Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A fascinating book: Dreams of Other Worlds

Dreams of Other Worlds (Amazon link)

Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration


By Chris Impey and Holly Henry

Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2012    


This book is a thoroughly researched chronicle of ten robotic missions, with an overview of the entire field of non-piloted exploration.  If it meanders a bit, it succeeds at the most important task: showing readers just how remarkable our robotic missions are. Impey is a professor of astronomy, Henry a professor of English, and the combination of their expertise works very well.) 

The Introduction sets the stage with the theorists, from the Greek Anaxagoras to Copernicus to the modern day.  For a long time, people have had the notion there were other worlds to explore, but that was science fiction until 1957, when it suddenly appeared practical to send machines (and eventually people) sailing away from Earth.

The authors do, however, do a good job of featuring all types of missions: planetary observer, rover, deep space, and astronomical.  They present two Martian missions (Viking and Mars Exploration Rovers) first, followed by the probes Voyager and Cassini, the comet-sampling Stardust, and SOHO, a mission to study our home star.  They break away from voyages to specific destinations to cover Hipparcos, the Spitzer telescope, Chandra, the Hubble, and the Big Bang explorer WMAP.    It’s odd there are no Soviet/Russian missions included, and Venus is left off the destination list. There are two European Space Agency missions: Hipparcos, a 1989 mission dedicated to astrometry (distances, locations, and movements of the stars) and Planck, along with the joint Cassini-Huygens mission.

All the chapters on individual missions are good, and the authors seem to know all about them.  Who knew 1,500 papers were published so far on the Cassini results?  One aside here contains an error: the authors say NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” initiative “launched 150 payloads at an average cost of $100 million per mission, with a failure rate of less than 10 percent.” There were were 16, of which 10 accomplished their missions: even if they are counting individual experiments vs. whole spacecraft, the numbers are much too high.  

The explanations of spacecraft design, function, and results are succinct and well-done: clearly the authors understand the technical side and have the ability to condense it in terms understandable to the interested public. 

There’s a tendency in this book to stray from the main narratives in each chapter to explore topics as varied as extremophiles and the history of X-rays.  I enjoy this kind of digression as long as there’s a connection: not all readers may agree. 

Finally, the authors look ahead. They describe the hoped-for advances from the James Webb Space Telescope and future Mars probes, although only NASA missions are addressed for some reason.  

There’s a good color plate selection of 24 images and some well-selected images in the text.  The references will make even the most detail-minded reader happy, and the index is good as well.

This is, in short, a very valuable book, well written and well documented. The selection of missions can be debated, but not the quality of the coverage of those that did make it in.  This is a must-have for anyone interested in the robotic exploration of space, both closeup and from astronomical distances.  It will be valuable for a long time to come.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A new mammal (of course, it's also cute)

No one has seen a Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat (Cuscomys oblativa) alive.  It was known only from Incan-era skulls and was considered extinct.  This was true, at least, until just a few years ago... and only in 2014 have scientists confirmed the critter is among us
Yes, we still find mammals.  And it is really cute. I'm not showing it here, because the photo is copyrighted as far as I can tell, but check out the link, and you'll agree.

Close encounter with a comet

This time, I'll just let the picture tell the story.  This is  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as seen from 29 kilometers by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft.   Awesome.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book review: Fathoming the Ocean

Helen M. Rozwadowski. Belknap (Harvard University Press), 2005.

276pp. hardcover, 304 in paperback
Foreword by Sylvia Earle
We all know modern tools are allowing us to get a better view of the deep seas than we’ve ever had, but how did that kind of exploration get started? How did humans first get interested in the word below the first few sunlit meters of the sea, and how did we start probing that world?  Rozwadowski, in the first book I’ve read devoted to the early ocean surveyors, shows us how the Age of Sail fostered the age of deep-sea exploration. As commerce, whaling, fishing, and travel grew in economic importance and matured from coastal to trans-oceanic pursuits, naturalists, professional and amateur, grew more interested in the depths. These men (and women) tried a number of modifications of fishing nets and trawls for this work, then added purpose-built, often very ingenious tools like water samplers and recording thermometers.  In England and the United States, especially, wealthy and then middle-class amateurs took up the new interest in sampling and describing ocean fauna, followed increasingly by government-sponsored professionals, which led to episodes like the fortunate inclusion of Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle, not to mention the epic 1872-76 voyage of the HMS Challenger, which is often called the beginning of the modern age of ocean exploration. In this superbly documented and referenced book, the author includes the views of governments, ordinary sailors, and the Western public along with those of scientists.  This is an essential book for the understanding of deep-sea exploration, both historical and modern.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

There's Adventure in Rockets

That's the title of a children's book that got me interested in rocketry a long time back (as Ishmael says, "never mind how long ago exactly" ), but there sure was adventure this past week.  SpaceX and Boeing got contracts to launch Americans to the ISS, Atlas V had another success, SpaceX is gearing up for the next launch, Nanoracks' innovative Cubesat deployment system started spitting out satellites from the International Space Station when it felt like it (probably drawing a collective "Yikes!" from NASA safety engineers) and a new player, Blue Origin, jumped in via an alliance with Boeing.  Also, United Launch Alliance announced it would have Blue Origin building it a new engine to replace the Russian RD-180: interesting, a "RD-180-degree turn" from years of insisting the supply was OK and they'd only build a new engine if taxpayers funded it.

I was sorry Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spaceplane didn't get NASA Commercial Crew funding. The Dragon and the Boeing CST-100 (seriously, Boeing, you can come up with a better name than that!) look like worth spaceships, but we are facing another 30 years of using capsules... workable, but less exciting and flexible.  And Congress is going to ask some hard questions about how Boeing and SpaceX are doing identical tasks, but Boeing is being paid $4.2B and SpaceX $2.6B, a question Administrator Bolden has not addressed in his blog and other NASA people have flatly refused to discuss. The Administrator also said, "From day one, the Obama Administration has made it clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space." That doesn't make it clear why substantive action took six years into the Administration, but, hey, at least they got here.

This week will take a while to digest. But it's been an exciting one!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

One Arctic mystery solved?

Over the long and perilous history of Arctic exploration, there have been many tragedies and many disappearances. For example, the great Roald Amundsen vanished on a rescue mission in 1928, and only a float and a fuel tank from his flying boat ever drifted back. He was just the latest: many more sailors and explorers, going back two centuries, died or vanished, mostly while looking for the Northwest Passage. 
One of the great mysteries is that of the Franklin Expedition. Two ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror, under command of Sir John Franklin, set sail in 1845. Information from the Inuit people confirmed they were locked in Arctic ice, and the crew perished, but where were the ships? Did they sink? Were they locked forever in ice?
Now one of the two ships - Parks Canada does not know which - has been clearly imaged by sidescan sonar on the bottom of the Canadian Arctic Ocean. The location is being kept secret, but the images are mesmerizing. So strong is the hold of Arctic explorers on the Canadian imagination that the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, made the announcement in person.
It will be fascinating to watch this archeological story unfold.

WAY Under the Sea

A great bit from collegehumor.com in which Sebastian the Crab leaves his shallow-water reef and sings (nervously) about the denizens of the very deep sea. Their megamouth has kind of a whale shark look to it, but it's all pretty good.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

One-off specimens: where's that salamander?

The most frustrating cases in zoology / cryptozoology are those where a single specimen exists, but its provenance cannot be proved, and no one can find another.  One such case is a cloak of kiwi feathers from New Zealand in which the feathers are too big for ordinary kiwis: was there, in Maori times, a giant variant?  Another such case, where the specimen is not preserved but unquestionably existed, is the Case of the Wayward Salamander. 

The largest living amphibian is the Asiatic giant salamander Andrias davidianus. Found in China, with a slightly smaller relative in Japan, it may be over 1.5 meters long.  The largest known in North America is the hellbender of the Ozarks and Appalachians, which grows to over 60cm. 

America's largest known salamander, the hellbender (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1951, an article by Stanford University herpetologist George Myers appeared in the scientific journal Copeia.  Myers reported he had examined a giant salamander caught in a catfish net in California's Sacramento River.  The amphibian looked like an Asian giant salamander to him (he called it a member of the genus Megalobatracus: Andrias has superseded the older name).  However, it was dark brown with yellow spots, "quite at variance" with the standard gray or brown of Asian types, and "suggested the possibility of a unique California variation."  The specimen (if fully grown) was of modest size for this genus, only 76 cm long.  Unfortunately, the fisherman only allowed the specimen to be examined, not kept for further study.  What became of the salamander, then living in a bathtub in its owner's apartment, is unknown.

A point here is that the coloration isn’t, in fact, outside the range of Andrias. A Google Images search turns up a brown one with yellow spots, or at least splotches.

Getting back to California, giant salamanders have long been rumored from the Trinity Alps. A deer-hunting attorney claimed he’d seen five such animals in the New River, ranging up to almost three meters long. Biologist Thomas Rodgers, who investigated this story, allowed it was possible that a relict population of giant salamanders still lived in California. 

Rodgers also looked at the Sacramento River specimen.  The local press related a rather too cute story that this salamander was an escapee named "Benny," from a shipment of exotic pets from "somewhere in China."  With the question thus properly muddled, Rodgers led an expedition into the Trinity Alps in 1961 to search for the alleged amphibians.  Rodgers' group found only well-known native salamanders under 30cm, and he came away doubting any giant salamanders existed.

Other reports have trickled in since then, but no one has produced another giant salamander.  We are left with the usual problems of one-specimen cases.  Was the animal an exotic escapee? A last relic of a lost race?  A chance specimen of a surviving population?  I hate writing "we may never know," but, well... 
See: Myers, George S.  1951.  "Asiatic Giant Salamander Caught in the Sacramento River and an Exotic Skink Near San Francisco," Copeia, No. 2: Rodgers, Thomas L.  1962.  "Report of Giant Salamanders in California," Copeia, No. 3.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Requiem for the Passenger pigeon - a sad centennial

Some years back ("never mind exactly how long ago," as Ishmael says), I had a chance to look in on Martha, the last passenger pigeon, in her eternal home at the Smithsonian. All I can say is that she looked lonely, as well she should have.  I still have a Kodak Instamatic snapshot, but it's hard to tell it's even a bird, so I won't inflict it on you here.
Her species went through the biggest massacre of wildlife in all history, ending exactly 100 years ago today with Martha's demise in the Cincinnati Zoo. The pigeon once lived in unaccountable numbers: John James Audubon reported a flock took three days to pass overhead. A hundred nests were once counted in a single tree.  Centuries of Native American and early European hunting made no dent in this multitude, but shotguns, nets, and other tricks of the 19th century did.  Mass hunting for sport, meat, and feathers, combined with the destruction of forested habitat, somehow reduced billions of birds to one.
There is not much doubt the pigeon was extinct, although; for the record, a Professor Philip Hadley reported glimpsing a passenger pigeon in 1929 in northern Michigan. There was a trickle of sightings all the way up at least until 1965.  There is not, however, any real hope, and ornithologists consider Martha's demise definitive. (A poignant footnote: the last confirmed Carolina parakeet, Incas, died in the same zoo three and a half years later.)
So we know to the day, almost to the minute, what happened to the most abundant bird ever to live.
Farewell, Martha. We're sorry. May we all learn your lesson.

Martha, as displayed in 1956

Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: Deep Blue Home

Julia Whitty
Houghton Mifflin, NY 2010 (link above is to a 2011 edition)

Whitty, a writer and environmentalist, gives us a book worthy of its title. She is a wonderful writer – while we have many good nature/science writers (Angier, Safina, et. al.), Whitty and Diane Ackerman are in a class by themselves when it comes to vivid descriptions and marvelous you-are-there evocations of time and place.

Writing in the first person, Whitty begins by taking us back to 1984 and to Isla Rasa in the Sea of Cortez, a global center of seabird nesting and an example of difficult but successful conservation efforts. Later trips venture into the Pacific, the north Atlantic, and even the high desert of Mexico (the one sequence that failed to hold my interest).

Whitty has a lot to tell us about the creatures of the great waters. Did you know hermit crabs are the basis for a moving community of other invertebrates totaling over 500 species? Or that some Pacific rockfish of the genus Sebastes live over 200 years, a span more than doubled by the quahog Artica islandia?

But it is the language that stays with this reader the most. Hordes of spawning capelin at the Newfoundland shore are “turning the waves into polished silver purses that roll ashore and spill their wriggling treasure onto the beach.”    (Two males clamp onto every female.)  At a cold seep off Oregon called Hydrate Ridge, “the mud on the bottom of the sea is more alive than dead” with an amazing density of invertebrates. Working on a marine research ship, she learns that calling a specimen “interesting” is a cautious yet excited way of saying “possible new species.”

Whitty deals with rough waters, drunken sailors, and a sperm whale that comes right at her while she’s swimming until she has to look up and down to see the whole head, and she thinks for a moment he’s going to crush her before he slips gracefully beneath. Along the way, she shows us not just marine creatures but the people who depend on them and the threats that we have to fight against.

Deep Blue Home is a voyage home, and you’ll enjoy the journey.


Matt Bille,

Author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock, 2006)


Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review: The Road to Loch Ness

Lee Murphy

Defining Moments, 2014

The last two years have been good for cryptozoology-themed fiction.  We’ve had high-octane thrillers like Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, atmospheric novels like Willis’ The Daedalus and the Deep, chillers like Below, a crypto subplot in a Dan Simmons epic, and the scariest crypto-thriller ever, Joseph Wallace’s superbly researched Endangered Species, just to name a few.  The genre has never been healthier, in quantity or quality.

Now we can add to list the best of Lee Murphy’s George Kodiak novels (available only in e-book format for now, by the way). Murphy is on his game here: the plot, setting, and characters are all terrific.  The author sends his tough-guy cryptozoologist to Loch Ness (and we all knew he’d wind up there eventually, right?) for two futile years of research in a semi-submerged lab which (for reasons that could be made clearer) many local citizens oppose.  The boredom, though, explodes in one short week that sees one of George’s friends get killed, new and old adversaries try to sabotage his scientific venture, and the creature of the loch arise once and for all.  (To avoid being too much of a spoiler, I won’t say what it is Kodiak finds. The solution seems a little less plausible to me than the giant eels of Steve Alten’s The Loch, but it’s more fun, and Lee has done a lot of work to make his creature believable.)
Indeed, Lee has done his homework in every topic touched on in this novel. He might even have done a little too much: as I said of Max Hawthorne’s Kronos Rising, the story drags in spots as a character gives an information dump.  Murphy also knows the history of the loch and of cryptozoology, and readers will learn a lot of background to the “real” Loch Ness case.
For the first time in these novels, Kodiak gets a supporting cast as interesting as he is. His friend Rocky, Rocky’s daughter Erika, and a cast of local and international helpers and meddlers are along for the ride. Lee gets better in every book at drawing his people. Kodiak more than ever is a three-dimensional human with foibles and limitations, and the unexpected romance he finds in this novel is genuinely touching.  Murphy also works an environmental message in almost from the beginning of the book, and it’s a powerful one.
Like so many of us readers, Murphy loves the latest in technology (I helped him a bit on some research) and there are plenty of cool gadgets on display. I’ll nitpick only one here: the X-Ray mode on his high-tech diving helmet couldn’t really work with X-rays, which require a target to be between transmitter and receiver, although there is some promising research into a more limited “see through walls” capability using radio waves.   
Lee and I are different writers with slightly different views on the need to stick to the rules of traditional English grammar: I have to take a half-star off my enjoyment level for that, though many readers won’t mind. The sentence structure is clunky in the chapter “Extinction Event,” which feels tacked on. The rest of the book is better, and I enjoyed it even as I groused about the occasional change of tense.
The plotting and pacing here are good, and the reader will find plenty of surprises. This is also the funniest of Lee’s books, with laugh-out-loud moments woven into the life-and-death events. The loch is well described, as are the vessels involved. 
To recap, this is a very enjoyable read. It’s George Kodiak’s most thrilling and satisfying venture into cryptozoology, and it leaves our hero a little bloodied, a little wiser, and, for the first time in his life, willing to admit he might even have a romantic future.  Good job, Lee!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dunkleosteus - Old Bone-Face in Popular Culture

Western popular culture loves prehistoric beasts, especially dinosaurs. Indeed, dinosaurs crowd out almost everything else.  Exceptions are the mighty shark Megalodon, which has its own subculture of books, movies, and other stuff, and marine reptiles, which share space with the dinosaurs (and are often incorrectly called dinosaurs) as well as having some properties of their own and cross-fertilizing with the interest in sea monsters and lake monsters. I caught a traveling exhibit on marine reptiles way back in 1991 at the Fort Worth (TX) Museum of Natural History, where one display asked “Is Nessie a Plesiosaur?” (The answer, in case you were wondering, was a politely hedged “no.”)  

Now, on to Dunkleosteus: there are many species, but D. terrelli was by far the largest, and is the only one I’m concerned with.  Dunkleosteus is a genus name now widely accepted, after being untangled from the older and once-conflated Dinichthys (still a good genus of its own) and the latter’s proposed synonym or replacement, Ponerichthys. I think I have all that right.
Despite its enormous size (9-10 meters!) and fearsome appearance, though, the Dunk doesn’t appear much at all in pop culture compared to the plesiosaurs and tyrannosaurs of the Cretaceous. 


Dunkleosteus terrelli (image public domain)

Here’s my first attempt at a list:

The cheap and stunningly awful 2002 film Megalodon includes a baby Dunk: a character says the species grew to 12 feet long, a rare understatement. (I saw the baby prop on an online sale years later for $50 but for some reason didn’t pursue it.)

In the 1984 French-Italian horror film Monster Shark, the Dunk is (I swear I’m not making this up) one of the “parent” species used to breed a monster by crossing it with an octopus.  If the film is notable at all, it’s for presaging the “Sharktopus” and other idiotic hybrid creatures on the SyFy Channel.

TV (nonfiction):
Start with the BBC series Sea Monsters (a.k.a. Chased by Sea Monsters, where the seven most dangerous seas in history included, in fifth place, the Devonian world of the Dunk.  There’s terrific CGI of the Dunk scaring hell out of a time-traveling explorer in a shark cage.

Dunkleosteus appeared in the second episode of Animal Armageddon on Animal Planet.

There’s an effort described on FaceBook to raise money for a new documentary and for a film called Dunkleosteus the Devilfish.  Not much seems to be happening, though.

TV (fiction):
Some online sources mention the Dunk appearing in the ITV science fiction series Primeval, but I can’t find a definitive reference. 

Books (fiction):
The Dinotopia series (also made into a TV miniseries) included “The Fish,” a Dunk that guarded the underwater entrance to a cavern.

In the Bas-Lag fantasy  novels of China MiĆ©ville,  Dunks are called "bonefish."

There’s a novel on Kindle called The Twelve Seas: Deep Lagoon, by Lenore Langland, that features the Dunk, and the animal makes an appearance in Steve Alten’s popular Megalodon series in the 2009 novel Meg:Hell’s Aquarium.

Finally, there’s a 1969 novel for young readers, Corey’s SeaMonster, by Rutherford George Montgomery, that centers on a  Dunkleosteus (here called  Dinichthys).

Books (nonfiction):
Countless books on fossils, fishes, etc. have at least brief mentions of the Dunk. A 2005 example - this one for young readers -  is  Dragons of the Deep: Ocean Monsters Past and Present by Carl Wieland and Darrell Wiskur. Deep Alberta: Fossil Facts and Dinosaur Digs by John Acorn (2007) is of special interest because Alberta has produced some of the best Dunk fossils.  The Dunk also appears in companion books to the above-mentioned TV documentaries, like the 2004 volume Chased by Sea Monsters by Nigel Marven and Jasper James. It appears only momentarily in Richard Ellis’ book Sea Dragons, but that's long enough for Ellis to create the definitive description by likening the animal’s jaws (in a memorable line I’ve been borrowing ever since) to a giant staple remover.  A unique angle on the Dunk and its relations appears in the 2012 book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, by John A. Long. The placoderms were the first animals we know of to have actual sex (internal fertilization), and palentologists are still discussing just how sex was possible with all that armor: the male may have had to shove the female face-first into the seabed, which kind of takes the romance out of it.

The Dunk appears briefly in ParaWorld and plays a bigger role in E.V.O. Search For Eden and Ecco the Dolphin. On Android phones, you can choose the Dunk as your prey in the game Dinosaur Assassin Pro.  There’s also an old PlayStation game called Aquanaut's Holiday that includes the Dunk.

So that’s Dunkleosteus in popular media. It’s not much of a record compared to the dinosaurs, but it’s enough to introduce the world to one of the most remarkable creatures of all time.
We can do better, though. I’m working on it


Thanks to some fans on FaceBook and the Comment below, I can now make some additions.  The Jurassic Park Builder games do indeed allow you to raise your own Dunkleosteus.  The 2008 Studio Ghibli animated film Ponyo includes a Dunk among its varied cast of fishy creatures. And, going way back into the 1970s, Dungeons and Dragons included a Dunkleosteus, known in the game as Dinichthys.
Sources: In addition to the sources linked above, I am indebted to a Wikipedia user named Resident Mario for a list posted here on Wikipedia in 2009.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Vaquita's Last Breath?

Science was unaware the world’s smallest cetacean existed until 1950, when a single skull was found on the beach in the Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez.  In 1958, Kenneth Norris and William McFarland formally described the Gulf of California porpoise, known to local fishermen as the vaquita or "little cow." The local name has become the most commonly used, but it may soon be spoken only in the past tense.
About a meter and a half long at most, and never much over 50kg, the light grey vaquita is indeed tiny by cetacean standards.   The animal tended to avoid boats, an unusual trait for a porpoise and one that made it harder to study.  This shyness, however, hasn't kept the species from becoming endangered - in fact, nearly extinct. 

Many animals have been killed accidentally in gill nets.   The Gulf's ecology has suffered due to overfishing and agricultural runoff, and the surviving porpoises' food supply is dwindling.   The authoritative global source on species status, the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), lists the animal as “Critically Endangered.”  This, alas, is an understatement. The vaquita, at this writing, is in terrible straits. The Mexican government sponsored the  International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (or the Comite Internacional para la Recuperacion de la Vaquita (CIRVA)), estimated the animal’s numbers had dropped from 245 individuals in 2008 to a mere 97 in 2014.   The species’ future rests with no more than 25 females of reproductive age. Restrictions on gillnet fishing haven’t been enough to stem the decline, and the species doesn’t exist in captivity.  It may not exist at all by 2020.
In 2006, China's freshwater baiji Lipotes vexillifer was declared extinct (a lone individual was videotaped sometime later, but there is, sadly, no doubt the species is beyond hope). Scientists led by Samuel Turley wrote, "This represents the first global extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years, only the fourth disappearance of an entire mammal family since AD 1500, and the first cetacean species to be driven to extinction by human activity."
Unless the call for immediate and drastic action is heeded, the vaquita will be the second cetacean species to be driven extinct by human activity.
I wish I could be optimistic that humanity won't let another cetacean vanish. Sadly, I'm not.


NOAA and NASA: It's not either-or

This story on io9.com is getting a lot of sharing. It's misleading because the one fact being cited has nothing to do with exploration of Earth's oceans. The Europa project, which is $2B spread over many years, is part of the smallest budget (with inflation taken into account) NASA has had since 2004. NASA has less than half the budget it had 50 years ago (FY1964). NASA's $18B budget is 1/2 of one percent of the Federal budget, the lowest share since 1960. NASA's budget isn't even as much as it seems, because Congressional patronage forces the agency to keep more centers than it needs (it has the same centers it had at the height of Apollo) and to run projects based on maximum jobs impact (the poster child being the Space Launch System: SpaceX and United Launch Alliance can build launchers almost as capable for a much lower investment by the federal government.)

NOAA, at $5.5B, is underfunded and always has been, but NASA isn't the cause. We have two realms to explore, and BOTH matter to our future.

Water plume on Europa's surface and hydrothermal plume in an Earth ocean. Let's explore them both... 

(images NASA, NOAA)


Thursday, August 07, 2014

It's National Sea Serpent Day (seriously, it is)

OK, NSSD is a creation of persons unknown, promoted by bloggers such as Jay Cooney (see his   blog Bizarre Zoology), and taking off in cryptozoology circles.  Sea and lake creature aficionado Cooney (Jay Bizarrezoo Cooney on Facebook and elsewhere) is one of the enthusiasts who thinks our most enduring legend of the seas deserves a day, and it does.  Whether one thinks the whole topic is, to quote Fred Flintstone, a "silly old myth," or whether you think there might still be something real behind the stories, the sea serpent has been with us from many centuries B.C. into the present day, with a major presence in toys, cartoons, terrible movies, and other areas of society. Some serpents, like Chessie and Caddy, have followings of their own. (Other nicknames for sea serpents off the U.S. coasts have included Slimy Slim and Colossal Claude.)
August 7 commemorates (if not precisely) two of the three most famous sightings in history, the third being the Nicoll/Meade-Waldo incident of December 7, 1907. In August of 1817, the first sightings of the Gloucester serpent were reported. He, she, they, or it appeared many times over that summer, with over a hundred witnesses. Even the usually conservative marine chronicler Richard Ellis wrote in his classic Monsters of the Sea that something unusual was apparently going on. The various conventional explanations (like the one in the article just linked to) don't really nail it for me, either.  Read June O'Neill's terrific book The Great New England Sea Serpent for the best account of the whole business. There's a song, too!
On August 6 in 1848, the crew and captain of HMS Daedalus saw a huge serpentine animal and made a formal report. The Daedalus serpent may have been a giant squid behaving strangely, but the date is immortal in cryptozoology in any event.

Personally, I think it likely that, buried in a mound of data of varying reliability, there is still a very large eel or eel-shaped fish (like the frilled shark) at the bottom of this enduring legend.  I have no hope for even cooler things, like surviving Mesozoic reptiles, but I'll take a 10m eel any day as a "sea serpent." Maybe I'm wrong, and there's nothing left except mistaken observations and the occasional hoax, but the sea serpent, animal or myth, will endure forever.

So celebrate!

Want to know more? (and do you get that movie reference?) There are a number of good books. Ellis' is one: Bernard Heuvelmans' In the Wake of the Sea Serpent is THE classic. I spent several chapters on marine creatures in Shadows of Existence, and will treat them in more depth in my upcoming book Seas, Sharks, and Serpents.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Space propulsion: no miracles yet

Has NASA validated a radical new type of propulsion?

There’s certainly a lot of media attention being paid to the claim that NASA researchers have validated a new type of superefficient thruster (in theory, it needs no propellant at all, just a source of electrical power).  I'm very, very cautious.
NASA hasn't officially put a stamp on this: One NASA team says they see a very small but consistent effect. As for me, I want to see it replicated independently. Even if that works, then I want evidence it can be scaled up to a useful thrust level. So it’s very interesting, but this minuscule effect (if it’s proven to be real at all) isn’t ready for flight time.

Here's another thought. Assume the effect is real and can be scaled up enough to put a small thruster on a nanosatellites, like one of the popular CubeSat-based models. If you can deploy enough solar cells, you can use that on inner Solar System missions without violating the laws of thermodynamics, since you are putting in more power than you take out (Given the size of the effect as measured by NASA, there's clearly a major loss of energy in the system). For larger thrusters, though, or for missions beyond Earth, you'd have to carry a power source for the electrical energy needed. Does the mass of the power source (RTG, fission, whatever) cancel out the gain of using this effect for propulsion? It might still work, especially on science or cargo missions where it's ok to take a long time to accelerate. We're still around Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 2 here on NASAs scale of 1-9 (see the diagram below).  Arguably, this idea still has one foot in Technology Readiness Level 1, since the basic research needed to understand the nature of the propulsive phenomena is far from mature.
With very tiny effects, even highly qualified researchers can see what they want to see. (This is precisely what happened with the Podkletnov antigravity disk, which NASA put at least $650K into before figuring out the effect was imaginary. Some smart people at NASA believe there's something to Andrea Rossi's e-cat cold fusion device, but it slips year after year without producing the kind of demo that skeptics can't refute as error and/or fraud. )
I'd put a modest amount of money into this to see what an unrelated group of engineers could do about replicating it. Replication is always Step One.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Jurassic Shark

OK, everyone uses that weak pun, so why shouldn't I get into it? I use worse puns than that every day. And now that we are headed into Shark Week (cue Jaws music), I put together a few interesting tidbits.

You often hear sharks called "living fossils." Well, that depends how you define the term.  There are no shark species today that saw the dinosaurs come and go, but there are many of long lineage (up to tens of millions of years). The bizarre goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni), for example, can trace back its family about 125MY.  The frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus)  is almost as weird and may be as old. There's no questioning that sharks, as a group, are survivors. They are older than dinosaurs, older than flowers, older than mammals, older than trees. 

One of the challenges in tracing the lineage of sharks is that they don't fossilize well.  Shark teeth fossilize wonderfully, but the shark's skeleton is all cartilage.  When enough calcium has built up in the skeleton, most often in an older shark, you can find the vertebrae partially preserved. For a full, articulated shark fossil, you need fine-grained sediments and a great deal of luck.

There are few remains of everyone's favorite fossil whale-chomper, Carcharocles megalodon (formerly put in the genus Carcharodon with the great white) except teeth. They are some teeth, up to 17cm or more in length, finely serrated, and often found well-preserved enough to cut your hand on.  The lack of other remains has contributed to the uncertainty about Megalodon's size.  Scientists have found two partial spinal columns, with vertebra up to 23cm across.

Epic Megalodon

Megalodon jaws (considerably oversized)

A famous reproduction of the jaws, using a modern great white as a model, led to speculation of sharks 30m (100 feet) long or even more.  However, this assumed the teeth were the same size all through the jaws and thus got the size of the jaws and the overall shark much too large.  Modern estimates tend to cluster around 15m - 18 on the outside - which is still, well, one giant shark. They may be larger than the current champion, the harmless whale shark.  The great white is still "great" by anyone's standards, but it's been whittled down from estimates of 10 or even 12m to around 6.5m for the biggest females (males are smaller). Seven meters has been claimed for one Australian catch (estimated in the water - it was too big to get in the boat) and for a never-caught South African shark nicknamed "The Submarine." Seven meters is not impossible, but likely represents the extreme upper bound.

Meg lived from about 28MYA to perhaps as late as 1.5MYA, though it's pretty firmly in the "Extinct" category, which is too bad.  It was presumably outcompeted by the nimbler (perhaps smarter) great whites and the pack-hunting orcas, which popped up in the last few million years of its reign (orca beginnings are rather fuzzy.) Meg lived at the same time as the sperm whale ancestor Livyatan melvillei, which was about the same size: their battles must have been awesome spectacles.

Steve Alten used the hundred-foot size in his popular Meg novels: Charles' Wilson's Extinct, which in my opinion is the inferior of the two, makes them much larger. (I was pretty hard on Alten for his science, but I agree he's gotten better, and Wilson's was so bad I gave it away after one reading.) I just downloaded a new novel with the truth-in-advertising name Big Ass Shark, but haven't read it yet.

Male Great White Shark, Farallone Islands, 2010 (NOAA)

There are sharks that beat the odds and fossilize very well.  The  Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Manitoba knew they had an 80-90 million year old fossil of a Squalicorax or crow shark but didn’t look closely at it until 2014, when they realized they had the largest specimen ever found (3m) as well as one of the most complete set of remains of this modern-looking shark. Peter Cantelon, Executive Director, said, “With shark fossils… what you'll typically find are just the teeth. In this instance, we have an entire shark from tip to tail. The spine is visible all the way through; we can see a large portion of its skull, jaw, possible fin material, gill material. It's incredible how well this was preserved."

So as you watch Shark Week (a mixed bag of very good shows, average shows, and terrible fake Megalodon "documentaries"), remember that these really are incredible creatures, worth of respect, fascination, and protection. (They have more to fear from us than vice versa. Sharks may kill ten people a year: people may kill 10,000 sharks an hour.)   There are some 400 species and counting - a single researcher who traveled with a commercial fishing fleet turned up as many as eight new species (not yet confirmed and described) in the "bycatch."

Now, time to watch Sharknado 2! I'm waiting for the obvious sequel - Sharknado 3: Megalodon.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

LOIRP recovers space history

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

Earthrise over the Moon as seen by Lunar Orbiter 1 on August 24, 1966.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fiction: Greig Beck's The First Bird

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New book a tribute to Sally Ride

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

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

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

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


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Meanwhile, the new-species business stays busy

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

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

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

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

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

How Great is the Great White Shark?

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Bully for Orbital Sciences

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How many giant squid? More than you thought

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

OK, enough meandering. The money shot: 

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

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

Monday, July 07, 2014

Farewell, Bill Gaubatz, space visionary

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

Basking Sharks and Sea Monters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

NASA keeps things hopping - in and out of the atmosphere

In the coolest recent test of gear that may get us to other planets (and by "us" I of course mean "me," or maybe that's wishful thinking), NASA flew a balloon carrying a rocket booster and an inflatable ring called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator.   The impetus here is that the thin atmosphere of Mars, which right now is the only planet where human life support is just extremely difficult rather than impossible, puts a limit on the cargo mass that can be delivered via parachute. The inflatable part of the LDSD "flying saucer," when accelerated to Mach 4 some 40 km above the Earth, performed perfectly under conditions simulating, as far as is possible on Earth, a high-speed delivery through the atmosphere of the Red Planet to the point where speed and atmospheric density are low enough and high enough, respectively, so conventional parachutes can take over. Given it takes about a million dollars to send a kilogram to Mars, we don't want to waste any cargo in landing accidents - let alone the astronauts who will one day make the trip. 
So while NASA is getting beat up (with some justification) for not having an executable vision for solar system exploration, there's some comfort in knowing that farsighted scientists and engineers are still thinking ahead.

LDSD in the lab (NASA photo)