Aug
20
2014

Hot spot: This solar farm in the Mojave Desert in California is igniting birds in flight at an alarming rate. Mirrors on the ground reflect super-hot light to the towers to be converted into electricity.
Hot spot: This solar farm in the Mojave Desert in California is igniting birds in flight at an alarming rate. Mirrors on the ground reflect super-hot light to the towers to be converted into electricity.Courtesy Craig Dietrich - Flickr
A huge solar energy farm in the Mojave Desert seems to be having one serious side effect: passing birds in flight are bursting into flames.

What's going on is that 300,000 mirrors on the ground are directing sunlight to huge towers that convert that energy into electricity. Bugs are attracted to the bright light from the mirrors drawing hungry birds to get into the path of the reflected light. And that concentrated light energy is causing the birds to catch fire, sometimes at a rate of one every two minutes. The flaming birds have been noticed since the plant powered up in February and its estimated that the total bird kill this year could top out at 28,000. Researchers estimated that one bird they found dead had been roasted by light beams that were nearly 1,000 degrees F.

Plans for building a second plant are on hold while investigators study the situation at the current site. What do you think? Is the potential of killing many birds a worthwhile cost for increased clean, "green" electricity?

Aug
18
2014

Hallucigenia sparsa fossil: from the Burgess Shale
Hallucigenia sparsa fossil: from the Burgess ShaleCourtesy M. R. Smith / Smithsonian Institute
One of the strangest and more mysterious critters that scurried across the Middle Cambrian seafloor has baffled paleontologist since it was first identified in the 1970s. Was it a worm? Which side was up? Did it have legs or spikes or both? Was its head actually its tail? Did it have any extant descendents or was it an evolutionary dead-end? The worm-like creature was so baffling and so bizarre, it was given the very apropos name of Hallucigenia.

The tubular, spiked-worm possessed seven or eight pairs of legs and ranged in length from 2/5th of an inch to one and 1/4 inches and looks like something out of a bad dream. Early interpretations of their fossils were all over the map. The stiff spikes on it back were first thought to be its legs, and its legs misidentified as tentacles. What was thought to be its tail ended up being its head.

Using modern imaging technology, researchers from the University of Cambridge have been closely studying fossils from the famous Burgess Shale quarry located high in the Canadian Rockies, and are uncovering Hallucigenia's secrets. By studying the claws at the end of its legs they have been able to link it to modern velvet worms (onychophorans). Scientists have long suspected the two were somehow related but until now have failed to find anything significant to prove it. By studying Hallucigenia's claws they've determined that they're constructed of nested cuticle layers, very similar to how the jaws of velvet worms are organized. The similarity is no surprise since jaws are known to have evolved from a modified set of front legs.

But besides giving Hallucigenia a place in the lineage of life on Earth, the Cambridge team during the course of their study also discovered something else: that arthropods - which include crustaceans, spiders, insects and trilobites - aren't in fact as closely related to velvet worms as previously thought.

“Most gene-based studies suggest that arthropods and velvet worms are closely related to each other," said co-author Dr Javier Ortega-Hernandez. "However, our results indicate that arthropods are actually closer to water bears, or tardigrades, a group of hardy microscopic animals best known for being able to survive the vacuum of space and sub-zero temperatures – leaving velvet worms as distant cousins.”

SOURCE and LINKS

University of Cambridge story
Previous Buzz Post on Hallucigenia
The Cambrian Explosion
More about Tartigrade

This is an excellent TED presentation about how astronomers gather lots of information about the far reaches our universe just by studying light.

This video, alleged by some viewers to show a humanoid figure and its shadow on the surface of the Moon, has gone viral (over 3 million views!). If it is a man or alien being, he's a very, very big boy. It's also been pointed out that his shadow is going the wrong way when compared to shadows made by nearby moonscape features. Fanciful fun, but that's about it.

Here are the co-ordinates (27°34'26.35"N 19°36'4.75"W) if you want to find the exact location yourself on Google Moon, which is accessed under the Saturn-shaped menu in the toolbar of the latest version of Google Earth.

Since we're smack dab in the middle of Shark Week, I thought this would be the perfect time to show the exciting time my niece's husband, Todd Redig, of St. Paul, MN had during a recent Florida fishing trip. I would have loved to been on board to see this. Be sure to watch the slowed down version of the event that's at the end of the video.

NOTE: the clip, understandably, contains some mild expletives.

TED.com supplies some helpful links to help answer your questions.

Henry Fairfield Osborn
Henry Fairfield OsbornCourtesy AMNH via Britannica.com
Today marks the 157th anniversay of the birth of paleontologist and museum curator Henry F. Osborn. Born on this date in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1857, and educated at Princeton University, Osborn was degreed in geology and archaeology and paleontology, and also studied embryology and comparative under Thomas Huxley. He was also mentored by famed 19th century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. Osborn taught at both Princeton and Columbia before being hired by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to head the museum's newly created Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and later serve as the institution's president. Osborn has the distinction of having named one of the world's most famous dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex. Read more about H. F. Osborn here.

ADD'L INFO
Osborn info on Strange Science
Osborn on About
Osborn on Wikipedia

Aug
07
2014

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimen
Comet 67P/Churyumov-GerasimenCourtesy ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Rosetta - a spacecraft launched over ten years ago by the European Space Agency (ESA) - finally reached its goal yesterday, aligning and syching itself up with the orbital path of a comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) speeding around the Sun.

During the course of its trajectory, Rosetta utilized the gravity of both Earth and Mars in several slingshot maneuvers to accelerate and help hurdle the spacecraft toward its destination. The comet is traveling toward the sun at 34,175 mph. After a high-speed chase across nearly 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) of interplanetary space Rosetta had to slam on its brakes over the past to months to reduce its speed (relative to the comet) to just under 2 miles per hour.

"This arrival phase in fact is the most complex and exotic trajectory that we have ever seen," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French Space Agency CNES.

Close-up of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimen's surface: Rosetta will send a lander to the surface in November.
Close-up of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimen's surface: Rosetta will send a lander to the surface in November.Courtesy ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The spacecraft will spend the next year or so collecting data and photographing the comet which is roughly 2 miles in diameter and shaped somewhat like a duck. Comets are thought to be composed of the same nebular material present when the Sun and planets first formed more than 4.6 billion years ago. Rosetta will help increase our knowledge of the solar system's beginnings.

This coming November ESA engineers will command Rosetta's lander, Philae, to set down on the comet's surface to collect even more data, a feat never before attempted. That will certainly be worth watching.

SOURCES
BBC story
Sydney Morning Herald story
Rosetta FAQ
ExtremeTech (more photos)

Aug
06
2014

Bison painting at Altamira cave in Spain: Is it not amazing that we can instantly view on our computers this digital image of a bison painted 22,000 years ago by some unknown Paleolithic artist in a Spanish cave located 4300 miles from St. Paul, Minnesota? Just an observation.
Bison painting at Altamira cave in Spain: Is it not amazing that we can instantly view on our computers this digital image of a bison painted 22,000 years ago by some unknown Paleolithic artist in a Spanish cave located 4300 miles from St. Paul, Minnesota? Just an observation.Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia
After being closed for a dozen years, officials at the famous cave at Altamira in Spain - known for its wonderful prehistoric paintings - have once again been allowing the public to view its fantastic painted images of bison, horses, and other imagery created by unknown artists some 22,000 years ago.

The state-owned Altamira is subsidized by Spain's Culture Ministry, and testing has been in the works to determine whether limited visitors would have damaging effects on the rare prehistoric art. Random visitors to the site are selected by lottery and suited up in protective clothing before entering the cave. Test-run entries has been going on regularly since February.

The cave was discovered in 1879 by amateur archaeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. Visitors swarmed to view the discovery until officials closed it a hundred years later so scientists could study the effects of exposure to human traffic. It reopened for a while but only with limited access. It closed again in 2002 after mold was spotted forming on some of the walls and paintings.

A museum containing exact replicas of parts of the chamber and artwork were built near the cave entrance where visitors could experience the wonders of the paintings without fear of damaging them. The replicated experience has been popular with tourists (a quarter-million visitors per year) but, as some complain, the experience just isn't the same as seeing the real thing.

“It is the kind of difference in emotions that we might feel when we look at a painting of Rembrandt or the sunflowers of van Gogh but are then told that the paintings are in fact fakes,” said Altamira museum director, José Antonio Lasheras.
The last group of lucky participants will be allowed into the cave later this month and results of the testing is scheduled to be published in September.

SOURCES and LINKS
NYT story
UNESCO's Altamira information
Guardian story on cave reopening

Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska has several webcams set up to watch wildlife activity within the park. At the moment, the Brook Falls Bear camera seems to be the one to watch. Brown bears can often be seen during daylight hours fishing for sockeye salmon at the foot of the falls. A couple bruins were doing just that when I first checked it out. There are also some other links to webcams where you view the Alaskan wilderness.

If you want to expand your view of the world, check out explore.org, a world-wide philanthropic and educational organization that partners with the National Park Service and other organizations, and contains even more live cams, films, photos and blogs from various sites around the world.