Wednesday, July 30, 2014

LOIRP recovers space history

Think of the countless thousands of images NASA spacecraft have beamed to Earth.  Keith Cowing, owner of the NASAWatch web site, knew that many images from older missions were being lost forever, slowly degrading in unreadable formats or locked on drives no one knew how to access.  So he did something about it. Keith and other enthusiasts set up in an abandoned McDonald's near NASA's Ames Research Center and set about retrieving images taken by NASA's five Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s.   These had been recorded directly from electronic pulses to tape, and there was no simple way, even then, of examining them. They had to be printed out, in huge formats.  The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project managed to MacGyver setups that pulled that information off the tapes into readable digital images.  This is, to put it mildly, a noble and laudable effort, a where people have stepped in to save a precious piece of NASA's proud history.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fiction: Greig Beck's The First Bird

The latest in cryptozoologically-themed fiction is Grieg Beck's The First Bird. It's a lost world thriller which segues into a doomsday disease thriller, and both halves are memorable and scary as hell. It's Beck's best thriller. The lost world section is original and well researched. Even though the laws of physics concerning giant arthropods have not been repealed to my knowledge, Beck makes his creatures so original and so terrifying that even for a nit-picker like me the science recedes into the background. The disease thriller is not quite as original and has a couple of weak spots, I think (I won't go further so as not to spoil the outcome), but it's still freak-out frightening and has a twist you won't see coming. The disease plot, too, shows a great deal of research. Beck's characters are three-dimensional people you can believe in - and fear for. 
When I finally put this one down, I said, "wow." Good work, Mr. Beck.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New book a tribute to Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride (PhD from Stanford in astrophysics) died two years ago today.  I went to a program at the Space Foundation Discovery Center here in Colorado Springs.

The program featured Lynn Sherr (formerly ABC News) making a presentation and discussing her new biography of Ride. I haven't started reading the book yet, but it was a great evening.  When I asked Sherr what she thought of space coverage on TV today compared to the 1980s, she said, "The first thing to realize about space coverage today is that there isn't any."

Ride has always been a hero of mine, and I'm looking forward to starting the book!

My apologies to Lynn and everyone else for a terrible photo.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Meanwhile, the new-species business stays busy

I've not posted on the continuing discoveries of new living species in a while, so let me throw out a few items.

From Bolivia we have four new gopher-like mammals about 30cm long, all grouped by local people under the same name, tuco-tuco,  but now known to science as Ctenomys erikacuellarae, Ctenomys yatesi, Ctenomys andersoni, and Ctenomys lessai. They are an interesting example of speciation occurring when an original species settles in to populations broken up by the valleys and ridges of their local topography. Indeed, the formation called the central Andean backthrust belt, which creates many barriers between populations, is referred to by one scientist as a "speciation engine."

A new species of water mite from the seas off Puerto Rico was named after Jennifer Lopez because the description team was listening to her songs while they worked. So welcome, Litarachna lopezae.

A report from the Zoological Survey of India says that, in 2013, the Indian scientists found 248 new animal species in the subcontinental nation. They did not find any mammals (always the newsiest discoveries, except maybe for sharks), but are happy with 5 amphibians, 2 reptiles, 36 fish, and 181 invertebrates. 

New Zealand scientists looking off the Northland coast report several new areas of distinct habitat communities (such as shellfish beds) that were unknown and likely house new species. This cute seahorse (is there any other kind?), about 3cm long, is the first to be examined for classification and description. The survey technique here is interesting: researchers dropped a trawl studded with commercially purchased GoPro video cameras. A British entomologist discovered a tiny new wasp in a tree on the playground of his son's school, an elephant shrew was found in Namibia, a new moth from the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S. was named in honor of the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans and their great Chief Attakullakulla of the 1700s, a new catfish turned up in Australia, new crabs were reported from Malaysia, and the satirical publication The Onion gets the last word with an article on 43 primates just classified in a subway system. Don't take my word for it - read it yourself.

How Great is the Great White Shark?

OK, now that we're approaching Shark Week, which Discovery Channel has kicked off with a ridiculous hoax about a bull shark in Lake Ontario, we can return to an endlessly fascinating shark question: can Great White Sharks reach 7 meters (23 feet)?
Old records claiming 10m or more have long since been discredited, bet here's an Interesting study.  Ellis and McCosker, for their 1991 book Great White Shark, checked all the records of huge GWS and concluded the probable total length (TL) of the very largest was around 6.5m (just over 21 feet).   I went with this conclusion in my book Shadows of Existence.
 Mollet et. al. in 1996 went back and looked at the information, including how various measurements and estimates were done, and concluded the famous Malta shark from 1987 might actually have touched the 7m mark and the shark caught in the same year from Kangaroo Island, South Australia, could have been, and probably was, slightly over 7m. (The Malta shark was measured while lying on a floor: the Aussie shark was estimated against a boat and body parts kept, but it was too big for the fisherman to get it aboard.)  So maybe the people who suggested South Africa's fabled Submarine could be 7m long are not far off.  I'd be interested to hear what other experts have to say.
("A review of Length Validation Methods and Protocols to Measure Large White Sharks," in 1996 book Great White Sharks: The Biology of Carcharadon carcharias, Academic Press, NY.)

UPDATE: A FaceBook correcpondent, Caludio Dino Galetovic, sent a 1998 article saying the Malta shark might have been measured over the curves rather than in a direct line head-to-tail. This would make it under 6m.  Well, darn. 

The Great White isn't the human-hating monster of legend, but no one would deny it's formidable
(Photo NOAA)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Bully for Orbital Sciences

We have another commercial mission off to the International Space Station. Orbital's Antares light/medium launcher is now 3 for 3 in flights with the Cygnus spacecraft.  Cygnus carries supplies for the ISS and many student experiments, plus and no fewer than 32 nanosatellites for customers of the partner firm NanoRacks LLC. (NanoRacks partners with SpaceX and other providers, US and abroad, to get CubeSat-based nanosatellites to the ISS, where they are launched from Japan's Kibo module. )
Of the smaller firms contending for NASA-funded missions, Orbital is actually a much older firm that SpaceX, but was out of the spotlight for a while with minimal demand (or rather, minimal desire on the government's part to budget for)  launches of its Pegasus air-launch vehicle and the Minotaur series of converted ICBMs.  SpaceX had a good run going with its larger Falcon 9 until a recent glitch that stopped launch of the Orbcomm Generation 2 small communications satellites. It's scheduled to try again on Monday, 14 July. 
So congratulations to Orbital and good luck to SpaceX!

UPDATE: And bully for SpaceX and a perfect launch of the Falcon 9!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How many giant squid? More than you thought

Indeed, more than you wanted to know about.  Giant squid (the true giants, Architeuthis dux), are among the most famous yet most mysterious of marine denizens. They are eclipsed in size among all invertebrates only by their bulkier relative, the colossal squid Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Given that we've only recently (2012) videotaped a giant squid underwater and have seen very few of them alive at all, the question of how many there are seems unanswerable.
However, there is an estimate, and it's mind-blowing. Since large-scale sperm whaling continued until 1998, and dead specimens are often necropsied, we have a good idea about what they eat. (Bear with me. I'm getting there.) The majority of sperm whale diets are squid, but they are overwhelmingly small to medium-sized: the fabled battles between the giant squid and the sperm whale, never witnessed by a human observer, are relatively rare.  (Sperm whales also take a lot of fish, some developing a knack for nibbling them off hooks, and there is one known case of sperm whales attacking one another of the ocean's moist mysterious denizens, the megamouth shark.)

OK, enough meandering. The money shot: 

The paper "Unanswered Questions About the Giant Squid Architeuthis (Architeuthidae) Illustrate Our Incomplete Knowledge of Coleoid Cephalopods," by Clyde Roper and Elizabeth Shea (full paper not online), as quoted here by squid biologist Danna Staaf, says,  
“If the estimated 360,000 sperm whales remaining in the world’s oceans eat one giant squid per month, then the giant squid population consumed must be over 4.3 million individuals per year. If the number is one per week, then the consumed population would be over 18.7 million individuals consumed per year. Estimates based on actual samples taken from sperm whale stomachs are much larger still. Clarke (1980) suggested that approximately 1% of the 700–800 squids a female sperm whale eats each day and the 300–400 squids a male eats each day are Architeuthis specimens. If true, that yields the astonishing number of over 3.6 million giant squids consumed per day, and a yearly total over 131 million giant squids.”

Staff figures in her blog Squid a Day that this equates to a giant squid being eaten every one-fortieth of second.  Wow. Seriously, think about 131 million giant squid eaten per year. Playing with almost non-existent data here, with female squid topping out around 275 kg and males about 150, and assuming the sex ratio is 50-50 (which we don't know) and that all the squid eaten are adults averaging maybe 200kg, gives us 26.2 billion kilograms of giant squid being processed every year into whale poop.  The actual number is a good bit lower, since only a minority of the squid involved are likely to be full-grown when eaten, but it's still stupendous.  Indeed, given that sperm whales have been reduced by roughly (very roughly) two-thirds in the last two centuries by whaling, it's surprising the depths are not simply full of giant squid bumping into each other.  Human activity, which has reduced the population of large fish up to 90% or more, might be part of the reason they are not.  But wondering where all those missing squid are makes for a heck of a SyFy movie premise, doesn't it?

Monday, July 07, 2014

Farewell, Bill Gaubatz, space visionary

Bill Gaubatz has died. Bill was a leader of the revolutionary DC-X reusable spaceplane program, which had great success with its small demonstrator but could never find the money to go further. He continued working on spaceplanes and other reusable launchers, and I met him at spaceplane conferences in the 1990s and 2000s. He was a great guy as well as being a leader in the pursuit of more affordable, routine space transportation. 
Here's SF writer Jerry Pournelle's farewell blog post.

Basking Sharks and Sea Monters

Cryptozoologists love to discuss the "sea serpent." It's a topic that never gets old, thanks to the romance of it, the spectacular nature of the creatures or creatures (still reported occasionally today) and the fact that the oceans are still a very big hiding place. After all, we're still identifying dolphins, sharks, and so on. It's not unreasonable to wonder (as I do myself) where there is still some kind of singular creature hiding amid the tales of puzzled sailors and beach-goers.

If there are unidentified species involved, one would expect a carcass to drift ashore occasionally. The reclusive, deep-diving beaked whales, after all, are known primarily from carcasses.

Those carcasses that do engender excitement as possible "sea serpents" tend to be identified either as decaying cetaceans or, most commonly, as one of Nature's little jokes, the basking shark.

This harmless shark reaches at least (13m (40 feet) in length, and it's amazing in it's own right. It is a filter feeder, once widely fished for meat and oil, now protected in most areas but under brutal assault for the shark fin trade. A huge basking shark dorsal fin can fetch at least $20,000 U.S. (one source says $50,000). This billion-dollar business continues worldwide despite increasingly tight regulations, and there's no guarantee the basking shark and its even larger cousin, the whale shark, will survive it. The single species, Cetorhinus maximus, is found in temperate to boreal zones worldwide and thus is apt to turn up almost anywhere a "sea monster" might be found. Some very good basking shark specimens have been retrieved from such carcasses.

When a basking shark dies a natural or unnatural death and drifts ashore (finners cut the fins off and drop the shark, still living, back in the water), it decomposes in a most peculiar fashion. The lower jaw and the gill section drop off, the lower lobe of the tail disappears, and what you have when such a partially decayed carcass reaches shore is something that looks very much like a creature with a small head on a long neck. As the skin erodes, it can even look “furry.”

These imitation plesiosaurs have caused a great deal of consternation. They have also made good tourist attractions, as in the case of a Massachusetts carcass found in 1970 that was actually served up in a local restaurant as sea monster stew. Health codes seem to have been a little looser in those days.

The basking shark has been fingered in several of the most famous sea monster carcass episodes in history, including the Stronsay beast of 1808, the Zuiyo Maru "catch" of 1977, and (somewhat controversially) the mangled Naden Harbor carcass, about 3.6m (12 feet) long, found in a sperm whale in 1937. Concerning the first two, I think there's no doubt: the appearance of the Naden Harbor carcass still bothers me, although Richard Ellis writes in his book The Great Sperm Whale that there is a record of a sperm whale swallowing a 4.3m (14-foot) basking shark. (The Stronsay beast was paced out at over 16m (50 feet – some estimates were up to 18m) and might, even allowing for damage, have been one of the largest basking sharks ever.)

This unique take on the stranded monster vs. basking shark business was published in 1942 by a writer known only as Lucio. I first saw it in one of Tim Dinsdale's books: I wrote to the newspaper it appeared in, the Manchester Guardian Weekly, and was told there was no copyright objection to my including it in my 1996 Rumors of Existence. So here it is again.


Yet again the doubting Thomas
Takes our precious monster from us
And proceeds once more to bomb us
With disclosures stern and stark,
Lo! our portent meteoric
Doped with dismal paregoric
Sinks from monster prehistoric
To a common Basking Shark.

When we thought we had before us
An undoubted something-saurus
From the days when all was porous
In the world's well-watered dish
These confounded men of science
Setting fancy at defiance
Go and put their cold reliance
On an unembellished fish.

But the monster fan, unbeaten
Calls for something more to sweeten
Yarns so moldy and moth-eaten
And he takes a stouter stand
For some long-delayed survival
From days distant and archival
When the lizards had no rival
In their lordship of the land.

We need something more terrific
Than these learned lads specific
I defy their scientific
And uncompromising quiz
Their pretensions need unmasking
Here's a question for the asking-
How could any shark go basking
With the weather what it is?

Picture at top: a stranded basking shark as depicted in Harper's Weekly in 1868 (out of copyright)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Cryptozoology: Sykes DNA results on yeti, sasquatch, etc.

Bryan Sykes is a well-respected Oxford professor with a stack of peer-reviewed scientific publications on DNA. Now he has a new one. His paper analyzing 37 "anomalous primate" samples from around the world has produced 35 known animals - 37, really, but the two polar bear samples from the Himalayas present a genuine mystery, if not a primate-related one.  The abstract states:
"In the first ever systematic genetic survey, we have used rigorous decontamination followed by mitochondrial 12S RNA sequencing to identify the species origin of 30 hair samples attributed to anomalous primates. Two Himalayan samples, one from Ladakh, India, the other from Bhutan, had their closest genetic affinity with a Palaeolithic polar bear, Ursus maritimus. Otherwise the hairs were from a range of known extant mammals."

A book, The Yeti Enigma,  will follow in September. Note that Sykes published his peer-reviewed paper (peer review is not a flawless system, but it's the best we have) before coming out with a book.  Too often in cryptozoology, people do the reverse. Also too often, the science is sloppy: Sykes and colleagues help correct the imbalance by dismissing the contaminated samples and the overall toxic mess of the Ketchum sasquatch DNA study.  The new findings do not prove there is no sasquatch, yeti, etc., but they do prove no one has gotten a genuine hair sample, which does lengthen the odds against these putative primates. Sykes has taken the best-quality evidence primate hunters could supply him with and showed that almost all of it is irrelevant. He has, though, established a database of results that will come in handy for identifying any future samples: negative findings do matter in science.

What to make of all this? Sharon Hill of Doubtful News writes, "The main thrust of this paper hits the gut of cryptozoology. As it is practiced today by amateur Bigfoot hunters and monster trackers, it is not science. This paper represents science. It’s a high bar." To her, amateur hunters need to stop complaining about "closed-minded" experts and switch to persuading them with high-quality science.  Can't argue with that.

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman points out on his CryptoZoo News site that the news is hardly all bad for cryptozoology.  Coleman notes the study itself and some of the news coverage - which has unusually intelligent for coverage of this subject - reveal "a notable depth of respect for the work of cryptozoologists." Plus, "This definitely shows there’s DNA in the Himalayas area of an unknown bear." The polar-bear type hairs are reddish-brown and golden-brown, respectively, though Sykes notes there are some reports of white bears from the region, while Coleman makes the point that reports of white yetis are almost nonexistent.  Sykes and his colleagues suggest the hair could be from a brown bear-polar bear hybrid. In other words, there could be a relatively isolated group of bears whose genomes are predominantly polar.

Sykes says, "Bigfootologists and other enthusiasts seem to think that they’ve been rejected by science. Science doesn’t accept or reject anything, all it does is examine the evidence and that is what I’m doing.” He plans an expedition in search of the strange bear.  Good luck and good hunting!