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Kathleen Franklin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Kathleen Franklin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

SETI Scientists Are Dubious About That Mysterious "Signal"

Kathleen Franklin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Kathleen Franklin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Don’t start drawing up your WELCOME TO EARTH posters just yet. Astronomers at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) say the “alien signal” splashed across the Internet this week could just as easily have been caused by a passing satellite or even power lines on Earth.

Scientists at the Russian Academy of Science’s Special Astrophysical Observatory first noticed a spike in radio activity on May 15, 2015. The spike appeared in the 2.7 cm wavelength (11 GHz band) and lasted a mere four seconds—a very short transmission indeed, if that’s what it was.

The RATAN-600 radio telescope in Russia. Image credit: александр с кавказа via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

The Russian researchers' calculations put the source of the signal in HD 164595, a Sun-like star 28.927 parsecs, or about 94.4 light-years, from here. To date, we’ve found just one planet orbiting the star: the warm, Neptune-like HD 164595 b. Of course, just because we haven’t found others doesn’t mean they’re not there.

For reasons unknown, the Russian astronomers decided to keep news of the “signal” quiet, circulating the information with a select group of other researchers in a presentation and unpublished documents. They also failed to alert the larger ET-search community—a decision that represents a breach in both practice and protocol, according to SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak, who wrote on SETI's website about the signal.

The news stayed quiet until August 27, when science writer Paul Gilster broke the story on his blog. “Working out the strength of the signal,” he wrote, “the researchers say that if it came from an isotropic beacon, it would be of a power possible only for a Kardashev Type II civilization. If it were a narrow beam signal focused on our Solar System, it would be of a power available to a Kardashev Type I civilization.”

SETI researchers are less willing to speculate. “It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to target our solar system with a strong signal,” Shostak wrote. “This star system is so far away they won’t have yet picked up any TV or radar that would tell them that we’re here.”

The odds are good that the faint “transmission” was actually the product of some form of Earth-based interference, whether from a satellite in near orbit, power lines, or somebody’s microwave. This certainly wouldn’t be the first time kitchen appliances have been caught impersonating extraterrestrials.

"The chance that this is truly a signal from extraterrestrials is not terribly promising, and the discoverers themselves apparently doubt that they’ve found ET," Shostak concluded. "Nonetheless, one should check out all reasonable possibilities, given the importance of the subject."

Part of the problem in SETI research, he told New Scientist, “is that you have a civilisation that is producing signals that can mess you up all the time—and that civilisation is called humanity.”

Regardless of the signal’s source, experts say, it remains an intriguing data point worthy of further study. “It’s not uncommon in astronomy to see a signal we don’t understand,” astronomer Katie Mack told The Register, “but so far, after lots of data gathering, everything has turned out to be some cool new astrophysical process.”

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New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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