Friday, September 28, 2007
COMMENT: OK, it has a whiff of a stunt about it. But it's still cool to have the first child of an astronaut make a space voyage. One more little step in the opening up of space.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
COMMENT: I must voice one quibble here. Benjamin is a well-informed and scientific writer who's skeptical on cryptozoology and many other topics, but that's no excuse for setting up a subject for ridicule by referring to a "12-foot Bigfoot," when no serious cryptozoologist thinks we have small King Kongs roaming the Northwest.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Thanks as always to Dr. David Livingston for having us on the program.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Alex was the subject of a decades-long experiment to see if a parrot could go beyond mimicking words and apply them to objects and events the way humans do. The answer was a limited, but still impressive, "yes." Alex learned over 100 words and could use them in simple sentences and even conversations, such as asking for the red box out of a collection of differently-colored shapes. He could count up to six and apparently understood the concept of zero. "He was so extraordinary in breaking the perceptions of birds as not being intelligent," said his lifelong trainer and lab partner, Irene Pepperberg, who compared his intellect to a five-year-old child's.
Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this story.
Alan Turner, of the American Museum of Natural History led a new study of a velociraptor forelimb found in 1998 which discovered quill knobs - which anchor feathers on modern birds - on the fossilized bone. “Finding quill knobs on velociraptor, though, means that it definitely had feathers." Turner said. "This is something we’d long suspected but no one had been able to prove.” The link above includes a really cool - and scary - illustration.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
I had an interesting exchange on this with anthroplogist/cryptozoologist Dale Drinnon, who thinks me something of an idealist about the way science works. Admitting that that is true, here are my thoughts.
It's easy to say that a certain cryptid has been discovered - to our satisfaction - and thus is no longer a cryptid. But saying it has no impact on science or conservation, and thus does not accomplish anything concrete.
While some zoological scientists may be too restrictive in what they accept, there is at least a standard for formal discovery and acceptance - a holotype available for physical examination and a paper published in a refereed journal. Granted, the zillions of tropical insects, etc. don't all get papers on them specifically, but the significantly-sized animals usually put on crytpid lists would all rate publications. And the insects and spiders and so forth at least turn up on the databases kept by the IUCN, the USFWS, etc., providing "evidence of acceptance."
Photographs or seafloor trackways have on occasion gained some acceptance as type specimens, but not in any of the controversial cases cryptozoologists spend most of their efforts on.
Without that standard, anyone can declare, say, the yeti discovered to their satisfaction, based on reports and sometimes hard evidence that, for whatever reason, is difficult to access. The trouble is that everyone's opinion is essentially equal, and there's no meaningful impact on science, conservation, etc. made by declaring a species discovered. (There would be if, say, George Schaller said it, but cases where a widely recognized authority endorses a cryptid as discovered (not just deserving of investigation, ut discovered) are rare indeed.)
Even having a scientific credential does not mean one's opinion has any measurable impact - Jeff Meldrum's endorsement of sasquatch, for example, has not led to funding for sasquatch investigation and conservation, has not gotten the animal in textbooks, etc.
My own inclination is to declare an animal "discovered" only when the two-pronged standard of an available holotype (at least in the form of a DNA sample) and peer-reviewed publication is met. Those standards are not magically correct, and may overlook some valid species, but they are the closest thing there is to a formal standard accepted worldwide.
And that, of course, is just one person's opinion.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
"Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." - Tsiolkovsky
Item I add just to show that I know it: English-speaking readers may look at his surname and assume the "T" is silent, but it's not. The Cyrillic character beginning his name is pronounced "ts."
Saturday, September 15, 2007
COMMENT: This is wonderful stuff. I don't know if you can do this mission for $20M, but there are companies in the small "Newspace" field that will certainly try, just as the did for the original Ansari X Prize. My early favorite, if they choose to compete, would be a team of SpaceX Technologies (launcher) and a small-vehicle specialist like SpaceDev.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Monday, September 10, 2007
In 1994, the gray whales of the eastern north Pacific were removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in a step considered a major success for conservation. The population was up to 20,000 individuals, considered equal to its historic (pre-modern whaling) level. But a new analysis of the whale's DNA indicates the original population was much larger, perhaps five or even six times as large. That it's apparently leveled off at around 22,000, combined with the small but increasing numbers of underfed animals observed, indicates things aren't as healthy and stable as we'd hoped. Some researchers suspect that warming has damaged the Arctic ecosystem and cut the crustacean population the grays depend on. It's too early to be sure, but there's definitely reason for concern.
COMMENT: This kind of story, and others like the current display of an Incan princess, always bring up the question of how ancient human remains ought to be treated, and whether there's a chronological dividing line between burials that are and are not OK to disturb. It's a given that there is much cultural, medical, and scientific information to be gained by studying human remains, but there are ethical gray areas.
My view is somewhat stricter than that of most archaeologists (and, granted, I'm not an archaeologist at all). For what it's worth, though, I believe graves belonging to cultures still extant should be opened only in cooperation with representatives of those cultures. Graves of cultures unknown or no longer extant could be opened if there's reasonable expectation of important knowledge, but bodies should not be kept forever on display. After a period of study, they should be re-interred in or near the original site, or at least in a museum or other facility near the original site. This view is unrelated to any views about spirituality or an afterlife. It's just my thought about how to treat all cultures and all humans with a universal level of respect while still preserving the interests of science.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
In developing our book The First Space Race: Launching the World's
First Satellites, (Texas A&M, 2004) I and/or co-author Erika Lishock discussed this with a lot of people, including James Van Allen. The consensus was that Sputnik 1 itself
was never observed with the naked eye, except possibly for brief
flashes near dawn and dusk. (Jim Oberg has an authoritative article on this in the new issue of Astronomy magazine.) What the newspapers and everyone else
announced about where to look for Sputnik related to the core stage of
the R-7. Even this usually appeared as a small, although sometimes
very bright, point of reflected light.
This in no way diminishes the importance or impact of the experience
people all over the world had in watching a Soviet satellite (whatever
piece of hardware it was) track across the night sky. Among other
things, it was the experience of watching with the naked eye that
inspired the physicists and engineers at China Lake to start one of
my all-time favorite programs, the audacious shoestring satellite
effort called Project Pilot or NOTSNIK.
Alas, work schedules will force us to miss the big commemorations.
I'll make it to the AAS National Conference in November, which might
be called one of the "close out" American commemorative meetings, to be
on panel about what NASA's first 50 years offers in the way of
projections about the next 50.
Saturday, September 08, 2007
Thanks to Kris Winkler for pointing me to this item
"A new great ape from the late Miocene of Turkey:" by Erksin Savas Gulec, Ayla Sevim, Cesur Pehlevan, and Ferhat Kaya: Anthropological Science 115: 153-158, 2007.
Abstract: An adult maxilla and partial mandibles of a hominoid primate recovered from the late Miocene locality of Çorakyerler (central Anatolia) are recognized as a new species of Ouranopithecus, one of the rare western Eurasian hominoids to have survived well into the late Miocene."
Thanks to Loren Coleman for putting this on the Cryptomundo page.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
COMMENT: While the evidence for the yeti is unsatisfying at best, no one has ever explained these footprints. Options:
1. An unknown animal.
2. Prints of known animals (or humans) expanded by melting and refreezing. This is easy enough to disprove experimentally. Tracks melt into a blob - they don't expand in a way that gives you clear edges and well-defined toes.
3. A hoax. No evidence Shipton and his companion Ward hoaxed the prints has ever been offered.
4. Simply, a mystery.
COMMENT: "Technically acceptable, lowest cost" - it's hard to picture this being a good idea for something this complex and this critical. I'm trying in vain to think of a case in history where a complex system contractor chosen on this basis turned out to be the right choice in the long run. Either the price will go up and negate the savings (remember the Advanced EHF National Team approach? The Space Shuttle?) and/or the contractor will be temped to cut corners and say "that's good enough." I'm not impugning anyone at Boeing, but the record on selecting a contractor based on price over one with superior technical and managerial scores is not reassuring. NASA may well have made the wrong call. Sure, they are in a tight budget situation, but for lofting a manned spacecraft, you either buy the solution you think is technically best and push Congress for enough money or you find you can't afford that solution and you give it up.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
On September 4, 2006, conservationist Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray while diving off Australia.
The link above connects to a CNN site where people all over the world can express their comments.
My thoughts: Irwin was, as his critics said, a showman, but science and conservation need showmen. While Irwin’s enthusiasm perhaps clouded his judgment at times, there is no denying his impact for good. He took a global audience through countless lessons about wildlife and the environment, and he made it all fun. He demonstrated a love for creatures from snakes to spiders to (of course) crocodiles that helped him get across to everyone how important these “vermin” or “killers” are in their ecosystems.
Of special note to cryptozoological researchers is that Irwin also made a brief search for the presumed-extinct Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine: he found no evidence, but didn’t dismiss the possibility the world’s largest known marsupial carnivore was still out there somewhere.
We miss you, Steve.
Monday, September 03, 2007
It can take a while for science to catch up to science fiction, but University of Washington engineers and doctors from Harborview Medical Center are trying to perfect a small device which could seal punctured lungs using high-intensity ultrasound. The first successful proof-of-concept experiment has already been done. Human trials have not begun, but the device offers promise for a host of uses if the technique of focusing ultrasonic beams to create a "hot spot" and cauterize leaks is proven to work on lung injuries.
Saturday, September 01, 2007
One response to "Why?" is "Why not?" Another is that we have only one universe to examine, and that doesn't tell us anything about the possible alternatives. It's an endlessly fascinating (sometimes maddening) question.
COMMENT: I agree with Leakey that this was a bad idea. Yet, hypocritical though it may be, I'll try my best to get to Denver when the tour reaches my home state. The opportunity to see Lucy in person is one I can't pass up.
COMMENT: The ghost of Sergey Korolev must be smiling. It's an audacious plan, every bit as ambitious as the U.S. Vision for Space Exploration. Whether Russia can pull it off, given the nation's economic and political challenges as well as the technical advancements required, remains to be seen, but nothing happens without a goal. It makes sense that something ambitious will eventually pull all the world's space powers into a joint program, but that, too, faces a lot of difficulties. The only thing we know for sure is that the next couple of decades should be very interesting.