Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mammoth Hunter

13,800 years ago giant mastodons ruled the Pacific Northwest, while other creatures cowered in fear. At this time someone figured out that humans, working together as a group, could bring down a mastodon. A mastodon's tusk could be sharpened and fashioned into a spear. At first he or she was ridiculed and told it was impossible. Eventually the human tribe faced the mastodon in a fierce battle. One brave human flung a spear into the beast's ribs and brought it down. Many centuries later the mastodon would be extinct and humans would rule the Earth.

In 1977 paleontologist Carl Gustafson came upon a giant tusk that had been found by a bowling-alley owner in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. After a few hours' digging Gustafson uncovered the mastodon's skeleton, buried for thousands of years. He also found a fragment of tusk jammed between the ribs, as if it had been fashioned into a spear and thrust there. After running some tests, Gustafson concluded that humans had brought the beast down with a spear nearly 14,000 years before.

For 35 years Gustafson's discovery was ignored or ridiculed by the scientific establishment. Anthropology was stuck in a Clovis-first model, which stated that "Clovis people" predated humans in North America. Challenges to the Clovis-first model were subject to great criticism. Unfortunately Gustafson's evidence was not completely convincing. Radiocarbon dating at the time left large margins of error. The spear fragment could be interpreted as just a bone. Gustafson reached retirement age before his ideas were accepted.

"I was pretty bitter about the whole thing for a long time," Gustafson said recently. "I don't like saying it. I never really admitted it except to my wife. It was so frustrating. But I'm very humbled and happy it turned out this way."

Gustafson produced very few papers about his discovery. In his defense, publishing a groundbreaking idea in peer-reviewed journals can be nearly impossible. Only recently other scientists put Gustafson's fragments through modern DNA, CT and dating tests. The samples were sent to other labs to check the results. In a new paper in the journal SCIENCE, researchers concluded that Gustafson was right all along.

One colleague has called Gustafson the J. Harlan Bretz of anthropology. Bretz was a geologist who in the 1920's theorized that Eastern Washington had once been covered in a giant flood. 50 years would pass before other scientists realized that Bretz was right. A more apt comparison might be to Alfred Wegener, who concluded that Earth's continents drifted and was also ridiculed for decades. New and groundbreaking ideas can take decades or longer to be accepted.

13,800 years ago humans learned to make a spear and conquer the mastodon. 35 years ago Carl Gustafson found the buried evidence. For decades Gustafson's discovery was ignored. He was frustrated well into his retirement. Finally other scientists with modern tools realised he was right all along. Like many new ideas, Gustafson's discovery took a long time to be accepted. Hooray for Carl Gustafson and all the brave Carls in the Northwest!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Still Faster Than Light

Like an Earth-centered cosmos, a fixed speed of light is a scientific edifice that shows signs of cracking. Neutrinos are mysterious particles that pass through matter nearly undisturbed. Millions of them pass through our bodies each second. Wolfgang Pauli first predicted their existence in 1930, but his prediction was so revolutionary that he did not present it until the Solvang conference in 1933. Not until 1956 was the existence of Pauli's neutrinos proven. Recently neutrinos were found to transform between their three flavours spontaneously.

In September the OPERA collaboration reported that neutrinos have been clocked traveling slightly faster than light, Neutrinos Pass Through Light Barrier. This result challenges the Physics we read in books, that nothing travels faster than light. Fortunately, neutrinos don't read books.

Other physicists have challenged the OPERA results, but in a new set of experiments this month the group verified their findings. Some of the OPERA group would not put their name on the initial report, but their doubts have slowly been erased. zmore tests by other groups will be needed to prove the superluminal neutrinos. As readers of this blog know, there is a body of evidence that light itself slows with time. The speed-of-light barrier is slowly breaking down.


Sunday, November 27, 2011


Happy Thanksgiving week in the US! Most of NASA took the week off, though last Wednesday at Johnson Space Center was a banquet featuring the ST-135 crew. Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin is in the foreground wearing glasses. Dr. Grifin had some choice remarks about the current direction of NASA.

Astronaut Sandy Magnus, one of the first people I met upon coming to JSC. Author Gloria Skurzynski also received an award for her writings about Space.. How nice to live in a world where women can dream about the stars.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Uranus Hot Spot

This photo of Uranus was taken by the Gemini North telescope atop Mauna Kea. It shows a mysterious spot ten times brighter than the planetary background. Astronomer Heidi Hammel appealed on her Facebook page for others to confirm this observation. Hopefully the Hubble Space Telescope can be used to get better images.

The spot is interpreted as an eruption of methane gas high in Uranus' atmosphere. Heat and methane indicate an internal source. Uranus was thought to emit very little heat compared to Jupiter or Saturn. The planet's spin axis in tilted nearly sideways from the solar system plane, so one hemisphere can be warmed uniformly for 42 years. How such a concentrated hot spot could appear is a complete mystery.

If Uranus formed around a Black Hole, the singularity would provide a source of internal heat nearly indefinitely. Radiation would erupt in jets from the Black Hole, following magnetic field lines. Uranus' magnetic poles are tilted 59 degrees from the spin axis, indicating the direction of the Black Hole's spin axis. Because of this tilt, heat plumes from the jets do not erupt at the poles but are carried along in the atmosphere to erupt in the lower latitudes.

This hot spot occurs at 22.5 degrees North, roughly at rest with the planetary interior. This could be more than just an asteroid impact. Source of the hot spot must be something deep inside Uranus. The interior of a giant planet like Uranus is a good place to find a Black Hole.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Vettes Day

Veterans Day (Armistice Day) was celebrated with a big parade through downtown Houston. I was able to drive with a contingent of patriotically dressed Corvettes. Since Alan Shepard arrived in 1959 driving a shiny new Corvette, the American sports car has been a minior tradition among NASA personnel.

The reviewing stand with VIP's and members of the military. This was a busy few days; more posts are coming soon. Time slows down everything, even a Corvette. Why not a slowing speed of light?


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