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Kathleen Franklin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

SETI Scientists Are Dubious About That Mysterious "Signal"

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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news of the “signal” quiet, circulating the information with a select group of other researchers in a presentation and unpublished documents.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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Land Cover CCI, ESA
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European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Scientists May Have Found the Real Cause of Dyslexia—And a Way to Treat It
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iStock

Dyslexia is often described as trying to read letters as they jump around the page. Because of its connections to reading difficulties and trouble in school, the condition is often blamed on the brain. But according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the so-called learning disability may actually start in the eyes.

As The Guardian reports, a team of French scientists say they've discovered a key physiological difference between the eyes of those with dyslexia and those without it. Our eyes have tiny light-receptor cells called rods and cones. The center of a region called the fovea is dominated by cones, which are also responsible for color perception.

Just as most of us have a dominant hand, most have a dominant eye too, which has more neural connections to the brain. The study of 60 people, divided evenly between those with dyslexia and those without, found that in the eyes of non-dyslexic people, the arrangement of the cones is asymmetrical: The dominant eye has a round, cone-free hole, while the other eye has an unevenly shaped hole. However, in people with dyslexia, both eyes have the same round hole. So when they're looking at something in front of them, such as a page in a book, their eyes perceive exact mirror images, which end up fighting for visual domination in the brain. This could explain why it's sometimes impossible for a dyslexic person to distinguish a "b" from a "d" or an "E" from a "3".

These results challenge previous research that connects dyslexia to cognitive abilities. In a study published earlier this year, people with the condition were found to have a harder time remembering musical notes, faces, and spoken words. In light of the new findings, it's unclear whether this is at the root of dyslexia or if growing up with vision-related reading difficulties affects brain plasticity.

If dyslexia does come down to some misarranged light-receptors in the eye, diagnosing the disorder could be as simple as giving an eye exam. The explanation could also make it easy to treat without invasive surgery. In the study, the authors describe using an LED lamp that blinks faster than the human eye can perceive to "cancel out" one of the mirror images perceived by dyslexic readers, leaving only one true image. The volunteers who read with it called it a "magic lamp." The researchers hope to further experiment with it to see see if it's a viable treatment option for the millions of people living with dyslexia.

[h/t The Guardian]

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