Sunday, October 30, 2011

Three new bat species for Halloween

What's Halloween without bats? Here are three new species from Southeast Asia - all looking suitable weird from a human point of view. Scientists note they have such refined sonar systems they detect and avoid the mist nets usually used to snare birds and bats for study. Also noted (sigh) is that all three are endangered by deforestation.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

NASA IG annoys every sane citizen

OK, I accept NASA's position that all moon rocks, even tiny slivers, are Federal property unless paperwork has been done giving someone else ownership. So an elderly Florida woman's sample, which she says Neil Armstrong gave to her husband and he says he did not, may technically remain government property. So NASA has a right to ask for it back. Instead, the NASA inspector general arranged a massive raiding party of its own personnel and local law enforcement to terrorize the poor woman in a ridiculous, heavy-handed response totally unmerited by the circumstances. Keith Cowing of NASAWatch is on something of a crusade here. Good for him.

Reminder: All posts are solely the personal opinion of the author as a private citizen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dolphin Day - sensing electric fields

Sharks can sense the electrical fields generated by the nervous systems of fish. That looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment on the front of a hammerhead shark kind of is a vacuum cleaner attachment, or maybe a mine detector - use whatever human analogy you will. But the platypus is the only mammal that can sense electrical fields. Or so we thought, until one species of dolphin proved to have it, too.
COMMENT: Dolphins have big brains, smart hunting strategies, sonar, AND electrical sensing? Fish are screwed.

Dolphin Day- "Here's how to hunt, you idiots."

If you're a fish trying to hide from a hungry dolphin and you see a large conch shell, you may want to duck inside it. That would be a bad idea. Indopacific bottlenose dolphins have figured out that, if you get the fish in there and use the tip of your beak to keep it there, you can grab the whole shell, take it to the surface, and dump the contents into your mouth. Surprisingly (or perhaps not?), more dolphins seem to be catching on to the trick. These critters learn fast.

Dolphin Day - Social networking and cetaceans

Sex-seeking male dolphins (in one species, at least) have wingmen to help "look for chicks." Really. Dolphins are turning out to be so human that, if we could just teach them how to lie, they could run for Congress.
COMMENT: Actually, they probably can lie. But would they want to be in politics? After a day hanging out with sea slugs, hagfish, sharks, and slime eels, why make it worse and be surrounded by lawyers?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

NASA moves to protect Apollo sites on the Moon

The Apollo landing sites should be preserved forever as milestones in human history, but there's technically nothing to prevent someone from going up and mucking around with them (the only thing forbidden is actually taking the hardware, which remains U.S. government property).
NASA is working on it. In this article, Leonard David describes how the space agency has drafted guidelines to protect sites of manned and robotic lunar exploration. NASA would prohibit any unofficial visits to the two most significant sites - Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 - and limitations on human or robotic visits (like those of Google Lunar X-Prize landers) - to the other locations.
COMMENT: We don't think nearly often enough about how to maintain what we're doing here and now as a record of future generations to understand what we were like and why we valued the things we did. This is an important first step.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Skeptic takes on sasquatch

Skeptical investigator Ben Raford once offered 10 reasons sasquatch didn't exist, such as lack of fossils, lack of bodies, etc. Most of his points (read them in the title link on Cryptomundo) strike me as valid, but I have to throw the flag on this one:
"“The last large animal to be found was probably the giant panda, and that was 100 years ago,” said Radford. “There has not been a single new creature that doesn’t fit the recognized taxonomy discovered in the last century, there just simply hasn’t.” He lated confined his comment to human-sized or larger land animals.

Ben, I respect you, but on this point you're still wrong.

Start with the 500-kg kouprey in 1937.
Then to what I wrote in the post:
"First, how did the the Vu Quang ox (new genus) get overlooked? You can argue whether the 100-lb giant muntjac qualifies as human-sized, but I think it does. Then you have creatures like the Bili apes, the mainland population of the Javan rhino, and the Bardia elephants did not end up meriting new taxonomic classifications, but they are examples of how populations of very large and distinctive animals went unnoticed by scientific. Add the huge populations – I mean really huge – of recently discovered gorillas and elephants, and the suggestion that there are no big mammals left is as unpersuasive as when Simpson made it in 1984."

The eminent George Gaylord Simpson wrote in 1984 that only a "few small and unimportant mammals" were likely to turn up. He was wrong. Big-time. Discovery of new mammals is going up, not down.

The Patterson-Gimlin film: Sasquatch at 44

Sasquatch really hit the bigtime in 1967, with a film that looked, at first viewing, very impressive. It's still impressive - IF there has ever been a genuine film of Sasquatch, this is it. Cryptomundo offers new analysis and comments on the film's 44th "birthday." I won;t rehash the endlessly-fought-over technical points, but here's what I added on this site:

"I too am very reluctant to overinterpret the blobs of light and shadow on an image 1.8mm high blown up countless times. But the biggest problem I have with declaring it authentic is the lack of anything as impressive for the last 44 years. Sure, there are still long odds against a close-range encounter with a camera-armed non-panicking human, but those odds are a heck of a lot better in the camcorder/cell phone age than they were in the days of the P-G encounter. I think I’ve looked at everything posted on Cryptomundo without once being as impressed as I am by P-G, which hints to me that P-G is a fluke in the sense of being an exceptionally convincing fake."

Mastodon hunting in early Americas

When did people first get to North America? The long-held theory that pre-Clovis people came no earlier than 12,000 years ago has hung on way too long (I never liked it, but no one cared what I thought.) Anyway, a mastodon tusk found near Seattle and penetrated by a spear point has been dated to 13,800 years old. If people ad reached that far south, they came over earlier than thought. Frankly, I think we'll keep pushing this date back. I would not be surprised if, in another 20 years, the textbooks will start the peopling of the Americas over 30,000 years back.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Big ideas from Small Satellite conferences

Thanks to Leonard David for a good article on the August Conference on Small Satellites. The quotes were accurate, and Leonard even humored me to adding a note that my views were not officially those of my company (even good companies look askance if you seem to be speaking for them when you're not. I mastered the art of the disclaimer a long time ago.)
I think the most important point I made here is that smallsat knowledge has reached a tipping point, where a space agency can now exist anywhere in the world and can be anything from a huge government effort to a kid with a soldering iron an an Internet-ordered CubeSat kit. Who knows the ramifications of that? None of us do - yet.

The Galapagos: Unique meeting of man and nature

The place that inspired The Origin of Species is still pretty unusual. This is a trip I have to take some day. The unique inhabitants, including turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, cormorants, penguins (what are penguins doing on a tropical island?) and so on, still show no fear of humans. Snorkelers report the delightful experience of sea lions coming up to look at their own reflections in scuba masks. The difficult balance between allowing tourism for needed revenue and keeping tourist numbers and activities restricted enough to avoid spooking the wildlife seems, so far, to be holding. The Earth is still full of magic...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

No faster-than-light neutrinos? Darn.

Well, the experiment that appeared to show a beam of neutrinos traveling faster than light appears to be a goof. The CERN researchers who made the claim may not have properly taken into account the motion of the GPS satellites providing the timing signal that seemed to show neutrinos being detected .64 nanoseconds too fast for normal travel between the transmitted in Switzerland and the receiver in Italy.
COMMENT #1 - most people don't realize that GPS satellites don't just provide location. The GPS constellation also provides the world's most accurate timing information, used by scientists, militaries, etc. worldwide.
COMMENT #2 - This article headlines that she shouldn't fire up our faster-than-light (FTL) spaceship drives just yet. True, but it's another opportunity to point out that a vigorous community of talented scientists and engineers are looking at how we can realistically achieve interstellar travel with spacecraft moving at up to half lightspeed. See

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Purple sponges cover reef off English coast

The world's largest chalk reef - a reef carved out by the action of water in a chalk formation rather than built up by tiny tropical organisms - lies only 100m in some places off the coast of Norfolk. On in, amateur divers found large numbers of a purple sponge that might seem more at home in the oceans of Europa than Europe. It is indeed a new species, just offshore from a teeming coast in a heavily fished area, and somehow either no one found it or everyone ignored it.
COMMENT: Have I said enough times that discoveries are often right under our noses, if only we are alert to them?

The world under the ice

Scientists are planning an new expedition to Antarctica to set up a drilling rig that will use hot water to melt its way through ice. A lot of ice.
Starting next November, the team will meal a borehole 36cm wide through 3,000m of ice to an ancient lake that apparently stays liquid thanks to geothermal heat. They expect to find single-celled life forms that will tell us a great deal about the time, a half mission years in the past, when the lake was "trapped" under ice. A huge uncertainly is how to handle the enormous pressure the water has built up - as much as 2,700 atmospheres. The drilling equipment and hose had to be custom-built for the task. and the researchers will endure brutal conditions to carry out the task.
COMMENT: Yes, there is still adventure in science. More than most people could handle.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Kraken sleepeth?

Truly gigantic squids, long known in myth as the Kraken, were thought to be only myth, even though modern evidence suggests living giant squids up to 20m long are possible.
The later Peter Benchley once wrote that a prominent teuthologist who asked not to be named would not be surprised if a 40m squid turned up. Now from the world of paleontology comes the suggestion that such giants lived a very long time ago. It's circumstantial evidence - a collection of bones of huge, apparently violently killed 14-m icthyosaurs from over 200 million years ago - but paleontologist Mark McMenamin thinks it's the logical explanation.
COMMENT: Expect a lot of pushback - he's making a very dramatic claim without hard evidence for it. But if he's willing to advance and defend his work, then who knows what others may find pursuing this lead and looking for better evidence?

Dust-up over Snowman

There's a lot of commentary flying around about an international effort to locate the purported large primate of south-central Siberia. This is near the location where a new ancestor, recently described Homo denisiova, was recently described, and it's natural to wonder if "snowman" reports in modern times might relate to the same primate or its descendant. Skeptical writer Benjamin Radford thought that, essentially, the whole field of "hominology" is so riddled with exaggeration and slipshod science that there's nothing solid to grab on to. Here Dr. Jeff Meldrum argues that, whatever the value of particular bits of evidence and particular claims, there is something very much worth investigating.
COMMENT: Sure, there is a very slipshod component in cryptozoology. The Siberian snowman does not seem to me one of the better cases. But if serious people like Meldrum want to investigate, I cheer them on. It's still a big world out there.

North America was not always primate-free

OK, we're primates, but you know what I mean. Long before humans trod the land bridge (or sailed south of it - the evidence is mixed and intriguing). A new species of fossil primate, Mescalerolemur horneri, has been dug out of West Texas in an area called the Devil's Graveyard. Anthropologist Chris Kirk says Mescalerolemur seems more closely related to fossil primates from Africa and Eurasia than to others known from North America. Going back 14 million years, it's an intriguing piece of a puzzle we still know very little about.

A giant, for a limpet

We humans are naturally fascinated by huge creatures, so it's hard to get us excited about anything 14mm long. However, when 14mm is huge for a specific type of animal, that's very interesting to science. A limpet-like mollusk from Antarctica (Zeidora Antarctica, of course), which is three times as long as the 5mm normal for its genus.
COMMENT: As I say so often - the discoveries are everywhere. Keep up the search!

Explaining a UFO artifact

UFO researchers have long been on a search for physical evidence of postulated alien technology. A fellow named Bob White has spent years writing and talking about a very odd-looking bit of metal he ways was deposited by an alien spaceship. There's no question it's odd, looking like an elongated pine cone and containing an amalgam of metals that didn't make any sense. In this case, though, it eventually did make sense when the right person saw it. The result:
"The object in question is made of accreted grinding residue. It forms in a manner similar to a common stalagmite when metal castings are “cleaned” on large stationary grinders."
COMMENT: I think there are unexplained aerial phenomena, but most likely they are natural. There's no question the concept of alien visitors is compelling: No one would be more fascinated than I to learn "they" were actually here. But I haven't seen anything that convinces me yet.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Students can be scientists, wherever they are

On Staten Island, these students are doing real science. Salamanders, their teacher explains, are easily ignored, yet can be a bellwether for ecological changes. So these New York middle-schoolers are collecting data for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. They and their teachers are turning over rocks, nosing through leaf litter, and learning how to find, identify, and evaluate the population of salamanders in their parks and other green spots of the city.

COMMENT: Real kids, real science. Is there a better way to motivate the scientists of the future? Every city and town in the country should be doing projects like this.

Friday, October 07, 2011

A frog that meows?

Yep. The meowing night frog and 11 other new species, plus three presumed-extinct (or at least long-missing) types, turned up in a study of the frogs of western India, conducted in several trips from 1994 through last year. . A bit like the just described Australian boulder frogs (see entry below), the 3.5 cm Nyctibatrachus poocha lurks in crevices in the rock most of the time. The name "poocha" means "domestic cat" in the local language.

These and more new and surprising Indian amphibians are collected at

Hop to it!

New Aussie frog species climb (not hop) into view

The golden-capped boulder frog is a handsome looking creature by amphibian standards, a golden-brown animal with long limbs and fingers. It and its fellow new species, the kutini boulder frog, also have large triangular finger pads, another adaptation for rock-climbing in a habitat where hopping is really not a good way to get around. Indeed, these frogs simply don't hop. The new frogs are abut 5 cm long, eat mainly ants, and lay eggs in which the tadpoles develop all the way to the mini-frog level. Their discoverer, Dr. Conrad Hoskin, says they stay deep in the cracks of boulders until night or rain brings them out.
COMMENT: Nature is like the Steve Jobs of the universe: it never runs out of new ideas.
I hope someone names a new species after Steve, by the way. Something unique and unexpected.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Mind-boggling photo from orbit

This shows two Soyuz spacecraft backlit by the aurora. Breathtaking.

Nobel for Chemistry: A Dramatic story in science

Prof Daniel Shechtman of Israel won the Nobel in chemistry for his discovery of a new from of condensed matter, quasicrystals - a find that got him ridiculed for years. Crystals are big on symmetry. You cut one in half, it looks the same on both sides - your turn one a quarter or a half turn, it looks the same. Shechtman found crystals in patterns that could not be repeated so easily - they had pentagonal symmetry. Turn a quasicrystal a half-turn and it no longer looks the same, but if you go back to the starting position and turn it a fifth of a turn, it DOES look the same. He saw this in 1982, but it was decades before anyone could stop throwing rocks long enough to provide the ultimate proof - growing quasicrystals in a lab. Congratulations to a pioneer!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

International team chases yeti

08 is the catalyst for an international gathering In the Kemerova region of Siberia to hunt of scientists and researchers from the U.S., Russia and other nations to exchange information on the long-sought Yeti/almas/snowman/whatever it is. After conferring, they will put on their parkas and start out after the creature. (There's a good image here of the 35-cm footprint found by a Japanese expedition in 2008, although it was in Nepal, a LONG way from Siberia and therefore not really pertinent.)
COMMENT: The odds are long, but the idea that some kind of large primate has adapted to life in mountain passes and alpine forests isn't crazy. I will them success.

And the Nobel goes to....

For physics, it goes to Saul Perlmutter​, Brian Schmidt​ and Adam Reiss, who, in work beginning in 1998, proved the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Think about that. It's a mind-blowing concept. If all matter is following the path set by an explosion, the Big Bang, 14B years ago, it should be slowing down thanks to entropy and all those gravitational tugs. It's not. This was a seriously W-T-F moment of human understanding. Dark matter? Dark energy? Evil spirits? Almost anything is possible in a universe as strange as this one.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Starship Symposium - Propulsion

Get your geek on:

Notes from sessions yesterday on interstellar propulsion. Basically, as hard and costly as this trick will be to solve, there ARE promising approaches to it. Make it so!

Propulsion Panel Notes

George Miley -
It’s popular to speculate on Helium-3 fusion, but H3 collection (from moon soil or gas giant planetary atmospheres) is a huge task by itself. Start with elements, even if less optimal, available on Earth.
Louis Freedman, President, The Planetary Society – Promoted lightsails as a near-term technology with great potential. Near-term missions could warn of solar weather, thanks to their ability to “hover” in a spot in interstellar space, and perform near Earth object (NEO) missions, leading to capability to steer NEOs with huge sails
Geoffrey Landis – Lightsails are a good technology, to be followed by nuclear engines. They may or may not lead to interstellar capabilities
Friedman – Simplify missions by taking =humans out of the loop. With advances in robotics and media technology, “being there” virtually is an improving option
Mr. Kammash, Project Icarus – No, we need humans in the loop to make it worthwhile for people to fund huge endeavors.
“Columbus would not have gotten funding for sending a frog on precursor mission.”
Suggested a new Icarus motto: “On to the stars: Cowards shoot for Mars.”
Landis – all propulsion research has value because a starship might have two or three systems, for instance, for accelerating, braking, and precise maneuvers
Miley: It’s all depended on cheaper access to orbit. We need more work to explore SSTOs, light gas guns, and directed energy-powered launches.

There's a lot more where this came from. They are taping the sessions, so we should see some on DARPA's website.