Monday, December 31, 2007

Wish for the New Year

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

It's my tradition to wish out the old year by sharing one of the great poetic expressions of hope and renewal. Whatever our spiritual beliefs or philosophies, we can all find a shared sentiment in this poem.

"Ring out, wild bells" from In Memoriam

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

And since hope is always buoyed by laughter, I add another perennial favorite: Dave Barry's recap of the year just passed.

The best of wishes to all,
Matt Bille

Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Book to Watch For: Your Inner Fish

Available for preorder now and out January 15 is Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon, 2008) Shubin is a palenontologist, anatomist, and now author who made one of the great "missing link" discoveries showing how fish became land vertebrates.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Ape and the Panda

Chinese scientists have unearthed new fossils of the largest ape that ever lived, alongside those of giant pandas with which it apparently competed - and lost. The fossils, 400,000 years old, came from a limestone cave on the island Hainan. They indicate that, in this habitat, the bear and the ape both utilized a bamboo-heavy diet, putting them in direct competition. The pandas persisted, although they became slightly smaller over time, while "Giganto" apparently vanished entirely.

Mars: Countdown to Collision?

The odds are still against the asteroid called 2007 WDS colliding with Mars - but they are improving. When I first blogged on this, the odds of a collision with the 50m-wide object were 1 in 75. Now they are 1 in 25. If the collision does take place, reports NASA JPL, it will do so at 2:55 a.m. PST on January 30. Stay tuned....

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Science Stories of the Year

The end-of-year lists are coming out. I like this one from USA Today because of the prominence it gives to the discovery of new animal species, both living and prehistoric.

Army buys Macintosh

We Mac lovers no longer feel quite so alone :)

Tiger attack at SF Zoo

A Siberian tiger penned behind a moat over 6m across and a wall over 5m high nonetheless got out on Christmas Day, killing one man and injuring two more before it was shot dead. There's no word yet on whether human error was involved, but it certainly seems likely. One unofficial tally (there is no official one) is that there were 44 big cat attacks in the US in 2007, although this includes pets, carnival sideshow animals, etc.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas, and an idea for that gift you forgot

I received a set of DVDs containing the BBC series Living Planet. Even viewers like myself who think they know something of natural history will gape at images of otters driving off a crocodile, cranes battling team-hunting golden eagles as they try to surmount the Himalayas, and macaques swimming underwater just for the fun of it. And that's just part of Disc 1. Diary segments about the challenges and techniques of filming this series are just as fascinating as the documentary itself.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Global Warming - an inconvenient dissent?

A Senate minority report objects to the insistence by Al Gore and others that there is a scientific consensus on human-caused global warming and only a few fringe scientists and paid oil company spokesmen are objecting. The report lists 400 scientists in relevant disciplines, some of them quite prominent, who doubt either the mechanism of global warming or the claim that it will be severe.
COMMENT: My non-expert opinion: I do think the Earth is warming, but I'm not at all sure how much of it can be laid confidently to human causes and how much is part of a natural cycle. I'm unnerved any time a majority supporting a scientific theory tries to paint itself as all-knowing and the opponents as cranks or criminals (seriously: some environmentalists have predicted criminal trials for "global warming deniers"). The point I do think I can make with confidence is that this is a complicated issue, not the gradeschool-simple cause and effect painted by Al Gore's famous slide show.

In some positive space news....

NASA's Kennedy Space Center has released a a list of its successes for the year. These included launching three Shuttle missions and four unmanned science spacecraft, hosting the World Space Expo, and making progress on the Constellations spacecraft and infrastructure. For 2008, the Center has an ambitious list: five Shuttle launches and ten robotic spacecraft.

Missing Mars

An optimal Earth-Mars trajectory is available every 26 months, so naturally NASA tries to use those opportunities to launch its probes to the Red Planet. A major mission, the $475M Mars Scout, was slated for the 2011 launch window. The agency, however, found a "serious" conflict of interest in one of the panels formed to pick the contractor for the mission. Restarting the selection process will delay the flight until the 2013 window and add $40M to the cost. NASA won't say where the conflict occurred or whether it involved an individual, one of the institutions competing for the contract, or one of NASA's support contractors.
COMMENT: This is inexcusable. You're supposed to do your "due diligence" before you appoint panels for this kind of thing. When the details leak out, as I'm sure they will, I would not be surprised if the conflict was something that could have been discovered with an Internet search.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mars under attack

A newly discovered asteroid has at least a one in 75 chance of hitting the Red Planet in January, and the odds of a collision appear to be improving. The wide chunk of rock known as 2007 WD5, 50 meters in diameter, could make a dent in Mars comparable to what a similar-sized body did 50,000 years ago on Earth. This impact resulted in the 1.2km-wide Meteor Crater (a.k.a. Barringer Crater) in Arizona. The Mars rovers are not believed to be in danger if a collision occurs, but you can be sure every instrument on Earth, in space, and on Mars will be pointed at the impact site if this cosmic smashup actually happens. The damage done to Mars, the plumes thrown into the atmosphere, and all other aspects of the collision would tell us much about our sister world.

Weirdest science story of the year?

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log lets you vote. Was it the development of transparent-skinned frogs? Radiation-proof underwear? The discovery that Viagra cures jet lag in hamsters? (I'm not sure how useful that is - I have yet to see a hamster on my business flights, and certainly hamsters have no need for Viagra for the drug's primary use.)

Vote now!

Another cryptozoological outfit of note

John Downes' Centre for Fortean Zoology fills a niche in the UK similar to the one the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club occupies in North America. The CFZ is a little too willing to consider poorly supported or illogical claims for my taste, and their Weird Weekend conference conflates cryptozoology with UFO and general Fortean enthusiasts, a combination I think cryptozoology, in its claim to be a hard science, should stay far away from. Still, I'm the guy writing from his armchair and the CFZ folks are out actively pursuing animals, so I can't criticize too much. They recently arranged a small expedition to Guyana in pursuit of cryptzoological critters, and they do a lot of investigation of odd or out-of place animals in the UK. Construction of a museum is underway. Good hunting, chaps!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

From small ancestors, great whales grow

Evolutionary biologists have long debated the origin of the whales. Now a raccoon-sized mammal called Indohyus, which lived 48 million years ago in what is now India, has been put forward as a candidate for the ancestor of all whales. Despite obvious differences between the semi-aquatic, muntjac-like Indohyus and the largest creatures that ever lived, a team led by American paleontologist Hans Thewissen reports that there are strong skeletal similarities, especially in the skulls and middle ear bones. Other experts are awaiting more analysis to support this fairly radical notion.

ISS crewmember's mother dies

Ofttimes one of the costs involved in exploration is separation from loved ones. My sincere condolences to astronaut Daniel Tani, whose mother has died on Earth while he is in orbit, enriching our knowledge aboard the International Space Station.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dragons are Too Seldom

With the new cuddly-monster film The Water Horse coming out, it's not surprising to see the media revisit the long-lived mystery of Loch Ness. Adrian Shine, one of the most experienced Nessie searchers, made a wonderful comment on the subject: "If there are no dragons there, there really ought to be.”

The giant rat of Papua

Researchers in in the Foja mountains of Indonesia's eastern Papua province have collected two new species of rodents: one a tiny possum, the other a very large rat. One scientist, Kristofer Helgen, says, "The giant rat is about five times the size of a typical city rat. With no fear of humans, it apparently came into the camp several times during the trip." The expedition was sponsored by Conservation International.
Thanks to Cameron Leuthy for drawing my attention to this item.

Friday, December 14, 2007

For Something Different: Grendel = Sasquatch?

Cryptozoologists have speculated on whether some form of human-like primate, be it a surviving Neanderthal or an unknown species, has been behind European folklore about "wildmen" and "trolls." Grendel of Beowulf fame pops up often in this conversation. The reason is that some translations, like a prose version I read in high school, explicitly make Grendel a wildman of some sort. The version I remember (and cryptid researcher Dale Drinnon agrees we read the same book) makes him about seven feet tall, "drooling with spit, stinking and hairy." Does that accord with the actual text of the poem?

We have, of course, no definitive version of the poem, whose origins are lost in time. Indeed, since for a long time it was a tale told or sung orally, and changed constantly, there is not really an official nor an original form. But the most authoritative source we have, the one all modern translations spring from (at first, second, or third hand) is a single surviving manuscript in the British Library. When poet Seamus Heaney went back to this source and used it directly for his wonderful new translation, he shed some light on Grendel.

That Grendel was a seven-foot hairy wildman appears to be a later author's interpretation. Heaney's translation of Beowulf doesn't contain anything sufficiently descriptive of Grendel to be of much use. Heaney, in an introduction, provides his view after reading the sole surviving original text: that Grendel makes us think of "some hard-boned, immensely strong android frame, half Caliban and half-hoplite." (Caliban being the deformed (also not well described, but usually depicted as looking like a bestial subhuman or wildman) yet eloquent slave in The Tempest, while a hoplite was a Greek heavy infantryman.)

Grendel is "a fiend out of hell, a grim demon" from "the banished monsters, Cain's creatures." He attacks Beowulf with his claws ready, which doesn't sound primate-like, and the later description of the arm and hand Beowulf tears off doesn't sound mammalian at all. On the other hand, Grendel is sufficiently human to have a soul, which is condemned to Hell.

The description of his size is not consistent: he is bested by one human hero in unarmed combat, but a few pages earlier, it says he bore off THIRTY men at a time, which would make him gigantic. Nowhere is he compared directly in size to a man or anything else that would allow us to ascribe an approximate height to him. All we know for sure is that he could fit through the doors of the mead hall.

From a cryptozoological perspective, I don't think there is anything solid we can make of this. Grendel is a little-described fiend who, given the reference to the old idea of Cain's clan as outcasts from humanity, might plausibly be assumed to be hairy, even if the poem makes no further reference to it. His mother seems to be something else again: she's been seen with him stalking on the moors, but she moves better in water than on land.

They went a different direction with the recent film, which follows the poem about halfway before veering off into a different story. In this visually stunning but ultimately less than compelling version, Grendel is a huge, misshapen parody of a human, but is still a physical animal, while his mother is a supernatural entity who can be physical (in more ways than one) when she wants to be.

I've always thought that Grendel was useful only as evidence of humanity's long fascination with semi-humanoid monsters, and not as evidence of any specific animal that was then living, or indeed had ever lived outside the human imagination. This doesn't mean such things can't exist, only that we can't rely on an old Anglo-Saxon poem to prove it.

But what a poem it is.

Orion/Ares I passes Preliminary Design Review

I've been very leery of the Orion/Ares I stack NASA plans to use to put the next crew into orbit. The eningeers working on it, though, think they have conquered the most improtant problems, and the stack has passed a PDR. This is without settling officially on a landing mode, oddly enough, even though NASA officials have finally stated unequivically that it's going to be a water landing as the primary option.

Also: the Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM), successor to the ingenious LEM of the Apollo days, finally has a name: Altair.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mammoth extinction: the smoking gun?

At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists offered new evidence that not only man, but nature, had a hand in the rapid decline of the mammoth and other North American megafauna. Eight 35,000-year-old mammoth tusks show damage apparently due to being peppered with tiny fragments of metal (mainly iron and nickel) moving at very high speed. All the impacts were from one direction. Richard Firestone from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said, "We think that there was probably an impact which exploded in the air that sent these particles flying into the animals."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mars Sample Return planning underway

A mission to return samples from Mars to Earth has been proposed many times, but never funded to completion. Now a new effort is underway.

NASA press release, 10 December 2007:

International Group Plans Strategy for Mars Sample Return Mission

NASA and an international team are developing plans and seeking
recommendations to launch the first Mars mission to bring soil samples back
to Earth. The ability to study soil from Mars here on Earth will contribute
significantly to answering questions about the possibility of life on the
Red Planet. Returned samples also will increase understanding of the useful
or harmful properties of Martian soil, which will support planning for the
eventual human exploration of Mars.

A task force named the International Mars Architecture for Return of
Samples, or IMARS, recently met in Washington to lay the foundation for an
international collaboration to return samples from Mars. NASA hosted the
meeting. IMARS meeting participants included representatives from more than
half a dozen countries and NASA, the European Space Agency, or ESA, the
Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

First film of a rare mammal

Mongolia's long-eared jerboa, which looks a bit like a miniature kangaroo with comically oversized ears, has been filmed for the first time. The Zoological Society of London released the video in hopes of drawing attention to the need for conserving this endangered species. The Society's Dr Jonathan Baillie said, "The long-eared jerboa is a bit like the Mickey Mouse of the desert, cute and comic in equal measure. Unfortunately, it is just one of many unusual animals that are highly threatened but receiving little or no conservation attention. This is the most amazing and remarkable creature."

Human evolution accelerating?

A study led by Robert K. Moyzis of the University of California, Irvine, and Henry C. Harpending of the University of Utah reports that approximately 7 percent of human genes shows signs of having evolved via natural selection since the emergence of modern humans. What's interesting is that the rate of genetic change in humans has apparently been accelerating over the last 50,000 years, producing such things as populations more resistant to certain diseases. The reason, apparently, is that people have exploded in numbers and pushed into more environments. Other researchers are cautious about the findings, noting that alternative explanations are possible and that the test for determining which genes have evolved may be faulty.

A little more NASA news

I was pretty harsh on NASA the other day, because I was frustrated by the conflicting word on the Orion landing mode. I still am, but I should link to another news source covering reaction to the ESMD news briefing yesterday.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Shuttle Launch slips to January

Launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, with the critical Columbus laboratory module for the ISS, has slipped to January. The problem remains the persistently troublesome engine cutoff sensors (ECOs). January 2 is the earliest possible date.

Landing Orion

There certainly has been a lot of confusion about the landing mode for NASA's Orion CEV. For a long time, it was "baselined" that the capsule would come down on land as opposed to an Apollo-style water recovery. The advantage of that is that you can put down near your recovery base and save the cost and uncertainty involving having ships in place for every landing. The drawback of such a landing is the need for airbags and other equipment that add weight and cost. It's also harder to make a reusable heatshield for landing under the sterner conditions.
In the last few months, word has been leaking out that NASA is going to give up on land as the primary mode. As NASAWatch and other sources have documented, the agency is seemingly loath to admit it. Even after an Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) administrator finally said it in Space News, NASA communications to the public have made no mention of any change in plans. Now SpaceRef hhas published an internal directive making land a "contingency only" option (that is, the crew must survive in the event of a ground landing, but the reusable spacecraft won't be reusable any more.) Amazingly, NASAWatch has notes this morning from an ESMD telecon in which NASA insists no one has picked a landing mode for certain.
COMMENT: This is ridiculous. There's no excuse for not making the decision public and explaining the rationale at the time it was made. The agency seems to be going out of its way to trip over its own feet, making it look like NASA is hiding something for as long as possible.
The possibility that NASA has, indeed, been deliberately trying to downplay any change can't be ruled out on the evidence so far. A switch to a water landing makes the Orion look a little less unique, a little more like a recycled Apollo, which is not an insignificant point when scrambling for funding. It also contributes to the perception that the Ares I launch vehicle is marginal at best and might not have handled the weight needed to safely and reusably (my grammar is off there, but you get the point) land the Orion on terra firma.
A poster to a space newsgroup took this a step further, asking if this could be a step toward dropping the reusability requirement entirely. I know NASA would hate taking that step, but between the continuing budget crunch and the capacity of the launch vehicle the agency is hell-bent on using no matter how its timeline and capabilities slip, I'll bet it's being discussed in very hushed tones somewhere.
COMMENT TO COMMENT: I believe in the VSE and the Constellation program. They are valuable to the nation and to humanity. I just wish I could believe NASA was taking the right path and executing the program as best as it could be done.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Shuttle not up in air: just launch date is

OK, sometimes I go overboard trying for a cute title.
Anyway, the shuttle Atlantis' launch, which NASA hoped it could squeeze in today (Sunday), has bees postponed again due to the ever-troublesome ECO sensors. I suspect Shuttle program managers can't even say "ECO" anymore without at least two unprintable adjectives. At this point, a new launch date has not been set. If the shuttle can't get off later this week, it will have to wait until January for the next launch window.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Kenya's Deadly New Cobra

If you think newly described species are generally harmless bugs and the like, meet Naja ashei, the giant spitting cobra just described from Kenya. Almost three meters long and able to spit venom several meters, the snake was first reported in the 1960s, but has only now been identified as a separate species from smaller spitting cobras.

First Google Lunar X Prize Competitor

The Google Lunar X Prize has its first formally announced competitor. The team, called Odyssey Moon, includes the Canadian space firm MDA and The Planetary Society among its collaborators. Its founder is Dr. Robert (Bob) Richards, a founder of the International Space University.

Shuttle countdown holding

From NASA:
"The launch of NASA's space shuttle Atlantis will take place no earlier than Saturday, Dec. 8, at 3:43 p.m. EST. Thursday's scheduled liftoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., was postponed because of a problem with a fuel cutoff sensor system inside the shuttle's external fuel tank." The shuttle is to install and activate the Columbus laboratory module on the International Space Station.
COMMENT: The four engine cutoff, or ECO, sensors, have been a sore spot for a long time. They are continually being refurbished and point up the difficulties of sustaining a launch system, however capable it may be, built with 1970s technology.

A weird little species from Ghana

The latest report from a field survey by Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) concerns discoveries made in Ghana’s Atewa Range Forest Reserve. In addition to significant new populations of endangered primates, birds, and amphibians, the team collected nine new species. The oddest of these is described as a tick-like arachnid from the age of the dinosaurs. The bizarre little animal "looks like a cross between a spider and a crab." It joins a group with only 57 other living species known.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Last chance for a giant turtle

Rafetus swinhoei, the Yangtze soft-shelled turtle, is a contender for the title of "world's largest freshwater turtle." It's also, unfortunately, a contender for the title "turtle species closest to extinction."
In the zoo in the Chinese city of Changsha lives the last known female specimen, an estimated 80 years old and weighing about 40 kg. In a zoo in Suzhou lives a 90-kg turtle, about a century old, who is the last known male. After years of difficulties, the zoos have reached an agreement to allow the female to be sent to meet the male. Scientists will try both artificial insemination and old-fashioned mating in a last-chance plan to save the species.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Followups on two cryptozoological stories

The website Cryptomundo has put up new information on a couple of the sotries I've mentioned. One is that the photo of a yeti track reported by an American TV crew which is being circulated with the news story is actually an unrelated find from Malaysia. So we still don't really know what the track being reported on looks like. The other is that the recent photograph of a South China tiger, presumed extinct in the wild, was a forgery based on a picture used for a calendar - unfortunately.

Chimp vs. college students

You may have thought some of your fellow college students were more ape than human. That might be a compliment. The testing reported here from Japan indicates that on one measure, remembering the locations of a short string of numbers flashed up only briefly, chimps competed equally with college students, and one particularly bright animal went on in a more difficult test to best its human opponents.
COMMENT: As creatures born to survive in the wild, chimps may have a stronger reason, evolutionarily speaking, to be able to take in a scene at one glance, and thus their brains and eyes are better optimized for that task. Just a thought from a human.

The Hadrosaur from Hell Creek

A very rare fossil find - a hadrosaur fossilized so completely that its skin, tendons, ligaments, and other soft structures can be studied - is undergoing a CT scan at a Boeing facility normally used for large rocket engines and the like. The fossil "mummy" was found in the Hell Creek formation in North Dakota. Among the most interesting items in the research to date is that a calculation of the animal's lean muscle mass yields an estimate of the hadrosaur's top speed at 28mph. One paleontologist noted this would enable it to outrun predators like Tyrannosaurus rex, although the speed and hunting habits of the T. rex are a matter of some debate.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

GAO on the Ares 1

A GAO report on NASA's Ares 1 booster agrees the agency is working hard to make the program executable, but worries not enough money has been set aside to bring the upper stage in on its aggressive schedule. The audit agency recommended NASA develop a revised business case for the Ares 1 and consider delaying the July 2008 Preliminary Design Review (PDR) if insufficient progress has been made.

"Sex Crazed Female Antelope Attack Tired Males"

That's the headline. Really. And I couldn't resist posting it.