Sunday, January 29, 2006

Octopus v. ROV

A unique and most interesting bit of videotape shows a Pacific giant octopus, which may weigh 40 kg, attacking a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). The ROV operator was afraid the critter would damage the camera and reversed the thrusters to blast sand from the sea bottom at the octopus, driving it away.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Book Review: The First Space Race

Bille, Matt, and Erika Lishock, with a foreword by James A. Van Allen. The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites. (Illus.) College Station, TX: Texas A&M, 2004. 214pp. $24.95. ISBM 1-58544-374-3. Index.
This is a well-documented treatise of the people, events, and scientific discoveries that led to human beings’ initial excursion into near earth space. The intertwined competitive web of the three major engineering teams that existed in the first half of the 20th century and ultimately proved the practicality of the theoretical orbital mechanics espoused by Kepler and Newton is chronicled in this thoroughly researched and informative book. The extension of human knowledge resulted from the Soviet Sputnik and the American Vanguard, Explorer, and classified NOTSNIK projects is succinctly described. This book is a “must read” for anyone interested in an authoritative account of this critical period of space-flight development.
- Science Books and Films, American Association for the Advancement of Science, November/December 2005

Podcasts of Antarctic Exploration

Cindy Van Dover, biologist, undersea explorer, and hydrothermal vent expert, is an associate professor of biology at the College of William and Mary. Via Antarctica is a program of video and audio podcasts she is providing from a current expedition to Antarctica's Anvers Island. Follow science in the making!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Britain's Wayward Whale Dies

The five-meter northern bottlenose whale which swan up into the Thames last week died as rescuers were barging it back out to sea. On closer inspection, the animal had visible wounds on its body and may have been ill. A post-mortem is under way. UK Marine Mammals Strandings Programme head Paul Jepson said he hoped the worldwide interest in the whale would at least have some positive impact by sparkign the interest of children in marine mammals and their conservation.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

NASA's Mission to Pluto

Congratulations to NASA for the successful launch of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. This marks the first time humanity has reached out to the solar system's most distant planet. (Well, maybe it's the most distant planet. There's a lot of discussion about that right now.) In any event, the probe is off on its nine-year journey.

Comment: The launch brought out the usual complaints about its use of plutonium to power the on-board RTGs. While any use of nuclear materials must be subject to the most stringent safety precautions, those who call for an end to its employment are ignoring the realities of space flight. The utility of solar panels drops off drastically once you get past Mars. Outer-planet exploration is dependent on nuclear power generation, and long-term exploration with complex spacecraft and humans is dependent on nuclear propulsion. There is no real alternative.

Saving the Wayward Whale

The northern bottlenose whale which swam into the Thames was captured and loaded onto a barge to be taken back downstream. The animal got as far as Greenwich before marine mammal experts concluded it was so hopelessly confused it was never going to get back to the ocean in time to survive. Dolphins and seals wander into the Thames fairly often, but this is the first known case of a whale traveling up the river.
Here's wishing the wayward cetacean the best of luck.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Britain's Wandering Whale

A northern bottlenose whale, weighing an estimated seven tons, wandered into the River Thames and swam to central London. The apparently confused animal twice breached itself, but wriggled free. British wildlife experts are monitoring the animal closely and keeping the many thousands of spectators at a distance.
A reminder, once again, that humans are still fascinated with the chance to see rare creatures in person.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

New Species from California caves

A three-year study of caves in two California national parks has yielded 27 new animal species, including spiders, centipedes and scorpion-like arthropods.
OK, they are small, but they still matter. In addition to their importance in their own ecosystem, these critters remind us that discoveries in the animal kingdom are still being made - not just in the forests of Borneo or Brazil, but right under our feet.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Keeping Up With Cats

One of my favorite science sources... the portal of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, which is dedicated to the understanding and conservation of the world’s 36 wild living cat species. This is one of the 100+ specialist groups forming the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). News, study reports, and fact sheets provide the latest information on the 36 known species of wild felines.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Ants Teaching Ants

A startling report by British researchers says that ants do not just operate by instinct, or by mimicking the behavior of older ants. Ants engage in active (albeit limited) teaching and learning. An ant that finds a food source will lead another ant to it, even though the "teacher" ant has to slow down, wait, or redirect the "learner" and thus delay its own meal. Not bad for a creature with a microscopic brain.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

NASA's Budget Heading for Trouble

According to, the NASA budget, after two years of modest increases, is going to be slashed in FY07. If they want to keep the Vision for Space Exploration on track, the only thing left to cut is the Shuttle program. The Shuttle is currently planned to fly 19 missions before retirement: 18 to the International Space Station and one to service the Hubble Space Telescope. A major cut will, unavoidably, mean reneging on committments to international partners. No matter what one things of the value of the Shuttle, this is very disruptive and will create severe problems with future international projects in space and non-space areas.

A flourescent green pig

Taiwanese scientists have bred a transgenic pig that is - inside and out - a flourescent green color. This actually does have applications in medical research, but it's still very strange.

What's next? Making one that flies?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

NASA and Advanced Propulsion

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin essentially told an audience that, even though advanced propulsion system research was needed for exploration beyond Mars, it would not be funded. While it's refreshing to have an Administrator who faces the reality of limited funds and the need to prioritize, the complete dismantling of research in this area is short-sighted in the extreme. An affordable level of studies and small-scale demonstration projects is needed to keep the intellectual capital in place to allow this research to be ramped up again in the future. After all, there's no commercial demand for nuclear thermal or solar sail propulsion systems: without NASA support, the people and facilities capable of working on this problem will dissipate, and a future administrator will have to face the enormous difficulty and expense of reconstituting propulsion work from scratch. Mr. Griffin has made many good decisions, but this most definitely is not one of them.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Whales Speak in Dialects

A very interesting discovery by scientists including David Mellinger of Oregon State University is that blue whales living in different ocean regions make diffect sounds or combinations of sounds when they vocalize. As Mellinger put it, "The whales in the eastern Pacific have a very low-pitched pulsed sound, followed by a tone. Other populations use different combinations of pulses, tones and pitches." Mellinger notes that we do not know if some of the difference is genetic, or if it's all a matter of "dialects" a whale learns from its parents and others as it's growing up.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"Monster Mice" - evolution in action

Let loose in an environment with abundant food and minimal competition, mice on Gough Island in the South Atlantic have evolved into largely carnivorous bird-eating "monsters" three times normal size. One wonders if these will eventually diverge enough to be considered as a new species - if they don't wreck the island's entire ecosystem first.

A "Must See" look into deep space

This photograph, described by many colorful names like the "Skull and Crossbones" or "Cosmic Mandrill," shows the stellar cluster NGC 2467. This is a very young feature, no more than a few million years old, which is described as a stellar nursery where new stars are cosntantly being born.

Comment: There is not only scientific majesty in the universe. There is beauty which appeals to us on a higher, more spiritual level. That's one of the things about human beings that no science can as yet explain - why we find beauty and wonder in images like these.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Mars Rovers - Going Strong

The Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still going, having extended their 90-day mission through a full Martian year (667 Earth days). They have taken innumerable surface samples, sent back over 130,000 pictures, and covered over five kilometers of the Martian surface. This program is one of NASA's genuine triumphs. Kudos to all involved.