Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fixing history

Someone once wrote, "History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there." All of us, amateur and professional, who call ourselves historians work hard to make sure this anonymous person was wrong. We can't do anything about not being there, but we can ensure we write about what happened. (I reject the "post-modernist" school of thought which says we should give up on acquiring objective knowledge of the past. The Japanese either attacked Pear Harbor on 7 December 1941 or they didn't.  If you want to know what Admiral Yamamoto had for breakfast that morning and find no sources, you just say that detail is lost to history: it doesn't affect the truth or objectivity of the details you CAN document.)

Sometimes writing history means fixing our own mistakes.

Where do mistakes in history come from?  I can think of four examples.

In The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites, 499 endnotes and six years of work didn't prevent us from being wrong about a test launch of the Viking sounding rocket. I had used a single source, an interview, and I'd written a comment down wrong and never went back to check. So this is a case where the historian (me) wasn't careful.

Other times, we just miss something. I'd written that the model of the US Explorer 1 satellite displayed at a post-flight press conference was black and white, based on a photograph. It wasn't: in all that research, co-author Erika Vadnais (nee Lishock) and I never learned that there was a color version of the photo which showed the model was colored copper and blue.  Another way to miss something is not to talk to the original sources if available: all museum models of Explorer 1 are black and white, but the payload engineer, then (1999) still alive, told us the flight article was bare stainless steel with white striping, and historian John Bluth at NASA JPL dug out a previously unpublished photograph that demonstrated that recollection was right. (The museum models, all of them, are still wrong, and we've made no headway in getting that fixed.)

Explorer 1 (shown here with Sputnik 1) as it did NOT appear. 

Third, a historian can publish the best available material only to have future material declassified or discovered after publication. This isn't the historian's fault, but it needs to be fixed whenever possible. (alas, First Space Race didn't sell well enough to get a second edition. I have covered all the mistakes and new information in this blog and elsewhere: you may think that's not really adequate, but I've done the best I can.)

Fourth, historians can repeat something without checking. The memoir of Wernher von Braun's US Army boss, General Bruce Medaris, said that the first orbit of Explorer 1 was verified by the announcement "Goldstone has the bird." This seemingly authoritative quote went into every subsequent book that touched on Explorer 1, including William Burroughs' 1986 Pulitzer Prize winner ...the Heavens and the Earth.  But no one had ever checked the quote, and we found that Medaris, despite being a principal actor in the Explorer 1 drama, was wrong: the tracking station at Goldstone in California did not yet exist.  So we discussed this in The First Space Race, theorizing that Medaris accidentally ascribed an announcement from a later mission to Explorer 1.

Richard Easton points out in this column in The Space Review that two authors, both of whom could have accessed the right information easily (as in Wikipedia-easily) misstated the origin of the GPS satellites, including conflating them with the earlier Transit program. Transit was the first satellite navigation system, developed by the Navy for use in ship and sub navigation, but it wasn't technically related to the Air Force's later GPS. Easton notes that Stephen Johnson's book, Where Good Ideas Come From, gets this wrong. It's ok to make a mistake if you correct it, but Johnson blew him off when he pointed out the error, and that's inexcusable.  Likewise, Annie Jacobson's The Pentagon's Brain, about DARPA, makes a hash out of the origins of GPS, including giving DARPA a role it never had.  I already distrusted Jacobson for some ridiculous pseudoscience crap in her book about Area 51 and many errors in her Operation Paperclip. The trouble is that her books sell very well and the errors will likely carry into the future.

These seem to be cases where the writers didn't do enough research and self-checking: they may have seen something incorrect in a source, or read but misremembered something, and just went with it.  I get it: I've done all that: but you have to be willing to fix it.  I don't have a solution, except to remind all writers of history that they have a responsibility to get it right.  We can't draw the right lessons from history of we don't get history right.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Aviation History: My Dad and the Piper Enforcer

I like aviation history and, like many others, enjoy the tales of oddities, one-offs, and planes that never quite made it..

My dad had a hand in one such bit of history.  The P-51 (later F-51) was the dominant U.S. land-based fighter of World War II: indeed,  it stayed in service into the 1980s, and the Dominican Republic have retired the last operational Mustangs in 1984.  Not bad for a plane built in a tremendous hurry and rushed into production: the most famous model, the P-51D, could escort bombers to Berlin and was vital to the US air offensive. (It also starred in the well-meaning but historically and technically screwed-up movie Red Tails).

Anyway, when my father was working for Piper Aircraft in the early 70s, Piper developed a ground support plane for a USAF competition (PAVE COIN) for a cheap export aircraft (the USAF was doing a separate program for its own needs, which led to the superb A-10 "Warthog").  Dad worked on it at Piper in Vero Beach, FL, where we lived, and I remember him going to the "fly-off" at Eglin AFB to support it in competition.  The PA-48 Piper Enforcers were heavily modified P-51 airframes, armored and fitted with Lycoming turboprop engines.  Alas, they never caught on with the USAF or anyone else, and one was destroyed in a crash into the sea off Vero Beach.  Dad had a lot of fun on that project (and worked a ton of overtime).

Dad told me that, even with the addition of more weight including wingtip tanks and underwing stores pylons, the Lycoming gave it so much power the Enforcer consistently outran the P-51 being used as chase plane, and Piper had to rent a T-33 jet to do the task instead. One pilot told him the tests were being monitored by, of all people, British intelligence, one member of which said they found it odd Piper didn't scramble its radio messages. This program was a departure for Piper anyway, since the company had never built an armed aircraft and hasn't since.  Florida's representatives continued to push for it, even claiming it was better than the A-10.  (I have a memory for these things, and I read a mid-70s headline in the paper that said, "Air Force Overlooks Enforcer; Better, Cheaper Plane.")  The program did have a sort of coda, with two new planes built by Congressional direction in the early 1980s, though Dad had left Piper at that point and was not involved.

According to the Aviastar website, the surviving plane Dad worked on (known as PE-1) is in storage somewhere.  He hopes it joins the 1980s airframe that's currently on display in the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. If the plane is ever properly displayed, Dad hopes someone opens it up and looks at the job he did wiring it. Not only is the wiring precise, it's completely clean, not a drop of solder out of place.  He hopes someone says, "The SOB who wired this thing knew what he was doing."

Aces, Dad.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Great Planes: the B-36 and the Albatross

On FaceBook, we have one of the most fun groups I've ever run across: The Greatest Planes That Never Were.  There's all kinds of information on airplanes that were never built, never passed the prototype stage, etc.  
There's a wealth of expertise among the group members, too, so I tapped that to examine the feasibility of a plane I designed in my head for a novel.  

"I was playing with a fictional adventure set in 1959 that uses the next development of the nuclear NB-36H: the NB-61X Albatross, a larger twin-fuselage aircraft, the reactor set in its own streamlined pod around the CG, with an endurance of weeks without ground support and months with occasional touchdowns for food, engine oil, etc. the intent was to build a superbomber with a large suite of defensive and offensive weapons that could maintain constant air alert, but the Albatross was too slow and too costly, and only one was built. (For the story we get into circumstances where a patriotic crew has to steal it to stop a traitorous politician' plot, and all sides want to destroy it....) I know the climb rate would be terrible (thinking of emergency boost rockets to escape from attack), but what else would be a consideration? Could you build a wing that would handle the mass? Enlarge the wings? Enlarge the tailplanes? All thoughts welcome. (This is a Young Adult adventure, with a bit of the old Mike Mars vibe, so not everything has to be as accurate and detailed as it is in, say, Flight of the Old Dog, , but I'd like to make it ring true.)"

Surprisingly, the real experts thought it was pretty good. They suggested different engine configurations (the original B-36 was underpowered with its six piston engines, though it improved when jet pods were added.)  So I plan to revisit the Albatross!  

The B-36 was pretty amazing, still, with its  230-foot wingspan and 10,000-mile range.  I've seen a couple at museums: the size exceeds that of its its replacement, the B-52.  It was used for a variety of tests that provided curious-looking one-off versions. Herewith some views of a great plane. 

From top: B-36D with "six turning and four burning:" test aircraft with attachments to tow two F-84 fighters on the wing tips: and NB-36H, testbed for a nuclear-powered bomber (the reactor was not tested in flight).  Then we have the YB-60, an atempt by Convair to build a swept-wing version to compete with the B-52. Only one was built.  Below all these: the fictitious  NB-61H. Photos USAF.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Great Sperm Whale - in the sea and in the media

The sperm whales are, and were, a fearsome bunch.  The modern species  (Physeter macrocephalus), is the largest predator on Earth, now or ever.  It reached at least 68 feet (this exceptional individual was corralled by Russian whalers in 1950), while some scientists have backed up whalers who claim it reaches, or used to reach, 80+ feet.  It sunk two whaling ships, most notably the famous Essex now depicted in the movei In the Heart of the Sea, and probably sank more which had no survivors.  The ancestral Livyatan melvillei, whose fossils were found in Peru in 2008,  ruled the seas 12-13 million years ago. It was almost as large as its descendant had a full set of teeth, as opposed to the current whale's lower-jaw-only set (which it doesn't even seem to need to slurp down squid.  An ever earlier sperm whale, perhaps the first of the line, was announced in 2015 as belonging to a new genus, Albicetus ("white whale," although we have no idea what color it was in life).  It was announced after fossils found in California in 1925 and originally assigned to a prehistoric walrus  were re-examined. 
Everything about this whale is bizarre. Seen from the front, the animal looks like one of those over/under rifle/shotguns, with the smaller rifle barrel underneath. It has the most powerful and unique weapon ever discovered in nature, a sonic cannon that can stun prey like the giant squid. It can weigh 57 metric tons, maybe more.  It has the largest nose that has ever existed, but can't smell.  A big bull's skull may be over 5.4m long, the same size as the Ford Freestyle SUV in my garage. They are, surprisingly, preyed upon by the smaller pack-hunting killer whale. Rather than bite, the sperm whales go into defensive rosettes where they wave their massive tails or try to push the orcas away with their giant bodies, neither of which seems to work very well. 

The Essex whale was claimed by sailors to be 85 feet long, although exaggeration is to be expected when the whale is sinking your ship. One paper (McClain 2015) accepts 84 feet, and the Nantucket Whaling Museum has a 5.5-m lower jaw ascribed to  an 80-foot specimen: both figures are disputed. Cameron McCormack has a good dissection here.   Richard Ellis suggests they don't get much over 62 feet (19m). The claim of Amos Smalley, who said he killed a solid white whale 90 feet (27.4m) long is universally rejected as an attempt to get (or give) publicity related to the 1956 film version of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. However, white whales have been killed on one occasion and photographed on another. 
The novel has been made into umpteen movies and television specials, including some really weird ones where Moby Dick is a giant prehistoric whale or a white dragon.  Here's a great list.  (The most interesting of the post-Peck efforts was the 1998 two-part TV film starring Patrick Stewart, who was mesmerizing as Ahab but undone by cheap, silly-looking whale effects. An interesting 2011 two-parter had good sea action, but the superb actor William Hurt misfired as Ahab - while I praised his performance in an earlier post, thinking back on it he seemed more cranky than unhinged, and adding his wife (Gillian Anderson, always good) served only to distance him a little more from Melville's iconic Captain.
So that in a nutshell is one of the world's greatest predator, and some of the attempts to capture it.  The animal is so exceptional that it doesn't seem blasphemous to cite Simon the Zealot's line about Jesus in Ezra Pound's poem The Goodly Fere, "They'll no get him all in a book I think  / though they write it cunningly." Melville wrote it cunningly, spectacularly so, and several authors, most recently Richard Ellis, have attempted to write its real life (Ellis, I think, gives us the best nonfiction portrait), but the great whale is still out there, a mystery in many ways despite modern satellite tracking, mass slaughter, and the fascination of scientists, laypeople, and whalers. 

I'll be back after I see the new movie!

(All images from US government sites)

The definitive modern reference is:  Ellis, Richard (2011). The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature. Zoology University Press of Kansas. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Stomping on Newsweek's Bigfoot special

I knew I was in trouble then the first photos showed a trail of yeti tracks we KNOW are goat tracks - indeed, this trail was never claimed by cryptozoologists to be the yeti's.  I knew we where in more trouble when the next photo showed a "yeti scalp" we KNOW from direct testing is from an animal called a serow.  Despite some good quotes and short interviews  (the bits with Les Stroud and Drs. Bindernagel and Meldrum are interesting) and great photography, this issue overall is not worth your money.  UFOs? "Savant abilities?" "Permission" from a scientific meeting to describe a new species? There's no such thing.  You submit your description to a peer-reviewed journal, and it's accepted or it isn't.
Seriously, who wrote this mishmash? Surely not scientists or qualified science writers.
Sasquatch is a large upright primate, no more and no less.  It either exists or it doesn't, and silly mentions of "a new (read: unscientific) way to do science" or mystical contact or whatever are laced all through this publication.  If Bigfoot uses toilet paper, he can have my copy of this.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

  • The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil-Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution
  • 408 pages
  • Columbia University Press; 2015

I'm almost through reading Donald R. Prothero's The Story of Life in 25 Fossils.  It's a genuinely excellent book, focusing mostly on  the key transition fossils between groups but also including some crowd-pleasers like T.rex.  He includes very well-written accounts of the human beings, like Mary Anning, who did so much to bring the past to life.  For the cryptozoologists, he takes a swipe at Loch Ness (a bit too harsh on the witnesses, but his scientific points are valid) and another at the supposed African sauropod mokele-mbembe (again, right on the science, harsh on the people),  He visits the endlessly interesting question of how big certain animals, like everyone's favorite giant shark C. megalodon, got to be. He is very insistent that the maximum sizes accorded in popular media are exaggerated, sometimes hugely: examples include pliosaurs, plesiosaurs (except for the long-necked elasmosaurs, he doubts any marine reptiles exceeded 13m), and fishes like Leedsichthys, which was once accorded a length over 25m but now seems about a third that size, placing Meg as the largest fish of any type ever in his reckoning. He does not include gigantopithecus, which I thought should be here on account of its displaying the size limit for primates, but there's plenty in this book for the paleontologist, the cryptozooloogist, and the general enthusiast of all things zoological.   The section of fossils, presented in timeline order, explains how each major group we know today (and some no longer with us) evolved, and how strong the transitional fossil record is - half-turtles, half-snakes, half-plesiosaurs, etc. abound in these well-illustrated pages.  Everyone, even those of us laypeople who think ourselves well-read,  will learn a few things: I didn't realize that the idea of feathers as modified scales had a competing theory.

A few nitpicks: the icthyosauyrs certainly did not have a speed limit of 1.2 km an hour - some kind of misprint there. And Loch Ness was searched by sonar, not radar - a very different thing.  When talking of sauropods, he doesn't address the recent attempt to resurrect Brontosaurus as a proper name.
This is a great Christmas present for any natural-history lover on your list.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Martian and much more

Well, I finally saw The Martian, and, as someone who devoured the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's hard to make a movie like this, where one character has three-fourths of the screen time: the actor has to be perfect. Fortunately, Matt Damon was exactly right for Mark Watney. The movie's many omissions compared to the book were generally well-chosen, given that so much material had to be edited out, There were only a couple of oddities (Wouldn't his first question to NASA have been "Is the crew alive?" Wouldn't NASA have brought his parents in once communication was established?).
Unlike most space films, there are no imperious bureaucrats on Earth: Jeff Daniels as the NASA Administrator has to make hard choices and does his best.  My favorite moment, though, is when he decides not to risk a rescue because the program is bigger than one person: the Mars mission  chief says, "No, it's not."  Exploration is still about PEOPLE.
The astronauts and the rest of the cast are multiethnic and international,but a crew voting without hesitation to extend their voyage and risk their lives to get Watney back is a distinctly American film moment. Not that people in every nation don't risk their lives for each other - they certainly do - but the willingness to  do so in this fashion appears throughout American culture and history, be it fact or fiction, until it became rarer in in our cynical age. Shoot me if you want to, I liked seeing the archetype's return.
The science is sound, although the explanations are necessarily brief. The rendezvous at the end has a vanishingly small chance of working, but this is a movie that earns its triumphant ending.The whole cast is great and the NASA dynamics as believable as Watney's gardening.    (I knew the hydrazine bit wouldn't end well, but... well, you have to see it for yourself.)
NASA, not surprisingly, loves the film.  A search on www.nasa.gov for "Watney" (I figured that was the most distinct single term) turns up a couple of dozen hits - mostly images, but with some good articles and clips, including Damon talking to NASA people about making the film. You can even follow Watney's journey on the surface on the MarsTrek portal. (Although it's perturbing to see what's on NASA's main site about growing plants on Mars like in the movie - a single image (seriously, that's IT) with a link to a YouTube video of plant growth on the ISS.)  I'd give the movie 4.5 out of 5 stars, and a bit lower grade to how well NASA's capitalized on it.

The Bagnold Dunes of Mars (NASA)

It's a heck of a time to be in space, especially in the United States. You could write a scorecard for this past wee..
 - United Launch Alliance announces it will give free launches to student CubeSats. Access to space has been the only thing holding back even wider use of the most popular "form factor" ever for satellites.
 - SpaceX and Beoing received contracts to carry astronauts to the ISS. This will be the first time contractors directly launch US astronauts, although all crewed rockets have been built and operated with contractor assistance.
 - Blue Origin successfully tests its reusable suborbital rocket. The instrumented capsule came down on parachutes while the rocket state landed safely.
 - Elon Musk, who I admire, does a weird Twitter bit putting down Blue Origin.

Not a bad week at all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Where did whales come from?

Not so many years ago, whales were the favorite taxon of young Earth creationists (YECs) who were quick to point out the lack of transitional forms and the apparently very rapid appearance of whales (that is, nearly modern whales like Basilosaurus (formerly Zegulodon) just sort of popped in without much in the way of ancestry. 
Whales, in the 21st century, are among the best documented of evolving mammalian lines. It's technically not possible to have every transitional form - you'd need the fossil of every individual that had a beneficial mutation - we have a better lineage for whales than palentologists even hoped for a half-century back.  There's a good description and diagram here.  Whales are much better documented than, say, chimpanzees or gorillas, which is interesting given their habitat: the entire collection of modern chimp and gorilla fossils could fit in a file drawer despite there being hundreds of thousands of them walking around. The saving grace for whales has been the transition of ancient seas to modern land masses. Whale paleontologists have been both lucky and good. The book to read is Hans Thewissen's The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years. I gave it a five-star Amazon review, also featured on my blog here. (I still like the author's illustration of the evolutionary process: he compares the changes involved by asking readers to imagine the Batmobile being given to a group of engineers with orders to use its parts to build the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.) One of the "walking whale" species, Pakicetus, achieved a unique kind of fame by appearing in bestselling author James Rollins' enjoyable thriller Ice Hunt.  (Rollins had to fake the science allowing for mammals to be frozen in ice for millions of years, and the animals are bigger and nastier than we'd expect, but hey, it's fiction.) 
Whales get several chapters in each of my books on animals. One of my favorite bits was reporting mammologist Karin Forney's description to me of her sighting of an unidentified beaked whale in Rumors of Existence (1995) and reporting on the identification of said whale (Perrin's beaked whale, Mesoplodon perrini) in Shadows of Existence (2006).  
One of the most recent finds of an ancient whale was announced in the 2008 publication concerning a new species, Georgiacetus vogtlensis, the Georgia whale. The story of this 3- to 5-meter protowhale is told here. It was the most advanced whale of its time and may have been the ancestor of every modern cetacean. Its nostrils were halfway between the tip of the snout and the location of modern blowholes: the "movement" of the nostrils had been a bone of contention among YEC advocates. An even more spectacular find is the enromous toothed ancestor of the sperm whale, Leviathan melvillei (2010). It has its own documentary, although not yet its own book, unless you count novelist Steve Alten's use of the species in his most recent novel, Vostok. More authors will no doubt use it in fiction: I might do it myself some day.  
Whales are among my favorite animals, and I'll visit them again in my next book.  Until then, enjoy the marvels of whales past and present - in a book, on a whale-watching trip, or in videos and documentaries. They never get boring. 

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology issue featuring the Georgia whale
(Copyright JVP, educational nonprofit use)

Monday, November 16, 2015

A thought on finding unknown animals

How does one find unknown animals, and do stories/anecdotes help?
Zoologists follow many lines of evidence - folklore, reports by local hunters, the finding of physical evidence (always the goal, but sometimes this just happens out of the blue (Dr. Alan Rabinowitz found at least one new species after seeing horns on display in a hunter's home in Laos)) ,  Ancillary evidence like footprints can also be involved, although not by itself definitive (when Dr. Grover Krantz described sasquatch as a known fossil species, Gigantopithecues blacki, very few of his fellow scientists saw value in it: he named, based only on footprints, a species of which we had no fossils except jaws and teeth.)
The hardest things to evaluate are stories told by individuals. Anecdotal evidence can't support a paper in NATURE describing a new species.  But that doesn't mean anecdotal evidence has no value.  
An individual's story (whether fresh or handed down) can be important to the search for unknown animals in two ways: 1) Stories can point to an animal that might be discovered if physical evidence is searched for as a result of the stories: Rabinowitz found evidence for some animals that way, and so did Dr. Marc van Roosmalen when he found the largest new species of land mammal of the 21st century so far, Roosmalen's tapir. . 2) On the other hand, if an animal is reported in a given area, if there are NO stories about it by indigenous people, that is highly suspicious and important negative evidence. It's the reason the chupacabra can be rejected out of hand - the animal just sort of appeared in the 1990s, Attempts to dig out old, fragmentary, and vague stories that might refer to it are unconvincing.
So listen to stories. Or lack of stories. Either might be important .

Dr. Marcus van Roosmalen, who has found several new monkeys as well as his tapir by using local stories as the starting point for a search. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review: Discovering Cadborosaurus

Discovering Cadborosaurus
Dr. Paul LeBlond, John Kirk, Jason Walton
Hancock House, 2014

LeBlond and his colleagues are quite convinced there’s a large unidentified marine animal off the coast of British Columbia and points north and south.  They don’t quite convince me of that in this book, but they do argue strongly that there’s a puzzle here.
The authors open by emphasizing (correctly) that marine zoologists expect many more species from the sea, though most will be tiny invertebrates. The evidence for Caddy is mostly anecdotal, and the authors list sightings from 1791 to 2013 they consider valid.
What are people seeing? To put my skeptic glasses on, some of the sightings they consider good may be mistakes: the head in Alan Chikite’s 1987 sketch looks like a swimming moose (indeed, a lot of Caddy descriptions and the best-known illustrations show a rather moose-like head: even the 1937 Naden Harbor carcass LeBlond and Ed Bousfield considered their type specimen for Cadborosaurus willsi has bit of that look in its downturned snout, although it’s obviously not a land mammal.)   Horns or ears are commonly reported. Another item reported several times is Caddy chomping, or trying to chomp, on birds either on the surface or flying.
The authors start with Native American traditions of sea creatures (several to choose from) and take the story through the 1930s, when “Caddy” became famous (and named), thanks in large part to newspaperman Archie Wills. They continue through the modern era of books and TV specials and more sightings, including John Kirk’s own in 2010.
A lot of the Caddy evidence is discussed in the context of the Naden Harbor carcass. While the item fished out of a sperm whale’s stomach has been dismissed as a fetal baleen whale (clearly wrong, as the authors demonstrate with a photo of a real one) and a basking shark, it is odd how well it held together under the circumstances, and it’s not certain anyone has ever found a basking shark in a sperm whale. (Richard Ellis mentions a case in one of his books, but only in passing without a reference.) The authors imply the carcass suffered only the slight decomposition caused during the time between the whale’s being caught and its stomach being opened to search for ambergris, although it could have been in the whale considerably longer.  
They also look at the controversial Kelly Nash video from 2007.  The video unquestionably shows a number of living creatures, but their identity is not clear, and the best part – the part that Kirk and LeBlond insist shows a definite camel-like head with bulging eyes on a long neck – has been taped over since they saw it. There’s no reason to doubt the authors’ veracity, but the “missing evidence” thing pops up so often in cryptozoology that we’re all jaded about it. In this case, it reduces what might have been definitive evidence to effectively another sighting report, albeit with good witnesses.
Some of the sightings, taking into account the human inability to be precise about distances and object sizes over water, could be swimming moose or deer, others otters or seals. Two photos included from Cameron Lake look like nothing more than wave/wake action to me. But there’s a core here that remains intriguing. 
The authors wisely don’t attempt to assign a zoological identity, saying correctly that the animal needs to be proven first. They do think the saltwater and freshwater accounts from the region may collectively point to more than one animal. (If I’d been writing this, I would have excluded the freshwater accounts, given that large unknown animals in lakes are even less likely than similar creatures in the ocean, but it’s their book and their call.) You need more than one animal, though, if you accept most of the sightings here as accurate: the solid-body animal with a humped back and the “coiled” animal so slender that daylight can be seen under the “arches” are not compatible.  I’m inclined to think the solid animal is more likely and the coiled one a series of mistakes: the thermoregulation and locomotion of a coiled animal are highly problematic to me, even if you set aside the question of what they might have evolved from. 
Is it possible such a large, striking, and unique creature has evaded science? there are strong reasons to doubt it (see Loxton and Prothero, Abominable Science), but it's not impossible, and the authors try hard to steer the conversation toward there being a real mystery. They do a good job of buttressing the anecdotes with maps, photographs, and drawings.  They provide references and a good bibliography. They have, in short, assembled the best case they currently can for a large unknown “monster.” If that case is not proven, it’s also hard to lock it away as “solved.” 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Veterans Day Salute to the men and women of Titan II

The Titan II was a remarkable bird. The two-stage rocket, over a hundred feet tall and using storable hypergolic propellants (meaning automatic-igniting - don't try this for you hobby rocket)  was designed as a missile and served 20+ years as a bulwark of cold war deterrence. But it also had two other lives. It was tapped early on the split of a "man-rated" version that carried Gemini spacecraft to orbit. No operational Gemini launch ever failed.  At the end it its career, it was converted into a launcher for DoD satellites - and again, it never failed.

I knew it intimately as a missile crew member, so herewith my Veterans Day salute.


by Matt Bille, formerly Captain, USAF, Titan II Missile Combat Crew Commander

They called them the Titans
Like the giants of old
And giants they were
Standing deadly and cold
They in their silver
And we in our blue
Alongside them we watched
And the enemies knew
We were there

We felt oft-ignored
Without glory we served
We relied on each other
And we stood by our word
In a life without rhythm
Lived by the clocks
Let it never be said
That we failed on the watch

So we passed the long hours
In silence we watched
No silhouettes painted
No gunbelts to notch
No medals or trophies
No break to the night
But the oath-keepers’ vigil
Let others have light

In the core of the Earth
In the armored command
Power undreamed of
In our keys and our hands
They called it a cold war
And cold it was kept
We knew that behind us
The citizens slept
They didn’t think of us
Or they wished us away
But we kept the watch
To give them the day

We still know each other
Hair silver and grey
The Titan’s proud comrades
We are to this day
We know what we did
We know what it was worth
And brothers we are
Until we return to the Earth
No more the sirens
Or the tick of the clocks
Let it read on my tombstone

“He kept the watch.”

Monday, November 09, 2015

Large, colorful new fish species: the "Blue Bastard."

New fish pop up all the time, and sometimes it turns out we knew about them for a while and scientists hadn't had the time or inclination to think about them. The shoal bass of the United States (Micropterus cataractae, described 1999) is an example.  Another, must more distinct from the related fishes, is the blue bastard.  Australian fishers had tales for a long time of a blue fish up to a meter long that was rare and hard to catch. Finally, someone sent good photographs to the Queens Museum.  It turns out 17 specimens were in museums already, labeled as other members of the so-called "sweetlips" family, which do indeed have big rubbery lips.  As Queens Museum scientist Jeff Johnson explained, the fish is now formally named Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus. “Careleo is blue. And nothus is bastard." he said. 

(Photograph Queens Museum, Presumed available for nonprofit/educational postings.) 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Super Strypi - latest small launch vehicle (UPDATED)

Our newest launch vehicle will fly at 8 PM Eastern from Hawaii:


Super Strypi is the latest attempt to build a smaller, more responsive satellite launcher (although it was proposed in 1998 and just flying now.. but that's bureaucracy, not rocket science.) It has 13 tiny university satellites on board. It will fly south into a 94 degree inclination. It's the first American attempt (the first anywhere I know of) to launch a spin-stabilized, unguided rocket into orbit since NOTSNIK/Project Pilot in 1958.  It's a project of the University of Hawaii, the Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space office, and other agencies. Go Strypi!

A sad update: complete loss of vehicle. That's hardly unusual for the first flight of a new booster, but depressing nonetheless. I always feel bad for the student experimenters who have worked years on their satellites.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A fictional diversion: The Dolmen

If you're going to illegally import an entire megalithic tomb from England, be sure to sift through the dirt. You don't know what else you might be importing.... my novel The Dolmen is a combination of the old-fashioned horror tale and the police procedural, with a dash of science and history thrown in.  Only for Halloween, get it from Amazon for for $1.99 (ebook) and $8.99 (paperback).  If you like chillers, see why this one has 33 reviews, none lower than 4 stars. I hope you love it!

Monday, October 26, 2015

R.I.P., space pioneer Fred Durant

Most of the sources we used for our book The First Space Race (published 2004) have passed on. The latest, and almost the last of those I talked to personally, has crossed the final frontier. I interviewed him 13 May 2002, and he helped out a lot by explaining the organizational atmosphere in DoD and the NAS/IGY effort in the pre-Sputnik days. Ad Astra, Fred: this planet will miss you. 

From NASA Historian Mike Ciancone:
                                               Frederick C. Durant (1916-2015)

Frederick C. Durant, III, the former Assistant Director for Astronautics of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and one of the world's foremost authorities of spaceflight and rocketry, died on 21 October 2015 in Mount Dora, Florida, at age 98.

Mr. Durant was born in Ardmore, Pennsylvania into a distinguished Philadelphia family.  Two of his forbearers include Thomas C. Durant of the Union Pacific Railroad and Joseph Harrison who was one of the great engineers of the 19th century.  Mr. Durant grew up at the family home located at 16th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia, just two blocks from his fraternal grandparents, who lived in a house on the far side of Rittenhouse Square.  His father, Frederick C. Durant Jr., was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Colorado School of Mines- educated engineer who had been President of the Keystone Telephone Company for the last 20 years of his life. 
 Mr. Durant received a B.S. Degree in Chemical Engineering from Lehigh University in 1939 as he had become drawn to chemistry as a boy after being given a gift of a chemistry set that allowed him to create experiments with various concoctions which invariably ended with a loud bang or in his words “whizzing”.  At the same time, he developed a life-long love of magic: he maintained his membership in the Society of American Magicians throughout his life.   Fresh out of university, he worked as a chemical engineer with the E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., at Pennsgrove, New Jersey from 1939 through 1941.
 In May of 1941, Mr. Durant left DuPont to enlist in the U.S. Navy as a naval aviation cadet.  He served until 1946 as a naval aviator, flight instructor, and test pilot, flying about 30 different types of aircraft from Piper Cubs and PBYs to the B-26.  A peptic ulcer prevented him from seeing combat overseas.  He later retired from the Navy as a Commander in the Naval Reserve. He recounted that his “love of aviation” began at age ten when he became engrossed in the media coverage of Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.  Mr. Durant’s interest in aviation intensified after he personally saw Charles Lindbergh pass by his home while on parade in Philadelphia late in October 1927.  
 In 1947, Mr. Durant began his long and very distinguished career in the rocket and missile field as a rocket engineer with the Bell Aircraft Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y.  He then served as the Director of Engineering at the Naval Rocket Test Station at Dover, New Jersey, from 1948 to 1951.   Additionally, he became an enthusiast and ardent promoter of space flight.  In 1953, he became the President of the American Rocket Society (ARS), now known as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and as early as 1951, spearheaded the organization and growth of the nascent International Astronautical Federation (IAF).  From 1953 through 1955, Mr. Durant served as the IAF’s second President.   During the late 1940s through the later 1950s, he became a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, the German Society for Aviation and Space Flight (DGLR), the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, and innumerable US and international astronautical societies, some of which he personally assisted in organizing.
 Other aerospace positions he held were with Arthur D. Little, Inc., at Cambridge, Mass., and the Avco-Everett Research Laboratory at Everett, Mass.   He was also a consultant to the Department of Defense, Bell Aerosystems Co., and other companies and organizations. 
 From 1954 to 1955, Durant played a key role in the organization of Project Orbiter, headed by Wernher von Braun, which was a joint U.S. Navy-Army project for launching a minimum weight satellite.   The first U.S. satellite, the Army's Explorer 1, launched in January 1958, was a direct outgrowth of the Orbiter concept. 
In the words of Randy Liebermann, Fred Durant’s biographer “In the 1950s decade, Fred Durant was known of by anyone and everyone who was even remotely involved in the growing rocket and missile business.  Durant, with his superb pedigree, sterling military credentials, and seasoned social skills was the pre-Sputnik era linchpin of the rocket and missile field.  ... In 1965, Mr. Durant joined the staff of the Smithsonian Institution as an Assistant Director of the National Air and Space Museum.  Over the course of the next 15 years, he greatly built up the space and rocketry collections at the Museum, including the creation of its space art collections.  Part of Mr. Durant’s multi-faceted legacy is that his collecting efforts on behalf of the Smithsonian left that institution with a plethora of artifacts that are now considered among the finest of their type in the world.  
 Mr. Durant retired from the Museum in 1980 but continued to be active in the field of astronautics, serving in the 1980s, for example, as an historian and consultant with INTELSAT to establish their archives.
 For a number of years, Mr. Durant had also authored the  “Rockets and Guided Missiles” and “Space Exploration” in the Encyclopedia Britannica entries as well as many other articles and academic papers on space flight, all the while he lectured as a leading authority on rocket and space flight history.  His wide international circle of lifelong friends and colleagues in these fields included such world notables as the late Wernher von Braun, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick I. Ordway, III.  

Fred Durant (photo NASA)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Columbus Day, Indigenous Americans Day - what about Exploration Day?

Maybe today should be Exploration Day: a day when we can celebrate the courage (if not always the motives) of all explorers of the Americas: the early Asians who pushed across the land bridge, the voyagers who (apparently) spread their culture down the West Coast with amazing speed, the bold Vikings, the later Europeans with the vision and nerve to pilot tiny ships across the Atlantic, the Polynesians who dared the emptiness of the Pacific to reach Hawaii, and the explorers who went out from the Americas: into the north and south polar regions, into orbit, and to the Moon, and all the great scientific explorers who continue to probe the seas. It would be a day to learn, understand, and debate the impact of those explorations: no white-washing, but no blaming without trying to understand, either. It could conclude with a night spent gathering at telescopes looking up at the universe and asking, "What next?"

Beyond Words by Carl Safina

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Carl Safina
Henry Holt, 2015

Safina's book gave me a problem when I tried to rate it for Amazon: there's nothing above five stars. This is, if not quite a flawless book, one that deserves the topmost ranking as a momentous, world-changing work with the impact of Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction.
To boil Safina (author of such seminal works as Song for the Blue Ocean) down to one line, this book argues that the characteristics we think of as "human," like altruism, complex thought, and love that goes beyond the sexual urge, are more differences in degree than in kind from the "lower" animals who have "different but overlapping" gifts bestowed by evolution and genetics. He discusses mainly three species: elephants, orcas, and wolves, although there are plenty of anecdotes and studies thrown in about other species, and he even ponders the behavior of animals like ducks that we hardly think of as intelligent.  All these animals, he writes, are "who" rather than "what:" while they may not pass the famous mirror test, which he casts doubt on, they have an understanding that they are individuals.  He speculates that this really goes all the way down the animal kingdom in some form: even an ant needs some understanding of when its behavior is like or or unlike the other ants' and whether to change it to accomplish a task.  
Readers will be caught up in the animals' stories: the complex leadership and deep empathy of elephants; the the efforts of wolves to find their place in a world of fissioning/fusioning packs and families where intelligence is often more important than strength; the ability of orcas to understand not only each other but humans in ways that sometimes seem downright spooky.  All these species, and many others, display traits that force us to think about who they are and how we treat them. 
I had one misgiving: while we have extensive field observations of all three main species, they are not continual observations: we don't see everything they do, especially with orcas. Safina recognizes this on page 373, where he talks about dolphin rescues and agrees with the need for caution. I followed up and asked the author online if it was appropriate to assign a behavior trait to a species based on limited anecdotes.  He responded that it depended on the strength of the anecdotes: we had, he cited, two pretty convincing examples of orcas doing something startling (nudging lost dogs back to shore instead of eating them), and thus his book argues we can ascribe that behavior to them, at least under some circumstances.  
There is still a lot of room for further learning and understanding, and even the observations and conclusions of leading scientists may not be the last word (as, Safina shows, great minds of the recent past often fell into error).  While I'm admittedly an amateur here, I wondered about the orca researcher who, seeing captive orcas fascinated with photos in books shown to them, felt that they understood the abstract idea that these are tiny representations of orcas.  Is that accurate, or were they doing something a little less amazing, recognizing the orca silhouettes as if these were orcas far away? We don't have the tools to ask the orcas those questions yet. But the human researchers Safina compellingly profiles are learning more all the time about how to measure an animal's intelligence (which may have little to do with the human definition of same), understand their differing personalities, and get a glimpse of what's going on as they observe and react to their world. 
Safina opens his book by quoting Henry Beston's words to the effect that other animals, "...are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations. caught with ourselves in the net of life and time..." A lot of authors quote this: Safina, in this marvelous book, brings it home as a fundamental truth in a way that will change the reader forever.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

October 4, 1957: Sputnik changes the world

The Space Age has turned 58 years old.

On October 4, 1957, the world changed.   The 84-kg Object PS 1, as the Soviet Union called it - or Sputnik 1, as everyone else called it - rode a modified R-7 ICBM into space and into global headlines. 

What happened next? Many, many momentous things.

The sensation was created even though the launch should not have been a complete surprise. Soviet experts and publications openly discussed their International Geophysical Year (IGY) satellite (in general terms), and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had predicted the possibility a year in advance. Yet it was a surprise. As Sputnik’s creator, Chief Designer of the Soviet space and missile program Sergei Korolev, congratulated his comrades for opening the road to the stars, radio operators around the world tuned in the satellite’s beep and others scanned the night sky. The satellite was too small to be seen with the naked eye, but the core of the R-7 booster had followed Sputnik into orbit and was spotted easily. This visual proof magnified the satellite’s impact. Several influential American media outlets, most notably LIFE magazine, published alarmist critiques, which succeeded in raising the public’s concern.
Reports that Sputnik caused panic in Western nations were exaggerated. However, the satellite did send shock waves through U.S. and allied governments. James R. Killian, a scientific adviser to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, wrote that the event violently contradicted the fundamental belief that the United States’s technical capacity had no serious rivel.. Western armed forces had a specific and worrisome concern. Missile experts correctly deduced the launcher was a powerful ICBM. The Soviet Union had announced the first flight of Korolev’s ICBM a few months earlier, but U.S. intelligence had been unsure of the validity. Now there was no doubt. 
If the little sphere caused consternation among governments, it also excited scientists who knew that the Earth satellite concept, long a theoretical possibility, had at last been proven feasible. British author and space visionary Arthur C. Clarke recalled that it was a complete shock, but he realized it would change the world.
The international impact of Sputnik was unexpected even by the Soviet leaders. At first, the official newspaper Pravda gave the launch only a brief mention. Only after it became clear Sputnik had caused a global sensation did the satellite earn banner headlines. A CIA assessment stated that Sputnik had immediately increased Soviet scientific and military prestige among many peoples some governments. Soviet diplomats and politicians made the most of the resulting admiration. 
The effect of the Sputnik launch on the Western public was raised by the subsequent media coverage and magnified by the 3 November 1957 launch of Sputnik 2. Sputnik 2 weighed 508 kg, was highly visible (thanks to the failure of the R-7 core stage to detach as planned), and carried the first living creature in space, the dog Laika. Coming at a time when the United States was still scrambling to launch even a 1.5-kg Vanguard test satellite, warnings of Soviet superiority seemed, if anything, too moderate.

Museum display with R-7 booster in the foreground and Sputnik on the far right. (Satellite in the middle is a display model based on the US Vanguard satellite) 

President Eisenhower had also been surprised by Sputnik. While he reassured the public that the U.S. satellite program had not been conducted as a race against other nations and that Sputnik raised no new security concerns, he privately called his advisers on the carpet for an explanation. At the same time, he considered what actions were necessary in response. The president saw reason for concern but not panic. He refused demands for an all-out crash program, but did ask Congress for a $1 billion emergency appropriation to boost American missile programs. 
The U.S. government responded to calls from the media and academic leaders to improve education in engineering and the sciences. In 1958 Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act to provide funding for science and math programs in colleges and high schools. This federal intervention in education, traditionally a state and local matter, began the transformation of America’s system of government. This had consequences in social programs, civil rights, and other areas far removed from space. Another consequence the Soviet leaders did not foresee was the effect of Sputnik on international law. Before Sputnik, the right of transit through space above a nation’s territory was an unsettled question. Donald Quarles, Eisenhower’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, pointed out that the Soviets had possibly done the United States an unintentional favor by establishing the concept of freedom of international space. Not one government protested the overflight of Sputnik. In July 1959 this acceptance was cited by a United Nations report endorsing “freedom of space”—an idea enshrined by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. 
In the Soviet Union, Sputnik made Korolev a powerful man with vast resources to devote to his dreams of spaceflight. The price imposed was the need to keep the successes coming to maintain leadership in this new field. Korolev responded with new satellites, lunar probes, and in 1961 the launch of the first human into orbit.
Sputnik also galvanized the lagging U.S. space program. With the official U.S. IGY satellite program, Project Vanguard, still struggling, the Army missile team headed by Wernher von Braun was given approval to launch a satellite. After a frantic effort, Explorer 1 was orbited in January 1958. The government was already discussing the options for a long-term space program. On the military side this led to the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and the post of Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), beginning a shift of control over research funding and military budgets in general from individual services to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Civilian space programs, Eisenhower decided, should belong to a new agency. On 1 October 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence. It began pursuing numerous space endeavors, including science and applications satellites and its own human-in-space program. Sputnik’s launch was the beginning of the journey to the Moon. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Matt Bille and Erika Lishock, The First Space Race (2004). Roger Launius et al., eds., Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years since the Soviet Satellite (2000). Walter A. McDougall. …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985). Asif Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974 (2000).

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Counting down to the ICM Cryptozoology Conference

Three months and counting to the International Cryptozoology Museum conference in St. Augustine, Florida.  This looks like a really fun gathering, with authors, field researchers, and scientists coming together in the oldest city in the United States,

I'll be talking about bears, which is a topic I've had a special liking for.  Bears figure in cryptozoology a lot. Some have no doubt been mistaken for Bigfoot (and, indeed, Loren even found an old clipping where a gigantic grizzly was nicknamed Bigfoot). Bears star in many other zoological mysteries, from the erroneous suggestion of a new species in Bryan Sykes' The Nature of the Beast to reports of really odd bears from Alaska and Kamchatka: mistakes aside, it really is possible the eight species we know today are not quite all the bears out there.

The ICM is the life's work of Loren Coleman, dean of living US cryptozoologists.  Loren and I have our disagreements (most notably, I do not hold out hope for nearly as many spectacular undiscovered animals as he does), but I respect his dedication and do my best to garner support for the Museum, an irreplaceable treasure house of tens of thousands of items on animals known, unknown, and mythical.

See you in Florida!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Of Orcas and Men

Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us

David Neiwert
Overlook Press, NY, 2015

This is a very good book on the history and effects of orca-human interaction, from ancient Native American stories to the slaughters of the 20th century and the turn toward conservation in the 21st.  Seattle journalist Neiwert has spent a great deal of time with scientists studying orcas, and he gives us a lot of facts in the course of a compelling narrative.  He doesn't  try to provide every known detail: there are other books for that, such as Robin Baird's classic Killer Whales of the World.  (Interestingly, Neiwert uses the name "orca" throughout, although scientists are more and more going back to the old "killer whale.")   
Neiwert admires the animals and considers things like personhood, but he nearly always avoids  slipping into Jon Lilly-type woolly-mindedness (he does at one point refer to orcas' "fantastic sixth sense," but that's a quibble.). I learned a lot from this book I didn't know, especially about release efforts and proposals. (Some involve Miami Seaquarium's Lolita, an animal I saw in the mid-70s but didn't realize until recently had been in that little tank alone for so many years and was still there.) The sad saga of Willy/Keiko is here, too.  
Neiwert considers orcas and the media, including the effect of movies such as the positive Free Willy (not the remake) and the stunningly awful thriller Orca.  (He missed a family film I liked as a kid, Namu the Killer Whale, a very pro-orca film.) He spends a lot of time on the continuing global impact of the documentary Blackfish.  (To be fair, the marine park industry challenged the accuracy of Blackfish, and their arguments should at least be acknowledged, but Neiwert does mention the genuineness of the affection between orcas and their keepers even as he argues passionately for an end to captivity.)  The issues concerning the environment and ecology, especially as they affect his favorite orcas, the Southern Resident pod, are covered in depth.  
I would have liked more photos and some illustrations of the whale-studying gear he often discusses, but the author achieves his purpose: to make us think more about orcas and how we can protect them.  An excellent addition to the literature on Earth's apex predator.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Book review: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises:A Natural History and Species Guide

Annalisa Berta, ed.
U. of Chicago, 2015
288pp, large-format hardcover

Wow. I'm still digesting it, but this book is very impressive. 

In this overview of the cetacean world, Professor Berta marshals a variety of solid, up to date information, from whale biology and evolution to feeding techniques to range maps and field marks, with 2-4 page descriptions of 89 known species. Recent entrants like Daraniyagala's beaked whale, Omura's Whale, the Australian snubfin dolphin, and the narrow-ridged finless porpoise are all here. An interesting line in the long-finned pilot whale entry (by Jessica Aschettino, one of 37 named contributors) is "G.m. un-named subspecies." The killer whale section (by Robert Pitman) lists the animal as a single species with "at least six distinct ecotypes that may in fact represent different species or subspecies." Uncertainty about the exact delineations of minke whales, Bryde's, and others are also mentioned. For you mesoplodon fans, there are 22 species of beaked whale described in a section written by Randall Reeves. 
The book is beautiful as well as informative. Photographs and other illustrations are plentiful, well-labeled, and helpful. The text is authoritative but highly readable to the nonexpert like myself. 
The only quibble I have is with the physical book: the binding feels flimsy and the pages don't lie flat: handle it with care. (OK, there are two quibbles - killer whales deserve more than 2 pages, and there should be illustrations, at least silhouettes, of the differences between ecotypes).
Overall, though, this book is a magnificent achievement and a very useful reference.