Saturday, May 31, 2014

The cryptozoology "absence of evidence" thing again

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." - Bernard Heuvelmans, the father of cryptozoology, wrote that, and it's been quoted ever since. Is it valid?
I've dealt with this before, but I didn't resolve it. It's still pretty complicated.
Scientific answer: the validity of what I'll abbreviate as AEINEA depends on the circumstances.
Let's take the ivory-billed woodpecker. We know it existed. We know it hasn't been conclusively proven to exist in the U.S. since the Singer Tract in Louisiana was logged out in the 1950s.  Some ornithologists came to accept its absence: others pointed out Southern woodlands were still relatively big and a few woodpeckers in a remote spot could be overlooked for a long time.  So there was a split on whether AEINEA was valid.
Maybe this wasn't the best example, because there's still a split between the ornithologists who are sure they saw and videotaped it and those who have gone over the testimony and the tape and written them off as representing pileated woodpeckers. Still, the search was active for a very long time, and highly qualified experts took the AEINEA position. Some still do.
Anyone could have been forgiven for rejecting AEINEA in some cases, like the cahow or Bermuda petrel.  It vanished for thee hundred years. No one was looking for it in 1906 when one was caught, killed, and stuffed - but misidentified. It wasn't until 1935 when one flew into a lighthouse window and the species' rediscovery began. If you'd been arguing the AEINEA position in 1934, you'd have been ridiculed. 
Then we get to cryptozoology.  To take the most topical subject, consider sasquatch. We have no hard evidence it existed or did exist.  It's argued about whether it could exist in the purported habitat, but for the moment we'll accept Robert Pyle's well-argued book Where Bigfoot Walks and assume it could. (Pyle did not argue it did exist, only that it was possible).
You can still fly for hours over the Pacific Northwest and western Canada and not see a sign of human habitation.  When sasquatch first made headlines in the 1950s (there are older stories, but let's start with the 1958 media explosion), it seemed logical to argue AEINEA, in part because no one had been looking for evidence.
In 2014, is it still valid?
A lot of people, include a very few scientists, do argue it. A small population of smart, wary animals, they say, can still avoid leaving good evidence.  If we accept this as possible, the next question is, how long is AEINEA valid?  If it was valid in 1958, it seems reasonable to accept it in 1968 and even 1978.  1988? 2000? 2014?  (I am here setting aside the most intriguing evidence, the Patterson-Gimlin film, because it's still not definitive. We don't have a scrap of valid DNA, much less a definite piece of a specimen.)
If it's still good in 2014, how much longer? 2024? 2034? At some point, it will become indefensible. Skeptics have argued it's been indefensible for a long time.  But even if it's valid now, it can't be valid forever.
Philip Klass once said UFO researchers lived under this curse: "You will never know more about UFOs than you do now." We don't know any more about sasquatch than we did 50 years ago.  I personally leave the AEINEA door open just a crack because I know sincere people who are sure they've seen it.  But I can't leave it open much longer.
Some cryptids are a bit different. The elongated marine animal known as the "sea serpent" has left no hard evidence anyone has collected for science, but it has the whole global ocean. It had better odds than sasquatch of not leaving hard evidence but still existing just because of that habitat. It does, however, become increasingly untenable that there is no evidence if the creature comes ashore to give birth. It's retreated, in essence: if there's a real animal, it's almost certainly pelagic.  But I think AEINEA still has some validity here. 
The "I think" part is tough. There is simply no way around some degree of subjectivity unless the habitat is entirely converted to asphalt or is so thoroughly known by humans that nothing could hide. This is where we are with Loch Ness, to my thinking. 
The one thing we can say with certainty is that AEINEA cannot be valid forever for any large animal that lives on Earth.  How long is it valid? 
Assume for a moment sasquatch does NOT exist. If this is the case, there are sasquatch hunters who will come, in the coming decades, to decide AEINEA no longer applies. There are others who may die thinking it is still valid.
You'll notice that I really haven't come to a definite conclusion.
That's the thing.
YOU have to do that for each cryptid based on your own research and your own reason.  I hope, in all cases, that AEINEA will turn out to be right. It won't, but  I hope.

Private Group Revives NASA Probe

In 1997, the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3), its extended mission completed, was left to its own devices in space. No one even tried to talk to the venerable probe (launched in 1978), which had studied cosmic rays, comets, and solar phenomena.  A private group, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, came to its rescue. A crowdfunded effort, the Project reached a Space Act agreement with NASA allowing them to try to contact the probe and set it to yet another mission.  Using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, project engineers on 29 May made contact and got a response from the "dead" spacecraft.   With $160,000 raised from Kickstarter, the group has plans to fire the ancient engine and send ISEE-3 to ES-1, the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1, nearly a million miles from Earth, and get the instruments going again.

This effort is groundbreaking in so many ways. Reviving a spacecraft launched when Jimmy Carter was President. A citizen group taking over and running a NASA probe.  This really is a voyage into new frontiers. (I contributed, by the way).


Monday, May 26, 2014

Birthday: Dr. Sally K. Ride

Dr. Sally Ride would have been 63 today.  America's first woman in space - and the first woman to really EARN a spaceflight rather than being rushed up as a stunt - was born in California in 1951. She earned three degrees in physics and one in English. She flew into space on STS-7 in 1983. She flew again on STS-41G and was in training for a third mission when we lost the shuttle Challenger - the spaceship that had carried her into history three years before the accident.  Dr. Ride served on the Challenger investigation commission and left NASA in 1989 for a professorship, and was active from then until her death from cancer in 2012 in programs to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers. She served on a half-dozen other prestigious boards and institutes, including the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She wrote five books on space for young readers. Intensely private, she never talked of her personal life, refused endorsements, and turned down most opportunities for appearances.   She crammed enough achievements and causes into her 61 years for three people - maybe four.

Godspeed, Doc.

Sally Ride: an American hero.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Top 10 new species announced

I'm not sure how one picks the Top 10 out of 18,000 species discovered in the past year, but the International Institute for Species Exploration has taken a shot.  In no particular order, they include one impossibly cute mammal (the Olinguito), one tree, one bizarre-looking lizard, and a microbe found - believe it or not - in two spacecraft-assembly clean rooms on different continents. Fish and birds lost out this year (they were discovered, but didn't rate placement on the list.  It is appropriate that the international committee involved made sure the invertebrates were dominant, since, in terms of total species and new species discovered, they always are.)

The list is released every year on the birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the creator of modern taxonomy.

  • Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)
  • Kaweesak's Dragon Tree (Dracaena kaweesakii)
  • ANDRILL Anemone (Edwardsiella andrillae)
  • Skeleton Shrimp (Liropus minusculus)
  • Orange Penicillium (Penicillium vanoranjei)
  • Leaf-tailed Gecko (Saltuarius eximius)
  • Amoeboid Protist (Spiculosiphon oceana)
  • Clean Room Microbes (Tersicoccus phoenicis)
  • Tinkerbell Fairyfly (Tinkerbella nana)
  • Domed Land Snail (Zospeum tholussum)

    Saturday, May 24, 2014

    More kudos for the International Cryptozoology Museum

    What more can a museum of the strange and unusual ask for? Loren Coleman's ICM in Portland, Maine, has been named one of the Top 10 Weirdest Museums by no less an authority than TIME magazine. TIME commented, "It includes everything from hair samples, fecal matter and native art — and it just might turn you into a Bigfoot believer.”  It might not, of course, but there are only so many life-size, fully furred sasquatch replicas in the world - indeed, I think the ICM's is the only one. Even if you think cryptozoology is silly, this museum houses thousands of items about animal fact and folklore from all over the planet. There's nothing like that collection.
    The ICM, as always, needs funds, but I'm not asking for donations to the museum right now. There's something more important: my friend Loren has huge uncovered medical expenses. If you feel like helping, do what I did and PayPal your donation to:

    Tuesday, May 20, 2014

    At the National Space Symposium

    The Space Foundation is calling it just the "Space Symposium" this year to reflect the growing international focus. 
    I managed only a brief visit today, and I thought the crowd was a little thin, but far better than last year, when the sequester crippled NASA's participation.  The Boeing Exhibit Center, though, is FULL of companies and organizations. Everyone's here, and there are some spectacular exhibits, like a Dream Chaser mockup you can sit in and a full-size Orion capsule cutaway.  More to follow!

    Friday, May 16, 2014

    The race to find new species

    Actually, this article is more about one lab's discoveries, but I though the figures were interesting: researcher at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History described 103 species, living and extinct,  in 2013. In second place: the California Academy of the Sciences, with 91 species. 
    Go Gators!

    Crypto-fiction review: Kronos Rising

    Kronos Rising
    Max Hawthorne
    Far From the Tree Press
    2013 (updated edition)

    "Creature" novels usually have two faults: the hand-waving of the science and the inability of the author to keep our attention when the creature is off stage.  Hawthorne's novel succeeds on the second count and certainly tries on the first.
    So to give the good news first, Hawthorne can write. Some of his characters (the two-fisted lawman, the woman scientist) are tropes of this genre, but Hawthorne writes them colorfully and sure-footedly. Everyone has an interesting backstory, which helps us cheer on the heroes and slightly humanizes the villains.  (One odd note here: the novel's repeated reference to champion fencers being national figures and having a professional tour is so weird I assume Hawthorne means it as a kind of running gag.) 
    Hawthorne knows the sea, and the ocean scenes are authentic and suspenseful.  We spend time on several ships, and all of them are described in interesting detail.  We feel the rocking of the waves and smell the salt air. 
    Finally, Hawthorne is good at plotting and pacing. The book races along, and only the drawn-out climax seems too long. 
    So it's eminently readable. The science needs some work.
    Hawthorne's villain is an evolved species of kronosaur, close to a hundred feet long . It's common for authors using extinct creatures to postulate that evolution over millions of years has left them bigger, smarter, and in this case, with the ability of echolocation, and that all falls under the heading of speculative fiction as long as the critter is at least possible.
    It bothered me to see a baleen whale echolocate. This and some other liberties with the science are things that could have been revised (e.g., if it's the wrong habitat for a colossal squid, good old Architeuthis would do)  or written around. 
    The knonosaurs' survival to the present is incomplete: Hawthorne presents a story that puts two kronosaurs in a volcanic cone after the K-T asteroid impact, but the next 65 million years is a bit fuzzy. However, he gets credit for trying, because a lot of "survival" novelists really don't.
    None of the nitpicks will bother anyone looking for a fun read, because Kronos Rising delivers on the fun: it has plenty of plot twists, roller-coaster suspense, colorful characters, and action.  On that score, I got my money's worth.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Monk seals: the good, the bad, and the extinct

    There were three species of monk seals, so widely separated that their kinship seemed bizarre - the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Hawaiian. Scientists have now figured out, using DNA from museum specimens of the Caribbean species (believed extinct sine 1952, though it likely lingered past that), that the Mediterranean, the original stock, should have the genus Monachus to itself, while the other two should be in a new genus, Neomonachus. The two surviving species are endangered - the Mediterranean critically so.

    In the case of the Caribbean seal, in 1494,Columbus took note of this animal's abundance.  By 1911, humans had found and slaughtered the last known herd near the Yucatan peninsula.  The last definite record was from 1952, although sightings of one or two individuals were reported in 1964 and 1969.  A report of two seals off the southeastern Bahamas in 1974 might have marked the last time this species was encountered.  A 1980 expedition to this area produced no sightings, though fishermen surveyed in the 1990s indicated there was at least a possibility survivors had been sighted in recent years.     It is likely, however, that the species is now extinct.

    Sunday, May 11, 2014

    Review: Predator X by C.J. Waller

    I try to keep up with novels with a cryptozoological influence. That's very hard now with so many self-published and Web-published novels, most of them awful.  Predator X looked interesting, though, and mainly it was. It kept my attention, though the cryptozoology isn't the focus of the novel.   Author Waller writes well and has avoided the bloat afflicting novels these days and kept it short (149 pages). Actually, the novel is a little too short: none of the characters has any backstory, and the explanation of how the caving team this novel focuses on ended up in its situation needs more development.  There are a couple of good plot twists, especially at the very end.  Predator X (a giant pliosaur) isn't the focus here: it exists and is important to the plot, but isn't the focus of the novel, which deals more with extraterrestrial activities and a creature which reminded me of Dean Koontz' antagonist in the novel Phantoms crossed with the one in the movie The Thing (John Carpenter version). There are a few factual errors (e.g., you wouldn't find trilobite fossils in Jurassic sediments) and the ecosystem in a deep underground sea doesn't really work, or at least isn't adequately explained.  (Read Warren Fahy's Pandemonium for a much better attempt at this.) I should be fair, though, and note the ecosystem isn't entirely natural: someone's been customizing it, so to speak.
    In sum, Predator X isn't a great novel, but it's a fun way to pass a couple of hours.

    Thursday, May 08, 2014

    Turning anemones into new friends

    The 1,200 species of sea anemone cover the reefs of the world with flower-like beauty and nasty stings.  Scientists surveying the world's anemones (which for their own order) discovered that one of the biggest kinds - with tentacles 2m long - is a completely different animal. Relicanthus daphneae is the new same for Pacific species found in 2005.  It used to be Boloceroides daphneae, and it likes the neighborhoods around hydrothermal vents.  Turns out it's more closely related to coral than to anemones.   There are only some three dozen orders (some are disputed) in the entire animal kingdom, so this is a very big deal.

    I am still trying to come up with a truly funny joke that ends, "With friends like these, who needs anemones?" Marvin in Finding Nemo only had the punchline. If you know a good one, let me know.

    Wednesday, May 07, 2014

    One mean new dinosaur

    From the United States, we have a new entry in the "top prehistoric predator" competition.  While I still give that title to T. rex for land predators and Dunkleosteus terrelli for marine predators, Siats meekerorum (the genus name is from a legendary Native American monster) was over 9m long, with three-clawed hands and a generally fierce demeanor, especially in the artist's concept attached to the linked story.  To  an amateur, the head and claws give this 100-million-year-old beast a more allosaurid look than a tyrannosaurid one, but that's just on looks: the article doesn't offer much on the actual relationships.
    It's not only an awesome critter but a good reminder that the dinosaur record is far from being filled in.  Who knows what's next?
    Siats meekerorum as tribute to a Native American legendary creature, the Siats (pronounced as See-otts). According to this legend, the Siats was a terrible man-eating creature. While Siats the dinosaur obviously did not eat man due to a nearly 100 million year gap in existence
    saur Siats meekerorum as tribute to a Native American legendary creature, the Siats (pronounced as See-otts). Accord
    saur Siats meekerorum as tribute to a Native American legendary creature, the Siats (pronounced as See-otts). Accord

    Saturday, May 03, 2014

    New species swim in familiar waters

    There's a fish in the Columbia River Basin in Montana and Idaho called the cedar sculpin, or Cottus schitsuumsh. It lives in waters that are well known and fished, but it's newly discovered.
    It's a rare event, but it does happen.
    Back in 2000, a new species of bass, Micropterus cataractae, was even described from well-known and commonly fished rivers of the southeastern United States.  Fishermen had known of the “shoal bass” for at least fifty years, but no scientific examination had been made to see if this fish differed from other bass.  A large shoal bass can be two feet long and weigh over eight pounds.  
    That was the case for a long time with the sculpin, too. The new find was a "cryptic species" - an animal that looks so much like related species that it needs expert examination to distinguish it. The cedar sculpin, it turned out, had a single tiny visual difference from the shorthead sculpin, Cottus confuses.  DNA is increasingly the tool of choice for distinguishing species, but it's not a perfect science yet. What degree of difference splits a species off from the others? While this is still being worked out, this article describes an effort to determine the true diversity of fish and amphibians in the rivers of the Rocky Mountains. What's known so far is that we've considerably underestimated it.

    Friday, May 02, 2014

    Thanks to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference

    I normally stick to science in this blog, but there's one event every year for which I have to interrupt that theme, because the Pikes Peak Writers Conference deserves all the accolades it can get. The PPWC is a gathering in late April of each year (it began in 1993) to celebrate, teach, and inspire writing. I've been a dozen times or more, and it's always worth the effort and cost (the latter is significantly less than for most conferences, by the way).

    (Don't take my word for it: here, from another attendee, is a great testimonial)
    The PPWC is known as the friendliest writer's conference around, a reputation kept up every year with lots of mix-and-mingle opportunities (there's no separate lounge for faculty and speakers: they are part of the general population here), a great setting in a nearly flawlessly-run hotel with lovely views of the Rockies, and an army of volunteers who make sure everything is taken care of.  Mary Kay Meredith was an awesome Director.

    If you're interested, here's a blog you should most definitely follow.

    The largest group of attendees is always the novel-writers, but there is programming for screenwriters, memoirists, and anyone else you can name.  The speakers are great: I was limited in my attendance by business trips this year but did hear a hilarious keynote from Jim Hines.

    No event involving human beings is perfect, and I have voiced two concerns.
    One is to the hotel: we're on top of a steep hill, there are 300+ people, and there are four handicapped parking spaces.  I talked to an assistant manager who said, "Maybe we'll improve when we resurface the parking lots." As I said, the hotel is ALMOST perfectly run in support of the Conference.
    The other concern is for the conference organizers (and I admit I should be thinking about how to be more active and useful myself: I pledge every year that I'll be a more active volunteer, and somehow I always let that ambition get crowded out.)   There aren't enough minority attendees: somehow, we're just not attracting them. I looked for non-Caucasian attendees in the crowd and spotted a small handful of Hispanic and Asian faces and not a single African-American.

    Those aside, I learned a lot,  made friends, and made memories.  (Did I mention the Pikes Peak Writers offer programming all year round, and membership is FREE?)

    Here's to 2015!

    Can Science Solve Everything?

    As Robert Oppenheimer said, "Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful."  But having been through the usual phases of reading classic scientists, current scientists, old philosophers, new philosophers (none of the latter very interesting), and religious/theological sources, I keep coming back to the idea there are things we'll never solve.

    But don't take my word for it. Here's a very good article.

    Not even the most brilliant theoretical physicists can do a damn thing with the "Why" question - why is there something rather than nothing? One of the commentators on this article attempts to reason his way out of this by saying there may not be a "why" - "Why can't things just BE?" but I don't think he wins a point: if there's no Why, then we have to ask Why there's no Why. 

    Of the other points, take life after death. Setting aside the much argued-over NDEs (near-death experiences), some scientists argue there's no evidence to think there's anything: certain processes in the brain stop happening, and that's the end of it.  But what evidence would there be, exactly? Sure, it would be nice if people were always coming back to tell their children where they stashed some extra cash, but there's no reason an afterlife has to be workable that way.  It's easy to postulate an afterlife state where contact with or even awareness of the physical world doesn't exist.  As a Christian, I think something does exist, but what really annoys me is that, if I'm wrong, I'll never KNOW I'm wrong.

    But I digress.  The point was there are still places where science stops working.  Is there anything past those boundaries? We can debate that, but we're no longer debating science.  Science and the scientific method are the best tools ever developed to explore and understand the magnificent physical universe we are in. If God exists, I take it as a commandment that we are meant to use all the tools at our disposal to further develop our understanding and further explore (and protect) the realm we exist in. 

    So let's saddle up our microscopes, our telescopes, our particle accelerators. Let us build out models of Earth's environment while we also build our starships.  This is the universe we're in. Science lets us make the most of it.