Sunday, January 31, 2010

When - and how - did Neanderthals depart?

It's becoming widely accepted that the last known Neanderthal population, in what is now Spain, survived until about 37,000 years ago. But what happened to them? DNA from the bones of a child who died 30,000 years ago indicates that, at least in this region, some Neanderthal genes were passed on in more modern humans. In other words, the two types must have interbred, something not shown in modern-day human DNA or in evidence from other sites.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

NASA's Remembrance Day

On January 29, NASA pays tribute to the astronauts of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia.
It always seems to me wrong to romanticize death - especially preventable death - and I'm trying hard to avoid it. There's nothing romantic about dying of asphyxiation or impact forces. There are times, though, when some words, sentimental though they seem, must be used.
"Heroes" is one such word. We throw it around a lot. It's used for star athletes when they win a big game. So I think we certainly should bestow it on the lost explorers of humanity. These are people who knew they were taking risks. People who trained and competed for years for the right to take those risks. People who represented the best our species had to offer.
We will never forget.

"I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth....put out my hand and touched the face of God." - John Gillespie Magee, "High Flight"

Carrot-colored dinos?

Dinosaurs, which used to be depicted in a monochromatic hue one paleontologist called "dinosaur s-- green," apparently were more colorful than that. The idea of colorful dinos has gained currency for some years - after all, their living relatives, the birds, are hardly a dull-colored lot - but now there's hard evidence. Some exceptional fossils have preserved structures called melanosomes, present in the protofeathers called "dino fuzz," whose shape in birds is indicative of the type of pigments they hold. Not all paleontologists are convinced, but but claims such as alternating rings of white and orange-brown filaments on the tail of a species called Sinosauropteryx present an interesting new picture of the Mesozoic Era.

Some GOOD news in NASA budget

Overall NASA funding will increase, not be flat as previously reported. An increase of $5.9B over five years (if approved by Congress) will fund an extended US presence on the space station and increase funding for private contractors to develop Earth-to-LEO human transportation. NASA's Earth science program will also be a winner in the overall agency budget as the Administration seeks to prioritize environmental studies. Plans for human flight beyond LEO are still, as earlier leaks indicated, canceled, or at least put in deep freeze for the next five years.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The end of human spaceflight as we know it?

Word now is the Shuttle will phase out with no NASA replacement on line or even in development. The still-developing Obama space policy seems similar to that under President Clinton: solid funding for Earth science missions, but restricted funding for human flight, and nothing at all for travel beyond Earth orbit.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

NASA's budget: to boldly go into a real mess

NASA's budget is continuing to leak out, and all kinds of stuff is going to change. The Ares-I might be dead. Heck, the entire NASA human spaceflight program might be put on (minimal) life support. There's support in the White House for outsourcing the most visible and costly thing NASA does, which is putting astronauts into LEO. There is a lack of support in Congress, though. Aside from the politics, we have the problem of facing the post-Shuttle future with nothing currently proven as a human spaceflight launch vehicle. Ares is a long way off if it continues at all. The existing Atlas and Delta launchers have good records and could be "man-rated" to carry the Orion capsule (itself far less capable than originally projected), although it's not a simple, quick, or cheap process.
COMMENTS: We also have startup companies. I believe Elon Musk and his people at SpaceX will succeed with their new Falcon 9 / Dragon vehicle combo, but history says everything you do in space takes longer and costs more than the best projections made in the R&D phases. So we'll have to see how well it works out. The U.S. is, by default, embarking for some years on a major international venture: hiring Russia as the sole provider to put our astronauts up. We can build on that and turn disadvantage into long-term advantage. It's time for NASA to look at everything it does, compare the goals, objectives, and technologies to what's being done overseas, and build on its praiseworthy legacy of joint missions to reinvent the agency as a core component of a global spaceflight program. This is not easy, not cheap (NASA's decision to use English units of measurement on Ares / Orion will haunt us for decades), and not politically popular. But the alternatives are...well, in the current budget climate, what are they, really?

REALLY EMPHATIC VERSION OF USUAL DISCLAIMER: I speak here ONLY as a private citizen / space historian.

Mars rover "Spirit" roves no more.

Five years past its original mission life, the Spirit rover has finally given up the "rove" part of the mission. Stuck in a drift of Martian sand, the rover has resisted all efforts by ground controllers to get it moving again. Since Spirit still has power and the instruments are working, NASA will make us of it as a stationary science platform from now until its instruments wear out or (as happened with the Viking landers) someone decides not to fund it anymore. Meanwhile, the rover Opportunity has put 12 miles on the odometer. Twelve miles may not seem like much, but driving on Mars is a very slow and careful business, not to mention making all those stops for observations. NASA has its ups and downs, but the success of this mission has no downside. It's a brilliant achievement.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dinosaur skeleton takes long path to proper study

This is an interesting story about fossils, who owns them, and how they are treated. In this case, the skeleton of what may be a new raptor species, 70M years old, was dug up illegally in Montana on private land. The finder was arrested and the dinosaur went into the evidence room. It stayed there for two years before the case was over, and it was adjudged property of the landowners, who in turn donated it to science. There have been many disputes over fossils in the US, most famously in the "Tyrannosaurus Sue," case, and it's good to see this one ended well.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why Dan Brown perturbs me

Not that he cares, of course. But the bestselling author does a major disservice to science and history that just isn't necessary.
I certainly don't begrudge Brown his commercial success. He's found a winning formula and is no doubt having a great time with it. But why would you insist the background information in your novels was real when it wasn't?
Millions of people who read Angels and Demons or watched the film no doubt believe the Catholic church murdered and branded four scientists and dumped their bodies in Rome as a warning to others. People who read the novel will think Christian fundamentalists killed the Superconducting Super Collider project, when that had absolutely nothing to do with it. (It was killed by a Congress unable to see the value in a project that wouldn't yield immediate, quantifiable benefits.) And don't get me started on the inaccurate physics.
It would not hurt Brown's reputation or success one bit to back off his statements that some of the most dramatic stuff in his novels is real.

NASA budget news leaking out...

...and it isn't good. The $3B increase the Augustine panel said was needed looks like it will never materialize. The agency is going to have to bite a very hard bullet and think about what it can do with less.
One thing to look at right now is increasing partnerships. NASA has a pretty good record of working with other space agencies, but it needs to start a review now to see what programs and objectives might enlist help from the corporate and nonprofit sectors. That can mean adjusting objectives, negotiating partnerships, and other things that are all hard to do. But NASA got famous by doing the hard things. Reinventing itself might be the hardest, but it can be done.

NASA's Puffin - coolest flying machine ever?

OK, it's still just a concept. Maybe it will always be, given what we are hearing of NASA's budget. But the Puffin, with two electric motors, vertical takeoff, and a fuselage sized for one person lying down (like the Deep Flight submersibles) is just unlike any other flying machine. And maybe it will happen - the military and the covert ops guys would love it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

New claim of ivory-bill sighting

A press release from a man named Daniel Rainsong claims he has twice found and photographed a living ivory-billed woodpecker. He gives the location only in general terms as "the southern Sabine River basin." That puts it in western Louisiana or eastern Texas. He has not released the photographs but says he has offered the leading ivory-bill specialists at universities the chance to examine them.
COMMENT: Another false alarm born of overenthusiasm and pileated woodpecker sightings? Hopefully, Mr. Rainsong's photographs are good enough to answer that question. Is is scientific to say, "Fingers crossed?"

Thanks to: Dale Drinnon for circulating this item.

ADDED: The commenter on this post has a superb blog which keeps up on all ivorybill news. Follow it at:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Safety, Astronauts, and "Paper Rockets"

Interesting war of words between NASA's safety advisory panel, which thinks private spaceflight contenders (like SpaceX with its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 booster) are not safe enough for astronauts, and SpaceX's Elon Musk, who points out quite emphatically that the panel's preferred alternative, Ares I, has yet to prove its own safety - even after NASA revised the "man-rating" regulation to make sure the in-house rocket could meet the specs.

Catching up with NASA

I somehow got on an invitation list for a one-day overview of the agency's future programs on March 12. I will not in in DC and have to hope they do a Webcast, but the point is the agency is finally getting around (I hope) to nailing down its future course now that the Vision for Space Exploration has been lured down a budgetary cul-de-sac and quietly strangled to death.

Rare brown and white panda cub

Sound the AAAWWW alert. This impossibly cute cub is the fifth brown and white panda ever reported. The newspaper article referenced here raises concern about some kind of genetic bottleneck. That's always a concern with a species as rare as the panda, but I don't see the connection to this off-color oddity.
It sure is cute, though.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

One honking big spider discovered

From Israel comes a startling new species: Cerbalus aravensis. This spider, which lives in holes under "trapdoors" of its own making in the sand dunes, has a leg span up to 14 cm. As Dr. Uri Shanas put it, "The new discovery shows how much we still have to investigate, and that there are likely to be many more species that are unknown to us."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A scientist looks at Pandora

I can't resist one more trip to James Cameron's Pandora: not with biologist and award-winning science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon as our guide.
She writes of the film Avatar: "It has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world."
Among the features she finds compelling are the well-thought-out web of Pandoran life, which gives humans too jaded to get excited over a new field mouse their best virtual chance yet to step into a world unknown. She praises the depiction of scientists - dedicated, analytical, yet still taken with the wonder of it all.
COMMENT: This is the best of the Pandora articles, even if it does ignore the derivative plot and the talking trees. Great work, Carol.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Increasing cooperation in space exploration

Several milestones in 2009:

The multi-nation International Space Station can now maintain a crew of six astronauts, rather than three. Russian assistance in expanding the station, slowed because of budget troubles, will resume in 2010 as the U.S. Space Shuttle carries up the next Russian module.

Two of the largest space exploring nations announced a new partnership. The US and China agreed to expand cooperation in space science and begin discussions on cooperation in human space flight. Chinese space leaders and the NASA Administrator will make reciprocal visits in 2010.

NASA and ESA signed a letter of intent to closely coordinate their Mars exploration programs. Under the Mars Joint Exploration Initiative (MJEI), ESA will direct a joint orbiter mission in 2016, with the US leading a mission including American and European landers in 2018. Two initiatives to be organized further in the next few years are a possible network of landers in 2020, with the ultimate goal, the return of Martian soil and rocks to Earth, coming after that.

International cooperation is not always easy, but it is imperative. Budgetary pressures alone will ensure we see more of it. And if there is any endeavour in which humanity should be cooperating as a species, it is reaching out from our home planet.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New species: "snail-sucking snake"

The authors of this article seem to have coined the term "snail-sucking snake" for this new species from Ecuador. Naturally, I couldn't resist quoting it. (I also can't help thinking, in Dave Barry mode, that "Snail-Sucking Snakes" would be a great name for a rock band.) It's one of a horde of new reptiles and amphibians from western Ecuador.

Charlie's Used Shuttle Sale

OK, the header isn't quite accurate - NASA's Administrator Charles Bolden is not personally manning a used-Shuttle lot - but the shuttles are for sale after they make their final flights. Each originally cost a billion-plus (specifically, building Endeavour to replace the lost Challenger cost $1.7B). Now they are a mere $28.8M. Several large museums are expected to put in bids for orbiters Atlantis and Endeavour, while Discovery is already ticketed for the NASM. And here's a real bargain. The massive Space Shuttle Main Engines, the costliest, highest-performing rocket engines ever built, are available for free if you can transport and reassemble them. Each one weighs a mere 3.2 metric tons.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Suborbital Astronauts prepare -on their own $$

This is a neat story. Several companies are preparing to launch suborbital passenger-carrying rockets. Some scientists are making sure they are ready. Eleven men and women, paying for their own training, completed a new program to prepare them as suborbital astronauts. They underwent centrifuge and altitude chamber testing in addition to classroom work. Course organizer S. Alan Stern said, "For this diverse group of scientists to invest their own time and money for astronaut training is a true testament to the growing excitement behind the science potential of new commercial spacecraft. Interest was so high that we've already filled up a second class of a dozen scientists for spring 2010."

From Borneo: Newest Bird Species

Leeds University biologist Richard Webster has found the world's newest species of bird. The bird has, unusually, been given a common name before a scientific name: the description is still being prepared, but the small gray and white bird from Borneo is already known as the spectacled flowerpecker.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Earth has close encounter

A house-sized object will zoom past Earth Wednesday at only one third the distance to the Moon. Astronomers are not quite sure what it is. A tiny asteroid is one guess. Passing 130,000 km away is a very close shave by astronomical standards, although the object is too small to be seen by amateurs.

Animal performs photosynthesis

A sea slug named Elysia chlorotica doesn't have to work for a living - after a point, at least. It absorbs genes and cell components called chloroplasts from plants it eats - and puts them to work to produce chlorophyll itself and live by photosynthesis. Biologist Sidney Pierce comments, "This is the first time that multicellular animals have been able to produce chlorophyll."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Finding another Earth

The first exoplanets discovered by astronomers have, not surprisingly, been gas giants like our own neighbor Jupiter. As techniques and instruments have been refined (most notably with the addition of NASA's orbiting Kepler observatory), a class of smaller exoplanets, nicknamed "Super-Earths," has been discovered. These are still several times larger than our own planet, but astronomers are confident we'll soon be identifying Earth-sized worlds. A new generation of instruments (which NASA planned but abandoned in its Terrestrial Planet Finder program) will be needed to nail down the possibilities of life. My prediction: eventually, we'll find it.

"It is inconceivable that the whole universe was merely created for us who live in this third-rate planet of a third-rate sun." - Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The science of seeing sea monsters

Dr. Charles Paxton has published (in the eminent Journal of Zoology, no less!) an analysis which provides important insight on how seriously we should take reports of large unidentified marine animals. Paxton's paper focuses on one key parameter: how well witnesses are estimating distances to the object of their attentions at sea. The distance, which can be tricky to estimate over open ocean, affects the perceived size of the animal and how well a witness can tell a "sea monster" from a whale, shark, or other known denizen of the oceans.

Paxton's Abstract:
Analysis of the nearest reported distance in accounts of seemingly unknown, large, marine animals (sea monsters) by boat- or water-based eyewitnesses, revealed that, contrary to expectation, the majority of sightings were at close distance (<200 m). This suggests that misidentification of inanimate objects or known animal species due to great distance was unlikely. Assuming a uniform distribution of objects around the boat, the reported sightings were far closer than expected, implying a bias in the sighting or reporting process. The distribution of reported distances from boat- or water-based eyewitnesses was almost identical to that of shore-based witnesses. Unidentified large marine animals were more likely to be reported to be closer if the report was anonymous or secondhand. The gap of time between recollection/reporting and the actual sighting did not influence reported distance. There was no relation between reported distance and reported length. There was some equivocal evidence that the absence of a stated distance in a report might be an indicator of a hoax.
THANKS TO: Charles for sharing this.

Takeoff for

A group of paleontological researchers including Dr. Darren Naish have launched a site devoted to the largest and strangest creatures ever to fly in the Earth's atmosphere: the pterosaurs. Whether you seek information on particular species, general anatomy, fossil discoveries, or whatever, this is the place to meet the true-life dragons, which were stranger than any fictional counterpart. The site is wonderfully illustrated and just darn cool.

Monday, January 04, 2010

School poised to cut science labs for bizarre reason

I never get political in this blog. Hardly ever. But the story of Berkeley High School's plan to cut science labs should not go unremarked on. It's weird because it's not based on budget cuts. It's based on the bizarre notion that the way to improve achievement for minority students is to cut science labs, since minority students are using them less than white students. Seriously.
The President has made a big deal out of science education, and rightly so. It's a high-tech, science-driven world out there. Shouldn't the school be encouraging more minority students to get INTO those labs? That's not to say the money won't do any good if used to boost programs serving struggling students, which is the plan. But a racially-driven concept that no student needs hands-on work in the sciences in high school is...unearthly.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A fond look back at OMNI magazine

Paul Collins of Slate offers a fond obituary for OMNI magazine, a groundbreaking mixture of science, fiction, and speculation that (for younger readers of this blog) was a really big deal back in the 80s. It was in OMNI that the word "cyberspace" first appeared. Works from the titans of science fiction appeared in it, as did interviews with scientific luminaries like Richard Fenyman.
OMNI did spent some space on UFOs and similar speculative (some would say unscientific) topics. In general, its coverage wasn't as "out there" as some publications have offered, although I recall an article surveying readers on whether they might be alien abductees in which the symptoms it listed for determining your status were so general they applied to practically everybody.
Anyway, I miss OMNI, which was competed out of its niche in the press edition and vanished from its pioneering Internet version when its publisher died. It was nothing if not optimistic about the future, and there was good stuff in every issue.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Return to Pandora: Creating believable plants

Plant biologist Lori Kozlowski explains in this interview how she helped create the plants and the plant science we see in Avatar. She went as far as creating scientific names for all the species involved. She worked with creator James Cameron and others to develop a believable plant communication system (based in a new field of plant science on Earth, called "signal transduction").
She explains the environment this way: "...the atmosphere is thicker than on Earth, with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, as well as xenon and hydrogen sulfide. Gravity is weaker. And there is a strong magnetic field. Given the role of the environment in plant evolution, one would therefore expect to see gigantism, less of a gravity response (which makes stems grow up and roots grow down), and possibly a response to magnetic fields, which I named "magnetotropism.""