Great ball of fire: Fiery meteor wows Oklahoma and Texas

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Great balls of fire indeed.

Folks from Oklahoma City to Houston reported having seen a fireball shoot across the sky at about 8 p.m. Wednesday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Astronomers said the fiery display was likely caused by a meteor or some other space matter hurtling through the atmosphere.

Texas observers blogged about the show and described it as a blue-green object trailing sparks.

In central Texas, Little River-Academy Police Chief Troy Hess said he had just pulled over a driver when he managed to capture video of the fireball from his cruiser.

"It kept getting bigger, and the color kept changing," he told the Austin American-Statesman.

No damage was reported from the fireball.

It was not clear whether any of the remnants fell to earth. Meteor sightings are common, with most burning up in the atmosphere and leaving scant debris, according to astronomers.

Anita Cochran, assistant director of the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas, told the American-Statesman that Wednesday's fireball was most likely small space debris. 

"The rare case is when it is something big," she said.

"It looked like a sparkler, almost," Lisa Coleman, who lives outside College Station, Texas, told local TV station KBTX.

"There was just this huge meteor-like rock falling across the sky and I thought, 'Wow, that's really huge to be a shooting star,' but it lasted about 12 to 15 seconds and it had a sparkling, flaring tail," Coleman said.

Texas A&M astronomy professor Nicholas Suntzeff told KBTX the meteor was not as huge as it appeared -- probably only about the size of a fist. He attempted to dispel some other meteor myths.

"If they do hit the earth, they are not hot, they are cold. ... There is the fire around them, but ... the meteor itself remains cold," Suntzeff said. "It almost never produces a fire when it hits the earth."

Suntzeff said the type of meteor that residents spotted, likely a bolide meteor, is both bright and rare -- most people will probably never see one again in their lifetime.

"Usually it's just a fraction of a second; here it was like five seconds or so. Again, I've only seen a few of those in my life. I wish I'd seen it," he said.

Another odd fact about this week's fireball: The sighting occurred on the ninth anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia falling to earth over east Texas.

[For the Record, 1:05 p.m., Feb.3: An earlier version of this post -- and its headline -- referred to the meteor as a meteorite. A meteorite is a portion of a meteor that reaches the Earth intact.]


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Video: A Texas police officer's dashboard video camera caught a fiery meteorite streaking across the sky this week. Credit: YouTube

Tim Gunn's 29 years of celibacy: Yes, it's unusual, expert says

Tim Gunn -- the sartorially dapper mentor on "Project Runway," the new co-host of "The Revolution," and an all-around congenial gay guy -- blew the nation's mind this week with his revelation that he hasn't had sex in 29 years. And he's totally OK with it.

Gunn's comments came during an episode of ABC's "The Revolution" -- you can watch it above -- and were greeted with cheers from the audience. 

Today, "Tim Gunn" was one of the mostly widely searched terms on Google, partly because such an admission was shocking even in a world that thrives on TMI.

It also got us thinking: How weird is it to go without sex for 29 years?

Sexual frequency and sexual desires, it turns out, are among the more heavily studied areas of human sexuality. That's because sex drives are kind of like snowflakes or autumn leaves. Everyone's is different, experts say.

And at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether a person is happy with the amount of sex, or lack thereof, in his or her life.

Now that we have that caveat out of the way, Beverly Hills sexuality expert Dr. Jennifer R. Berman told The Times that Gunn's 29-year, self-imposed dry spell was "not a natural state."

If you watch the above video until the end, you'll see Gunn speaking in halting sentences, holding back emotion, as he explains that his decision to remain celibate by choice followed a difficult breakup and is partly "psychological." He cites health, and fear of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.

"Do I feel like less of a person for it? No!" he said. "I am a perfectly happy, fulfilled individual." He said he started his self-imposed celibacy as AIDS began ravaging the gay community, and that he and many other people simply retreated from that danger.

He suggested that he has no regrets, adding as the audience applauded: "I am happy to be healthy and alive, quite frankly."

Berman said that, if she were treating Gunn, she'd like to know: Does he continue to be celibate by choice -- or out of fear? For example, she said, if we lived in a magical world where sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS were not an issue ... would Gunn still abstain from sexual intimacy?

"It's not a natural sort of decision, nor is it biological or physiological -- we are not wired that way," she said. "It sounds like there are issues relating to trust," she added. "There are ways of documenting and proving that people are free from sexually transmitted diseases in a committed relationship."

Gunn's refreshing honesty nonetheless might come as a relief to many, especially for the 15% to 20% of American couples who are reportedly in "no-sex relationships." (That's the statistic cited by Dr. Tiffanie David Henron on ABC's "The Revolution," which in turn led to Gunn's admission.)

Take a spin through this intriguing chart (about heterosexual couples) posted online by the Kinsey Institute for Research in Gender, Sex and Reproduction: It turns out that lots of heterosexual people aren't having sex.

The dating website Your Tango notes that there are plenty of reasons people are celibate by choice -- as is the case with the terribly handsome Gunn, who likely would have no problem finding a suitor to end his dry spell.

One reason, the site says, is because it is empowering. "Choosing celibacy can be an empowering move.... Eliminating sex from your list of concerns opens up a tremendous amount of brain and emotional space that the strategizing, analyzing and agonizing over our sex lives often fills."


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Solar storm causes ionization-related headaches for airlines


A gigantic solar storm occurring on the surface of the sun -- and the torrent of charged plasma particles that it unleashed on Earth -- have been causing headaches for airlines. But relief is on the way, a NASA research scientist says.

The problems began Sunday night when radiation bombarded the Earth within hours of a large explosion on the sun's surface. Spikes in space radiation mean problems for polar flights, Antti Pulkkinen of NASA told The Times on Wednesday.

Delta has rerouted eight transpolar flights, Bloomberg reports, and Qantas and Air Canada also shifted the path of some flights following the solar flare.  Flights diverted included several between cities in the Midwest, such as Detroit, and Asian hubs, according to IB Traveler.

"Energetic charged particles" that make up space radiation "prefer to funnel to our polar regions," said Pulkkinen, who is also an associate professor at the Catholic University of America.  "When particles funnel to polar regions, they hit molecules in the Earth's upper atmosphere and cause so-called ionization."

That extra ionization "degrades" high-frequency radio, Pulkkinen said, which airlines use to communicate in the region.

The last solar storm of this magnitude occurred in 2005.  But a period of peak solar activity is approaching next year, so huge solar storms will become even more frequent.

"As we ramp up to the solar maximum next year, this sort of storm will become normal,"  Doug Biesecker, a physicist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., told The Times' Amina Khan.

But as for this storm, "space radiation levels are already rapidly declining," Pulkkinen said, "and the polar upper atmosphere is expected to recover within the next day or two."

Calls to Delta representatives on Thursday morning were not immediately returned.


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Stem cell scheme: Alleged plot targeted the terminally ill

Three men have been arrested and a fourth is being sought by the FBI in connection with what investigators say was a $1.5-million Texas-based scheme to illegally market and sell stem cell treatments to patients with terminal diseases.

"Protecting the public from unproven and potentially dangerous drug and medical procedures is very important," said Kenneth Magidson, U.S. attorney for the Houston-based southern district of Texas, in an online statement. "This office will continue to prosecute violations involving threats to the public health."

The men were arrested over the last 10 days based on two indictments issued in November charging all four with 39 counts of mail fraud and unlawfully manufacturing, distributing and selling stem cells and stem cell procedures not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the statement.

“This indictment demonstrates the commitment of the FDA to protect the American public from the harms inherent in being exposed to unapproved new drugs,” said Patrick J. Holland, special agent in charge of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, according to the statement. “The FDA will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators of such acts and ensure that they are punished to the full extent of the law.”

One of the four, Vincent Dammai, 40, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., was a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina who allegedly used university facilities to create stem cells without obtaining permission from the FDA.

Another, Francisco Morales, 52, of Brownsville, Texas, is charged with falsely claiming to be a medical doctor who operated a Brownsville clinic specializing in using stem cells to treat "incurable diseases." From 2007 into 2010, the statement said, Morales took patients across the border into Mexico for stem cell treatments that had not been reviewed or approved by the FDA.

Also charged is Alberto Ramon, 48, of Del Rio, Texas, a licensed midwife who allegedly obtained umbilical cord blood to create stem cells from his patients at a local maternity clinic. The blood was sold to a company in Scottsdale, Ariz., which then sent the tissue to Dammai, according to the statement.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of a fourth man, Lawrence Stowe, 58, of Dallas. The indictment charges that Stowe, who sometimes referred to himself as "Dr. Larry Stowe," "marketed, promoted, and sold stem cells" for the treatment of several diseases through front companies, including the nonprofit Stowe Foundation, apparently founded in 2003.

On the foundation’s website, Stowe is pictured and described as a “dedicated scientist and tireless researcher… an expert of international respect in the science and technology of comprehensive immune therapy” who received a doctoral degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois, worked at Mobil Oil Research and Development and continues to work as an international consultant.

“He, his staff and research associates, equally talented and dedicated specialists and medical technology professionals, have long been involved in development of adult stem cell transplants for Regenerative Medicine, cancer vaccines, biologic response modifiers and therapeutic energy technologies, as well as the comprehensive protocols for treating autoimmune diseases,” the website says, adding that Stowe, “has led the way in validating the power of the immune system to heal the body and bring the science of immune therapy to the forefront of medical practice.”

When CBS' "60 Minutes" profiled Stowe in 2010, it interviewed a patient who said Stowe told him his stem cell therapy could cure him of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. There is no known cure for the disease.


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Alaska's Cleveland Volcano sends cloud of ash across Aleutians

Cleveland volcano photo
An eruption at Cleveland Volcano in Alaska's Aleutian Islands sent a cloud of ash 15,000 feet into the air Thursday, prompting a warning to aviation traffic. But the cloud had mostly dissipated by Friday morning.
The smoking crater remained on "watch" status, however, with officials at the Alaska Volcano Observatory watching for the possibility of another eruption. A lava dome has been rising in the 5,676-foot peak and sending off warning signs since July.

"There is concern that Cleveland is a very, very active volcano. It has been very active over the past year, as well as over the past 10 years, so we are concerned that this type of activity could be repeated," John Power, scientist in charge for the U.S. Geological Survey at the observatory, told the Los Angeles Times.

Thursday's eruption and the drifting cloud of ash that followed it presented a threat to local aviation traffic in the Aleutians, which are home to one of the nation's busiest fishing ports, but the cloud did not reach high enough to imperil major commercial jet traffic, which typically flies above 25,000 feet.

Cleveland's most significant recent eruption, in 2001, sent ash clouds soaring up to 39,000 feet, along with a rubbly lava flow and hot avalanche that reached the sea, according to the observatory's report on its website.

"More sudden explosions producing ash could occur with plumes exceeding 20,000 feet above sea level. Such explosions and their associated ash clouds may go undetected in satellite imagery for hours," the report warned.

Cleveland has historically been hard to monitor; it lies on uninhabited Chuginadak Island more than 900 miles southwest of Anchorage, and scientists have no ground instrumentation, such as seismometers or global positioning system equipment, to gather detailed data.

The nearest community, Nikolski, about 45 miles to the east with a permanent resident population of 18, was not considered threatened.

Power said USGS officials are waiting to gather additional satellite imagery before officially downgrading the volcano's current "orange-watch" status.


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Photo: Cleveland Volcano is too remote to photograph regularly, but scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flew by and photographed an eruption in August. Credit: Kym Yano / NOAA


Biology test omits creation theory, complains Kentucky educator

The whole Darwin thing can still be a tad controversial in Kentucky, a state that hosts a high-tech, Bible-centered, natural-history-style museum that asserts that the Earth is roughly 6,000 years old.

In Hart County, about an hour and 20 minutes south of Louisville, the local school superintendent is now expressing his frustration that a new state biology test is, in his opinion, treating evolution as a fact, rather than a theory.

He also charges that the test is omitting the "creation story" that cites God as the originator of the universe.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's Jim Warren reported Tuesday that Superintendent Ricky D. Line raised the objections in emails and letters to the state education commissioner and education board.

"I have a very difficult time believing that we have come to a point ... that we are teaching evolution ... as a factual occurrence, while totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us," he wrote, according to the newspaper. "My feeling is if the Commonwealth's site-based councils, school board members, superintendents and parents were questioned ... one would find this teaching contradictory to the majority's belief systems."

He may not be too far off-base with that last bit. Supporters of teaching evolution agree that many Americans have a hard time getting their heads around what Charles Darwin called his "dangerous idea."

"Overall, the nation has a big problem," Dr. Brian Alters, a professor and author of the book "Evolution in the Classroom," said in a National Institutes of Health newsletter in 2006. "Approximately half of the U.S. population thinks evolution does (or did) not occur. While 99.9% of scientists accept evolution, 40% to 50% of college students do not accept evolution and believe it to be 'just' a theory."

Terry Holliday, the state education commissioner, said the state biology test would deal with evolution as theory, not fact. Warren noted that teachers in Kentucky may discuss theories of creation other than evolution, but are not required to do so.

The test in question is one of a number of end-of-course exams mandated in a 2009 statewide educational reform package. Line was specifically concerned about a "blueprint" for the test which delineates the subject matters that would be covered in the biology test.

Teachers in his district apparently told him they would have to spend a significant amount of time on evolution in order to adequately prepare students for the test.

The superintendent remained defiantly skeptical in the face of scientific consensus, noting that it was "interesting that the great majority of scientists felt Pluto was a planet until a short time ago, and now they have totally changed that."


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Photo: A 2007 scene from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. Credit: Thomas E. Witte / For The Times

Geminid meteor shower to peak on Tuesday


December is known for gift-giving, and the heavens will do their part this week with the Geminid meteor shower.

The usually fiery Geminid shower, expected to peak Tuesday night, is an annual event rivaling the summer’s Perseid meteor shower. If it's a clear night with sharp contrast between light and dark, viewers can expect to see dozens and perhaps as many as 120 meteors stream across the sky in an hour. The Geminid shower is considered one of the strongest such events in the astronomical year.

But there is an unbearable being of lightness when it comes to meteors. And, this year, a bright moon could disappoint meteor-lovers by obscuring the flaming debris.

In a potential consolation prize, NASA is offering a live chat with meteor experts that evening, complete with images.

The Geminids draw their name from the constellation Gemini because the meteors seem to be coming directly out of those stars. But there's a bit of a mystery attached to the phenomenon, NASA says.

Most meteors are pieces of comets, essentially ice balls with dust, rocks and other types of space debris.

Comets, which sport fiery tails, sweep across the sky and appear to be shooting stars, just like meteors. They usually form in two areas of the solar system: in the Kuiper belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune, and -- even further away from the sun -- in the Oort cloud, sort of a parking lot for icy bodies in the outer solar system.

But the Geminds are believed to be pieces of a specific asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which sheds bits of dusty debris. Asteroids, or planetoids of small size, orbit the sun and don’t have tails as do comets. Further, Phaethon orbits closer to the sun than any other known asteroid, coming well inside Mercury's orbit.


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Photo: The enjoyment of a meteor shower depends heavily upon the amount of light in the sky. Shown here is the Leonids meteor shower in 2001 as seen from Tucson, Ariz. Credit: James S. Wood / Arizona Daily Star / Associated Press

New Mexico 'Occupy' protesters: The 99% who love chile

Green chile
The Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired folks from Atlanta to Alaska. But the most unusual might be an offshoot in New Mexico that targets food production instead of finance.

Introducing Occupy Green/Red Chile.

New Mexico culture and cuisine owes a fair amount to New Mexico's chile, the spicy red and green pepper that locals add to just about everything. (Please don’t insult it with the spelling “chili.” That’s so ... Texas.)

In the last two decades, the number of acres of chile grown in New Mexico has dropped 75%, the Associated Press reports. That’s partly due to restaurateurs and grocers turning to less expensive peppers from Mexico and Asia.

Now, with scientists at New Mexico State University studying the genetic makeup of the red and green peppers, some folks fear an onslaught of scientifically tweaked chile.

They say peppers altered to grow taller and to better withstand disease could hurt small growers, though chile industry experts have said that’s unlikely. The protesters’ fears also play into an ongoing debate about the safety of genetically modified food. 

So last weekend, Occupy Green/Red Chile members gathered in Albuquerque, KRQE-TV reported, and marched through downtown in bone-chilling temperatures. Their signs demanded “No poison in our green chile” and, in a nod to the protest's origins, “Don't let big corporations steal our state pride.”


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Photo: A green chile is picked during one of New Mexico's earliest harvests. Credit: Norman Martin / New Mexico State University

John Wayne Gacy victim is identified -- 35 years after death

John Wayne Gacy was executed for murdering 33 men and boys in the 1970s and then hiding their remains in and around his Chicago-area home. But eight of the victims were never identified.

Make that seven.

Authorities announced Tuesday that they had identified the remains of one of the bodies found in a crawlspace on Gacy's property as William George Bundy, who was 19 when he vanished in October 1976 on his way to a party.

Bundy's family had long suspected that he had been one of Gacy's victims. Bundy's younger sister, Laura O'Leary, attended the news conference held Tuesday by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to announce the findings. O'Leary said her brother had been working construction jobs before he disappeared, and she noted that Gacy was known to lure victims looking for work through his remodeling and construction company.

"I always knew he was going to be one of them," she said. "But there was no DNA [testing] back then, so there was nothing I could really do."

The Chicago Tribune reported that O'Leary, now 50, had "a sad smile" on her face as she thanked Dart for his decision to revisit the Gacy case using new DNA technology. That decision, Dart said, was made to provide some measure of closure to relatives who have wondered for decades whether their loved ones fell prey to Gacy.

"All of my girlfriends wanted to date him," O'Leary said of her brother, whom she described as a gregarious young man who excelled at sports, the newspaper reported. She said her brother's disappearance took a horrible toll on her parents, who have both since passed away. "My mother, she was really never the same," O'Leary said.

Gacy is believed to have sexually assaulted many of his victims, strangling all but one of them. His reputation as one of the nation's most notorious serial killers was solidified after his penchant for dressing up as a clown and performing at children's parties and charity events became widely known.

While imprisoned, Gacy took up painting. The Miami New Times may have best described his work, calling it "nightmare fuel." Gacy's oeuvre included self-portraits, images of Jesus Christ, and, of course, scores of clowns.

Gacy was executed by lethal injection in 1994.


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Vegas-area park hits its own jackpot: dinosaur tracks

Vegas dinosaur
Hundreds of thousands of people tromp through Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas each year. How did they miss the dinosaur tracks?

Federal paleontologists announced this week the discovery of Nevada’s first formally documented set of dinosaur tracks, which were recently found by some volunteers in the conservation area’s fire-colored Aztec sandstone.

The dozens of prints likely belong to two-footed, three-toed carnivorous dinosaurs that were maybe 3 feet long, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. They are roughly 190 million years old, a near-incomprehensible age in a city where decades-old casinos are treated as relics.

“For those tracks to lie buried for tens of millions years and then be lifted and exposed by erosion at just the right time to be spotted by humans is about the least likely chance encounter imaginable,” the paper said.

There are several possible reasons why so many visitors bypassed the tracks. First, they’re hard to find. You’d need to complete a difficult two-hour hike, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which runs Red Rock and hasn’t yet revealed the tracks’ exact location.

Second, the tracks are each less than six inches long and, judging from photos on the R-J website, no more distinctive than other ripples and scuffs in the conservation area, a popular destination for hikers and rock climbers.

Also, Nevada has never been a hotbed of dinosaur discoveries.

"People don't think about dinosaurs in Nevada and if you don't think about finding dinosaurs in Nevada, you don't think about bones or footprints," paleontologist Brent Breithaupt told the Associated Press. “It's possible that people have wandered by this area and not known what they were looking at beneath their feet.”


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Photo: A climber in Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, where dinosaur tracks were recently found. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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