RIP, Steve Irwin

I don’t know why the news of Steve Irwin’s sudden death has made me so sad. It’s not as if a man who swings rattlesnakes around by their tails dieing of a stingray sting is all that big a surprise. I’d go so far as to say that he would have wanted to go out in the wild, filming, just probably not now.  But his loss will be felt in the  world of wild life conservation. There hasn’t been a conservationist who stirred the minds of children and adults like this since the Great Jacque Cousteau and there probably won’t be another like him for a long time.

Bloom of The Corpse Flower

The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens has their very own Titan Arum (the giant reeking “corpse flower”) which is about to bloom:

The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is one of the world’s most remarkable plants. Native to tropical forests in Sumatra, it produces a monstrous four- to seven-foot-tall flower head, which releases a monstrous stench of putrefaction at peak bloom (another name for the plant is the corpse flower!). The species rarely flowers in cultivation—the last time one bloomed in New York was 1939. However, Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s ten-year-old specimen has recently begun to flower. It’s expected to reach full bloom at the end of the second week of August.

Even better, they have a webcam.

Those Damned Fish, Again

Fish fall with rain over an indian Village:

When a storm broke over an Indian village it wasn’t raining cats and dogs – but fish.

People in the country’s southwest district Kerala are famed for turning local sea life into spicy dishes.

But the reported piscine downpour gave the village of Manna an unexpected feast.

When a storm first broke on Thursday, some people reported seeing small, pencil-thin live fish falling from the sky.

This is a classic Fortean event. Charles Fort, for those unfamiliar with him, wrote four books cataloguing anomalous phenomenon. Chief among the items collected in his first book (and my personal favorite) The Book of The Damned are reports of strange objects falling with rain. Fish were featured heavily, as were frogs, globs of jelly, snakes, cubes of venison, eggs and ham, loose change and items historically referred to as Thundertones, large objects either carved stone or forged mettle that land in fields or on houses.

But as for the fishes: conventional wisdom claims that some very picky whirlwinds scoop them up and dribble them down upon the heads of startled Indian Villagers and others. I don’t quite buy that and more than Charles Fort did:*

The best-known fall of fishes from the sky is that which occurred at Mountain Ash, in the Valley of Abedare, Glamorganshire, Feb. 11, 1859.

The Editor of the Zoologist, 2-677, having published a report of a fall of fishes, writes: “I am continually receiving similar accounts of frogs and fishes.”(14) But, in all the volumes of the Zoologist, I can find only two reports of such falls. There is nothing to conclude other than that hosts of data have been lost because orthodoxy does not look favorably upon such reports. The Monthly Weather Review records several falls of fishes in the United States; but accounts of these reported occurrences are not findable in other American publications. Nevertheless, the treatment by the Zoologist of the fall reported from Mountain Ash is fair. First appears, in the issue of 1859-6493, a letter from the Rev. John Griffith, Vicar of Abedare, asserting that the fall had occurred, chiefly upon the property of Mr. Nixon, of Mountain Ash.(15) Upon page 6540, Dr. Gray, of the British Museum, bristling with exclusionism, writes that some of these fishes, which had been sent to him alive, were “very young minnows.”(16) He says: “On reading the evidence, it seems to me most probably only a practical joke: that one of Mr. Nixon’s employees had thrown a pailful of water upon another, [81/82] who had thought fish in it had fallen from the sky”–had dipped up a pailful from a brook.

Those fishes–still alive–were exhibited at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park. The Editor says that one was a minnow and that the rest were sticklebacks.

He says that Dr. Gray’s explanation is no doubt right.

But, upon page 6564, he publishes a letter from another correspondent, who apologizes for opposing so “high an authority as Dr. Gray,” but says that he had obtained some of these fishes from persons who lived a considerable distance apart, or considerably out of range of the playful pail of water.(17)

According to the Annual Register, 1859-14, the fishes themselves had fallen by pailfuls.

(Hat tip to Noz)

Stephen Hawking Vs. The Pope

I was a little hard on Stephen Hawking last week but only because I except better form one of the most brilliant men on the planet. Better, like this:

HONG KONG (AP) – Famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said Thursday that the late Pope John Paul II once told scientists they should not study the beginning of the universe because it was the work of God.

The British author _ who wrote the best-seller “A Brief History of Time” _ said that the pope made the comments at a cosmology conference at the Vatican.

Hawking, who didn’t say when the meeting was held, quoted the pope as saying, “It’s OK to study the universe and where it began. But we should not enquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God.”

The scientist then joked during a lecture in Hong Kong, “I was glad he didn’t realize I had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began. I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo.”

We’ve come along way in a few short centuries. Today, a brilliant scientist can joke about being fed to the Inquisition by an obtuse man in a funny hat, rather than fear that the current Pope (formerly the head of the Inquisition) would actually tie him to the rack and break out the anal pear.

But some things never change. It’s the 21st century and we still have Pope for one thing. For another, people still listen to that gassy windbag as if his lunatic rantings about sky fairies and the moral implications of masturbating were anything but backward superstition. But three pips for Dr. Hawking for not backing down and going ahead with his fantastically important research, even if (and especially if) it honks off some dipshit in a fancy dress who believes the sky is falling.

That Proof of Evolution Creationists Always Say Doesn’t Exist? Here’s Some Of It Now

And in Israel, no less:

Discovery of eight previously unknown, ancient animal species within “a new and unique underground ecosystem” in Israel was revealed today by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers.

[…] The cave, which has been dubbed the Ayalon Cave, is “unique in the world,” said Prof. Amos Frumkin of the Hebrew University Department of Geography. This is due mainly to its isolation from the outside world, since the cave’s surface is situated under a layer of chalk that is impenetrable to water. The cave, with its branches, extends over some 21⁄2 kilometers, making it Israel’s second largest limestone cave. It is to remain closed to the public to permit further scientific research.

The invertebrate animals found in the cave – four seawater and freshwater crustaceans and four terrestial species – are related to but different from other, similar life forms known to scientists. The species have been sent to biological experts in both Israel and abroad for further analysis and dating. It is estimated that these species are millions of years old. Also found in the cave were bacteria that serve as the basic food source in the ecosystem.

8 new species, all of them related to other species outside th ecave system, but adapted to become eyeless, because they’ve been living in a lightless environment for 5 million years, isolated. It’s a perfect Evolutionary laboratory.

The Dragon King of Hogwarts

Discovery Channel news:

Dracorex hogwartsia, which translates as “Dragon King of Hogwarts,” was unearthed in 2003 in the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota by three amateur fossil hunters working in cooperation with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. But it wasn’t until it was at the museum, while the fossil was being carefully prepared, that renowned dinosaur researcher Robert Bakker happened to catch sight of it while visiting. Bakker then recruited pachycerphalosaurs expert Sullivan and other paleontologists to take a closer look.

As for how it got its name? A group of children at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis drew the connection to the fanciful school of witchcraft that the famous fictional wizard Harry Potter attends and came up with the name hogwartsia..

“It’s a very dragon-like looking dinosaur,” said Sullivan.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has been notified and apparently rather likes the new name.

“I am absolutely thrilled to think that Hogwarts has made a small claw mark upon the fascinating world of dinosaurs,” said Rowling, according to a museum press release. “I happen to know more on the subject of paleontology than many might credit, because my eldest daughter was Utahraptor-obsessed and I am now living with a passionate Tyrannosaurus rex-lover, aged three.

“My credibility has soared within my science-loving family, and I am very much looking forward to reading Dr. Bakker and his colleague’s paper describing ‘my’ dinosaur.”

What Was Flipper’s Secret Name?

The Sunday Times:

DOLPHINS may be closer to humans than previously realised, with new research showing they communicate by whistling out their own “names”.

The evidence suggests dolphins share the human ability to recognise themselves and other members of the same species as individuals with separate identities. The research, on wild bottlenose dolphins, will lead to a reassessment of their intelligence and social complexity, raising moral questions over how they should be treated.

The research was carried out by Vincent Janik of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University, who has found bottlenose dolphins to be among the animal world’s quickest learners of new sounds.

He said: “Each animal develops an individually distinctive signature whistle in the first few months of its life, which appears to be used in individual recognition.”

[…] Dolphins may, however, be just the first of many species where individuals are found to have their own names. Other researchers have already found evidence for highly developed language skills in parrots, crows and primates.

Via Warren Ellis