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"Aliens Are Our Brothers," says Vatican

We don't usually cover straight-up news as such here on the floss, but this particular item was so out there -- and so geeky at the same time -- I just couldn't let it fall through the cracks. For the first time ever, Vatican astronomers have admitted the possibility -- even the probability -- of intelligent life on other planets. Vatican official Father Gabriel Funes, a respected astronomer in his own right, released an article titled, literally, Aliens Are My Brother, detailing various extraterrestrial scenarios as they relate to Christian theology. He compares the potential multiplicity of life forms in the universe to that here on Earth, and goes on to speculate that such alien life forms could even be "free from Original Sin ... [remaining] in full friendship with their creator." (In short, expect to hear lots more conspiracy theories about how Jesus and the angels were aliens in the near future.)

But it's not just the Catholic Church that has aliens on the brain -- also this week, the British government released years' worth of newly-declassified documents pertaining to UFO sightings in British airspace. "The Ministry of Defence does not deny that there are strange things to see in the sky," one internal memo explains, "but it certainly has no evidence that alien spacecraft have landed on this planet." (Suuuure, guys.) You can check out the newly-released records here, the most hilarious bits of which, in our opinion, are the vigorous and exceedingly formal tiffs between various dukes, lords and viscounts in the British House of Lords regarding UFOs, like this one:

lords.jpgViscount Long: My Lords, if the Noble Earl is suspicious that the Ministry of Defence is covering up in any way, I can assure him ... the sole interest of the MoD in UFO reports is to establish whether they reveal anything of defence interest.
Lord Wynne-Jones: My Lords, does the Answer given mean that since there has been a Conservative Government the UFOs have done a U-turn and departed?
The Earl of Kimberley: My Lords, as my noble friend said that 600 UFOs had been officially reported or acknowledged by the MoD in 1984, may I ask him how many of those sightings still remain unidentified?
Viscount Long: My Lords, we do not have the figures. They disappeared into the unknown before we got them.
Lord Hill-Norton: My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount whether or not it is true that all of the sighting reports received by the MoD before 1962 were destroyed because they were deemed "to be of no interest"? And if it is true, who was it who decided that they were of no interest?"
Viscount Long: My Lords, my reply to the noble and gallant Lord -- I was wondering whether he was going to say the the Royal Navy had many times seen the Loch Ness monster -- is that since 1967 all UFO reports have been preserved.

Conspiracy/comedy gold!

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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