Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

False alien alarm

In yet another blow to those of us who would dearly love to find incontrovertible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the signal that the Breakthrough Listen project detected in 2019 and which seemed to be coming from Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to the Sun) turns out to be...

The signal was certainly intriguing.  Proxima Centauri is not only close, at only 4.2 light years away, it is known to have a planet orbiting in the "Goldilocks Zone" -- not too hot, not too cold, juuuuuust right -- i.e., at the a distance that allows it to have liquid water on its surface.  The nature of the signal was curious in and of itself; it was at around 982 megahertz, and lasted for five months, giving the scientists at Breakthrough Listen a long time to study it.  "My first thought was that it must be interference, which I guess is a healthy attitude, to be skeptical," said Danny Price, an astronomer at the University of California - Berkeley.  "But after a while I started thinking, this is exactly the kind of signal we’re looking for."  After significant analysis, the signal -- BLC1 (Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1) -- was the first to pass all of the project's screening benchmarks.

When you have a bunch of hard-headed scientists saying, "Okay, maybe," to the rest of us extraterrestrial aficionados it seems tantamount to an outright admission.

Sadly, though, our hopes were doomed to be dashed once again.  Turns out, BLC1 isn't from Proxima Centauri; it's a radio signal originating right here on Earth.  The Breakthrough Listen team found that the signal showed a frequency drift similar to that exhibited by inexpensive crystal oscillators commonly used in computers, phones, and radios.  The scientists suspect that it came from a malfunctioning or poorly-shielded piece of electronics, and the signal stopped when its owner either repaired it or shut it down entirely.

"It definitely had me wondering ‘what if?’ for a bit," said Sofia Sheikh, also of UC-Berkeley.  "Many groups assumed that if you had a detection that only showed up when you were pointed at the source, that was it, break out the champagne, you’re done.  As technology changes, the way we vet signals also has to change — and that hadn’t come together until BLC1."

Surprisingly, the scientists didn't appear to be as disappointed as us laypeople.  "It’s really valuable for us to have these dry runs," said Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University.  "We need these candidate signals so we can learn how we will deal with them — how to prove they are extraterrestrial or human-made."

So what we need is a real-life Ellie Arroway to keep analyzing the data until we do find a signal that comes from extraterrestrial intelligence.

But until she comes along, the scientists over at Breakthrough Listen will continue listening -- and hoping for a breakthrough.  Me, I hope it happens soon.  I'd love to live to see evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, because some days, terrestrial intelligence seems to be in awfully short supply.


Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.

One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-Fran├žois Champollion of France.

This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick.  Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41.  It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities.  If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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