Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Jeff Bezos' private spaceship founder Jeff Bezos is moving ahead with his plans for a private space travel company. His new firm, the very secretive Blue Origins, is leasing more space near Seattle for headquarters and workshops. The company already bought a ranch in west Texas for rocket tests. Blue Origin's initial vehicle will be a three-person suborbital carrier, with orbital vehicles and, in the far term, space colonies to follow. He has at least one serious competitor, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise, which has leased land for a spaceport in New Mexico.

Comment: There are other companies exploring this field, too, and several others have started but already collapsed. The difference here is that these are people who have very large bankrolls and don't need to hunt for - and then please - outside investors. That makes a big difference in how quickly one can develop technology and get a complex effort underway. Good luck to both.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Ecology of Skull Island

The new film King Kong does a more realistic job of portraying a giant gorilla than its Hollywood predecessors. In this enjoyable article, Stefan Lovgren uses the film to explore island ecology. Kong's home of Skull Island, alas, would be a bad place to look for anything like Kong himself. The island is too small and too full of large predators to work as an ecosystem. The same point was made about the island in Jurassic Park, which didn't have nearly the land area required to support multiple species of giants. Islands in general do not house large predators at all.

Comment: The Komodo dragon seems an interesting exception to this rule. Alas, there have been too many bad movies about oversize lizards to leave room for a good movie on the subject.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

SCIENCE magazine's Breakthroughs of the Year

Science magazine has named its top 10 breakthroughs of 2005. First place went to a series of projects which increased our knowledge of evolution, including the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome and the ways in which a species can split into two or more species. Other breakthroughs included planetary probe successes, most notably the Huyghens lander's mission to Titan, along with genetic research, a new understanding of neutron stars, etc. The magazine also named the "breakdown of the year," the budget-driven collapse of the leading U.S. programs in particle physics.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The "Bone Eating Snot Flower"

You can't make this stuff up....
Off the coast of Sweden, scientists have discovered a seafloor-dwelling worm they have christened the bone-eating snot-flower. That's the actual translation of its specific name, Osedax mucofloris. The critters "burrow into whale bones, leaving mucus-covered plumes poking out." The plumes look a bit like flower, albeit a disgusting one. The new animal belongs to a group also called zombie worms. Most of its relations live in the Pacific, and the discovery in the North Sea was a surprise.

Thanks to my colleague at Booz Allen Hamilton, Heather Gruver, for pointing this one out to me.

One Big Cat

What may be the world's largest feral cat was recently shot in Australia. The solid black animal was so large that one zoologist who saw the single photograph published suggested it was a leopard. DNA analysis showed it was a feral domestic cat, but the tail alone was 65 cm long, and the weight has been estimated at 25kg or more. It may have been a freak, or it may be proof that, given a situation with plenty of prey and limited competition, the domestic cat can evolve into a giant variant, perhaps a new subspecies. There are other sightings of large black cats in Australia, with a few photographs and videos to back them up.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Giant New Aquarium

The new $200M Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta holds more than 8 million gallons of water in uniquely designed "walk-through" tanks, housing over 100,000 fish (including two whale sharks, the first kept in North America) and five beluga whales.

Comment: There is always controversy about keeping large creatures in aquaria. My thought is that, while keeping creatures like belugas and whale sharks should be restricted to the largest, best-equipped facilities, there's no real substitute for exposing people to the diversity and majesty of the marine life we need to protect. Videos just don't have the same impact.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

World's Coolest Robot

It's not C-3PO, but it's getting close. The latest version of Honda's humanoid robot, ASIMO, which can not only walk but jog, will get its first test in a workplace next year. ASIMO will staff the front desk at a Honda office, greeting visitors, showing them to a conference room, and brining coffee, among other tasks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

News on species at rish

A study sponsored by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), the study identifies 794 species approaching extinction. The AZE recommended safeguarding 595 sensitive habitat sites, of which only about a third are protected today.

One of those species is the ivory-billed woodpecker, recently rediscovered in the U.S. An article from Reuters ( documents how a seemingly unlikely ally, the hunting community, has helped to save the ivory-bill through habitat conservation.

Comment: Note the common thread; conservation of habitat. Restoring habitat, once it's been developed for other uses, is almost impossible. Habitat protection should be the number one priority in allocating resources for conservation.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Looking ahead: NASA's 2007 budget

NASA administrator Griffin has released his guidance on NASA's budget planning. Essentially, the science and education programs will be held flat while the agency tries to safely phase out the Shuttle, finish a workable International Space Station configuration, and fund the transition to the planned Crew Exploration Vehicle and the rest of the Vision for Space Exploration.

Comment: Those who would like to see robust science and education programs while still keeping the VSE development on track really have only one option: fight for more funding. NASA is shedding employees (contract and civil service), asking for proposals for contracting out delivery of cargo to the space station to private industry, and otherwise pushing for all the economies Congress will let them get away with (I say that because there's no chance Congress will let he agency get away with closing any of its field centers, even though they were established when NASA was much larger.) A higher "topline" is the only real option, and that means NASA and its supporters (myself included) must do a better job of making the case for more NASA funding within a constrained Federal budget.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Mention of My Papers

The Arms Control Wonk site, in an article on a defense satellite programs called ANGELS, saw fit to mention two of my past papers on what might be done with small spaceraft in the escort and inspection role. I have not worked for ANSER since 2001, but the citation is otherwise accurate. It's nice to be thought significant.

The cite:

Matt Bille and Deborah A. Bille, Enforcing the OST—The Inspection Question AIAA-2000-5155, AIAA Space 2000 Conference and Exposition, Long Beach, CA, Sept. 19-21, 2000.
Matt Bille, Robyn Kane, Martin Oetting (ANSER) and Donna Dickey (AFRL), A Microsatellite Space Guard Force, 13th Annual AIAA/USU Small Satellite Conference, 1999.

Borneo Discovery - or rediscovery?

The photographing of an unknown carnivore on Borneo gave rise to speculation an entirely new species had been discovered. That's still possible, but it's also possible the find concerns the rediscovery of an animal presumed extinct. Cameron Leuthy, a colleague of mine at Booz Allen Hamilton, gets credit for pointing me to a site on Hose's palm civet (Diplogale hosei), a carnivore native to Borneo but not seen for 40 years and feared extinct. It looks like a promising match.

Asteroid Probe Fails to Gather Samples

Well, darn. Japan's daring robotic mission to gather surface material samples from an asteroid and return with them to Earth apparently did not work after all. After initially saying the Hayabusa probe "most probably" succeeded in gathering samples from the asteroid Itokawa , the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency now believes the sample collector "bullet" did not fire when the probe was in position. A mission like this is a terribly difficult endeavor, and failures must be expected. Fortunately, other scientific data gathering, plus the experience and the lessons learned, makes this a worthwhile endeavor even with the disappointment of the missed sampling effort.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

New Carnivore from Borneo

New mammals discovered in the field are rare, sizable mammals rarer, and new carnivores rarer still. WWF scientists in Borneo have hit the trifecta with photos of a carnivore whose type is still undetermined. The dark red animal with a long, bushy tail may be a vivverid, but it's snout is obscured by a leaf in the key photograph, making certain identification difficult. THe animal is slightly larger than a domestic cat. Yet another reminder of how much we still have to learn about the species of our own class.

Hydrothermal Vents are Global Phenomenon

Scientists have announced the finding of new hydrothermal vents, gushing superheated water and minerals into the sea. What's significant is that, until now, only the Pacific "Ring of Fire" zone and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge were thought to posess such vents. Now we know they are global - a discovery which will shed more light on Earth's past and, most certainly, lead to the finding of yet more unknown species of animals to add to the hundreds of species described from the vents we already know of.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Trojan Shark

A $115,000 imitation shark has been developed in the hopes a researcher concealed inside will be able to study great white sharks up close. The 14-foot "Trojan Shark" emits no bubbles and has skin roughed up and scarred to not only look but feel like a real shark.

Comment: It's a worthy effort, and I wish the researcher (the grandson of Jacques Cousteau) luck. But it's hard to imagine that sharks, with their incredible sensor suites, will not notice some differences. It will be interesting to see how close they let the robotic shark get.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Coverage of Earth's Exploration of Mars

Here's a good site on Mars for a broad audience, archiving all the recent NBC/MSNBC stories on the Martian rovers and the results and reports that have flowed from the resulting data. The more we learn about Mars, the more mysterious and intriguing it becomes. Here's hoping we have the vision to fund a long-term exploration program - robotic and, eventually, human - to gain full knowledge of Earth's most famous celestial neighbor. Could some life have survived there? Yes. Could life have arisen there? We don't know. Could there still be life there? It's a slim chance, but it's not impossible.....

When Sir Arthur C. Clarke was asked what event in the 20th century he
would never have predicted, he said, "That we would have gone to the
Moon and then stopped."

A Fitting Tribute

The ashes of Mercury and Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper will be sent into space in the next commercial "burial" mission, along with those of Star Trek actor James Doohan. The space community will get to say a final farewell to two men of great influence: one real space pioneer and one science fiction pioneer who inspired some of today's engineers in their student days. The Space Services Inc. payload will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 1 booster should occur in early 2006 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Godspeed.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Readying the Space Shuttle

In a news conference held Tuesday, Nov. 22, Shuttle External Tank (ET) program manager John Chapman, manager of the external tank program, described finding nine tiny cracks, seven of them invisible at the surface, in the foam of an ET undergoing inspection. The hairline cracks occurred close to the area where foam separated on ascent during the shuttle Discovery's STS-114 Return to Flight mission last July.

It is, frankly, difficult to imagine a foam-covered structure the size of the ET going through construction, processing, mating, and filling without ever developing such micro-cracks. As Chapman cautioned, "We're still trying to figure out what this means." Right now, though, everyone at NASA is concerned with trying to get the tanks mated to their Shuttles in the most pristine condition possible. STS-121, the next mission, is planned right now for May 2006.

Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale took pains to point out the next mission will be driven by the ET work and not by a schedule.

In this writer's personal opinion, though, NASA's leaders have to prove they really mean that. Looking at the postings on, rumblings about inordinate schedule pressure have never entirely ceased. At this point, my unsolicited advice is, "To hell with the schedule." Another fatal accident means the end of the U.S. human spaceflight program, maybe for decades. If the Shuttle is going to fly again, everything else must take second priority to flying safely.

Truimph in Space

The Japanese Hayabusa probe became the first craft ever to take samples from a celestial body other than the Moon. The probe touched down on the asteroid Itokawa and and lifted off successfully.
The probe is not in the clear yet for its return to Earth. Controllers of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) put the craft into "safe" mode maintaining a distance of about 5 km from the asteroid while they studied an anomaly that may be propellant gas leaking from one of its thrusters. The probe is 288 million km from Earth and hopefully will return in 2007.
Congratulations are due to the Hayabusa team, along with everyone's best wishes for a safe return for humanity's latest effort to reach beyond this world.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

2,000+ New Species from One Survey

A team from the University of San Carlos in the Philippines reports that study of a single area - the seafloor around the island of Panglao in the Philippine province of Bohol - has turned up an estimated 150–250 new species of Crustacea and 1,500–2,500 new species of molluscs. The University reports that,
"The survey has inventoried around 1,200 species of decapod Crustacea and up to 6,000 species of molluscs in the study area of about 15,000 hectares. While the mollusc result was anticipated, the crustacean result came as a total surprise to the researchers. In comparison, the Mediterranean Sea has an area of 300 million hectares and only 340 species of decapods and 2,024 species of molluscs."
Again and again, we are being reminded that we have only begun the task of inventorying the animal species of planet Earth.
As a Psalmist wrote long ago: "So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts."

In addition to the summary at the link above, more details can be found at

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Electronic Warfare - By Fish!

According to a new item in Science News, the modern combat tactic of jamming a rival's sensors is not so modern. Fish do it! The 15-cm brown ghost knifefish (Apteronotus leptorhynchus), which uses an electric field for detection and communication, can change the frequency of its field to jam that of a nearly rival. Simply amazing.

Amateur Makes Pivotal Find

The day of the amateurs - whether they are naturalists, fossil-hunters, or astronomers - is far from over. We think of science as a big-ticket, professional enterprise these days, but it's a big planet and a bigger universe... there will never be enough professionals to cover everything that's out there for us to learn. Witness the story of Texas fossil-hunter Van Turner, who found a peice of backbone that was eventually classified as Dallasaurus turneri, the earliest known mosasaur and an important clue to the evolution of marine reptiles.

Congratulations, Mr. Turner!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A really big ape

A new study indicates the largest known ape of all time, Gigantopithecus blackii, lived well into the time when humans inhabited its Asian home. Indeed, this 550-kg King Kong may have died out only 100,000 years ago.
Aside from the implications for primatology and paleontology, this also created a buzz in cryptozoology. Gigantopithecus (there are at least two species in the genus, with G. blackii being the largest) is the only primate of which we have fossil evidence that could account, based on size alone, for those yeti and sasquatch reports which describe apes up to 8 feet tall or more.
G. blackii is normally depicted as a gorilla-like animal which was normally a quadruped. Its sheer size is the main reason for assuming this. We have only teeth and jawbones, so there's a lot of room for speculation.
The connection with sasquatch seems a reach. Why would an animal of subtropical Asia (it's best known from China and Vietnam) make the journey across the Bering Strait land bridge in sufficient numbers to establish a North American population? This area was not always snow and ice, but it was hardly enticing foraging territory for a plant-eating ape. If sasquatch exists (I doubt it, but I hope I'm wrong) I suspect the ancestor is a somewhat smaller, more adaptable , omnivorous ape whose fossils we have not found yet.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Controversy on Flores Man

Anthropologists are sharply divided over the validity of Homo floresiensis, despite recent finds that extend the presence of these meter-tall humans of Indonesia, indicating a population that persisted from 95,000 years BP to as recent as 12,000 years. Some, like Robert Eckhardt of the Penn State University, consider the remains found so far indicate nothing more than a group of people prone to genetic defects including subnormal stature and microcephaly. In my admittedly amateur opinion, this is not a logical position. It's one thing to find a single skeleton and dismiss it as a "freak." In this case, we have material (admittedly incomplete) indicating this race survived for more than 80,000 years. A population subject to universal or very frequent microcephaly and other defects is simply not going to survive and reproduce for very long. While skeptics legitimately wonder if a being with such a small brain could produce the stone tools and other artifacts found in association with Flores, the evidence so far is that they could - because they did.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Important Report on National S&T

The National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy has produced a very clear and urgent report,
Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future .
It identifies two key challenges coupled to science and engineering: creating high-quality jobs and providing clean, reliable energy.
Recommendations: improve math and science education: expand basic research: make US more attractive to high tech students, engineers, etc.: and provide incentives for innovation.

Comment: Like most clear and urgent reports, this one will probably be ignored. Reports only matter when the President and Congress turn them into legislatiopn and budget inputs. This reprot is bold and forward-looking. Therefore, I'm not expecting much action.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Robot Fish

The London Aquarium is now host to the world's first autonomous, self-navigating robotic fish. Developed by the University of Essex, in southeast England, the fish are intended as a public demonstration of robotic technology, but project leader Huosheng Hu notes, "This work has many real-world applications including seabed exploration, detecting leaks in oil pipelines, mine countermeasures and improving the performance of underwater vehicles."

Comment: Some technology is just plain cool. This qualifies, definitely.

Science Policy News

The best source for keeping up with what's happening in science policy and funding is the American Insitute of Physics news page. The AIP staff is especially good at staying on top of each step of Federal budgeting actions.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

New Book "Shadows of Existence" delayed

This pains me enormously, but I must report that my second book on zoological discoveries and mysteries has been postponed again.
The publisher, Hancock House, contracted with a printer that turned out to be unreliable.
Shadows of Existence recounts the last decade of discoveries and rediscoveries in the world of zoology. The decade of the 1990s brought a wave of new species descriptions, especially of mammals, and the trend has continued into the 21st century. New deer, rodents, birds, sharks, and other vertebrates are entering the textbooks along with enormous numbers of invertebrates of all types and sizes, from microscopic creatures to a weird squid, seven meters long, that looks like an animated microwave tower. The book also delves into the mysteries of cryptozoology, separating rumor from science and showing there are still intriguing questions about creatures in the shadows.
I do have a chance to add some updates, so I'll be doing a quick revision to cover events like the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Further updates to come...

Meanwhile, the real Shuttle news

The "Tiger Team" formed to examine the unsettling External Tank foam-shedding events on the flight of STS-114 has reported in. While the exact causes remain a little fuzzier than NASA would like, the team did offer recommendations for safer flight:

Remove and replace the entire length of the LO2 and LH2 PAL ramps using improved application processes.
Implement modifications required to prevent cryopumping through bi-pod heater wiring.
Investigate the possibility of venting ice/frost ramp "fingers".
Improve hardware protection provisions to minimize the potential for collateral hardware damage during processing.

Elimination of the PAL ramp at the earliest possible opportunity coincident with rigorous aerodynamic test and analysis.
Develop hard covers for ice/frost ramps and implement in conjunction with PAL ramp elimination.
Eliminate tank traffic to the extent possible in the long-term and implement a no-touch processing policy.
Develop and certify nondestructive evaluation (NDE) techniques for all ET TPS applications.

For the full report and other Shuttle news, see:

Space Shuttle News from The Onion

The Internet's answer to The Daily Show offers this enjoyable nuggest about government rule-bending.

The Onion "reports" that...
"NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has yet to respond to recent allegations that he used NASA space shuttles on as many as one dozen unauthorized outings to such destinations as New York City, the French Riviera, and his vacation home near Ketchum, ID."

Click the headline above for the whole story! :)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Obituary: Michael Ward

Michael P. Ward, British physician and mountaineer, has died. While Ward has many important feats of mountaineering to his credit, including pioneering work on Mount Everest, he is known in cryptozoology for being co-discoverer, with Eric Shipton, of the "yeti footprints" in 1951. In 1972, primatologist John Napier wrote that he would dismiss the yeti except that the Shipton-Ward prints were the one piece of evidence that "simply sticks in my throat." The prints, which look like a primate's but with an anomalously broad heel, small big toe, and long second toe, have never been convincingly explained.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Africa's First New Monkey in 21 years

The "Highland Mangabey" (Lophocebus kipunji) has become the first new monkey species described from Africa since 1984. Biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found this brown, long-haired primate on the slopes of a Tanzanian volcano, Mt. Rungwe. It's a large monkey, with a head and body length of up to almost a meter. The animal has long been known to local hunters, and it was their discussions with visiting scientists that led to the animal's discovery. Oddly, after being unknown to science for so many years, the animal was discovered almost simultaneously by two biologists 350 km away. This second population lives in the Ndundulu Forest in the Udzungwa Mountains. The species includes only an estimated 500 to 1,000 individuals, and it is considered highly endangered.

Monday, October 17, 2005

China's Second Human Spaceflight Succeeds

Astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng safety returned to Earth by parachute in their Shenzhou VI spacecraft, making China 2-for-2 in successful human spaceflight missions. The mission lasted five days. Popular celebrations of the flight included firecrackers and dragon dances, while the nation's leaders celebrated the scientific, technological, and political advances made by the flight. The Shenzhou program has reportededly cost about $2.3 billion (U.S. dollars) so far.

"Pop Rocks" from the Ocean Floor

In 1960, unusual deep-sea volcanic rocks were dredged up from the waters off Mexico, near Guadalupe. They broke apart with loud popping noises when brought to the surface. A very few additional sources of popping rocks have been found, mainly on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but it took 45 years to relocate the site of the original discovery. Scripps oceanographers have finally accomplished that, finding the rocks on a volcano 3,200 meters down. The rocks "pop" due to concentrated bubbles of volcanic gases trapped inside. When the rocks escape the confining pressure of the deep sea, the bubbles expand with enough force to break the rocks open. The gases in the bubbles will give geologists a window back in time to examine the concentrations of these elements and compounds (helium, argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, etc.) trapped when the mantle was being formed.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Next American Spaceship

The team of Northrop Grumman and Boeing team revealed its planned version of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA'a next crewed spacecraft. (Click on link in title above.) The CEV is intended to fly orbital missions bweginning in 2012 and lunar missions by 2018. It's a modular system, much more capable than the Apollo "stack" is somewhat resembles. There is room for six astronauts in the crew module, which is coupled with a service module and a launch-abort system.

For Something Different...

Science Frontiers is a unique newsletter collecting snippets of information about scientific anomalies and curiosities from sources ranging from peer-reviewed papers to textbooks to popular media. I'm not talking about things like UFOs, although they occasionally do turn up, but such items as why the "red shift" measurement does not always work as it should for astronomers, why "earthquake lights" appear to be a real phenomenon but do not appear in all cases, and a report of traces of tobacco, a New World plant, in an Egyptian mummy. The newsletter is put out by an organization called The Sourcebook Project, which has culled hundreds of years of scientific and popular literature for this stuff, also available in collections:
The Project also sells a variety of mainstream and non-mainstream science books. The newsletter ($7/year for six issues of the print edition) is a very mixed bag, but always fascinating reading.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

China Launches Two Men Into Space

China announced the launch of its second human spaceflight mission, this one carrying two men. The Shenzhou VI was lofted by a Long March 2F booster with Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng aboard. The five-day mission took off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. This is China's first human space flight since the nation's inagural Shenzhou mission, with Yang Liwei aboard, in October 2003. China is the third nation, after the US and USSR, to launch an astronaut with its own spacecraft and booster. The astronauts on this mission will spend time in an experiment module attached to the craft's nose, where they will carry out medical and other scientific tests. This mission is a major step toward China's announced goal of a permanent crewed space station.

New "Hobbit" Bones Found

The Australian and Indonesian scientists who last year reported discovering a diminutive species of human, Homo floresiensis, have found additional remains. Working in Flores' Liang Bua cave, they have uncovered bones from the right arm of the previously discovered female designated LB1. They also found a lower jaw bone not matching any of the individuals already known. The H. floresiensis remains, believed to be 18,000 years old, remain the subject of controversy, with some scientists doubting their identity as a separate species.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

News of a Mystery Ape

An expedition to Sumatra has reported that analysis of hair believed to come from an unknown primate, known locally as the orang-pendek, has shown the sample comes from no known primate. This is not a formal publication in a scientific paper, but it's intriguing because the gibbon-sized ape (the name means "short man") represents one of the more intriguing and better documented cases of alleged unknown primates. No less an authority than Dr. John MacKinnon of the World Wildlife Fund has reported seeing what he believed were orang-pendek tracks. Conservationist Debbie Martyr, who has been working in Sumatra for years to save endangered tigers, orangs, and other species, is a solid believer and thinks she has spotted the elusive ape herself. Of all the primates around the world that draw the attention of cryptozoologists, the orang-pendek is the one I'd bet on to be a genuine unclassified species.

White House Science Policy

John H. Marburger III, the physicist who directs the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, made a presentation to LSU on the White House's view of its much-criticized policies in this area.

Dr. Marburger's Powerpoint presentation is available as well.

(Click on the title above for link)

Paper on Squid Filming Available

The full paper on the marine biology event of the year - the first-ever filming of a live giant squid - is available online.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Focus on Conserving "Charismatic" Species

Many scientists have criticized as unbalanced the strategy used by conservation groups of focusing on saving "charismatic megafauna" - generally big fuzzy predators. A new study reports the strategy is not necessarily a bad one, though. Areas in which the top predators have been conserved tend to have greater biodiversity overall. (Click on the title above for article).

This makes sense. Sure, conservationists often focus on bears and tigers because people are more likely to send money and set aside habitat for these animals than they are for endangered centipedes or frogs. Keeping the top predators healthy, though, avoids the confused and possibly collapsed ecosystems likely to emerge where such animals are allowed to vanish. Another point, sometimes criticized but still valid in my view, is that it's the top predators who need the most land area, and keeping bears, wolves, or lions healthy necessarily requires preserving large areas of habitat. This directly assists countless other species.

Habitat preservation is the key to all conservation efforts. Taking land from a developed to a wild state is usually politically impossible as well as unaffordable. If pictures of cute pandas and magnificent tigers motivate us to preserve more of the world's remaining wilderness, that can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Python v. Alligator

Over 150 pythons have been caught in South Florida in the last two years. This article documents what can happen when you turn a large predator (the python) loose in a habitat which already has an established large predator (the American alligator). In this case, a 13-foot Burmese python swallowed a 6-foot alligator, but apparently the alligator was not dead and clawed his way through the python's stomach. The results were not pretty.

Python v. Alligator 2

Sorry, the link did not display in the previous post. The Washington Post has a photograph on the messy results of what sounds like a bad SciFi channel movie:

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Happy Sputnik Day

Forty-eight years ago today, Sergei Korolev and his band of Soviet engineers launched the first artificial satellite. While it did not set off the mass panic that has become a popular myth, it certainly sparked a wave of change comparable to that produced by the atomic bomb. Arthur C. Clarke said at the time, "I had not expected it in the least. But I knew that it would change the world."
Naturally, I can't help mentioning that the Sputnik story is told in The First Space Race, by Matt Bille and Erika Lishock, with Foreword by Dr. James Van Allen. (Texas A&M University Press, 2004).

NYT: The Hunt for New Species

In a very good article in the New York Times, "One Legend Found, Many Still to Go," science writer William J. Broad celebrates the feat of two Japanese scientists in filming the giant squid. Broad reviews humanity's fascination with unknown or little-known animals and the efforts made to find them. He also writes something I did not know: that one of the best nature writers, Richard Ellis, has a book coming out cataloging the many recent discoveries in the oceans. I intend to pre-order my copy immediately. ("Singing Whales, Flying Squid and Swimming Cucumbers" (Lyon Press, 2006).)

Article (NYT requires registration):

NASA Administrator clarifies "mistake" remarks

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has clarified his controversial remarks to USA Today about the Shuttle and International Space Station being "mistakes." Griffin's words were presented out of context, and his clarification is quite close to the interpretation posted here a few days ago.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Nobel for Research Once Called "Preposterous"

When two Australian doctors reported in 1982 that bacteria, not stress, caused ulcers, their work was called "preposterous" by colleagues. More than two decades later, this revolutionary notion won them the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The idea that stress caused ulcers was so fixed in medical "fact" and popular culture that it's still heard today, long after its disproof. This case should remind everyone in the scientific world that we still need to look at even "settled" issues with an open mind and go where the evidence leads.

Tool Use by Gorillas Confirmed

Until recently, tool use among wild apes was thought confined to chimps and orangutans. Now gorillas have been observed using detached limbs and tree trunks to support themselves and to test the depth of a pool (gorillas don't swim, but they will wade in pursuit of favorite foods). In a new paper, Thomas Brewer, et. al., reported one failrly sophisticated use this way:

"Efi detached a 1.3-m-long and 5-cm-thick leafless trunk of a dead shrub with both hands. She forcefully pushed it into the ground with both hands and held the tool for support with her left hand over her head for 2 min while dredging food with the other hand."

It's not connected to this paper, but primatologist Rchard Carroll has also reported gorillas will brandish sticks at threatening leopards: Gorilla Tools

There is much we have yet to learn about our cousins, the primates.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

NASA's Griffin on Shuttle and ISS

There's been a great deal of consternation about NASA Administrator Mike Griffin's remarks to USA Today that the space shuttle and the International Space Station were "mistakes."

When you read what he actually said, though, it's not as radical as the headlines make it seem.

On whether the Shuttle was a mistake: "My opinion is that it was. ... It was a design which was extremely aggressive and just barely possible."
On whether the ISS was a mistake: "Had the decision been mine, we would not have built the space station we're building in the orbit we're building it in."

Look at his words here. He was not saying it was a mistake to build a Shuttle. He was saying we built the wrong design. There are plenty of dedicated NASA engineers, then and now, who say the same thing. The politically-driven need to minimize R&D funding resulted in the adoption of the compromise partly-reusable design with the external tank (ET) and solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Granted, the all-resuable idea NASA preferred was even more aggressive in some ways, but it's hard to argue that we built the best of all possible Shuttle designs, in the light of two accidents related to the use of the foam-covered ET and the SRBs.

On the ISS, Griffin's words are also carefully chosen. He did not say we shouldn't have built a station. He said we should not have chosen this design in this orbit. The ISS program was changed fundamentally by the political decision to bring the Russians into the effort and move the station from a low inclination to its current 56-degree orbit, a track which is practical to reach from Russia but means the Shuttles launched from Kennedy Space Center must give up a signficant fraction of their payload capability due to the energy needed for the orbit change. Combine that with the continuing difficulties in obtaining and paying for Russian hadware, and it's hard to argue that the original Space Station Freedom concept would not currently be giving us more science at less cost.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Giant Squid photographs

Here are the images released of the first-ever observations of a live adult giant squid:

Giant Squid

The researchers who are interpreting the images say they show an active, attacking predator, not the passive "ambush" predator some experts had thought Architeuthis dux to be. The squid, estimated at about 8 meters long, left a 5.5m tentacle behind, snagged on the baited camera trap, to confirm its specific identity. A. dux has been proven to reach 17m and might be considerably larger.

This is a terrific accomplishment by Japanese researchers Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori, of the National Science Museum and the Ogasawara Whale-Watching Association, respectively.

Richard Ellis, author of the most thorough book on the species, said, "This has been a mystery for a thousand years. Nobody knew what they looked like in the wild. These images will open the door to more detailed study of their life."

News Concerning Military Space Systems

The Department of Defense and its contractors have delivered extraordinarily capable space systems, but have had difficulty the last several years in fielding capabilities on time and on budget:

The current difficulties are being spotlighted by companies and analysts in the "small space" community, who advocate more research into cooperative contellations of smaller spacecraft, as opposed to relying almost entirely on a small number of large, complex platforms. Those people include the author of this blog, who has always advocated a "high-low mix." We will always need some "top end" spacecraft, but it's worth examining supplementing these increasingly complex assets with a larger number of smaller, less capable, but more affordable satellites. See:

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

First Ever Giant Squid Images

Japanese scientists have taken the first images ever of a live giant squid (Architeuthis dux). The squid attacked a baited camera trap at a depth of 900 meters. Despite numerous stranded or netted specimens and centuries of sailors' tales, the animal has never been captured on film or video.until now. Indeed, some experts hold that no direct sighting of a healthy (as opposed to injured or stranded) live individual has ever been verfified. The giant squid, known to reach over 17 meters in length and alleged to grow much larger, is a creature so bizarre it might seem more at home in the seas of another planet.

Read More Here

Amazing Bees

Asian honeybees overwhelm far larger wasps by surrounding each wasp with a compressed mass of bees, which increase their muscle activity and thus their energy output until the temperature in the ball exceeds 45.7 degrees C and the wasp dies. The bees can withstand an additional five degrees, providing a narrow margin of survival.

Two new lemurs discovered

The new species in this picture is a strong contender for the title of "World's Cutest Primate:"

The Intelligent Design Trial

This is a better article than most over the incendiary question of intelligent design.

Personal comment: As a Christian and a science writer, I never felt my faith threatened by anything we learn using our God-given intelligence. There is, I think, a reason the universe is capable of supporting intelligent life. We are meant to use our gifts. We are meant to learn, to question, and to understand.

What NASA Must Do Now

I recommend a good article by Keith Cowing of the NASA Watch site on what NASA must do to gain support for its future plans in a time of fiscal difficulties.

Space exploration will never be cheap, and it will never be completely safe. Making a case to the American people that it is nevertheless worth the effort is a task NASA must face up to. Oddly, the agency, while making great strides in regaining its focus under Michael Griffin, has been paring back the kind of educational outreach efforts needed for this task. An exploration program that takes a little longer because some of the money goes to education and public involvement is far better than an exploration program that ends up being canceled for lack of public and political support.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Hurricanes and Science

As we recover from Katrina and prepare for Rita, a lot of ink is naturally being spilled about the scientific aspects of hurricanes. A couple of common questions are “Can we do anything about hurricanes?” and “Are these storms linked to global warming and/or greenhouse gases and the Kyoto accord?”
On the first point, Joseph Verrengia of the AP has a good article explaining why the prevention or modification of hurricanes is not going to happen. There is just too much energy involved.


The claims that these storms are directly linked to President Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto accord are absurd, regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the accord (or of the President, for that matter.) Had Bush signed the accord immediately, the effect so far would have been too small to measure. His signature would have been meaningless in any event, since the Senate must ratify the agreement, and the Senate rejected it unanimously in 1999 – a fact the President’s current critics always forget to mention. I am no defender of this Administration’s policies on science or the environment, but the President gets a “not guilty” on Hurricane Katrina.

The only aerospace comic strip

The only one I know of, anyway. "Klyde Morris" covers the misadventures of the title character, the only ant licensed to fly an airliner. While the strip skewers the bizarre world of airline management, TSA screening rules, and so on, it also ventures into the realm of space exploration, offering wry and sometimes biting commentary on the timidity of our current approach to the final frontier.

The home page:

And three of my all-time favorite strips:

Happy Reading!

NASA Unveils Exploration Plan

NASA has unveiled the results of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), the foundation for the Moon-Mars Vision for Space Exploration. While the approach described in ESAS for lunar missions makes sense (I, for one, have advocated a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter for a decade or two), NASA's public presentation was oddly short on context. The lunar program was presented almost as an end in itself, a slightly more capable Apollo, rather than as part of an integrated exploration strategy. There was also scant mention of the sicntific and educational aspects of such a grand endeavor.

Adminsitrator Mike Griffin's interview on the ESAS results is available here:

TIME's Jeffrey Kluger did a good job of encapsulating (no pun intended) the ESAS plan and its relative timidity compared to the bold Vision for Space Exploration. So did NASAWatch's Keith Cowing:,8599,1107112,00.html

It all may be moot, given the current climate of looking at every government agency to pay down some of the hurrican relief costs. But NASA could still do better.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Deep-Sea Snail With Iron Armor

A small but definitely interesting new discovery is a species of snail found in a hydrothermal vent colony deep beneath the Indian Ocean. The yet-unnamed species uses the iron-rich compounds available at its home vent colony to produce scales made of pyrite (fool's gold) and another iron sulfide mineral, greigite, which cover its soft foot.

See: Snail Armor

Friday, September 09, 2005

New Fluorescent Shark Caught on Film

The Fluorescent Chain Catshark, spotted for the first time last year, was recently confirmed via videotape. It's a striking-looking animal, about 1m long.

See the image here.

Top-notch Deep-Sea News blog

This blog collects the latest news on one of my favorite topics - new discoveries in the deep oceans of the world. It reminds us that hundreds of meters below the surface is a world very much like an alien planet, to which we are only visitors.