Monday, August 31, 2009

Why do some things evolve, and some don't?

This question popped into my head when a cryptozoology group host, anthropologist Dale Drinnon, relayed a report about Mongolia's "death worm," reportedly some kind of burrowing animal with a lethal electrical charge. I suggested there might be an undescribed species of burrowing snake, presumably venomous, with a lot of exaggeration and myth added to it. Dale speculated that it would only take one case of a startled person being bitten by a snake and dropping of a heart attack to create folklore about the snake having something more potent than venom.

Cryptozoology in general invites a lot of fun speculation about what has evolved, what has not, and why.

In this example, we don't know of any wholly terrestrial animals of any kind which can use electricity as a defense system or weapon. This may be due entirely to the inefficiency of earth and air as transmission mediums, or also to the fact that electrical sensing apparatus is likewise most useful in water, and this is what electrical weapons or defense systems evolved from.

I like to think about these things in quasi-engineering terms. Evolution is a clumsy engineer that goes off in a lot of unproductive directions and takes seemingly forever to get on the right track (also true of some human engineers), but eventually comes up with ingenious solutions. Sharks in particular have always struck me as beautifully integrated weapon systems, with powerful armament, a striking array of sensors, and various other adaptations all packaged in a streamlined, damage-resistant skin. (As a Christian, I think the eventual rise of an intelligent, self-aware being with a sense of spirituality may be somehow inherent in all evolutionary systems which run for a long enough time, but that's irrelevant here.)

To think about electricity again, an electric eel's weapon system is a terrific dual-purpose (offense and defense) gadget, although there's a cost in giving over much of the body mass to "storage batteries" and keeping them charged. I wonder that no animal ever evolved an extendable electric weapon - an octopus could use a specialized tentacle (or equip the tips of all its tentacles, with the batteries mostly in the body) for offense or defense. It may be that powerful electric cells are something so specialized and complex that, even with the hundreds of millions of years multicelled animals have had to multiply, mutate, and adapt, such cells evolved only once, in the bony fishes.

I've read several attempts at explaining why mammals haven't evolved green fur, seeing as how it would be useful in many environments, and it sort of comes down to "Well, it just hasn't happened yet." The genetic cards have just not fallen, so far, into a set that would yield green fur. Or maybe such a mutation did happen, but the animal lived in rocky terrain and the color was a disadvantage. If we found a green mammal, there would be a lot of buzz about it, but no serious damage to current thinking on mammalian biology or evolution.

I once sparked an interesting discussion on the National Association of Science Writers group by pondering why there are no six-legged vertebrates (including no cases of three paired limbs in fishes). Six legs could come in handy in endeavours like climbing trees, and would increase survivability if a limb was lost. The consensus of the considerable brainpower in that group was that, for a vertebrate, unlike a small arthropod, growing and maintaining a limb is a major investment, and the advantages just weren't worth it. You might say that spider monkeys hit on a compromise by developing a prehensile tail functionally equivalent to a fifth limb.

(And while we're at it, why no color-changing mammals?)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Another cartoon: Science news cycle

Brilliant and sad.

Science reporting in two cartoon panels

As a two-panel summary of how science news gets reported, this is masterful.

(Yes, there is a further link to a full six-panel version, but I think the two-panel exerpt is actually better. There's something to be said for conciseness.)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Our first look at a molecule

IBM researchers using an atomic force microscope have given us our first close-up image of an individual molecule. This is a molecule of pentacene, a compound used in making solar cells whose molecules include 14 atoms of hydrogen and 22 of carbon.
COMMENT: One of the interesting things is how close common physical models are to the actual image. We humans are impressively good at figuring things out when we want to.

Finding the missing birds

The conservation organization BirdLife International has taken up a new cause - searching for 47 species of birds that dwell in the twilight of uncertainly. These are birds which have not seen seen in years and may or may not be extinct. BirdLife wants to nail down their status so scientists can either help the species recover or sadly write it off. The list includes famous avians like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and its even more spectacular cousin, Mexico's Imperial Woodpecker, Bachman's Warbler, the Eskimo Curlew, and the Pink-headed Duck, along with other birds whose fate puzzles ornithologists, such as the Jamaican Petrel, Hooded Seedeater, and Himalayan Quail.

Naturalist Charles William Beebe once said, "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed. A vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer. But when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
That's why the search goes on.

Salute to the Shuttle

The space shuttle Discovery, after two delays which remind us that this technology, while marvelous, is getting old and cranky, blasted off Friday for the ISS. NASA reports no foam was seen coming off the External Tank, so that's a good start to the mission. Aboard is a treadmill named for comic Stephen Colbert, one of NASA's more clever bits of PR after Colbert-lovers flooded a poll about what to name the newest module on the ISS. The module became Tranquility, while the treadmill (vital for zero-G exercise) became the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT).

Blogging the Universe

Dr. Jeff's Blog on the Universe is meant to inspire students, teachers and parents to explore science and the universe. There are news items, quizzes, commentaries, and much more. My favorite feature in this rich site is "Teachable Moments in the News." Go check it out.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Extinct birds rediscovered

Beck's petrel, a species not confirmed in the wild since the 1920s has been found alive. The announcement was made based on the study of photographs taken of some 30 birds in the summer of 2008 by an Israeli ornithologist, who also collected one dead specimen. The bird was spotted in the Bismarck Archipelago, a group of islands famous in World War II as a battle site in the southwestern Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Tasman booby was also thought extinct. British scientists investigating its case didn't find live birds, but they did nail down the fact that it's not technically an extinct species because it was really a subspecies of something else all along. As Dr. Tammy Steeves put it, ""What was once considered to be an extinct species, the Tasman booby (Sula tasmani), turns out be a subspecies of a living species, the masked booby (Sula dactylatra fullagari). And now these charismatic seabirds have a new name - Sula dactylatra tasmani."
COMMENT: This is not nearly as much fun as announcing news of a new or rediscovered species, but it is important. Proper identification and taxonomy helps us decide where to concentrate our conservation efforts as well as telling us more about the evolution of all the bird populations involved in a case like this. The Tasman booby had some obvious physical differences from its shorter-winged relation, so the similarity of the DNA brings up interesting questions.

THANKS TO Chad Arment for passing these links on to Dale Drinnon, who reported them in a crypto email list.

Another monster (fake but fun)

The head of the Sugar Flat Road monster is there for everyone to see in an antique shop window in Lebanon, TN. There's a brochure and a local mythology about it, although the apelike head itself fails to impress (most taxidermists can get teeth in straight, a d the skin looks like a bit like paper-mache, or at least not much like primate skin, in the available photo.)
COMMENT: There used to be more of these sorts of good-natured hoaxes scattered across the USA. I was delighted to learn this example is still around.

Blogger Brent K. Moore posted this item on his site, and anthropologist Dale Drinnon posted it to a cryptozoological mailing list, so thanks to both.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Loch Ness Google Monster?

Has Google Earth captured the "Loch Ness Monster?" Well, the image shows an obvious boat, which some people have inexplicably called the monster. There is, though, to port and behind the boat, something odd-looking at or just under the surface of Scotland's most famous lake. Without either video or eyewitnesses, though, no one can tell whether it's part of an actively moving animal or is just drifting debris, the latter, sadly being the more likely.
COMMENT: I've about given up on Nessie, as the last three decades have failed to uncover any new type of evidence. Still, I don't think Tim Dinsdale's 1960 film has ever been satisfactorily explained (it's either a big creature or a boat, but various enhancements and enlargements have failed to bring out any telltale boat features), and some of the sonar recordings are puzzling. So the file is almost closed... but not quite.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

South Korea's space launch - still a partial success

South Korea's first attempt at orbiting a satellite was mixed bag. The Naro-1 launcher, a joint project with the Russian firm Khrunichev, worked well, but the satellite was released late and missed orbit. Disappointing, but it's still a step toward the indigenous space capability the nation is building.

NASA knows how the Koreans feel, as today's Shuttle launch was scrubbed due to a bad hydrogen fill/drain valve.

Who's tops at evolution?

If you measure evolutionary success by what group produces the most new species at the fastest rate, the mammals and the birds win. One group of fishes stands (so to speak) on the podium as well.
Scientists who studied animal divergence report that crocodiles have had 250M years to diverge and produced only 23 species, while mammals have produced over 5,000 species in less than half that time. The study leader commented that it's a mystery "Why these evolutionary losers are still around."
COMMENT: WHat I take away from this is that evolution is tricky, messy, and complicated. For all we know, some of the "losers" may be around long after we furry creatures have passed from the scene.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Depicting the extinct

This is an interesting example of the question of how ancient beasts are reconstructed and how they are depicted, both in science and in popular culture. In this column from Cryptomundo, the specific example is whether the giant marine reptile Tylosaurus had any form of crest running down its back. Early paleontologists thought they saw evidence of a low crest, and depicted the animal that way. Later artists sometimes increased the size of the crest, mainly because it made the beast look more like that powerful creature of myth, the dragon. Modern paleontologists think any evidence for crests was misinterpreted, and they now depict Tylosaurus with a featureless back. Without an actual Tylosaurus, though, we don't know if that's precisely correct either.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who killed the giant grizzly?

A reward is being offered by the US Fish and Wildlife service for the poacher who killed the grizzly bear believed to be the largest in Montana. Maximus, as he was commonly known, weighed over 800 pounds, vs. the average for Montana grizzlies of 600 pounds. While an 800-pounder wouldn't win the Ursus arctos heavyweight title in Alaska, Max was a monster by Lower 48 standards. He was only 11-12 years old and had plenty of time left to add more of his obviously robust genes to the pool supporting his endangered species.
COMMENT: FWS says they found the body - meaning someone just shot Maximus and left him there. Sometimes being a member of Homo sapiens is nothing to crow about.

Friday, August 21, 2009

New Air & Space is really cool

Every issue of Air & Space is good, but the new one is especially cool for aviation buffs. X-planes, the best and worst ideas in aviation, the quest for the 250-knot helicopter - heck, the cover alone is worth the price.

Weird "green bomber" sea worm

A new marine worm discovered off California has been given a really cool scientific name: Swima bombiviridis , the "swimming green bomber." The animal (the first species in a new genus - others have been spotted) can distract predators by casing off small blobs of tissue that glow green - starting to glow only after being separated from the main creature. Ranging from two to nine centimeters long, the worms are found at depths of 1,800 to 3,700 meters.
COMMENT: There are more species, especially invertebrates, in the oceans that we do not know than that we do. The age of deep-sea exploration is still just beginning.

Florida's "Muck Monster"

This video from the lagoon near Lake Worth, FL, shows an unidentified creature being referred to locally as "the Muck Monster." It's a sizable animal that remains almost entirely under the surface. A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission marine biologist hesitated to venture a guess.
COMMENT: A commenter on this website suggested a large ray, and that might be right. Anything that gets people looking at the seas and wondering, though, has a good side. And we don't KNOW it's a ray....

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Happy anniversary - to a fossil find

It's the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Burgess Shale - a formation so filled with fossils that its study led to our understanding of the evolutionary flowering known as the "Cambrian Explosion." Our understanding has evolved over the years, and is still evolving. Some earlier conclusions (including some cataloged in Gould's book Wonderful Life) have changed, but not the importance of the find itself.

MicroSpace News: Conference on Small Satellites

Well, another Smallsat has come and gone. I was only able to spend one day this year, but that was enough to get the feeling of camaraderie that always makes it such a pleasant experience. Our keynote speaker from the Army challenged small-satellite enthusiasts to prove their preferred solution for military tactical intelligence and communications needs (small satellites, of course) was sompetitive or superior to the options of UAVs and airships.My presentation on DARPA's fractionated architecture (F6) project went very well. Thanks to Pat, Jaimie, Yvonne, and all the rest of the USU/Space Dynamics Lab crew who did their usual super job in arranging this meeting!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NASA works on space reactor

NASA, in cooperation with the DOE, is moving ahead with technology testing under NASA's Surface Nuclear Power program. This is intended to produce a relatively small, low-maintenance, durable, and safe fission reactor to power a lunar base. NASA Glenn Research Center engineers are using a Stirling engine generating electricity from the heat provided by a liquid metal working fluid, which will be heated by the fission reactor.
COMMENT: Long-term space exploration, especially human exploration, doesn't work without nuclear energy. Some form of fission or (eventually) fusion reactors must provide stable power where solar energy is insufficient (that is, for any sizable base or spacecraft on Mars or beyond) or unreliable (lunar darkness lasts two weeks, and Martian dust storms are nasty). I understand concerns about nuclear power, but this isn't the 1960s. Our ability to build, launch, and operate nuclear systems safely has advanced enormously, and we have to deal with the fact that there just isn't an equivalent source of power for these kinds of missions.

THANKS TO Larry Klaes for sending this link via the fpspace email group.

A new theory of everything?

Ever since we humans came up with the idea of quantum mechanics, we've had trouble conceptualizing it in a way that made any sense. An especially difficult aspect of quantum theory is superposition: the idea that a particle can be in more than one state at a time. The Invariant Set Postulate, suggested by Tim Palmer, says the problem isn't that the particle can actually be in two states at once, any more than Schrodinger's cat can be both dead and alive: the problem is that we don't have the right framework to perceive what state it's in. However, everything does fall into reality and nonreality, according to his postulate, with the former (the "Invariant Set," since everything in it has, and always has been, real) a subset of all possible realities.
COMMENT: It's not clear yet whether this is a law or even a testable theory, since Palmer doesn't suggest any experimental way to verify whether there are or are not states of reality outside the invariant one we can perceive. (I think I got that right.) But, according to this article, the idea may still nudge us closer to the Holy Grail of science, a unified theory of physics. To me, it's just fascinating that human brains can come up with this stuff.

THANKS TO Dr. Jennifer Stapleton-Kotloski for sending this item.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ares and the future of Marshall Space Flight Center

This article is one of many right now reporting that the Augustine Commission recommendations, which are leaking out all over the place, will doom the Ares-I booster intended to loft the new Orion capsule. As readers know, I never liked the damn thing, and its shortcomings have already caused the Orion's capabilities and capacity to be slashed, so I won't be sorry if it dies. (I will be sorry, of course, about the money poured into it already, but I'm not a believer in the "sunk cost" fallacy that says it always makes more sense to finish the program you began.) As the article points out, though, the rationale for the storied Marshall Space Flight Center, which got its start as the Army's home for Wernher von Braun and company, won't go away. There's plenty of work to do in advacing space propulsion.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Discovery and extinction

Writer Geoffrey Lean takes a rather extreme position regarding human-caused extinction - I've never read anything to suggest we'll lose half the species on the planet in the next century - but he has some interesting nuggets about discovery. In particular, he introduces the Smithsonian's Dr Kristofer Helgen, who has published full descriptions of 23 new mammals and has an astonishing 77 more in the pipeline. Helgen says, "Most people don't realise this, but we are smack-dab in the middle of the age of discovery for mammals."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Elephant teaches herself the harmonica

Seriously. What's amazing about this story is that the elephant in question, an English zoo inhabitant named Five, was not taught to play an instrument by humans in order to amuse the visitors. Someone left a harmonica within trunk range, and Five was toying with it and realized it made interesting noises. She kept experimenting on it and now does what the keepers, at least, call playing a tune.
COMMENT: This story, if it's accurate and not overhyped, raises some fascinating questions about what an elephant finds interesting and how "lower" mammals react to musical tones.

Houston, we have a shortfall.

The Augustine Commission created to examine options for human spaceflight is saying what everyone knew but most would not admit. With the current NASA budget, we're not going anywhere. Not the Moon. Not Mars. Nowhere beyond Earth orbit. Panelist Sally Ride, looking at the cost projections, said, "There was not enough money to even start the lunar systems."
A $3B/year plus-up for NASA, which has the same chance of happening under the current Administration and Congress as the stapler on my desk has of becoming a sentient life form, would put us on the Moon in 2025, five years later than the current schedule (which originally said 2018).

"Put out the stars.
Slam shut the teeming skies.
Abandon in place.
Burn out your eyes."
- from a poem by Ray Bradbudy on visiting the abandoned Apollo sites at KSC

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Giant carnivorous plant discovered (seriously!)

From the Philippines comes news of a new species of pitcher plant: Nepenthes attenboroughii (after naturalist David Attenborough). According to its co-discoverer, "The plant is among the largest of all carnivorous plant species and produces spectacular traps as large as other species which catch not only insects, but also rodents as large as rats."
COMMENT: Almost big enough to catch the smallest deer! (previous post). OK, not really, but darn impressive. The inventiveness of nature is endless....

Smallest deer among new species

World Wildlife Fund scientists report that over 350 species have been discovered in the Himalayan region over the past ten years. While they include a gliding frog and two catfish which have evolved "sticky" bellies to cling to the bottoms of streams, the star is the miniature muntjac, a deer weighing just 11 kg and originally mistaken for a juvenile of a known species. Nepal's forest and soil conservation minister said a more thorough, systematic search of the region might find ten times as many species.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

MIcroSpace News: Great videos from AMSAT-UK

Amateur satellite organizations (AMSAT) around the world have been active throughout the Space Age, up to and including building their own satellites and finding launches for them. Among new videos showing what the busy bees of AMSAT-UK have been up to:

"- FUNcube, the new AMSAT-UK linear transponder satellite project By Graham Shirville G3VZV
- AMSAT-NA Update By Drew Glasbrenner KO4MA
- AMSAT-DL Update By Peter Guelzow DB2OS
- Electronics and Teddy Bears: A Near-Space Adventure" By Ed Moore M0TEK and Fergus Noble M0NBL, Cambridge University Spaceflight
- Engineers Wanted! Tempting Teenagers to Explore Technology By Garry Bulmer, Software Architect
- Medium Earth Orbits By David Bowman G0MRF"

These chronicle presentations at the AMSAT-UK Colloquium in Guildford.

Jolly good show, chaps!


Friday, August 07, 2009

T. rex stuck to small prey?

As I've said, all Tyrannosaur news is automatically considered cool. Even this article, which suggests the biggest theropods were not actually good at bringing down large prey. Two scientists argue that the paucity of fossils of young herbivores, compared to the large number of eggs that we know were laid, indicates predators were mowing down the youngsters. This and other evidence implies that even the biggest predators avoided the stupendous battles with adult Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, etc. in favor of small stuff they could gobble whole.

COMMENT: It all makes sense - to a point. Predators will chomp anything they can find - the more defenseless, the better, although with an appetite like that of an adult T. rex, there is some minimum size beyond which prey wouldn't be worth the effort.
Here are my (admittedly amateur) thoughts, though. My reaction to this theory is the same one I had to the arguments T. rex was primarily a scavenger. Either way, the damn thing is just over-equipped. Nature may make mistakes in the evolutionary process, but she doesn't turn out animals with greater size and more armament than needed - that would be wasteful. A predator six or seven meters tall, with a head the size of a Smartcar and serrated teeth as big as bananas, just doesn't seem logical unless the demands of getting a meal - the results of the constant "arms race" between predator and prey - required it to become that big and that well-equipped. The carnage among younger herbivores might well have been due to the smaller predators, like Velociraptor, as well as juveniles among Tyrannosaurus, Gigantosaurus, etc. What makes the most sense to me is still the idea that T. rex specialized in big prey.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Pterosaurs: good fliers after all?

The debate in paleontology over how good the "flying reptiles" (pterosaurs) were at actual flying has been long-running and sometimes fierce. New analysis of a well-preserved specimen from China indicates that networks of unique fibers in the animals' wings gave them the kind of precise control birds have today.
COMMENT: I doubt this one find will settle things. Even if the early species in this study was a good flier, were later and larger (including some MUCH larger) pterosaurs equally capable, or were some mainly gliders? Either way, pterosaurs will maintain their hold on the human imagination. Flying vertebrates the size of aircraft have a way of doing that.

More evidence "hobbits" were a separate species

A new study, the first to use a comparison technique called cladistic analysis, reports on the results of examining the bones of the Flores "hobbits." The result: Not only were the hobbits a separate species, but they diverged from our own far earlier than thought - perhaps 2 million years ago.
COMMENT: I understand why some anthropologists have been leery of accepting a new species when we have a key bone, the cranium, from only one individual. However, I think the debate is tipping toward the position this amateur has always held: that we have a fascinating new species of human on our hands.

Augustine Commission public meetings

The latest of the Augustine Commission's public meetings is being held in DC today. A lot of material, some of it from alleged insiders and some openly published, as been trickling out of the Commission's work - although what is popping up in the press has sometimes been contradictory. My problem with the several public meetings the Commission has held in various locations (overall, a good thing) is that, if you review the agenda for each meeting, 15 to 30 minutes is allocated for public comment. Fifteen minutes? What kind of meaningful comment are you going to get in a window like that? Remaining meetings of the Commission (scheduled to report out by 8/31) should be extended so there is at least an hour for members of the public (remember who is funding all this) to make comments.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Follow the Whale

How do you track bowhead whales that spend much of their time in remote, unobserved, icy waters? Answer: with a coalition of agencies deploying all the tools of modern technology, including sonar and satellite transmitters fired by air gun into the whale's wall of blubber. This is an interesting look at how scientists find out what an enigmatic animal (bowheads may be the longest-lived vertebrates on Earth) is up to.

Monday, August 03, 2009

2009: A Space Dud

The premiere of the new space adventure show Defying Gravity had a decent premise and some cool space scenery. Also, it had.... um, well, not much. One problem most space shows and films have is that it's too expensive to simulate everything being in zero gravity, and this show is not set far enough in the future to postulate any form of antigrav breakthrough. The idea of the space suit with some kind of magnetic nanofibers is probably as good a workaround as anyone could come up with, but why doesn't the astronauts' hair float? And the rest is soap opera. The good ship Antares and her mission are interesting, but her crew would never have been cleared for a space mission by the flight surgeons and head-shrinkers of any real agency. Junk it up with a birth-controlling government (which is relevant to what?) and a sinister space agency official (a knockoff of the James Cromwell character from Space Cowboys) and you have....some cool space scenery. Somebody deorbit this turkey soon.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

While I'm on the August issue of WIRED...

There were a couple of other articles in this unusually compelling issue.

One is by Noah Shachtman on the auroral research facility called HAARP: it may have a lot of uses, and it's doing some very interesting things for science and the military. It is not anywhere near powerful enough to be the superweapon some conspiracy-watchers allege - but proponents contributed to the public-relations problem by making unrealistic weapons-related promises to military funding sources.

The other is Erin Biba's story on the revival of microbes tens of millions of years old. So far, they have not yielded medical breakthroughs, but prehistoric yeast still work for the important human endeavor of making beer.

WIRED weighs in on evolution's missteps

David Wolman in the August issue of WIRED has ten criticisms for Mother Nature. He thinks evolution misfired on, among other things, cetacean blowholes (a clumsy workaround for not evolving gills), giraffe births (that first step into the world is a doozy), and the inability of humans to digest cellulose. A fun little thought experiment. I always thought the inability of mammals to develop green fur was a strange oversight, given how useful it would be in forested environments.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Economist hosts debate on returning to the Moon

This should be interesting: a debate, hosted by the prestigious news magazine, on August 4, on whether to send humans back to the Moon. Click on the title link for details and to sign up for updates.