The fall of SETI

April 28, 2011

It is the end of an era. The U.S. government is retiring its space shuttle program and now due to a lack of funds, SETI, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is being forced to mothball their Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio dishes in northern California. This is a great loss as SETI remains arguably the most likely means of us making contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe

If you wish to donate to this important organization, visit their donation page.

Perhaps no one is better at conveying the importance of this endeavor better than Carl Sagan, the author who gave us the SETI-centered novel Contact:

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News From Around The Blogosphere 4.20.11

April 20, 2011

1. Siberian YouTube alien is a hoax – This week a YouTube video has been making the rounds that seems to show the discovery of a dead space alien in the ice. Of course, as it turns out, the tiny “dead alien” is just skin from chicken filled with bread that was painted in “alien colors,” whatever that is.

2. Dilbert’s evolution-denying creator caught using sock accounts – Many people don’t know this but Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons, doesn’t believe in evolution. What you might also not know is that he often defends himself against critics online under the anonymous account, PlannedChaos in order to give the illusion of impartiality. And when his dishonesty was caught, his excuse was that since it hardly even registers when compared with the worst immoral behavior imaginable that that somehow makes his actions acceptable. PZ Myers offers this hilarious response:

Great. So if ever I’m caught kicking a puppy or lying on the internet, all I need to do is explain that I didn’t kill six million Jews, so you can all forgive me.

Myers perfectly demonstrates what a pathetic argument that is and how it can be used to justify literally anything.

Exhibit A:

3. Jesus loves Kit Kat viral video – Whenever I hear a pareidolia-themed news story about people seeing the face of Jesus in some random object, I love to post about it. Hell, I’m even making a short film mocking the phenomenon. And last year, when a video emerged showing people who allegedly found Jesus’ face in a Kit Kat bar, I probably reported it. But it turns out that it was a Poe, a deliberate hoax that was indistinguishable from a genuine news story. In actuality, it was an experiment to see if they could get the video to go viral.

On a related note…

4. Canadian-Israeli director Simcha Jacobovici claims to have found the nails that crucified Jesus – How does he know? Well, they’re really old. What more proof do you nned?

5. Mitchell and Webb bring us Holistic ER – The group that has given us Homeopathic A&E, also has another video mocking holistic medicine of all kinds.

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Latest FBI document on Roswell dissected

April 11, 2011
Cover of "Forbidden Planet (Two-Disc Spec...

Cover via Amazon

Every once and awhile the news reports some alleged new evidence supporting the myth that space aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. And for a long time, I too was a believer in the Roswell case was a legitimate report of alien visitation. The latest alleged evidence is an FBI document from 1950 by someone named Guy Hottel.

UFO enthusiasts are already touting this as smoking gun evidence for their particular belief but Steve Novella takes a closer look at what the document really says. Here’s just a small excerpt:

The body of the report is also very telling. The flying saucers are described as looking exactly like flying saucers looked from 1950s science fiction. This is the ship from Forbidden Planet. The aliens themselves are clothed in shimmering metallic fabric – again, right out of contemporary science fiction. This is three years after Roswell, and clearly the mythology had already evolved a bit. There was a rash of “flying saucer” reports at that time, and it’s no surprise that intelligence agencies were paying attention (especially in light of the growing cold war with the Soviet Union).

He sums up the report has featuring nothing but rumor being passed routinely up the chain of appropriate channels with no evidence it was ever taken seriously:

It reflects the popular culture of the time, and provides no real evidence or insight. This is not the smoking-gun that UFO enthusiasts have been hoping for.

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Reports of bacteria from space mildly exaggerated

March 8, 2011

By now you may have heard that we’ve found evidence that we’re not alone in the universe. It was reported several days ago that alien microbes born in outer space had been found in meteorites on Earth. However, according to NASA, that story is not entirely accurate…which is to say, it’s not at all accurate:

The US space agency formally distanced itself from the paper by NASA scientist Richard Hoover, whose findings were published Friday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmology, which is available free online.

“That is a claim that Mr Hoover has been making for some years,” said Carl Pilcher, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

“I am not aware of any support from other meteorite researchers for this rather extraordinary claim that this evidence of microbes was present in the meteorite before the meteorite arrived on Earth and and was not the result of contamination after the meteorite arrived on Earth,” he told AFP.

“The simplest explanation is that there are microbes in the meteorites; they are Earth microbes. In other words, they are contamination.”

This response at least seems far less political than their sheepish initial response, which PZ Myers harshly criticized. But I am glad that Myers took a moment to acknowledge his desire to see the discovery of life from elsewhere other than Earth as one of the tough things I’ve experienced in the three plus years since I abandoned my belief that aliens have already visited Earth is always being viewed as someone who doesn’t want to find evidence for life elsewhere in the universe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Statistically, the odds of other life–even other intelligent life–are almost certain and as Carl Sagan said, if it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.

And now that we’ve detected water elsewhere in our own solar system, that increases the odds significantly that we’ll find evidence that at least single-celled life live or once lived not far from us. And given such discoveries, I’ll even speculate that I wouldn’t be surprised if such evidence emerged within the next five years. Of course that’s just my baseless speculation and time will tell if it proves accurate.

Also check out Phil Plait’s more detailed piece on this non-news story here.

And just for fun, here’s what you get when you mix Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot with an Old Spice commercial:

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News From Around The Blogosphere 2.11.11

February 11, 2011
Grainy B&W image of supposed UFO, Passoria, Ne...

Image via Wikipedia

1. Jerusalem UFO video exposed as fake – Okay, so the video looked pretty poor to begin with, giving us nothing but a tiny moving ball of light but it’s still fun to apply more analysis to it anyway. Steven Novella had already done a great critical analysis of the video here where he observed that the video largely consists of a still image with added effects to create the illusion of shaky-cam video footage, but now Phil Plait has found a video posted on YouTube that actually exposes the specific digital editing tricks used to create the illusion of a shaky camera. Unlike other alleged UFO videos, there’s no ambiguity here. This video is a deliberate fake and its been busted cold.

2. Creepy head-mask to punish ‘rude, clamorous” women – Okay, I just thought this story was really cool. This mask was used between 1550 and 1800 to punish women considered to be spending too much time gossiping or quarrelling. When wearing the mask, it’s impossible to speak. Some of these masks, like the one pictured, even had a bell on them to add to the wearer’s humiliation.

3. Robots to get their own internet – European scientists are working on a network that would allow robots to share and store what they discover about the world:

Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.

Researchers behind it hope it will allow robots to come into service more quickly, armed with a growing library of knowledge about their human masters.

4. Scientology continues to have a terrible week – I already briefly wrote about the incredible, super-long New Yorker piece by Lawrence Wright on Scientology apostate Paul Haggis, which mentioned that the cult is currently under an FBI investigation for human trafficking. But there are so many highlights to the piece. After finally managing to read the whole article, I got to where Wright talks about fact-checking L. Ron Hubbard’s claim that he was injured during military service and was miraculously healed by the methods now practiced as part of Scientology. After Scientology Spokesman Tommy Davis gave the New Yorker thousands of pages of documents and allegedly admitted that if this Hubbard story didn’t check out, it’d mean all of Scientology was a fraud, Wright and his New Yorker fact-checkers went through the pain-staking process of getting military archivists who are experts in such documents. Those experts concluded that the documents were false, that there was no record of Hubbard’s injuries or of the officer who allegedly signed some of the documents, and that the documents lied about his education and the metals he’d received. Now the New Yorker has even put up a copy of at least one of the documents to show readers precisely how we know it’s a forgery.  Wright has also been turning up on various radio shows to discuss his findings (here and here). It just keeps getting worse for Scientology and they can’t seem to catch a break.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 7.20.10

July 20, 2010

1. A vaccine patch to replace needles?

The patch has hundreds of microscopic needles which dissolve into the skin.

Tests in mice show the technology may even produce a better immune response than a conventional jab.

Awesome! Of course this isn’t likely to make vaccine deniers any less anti-vaccine. But

2. Lesbian teen Constance McMillen wins $35,000 settlement – Congratulations to Constance, who is the teen who was discriminated against by her high school officials who kept her from attending her own prom. Now she’s won a legal victory against the school, a great topic for a college essay, about 1-year’s tuition towards college, and the respect of a nation.

3. Chinese UFO sighting turns out to not be aliens – I know. Shocking. First of all, it was a rocket. Second of all, the footage wasn’t shot in China but in Borat‘s native country (presumably during the running of the Jew festivities). And third, there’s a lot of Photoshopped images being passed off as this Chinese UFO. So every part of this story turns out to be completely wrong. Brilliant.

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Why do space aliens love New Jersey so much?

May 17, 2010

It has long been observed that my home state of New Jersey is the preferred space port of inter-stellar travelers across the universe. First the Martians invaded Grovers Mills, New Jersey on October 30, 1938 (though that turned out to be just Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds). Then in January of 2009, a UFO was famously spotted near Morristown, New Jersey (though that turned out to just be a hoax by my friends Chris Russo and Joe Rudy).

And now another UFO was spotted near Sumerset County, New Jersey. This was a long, tube-like structure that nobody could identify.

The Air Traffic Control Tower in Morristown did not have any pilot reports of the object, nor did officials at Solberg Airport in Hunterdon, Somerset Airport in Bedminster and Blairstown Airport in Warren County.

Chris and Joe, is this you guys again?