Friday, July 29, 2011

Of Monsters and Monstrous Misquotations

In case I forgotten to mention it, Dr. Darren Naish's peerless blog Tetrapod Zoology has moved to the Scientific American family (see title link). This naturally means a higher profile, which naturally means a higher risk of being misquoted. Here Darren protest a newspaper's misrepresentation which quoted him as supporting the existence of the Loch Ness Monster when he had no t even been talking about that subject. He'd been talking about accounts of sea serpents, a very different subject. Darren thinks the good evidence for Nessie is as elusive as the monster, but can't bring himself to dismiss some of the accounts from the high seas.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wow, so much cosmic news

First, astronomers report (see title link) that Earth has a little advance scout. The WISE space telescope saw an asteroid, boringly named 2010 TK7, actually orbiting ahead of us in a Lagrange point, where gravitational forces keep it from coming withing 25 million kilometers of us. More such finds are expected. One expert said, "We think that there are others which will be very close to the Earth and have motions that make them relatively easy to reach. So, they could be potential targets to go to with spacecraft."

Next, this sounds like science fiction: a planet getting constantly showered with water from a nearby moon. But the planet is Saturn, the moon is the large ice-covered blob known as Enceladus, and this is actually happening. One researcher, Paul Hartogh, says, "There is no analogy to this behavior on Earth. No significant quantities of water enter our atmosphere from space. This is unique to Saturn."

Finally, what do you do with a $100B space station when it reaches the end of its planned life in 2020? Proposals abound, but for now the mulitnational coordinating board for the ISS is planning to take the safest course and deorbit it into the Pacific. Still, a lot can happen between now and then. It might yet be put to further use. We don't even know exactly what shape the most complex space habitat ever built will be in by then. It could hold up very well, or it could be uninhabitable. We'll find out.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

City species evolve at warp speed

We've all heard that bedbugs have, as a result of natural selection, been producing pesticide-resistant strains. What may be surprising is that all kinds of other species affected by human activity have responded with new variants, producing, among other things, genetically distinct populations of mice in New York city parks separated by urbanity. This island evolution has been acting with a speed and effectiveness which surprises biologists, who are increasingly studying the results. One of the most striking examples: tomcod in the Hudson River have evolved immunity to the deadly pollutants known as PCBs. None of this means it's OK now to go ahead and further trash the environment. It does mean the process of natural selection is even more effective than we thought, and the island effect has implications for all kinds of cut-off habitat situations. Mother Nature still has a surprise or two for us....

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A nebula of surpassing beauty

Sometimes, all you can do is wonder.

A great farewell Shuttle video

The entire history of the program in eight minutes. Breathtaking.

Monday, July 25, 2011

New Guinea yields flood of new species.

Between 1998 and 2008, a survey reports, over 1,000 new species were described from New Guinea.
A thousand. From one location. In one decade. Think we know all the creatures on this planet? Not by a long shot.
From the snubfin dolphin to the turquoise monitor to a new river shark to nearly 100 new orchids, There are two birds, 12 mammals, and 43 reptiles.
It's a world of wonders out there beyond the air conditioning....

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Great White Moose

Some amazing animal pictures, reportedly from Utah.

How big do leopards get? Amazing pics

These pictures show some of the biggest leopards ever seen. I mean, leopards the size of tigers. Leopards that could take down a Cape buffalo. Pretty scary creatures - and magnificent.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Watch out for flying sharks!

We know great white sharks sometimes breach, hurling themselves completely out of the water. What if you're in the way? South African shark researchers were unprepared when a shark weighing an estimated 500kg actually landed in their boat, thrashing around, destroying equipment, and generally making a very dangerous nuisance of itself. Unable to find a safe way to ditch the shark, the crew had the boat towed into the dock. The shark survived, and no humans were injured.

And Atlantis is home

The Space Shuttle Atlantis made a perfect touchdown at Kennedy Space Center this morning. American access to space is, at least for a few years, limited to seats on a Russian Soyuz at @50M a pop, with transport available only to the International Space Station.
Congratulations to the astronauts, ground crew, console-staffers, wrench-turners, janitors, and everyone else involved in the program. It's been a helluva ride marked with sadness and triumph. The shuttle opened up space to the scientific expert (and occasional politically-connected guest) after a history of its being limited to highly specialized astronaut-pilots.
Now to chart a new course.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Happy 90th, John Glenn!

Happy 90th Birthday, John Glenn. The term "American hero" is usually applied these days either carelessly or sarcastically. John Glenn, a decorated fighter pilot in two wars, a four-term senator, a record-breaking test pilot, the first American in orbit, later the oldest man into space on the Shuttle, a man who, at 90, still flies his own plane and has hardly slowed down - that's an American hero. If we have the courage to face new frontiers, there will be many more heroes of exploration, but there will only be one John Glenn.

Mary Chapin Carpenter (a big NASA booster, BTW), wrote in a recent song:
We believe in things
We're told that we cannot change
Why shouldn't we
We had heroes once, and we will again
Why shouldn't we

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vesta, meet Dawn

Vesta is an asteroid floating through the void between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn is a NASA spacecraft which just entered orbit around the scientifically intriguing space rock. NASA was disappointed to note that Dawn failed to find the gigantic space monster reported by the crew of the Millennium Falcon, but it will gain a great deal of information anyway. After a year circling Vesta, Dawn will depart to orbit Ceres (once the largest of asteroids, now a "dwarf planet" in one of the most complex robotic missions ever undertaken. Good work, NASA!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book review: Vanished Ocean by Dorrik Stow:

Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World. Oxford University Press, 2011
Dorrik Stow

Stow, a British geologist and oceanographer, takes the reader along on a personal adventures seasoned with a great deal of well-explained science as he goes around the world looking for traces of the glove-girdling Tethys Ocean. Along the way, he explains everything from the origin of gypsum to the reasons the dinosaurs went extinct. Actually, that's one of his most interesting topics. He strongly rejects the popular KT impact theory and is not sure there was any impact: iridium layers and shocked quartz, he tells us, can result from volcanic or tectonic activity, and he thinks the Deccan supervolcano set in motion the rapid climate change and other activities that wrecked the ecosystem in which dinosaurs flourished.
This book has some of the clearest explanations I have read about the whole process of paleogeology and how we study it. I cam away with a much better understanding of the topic, with its implications for everything from understanding evolution to predicting the effects of climate change. Nice work!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Snow Leopards resurface in Afghanistan

The snow leopard is, to me, the most beautiful of all the mammals. It is also the most endangered of the big cats. Only a few thousand remain in the wild, although a good count is impossible because of the animal's stealthy nature and preference for difficult mountain terrain. The snow leopard hunting sequence in the documentary Planet Earth took two years to capture. Now we have some good news: a viable population has been confirmed in northeastern Afghanistan, where the animal's existence was uncertain. The Wildlife Conservation Society is funding a force of rangers to protect snow leopards from those who kill the animal for its fur or try to capture it for the illegal live animal trade.

Finding the extinct "rainbow toad"

The Sambas Stream toad, or Bornean rainbow toad, has been rediscovered in Borneo by scientists from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak after 87 years of presumed extinction. One wonders how this thing "hid" - it is every bit as colorful as the nickname implies. But hide it did, and this was not one of those cases where someone trips over a discovery. A dedicated team searched long and hard for Ansonia latidisca. Conservation International's Robin Moore commented, ""It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis." Go look at the photos on the link - they are amazing.

Can we disappear like Harry Potter?

Well, no. Not now, maybe not ever. But we can do a lot of cool things that can, in particular circumstances, mimic true invisibility. As Alan Boyle explains, these include the use of "metamaterials" to make light flow around an object, active camouflage, when a surface equipped with light/color elements essentially recolors itself to look like the background behind it, to something really weird called "time lenses" which hide a moment of time rather than space: if I punch you and you don't see it because that moment of time was "hidden' by compressing and decompressing light, did I really punch you? Well, your face hurts, and something must have happened, but you would have no idea what. Sounds like a good idea for a comic superhero, but it's reportedly already been demonstrated (for 15 trillions of a second). Boyle provides links to articles on all these items, and others. Fascinating reading... if you can see it... :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Discoveries and mysteries in ancient seas (article by me)

This is an article I was quite proud of, appearing as it does in Asian Geographic. They edited it very little in the end. It covers new discoveries in what I called the "Ancient Seas" (the editor specified the geogrpahy to be covered) along with ancient and modern beliefs of the people who sailed and fished them and some recent strange-creature reports. Illustrations are by the incomparable Bill Rebsamen. Thanks to Loren Coleman, who (if I recall corretly) steered the editor to me when she was looking for an article.
Loren, I'll be sending a donation to the Cryptozoology Museum once I get paid here.

This link opens into a FlipViewer on the Web that has the whole issue. Go to Page 60.

NASA can't win

The space agency has been heavily criticized - with reason - for monumental screwups in estimating the cost, schedule, and difficulty of the James Webb Space Telescope. Now that the new Space Launch System, the first system ever designed by Congresspeople instead of engineers, is slowly getting underway, the criticism of NASA is - surprise - that it's delaying the project too much in order to finish cost analysis! No wonder it took so long for the President to find a new NASA Administrator. This used to be one of the most prestigious jobs in the world. Sad.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

R.I.P. William R. Corliss

Physicist William Corliss headed the Sourcebook Project, which collected thousands (maybe millions) of bits of data on anomalies - everything fro ma square "ring" observed around the Moon to a claim of a living dinosaur. He sent me two of his Sourcebooks for free when I was writing Rumors of Existence. Farewell to a scholar and a gentleman. I hope you have your answers now, Bill.
Ad Astra,
Matt Bille

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Land environment found deep under the sea

It's a unique find in geology. Deep beneath the floor of the Atlantic lies a landscape which was once exactly that. Boreholes have brought up pollen grains. It seems the 10,000-sq km area rose rapidly to the surface, survived about 25 million years, and was submerged again. That's fast indeed by the standards of "deep time." The result is a sandwich with a terrestrial landscape between much longer-lived layers of marine landscape. It's far too old to be Atlantis - by about 56 million years - but the comparison is irresistible.

New type of joint found in nature: a screw!

Yep. A type of weevil has a hip joint unlike the two normal types of joints found in animals, the hinge and the ball-and-socket. The weevil uses a screw thread that goes through a nut. There's a tiny hole in the middle of the screw to allow blood to circulate.
COMMENT: Biologists have wondered why nature never hit on the wheel in all these billions of years of experimentation. As far as we know, that mystery is unsolved, but this little bit of news reminds us just how many variations can pop out of a long, messy process like evolution. (As a Christian, I believe this process did have a foreordained end result - a species intelligent enough to become spiritually aware - but it sure was a long, strange trip.)

New plant genus from Florida river

I remember the St. Johns river - which, unlike every other river in North America, flows north. The finding of a new genus and species, however tiny, reminds us we have a lot to learn even about familiar haunts. Florida State University, biologist Akshinthala K.S.K. Prasad found the new diatom in a water sample collected seven years before. Never stop searching....

Atlantis keeps it flawless with final Shuttle-ISS docking

The last space shuttle has docked to the International Space Station. Astronauts on the ISS love these visits: NASA visitors not only bring up spare parts and equipment, but often also special requests like pretzels or tabasco sauce (we still don't know why the sense of taste fades out "up there," resulting in the popularity of strong condiments).
COMENT: I should have something profound here to say, having followed the Shuttle since I watched the first one into space land on the high desert at Edwards AFB. A group of us came up from USC, joining tens of thousands of others camped out to watch. A bumper sticker (I used to have one) showed the Shuttle and said, "RUSSIA EAT YOUR HEART OUT."
But I'm at a loss for memorable words here. It's been a great adventure just to follow the Shuttle's adventure from beginning to end.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Atlantis is Off!

Weather worries did not materialize: Atlantis made a perfect on-time liftoff, carrying the last four Shuttle astronauts and a load of supplies for the ISS. It was stupid to end shuttle with no replacement ready, but we survived a few years with no human space transportation system after Apollo ended: we'll survive it again.
Per arduo, ad astra

The flags on the Moon

Where are those six flags we left on the Moon. A CBS researcher posed that question to NASA. It turns out the ones on Apollo 11 and 12 were probably too close to the LEM to survive when the ascent stage blasted off. The Apollo 14, 15, 16, and 17 flags were planeted further from the LEM and are likely still standing. It's good to know some are still up. The U.S. did not lay claim to the Moon (ir could not under the Outer Space Treaty), but we had the right to crow a little bit about our great national adventure.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Superman and Science

I love this stuff. Why can Superman fly? When he lifts a car, why doesn't the car break apart? (No one in comics even tries to explain that kind of problem.) Back to powers - OK, he's from a heavy-gravity planet, so he should be able to bound around on Earth like we can on the Moon. (In original comics, he he could not fly, only leap.) But how could he walk like a normal human? Scientists and fans (often one and the same) never tire of speculation.
Here's some more:

I'm reminded of the hilarious argument on The Big Bang Theory about how Superman extending his arms to catch Lois Lane as she fell fro ma skyscraper would just (yuck) cut her in three pieces.

Endlessly fascinating.

NASA chief says we'll lead world, little-known blogger doubtful

NASA chief Charles Bolden assured his audience at the National Press club the U.S. would continue to lead the world in space exploration. Ummm...not sure how you measure that. Yes, the ISS, to which America was the largest contributor, will continue to do science on orbit, and we build some great unmanned missions. Human spaceflight...current development programs (Orion and SLS) have no missions, no roadmap, no established destination. And plenty of budget cuts to push them infinitely into the future. Not sure how that's leading the world.

Find a cryptid, win money!

From the website i09: "io9 will be offering a $2000 bounty for the best photographic or video evidence of a genuine cryptid. In August, we will invite our panel of experts, including zoologists, the team behind excellent cryptid blog Cryptomundo, cryptid expert Loren Coleman, and a photoshop analyst, to judge which pictures are the most authentic. We'll give the bounty to the one that they judge to be the most mysterious yet authentic creature."

COMMENT: It's not clear what qualifies. Sure, sasquatch is a given, but what if you find a new insect? A new leech? A Smurf?

How to confirm a new species

Here's an article on an intriguing topic. If you see some odd creature, or even collect one, how do you know it's new? Mark Siddall is a leech expert (someone has to be) who says, "I look at a new species name as a hypothesis." How do you confirm it? Comparison with type specimens of related species (there is still no agreement on what differences in DNA are sufficient to confirm a new species). How do you find new leeches? Seriously? Wade into tropical waters and wait. They find the researchers. Siddall once looked for a giant leech in Tennessee, as reported in Native American legend. No luck.

Sea ice melting more complex than thought

I don't mention much on climate change because it's covered heavily by people with much more expertise, but I thought I'd post this because it hits on one of my favorites themes: that processes like the retreat of Arctic sea ice are more complex than the media usually presents them to be. In this case, researchers doing the hard word of looking at sea ice in place discovered that initial melting created a "feedback" effect. "They found a layer of cold, salty water about 200 metres down that they suspect has come from the melting of first-year ice. That meltwater has forced the relatively warmer water to the surface, where it's speeding up the decay of more ice."

This planet is complicated - and NO process going on, whether ocurring by itself or with human help, is simple.

Bring back the dire wolf?

Here's an effort I had not known about until now: the attempt to breed a dog that looks like the extinct Dire Wolf. While the heavily-built Dire Wolf had a common ancestor with the modern wolves, wolves living today are not their descendants. So the Project is about going for the right look more than bringing back the genes.