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 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.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

And the website is back up is functioning again.

Also, you may be cool, but you will never be as cool as this magnificent orca, painted for my next book by the awesome wildlife artist Rebekah Sisk.


New species: handsome and deadly

Not all new species are harmless little invertebrates or cute mammals.  The Kimberly death adder, about 60cm long, is undeniably a handsome creature, with its banded brownish-orange body and white belly, but it's just as undeniably dangerous. Acanthropis cryptamydros joins numerous other species of death adders all over the Australasian region.  The number of known reptiles has passed 10,000 and is still rising steadily. (The official 10,000th was a gecko from Laos.)  One estimate is there are another 1,300 reptiles awaiting description, but it may be considerably higher. There's a lot of foliage left in the world to conceal species that are well adapted to their environments and generally good at hiding.

Friday, September 11, 2015 is down for the moment

My website has vanished and I'm traveling and haven't figure it out yet. Will get it bcck soon.

Meanwhile, here's a NEW HUMAN.  Yeah, science is cool

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

New digs for International Cryptozoology Museum

I've talked before about the ICM and Loren Coleman's efforts to provide a repository for artifacts, print materials, and everything else related to cryptozoology.  Whether you think cryptozoology is an intriguing branch of zoology or a pesudoscience where amateurs chase nonexistent animals actually doesn't matter when it comes to the ICM.  Animal science and animal folklore are important to every culture and country the world, and the ICM's collection of tens of thousands of items is simply not replaceable. It provides an invaluable trove for scientists, folklorists, researchers of animal myth and legend.
Accordingly, it's nice to see the Museum moving from downtown Portland, Maine to a larger permanent home.  Loren announced the 10-year lease on a bigger property on Thompson's Point in the same city.

By the way, the ICM is currently hosting, on loan from the Museum of the Weird in Austin, TX, the original Minnesota Iceman, a hoax creature made with considerable care and detail.

Iceman in Argosy magazine 
(copyright unknown, as company has folded: educational fair use claimed.)

The Iceman once prompted two qualified scientists (Bernard Heuvelmans, Ivan Sanderson) to declare a new species of primate had been discovered. The ICM offers a chance to see a major piece of bigfoot history.

New location for the ICM (see note #8). 
Used by permission of the ICM

Don't forget, the ICM's first sponsored conference is coming in January in Saint Augustine, FL.  Yours truly will be there to talk about bears in zoology and cryptozoology - a hot topic in the wake of Bryan Sykes' book.  I've never managed a visit to the ICM, despite being a Mainer by birth. It's still on my list. Good luck!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Sea scorpion - the size of a shark

The eurypterids or sea scorpions were the invertebrate kings of the  seas 400 million years ago. For a while, before the armored fish known as placoderms got to be the size of small buses, they were unchallenged. The largest species ever had spiked claws a half-meter long and could slice and dice anything it was likely to meet. (This was also before the nautilus-like ammonites started putting on weight - the monster Parapuzosia seppenradensis, 2 meters across, didn't show up until the Cretaceous and was not seen again until 1957, when something that might have been its much-evolved descendant starred in the delightful grade-B creature film The Monster That Challenged the World.)
Anyway, we have a new entry in the "scariest giant invertebrate with killer claws" category. Pentecopterus decorahensis, some 460 million years old, was found in Iowa, USA. It is described as 1m long with the usual eurypterid armor and armament.  It's the oldest such animal yet discovered, but it can't be THE oldest because it's surprisingly evolved.    The whole family tree of its larger group, the carcinosomatoids, is accordingly screwed up. That, however, is how science works.  For palentologists, the cool things is that they now know that looking in older rocks for sea scorpions is well worth their time. There are discoveries to be made! 

Yale University: Used under educational/journalistic "Fair Use)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Neil Armstrong, died on this day 2012

I watched the liftoff live in person (Thanks, Dad), fell asleep for the first step, watched the return live on TV. There could have been no better choice for Earth's hero..

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cryptozoology, culture, and folklore

How do we know whether to evaluate a cryptozoological report, especially an old one, in the light of the witness's or recorder's culture? Does it matter if the culture has a strong "monster" tradition?  The always-interesting Sharon Hill gave her take on this in a Doubtful News post this week.
I thought that was a very good take, reminding us that we can't just assume what we want from old accounts, be they presented as facts or legends. (By the way, if you think all cryptozoology is nonsense, keep reading anyway: this isn't about whether it has value as a science, but where the reports in it originate and how to treat them)
The "Father of Cryptozoology," Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, offered a good example about cultural and linguistic context.   He said a future reader shouldn't take literally a modern description of an animal that had "fire in its eyes" and ran "like lightning." The animal might be a normal, real creature - a lion, say - but if you don't understand the language and its fondness for metaphors and similes, you might look at that and chuckle, "Silly myth. 21st-century people would believe anything. “ (Arguably, we do, but to continue...)  The point is there's no easy rule. 
Sasquatch poses a good example. Sasquatch-like creatures are widespread in Native American lore, but the origins and meaning of these stories are difficult to evaluate, especially for the non-Native (or, for that matter, the modern Native disconnected from old traditions, which is hardly uncommon.)
The Salish word from which “sasquatch” is derived refers to a supernatural creature, not an animal. At the same time, many Native cultures didn’t recognize the sharp divide we scientifically-minded moderns do between natural and supernatural entities, so the situation is confused further.  (On the other hand, zoologist Ivan Sanderson wrote in the 1960s that, when one Indian was asked about the subject, the reply was a derisive, “Oh, don’t tell me the white men have finally gotten around to that.”) 
Sharon wrote, referencing Michel Meurger’s 1989 book Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis, “I admit surprise to find out that the maned serpent is so old a concept. Meuger says the origin of today’s sea serpent concept is a product of the Enlightenment drawn from Nordic stories of giant snakes. “  
This is a unique and valuable book, but there's one thing the author seems to treat lightly when discussing the Scandinavian lindorm and other creatures of legend, and it's the same thing Prothero and Loxton skipped over in their generally excellent book Abominable Science when discussing the mythical hippocampus. That is that a legendary creature may influence a future witness's interpretation of a sighting, but it also may not. The authors in both these books present the legendary forebears of reported cryptids as important even though a particular witness may be living generations later and may have never heard of the story. Jay M. Smith pursues a version of this in Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast, about a wolflike creature that killed many people in pre-revolutionary France.  The cultural background he described and used to frame the beast stories is alleged to have influenced peasants who may have not had the least idea of what increasingly free newspaper publishing in Paris meant, or indeed that it existed. (Sociologists in general tend to irk me by assuming a specific incident is related to a bigger trend when it may not be.)  (Another book, by the way, that doesn’t get into cryptozoology but provides a valuable overview of the whole “why we like monsters” question is Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters.)
To go back to sea creatures, the lindorm and its cousins, for example, seem to me likely to have precisely zero bearing on the one of the most famous sightings, the 1905 Nicoll/Meade-Waldo case. This is one of the "gold standard" cases, in which two qualified natural scientists on a yacht off Brazil spotted a long-necked animal they were certain was an unidentified species. What we know for sure is that the witnesses saw an animal, and one of two things happened: either they accurately described an unknown species or misidentified a known species. You can argue either way, but there's nothing to indicate tales told by their ancestors were involved. It's worth noting in this case that Meade-Waldo was aware of another "sea serpent" sighting, the 1848 encounter by the HMS Daedalus, and thought that creature might be the same (although the Daedalus reported no fin and his creature had a very prominent one.)  So, while ancient legend had no bearing, it might be that another cryptozoological report did. A lot of modern cryptozoologists write the Daedalus episode off to a giant squid, which it probably was, but it was very much an unknown in 1905.

That leads us down another interesting path.  Let's do a little thought experiment.  Say I am hiking near my home in Colorado and spot a big, dark, lumbering figure from a distance.  I know it’s at least human-size and on two legs, but that’s all I can be certain of at this distance and lighting. If I knew nothing of Bigfoot, I might consider two possibilities: a human and a bear.  Since I do know of Bigfoot, even though I'm skeptical about it, I am likely to think of three possibilities.  Having three vs. two options, no matter what they are, creates some (if hard to define) increase in the possibility I might misidentify the animal. 
Now, let’s go one further: creatures we know are legendary.  If I think I see a huge winged fire-breathing thing, it’s either a dragon or it isn’t. If I didn’t have the legend of the dragon, I couldn’t put such a thing into any handy context at all.  I would essentially have to make up my own legend.  In this case, science would come to my rescue: dragons as commonly depicted have unrealistic proportions for a flying animal, and a flying animal that size isn’t possible at all in our gravity and atmosphere, therefore I didn’t see one.  If I didn’t know the science, I might be more inclined to lean on the legend.  The 21st century, with the internet and global television empires, has created a situation where everyone knows the major creature legends, or some snippet of them: Merguer couldn't have imagined such a world in 1989.  

Where does all this leave us? In an unsatisfactory fugue, really.  I reject the idea that cryptozoological reports can be dismissed if the beast as reported bears some resemblance to a legend, but I also  acknowledge the existence of a legend makes it somewhat more likely I might ascribe an uncertain sighting to something it isn’t.  Know the context: know the language: know the culture and the trends: but never forget an individual report might have nothing to do with any of them. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Of Whales and Satellites

It would be really cool (and useful) to track whales via satellite imagery. Of course, the whales have to cooperate by being at or near the surface.  Assuming they are, can we spot them and tell that they are whales?  The Ikonos satellite service reports its WorldView2 satellite can spot whales. WorldView2 has a maximum resolution of 50cm, so a whale is going to appear of decent size: a whale showing 20m of back at the surface will be 40 pixels long and maybe 6 pixels wide (wider if the flukes are showing.)  There is a lag in how often one satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) can look at a given patch of ocean, though, so it can't keep continuous track of a pod.
Planet Labs can keep continuous watch on an areas when it's finished deploying its nanosatellites (5kg each (really) and offering 3-5 meter resolution),  A whale may be only a pixel wide and a few pixels long, though, I had a chance to ask co-founder and CTO Chris Boshuizen about it at the Conference on Small Satellites. He's looked at this because people have sent in Planet Labs images and asked if some objects visible are whales.  Chris doesn't see whale-tracking from his satellites as practical: a whale is, at best, a tiny smudge indistinguishable from a boat. Planet Labs started out not intending to image watery areas at all but now goes out 40 km from all coastlines.  We also discussed whether whales, with their blubber insulation, have enough of a heat signature to be spotted in the infrared band (he doubts it).  He can spot pollution plumes in the water and sediment flows, though, so Planet Labs, which has a strong ecological mission, can contribute to the study of inshore habitats.  Thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer my questions!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Cecil, and bigger issues

If I call myself a writer on science and nature, I need to say something about Cecil. It's a tragedy this lion was killed, and a crime the way it was lured. Everyone involved should face appropriate legal punishment. This is a moment we should seize, though, to talk about all the issues involved. Should we allow any trophy hunting?
Hunters argue the huge license fees support often-impoverished local communities: opponents argue that money ends up with corrupt officials instead. The lion is, at the least, a threatened species: it's not in imminent danger of vanishing, but its numbers go down every year, with the most vigorous animals, the huge males, being hunted the most. I'd say the US should go beyond requirements of the CITES treaty and ban import of lion trophies as we do of elephant tusks. A TIME magazine piece notes some blame should go to Zimbabwean officials who created the poverty in their once-thriving nation in a political land-grab that broke up productive farms and game ranches because most were white-owned, plunging the whole nation into extreme poverty where people will do anything for money or food. The leads to another issue: should we give so much ink and airtime to Cecil in a land where thousands of children are starving? I have no pity for the professional poachers who make millions supplying traditional-medicine markets: shooting on sight is a tempting remedy. But there are local people whose children are hungry and will do anything, including poach a lion.
I don't have the answers to all these issues, but we should talk about them. Mourn Cecil, but not only Cecil: think about how to prevent poaching, balance human and animal needs, and build a sustainable future for all.

Since part of the problem is the poor and corrupt system prevailing in the nation housing the park from which Cecil was lured, I have an idea I trot out every now and then for international parks: start with a half-dozen wild areas the conservation world can agree are vital and create an agency (UN, maybe, or something seen as less corrupt, like the OECD, which isn't thought of as a conservation agency but could be become one in the ecotourism era), to fund and administer on a continuing basis on an equal footing with the nation (if there is one) owning the site. The Galapagos and Okavango might be good places to start because of the universal recognition of their importance: you could also start with the most endangered spots instead: Conservation International maintains a list. There would be all kinds of problems in practice, but exporting "America's best idea" on a cooperative international seems wiser than having so much preservation depend on year-to-year grants and political changes.