What Is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Actually Looking For?

Four antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: ESO

Four antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: ESO

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) last week got a $100 million dollar shot in the arm from the wealthy, Russian Silicon Valley entrepreneur Yuri Milner.

At the London launch of this new project, dubbed Breakthrough Listen, Stephen Hawking made some inspiring observations:

To understand the universe, you must know about atoms — about the forces that bind them, the contours of space and time, the birth and death of stars, the dance of galaxies, the secrets of black holes.

But that is not enough. These ideas cannot explain everything. They can explain the light of stars, but not the lights that shine from planet Earth. To understand these lights, you must know about life, about minds.

Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos – unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the universe discovered its existence.

Either way, there is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer – to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough initiatives are making that commitment. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Five of the Most Bizarre Fossil Discoveries of All Time

By Liam Herringshaw, University of Hull | July 27, 2015 3:54 pm

fossil dig

From trilobites to tyrannosaurs, most fossils are of creatures with hard shells or bones. These materials don’t easily biodegrade and sediment has time to build up around them and turn them into a record of the creature that is still with us millions of years after it has died. Soft-bodied organisms like worms, on the other hand, decay rapidly and their fossil record is decidedly patchy.

In exceptional circumstances, however, their remains are preserved and sometimes in the most unusual places. With the right detective skills, paleontologists can use such discoveries to open up whole new windows on the history of life on Earth. A recent discovery found in 50-million-year-old rocks from Antarctica has yielded a particularly incredible example: fossilized worm sperm.

It’s a great reminder that there are far stranger fossils out there than dinosaur bones. Here are some of the most bizarre specimens ever found.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology

Beyond Graphene, a Zoo of New 2-D Materials Are Being Created

By Andy Berger | July 17, 2015 10:00 am
Two alternately stacked layers of hexagonal boron nitride.

Two alternately stacked layers of hexagonal boron nitride.

Nine years ago, Joshua Robinson was approached by his then-advisor with news of a discovery that would end up transforming his career, and much of materials science. “I saw this crazy talk about 2-D graphite,” he recalls his adviser saying.

He was referring of course to graphene, the first material to exist as truly two-dimensional: only a single atom thick. Back in 2006, the physics community was just beginning to wrap its mind around how a 2-D material could even exist.

Fast forward to 2015. The realization that materials can be thinned down to the absolute limit of a single atom is spreading, both throughout the world and across the periodic table. Researchers are learning that 2-D isn’t just for the carbon atoms of graphene. Different elemental combinations can lead to fascinating new science and applications.

Robinson is now associate director for Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Two-Dimensional and Layered Materials, a center with 20 faculty and over 50 students dedicated to uncovering the fundamental properties of this new zoo of 2-D materials. It is one of many such centers around the world. And as scientists continue to create new 2-D materials there’s a palpable frenzy to characterize their surprising electronic, optical, and mechanical properties.

The excitement stems from the fact that materials shaved down to only a few atoms act very differently from their so-called “bulk” or 3-D version. Quantum effects begin to take hold as the electrons in the material are squeezed into that impossibly thin layer.

And, being flexible, 2-D materials could bring those unique electrical properties to all sorts of new applications – from bendable touch screens to wearable sensors.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: materials science

Why the Data Deluge Leaves Us Struggling to Make Up Our Minds

By Rikke Duus and Mike Cooray | July 16, 2015 5:04 pm

data deluge

We make a huge number of decisions every day. When it comes to eating, for example, we make 200 more decisions than we’re consciously aware of every day. How is this possible? Because, as Daniel Kahneman has explained, while we’d like to think our decisions are rational, in fact many are driven by gut feel and intuition. The ability to reach a decision based on what we know and what we expect is an inherently human characteristic.

The problem we face now is that we have too many decisions to make every day, leading to decision fatigue – we find the act of making our own decisions exhausting. Even more so than simply deliberate different options or being told by others what to do.

Why not allow technology to ease the burden of decision-making? The latest smart technologies are designed to monitor and learn from our behavior, physical performance, work productivity levels and energy use. This is what has been called Era Three of Automation – when machine intelligence becomes faster and more reliable than humans at making decisions.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

How Astronomers Will Find Earth 2.0

By Sarah Scoles | July 16, 2015 4:34 pm

earth sun

While self-aware humans have long wondered whether Earth is the only place like itself, we — and our technology — are finally advanced enough to answer that question. And with that power, astronomy’s quest du jour is to find habitable (and potentially inhabited) Earth-esque planets.

To discover biology from afar, scientists peer into planets’ atmospheres in search of evidence that something on their surfaces breathes and metabolizes. But planets are small (cosmically speaking) and far away, and their stars outshine them. Because of that latter problem, astrobiologists currently favor focusing on worlds orbiting small, dim red dwarf stars. Their meager light still nearly blinds us to their planets’ atmospheres, but visibility is better than it would be near a star like the sun.

But it’s not just the star that matters – it’s the other planets too. Astronomers have generally been looking for solar systems like ours, the only inhabited one we know of. That is to say, tidy solar systems where the planets have regular orbits in a flat disk.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

The Needle-Free Future of Medicine

By Kiona Smith-Strickland | July 13, 2015 3:45 pm

doctor with needle

If you’re afraid of needles, here’s some good news: you may not always be stuck with getting shots.

At present, injections are the best way to deliver certain kinds of drugs. For example, vaccines and drugs like insulin are made of large molecules that you can’t take orally because they would break down in your digestive tract. Some antibiotic and antiviral medications are also given as injections for this reason.

But needles suck. About 10 percent of patients who need regular injections don’t comply with their doctors’ instructions, according to 3M, partly because self-administering injections is difficult and painful. And injectable drugs are a hassle, too: they have to be stored at cold temperatures and have a limited shelf life.

That’s why biotech companies around the world are working on needle-free ways to deliver these drugs, with everything from high-tech pills to simple do-it-yourself patches.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: medical technology

The Sixth Sense You Didn’t Know You Had

By Juliette McGregor, University of Leicester | July 1, 2015 12:59 pm

eyes

Ever fancied having a superpower? Something you can call upon when you need it, to hand you extra information about the world? OK, it’s not X-ray vision, but your eyes do have abilities that you might not be aware of.

We are all familiar with color and brightness, but there is a third property of light: “polarization,” which tells us the orientation in which light waves are oscillating. Animals, like bees and ants, use the polarization patterns in the sky as a navigation aid. But few people, even in the scientific community, are aware that humans can sense the polarization of light with the naked eye.

In research we’ve just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, we used an experiment that was originally designed to test the visual abilities of octopuses and cuttlefish to investigate our human ability to perceive this polarized light.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: senses

Falling Into a Black Hole Might Turn You Into a Hologram

By Marika Taylor, University of Southampton | June 25, 2015 10:16 am

black hole

Many scientists believe that anything sent into a black hole would probably be destroyed. But a new study suggests that this might not be the case after all.

The research says that, rather than being devoured, a person falling into a black hole would actually be absorbed into a hologram – without even noticing. The paper challenges a rival theory stating that anybody falling into a black hole hits a “firewall” and is immediately destroyed.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: black hole

Grown Adults, Stop Drinking Breast Milk. Seriously.

By Sarah Steele and Andreas Freitag | June 22, 2015 4:05 pm

man drinking milk

“Breast is best”. So goes the message from the international and clinical guidance on what milk mothers should feed their babies. But it’s also more worryingly been adopted by a growing online community of adults wanting to buy and consume expressed breast milk for its perceived health benefits – or due to sexual fetishes.

Some online forums suggest cancer patients should drink breast milk because it is supposedly easier to digest, better tolerated, and full of immune benefits, including immunoglobulin (a protein used by the immune system). Meanwhile, fitness and diet forums preach the nutritional, energy or recovery benefits of such milk, suggesting it can work as a supplement to workout or bulking regimes.

A number of websites and online forums cater to those wishing to buy, sell and trade breast milk, alongside the use of more general social media platforms. This online marketplace allows women who are expressing milk to advertise with text and images, communicating details such as cost per ounce and a description of mother, milk and baby. Buyers can also advertise on such forums, detailing their own needs and volume requirements.

Individuals can then contact each other either to meet or arrange transport for the milk, which is often frozen or packed in dry ice, and shipped by express post or courier. Notably, the quality of packaging greatly varies, and studies have shown high levels of damage in transit.

The popularity of these sites varies by country depending on the availability of government-subsidized milk banks. But in the US, where regulated milk banks are costly, and the UK, where adult buyers are not catered for, online selling communities have been growing. New country-specific websites are now being launched, including using .co.uk addresses. Such growth has led commentators to label online breast milk sale a “booming market” around the world.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: nutrition

Early Humans Became More Feminine, Which Led to the Birth of Culture

By Mark Maslin, UCL | June 22, 2015 10:43 am

homo sapiens skull

I have always wondered why our species Homo sapiens, that evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago, seemed to do nothing special for the first 150,000 years. Because it is not until about 50,000 years ago that the first sign of creative thinking emerged with beautiful cave paintings found in Spain, France and Indonesia.

Around the same time a new sub-species referred to as anatomically modern humans or Homo sapiens sapiens appears. Anatomically modern humans were more slender than their earlier ancestors; they had less hair, smaller skulls. They looked basically like us.

But these changes weren’t just cosmetic. Two recent papers throw some light on how the revolutionary development of smaller and more fine-boned humans influenced the growth of cooperative culture, the birth of agriculture and human dominance of the planet.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: human origins
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