Astronomers have found life in other solar systems … maybe, ish. Plus a real “Wow!” (More)

“‘Probably’ from aliens”

It started when two astronomers at Laval University in Canada published a draft paper titled “Discovery of Peculiar Periodic Spectral Modulations in a Small Fraction of Solar-type Stars” at the website. Someone at that site added this comment:

Accepted for publication by PASP: Signals probably from Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Analysis of 2.5 million SDSS spectra found signals predicted in a previous publication in only 234 stars overwhelmingly in the F2 to K1 spectral range.

Which mushroomed into this headline at the Independent:

Strange messages coming from the stars are ‘probably’ from aliens, scientists say

Well, no, “scientists” don’t “say.” Whoever appended the comment to the draft article “says.”

The astronomers, Ermanno Borra and Eric Trottier, actually wrote this:

Finally, we consider the possibility, predicted in a previous published paper, that the signals are caused by light pulses generated by ETI to makes us aware of their existence. We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an ETI signal predicted in the previous publication and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis. The fact that they are only found in a very small fraction of stars within a narrow spectral range centered near the spectral type of the Sun is also in agreement with the ETI hypothesis. However, at this stage, this hypothesis needs to be confirmed with further work. Although unlikely, there is also a possibility that the signals are due to highly peculiar chemical compositions in a small fraction of galactic halo stars.

That “previous published paper” is Borra’s hypothesis that advanced civilizations might communicate using “periodic signals in spectra … generated by sending light pulses separated by constant time intervals.” In other words, ETs could use pulsed lasers rather than radio signals and, if they did, Borra calculated how such signals would appear in visible-spectrum telescope data. In that paper, Borra carefully cautioned:

While part of this article, like all articles on searches for ETI, is highly speculative the basic physics is sound.

He and Trottier performed that analysis on 2.5 million stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and they found 234 stars whose spectra matched the patterns of Borra’s prediction. And intriguingly, those 234 stars were “overwhelmingly in the F2 to K1 spectral range.” That is, almost all of them were similar to our sun.

In non-scientific terms, that ain’t nothin’.

“We look forward to consulting with Professor Borra and his team”

But it also ain’t much, say the folks at Berkeley SETI Research Center:

Peaks in Fourier analysis of stellar spectra, such as those discussed by Borra and Trottier, can be caused by instrumental optics or introduced during data reduction. Data artifacts, fringing, and inconsistencies in the manufacture of detectors are known to users of high resolution spectrographs to cause minute patterns to appear in the resulting spectra. The movement of the telescope, variations in observing conditions, and the process of wavelength calibration can easily introduce undesired signals at levels that are only barely detectable. It is therefore important to check the claimed signal using a different telescope and instrument.

The ​Berkeley SETI Research Center (BSRC) team has added several stars from the Borra and Trottier sample to the ​Breakthrough Listen observing queue on the 2.4-meter ​Automated Planet Finder (APF) optical telescope. The capabilities of the APF spectrograph are well matched to those of the original detection, and these independent follow-up observations will enable us to verify or refute the reported detections. We look forward to consulting with Professor Borra and his team on these observations, as well as additional follow up investigations using other data sources.

The international SETI community has established a 0 to 10 scale for quantifying detections of phenomena that may indicate the existence of advanced life beyond the Earth called the “​Rio Scale.” The BSRC team assesses the Borra-Trottier result to currently be a 0 or 1 (None/Insignificant) on this scale. If the signal were to be confirmed with another independent telescope, its significance would rise, though an exhaustive analysis of other possible explanations, including instrumental phenomena, must be performed before supporting the hypothesis that artificially generated pulses are responsible for the claimed signal.

Evan Gough at adds that, rather than finding signals from other civilizations, Borra and Trottier may have discovered a new and unexpected natural phenomenon:

As the authors say in their paper, “Although unlikely, there is also a possibility that the signals are due to highly peculiar chemical compositions in a small fraction of galactic halo stars.” It may be unlikely, but lots of discoveries seem unlikely at first. Maybe there is a tiny subset of stars with chemical peculiarities that make them act in this way.

Again, that ain’t nothin’. If this turns out to be ‘merely’ a natural stellar phenomenon, it would add to our knowledge of the cosmos. That might not be as exciting as reading ETmail, but it’s still useful science.

In other words, ignore the headlines but don’t ignore the story. This isn’t tinfoil hat wackadoodlery. It’s real science by real scientists that has spurred other real scientists to follow up. They may find ETmail, or they may find an unexpected quirk about some kinds of stars, or they may find it was just instrumentation error. And any of those outcomes would reflect how real science works.


“On the wrong track”

The media consensus of the 2016 election has been a story of Americans In Distress: a weak job market, stagnant incomes, terrorism, government dysfunction, all adding up A Nation On The Wrong Track:

Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the direction of the country. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Americans say things in this country have gotten seriously off on the wrong track, compared to just one-quarter (25%) who say things are generally going in the right direction. More than nine in ten (92%) Republicans say America is headed down the wrong track, a view shared by about eight in ten (79%) independents and close to six in ten (57%) Democrats. Pessimism about the direction of the country is considerably higher today than it was at this time during the 2012 presidential race, when 57% of the public said the country was off on the wrong track.

But that’s a classic muddled-middle problem. The PRRI survey lumped the 44% who said we’ve been on the wrong track “for a long time” together with the 30% who said we’ve been on the wrong track “just in the last few years.” And other results from the survey suggest those two groups think of “wrong track” very differently.

For example, the survey found that 72% of Trump backers said the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s, while 70% of Clinton supporters say it’s changed for the better. The demographics match what you’d expect from the Trump-Clinton divide, with people of color, young people, and college-educated people more likely to say things have changed for the better … while whites – especially working class whites – and older people were more likely to say things have changed for the worse.

Put another way, an older white male who pines for the white male supremacy of the 1950s will say the country is “on the wrong track.” And a woman, person of color, or young person who worries about a resurgence of white male supremacy will also say the country is “on the wrong track.” But that doesn’t mean they agree …

“It shouldn’t be that surprising that Americans feel pretty good about the economy”

… and that’s why right track/wrong track polls can be misleading. Other data show most Americans are more optimistic than the PRRI survey suggests, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews reported:

This is the election that has been embraced by those across the ideological spectrum. People are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. That’s why Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. That’s why Bernie Sanders nearly beat Hillary Clinton.

There is just one problem: the facts.

The American people are not pissed at the state of the economy. At all.

They’re as happy as they were in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection. They largely approve of their president. They overwhelmingly support free trade and oppose immigration restriction, and in both cases the public is becoming more pro-globalization, not less. Donald Trump won a Republican primary where turnout, as always, was low, and got as far as he did on the votes of a relatively small fraction of Americans.

And as we obsess over the faulty narrative, we miss some other things that really matter. This is just one aspect of the election that we’re getting very wrong.

Matthews cites data from the St. Louis Fed, going all the way back to 1980. The Index of Consumer Sentiment tracks Americans’ general feelings about the economy, and it’s as high now as it was in the mid-80s and mid-90s. Yes, really.

And small wonder:

Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that Americans feel pretty good about the economy – the Census Bureau’s report on 2015 suggests that for actual families, income growth is faster than it’s been in years.

Not only did the typical household see its income rise by 5.2 percent, or $2,800 in real terms, but the growth was concentrated at the bottom. The poor saw incomes go up by 7.9 percent, compared with only 3.7 percent growth for people in the 95th percentile of incomes. If you adopt a more accurate inflation measure than the one the census uses, household median income has never been higher. As a final cherry on top, 2.7 million people fell out of poverty from 2014 to 2015, and the poverty rate, properly measured, fell by a full percentage point.[Emphasis added]

Yes, the post-Great Recession recovery is finally making its way to hardworking families.

And despite Trump’s anti-trade and anti-immigrant rants, Gallup found 58% of Americans see trade as “an opportunity” rather than as “a threat” and 59% of Americans think immigration levels should rise or remain as they are, while only 38% want immigration reduced. Also, a Pew Research survey found 58% of Americans said “an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in our country makes this country a better place to live,” and 69% of Americans think “illegal immigrants” should be allowed to stay in the U.S. Yes, really.

“A future of material abundance and plentiful jobs”

Oh, and despite Trump’s harping, Vox’s Timothy Lee explains why slow economic growth does not mean less productivity or fewer jobs:

Most of the progress in recent decades has involved making cheaper and more convenient versions of products that already existed. Phone calls and photographs, for example, have been around for a long time, but over the past 20 years we’ve seen a revolutionary decline in the cost and massive increase in the convenience of snapping photos or making long-distance calls.

As innovation has pushed down the cost of certain types of products (mostly durable goods such as televisions, furniture, and clothing), Americans have used the savings to spend more on other things – especially education, health care, child care, and housing – where productivity growth has been much slower.
Slow growth sounds bad, but the future implied by the productivity paradox isn’t actually so terrible. It means that in the future a small minority of people will produce the world’s material goods and automated services, while the rest of us are focused on providing personalized services to each other. It’s a future of material abundance and plentiful jobs.

Indeed, one way to think about it is that middle-class Americans are getting close to enjoying as much material comfort and convenience as it’s possible for any society to provide for ordinary people. Accumulating even more stuff isn’t going to make us much happier, so we’re devoting more and more of our incomes to personal services that don’t see rapid productivity growth but do a lot to make our lives better.

Lee goes on to explain why service-sector wages grow at almost the same rate as manufacturing wages (Baumol’s Cost Disease or, as Lee prefers to call it, “Baumol’s Wage Bonus”) and why we shouldn’t long for The Good Old Days of factory jobs:

But the more important point is that factory jobs used to be awful. That changed slowly and painfully over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century as society developed institutions like labor unions that helped ensure ordinary workers were treated fairly.

There’s probably nothing we can do to stop the growth of service sector jobs. What we should be doing instead is taking this shift seriously and thinking more about how to make service sector jobs better. Depending on your politics, you might think that would mean stricter enforcement of labor laws, stronger union organizing, lowering of barriers to entrepreneurship, better worker training, etc. A serious debate about those alternatives would be a lot more productive than complaining about the decline of manufacturing – a long-term trend that can’t and shouldn’t be reversed.

In short, most Americans are optimistic and not because they’re naïve. They’re optimistic because the future looks brighter than the past … and we might even get to read ETmails.



Photo Credit: Serge Brunier


Good day and good nuts