Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Humans Say ‘Yes’ Aliens Exist, Navajo Code Talkers, to Preserving Antarctica’s Oceans

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December 8, 2017: Today's links to 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. Coverage includes "Ghost Ships" of North Korea, Beyond Radio –Listening for New Signals from Advanced Extraterrestrial Civilizations, Rethinking Human Migration, and more.

 


Humans Would Be Cool with Finding Aliens

 
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A new study, one of very few of its kind, finds that people typically respond quite positively to the notion of life on other planets. The study investigated the possibility of finding microbial extraterrestrials, not intelligent E.T.s, so people's responses might be a little different if they were told an armada of aliens were headed toward Earth, cautioned study author Michael Varnum, a psychologist at Arizona State University. Nevertheless, he noted, large portions of people believe that intelligent aliens do exist and that they've visited Earth; so even a more dramatic announcement might not ruffle feathers.

"What this suggests is, there's no reason to be afraid" of sharing news of astrobiology with the public, Varnum told Live Science. "We won't collapse. We're not going to have chaos in the streets."

How people would respond to finding they're not alone in the universe is a perennial question, but one that has been the subject of far more speculation than study, Varnum said. He could find only one study that asked people how they thought they'd react to the announcement of extraterrestrial life, and it was a decade old.

Varnum wanted to tackle the question a bit more realistically. So he turned to the real-world news, analyzing articles dating back to 1967 that looked at discoveries that could potentially have hinted at alien life (including — full disclosure — articles by Live Science's sister site Space.com on a star with irregular brightness cycles that might have signaled extraterrestrial activity, but the irregular cycles more likely result from orbiting dust).

"It's really much more likely that we're going to encounter strange germs rather than E.T.," Varnum said. And no one has previously studied people's attitudes toward the discovery of alien microbes.

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World's Largest Marine Reserve Created in Antarctica

 

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The Ross Sea marine reserve covers 1.5 million square km of some of the last stretches of ocean unharmed by human activity. The largest marine reserve in the world has come into effect in Antarctica, marking a "watershed" moment in conservation of the high seas.

The newly protected area in the Ross Sea covers 1.55 million square kilometres (600,000 square miles) of what is among the last remaining stretches of ocean to be unharmed by human activity. Fishing will be completely banned in 72% of the zone, while limited harvesting of krill and fish will be allowed for scientific purposes in the remainder.

The icy waters are home to penguins, seals, killer whales and mink whales, and are a "last refuge for open-ocean marine life" according to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. They offer a rare window into what marine systems were like "before human exploitation" and are home to a significant proportion of the Antarctic ocean's 10,000 species.

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California Will Burn Until It Rains — and Climate Change May Keep Future Rains Away

 

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Wildfires are spreading unchecked across Southern California, adding more infernos to the state’s worst fire season on record. A warm, dry fall in Southern California and strong offshore winds combined to create dangerous fire conditions that will probably get worse. As the winds continue to blow, a dome of warm, high-pressure air is forming over the West Coast that could keep California dry and flammable for weeks to come.

The largest fire burning in Southern California started in the foothills of Ventura County on Monday evening. Called the “Thomas fire,” it spread overnight to burn more than 65,000 acres, jumped the 101 freeway, and was stopped only by the Pacific Ocean, the LA Times reports. Four more fires are raging from San Bernardino to Santa Clarita.

Hot, dry winds blowing up to 70 miles per hour across Southern California are fanning the flames, but those aren’t unusual for December, says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California Los Angeles and writer of the Weather West blog. Called the Santa Ana winds, these southern counterparts to Northern California’s Diablo winds tend to kick up during the fall and continue through the winter.

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Giant Magellan Telescope will bring deep space into sharper focus

 

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For more than 400 years, humanity has been pointing telescopes skyward, peering into the depths of space to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.

Even today, many of those essential questions remained unanswered. Arizona State University has joined an ambitious project that seeks to solve some of the biggest mysteries.

The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) is an international consortium of universities and institutions dedicated to building the largest, most advanced optical telescope to date. The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will give us a closer look at the first stars and galaxies to ever exist. It will also help us understand planets outside of our own solar system — including ones that could support life.

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We've Not Found Aliens Yet, So Let's Start Listening for Different Signals

 

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If there is an alien civilization out there trying to get our attention, they could be using a variety of methods. There's visible light, of course, but a technologically sophisticated alien civilisation might instead opt to send messages through ultraviolet light, X-rays or use an entirely different wavelength along the electromagnetic spectrum.

Recently, a Breakthrough Listen project to find aliens came up short. After surveying almost 700 stars, they found 11 potential alien signals. In the end, all 11 turned out to be false positives.mThese results are not surprising. The researchers looked at each star for 15 minutes, using a radio telescope. “In order for us to discover a distant transmitter, they'd have to ping us in just the right time window,” says Rene Heller, astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. They’d also have to be using the same frequency we are listening in.

“This Breakthrough Listen project did exactly what was needed – to find if we have neighbours unintentionally shouting to the rest of the Galaxy on the radio dial, using comparable radio technology to our own,” says Jaymie Matthews, Professor of Astrophysics at University of British Columbia. So what's the next step? “Listen to more stars, at greater distances, and tune in to more frequencies,” says Matthews.

Michael Hippke, an independent astronomy researcher, agrees. That is why he set out to compare all the possible ways we have of communicating between solar systems. “I believe their search for radio signals is mostly useless, because radio is an immature and inefficient way to communicate over interstellar distances,” Hippke says.

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WW11 Navajo Code Talkers –New Insights

 

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Once sworn to secrecy about their cryptic contributions to U.S. military battle, some former hidden heroes are now decoding the details of their efforts for historical posterity. Under special classification by the military, Code Talkers were forbidden to talk about their covert service in the first and second world wars until the program was declassified in 1968. However, even after declassification, it still took years before the Code Talkers began to find their place among retold stories of American patriotism.

 

The Code Talkers were Marines from several tribal nations who used their native languages to devise a military code during WWI and II. Among them are the Hopi, Comanche, Choctaw, Creek, Chippewa, Meskwaki and Lakota Code Talkers. The Navajo Code Talkers are the most well-known. They used the Navajo language to devise a secret code during WWII to send sensitive messages over the radio waves that was never deciphered by the Japanese. It was quick, accurate and saved many lives in the South Pacific where they fought in many battles.

The last living members of the World War II Navajo Code Talkers are calling for the creation of a national museum to honor the memory of their elite band of brothers. It’s a recognition many, including Arizona State University Professor Laura Tohe, say is long overdue.

“Outside of the tribal community, Navajo Code Talkers are deeply admired,” said Tohe, whose father was himself a Code Talker. “People are curious about their contributions and how they used the Navajo language to save many lives.”

 

Story of Human Migration Out of Africa Just Got Rewritten

 

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For anyone trying to trace the roots of the human family tree, it would have been very convenient if our ancestors had left Africa in one great exodus, kicking off humanity’s global takeover with a single inaugural bang. And the first time we looked at fossils left behind by our ancestors, that indeed appeared to be the case. Like a series of FourSquare check-ins, the ages of the bones seemed to depict one long human trip out of Africa, across Asia, and into Australia that started 60,000 years ago.

But in recent years, scientists looking back at old fossils with new techniques have revealed discrepancies in the storyline — evidence of much older humans winding up in regions they weren’t supposed to reach for thousands of years, or DNA that isn’t as human as we first thought. A review published Thursday in Science compiles and analyzes all of these deviations from the “Out of Africa” (OoA) narrative, concluding that it’s time for a rewrite.

Doing so was a big break with the “elegant” old theory, says lead author and anthropologist Christopher Bae, Ph.D., of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, but the evidence he and his team uncovered left them no choice.

“My coauthors and I work in different areas of Asia and when we sat down and started comparing notes, we kept finding evidence (between 120 ka and 60 ka) of earlier modern human dispersals OoA,” he tells Inverse in an e-mail.

“So what we envision is that although there was likely a major dispersal OoA between 60 ka and 50 ka, which may or may not be due to paleoenvironmental fluctuations, there were waves of earlier dispersals by modern humans as well, though these earlier populations were smaller.”

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AI is Now So Complex Its Creators Can’t Trust why it Makes Decisions

 

Artificial intelligence is seeping into every nook and cranny of modern life. AI might tag your friends in photos on Facebook or choose what you see on Instagram, but materials scientists and NASA researchers are also beginning to use the technology for scientific discovery and space exploration.

But there’s a core problem with this technology, whether it’s being used in social media or for the Mars rover: The programmers that built it don’t know why AI makes one decision over another.

Modern artificial intelligence is still new. Big tech companies have only ramped up investment and research in the last five years, after a decades-old theory was shown to finally work in 2012. Inspired by the human brain, an artificial neural network relied on layers of thousands to millions of tiny connections between “neurons” or little clusters of mathematic computation, like the connections of neurons in the brain. But that software architecture came with a trade-off: Since the changes throughout those millions of connections were so complex and minute, researchers aren’t able to exactly determine what is happening. They just get an output that works.

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MIT Researchers are Making Computers Out of Live Bacteria

 

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MIT researchers created a technique for 3D printing live bacteria. It's alive. In the future, you could be eating cancer-detecting robots in much the same way you take your morning vitamins.

Researchers at MIT have created a new responsive material that can change along with its environment, using living cells that act like basic computers. The technique uses genetically engineered bacteria—fine-tuned to respond to various stimuli—that can be 3D-printed into any shape.

 

The new approach required two inventions: First, the researchers had to create a new kind of printable ink in which bacteria can live for long stretches of time. To do so, they made a gel formula with a toothpaste-like consistency that mixes water and nutrients to sustain the cells. Second, the researchers built a custom 3D printer that can precisely print their new ink onto surfaces.

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Mysterious Ghost Ships with Dead Crews from North Korea Washing Up at Japan

 

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Mysterious "ghost ships" have been washing up on the western shores of Japan over the few past years, thought to be fishing vessels from North Korea. Many of the ships have only dead bodies or skeletons on board but in recent months, several have been found with their desperate North Korean crew still alive. Markings on some of the vessels, in Korean, indicated that they belonged to the North's military which is heavily involved in the fishing industry.

They are called ghost ships because they are usually found empty or with only corpses on board off Japan's western coast. In 2017 though, a number of ships have washed ashore with the crew still alive. In November, eight men were found alive on a boat at Yurihonjo marina. They said they were fishermen from North Korea who had gotten into trouble at sea.

Another ship picked up by the Japanese coast guard was found to have 10 men on board. The boats are often rickety and very simple vessels with no modern engines or navigation instruments on board.

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