Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Interstellar Space Rock or Alien Probe?, Octopus’ Alien DNA, New Physics ‘Holy Grail’ Particle

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December 11, 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 the Planet 9 Enigma, the New Testament as Tao, Volcanoes of New England, the Longest-Living Vertebrate on Earth, Sidewalk Robots of San Francisco, and  Greenland's Monster Heat Wave.


 

"Oumuamua" –Interstellar Space Rock or Alien Probe? Astronomers to Search for Signs of Technology

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Russian billionaire Yuri Milner says if the space rock 'Oumuamua is giving off radio signals, his team will be able to detect them—and they may get the results within days. The email about “a most peculiar object” in the solar system arrived in Yuri Milner’s inbox last week.

Milner, the Russian billionaire behind Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, had already heard about the peculiar object. ‘Oumuamua barreled into view in October, the first interstellar object seen in our solar system.

Astronomers around the world chased after the mysterious space rock with their telescopes, collecting as much data as they could as it sped away. Their observations revealed a truly unusual object with puzzling properties. Scientists have long predicted an interstellar visitor would someday coast into our corner of the universe, but not something like this.

“The more I study this object, the more unusual it appears, making me wonder whether it might be an artificially made probe which was sent by an alien civilization,” Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department and one of Milner’s advisers on Breakthrough Listen, wrote in the email to Milner.

A day later, Milner’s assistant summoned Loeb to Milner’s home in Palo Alto. They met there this past Saturday to talk about ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word for “messenger.” Loeb ran through the space rock’s peculiarities, particularly its elongated shape, like a cigar or needle—an odd shape for a common space rock, but ideal for a ship cruising through interstellar space.

For Milner, the object was becoming too intriguing to ignore. So he’s decided to take a closer look.

Breakthrough Listen announced Monday that the program will start checking ‘Oumuamua this week for signs of radio signals using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. The interstellar asteroid is now about twice the distance between the Earth and the sun from our planet, moving at a brisk clip of 38.3 kilometers per second. At this close distance, Green Bank can detect the faintest frequencies. It would take the telescope less than a minute to pick up something as faint as the radio waves from a cellphone. If ‘Oumuamua is sending signals, we’ll hear them.

The chance of an alien detection is, as always, small. But it’s not zero. And Milner thinks we should check—just in case—before ‘Oumuamua is gone for good. The object will pass the orbit of Jupiter next year, and by the 2020s will be hurtling beyond Pluto.

“Whether it’s artificial or not, we will definitely know more about this object,” Milner told me, in a video interview last week.

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Giant Lava Lamp Inside Earth Causes Magnetic Field Reversal

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If you could travel back in time 41,000 years to the last ice age, your compass would point south instead of north. That’s because for a period of a few hundred years, the Earth’s magnetic field was reversed. Magnetic reversals have happened repeatedly over the planet’s history, sometimes lasting hundreds of thousands of years. We know this from the way it affects the alignment of magnetic minerals, that we can now study on the Earth’s surface.

Several ideas exist to explain why magnetic field reversals happen. One of these just became more plausible. My colleagues and I discovered that regions on top of the Earth’s core could behave like giant lava lamps, with blobs of rock periodically rising and falling deep inside our planet. This could affect its magnetic field and cause it to flip. The way we made this discovery was by studying signals from some of the world’s most destructive earthquakes.

Around 3,000km below our feet — 270 times further down than the deepest part of the ocean — is the start of the Earth’s core, a liquid sphere of mostly molten iron and nickel. At this boundary between the core and the rocky mantle above, the temperature is almost 4,000℃ degrees, similar to that on the surface of a star, with a pressure more than 1.3m times that at the Earth’s surface

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Alien DNA? Clever Octopuses Can Mess With Their Genetics They're too smart for their own good 

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Are octopuses so clever because they ignore their genetic programming? Research has shown that octopuses and other cephalopods edit the messages sent from their DNA instead of following them almost exactly like most living things usually do.

Previously, scientists thought this process of molecular Chinese whispers was largely insignificant in animal evolution. But a new study published in the journal Cell shows this is certainly not true for these tentacled ocean dwellers.

 

It suggests that genetic editing may directly contribute to cephalopods’ remarkable intelligence, which enables them to solve complicated puzzles and visually communicate by changing their skin colour, making them the smartest of all invertebrates. However, the ability to alter genetic messages may come at a price, potentially reducing other more common forms of adaptive evolution.

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Is Planet Nine Even Real?  –Our Solar System's Missing Super Earth

 

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A year and a half after it was proposed, astronomers are still debating whether the giant mystery planet actually exists. When Caltech's Mike Brown first proposed that a hidden, massive planet lurks in the outer reaches of our solar system, he was confident someone would prove him wrong. “Planet Nine,” as the hypothetical world was nicknamed, was his explanation for the strange movements of half a dozen distant, icy planetoids that are farther away and smaller than Pluto: In theory, this huge, somehow-undiscovered planet could sway their orbits. But surely astronomers would be quick to find a more obvious explanation.

“Shockingly, in a year and a half, nobody has,” says Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. “There have been so many claims of planets in the last 170 years, and they were always wrong. But I’m clearly a true believer at this point.”

Brown, the self-titled “Pluto Killer” who led the campaign that demoted the dwarf planet, and Konstantin Batygin, his coauthor at Caltech and a young star who plays in his own rock band, know how to spark debate. Since their proposal about Planet Nine, the lack of definitive evidence for or against its existence has divided the planetary community. Other astronomers have put forth alternative explanations, and some contend Brown and Batygin’s data are biased. Until someone clearly spots the new mystery planet in a telescope, they’ve come to an impasse.

The peculiar clustering of the six faraway objects that Brown and Batygin’s initial hypothesis highlighted is extremely unlikely to happen just by chance. According to the duo’s mathematical arguments, it would be naturally explained, though, by a planet about 10 times as big as Earth in the region known as the Kuiper Belt. Batygin has come up with more recent evidence, too: The orbits of other distant solar-system objects yoked to Neptune have gotten “detached” as well, and other objects’ orbits have gotten tilted to the side or reversed, so the solar system as a whole no longer resembles a thin record or CD with the sun at the center. Planet Nine, if it exists, could explain all of those phenomena.

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The Logos or Tao? A Diffusion Through Space & Time –Mind-Bending Translation of the New Testament

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David Bentley Hart’s text recaptures the awkward, multivoiced power of the original. In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. 

For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. 

The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …”

“My chief purpose,” he wrote in 2013’s The Experience of God, “is not to advise atheists on what I think they should believe; I want merely to make sure that they have a clear concept of what it is they claim not to believe.”

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What Was the Most Influential Photograph in History? A Big Question

 

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One image that summarizes our fragility and the need to work for peace is the simple yet poignant photograph of Earth taken by the astronaut William Anders during 1968’s Apollo 8 mission.

John Filo’s photograph showing a woman kneeling over a victim of the Kent State shootings, taken in 1970, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was the first picture that riveted my attention as a teenager, when it appeared in my hometown newspaper.

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Mary Ann Vecchio, 14, screams over the body of 20-year-old Kent State student Jeffrey Miller after he was shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. (Library of Congress)

Eddie Adams’s iconic Saigon Execution (1968) helped stop a war. This image demonstrates the power of still photography to make a single moment last forever. The impact of this photo motivates me in my work to take images that inspire people to stop a different battle: the extinction crisis.

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“Holy Grail” Particle: New Physics Research Shows Tetraquarks Must Exist

 

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Everything in the universe is made up of atoms — except, of course, atoms themselves. They’re made up of subatomic particles, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons. While electrons are classified as leptons, protons and neutrons are in a class of particles known as quarks. Though, “known” may be a bit misleading: there is a lot more theoretical physicists don’t know about the particles than they do with any degree of certainty.

As far as we know, quarks are the fundamental particle of the universe. You can’t break a quark down into any smaller particles. Imagining them as being uniformly minuscule is not quite accurate, however: while they are tiny, they are not all the same size. Some quarks are larger than others, and they can also join together and create mesons (1 quark + 1 antiquark) or baryons (3 quarks of various flavors).

 
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How to Get Advice From Watson, IBM's Famously Smart AI

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In 2011, IBM stole the artificial intelligence show when Watson, a talking cognitive computer, won Jeopardy! By feeding the computer millions of pages of unstructured data — that is to say, no numbers or values neatly organized in spreadsheets — the company “taught” Watson everything he needed to thoroughly whack human Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings. For the first time ever, a computer with some sense of understanding of the world was not only on display, it was on television.

It’s as though we are sitting on the precipice of a time when it will become easy — perhaps even boring — to speak to your computer as you might speak to a coworker, and to have that speech turned into useful action. This is not yet so common at present, but listen up: you can kinda-sorta talk to Watson today.

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San Francisco Sours on Rampant Delivery Robots: 'Not every innovation is great'

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Lawmakers pass regulations to cut down on delivery robots as pedestrians tire of sharing sidewalks with ‘aggressively entrepreneurial wet dreams’. In something of a reversal for San Francisco, a city that has served as a petri dish for disruptive innovations in recent years, lawmakers this week passed strict regulations to reduce the number of delivery robots that technology startups have introduced to the city’s sidewalks.

“Not every innovation is all that great for society,” said the San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee, who authored the legislation. “If we don’t value our society, if we don’t value getting the chance to go the store without being run over by a robot … what is happening?”

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Monster Heat Wave Reaches Greenland, Bringing Rain and Melting Its Ice Sheet

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NASA's Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission warns the ice sheet is more at risk to global warming than we knew. It’s been unusually warm in the United States in recent days, with records being set across the country. But it’s been scorching in Greenland, with temperatures as much as 54° above normal, which means above freezing in many places.

And this comes on the heels of new research from NASA’s aptly-named Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission, which finds that the enormous ice sheet is far more unstable than we realized. That’s bad news because the Greenland ice sheet contains enough land-locked ice to raise sea levels by over 20 feet.

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The Strange and Gruesome Story of the Greenland Shark, the Longest-Living Vertebrate on Earth –"More than 500 Years Old"

 

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Using carbon dating and a new method involving proteins in the lens of the eye, Danish scientists have unraveled the mystery of how long Greenland sharks live.

Greenland sharks are among nature’s least elegant inventions. Lumpish, with stunted pectoral fins that they use for ponderously slow swimming in cold and dark Arctic waters, they have blunt snouts and gaping mouths that give them an unfortunate, dull-witted appearance. Many live with worm-like parasites that dangle repulsively from their corneas. They belong, appropriately enough, to the family Squalidae, and appear as willing to gorge on fresh halibut as on rotting polar-bear carcasses. Once widely hunted for their liver oil, today they are considered bycatch. For some fishermen, a biologist recently told me, netting a Greenland shark is about as welcome as stepping in dog poop.

And yet the species has an undeniable magnetism. It is among the world’s largest predatory sharks, growing up to eighteen feet in length, but also among its most elusive. Its life history is a black box, one that researchers have spent decades trying in vain to peer inside. Where do Greenland sharks mate? What is their global range and population structure? And, most enticing of all, how long do they live? 

A study begun in the nineteen-thirties suggested that the species’s lifespan might well be extraordinary, based on the slow growth rate of a single shark that a scientist was lucky enough to catch twice. Verifying this, however, proved nearly impossible. To determine age in other sharks, biologists count the growth rings on their fin spines and vertebrae. But Greenland sharks have no hard tissues in their bodies; even their vertebrae are soft. The longevity question seemed unanswerable.

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Scientists Warn of Possible Future Volcanoes in New England

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Scientists have detected an enormous mass of warm rock rising up beneath part of New England that could one day spark a volcanic eruption, according to a new study. But don't worry too much: We are millions of years away from such an event, said Vadim Levin, the study’s lead author and a geophysicist and professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University. 

Scientists from Yale and Rutgers University looked at data from the National Science Foundation’s EarthScope program, which has placed thousands of seismic measurement devices across North America. They hoped to learn more about the continent’s structure and evolution, as well as the processes that cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The Atlantic margin of the North American continent, which covers the entire eastern seaboard, has always been considered a so-called passive margin, meaning no major geologic activity is thought to happen there. But after looking at the EarthScope data, Levin and his team found a surprise.  "We found that this warm thing was moving up," he said. 

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