This Week’s “Planet Earth Report” –How America Lost Its Mind, What If China Makes 1st Alien Contact to Mystery Object Beneath Antarctica



This week's link to 10 headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet –along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two.


“How America Lost Its Mind”




Kurt Andersen’s cover story “How America Lost Its Mind” argues that “being American means we can believe anything we want.” This is due to a combination of the new-age mentality born out of the 1960s that encouraged Americans to find their own truth and the internet age, which has allowed us to create communities that reinforce our beliefs. According to Andersen, the perfect manifestation of America’s journey away from reality is the election of Donald Trump.





Could Octopus DNA Reveal the Secrets of West Antarctica’s Ice Sheet Collapse?

Understanding what happened to the ice sheet will be key to knowing what the future holds for global sea levels

There are a lot of scientific eyes on west Antarctica right now, for some pretty obvious reasons.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) holds a lot of water – enough to push up sea levels around the world by 3m or so. Even though this sort of melting would play out over century-long time scales, getting a handle on how much melting there would be, and how fast it could happen, are big questions with big consequences.

Hundreds of millions of people living around coasts and cities around the globe might be interested in the answer, as would cartographers who would need to be redrawing maps of the world

Deep underneath the ice in west Antarctica is a break in the continental landmass – a seaway that links the Weddell Sea to the north with the Amundsen Sea to the south. About 120,000 years ago, the Earth was in an interglacial period with temperatures comparable to the 2C of warming that countries who are part of the UN’s Paris agreement (everyone but the US) are all trying to avoid.

But scientists are unsure if enough ice melted during the last interglacial (LIG) to expose that trans-Antarctic seaway. But, if they could find some clues, then this would give them vital information about the fate of the world’s sea levels.

This is where octopuses come in or, more specifically, what evolutionary biologist Jan Strugnell thinks she could find out using octopus DNA.

Associate Prof Strugnell, of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, describes an ingenious plan in a scientific paper published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, co-written by Joel Pedro of the University of Copenhagen and Nerida Wilson of the Western Australian Museum. Strugnell writes that by examining the DNA of some bottom-dwelling animals currently living around the entire Antarctic continent, you can work out if the ancestors of those species were able to move through that trans-Antarctic seaway. 

Image with thanks to

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Why People Think Facebook is Secretly Listening to You


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Although the company has repeatedly denied it over the years, some remain convinced that Facebook is listening to their conversations. This issue stems from the fact that sometimes, the company’s targeted ads are good. A little too good.

“My fiancee and I both had wedding ads the day after we got engaged, before we had told anyone,” Nate from Springfield told the BBC. “And even two weeks ago my fiance and I went to a friend’s and drank a certain kind of liquor neither of us had ever bought or talked about on the phone, and the next morning it was the first ad Facebook showed her.”

The mundane truth, though, is that data can throw up some surprisingly accurate suggestions, and Facebook is probably just really good at targeting ads.

The company has denied that it uses audio to target ads before, releasing a statement in June 2016 that said it only used the microphone “if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio.”

Facebook uses a number of tools to suggest ads to its users. One of these is location targeting, which means a business can tell the app to trigger an ad when the user is nearby. This can be done via GPS, which will offer a more precise location, or through your computer’s IP address that shows general geographic location. It can also use information from where you’ve checked in on Instagram. Users can opt out of this data sharing, and many others, through the Ads Preferences page.

Around the web, users are often greeted for ads showing products they’ve been looking at on other websites. This system, called “retargeting,” follows users around and shows them products based on their tracking information. Websites can use a Facebook pixel to follow you around and target ads to your account.

A feature that’s perhaps rather more invasive is Facebook’s offline ad tracking. As an example, a real estate business can take their information about people that have called up to view a house, and use that information to show them ads about houses that are currently on the market. They can then use this information to build up a model of an ideal customer, and use that to target you even when you haven’t called up.

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Either Stars are Strange, or 234 Alien Species Are Trying to Contact Us



We all want there to be aliens. Green ones, pink ones, brown ones, Greys. Or maybe Vulcans, Klingons, even a being of pure energy. Any type will do. That’s why whenever a mysterious signal or energetic fluctuation arrives from somewhere in the cosmos and hits one of our many telescopes, headlines erupt across the media: “Have We Finally Detected An Alien Signal?” or “Have Astronomers Discovered An Alien Megastructure?” But science-minded people know that we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves.

Skepticism still rules the day when it comes to these headlines, and the events that spawn them. That’s the way it should be, because we’ve always found a more prosaic reason for whatever signal from space we’re talking about. But, being skeptical is a balancing act; it doesn’t mean being dismissive.

What we’re talking about here is a study from E.F. Borra and E. Trottier, two astronomers at Laval University in Canada. Their study, titled “Discovery of peculiar periodic spectral modulations in a small fraction of solar type stars” was published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

The two astronomers used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and analyzed the spectra of 2.5 million stars. Of all those stars, they found 234 stars that are producing a puzzling signal. That’s only a tiny percentage. And, they say, these signals “have exactly the shape of an ETI signal” that was predicted in a previous study by Borra.

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What Happens If China Makes First Contact?



As America has turned away from searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, China has built the world’s largest radio dish for precisely that purpose. What Happens If China Makes First Contact? Last january, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that Liu was invited to see the dish. He has an outsize voice on cosmic affairs in China, and the government’s aerospace agency sometimes asks him to consult on science missions. Liu is the patriarch of the country’s science-fiction scene. Other Chinese writers I met attached the honorific Da, meaning “Big,” to his surname. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the dish’s construction, along with notes saying how he’d inspired their work.

But in other ways Liu is a strange choice to visit the dish. He has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. He has warned that the “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”

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Inside the Race to Hack the Human Brain



In an ordinary hospital room in Los Angeles, a young woman named Lauren Dickerson waits for her chance to make history. She’s 25 years old, a teacher’s assistant in a middle school, with warm eyes and computer cables emerging like futuristic dreadlocks from the bandages wrapped around her head. Three days earlier, a neurosurgeon drilled 11 holes through her skull, slid 11 wires the size of spaghetti into her brain, and connected the wires to a bank of computers. Now she’s caged in by bed rails, with plastic tubes snaking up her arm and medical monitors tracking her vital signs. She tries not to move.

The room is packed. As a film crew prepares to document the day’s events, two separate teams of specialists get ready to work—medical experts from an elite neuroscience center at the University of Southern California and scientists from a technology company called Kernel. The medical team is looking for a way to treat Dickerson’s seizures, which an elaborate regimen of epilepsy drugs controlled well enough until last year, when their effects began to dull. They’re going to use the wires to search Dickerson’s brain for the source of her seizures.

The scientists from Kernel are there for a different reason: They work for Bryan Johnson, a 40-year-old tech entrepreneur who sold his business for $800 million and decided to pursue an insanely ambitious dream—he wants to take control of evolution and create a better human. He intends to do this by building a “neuroprosthesis,” a device that will allow us to learn faster, remember more, “coevolve” with artificial intelligence, unlock the secrets of telepathy, and maybe even connect into group minds. He’d also like to find a way to download skills such as martial arts, Matrix-style. And he wants to sell this invention at mass-market prices so it’s not an elite product for the rich.

Right now all he has is an algorithm on a hard drive. When he describes the neuroprosthesis to reporters and conference audiences, he often uses the media-friendly expression “a chip in the brain,” but he knows he’ll never sell a mass-market product that depends on drilling holes in people’s skulls.

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China Unveils Next-Generation Nuclear Missile That Can Strike ‘Anywhere in the World’


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China has revealed its awe-inspiring next-generation nuclear weapon, capable of carrying 10 individual warheads and said to be able to strike anywhere. The US wants to stay in front of China with hypersonic weapons able to travel at five-times the speed of sound and destroy targets with a "kinetic energy" warhead.

The Air Force is aggressively accelerating its hypersonic weapons development effort, following findings from a recent service report identifying Russian and Chinese ongoing hypersonic weapons testing.

A recent Air Force Studies Board report identified that the U.S. is not alone in its quest for this increased speed, an Air Force statement said. The statement went on to say that China and Russia are already flight testing hypersonic weapons, and several other countries have shown interest in pursuing many of the underlying technologies for hypersonic flight.

“We must push the boundaries of technology in every area," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in a statement. "Our adversaries aren’t standing still. They are looking for every advantage they can get.” (Air Force Story HERE)

While expressing growing concern about Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons progress, US developers have been progressing with hypersonic flight and hypersonic weapons possibilities for several years.

Describing the trajectory of hypersonic technology in terms of “stair steps,” Air Force Chief Scientist Geoffrey Zacharias said incremental progress will require decades of continued technological development.

While unmanned hypersonic surveillance flight is on track for the 2030s, launching recoverable hypersonic drones is not expected be possible until the 2040s, Zacharias said in an interview with Scout Warrior.

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Tiny Aliens May Ride Clouds of 'Space Dust' Between Planets

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New research suggests particles colliding with our atmosphere may bring life to Earth and send microscopic earthlings elsewhere. For years we've imagined ways that humans and other, more alien forms of life might galavant around the cosmos, hopping from world to world in fancy, sleek spaceships. But new research suggests that some smaller life-forms might be able to travel across star systems using much simpler means: namely, a cloud of speeding space dust.

Researcher Arjun Berera from the University of Edinburgh examined how fast-moving flows of space dust that are constantly colliding with Earth's atmosphere might be harboring tiny stowaways.

"The streaming of fast space dust is found throughout planetary systems and could be a common factor in proliferating life," Berera explained in a news release Monday.

Flows of space dust can travel at speeds up to 43 miles per second (70 km per second). Berera's calculations found that when incoming grit collides with our planet's atmosphere, the impact could knock small particles in our upper atmosphere beyond the pull of Earth's gravity, possibly sending it on a journey to other planets.

It could be that dust flows are launching atmospheric particles from different planets all over the universe, forming a grand involuntary interplanetary transit system. The notion becomes even more compelling when you consider that some bacteria, plants and the mighty tardigrade can survive in space. If any such living organisms are present in the atmosphere of Earth or other planets, they could be hitchhiking on cosmic dust flows across the universe.

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NASA Never Sent Robots to Mars, JK Rowling Doesn't Exist: Conspiracy Theories the Internet Can't Resist



Nor does Finland. Or the Beatles. And Nasa never sent robots to Mars. Just some of the intrigues other than JFK the internet loves. The much anticipated release of new files about the assassination of John F Kennedy have again thrown a spotlight on the conspiracy theories surrounding the US president’s death. And the internet loves nothing more than a conspiracy theory. Here is a selection of controversial claims that the web especially seems to love.

It is not entirely clear whether there is a new generation of people on the web who really believe the Earth is flat, or whether it is being posted as an ironic wind-up, but flat Earth theory has been enjoying a renaissance not seen since, well, perhaps the renaissance itself.

Flat-Earthers are back: 'It’s almost like the beginning of a new religion' Maintaining that the world is flat is a lot harder in an era where space exploration has sent back images of the planet, and you have to find a way to account for how GPS signals work, but there is still a lot of effort put into it.

Just remember though, rumours that the Flat Earth Society once announced it had members all around the globe are sure to have been exaggerated.

Most people are familiar with the conspiracy theory stating that Apollo 11 never landed on the moon, and that the footage was faked. Possibly by Stanley Kubrick. Away from that well-trodden path, Nasa is still suspected, by some, of faking mission footage in the 21st century, including from the Mars rovers.

There are persistent claims that NASA actually has the rovers patrolling a Mars-like landscape on Canada’s Devon Island. And even those that accept the rovers are on Mars have also at varying times claimed to have spotted things Nasa is trying to suppress, such as skeletons, ancient figures, the shadow of someone working to repair the robot, and mysteriously appearing rocks.

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Iceland's Volcanoes and Waking Up & Climate Change May be to Blame



Frozen volcanoes in Iceland could start erupting more—especially as glaciers continue to melt. Scientists examined volcanic ash preserved in peat deposits and lake sediments and discovered a period with less volcanic activity around 5,000 years ago. The volcanoes were much quieter during this time period, and it happened to coincide with a drop in global temperature. The study, published last week in Geology, concluded that the slowdown in volcanic activity thousands of years ago was likely due to the extensive glacier cover. Now, as Iceland's glaciers are melting due to climate change, volcanoes may start waking up.

"Climate change caused by humans is creating rapid ice melt in volcanically active regions," Graeme Swindles, lead author and earth system dynamics professor at University of Leeds, said in a statement. "In Iceland, this has put us on a path to more frequent volcanic eruptions."

“The human effect on global warming makes it difficult to predict how long the time lag will be but the trends of the past show us more eruptions in Iceland can be expected in the future,” Swindles said. He added that the long term consequences of human-caused climate change are why global climate change conferences like the most recent one in Bonn, Germany are crucial. “It is vital to understand how actions today can impact future generations in ways that have not been fully realized, such as more ash clouds over Europe, more particles in the atmosphere and problems for aviation.”

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Massive ‘Object’ Lurks Beneath Ice in Antarctica


Scientists believe a massive object that could change our understanding of history is hidden beneath the Antarctic ice. The huge and mysterious “anomaly” is thought to be lurking beneath the frozen wastes of an area called Wilkes Land. The area is 151 miles across and has a minimum depth of about 2,700 feet.

Some researchers believe it is the remains of a truly massive asteroid more than twice the size of the Chicxulub space rock that wiped out the dinosaurs. If this explanation is true, it could mean this killer asteroid caused the Permian-Triassic extinction event, which killed 96 percent of Earth’s sea creatures and up to 70 percent of the vertebrate organisms living on land.




However, the wilder minds of the internet have come up with their own theories, with some conspiracy theorists claiming it could be a massive UFO base or a portal to a mysterious underworld called the Hollow Earth.

This “Wilkes Land gravity anomaly” was first uncovered in 2006, when NASA satellites spotted gravitational changes which indicated the presence of a huge object sitting in the middle of a 300-mile-wide impact crater.

“This Wilkes Land impact is much bigger than the impact that killed the dinosaurs, and probably would have caused catastrophic damage at the time,” said Ralph von Frese, who was a professor of geological sciences at Ohio State University when he discovered the “killer crater” on 2006.

“All the environmental changes that would have resulted from the impact would have created a highly caustic environment that was really hard to endure. So it makes sense that a lot of life went extinct.

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How Did This Weird, Super-Salty Pond Form in Antarctica?



At the bottom of the world, in a frigid Antarctic desert, sits a weird pond only a few inches deep that is so salty, it stays liquid even at temperatures of minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius).

The source of the pond's unusually heavy and pure load of salt has been a geochemical mystery since it was discovered during a 1961 expedition. Scientists had generally assumed that Don Juan Pond — a play on the names of the expedition's helicopter pilots — was fed by deep groundwater, but a widely publicized 2013 paper suggested the salts came from a shallower source.

In the new study, published Sept. 15 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, researchers used computer models of the pond's chemistry to dispute that finding.

Because the area is one of the closest terrestrial analogues to Mars, understanding how water flows through the pond and the surrounding area could help scientists understand the behavior of similar features on the Red Planet.

New Keys to Help Extraterrestrials Unlock Our Messages



When the esteemed German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss contemplated communication with extraterrestrials at the beginning of the 19th century, targeting the moon seemed obvious. Our planet’s natural satellite provided the nearest plausible home for life beyond Earth.

The form and content of the message we could send was equally clear to Gauss. He is credited with the idea of communicating with inhabitants of the moon by clearing large swaths of the Siberian forest of its trees and in their place planting massive wheat fields in the shape of carefully arranged geometrical shapes, which would be visible from the moon. Specifically, he wanted to show Lunarians that Earthlings are familiar with the Pythagorean theorem by creating massive landscapes demonstrating that the sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse: a2 + b2 = c2.

Nearly two centuries after Gauss’s proposal, our team has turned to him for inspiration, using math as a universal language for interstellar communication by radio.

We of course now know that our moon is inhospitable to life. But in the last two decades we have learned of the existence of planets around other stars. Some of these exoplanets orbit within their star’s “Goldilocks zone,” where it is not too hot, and not too cold, but just right to allow for the existence of liquid water—a prerequisite for life as we know it. Recently we sent a series of radio messages that included a numerical description of the Pythagorean theorem to one such exoplanet, in the hope of eliciting a response from any geometry-savvy inhabitants.

The exoplanet is a super-Earth named GJ 273b, which orbits Luyten’s Star, a red dwarf only 12.4 light years from our solar system. It has the distinction of being the nearest known exoplanet that is potentially habitable while also being in view of the two-megawatt transmitter of the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) in Tromsø, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle. On three successive days in mid-October 2017, a project dubbed “Sónar Calling GJ 273b” celebrated the 25th anniversary of Barcelona’s Sónar music festival with radio transmissions from EISCAT, which included a sampling of music by the festival’s artists.

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Carl Sagan's Aliens: Extraterrestrials in the Thermosphere


On September 10 2006, fear gripped the crew of shuttle mission STS–115. There was something outside the shuttle windows; it was following them, coming closer, and it was huge, flickering, luminescent, and changing its shape as it approached. Then, there were more of them; and they were surrounding the shuttle. Alarmed, the crew of STS–115, immediately contacted Mission Control.

The extraterrestrials outside the shuttle windows were huge, had an amorphous shape, and were opaque, appearing more like living tissue than a hard metal object. They appeared to be "curious" rather than threatening… with behavior and appearance reminiscent of the UFO "Foo fighters" which harassed German and U.S. pilots as they firebombed German cities during WWII… and in some respects, very similar to the hypothetical aliens Carl Sagan once proposed may dwell in the Jovian upper atmosphere… The crew of STS–115 again contacted Mission Control, asking for instructions as they watched the UFOs fly away…

The astronauts aboard STS–115, were not the first, or the last, to be visited by unidentified extraterrestrials. There have been dozens of close encounters between astronauts, the space shuttles, and alien extraterrestrials which resemble vast clouds of "intelligent" nano-particles and space-bacteria, giant space-amoeba, or which may represent a fourth domain of life which is not carbon-based and has no DNA, and which may be comprised of and feed on electro-magnetic energy (Alfven 1981; Sagan & Salpeter 1976; Tsytovich, et al. 2007)).

During his maiden flight, John Glenn, aboard Friendship Seven, described "a big mass" of "fireflies" "maybe 7 or 8 feet apart," "brilliantly lit up like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it" "they look like little stars…. like fireflies"

NASA dismissed these "little stars" as "frost flakes" and claimed an experiment, performed by Scott Carpenter in May of 1962 proved it. However, back on Earth Scott Carpenter had a different tale to tell: "At no time, when the astronauts were in space were they alone: there was a constant surveillance by UFOs."

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In Newly Created Life-Form, a Major Mystery




Scientists have created a synthetic organism that possesses only the genes it needs to survive. But they have no idea what roughly a third of those genes do. Peel away the layers of a house — the plastered walls, the slate roof, the hardwood floors — and you’re left with a frame, the skeletal form that makes up the core of any structure. Can we do the same with life? Can scientists pare down the layers of complexity to reveal the essence of life, the foundation on which biology is built?

That’s what Craig Venter and his collaborators have attempted to do in a new study published today in the journal Science. Venter’s team painstakingly whittled down the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, a bacterium that lives in cattle, to reveal a bare-bones set of genetic instructions capable of making life. The result is a tiny organism named syn3.0 that contains just 473 genes. (By comparison, E. coli has about 4,000 to 5,000 genes, and humans have roughly 20,000.)

Yet within those 473 genes lies a gaping hole. Scientists have little idea what roughly a third of them do. Rather than illuminating the essential components of life, syn3.0 has revealed how much we have left to learn about the very basics of biology.

“To me, the most interesting thing is what it tells us about what we don’t know,” said Jack Szostak, a biochemist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. “So many genes of unknown function seem to be essential.”

“We were totally surprised and shocked,” said Venter, a biologist who heads the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and Rockville, Md., and is most famous for his role in mapping the human genome. The researchers had expected some number of unknown genes in the mix, perhaps totaling five to 10 percent of the genome. “But this is truly a stunning number,” he said.

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Android Phones Have Been Tracking You More Closely Than You Might Like



And there’s nothing you could’ve done about it. An investigation by Quartz reveals that Android devices currently send positioning data to Google servers even when location services are turned off, apps aren’t being used, and there isn’t even a carrier’s SIM inserted into the device. Google confirmed to Quartz that the practice has been in place since the start of 2017, and users can’t opt out of it.

The location data is obtained by triangulating a phone in relation to nearby cell towers. That could reveal a person’s location within a quarter-mile—more than enough to worry privacy advocates, and the kind of accuracy that could lead to damaging intrusions if the information entered the wrong hands. The data appears to have been used to improve the way push notifications are delivered to smartphones, and it was never stored. Even so, Google tells Quartz that it will stop the practice by the end of November.

It’s by no means the first time that a big tech firm has been in hot water over collection of location data: for as long as phones have been able to provide granular details of your position, companies and researchers have been trying to make use of it. But the news comes at a particularly low ebb of trust in firms like Facebook and Google, and will do little to bolster confidence that the search firm is still striving to do no evil.

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