I'm sitting in a comfy chair watching the Olympics, while a small dinosaur perches on my shoulder and tries to eat my earring.
The 'dinosaur' in question is actually a young cockatiel and the newest member of the family. He's a noisy and rambunctious little guy, always on the move and poking his nose into everything. Across the room Number One Bird is keeping a wary eye on things. He's 25 years old, which is very old for a cockatiel, and set in his ways. When the youngster gets a little too crazy, he'll hiss a loud 'hello!' in our direction (and exhaust his entire vocabulary). Context is everything with him, and in this case I'm pretty sure 'hello' means 'knock it off over there'. On the other hand it's all entertainment to Number Two Bird; he gets into the spirit of things with the occasional wolf whistle, which I think means 'duuuude!’
The excitement never ends around here.
Citius. Altius. Fortius.
Right now the baby is busy exploring. He's extremely curious but a bit cautious. If I give him a new toy to play with, he'll sidle up to it backwards and then run away; after several minutes of back and forth, he'll grab the toy with his beak, and if it doesn't grab back he's good to go. He went through this routine with his new play stand a couple weeks ago, and after he'd finally worked up the nerve to climb onto it, he sat on the top, spread his wings, and let out a triumphant squawk. (Any resemblance to victorious Olympic athletes is surely coincidental.) One skill he hasn't mastered yet, though, is flying. He came home from the pet store with his wings clipped, which seriously hampers his ability to stay airborne, but despite this he still thinks he can fly and tries to do so at every opportunity. Motto: 'A bird's gotta do what a bird's gotta do'. This bird's gotta fly, or at least flap madly until he runs into something.
The resulting crash landing earns him a few nasty hello's, a wolf whistle and a cry of distress from the resident human who's sure he's trying to kill himself. After each failed attempt he scrambles up my arm and onto my shoulder, where he glues himself to my neck and hides under my hair. Corollary: 'When things go wrong, run to Mom'.
Meanwhile Back in the Late Jurassic...
Dinosaurs gotta fly, too, according to the latest news from Nature magazine. Ever since scientists uncovered the 147-million-year-old fossilised remains of Archaeopteryx, they've been debating whether or not this link between the dinosaurs and modern birds could actually fly. The answer, according to Timothy B. Rowe of the University of Texas at Austin, is yes. Unlike previous researchers who looked at bone and feather structures, Rowe and his colleagues used x-ray images of Archaeopteryx's skull to study the size and structure of its brain case, and they discovered that this primitive bird's brain was smaller than that of modern birds of the same size, but larger than that of reptiles. Its brain also had the enlarged visual centre and inner-ear canals resembling those of flying birds, giving it the excellent vision and balance necessary for flying. Scientists are excited, because the findings mean that proto-birds developed flight a lot earlier than they'd previously suspected. Rowe's work also supports the idea that flight requires both 'hardware' (feathers and the proper bone structure) and 'software' (brain power). Perhaps the term 'bird brain' is not the insult we thought it was.
So while the small, shrew-like archaic mammals that eventually gave rise to humans cowered in the underbrush, the cockatiels' ancestors owned the skies. I haven't shared this information with my three yet. They're already inclined to get above themselves, and Number One views me as something of an indentured servant, so it's best not to give them ideas.
Citius, Altius Redux
Man's lack of wings has never stopped him from trying to make like a bird. Among the many myths of Greece, the host country of the current Olympiad, was that of Icarus, who was big on vision and sadly short on engineering skills and good judgement. (He also didn't listen to his father, a point that our teachers liked to drive home.) But persistence counts for a lot, and 100 years ago last December, Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the skies, and humans have never looked back. In the US we celebrate Orville Wright's birthday on 19th August by designating that date National Aviation Day.
We're observing Aviation Day this year by flying higher and faster than ever. As I write this, teams in several countries are busting their humps to win the Ansari X Prize, a cool $10 million that will be awarded to the first team that successfully sends a re-usable spacecraft carrying the weight of three passengers into suborbital space1 twice within a two-week period. Right now the leading candidate is the team from Scaled Composites, which made history two months ago when they successfully tested their SpaceShipOne space craft, its pilot becoming the first civilian astronaut. Despite some technical difficulties during the flight, the Scaled Composites team feels confident enough that they announced plans to make its first official attempt at the Prize on 29th September.
A couple weeks ago the race heated up when the Toronto-based da Vinci Project announced a 2 October launch date for their Wild Fire space craft. (Alarmingly, their spokesman said that the flight may be their craft's maiden voyage.) And over this past weekend, the backers of the Canadian Arrow team watched a successful parachute drop test of a crew capsule, moving them one step closer to a test flight.
Other teams have found the ride a bit bumpier. One rocket failed when one of the craft's motors exploded just seconds into its maiden flight. Debris from the explosion, including the dummy pilot's head , rained down on the beach and Pacific Ocean below. And in another mishap, a rocket built by Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace got off to a flying, albeit brief, start. The rocket, financed by videogame programmer John Carmack (who made his fortune with the game Doom), rose to a height of about 600 feet/200 metres, at which point it ran out of fuel and crashed. (Afterwards Carmack quipped that it was a good thing that Doom was selling well.) Icarus and the Wright Brothers would probably have found the setbacks very familiar.
Even so, space tourism is taking a big step toward becoming reality. Scaled Composites' chief engineer, Burt Rutan, thinks that it is just a few years away. Initially the flights will be affordable for the well-heeled only, but he believes that in about 15 years passengers will make brief forays into space at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 per person, with prices eventually dropping to $10,000 to $12,000 each. While that's not inexpensive, such flights will be within reach for many people. At that point space tourism will be as common as hopping on an airplane is today, which is so cool I just can't see straight.
Or as Number Two bird says: 'Duuuude!'
- You can keep up with news on the X Prize race though Google's news alert. Just enter 'Ansari X Prize' in the News Search box, tell Google how often you want news and where to send it, and you're good to go.
- Read more about the latest findings on Archaeopteryx at the Nature Web site.