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GeekWire

The disappearing bathtub and other Titanic tales

For evidence that the wreck of the Titanic is rapidly deteriorating, you need look no further than Captain Edward Smith’s bathtub. That is, if you can find it.

The case of the disappearing bathtub, as documented by Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate Expeditions, is one of the most vivid indicators showing how fast the world’s most famous shipwreck is settling into the final stages of its decay, more than a century after it hit an iceberg and sank into the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912.

More than 1,500 passengers and crew died in the sinking, but the tale of the Titanic lives on in the annals of maritime history. The rediscovery of the wreck in 1985 grabbed headlines around the world — and James Cameron’s “Titanic” movie burnished the ship’s reputation as a cultural icon.

One of the touchstones of Titanic expeditions has been the bathtub in the doomed captain’s cabin, more than two miles beneath the ocean’s surface. As recently as a decade ago, photos clearly showed the porcelain tub sitting amid rusty ruins. But two years ago, an expedition team reported that the wreck was rapidly deteriorating and cited the state of the captain’s cabin as evidence.

“The most shocking area of deterioration was the starboard side of the officer’s quarters, where the captain’s quarters were,” Titanic historian Parks Stephenson was quoted as saying at the time. “Captain’s bathtub is a favorite image among the Titanic enthusiasts, and that’s now gone.”

So it was a given that OceanGate would try to look at the captain’s quarters this summer when its Titan submersible went on a series of 10 dives. The good news is that the bathtub hasn’t completely gone away.

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GeekWire

Burke Museum makes four dinosaur finds in Montana

Theropods and Triceratops and hadrosaurs, oh my! Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is making significant additions to its dinosaur holdings, thanks to a summer expedition to Montana’s Hell Creek Formation.

Four distinct dinosaurs were dug up, and all of the fossils will be brought back to the Burke Museum on the University of Washington’s campus, where the public can watch paleontologists remove the surrounding rock in the museum’s fossil prep lab.

This year’s finds follow up on the museum’s earlier Hell Creek discoveries, including a magnificent Tyrannosaurus rex skull that’s been one of the centerpieces of the collection since the New Burke’s opening in 2019.

Like that T. rex skull, the newly discovered fossils date back more than 66 million years, to the age just before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs (except, of course, for the line that led to modern birds).

“Each fossil that we collect helps us sharpen our views of the last dinosaur-dominated ecosystems and the first mammal-dominated ecosystems,” Gregory Wilson Mantilla, the Burke Museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology and a biology professor at UW, said today in a news release. “With these, we can better understand the processes involved in the loss and origination of biodiversity and the fragility, collapse and assembly of ecosystems.”

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GeekWire

Bezos Earth Fund pledges millions for climate justice

The Bezos Earth Fund today announced $203.7 million in grants and pledges aimed at advancing climate justice, supporting climate-oriented economic recovery projects and spurring innovation in pathways to decarbonization.

The pledges are part of a 10-year, $10 billion initiative backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to fund scientists, activists, non-governmental organizations and other actors who can address the challenges posed by climate change.

“This funding is just the next step in the Bezos Earth Fund’s commitment to creating catalytic change during this decisive decade,” Andrew Steer, the recently appointed president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a news release. “With each grant, we are helping organizations unblock progress and create pathways to a more sustainable future.”

Today’s announcement covers $73.7 million in immediate donations to 12 organizations, as well as a pledge of another $130 million to be given out by the end of 2021 to organizations supporting the Biden administration’s Justice40 climate initiative. Justice40 is aimed at delivering at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate in clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

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GeekWire

Scientists unveil ‘wiring diagram’ for a tiny bit of brain

Neuroscientists from Seattle’s Allen Institute and other research institutions have wrapped up a five-year, multimillion-dollar project with the release of a high-resolution 3-D map showing the connections between 200,000 cells in a clump of mouse brain about as big as a grain of sand.

The data collection, which is now publicly available online, was developed as part of the Machine Intelligence From Cortical Networks program, or MICrONS for short. MICrONS was funded in 2016 with $100 million in federal grants to the Allen Institute and its partners from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the U.S. intelligence community’s equivalent of the Pentagon’s DARPA think tank.

MICrONS is meant to clear the way for reverse-engineering the structure of the brain to help computer scientists develop more human-like machine learning systems, but the database is likely to benefit biomedical researchers as well.

“We’re basically treating the brain circuit as a computer, and we asked three questions: What does it do? How is it wired up? What is the program?” R. Clay Reid, senior investigator at the Allen Institute and one of MICrONS’ lead scientists, said today in a news release. “Experiments were done to literally see the neurons’ activity, to watch them compute.”

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Fiction Science Club

Prophetic sci-fi tale retold in a not so comic book

Climate catastrophes? Gang violence? Political divisions? A president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again”? In the 1990s, that was the stuff of science fiction for Black author Octavia E. Butler.

“Just really hard-to-believe fictional stuff,” cartoonist/writer/teacher Damian Duffy says. “I keep doing that joke, and it’s not funny at all.”

Today, the outlines of the apocalyptic world that Butler described in her Earthseed novels — “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” — are all too close to reality. And it’s up to Duffy as well as his longtime collaborator, illustrator/professor John Jennings, to adapt those works to the graphic-novel format for 21st-century readers.

Although graphic novels are often thought of as comic books for grown-ups, there’s nothing funny about the late novelist’s books, or the adaptations created by Duffy and Jennings. Duffy even acknowledges that working on “Parable of the Sower” — which has just come out in paperback — added to the “depression stew” he’s been dealing with.

But in the end, he thinks it’s worth it.

“You feel a little bit stronger for having survived it,” he says. “I think that’s true as a reader, and I think it’s also true as adapters.”

Duffy and Jennings discuss the process of creating graphic novels, and their work with Butler’s novels in particular, in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Fiction Science, co-hosted by science-fiction writer Dominica Phetteplace and yours truly, focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

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GeekWire

OceanGate sub makes its first dive to the Titanic

After years of building, testing and dealing with setbacks, Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate has sent a next-generation submersible and its crew down to the wreck site of the Titanic for the first time.

“We had to overcome tremendous engineering, operational, business [challenges], and finally COVID-19 challenges to get here, and I am so proud of this team and grateful for the support of our many partners,” OceanGate’s founder and CEO, Stockton Rush, said today in a news release.

The first fruits of OceanGate’s 12,500-foot-deep dive in the North Atlantic include photos that show the frame of a stained-glass window and fragments of floor tile from the ocean liner, which hit an iceberg and sank during its maiden voyage from England to New York in 1912.

The loss of the ship and more than 1,500 of the people who were on board — plus the wreck’s rediscovery in 1985 — made the saga of the Titanic one of the history’s best-known sea tragedies.

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Cosmic Science

‘Tomorrow War’ adds time travel twist to today’s problems

As far as we know, we won’t be facing an alien uprising in 2051 — but there are plenty of catastrophes that could be hitting with full force by then, ranging from the wildfires, droughts and floods associated with climate change to super-pandemics and food and water shortages.

In that context, the aliens of “The Tomorrow War” — a sci-fi movie making its debut today on Amazon Prime — serve as stand-ins for the perils we could well bring upon ourselves over the next three decades.

“The Tomorrow War,” starring Chris Pratt, calls to mind earlier time-twisting movies including “Edge of Tomorrow” (the Tom Cruise alien-battle flick) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (watch for Pratt’s “heehaw” greeting, which was used in the Jimmy Stewart classic as well).

This time, the time travel trope includes a setup in which unsuspecting present-day citizens are drafted to fight future-day aliens as unrelenting as the bug-eyed monsters of “Starship Troopers.”

“I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription, the draft, for a long time. The idea of not having it be about necessarily an ideology, or patriotism, or loyalty to your country, but being about literally your desire to save your own kids,” screenwriter Zach Dean said during a pre-premiere press conference. “Who doesn’t sign up for that?”

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Cosmic Science

‘Dragon Man’ sparks debate over ancient human species

It’s time to add a new name to the list of ancient human species discovered in the fossil record — or is it?

The latest contender is a species dubbed Homo longi, created on the basis of a skull that was discovered in northern China in the 1930s, hidden for decades, and finally analyzed for a trio of research papers in The Innovation, an open-access journal published by Cell Press.

The almost perfectly preserved fossil is the largest skull ever found representing the genus that includes modern humans (Homo sapiens). Based on the skull’s morphology and geochemical dating techniques, researchers say it’s most likely to have come from a male who was about 50 years old when he died 146,000 years ago.

Researchers at Hebei GEO University have nicknamed the ancient individual “Dragon Man” in recognition of its Chinese origins. The species’ scientific name plays off the Chinese word for dragon (“long”) and the region around Harbin City where the fossil was found — Heilongjiang (“Black Dragon River”) province.

The skull could hold a brain comparable in size to ours, but had larger, almost square eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth. “While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species,” study author Qiang Ji, a paleontologist at Hebei GEO University, said in a news release.

Ji and his colleagues say the skull’s peculiarities justify its status as a species that’s distinct from Neanderthals and Denisovans and other extinct human ancestors. They even claim that Homo longi is more similar to humans of the Pleistocene era than those others.

“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species,” said study author Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University. “However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens.”

There’s some question about Dragon Man’s status, however.

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Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.

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GeekWire

OceanGate gets its sub ready for Titanic trips

OceanGate is finally on the brink of beginning its first deep-sea dives to the Titanic, the world’s most famous shipwreck, 11 years after the company was founded.

“I was reading somewhere that most overnight successes usually happen in about the 11th year,” the Everett, Wash.-based venture’s founder and CEO, Stockton Rush, told GeekWire. “So I’m hoping that is the case here.”

Those 11 years haven’t all been about the Titanic: OceanGate has been sending its subs into the depths of waters ranging from Seattle’s Elliott Bay and the Salish Sea to New York’s Hudson Canyon and the Andrea Doria’s resting place off the Massachusetts coast.

But diving down to the fabled ocean liner that sank in the North Atlantic in 1912 has been OceanGate’s focus for the past several years. That’s why the company built the Titan submersible, using titanium and carbon fiber, and then rebuilt it when the first vessel wasn’t deemed strong enough to stand up to the pressure of a 12,500-foot-deep (4,000-meter-deep) dive.

Over the past couple of years, OceanGate also had to cope with Canadian red tape and COVID-19 complications. But now Rush says everything looks shipshape for a convoy of trucks to set out in a week to transport the submersible, its launch platform and other equipment to Newfoundland for staging.