or Bermuda petrel was rediscovered 300 years after extinction. Some of it depends on whether the habitat can be searched: small lakes have been thoroughly searched (and dynamited) and the hypothesis (in Karl Popper’s sense of the falsifiable hypothesis being the basis of science) that there were creatures in those lakes have been properly falsified. It would take enormous and unavailable resources to falsify the hypothesis "There is an unclassified North American ape," but you can do it in theory. For the hypothesis, "There is an unclassified elongate marine species sometimes called a sea serpent" you could still falsify it in theory by active searching, but the task is too vast to even consider. Can the lack of followup evidence be considered falsification, and after what period of time? You inevitably end up in the world of opinion.

It’s not true that “my opinion is as good as yours” (see the Pitman example above).  But it’s also true that every researcher needs to use their own judgment – hopefully skeptically (in the proper sense of that word) – when evaluating witness reports. Witnesses can be right, they can be wrong, or somewhere in the middle. But I do hold they very often give science the starting point in discovery of a new animal.   

Tennyson: Ringing out 2013

Wherever you are, whatever you believe, this is the greatest poem ever written about looking to the New Year with hope.

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]

by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Reviewing a top scientific thriller: Invasive Species

Invasive Species
Joseph Wallace
Berkley, 2013

Joseph Wallace has done everything right in this thriller: good characters, a killer premise, well-researched locations, and gruesomely scary details.  But what really separates this from the pack is that Wallace, unlike many authors, has the science down cold.  His "thieves" are several evolutionary steps beyond any known insect, but you can work out why they would have evolved this way, and the result is terrifyingly plausible.  The hive-mind intelligence gets a little far out when the hive mind is connecting individuals separated by entire continents, but even here Joseph isn't just hand-waving it: he grounds the thieves' capabilities in what we know about hive minds and mentions the genuine scientific questions we still have about how they might work.  His concepts of how parasitic hosts exploit and control their prey have real analogues in nature, including those hellishly alien fungi that control the minds of ants.
As a writer, Wallace has a lot working for him: his pacing is perfect, his descriptions are thorough without being overly detailed, and he creates characters we care about and yet is never afraid to kill anyone in the service of the story.  It's clear no one is safe in this chillingly realistic novel.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman wraps up 2013

Loren Coleman, indefatiguable chronicler of cryptozoology, has published his accounts of significant deaths in the field in 2013, his nomination of cryptozoologist of the year (Dr. Bryan Sykes, who disproved most yeti'sasquatch hair evidence but apparently has discovered there was a brown/polar bear relative in the Himalayan region within historical times and maybe still extant), and the Top Ten Events in cryptozoology in 2013. 

Coleman's Top Ten are:

1. Discovery of the Kobomani Tapir (Tapirus kabomani) and other new creatures (a huge discovery, both in size and in scientific importance.)
2. Sykes' "snow bear" (which may still be a living species: there are mysteries about the bear populations of Asia.)
3. Sightings of "Little people" (may be related to the "hobbits" of Flores and/or the orang-pendek, the almost-proven ape of Sumatra, though these new reports seem to concern creatures SO little (20 inches tall) as to be hard to accept as any real animal.)
4. Mystery hominids found through DNA to have interbred with ancient humans
5. A spate of lake monster sightings, plus a "sea serpent" off Maine (I didn't find anything new or compelling in the lake monster cases, some of which were hoaxes: The Maine sea creature is kind of interesting, though it MIGHT have been a swimming moose "blown up" by excitement and the difficulties of estimating sizes across water.)
6. An out of place animal of unknown origin, a leopard, killed in Indiana (a good reminder that people reporting animals that "can't be there" can be right.)
7. Person shot while running around looking for Bigfoot (I'm amazed this didn't happen long ago.)
8. Discovery Channel's fake Megalodon shark documentary, which a lot of people still think was real
9. Interesting "snowman" footprints from Russia (In this entry Coleman mentions a related topic, the ridiculous Ketchum sasquatch DNA claims.)
10. Another sign of crypotozoology in popular culture: Safari Ltd's "Cryptozoology Toob" of small animal models.

Loren does a lot of things with his Top Ten that I like. He doesn't restrict it to events which marked progress: he picks out the most newsworthy even when they involve casting doubt or disrepute on crypytozoology.  He doesn't focus narrowly on reports and evidence: he understands that, however many of us like to think about this in scientific terms, the fact is that science, culture, and media are inextricably intertwined in the modern world.  While Loren tends to be more accepting of sighting reports than I sometimes think warranted (he classes about 80% as mistakes and hoaxes: I think the figure works out to be higher), and we disagree on the possibility of some creatures (we will not, ever, find a giant long-necked mystery animal in a lake), he is more cautious than some cryptozoologists and is willing to call out a hoax as a hoax (e.g., Ketchum). 

So congratulations, Loren, and Merry Christmas!

ADDED: Loren pointed out a a couple of mistakes I'd made in this post (my fault: I didn't quality-check it) and asked if I really thought I could be so certain about long-necked lake monsters. I am, and the rejection of that possibility is now, according to Loren, known as Bille's Dictum.  I''ll "own that," as my daughters would say.  Thanks, Loren.

Monday, December 16, 2013

New mammals - and one is a BIG one

First, we have four small mammals from Africa - the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to be exact. From one forest we have two new shrews and two new bats - small, yes, but important.

Then, we have a big one. This new tapir from Brazil, at over 100kg, is the largest new species of land mammal described since - well, a long time. Vietnam's saola is reportedly about 100kg.  Depending how one counts reclassifications (and which reclassifications and taxonomic "splitting" events one counts), it might even be the biggest since the huge wild cattle species called the kouprey came out of Cambodia in 1937.
So, yeah, it's certainly the biggest mammal discovery of the 21st century. And it should serve as a wake-up call reminding us that there is still a lot  to find in the remote places of the world. Espcially the Amazon, where Dr. Marc van Roosmalen has described several new species, including the 50-kg giant peccary, and reports several more large mammals seen but unclassified.
Here's the formal description. This animal is the fifth living species of tapir (there are some disagreements over tapir classification, but this animal is distinct: there's no doubting it).
So, wow.

The Moon and Mars

OK, maybe the most exciting era of space exploration - when humans stepped on the Moon -is long past.  But what's going on right now is pretty darn amazing. 

First NASA reported that there's more and more evidence for fresh water - even drinkably clear water - in the Martian past.  There's even a hint - just a hint, so far, but tantalizing - that it sometimes still does.

Then, of course, we have the third nation ever to land a probe on the Moon.  Not just a lander, but a rover.  China's feat, using largely indigenous technology (there's some traceability to Russian tech, but that's receding into history), captured the biggest worldwide space headlines since the Mars rovers.  It is, without doubt, a major step toward the goal of sending a human - a feat that would, in popular opinion at least, make China the predominant nation in space exploration.  A rover with the wonderful name of Jade Rabbit is making the first tracks (aside from outright collisions) in the lunar surface since Apollo 17 lifted off.  Amazing. Congratulations to China's engineers - and frankly, shame on the space leadership of the US - it's not that we're not capable of this, we clearly are, but we've chosen to let the headlines go to a rival power.  I don't think we have any idea yet of the implications.

The mission, including the 120-kg rover, was launched on a Chinese Long March 3B on 1 December.

The Jade Rabbit rover on the surface of the Moon, 15 December

(Photo released by China, so I don't think the AP mark in the lower right is a copyright problem)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Florida Panther: cat on the edge

Some moron killed a Florida panther, which is not only illegal but a very big deal when there may only be a hundred of them (and there were many fewer than that before conservationists, in a last-ditch measure, brought in a few healthy cats from Texas to strengthen the gene pool). 
The Florida panther has always lived on the edge, hemmed in by development, threatened by hunting (which used to be legal), and increasingly desperate to find mates and food.  The invasion of large constricting snakes competes with them for food in the southern half of the state.  The cat's legendary elusiveness hasn't helped it in the modern age: there are still roadkills every year. (Something I have pointed out in debates over why we don't have a dead sasquatch: if they exist. We SHOULD have one by now.) Anyway, the penalties for killing a Florida panther are severe, and one knucklehead was convicted of killing one in 2009 with a bow and arrow.
Jeff Corwin described an almost surreal sighting in his book 100 Heartbeats: "seemingly in slow motion, it floated to the ground...it was darker than panther's I'd seen in photos, more charcoal than sage... (afterwards) I couldn't stop thinking about the way the panther had seamlessly, effortlessly disappeared without turning a leaf."
Let's keep those few hearts beating.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

New species: all discoveries count

We haven't found any new large land mammals for several years. We have found birds, sharks, dolphins, and other "major" animals, though. 
So does something as seemingly tiny as finding a new limpet feeding on the beak of a dead octopus matter?
It does.  Here's the story
Off Antarctica's Pine Island Bay (no, I don't know how it got the name: there are certainly no pine trees.  Maybe an early explorer lost an air freshener there) is the Amundsen Sea, a little-known corner of the great Southern Ocean. A team of biologists from the British Antarctic Survey made an expedition here in 2008 and just now published their findings. (That's not that unusual: it can often take years to determine whether a specimen is a new species: this team found more than 30.)
Why does it matter? First, we need as complete a catalog as possible for conservation.  Second, small animals can be very important in the ecosystem: ask the mighty blue whale, which harvests the dense herds of krill in this ocean, how important tiny shrimplike crustaceans are.  (You could say the blues have a license to krill.) Third, the animals found in an area are major clues to how the ecosystem functions there: scientists found that, unlike neighboring seas, the mobile echinoderms like starfish, rather than sponges, dominated the sea floor.
So let's keep looking.
Katrin Linse, said:
"Unlike many other seas around Antarctica, the Amundsen Sea shelf was not dominated by large sedentary sponges but instead by mobile echinoderms (starfish, urchins, brittlestars and ) and a community of similar animals which inhabit the on-shelf basins.
The Amundsen Sea is an area of rapid change due to ice shelf breakup. Until now we knew nothing about the benthic fauna living here. Our recent study gives us a first insight into the biodiversity of this region and can serve as a baseline to observe future changes.
At least 10% of all the species collected are new to science, and this figure is likely to rise with further genetic identification. "

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-12-limpit-species-amundsen-sea.html#jCp
Katrin Linse, said:
"Unlike many other seas around Antarctica, the Amundsen Sea shelf was not dominated by large sedentary sponges but instead by mobile echinoderms (starfish, urchins, brittlestars and ) and a community of similar animals which inhabit the on-shelf basins.
The Amundsen Sea is an area of rapid change due to ice shelf breakup. Until now we knew nothing about the benthic fauna living here. Our recent study gives us a first insight into the biodiversity of this region and can serve as a baseline to observe future changes.
At least 10% of all the species collected are new to science, and this figure is likely to rise with further genetic identification. "

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-12-limpit-species-amundsen-sea.html#jCp
Katrin Linse, said:
"Unlike many other seas around Antarctica, the Amundsen Sea shelf was not dominated by large sedentary sponges but instead by mobile echinoderms (starfish, urchins, brittlestars and ) and a community of similar animals which inhabit the on-shelf basins.
The Amundsen Sea is an area of rapid change due to ice shelf breakup. Until now we knew nothing about the benthic fauna living here. Our recent study gives us a first insight into the biodiversity of this region and can serve as a baseline to observe future changes.
At least 10% of all the species collected are new to science, and this figure is likely to rise with further genetic identification. "

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-12-limpit-species-amundsen-sea.html#jCp
Katrin Linse, said:
"Unlike many other seas around Antarctica, the Amundsen Sea shelf was not dominated by large sedentary sponges but instead by mobile echinoderms (starfish, urchins, brittlestars and ) and a community of similar animals which inhabit the on-shelf basins.
The Amundsen Sea is an area of rapid change due to ice shelf breakup. Until now we knew nothing about the benthic fauna living here. Our recent study gives us a first insight into the biodiversity of this region and can serve as a baseline to observe future changes.
At least 10% of all the species collected are new to science, and this figure is likely to rise with further genetic identification. "

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-12-limpit-species-amundsen-sea.html#jCp
Katrin Linse, said:
"Unlike many other seas around Antarctica, the Amundsen Sea shelf was not dominated by large sedentary sponges but instead by mobile echinoderms (starfish, urchins, brittlestars and ) and a community of similar animals which inhabit the on-shelf basins.
The Amundsen Sea is an area of rapid change due to ice shelf breakup. Until now we knew nothing about the benthic fauna living here. Our recent study gives us a first insight into the biodiversity of this region and can serve as a baseline to observe future changes.
At least 10% of all the species collected are new to science, and this figure is likely to rise with further genetic identification. "

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-12-limpit-species-amundsen-sea.html#jCp
THANKS TO Robert Twomley for the post on this that drew my attention

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Turtles are doing better: Maui's dolphin is in deep trouble

There are a couple of marine conservation success stories to tout - proof that humans CAN get it right when they come together.
Thirty years ago, there were 62 green turtle nests on the beaches of Florida.  Today there are 35,000.
The leatherback turtle was critically endangered, according to the IUCN.  In this year's Red List, it's been upgraded several steps to Vulnerable.  (The Pacific populations are still in trouble, but Atlantic leatherbacks are rebounding solidly.) The leatherback is the largest and most wide-ranging of the sea turtles: it can weigh a ton, and Hemingway's fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea calls it the "trunk turtle," which is fitting for an animal that does look a bit like luggage.  It is so large it's been implicated in some "sea monster" sightings.
On the other hand, there are 55 adult Maui's dolphins in the waters off New Zealand.  The government is taking conservations measures, but critics call them half-measures, and say the animal is swiftly departing the planet.
Dr Barbara Maas says, "New Zealand's failure to protect the world's smallest and rarest dolphin is a bitter blow to marine conservation." But she insists that, if better protection from fishing nets and other threats is enacted, "They are not doomed to extinction. Genetic variability is still high, they can bounce back but saving them is a race against time."

From Brazil, a new breed of cat

Cryptic species (not to be confused with cryptids) are animals that look very similar but are different species.  This was often impossible to sort out with the pre-DNA morphological method of identifying species.  DNA analysis has, for example, raised important questions about how many types killer whales (Orcinus orca) there are. It has also showed us there's another species of wild cat in Brazil. The handsomely spotted, housecat-sized ocilla is not, as long presumed, one species: it has two populations that overlap ranges but never interbreed.  (This gets into the question of exactly what constitutes a species, and we're not going to wade into that swamp here).  The cats were confused not only because they look similar, but because they are rare and elusive: every photograph is news.
So we bid the world's newest cat a hearty welcome and hope its nine lives can carry it through the environmental challenges of life in a shrinking rain forest.

SpaceX is - well, almost Go!

SpaceX was ready for a milestone, its first launch from Florida and its first commercial launch to geosynchronous orbit (GEO) on its once-flown Falcon 9 v.1.1.  (NOTE to Elon Musk: you can do better for a designation than that.  Advanced Falcon, perhaps)? Anyway, two launch dates have come and gone. Now I'm not blaming the SpaceX folks for caution. This is a "must have" success for a rocket with no GEO deliveries so far and a long fight ahead for US government certification for Defense payloads. Everything has to be right.  We don't have a new launch date yet - "a few days" is the best available.
Do I think they'll get it right? Yes, I do.  They've made huge strides as the first competitor to United Launch Alliance to actually make it to orbit with a medium-lift vehicle. (The Falcon Heavy may flay late next year).  Here's a toast to success!

UPDATE: After postponement, a brilliant success!

SES-8 | Falcon 9 GEO Transfer Mission
SpaceX publicity photo of Falcon 9 launch

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Day: The kokako and the saola

The world's most famous "missing" bird is the ivory-billed woodpecker, but there are many species in the same boat (nest?)  The ivory-bill might be the most poignant story, because we got a last glimpse of it in a breif flurry of great excitement over the spotting of at least one bird before the species finally, sadly (I am afraid) slipped out of existence for good. 
That was a long prelude to a short post, but there is, on this Thanksgiving Day, better news on another bird, the South Island kokako.  Of 11 sightings of the "extinct" bird studied by the New Zealand Ornithological Society's Record Appraisal Committee, has validated one, made by Len Turner and Peter Rudolf near the town of Reefton in 2007.  That's not exactly yesterday, but it's a very big deal for a bird that many authorities thought didn't make it out of the 1960s.  When I wrote my newsletter Exotic Zoology (1994-99),  Dr. Karl Shuker gave me a friendly hard time because in two issues in a row I crossed the name up with another rare type, the flightless parrot called the kakapo.  (There are 62 kakapos in the world at last count.)

When big land animals go missing, it's often for good.  But the Vietnamese population of the Javan rhinoceros was rediscovered after a 40-year absence (and hunted back into extinction) and recently we have the first sighting of the Vu Quang ox, or saola, to be confirmed in many years. The species was only discovered in 1992.  Van Ngoc Thinh, Vietnamese director of the World Wide Fund for Animals (WWF), said, “When our team first looked at the photos we couldn’t believe our eyes. Saola are the holy grail for South East Asian conservationists so there was a lot of excitement.” It's not clear whether there are any confirmed sightings since a capture (and death) in 2010, and before that since this episode in 1999. The animal, which may weigh 100kg, is the largest full species discovered in the wild (discounting reclassifications) since the kouprey in 1937: the latter bovid, alas, may be extinct. 

So we have many losses, but also some reasons for hope.  So Happy Thanksgiving to conservation and all the heroes working all over the world to keep rare species from disappearing. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: A thorough guide to marine mammals

Whales, Dolphins, and Other Marine Mammals of the World (Princeton Field Guides)

A very special dinosaur book - All Yesterdays

All Yesterdays - Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals
Lulu.com, 2012

This slender book will show you dinosaurs in a way you never thought of before.  C.M. Kosemen, John Conway, and Darren Naish (two paleoartists and a paleontologist)  have explored the ways in which current reconstructions of dinosaurs may vary from the real thing.  Along the way, they post some unique questions, like "How did stegosaurs have sex?" (Think about it.  Your first notion may be that it wasn't possible, only it obviously was.)  Uniquely colored and shaped dinos are presented to make the point that many reconstructions, with muscles "shrink-wrapped" about the skeleton, don't reflect the way most animals really appear.  A dinosaur we think of as sleek could have been pudgy or one we think of as dull could have been garish.  For added fun, the authors wonder how future paleontologists might reconstruct a baboon (all legs and teeth) or a cow (a svelte, fast-moving animal).   This is the kind of book that not only shows you something new, but makes you think about things you considered settled and familiar. 
So buy this one for the dinosaur lover in your family. They might be startled, but they won't be disappointed. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Record for multiple satellite launches lasts one day

Last night, an American Minotaur 1 carried 29 satellites, almost of them the tiny type called CubeSats, into orbit.  Today, a Russian Dneper launcher carried up 32.  Interestingly, both launchers are based on retired ballistic missiles. 
This isn't just a numbers game.  Earth has put up more satellites in two days than in the first four years of the Space Age.  We are in a second Space Age - one where college and high school students routinely work on satellite hardware, and a kid with a soldering iron and a credit card can order a satellite kit and become his own space agency.  The launch demand is still not being satisfied nearly as cheaply as we'd like: the CubeSats can cost $100,000 to get a single kilogram into orbit.  There's major room for improvement. 

Microsat fleet launches into space

Readers will know I take a major interest in the potential of miniaturized satellites, called microsats, nanosats, or picosats depending on side. (There is even a proposal for "femtosats" smaller than your fingernail: the ChipSat project is testing prototypes in space now.)
The most common "form factor," as the engineers say, is the CubeSat.  CubeSats are 10 cm (4 inches) on a side, the size of a square Kleenex box, and are being built in increasing numbers by everyone from the National Reconnaissance Office to high schools.  The successful Minotaur I launch, arranged by the Defense Department's Operationally Responsive Space Office and Space Test Program with coordination from NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation, used a booster based on retired ICBM stages to put no less than 29 microsats, hte vast majority CubeSats, in orbit along with the larger STPSat-3. (When I say high schools I'm not kidding: TJCubeSat is from Thomas Jefferson High School.)  The launch set a record for most satellites launched on one mission. CubeSats do real science and even military testing along with being a boon for STEM education. A new generation will grow up having worked on actual satellite hardware in high school and college, and we don't even know the implications of that yet.  Go Micro! (Photo credit NASA)

Liftoff took place at NASA's Wallops FLight Facility's Pad-0b at the Mid_Atlantic Regional Spaceport about 45 minutes into the launch window. Contrary to some reports, the launch was not delayed due to solar activity. Photo Credit: NASA

Monday, November 18, 2013

MAVEN: Launching to Mars

The lastest (and, given cuts to Planetary Exploration, one of the last firmly scheduled) of America's Mars missions is due to launch in about 40 minutes.MAVEN will study the planet's atmosphere to determine its composition, history, and evolution in much greater detail than previous probes.  That information will make MAVEN dresults one more piece in the puzzle of possible Martian life, part or present.  On to Mars!

Quote for the Day is from Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX: "I would like to be born on Earth and die on Mars - although not at the point of impact."

Follow the Launch Live

And MAVEN is off.  Congrats to NASA, United Launch Alliance, and all others involved.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dunkleosteus and company

The Devonian period, sometimes known as the "Age of Fishes," might be defined as the "Age of Sorting Out," as the countless creature types from the Cambrian explosion either evolved into something adapted for the long term or, in many cases, died out.  The trilobites might have dominated the biomass, as they crawled over the sea floor in billions, and they were not all small - this species was over two feet long.  but the highlights are still the fish, which evolved into some spectacular types.  Dunkleosteus is still king, though there was one species nearly as large - this guy.

So it would have been an interesting time to get in a little fishing....

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Curse of losing cursive writing

My friend Shannon Bohle has pointed out something in her blog I hadn't thought about. While I deplored the loss of penmanship in school because it taught discipline and precision, she notes that this is leading to an inability to read cursive well, and thus to loss of access of countless documents from Presidential letters to patents and scientific papers. Until the mid-1800s, everything was written in cursive, and we're sliding down a slope toward a world where much of humanity's treasure trove of thought and action will be accessible only to specialists.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Gravity: A movie you won't forget

I finally saw Gravity. It gets a middling grade at best on physics and orbital mechanics, but A's for Sandra's performance, for the indelible visuals, and for getting the feel of being in space right. An amazing film.
I suppose you could give it a D- or an F for the orbital mechanics, if you were minded to be picky: the Shuttle, Hubble, and two space stations are shown in near-identical orbits, with each spacecraft visible from the other, and what orbit was that debris in so it came around every 90 minutes (a low orbit) yet somehow included taking out communications satellites, which operate in far higher orbits?
(Someone pointed out another oddity, which is not really about this film but about our spacefaring culture: there is a lot of irony in making a science fiction film about machines we have already sent to museums.)
All that said, the director did his best to reflect the reality of space travel within the needs of the story.  Anchored by Sandra Bullock and, in a brief but memorable role, George Clooney, with Ed Harris (who else?) as the voice of Mission Control, the human drama of voyaging though the most inhospitable realm imaginable - on where you are denied even the normal feeling of falling because there's nothing to fall TO - is brought to life as never before.  The technical wizardry is amazing: even when you know how a shot was done, you can't see it.  Some of it really could have been filmed on orbit. 
It is, in the end, not a space film but a film about survival.
It's about being human.
It's a film about US.

A Digression: Veterans' Day

This poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow needs no introduction.

A Nameless Grave

"A soldier of the Union mustered out,"
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Book Review: Dan Simmons' The Abominable

This is epic novel writing
Like most Simmons books, the detail is astonishing: you'll feel like an expert in 1920s mountain climbing, among other things, and Simmons knows how to pace things so the details never stop the story.
Climbing Mount Everest, we learn, was grueling beyond the imagination of most of us armchair adventurers.  Even after supplemental oxygen was introduced, there's a reason all pre-WWII expeditions failed to summit, the reason being that the mountaintop is a frozen, wind-lashed hell.  Simmons pits four climbers against a larger, far better armed party determined to stop them from finding a lost climber's body and the secret the dead man was carrying.  The history of mountaineering is told in the buildup to a deadly cat and mouse game in a realm where humans need every bit of stamina and grit just to stay alive, and yet must also fight for their lives.
Those wanting to learn about the yeti will not find a lot of detail, but the subject is pivotal at two points. To keep from spoiling it, I won't say whether Simmons' novel presents the metohkangmi as real animals.
My only moment of disappointment was in the end result of the larger geopolitical story that frames the deadly chase on Everest.  Again, trying to avoid spoiling the experience, I'll just say that the good guys would have used their secret information long before they did, an odd mistake by an author who works so much history into his novels.
That was one bad moment in a superb book, though.  If you are interested in tackling a long and unique novel with some cryptozoological bits, The Abominable (which is, itself, heavy enough to anchor a climbing rope or clobber a yeti with), you won't be disappointed. 

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Plastic Ocean

You've heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and probably the Texas-sized concentration of Japanese flotsam headed for the US Pacific Northwest.  (That one is to some degree exaggeration - it's not a solid floating mass - but there's a lot of debris on US beaches and a lot more heading out way. According to NOAA, about 1.5 million tons of such debris floated out to sea in the wake of the tsunami.) A messenger from the oceans (albeit a tragic one) was a gray whale that beached and died near Seattle.  In the stomach of this bottom-scraping filter feeder were "more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweat pants, plastic pieces, duct tape, and a golf ball." The gray was a male 12 meters long. A biologist commented: "While debris has been found in the stomachs of some previous gray whales found dead in Puget Sound, this appeared to be a larger quantity than had ever been found previously."
It's not just Puget Sound. It's not just the Pacific.  It's everywhere, and we have to stop it now.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Can a leopard change its spots - to stripes?

A striped leopard is a contradiction in terms, but Nature is full of contradictions.  One is the striped/blotched King Cheetah, originally thought to have been a distinct species, now known as a recurring genetic abnormality. There is a similar abnormality, which, in handful of even rarer cases (one writer says about a dozen are known), produces this amazing striped leopard.   
A lovely creature, isn't it?
NOTE: I  searched, but I can't find a copyright notice for this image: if I'm violation, I'll take it down.

Second new Australian dolphin

Hot on the flippers of the Australian snubfin dolphin  (Orcaella heinsohni) discovery comes the second new Australian dolphin in a decade: the newest member of a group called the humpback dolphins. The species, still not named, is the fourth known in the genus Sousa and lives off northern Australia.  (Humpback dolphins have a hump below the dorsal fin which is sometimes prominent enough to make the animal look like it's toting a small aqualung.) The new species doesn't look much different from its genus-mates, but study of 180 skulls and 235 tissue samples were involved in determining its distinctness. We don't know about its population or conservation status.  Dolphins in general are having a hard time of it even after the mass slaughter involved in tuna fishing has been drastically reduced. The baji (Lipotes vexillifer) is likely extinct, and four other species are in extreme danger.  Here's a good overview of the 5 most endangered cetaceans.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

No Australian Nessie and no mermaids, either

There have been "sea serpent" reports off Australia before, as well as this bizarre seagoing chimera called the moha-moha (a pretty obvious hoax report if you ask me. Or ask any biologist who ever lived.)  This is, of course, not to be confused with the blimp of the fish world, the mola mola, which if you just hear a description probably sounds like a hoax - but isn't.
The latest report is this one, accompanied by a photograph.  While it looks monstrous, Australian cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy suggests it was the bow of a sunken dragon boat.  Gilroy has a habit of erring on the credulous side of cryptozoology, so when he believes in a prosaic explanation for a report, I suspect he's right. Especially since, in this case, the plesiosaur shape just "bobbed" in the water.  Darn.
Then from Deepsea News we have this analysis of why mermaids don't exist.  Sheanna Steingass explains that mermaids of the classic variety would freeze, be unable to reproduce, and would have a variety of other anatomically-based problems.  Now, I have never met anyone who thinks such a thing actually exists, but it is one of the sea's most charming legends.

My dad, a folk singer, still performs this one.

The Eddystone Light (traditional)

Me father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light,
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
Out of this union there came three,
A porpoise and a porgy, and the other was me!
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

One night, as I was a-trimmin’ the glim
And singing a verse from the evening hymn
I see by the light of me binnacle lamp,
Me kind old father lookin’ jolly and damp.
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

A voice from starboard shouted, “Ahoy!”
And there was me mother sittin’ on a buoy
Meanin’ a bouy for ships what sail,
And not a boy what’s a juvenile male.
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

Well, what became of me children three?”
Me mother then she asked of me.
Well, one was exhibited as a talking fish,
The other was served as a savory dish.
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

The phosphorous flashed in her seaweed hair
I looked again and me mother wasn’t there,
But her voice came echoing out of the night,
“To hell with the keeper of the Eddystone Light!”
With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free,
It’s all for the life on the rolling sea!

The Kraken of Doom

Squid don't fossilize well (only the calcified "pen" and maybe the beak turn up), so we don't know as much as we'd like about their evolution, including just when they got to be really big.  The modern giant squid can approach (maybe even, in long-tentacled examples, exceed) 18m.  But was there a giant squid in the days of the dinosaurs? This paper says there was - and not only was it monstrous, it decorated its den with the skeletons of its victims.  Not surprisingly, most paleontologists think this idea a bit preposterous.  A piece of a squid's pen from 218 million years ago belonged, one paleontologist says, to a species at least as big as modern giants. 
It's a very unlikely possibility, but it's fun to think about. Maybe the giant seagoing reptiles had equally giant rivals?  We don't know when this "kraken" species, if it's being correctly identified at all, appeared, or how and when it went extinct.  We just know there's a bit of a controversy here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Lost World" is an overused term, but...

"Lost World" owes its popularity as a term to the 1912 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, THAT A. Conan Doyle),  with a modern boost from the Jurassic Park films and some really bad films of Doyle's novel.  Biologists are careful about using it for every newly investigated patch of forest or mountain yielding new species, but the press loves it, and the scientists sometimes go along. 
The latest use concerns a plateau in Australia's Cape Melville Range never properly surveyed by biological scientists. While no dinosaurs turned up, the herps of this region offered plenty of surprises.  One scientist called the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko the "strangest new species to come across my desk in 26 years working as a professional herpetologist." The 20-cm lizard has long legs, big eyes, and a camouflage pattern that's astonishing effective: it just disappears against many backdrops. A golden skink and a rather pretty frog completed the initial haul. Dr Conrad Hoskin of  James Cook University commented, "...to be able to walk into a new mountain range and find several new animals immediately shows that there must be very many more out there."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Something with poison..."

The Wicked Witch of the West had a point. Poison is very handy when it comes to survival, and two recent discoveries have told us more about venomous animals. 
First, an obvious question for paleontologists is when poison first evolved.  The apparent answer popped up in 2009.  (OK, you can argue whether that6's "recent," but I'm working on a theme here.) Half a billion years ago, tiny jawless proto-vertebrates called conodonts evolved strange-looking teeth. (Teeth without jaws were pretty fashionable back then).  Polish scientist Hubert Szaniawski reported, "Many of them are characterized by possession of a deep, longitudinal groove, usually associated with sharp edges or ridges. A comparative study of the grooved elements and venomous teeth and spines of living and extinct vertebrates strongly suggests that the groove in conodonts was also used for delivery of venom." So this poisoning has been going on a long time. (Weird fact: baboon,s which are not venomous, have such grooves for no apparent reason.)
The crustaceans, however, never saw the need for poison, opting to develop better claws and other weaponry.  Or we thought they did. Among seventy thousand species, maybe there had to be an oddball.  London scientists Bjorn von Reumont has found that primitive crustaceans called remipedes, which look a little like swimming centipedes, have, in one species  (Speleonectes tulumensis), developed toxic fangs. The venom is, as might be expected, odd: it mixes a neurotoxin to make its prey helpless and a heavy does of digestive enzymes to get into the prey's body and start breaking it down.
Nature, once again, proves stranger than ...well, anything else. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Meanwhile, in Suriname...

Another batch of new species.  Sixty of them, to be exact.  In this case, researchers had a rare untrammeled habitat to examine. Dr. Leeanne Alonso, an entomologist who led a recent expedition for Conservation International, said, "I have conducted expeditions all over the world, but never have I seen such beautiful, pristine forests so untouched by humans. Southern Suriname is one of the last places on earth where there is a large expanse of pristine tropical forest. The high number of new species discovered is evidence of the amazing biodiversity of these forests that we have only just begun to uncover."
Does modern technology make these expeditions easy? Easier, yes. Easy" Hell, no.  Dr. Trond Larsen's blog about a flooding river drowning the expedition's camps and nearly drowning him makes compelling reading.
He adds his own thoughts on the findings: "...we were surprised and uplifted to discover so many frogs potentially new to science, including a stunningly sleek “cocoa” tree frog. Among the new fishes, we found a gorgeous, miniature tetra with a golden body and red eyes, similar to the head-and-tail-light tetra so popular among aquarists."

Flood of new species from the Amazon

I can't say it often enough: We have not found all the new species on Earth, not even the "major" ones like primates.  The Amazon has amazed us with many new discoveries, and a new report from the WWF collects 441 of these from 2010 through the present.    The adorable caqueta titi monkey (Callicebus caquetensis), purrs like a kitten when young. The monkey was the only mammal mentioned in this particular report, which is a bit odd since Dr. Marc van Roosmalen has found several more recent mammals.  There are, to go with however many mammals, 18 birds (authorities once thought the birds had almost all been discovered), 84 fish, 58 amphibians, and 22 reptiles, with the rest being plants.  The title of "weirdest new discovery" might go to the vegetarian piranha, which  can weigh up to 4 kilograms.
It's easy to sit here in middle-class North American comfort and say, "They need to protect the habitat." "They" do need to protect it, but "we need to help them, with money, with know-how, and with monitoring the activities of corporations based up here.  It is said the forests are "lungs" of planet Earth.  We're down to about half a lung.  However you take action, whether it's sending money or writing Congress or being part of a conservation, organization, discoveries like these remind us of the urgent need to do what we can.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Start planning: 2014 Pikes Peak Writers Conference

The highlight of the writing year out here in Colorado is in the planning stages.  The dates are set 25-27 April 2014.  The keynote speakers are on board, and a revamped writer's context (the Zebulon) is under way.  Start making plans!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

46th anniversary of most famous "crypto" footage ever taken

It was 46 years today
That Patty taught the band to play
Squatch is going in and out of style
But it's guaranteed to raise a smile
So let me introduce to you
Still puzzling after these years
Patty Bigfoot's lonely creature band!

OK, that's guaranteed to be the worst Beatles parody ever written.  Be glad I don't sing. 

Today in 1967, at Bluff Creek, California, Roger Patterson, a rodeo rider and general odd-job man, and his pal Bob Gimlin went looking for Bigfoot.  Against seemingly stupefying odds, they found her. and Patterson shot what is probably the second most analyzed amateur film ever taken (after the Zapruder film of JFK). 

Despite a flood of books, there is still some mystery here.
If it was a hoax, it was a well done hoax.  None of the countless enhancements and enlargements done since then has shown any obviously artificial detail like a zipper.  Neither the simplistic theatrical costume alleged by Greg Long in The Making of Bigfoot nor the homemade costume others skeptics have attributed to Patterson would have measured up.  There are lots of rumors attributing the costume to John Chambers of the Planet of the Apes films, and he probably could have done it, but has said he didn't, and how would he have hooked up with P-G anyway?
If it's an animal, it has just as many problems.  Dr. John Napier, the most eminent primatologist ever to endorse sasquatch's reality, thought it was an unacceptable hybrid - top half like an ape, bottom half (despite the fur) quite distinctively human.  No one has been able to get any footage nearly as good in 46 years despite the explosion of people and money poured into the phenomenon by TV.  No one has found the animal itself, for that matter, or even a piece of it, even a DNA sample that hasn't been shredded by scientific critics.

My thought? The nays have it.  Probably.  The only thing that keeps me from closing the sasquatch file entirely is some of the seemingly clear and puzzling witness reports, but I've closed the file on the film.  I'd bet my house, here and now, that it was a hoax.  (You would, too, if you had my mortgage.) But there are mysteries about who made it and how.  I'd like someone to solve those.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On being named an Associate Fellow of the AIAA

My friends: on the occasion of my having been named an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, I'd like to thank everyone who'd collaborated with me, critiqued me, encouraged me, or simply put up with me.   This reflects some 30 years of membership, publications, and participation.  I can honestly say I earned it, but I can't say I earned it alone.


God bless you all. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

And the Sykes DNA reveals... no new species

Professor Bryan Sykes' tests on putative sasquatch and yeti DNA samples sent from around the world has yielded... not a lot.  Even the specimens he thought most unusual are, it appears,  brown bears. 
You might say it's a little more interesting than that, given that the specimens most precisely matched a polar bear, which harkens back to when the two species were one.  That's odd, given there haven't been any polars in the Himalayas forever (as in, never), and Sykes suggests there might be a subspecies that branched off just at the brown/polar split and has remained basically unchanged.  So maybe there's something of real zoological interest. I hope so.  But no yetis, no sasquatches, no new primates at all.  That's kind of depressing, really. 

Update: Here's a good recap of the latest by Loren Coleman.  More information has come out about how and where these specimens were obtained.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

New Species (OK, almost new): Laos' giant flying squirrel

What's Lao for "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat"?

I missed this one when it first came out. Laos, it seems, has a very impressive flying squirrel, the second in its enigmatic genus, discovered at a market in 2012.  With a total length of over a meter (very impressive, even if it's mostly tail), the squirrel is one of the world's largest. Biswamoyopterus laoensis a close relative to Biswamoyopterus buswasi, itself known from only one specimen, found in 1981 in India. 
As I wrote in Shadows of Existence, the trendline of new mammal species discoveries is sloping up, not down.  Part of that is differentiating similar species via DNA and other techniques, but we're a long way from exhausting possible discoveries in the wild.  A new species and genus of rat, Halmaheramys bokimekot, just turned up in Indonesia, five new bats were found in Senegal, and the list just goes on. 
Are we done with finding distinct new species of large land mammals (say, 25kg or larger)? I think not.  Marc van Roosmalen's spectacular black and white jaguar may be a new species (given that van Roosmalen is the greatest living discoverer of Amazonian mammals, his certainty about this is nothing to dismiss).  The evidence for a new primate in Sumatra, the Orang Pendek, is pretty good if not yet definitive. Either would bring major headlines if confirmed. 
There may be many more headlines before we're done cataloging the mammals of the world.

Shutdown and Science

OK, the government is shut down. For the first few days, we were all joking, "How can we tell?"  Not funny any more.  Regardless of one's position on the issues, it takes the House, Senate, and President together to negotiate seriously, and our leaders are pretty darn slow in coming around to that.  So next time I vote, my slogan is, "A plague on all your Houses.  And White Houses. And Senate Chambers."
I think leaders of agencies deserve some brickbats, too, for assuming until the end that this wouldn't happen and not having more arrangements in place to keep critical research going through standby agreements with universities, agreements to share essential personnel across agencies, etc. It would still be terrible, but maybe a little less so.  Now we have NASA unable to do much of anything except keep the ISS astronauts supported, researchers in the Antarctic with no money to continue science but somehow enough money to bring them home, and nuclear labs closing (aren't those sort of essential by definition?) (The NASA article, BTW, came to my attention via a post by Shannon Bohle, who has a great blog here.) And the NIH unable to enroll new patients in trials that might, you know, save their lives. 
And pandacams shut down.  Seriously? How many cents a day did it cost to run the pandacams? I'll pay for it. 
Reminder to DC: Despite all the turmoil in America, we voters still have one power: we can still send every one of your butts home.  And maybe we should.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ad Astra, Scott Carpenter

Scott Carpenter was one of the Mercury Seven, the knights America sent into the skies to contest the Soviet Union.  If that romantic picture has faded over the years with the discovery that the astronauts were (surprise) human beings with feeling and failings, the fact remains that these young men undertook an incredibly dangerous adventure. Their motivations included patriotism, love of adventure, and the determination among test pilots to fly faster and farther than any of their brethren.  As Tom Wolfe wrote, "Scott was the only one with a touch of the poet about him," the only one of the seven who talked much about the philosophical implications of pushing humanity into a new frontier. He was also the only one to join John Glenn in urging his fellows to watch their public images and behavior.  He wrote an exciting and moving autobiography, For Spacious Skies. As a final touch of uniqueness, Carpenter turned to another frontier, becoming a pioneering aquanaut in the Navy's SeaLab program. 
I've never met any of the Seven: I would still like to meet Glenn, the last living example, but the other one I'd have loved to meet was always Carpenter.  Farewell.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

DNA of whales and... unknown primates?

The species known as Bryde's whale may be 16m long, but it is very little studied. The IUCN says there's not even enough data to know whether it's endangered. Actually, we don't even know if it's one global population or has distinct units.
Or we didn't.  Now we know there are two distinct subpopulations, or subspecies.  The smaller, coastal form has only one matriarchal DNA line: in other word,s there's very little variation.  In addition, the larger, ocean-going type is split into three sub-sub populations.  This may seen academic, but the conservation implications are big. Now we can study how each group is doing and tailor efforts to protect them..

Meanwhile, recall I rejected Dr. Melba Ketchum's claims about sasquatch DNA.  I said it was my final word, and it was.  But something potentially more interesting is going on. Prof Brian Sykes  offered to test "unknown primate" DNA samples, and he got them from all over the world.  He went through a lot of trash but apparently had significant results.
Sykes is a credentialed authority - what he has to say will be interesting.
But I'm troubled.  Apparently, while the findings are still going through peer review, there will be a documentary and a book.  The only comparable recent discovery (if this is a discovery) would be of the Flores "hobbit" people, and that one was done right: the peer review came first, and the discovery was announced in NATURE, the world's most prestigious and trusted journal.  That's the way to do it.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Wandering by Loch Ness

No, I haven't wandered by the lake in person,  I've always wanted to: I still do.  And I want the Loch to have a monster in it, even though I no longer think it does.
In the 1970s, Nessie was looking really good.  Photos and sonar readings were drawing serious interest from "mainstream" marine biologists and zoologists.  New Scientist and Limnology and Oceanography carried articles.  (There is, believe it or not, a paper by Carl Sagan on the sighting probabilities in Loch Ness, albeit a bit tongue in cheek.)  It seemed like the 1960 film by aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale might have been a real record of a real animal.
In 2013, as when I wrote about this in my book Shadows of Existence in 2006, I'm struck by the lack of new evidence.  Not sightings: there are still sightings, some hoaxed, some sincere.  But when this photo hoax (I admit, I didn't know what it was when I first saw it) is the biggest news in years, what's key is that are no new kinds of evidence.  People have spent over 80 years watching the loch and the same types of evidence: distant photos and eyewitness reports - keep piling up.  But is there anything  else?
Alas, no.  No good video, no recent sonar traces, no physical remains.  Some cryptozoologists think the creature (ok, everyone agrees there is not "a" monster, there has to be a breeding colony) occasionally emerges on land.  But it never leaves a trace.  Ness is the most-studied lake, I would wager, in all the British Isles.  And yet not only do we have no proof of a monster, but we have no proof there are enough fish in the lake to feed a colony of monsters: indeed, Dr. Roy Mackal's earlier work arguing there was enough has been pretty broadly dismissed as unwarranted extrapolations based on minimal evidence, and any predator is unlikely to be an unknown species: sightings of live animals, Adrian Shine and others argue, concern sturgeon or the occasional wandering seal (the seals are well documented: the sturgeon are speculative). 
I hate saying goodbye to Nessie.  She got me interested in cryptozoology in the first place.  I still think cryptozoology has something to contribute - even if there are no Nessies (or sasquatches, for that matter) lurking in just out of our sight. 

Space: The Historic Frontier

Space history is one of my specialties, so I apologize for being overly distracted this past week: October 4, of course, is Sputnik Day: It marks 56 years after the Space Age began.  NBC News has some new stuff on what it was like to watch the first orbital launch.  While Sputnik 1 did NOT start the nationwide panic some writers have assumed, it caused some serious concern, as it should have.  After all, the Russians were backward barbarians, right?
Wrong.  Americans should have looked back to the war years, when Russia produced superb weapons like the T-34/85 tanks and the Yak-9 fighter.  The difference between the nations was that manufacturing know-how, the latest alloys, and then-advanced machine tools  were present throughout US industry, while in Russia they were in more limited supply and a program had to get top-level attention to compete for the resources it needed.   Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Chief Designer, was a master of politics as well as engineering.  He got what he needed.  And, fueled in equal parts by patriotism and the desire for exploration, he put the world into space. (The R-7 booster he and his colleagues produced is still in service in modified form.)
Just short of a year later, on 1  October 1958, NASA was born after President Eisenhower chose a civilian, rather than a military body to lead space exploration.  (The Sputnik program was always military, with the Academy of Sciences as a figurehead: Russian spokesmen, asked whether Sputnik 1 was military or civilian, insisted it was simply "a Soviet satellite." )

The definitive English-language biography of Korolev this one by James Harford.. 

As a look back at the history of history, here's how the always-excellent Alan Boyle covered the 40th anniversary in 1997

The best book on the early Space Age? Well, you could nominate Asif Siddiqi's momentous Challenge to Apollo.  But we have a soft spot for a more modest effort called The First Space Race.

History Note: The Civil War in color

Some painstaking work has resulted in colorized versions - as accurate as surviving Civil War gear, contemporary paintings, and old accounts could make them - of what the Civil War would have looked like if color photography had existed.  This set includes two of the people I most admire from this era, the oft-overlooked George H. Thomas (the masterful Union general no one could stop) and my fellow Mainer, Renaissance man Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  Here too are the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer, the reflective President Abraham Lincoln, and a striking camp-tent portrait of Union Brigadier General David M. Gregg and his staff, showing the differing shades of blue in the Union uniforms.   (There actually were color photos in those days, but the art of capturing color was at an embryonic state of experimentation: no color photos of the battlefields exist.)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The last gasp of the Ketchum-Erickson "sasquatch" claims

I tried to be very, very fair to Dr. Melba Ketchum in the slim hope she really had discovered an unknown North American primate.  But the DNA, despite positive interpretations by her and some of the labs she used, has been shredded by people with far more expertise.  And she tied it, repeatedly and explicitly, to "high-definition" video of a sasquatch nicknamed Matilda taken by a group called the Erickson Project.

My personal opinion, in precise scientific terms: it's all crap.  The article from Doubtful News sums it up pretty well.  The much-hyped footage looks like cheap theatrical costumes, the face looks like Chewbacca, and footage of sasquatches on the move looks, in ever ycase, like a like a human, with human body proportions, in a suit.  Even other cryptozoological enthusiasts are dismissing this all as a hoax, and not even a good one.  Ask Jay Michael Cooney, who deconstructed it some time ago in the just-linked blog, or John Kirk, who shreds it here.  And it's all become tangled up with a bizarre, obvious hoax called the "Sierra Kills" where a guy claims to have shot sasquatches and collected no body parts whatsoever, and for a reason beyond comprehension, some people believed him. 

Could there still be a Sasquatch? Despite the odds, I can't quite say "impossible." There are still reports by sincere people who claim they saw one closeup, and the Oxford-Sykes DNA project results are still out. 

But the Ketchum-Erickson-Sierra-Olympia mess will get no more attention from me.  It's time to waltz Matilda off the stage of cryptozoology forever.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Space - The Busy Frontier

First, what's going on in space. The Cygnus module from Orbital Sciences Corp docked at the International Space Station with 600kg of supplies.  This makes it the second vehicle, after SpaceX's Dragon, to dock there.  One more step for free enterprise.

Then, what's going into space.  SpaceX's new medium-lift booster, the Falcon 1.1, made a successful first flight.  Congratulations to Elon, Gwynne, and the gang! SpaceX hopes to provide serious competition to Atlas and Delta for US government payloads, as well as expanding into the commercial market.  This is a huge step forward.  SpaceX's Grasshopper test vehicle, meanwhile, has made big strides showing it might really be possible to bring a rocket stage back and land it vertically.  I wasn't sure even this crew could solve that problem, but maybe they can.  Elon Musk think's it's a key to cutting costs for future launches. 

Carl Sagan once observed that the dinosaurs went extinct because they didn't have a space program (okay, though I'm trying to picture T. rex with those little arms in a space capsule....)  but we can MAKE dinosaurs in space. Astronaut Karen Nyberg has sewn the first toy ever made on the ISS: a stuffed dinosaur. Now, can she make the space suit?

It's a great day for our exploration of the universe.  Yes, we need to save the Earth.  It's our launching pad.  And from here, the stars...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Turtles, real fictional, and... ?

A turtle the size of an M-1 Abrams tank is in the news.  It's not real, but it's downright scary that a lot of people on the internet think it is.
Hoax-Slayer.com has this take on the story. It's making the rounds that a giant turtle from the Amazon has been captured and was seen being hauled on a flatbed. The weight is being given as 800 lbs, which is ridiculous: if this living igloo were real, it might weigh ten times that.  It's a prop from a Japanese monster movie.
Was there, or is there, any real turtle remotely close to tank-sized? No, but they come from an impressive line that's produced some mighty creatures,
Turtles have poked along in the oceans for a long time. The body plan emerged in the Permian with species like Eunotosaurus africanus, continued into the Mesozoic, culminated in the spectacular Archelon, a leathery-shelled Cretaceous denizen that could be 13 feet long overall and 16 feet across the flippers and weigh 5,000 pounds. The only rival for the biggest turtle was Stupendemys geographicus, a freshwater type that came along tens of millions of years later. 
The reign of turtles continues today in seven species of large ocean-going turtles.  The king of marine reptiles is the leatherback, which can be ten feet long and weigh up to a ton. It has an insulating fat layer that allows it to forage far north of other sea turtles, to the seas off Norway, British Columbia, and Kamchatka. It is desperately endangered thanks to a perfect storm of poaching, egg theft, the loss of nesting beaches, accidental catches in fishing nets and shrimp trawls, and the proliferation of plastic bags – a fatally inviting snack for an animal that lives off jellyfish. It can dive to 1,200m. There are still 20,000 to 40,000 nesting females, but these numbers compare to 115,000 as recently as 1982. The fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea calls them trunk turtles, a good name for an animal that looks rather like a giant's luggage.
leatherback turtle with head above water
The leatherback has been implicated in some “humped back” sea serpent reports, including some of the alleged denizen of Pacific Northwest waters, Cadborosaurus.  It is presumably also the source of some exaggerated stories of truly gigantic turtles collected by Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans thought there might be another species, which he  named after an indigenous Sumatran term translated as “father-of-all-the-turtles.” Island-sized turtles (or even planet-sized ones) appear in folklore and mythology, not to mention the flying jet-powered Gamera in the Godzilla movies - source of the internet legend I just mentioned. A titanic turtle gave good advice to Ang in Avatar: The Last Airbender (the great cartoon, not the lousy movie).
So here's to the turtles.  Long may they plod.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Popular Science mag: Wimping out on debate?

Popular Science has announced it will no longer accept online comments to its articles. The editors say,

"A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. "  And, they complain, many commentators are nasty and mislead the public.

OK, that happens.  In the era of spambots and political polarization, it happens a lot.  But the ability to challenge science - a necessary component of finding the truth - includes the ability to challenge well-established, near-consensus science.  I have an uneasy feeling that every generation convinces itself of something like this: "Well, the consensus against continental drift or in favor of stress-induced ulcers may have been wrong, but science TODAY is immune to that kind of error." Only it isn't, because despite all our advances in tools and techniques, science is still done by fallible human beings. 

Popular Science is a private entity and can do what it likes, but it is an influential entity, and I think the editors accepted a certain responsibility when they created an online presence and invited comments.  So is the publication bowing to reality or shirking its duty? My gut says the latter.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Life from space: Not yet (on Earth or Mars)

The controversial Journal of Cosmology has published a paper claiming a fragment of a diatom sampled via balloon from the upper stratosphere (22-27km)  indicates the now-deceased organism was deposited here by a comet.
A piece of a cell wall from a microscopic algae is not exactly solid, repeatable (so far) evidence for anything this dramatic. While the authors of the paper say all the right things about excluding contamination, the general scientific response is going to be that this must be contamination unless it's repeated - more than once.  Here's the paper
Meanwhile, NASA's Curiosity rover is not finding methane on Mars. Any type of life we're familiar with should excrete some methane, but we're still talking about sampling a tiny piece of the planet at surface level.  This is disappointing but not damning. Previous reports of methane on Mars indicated it was trapped in rocks or ice, and releases were occasional events, although whether the methane is of geological or biological in origin is unknown.  The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will arrive in 2016 to hunt for methane from orbit.  (ExoMars is a European Space Agency craft: it was supposed to be a joint project with NASA, but NASA, as is so often the case lately, pulled out as the planetary mission budget shrank.  We're going to reach the point where other spacefaring nations won't even think of doing a major mission jointly with NASA.  Inexcusable.)
The bottom line is that the Red Planet is not - yet - ruled out as a hiding place for past or even current life.  We'd know if we were there, of course...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Doubtful News reviews Shadows of Existence

Thanks to Sharon Hill of Doubtful News for a great review of Shadows of Existence - as Sharon so kindly says, a book written in 2006 can't be entirely valid in 2013, but most of it holds up very well.  Thanks, Sharon!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

History: General Chamberlain's medal

One of the most stirring stories to come out of the Civil War was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's defense of Little Round Top, pivotal in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. A Confederate conquest of Chamberlain's outnumbered 20th Maine might have enabled the rebels to roll up the Union line. As a Mainer, I take a special interest in Chamberlain, who went on to be Governor among many other accomplishments.
Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1893 (really, folks? It took 30 years?) and was given a new one when the Medal was redesigned in 1904.  What happened to the original? It was, somehow, found in a book at a church sale.  A little thread of history, restored.

A medal well-deserved

Book Review: Corey's Sea Monster

I like novels about cryptozoological subjects, and my friend Loren Coleman sent me this one a few years ago.  I'd overlooked it until now.

Corey's Sea Monster
by Rutherford G. Montgomery, World Publishing Company. 
This 1969 novel for young readers is the only time I've ever seen the dunkleosteus used in a novel, except for a brief appearance in one of Steve Alten's books.  While the marine biology is here is pretty sketchy even for 1969 (who knew it was easy to photograph a giant squid underwater? And what IS an electric eel doing in the Pacific?) it's fun.  Interestingly, the author uses the name of the related species Dinichthys, but the illustrations are clearly meant to be Dunkleosteus terrelli. Mr. Montgomery makes the modern version a pelagic (open ocean) fish that in one casem for reasons unknown, decides to hang out in a sea cave off California.  He also makes it glow all over with bioluminescence.  (Did Mr. Alten perhaps read this befpre he came up with his glowing Megamouth shark?) 
Modern teenagers will consider the book too tame, and divers will blanch at the way the young hero's father routinely sends him on deep dives alone to photograph dangerous animals, but it's a harmless diversion, and it was certainly an original storyline for its day.

Dr. Ketchum and "Sasquatch DNA," Round 21

I said I was done on this subject, mainly because I am not a DNA expert.  However, an extraordinary letter has been published, with Dr. Melba Ketchum writing to the journal Nature to request her paper be reconsidered after an original rejction. The money line is here:

"We even have high definition video of the donor of sample 37 sleeping in the forest and breathing at 6 breaths per minute (Supplementary Video 1). This sample was part of a field research study overseen by a PhD in wildlife biology so we are certain of the source of this sample and the video attached to it. We have a full facial video of her also that will be released after the paper publishes."

Now you might say someone from Nature should have looked at the video. I would have, even though I would have gone in very cautiously. (I would still look at it.)  But now that the paper has been published, albeit in a rather sketchy series of events in which Ketchum bought an online journal which has published only one paper, hers, there is no excuse for not publishing the video. If she doesn't post it, it'll be taken by almost everyone, including me, to mean that she doesn't believe in its authenticity herself.

She says repeatedly her evidence has passed peer review, but she recruited the reviewers. That's not done in science.  But DNA is something most people don't understand in great depth.  An alleged face-on full-motion high-def video would let everyone form an opinion and could instantly let qualified scientists pronounce a verdict on the case.  Note that Dr. Ketchum shows no doubt of the connection between the video and her samples: she said the animal in the video DID provide one of her samples, period. 

To Dr. Ketchum: if you seriously believe we have evidence of a rare new species which immediately needs government protection - which it would - then publish the video so it can get that protection.  Otherwise, the whole case is going to slide into limbo and eventually be forgotten.  I know there's no reason for Dr. K to listen to me: I am one of many writers/researchers on cryptrozoology, albeit one who takes pride in being thorough and scientific, and I think my books bear that out.  I don't know how I can be any fairer than I've been with this.  If there is an animal, and you want it protected, publish the proof.  Please.