From Deep In Space, A Strange Radio Signal

7:04 minutes

a circular body emits glowing rays from its surface into space
A rupture in the crust of a highly magnetized neutron star, shown here in an artist’s rendering, can trigger high-energy eruptions. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

This week, hundreds of astronomers met at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle. Among the topics of discussion was a new set of new observations of fast radio bursts (FRBs), strange millisecond-long, high-energy blips of radio energy from billions of light years away. Scientists reported spotting 13 new FRBs, including the second repeating source ever identified.  

Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, joins Ira to talk about the fast radio burst research and other selected short subjects in science, including the plight of the monarch butterfly, the tale of an ancient woman with a bit of blue pigment in her teeth, and more.

Further Reading

Read more about the mysterious cosmic radio burst. [Gizmodo]

Why is California’s monarch butterfly population disappearing? [The New York Times]

Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about the government shutdown and its effects on the scientific community. So we want to hear from you. Are you a scientist, or in a science-related industry, or a contractor that has been affected by the shutdown? We want to hear from you, and our phone number, 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255 You can also tweet us at @scifri. 

But first, one of the places that was shut down, and that the shutdown was in evidence this week, was at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle. No federal scientists there, but hundreds of other astronomers were in attendance. And among the topics of discussion was a set of new observations of fast radio bursts– strange, millisecond long, high-energy blips of radio energy from billions of light years away. 

Scientists reported spotting 13 new bursts, including a second repeating source ever identified. They did not rule out it being intelligent life. Joining me to talk about that– 


Ryan Mandelbaum’s already guffawing at that– science writer at Gizmodo, here in New York. Welcome to Science Friday. Welcome back, Ryan. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s always good to be here, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: So is it that crazy that it could have been intelligent life? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: No, I was just waiting for you to say that it might have been aliens. 


So they’re not going to rule out aliens. I’ll tell you it’s not aliens, but you could think whatever you’d like. So I mean, it was the CHIME telescope in Canada which, sort of very quickly after it turned on, found these new sources of radio pulses that– they’re high powered, they’re coming from outside of the galaxy, they’re definitely strange. They could be maybe from neutron stars or maybe from chaotic events. But then the weird one is this repeating one. It’s like, why would we keep getting this radio burst over and over again from this source? 

IRA FLATOW: It might be something we would send out if we were searching– putting out a repeating– hey, I’m going to move on, because I– 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I’m making a face. Maybe. I mean– 

IRA FLATOW: How are they observing them? If they’re happening so fast, how do you observe them? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. Well, so you have a special telescope. It’s a radio-detecting telescope that would look for these. So the CHIME telescope in Canada. 

IRA FLATOW: CHIME. Chime– chime right in. So we don’t know what’s causing them? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Um, you know, there’s plus there’s plenty of theories and ideas. Again, the strongest one maybe magnetized neutron stars. But for these repeaters, I think that hopefully, now that we know that there’s two, maybe there’s however many more, hundreds, thousands– who knows. So we have to just keep observing, and then look for patterns, and come up with theories and test them, and pick out the sort of data from the noise. 

IRA FLATOW: There can never only be one or two of anything out there. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, right. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move on. You have a story this week about a kind of grizzly effect of climate change in certain birds. I know you’re a birder– you keep track of this stuff. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I do. So I don’t know if you’ve heard about great tit. It’s a common bird in Europe that looks like a big chickadee. They have been observed killing– well, they’ve been observed having dead fly catchers in their nest boxes. So they haven’t been observed killing them, but they think that because of climate change these great tits are killing these other birds, pied flycatchers, and then eating their brains. Because they’re– we can skip that part. But because they’re– 

IRA FLATOW: We want the details. It’s OK. 


RYAN MANDELBAUM: The migration patterns of the pied flycatchers are slowly moving back as things warm, and then the great tits, they react very strongly to changes in weather. So they’re coming into contact a little more. 

IRA FLATOW: So is this a story about competition then between two species? Is that climate changing? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. Yeah, exactly. It’s about climate change sort of changing the timing of these two species life cycles to the point that they’re coming in to conflict more. Or they could be maybe coming into conflict more in the future. 

IRA FLATOW: Why would they be eating the brains? I want to go back there, because it’s so interesting. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They’re not the only birds that eat brains. I know that there are woodpecker species that eat brains. I mean, brain-eating isn’t the weirdest thing in the animal kingdom. 

IRA FLATOW: Who knew? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I guess, I did. 


IRA FLATOW: So is the population going to be affected, or? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Actually, as of yet, they haven’t– that’s sort of the big caveat of the paper is that they think that the ones that have been going are the pied flycatchers are these late arriving males. And so because it’s sort of excess males who are being killed, it’s not effecting the population. But if this continues, and it’s possible that maybe it will, we just haven’t seen any effects on the population quite yet. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Continuing on the theme of flying things, there’s news this week about the monarch butterfly. Tell us about that. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. So California’s Western Monarch Butterfly population hit a record low this year when they counted them. And so 86% lower than last year, and it’s already sort of precipitous decline since the 1980s. So it’s not good. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s not good. 


IRA FLATOW: Wow. Do we know why? Is it a climate change thing or something else? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: In fact, the reason that I saw in the New York Times report was that monarchs need to eat milkweed. And Urban Development, alongside pesticide, and even the drought in California has been harming the milkweed population. And so if you’re living on the West Coast and you’re worried about your monarchs, then you should plant milkweed. 

IRA FLATOW: You should. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: And I don’t know– have you been to like Santa Cruz during the monarch migration? 

IRA FLATOW: No, I wish I had. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: There’s a lot of butterflies. 

IRA FLATOW: But I could tell you, I have a lot of milkweed. 


IRA FLATOW: I could ship it out there and they’d be very happy to eat it. There’s a story this week about an ancient woman and a bit of blue pigment. Connect the dots for us on that. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, this one was pretty amazing. Scientists accidentally uncovered the remains of a woman with flecks of blue lapis lazuli in her teeth. So they did the radiocarbon dating. It would have been during about 1,000 AD. 

And so you wonder, OK, why does she have this mineral in her teeth? And it’s likely because she was like an artisan scribe– so one of the people who would create these beautiful religious texts that you see at the museum. 



IRA FLATOW: So it just was a random find. I mean, they didn’t expect to find– 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, they didn’t expect to find this. I mean they were looking at her teeth to see what she was eating, because that could be an interesting way to learn about lifestyle. And they found this blue stuff. 

IRA FLATOW: And where would the blue come from. What would she be doing with it? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, the interpretation that I read was that perhaps she was licking the tip of her brush. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, she a painter? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, a scribe. Yeah. She was writing. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, she was a scribe. Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Get it wet so it makes a pointy. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I know. It’s actually pretty cool that– so this dye, ultramarine, that’s made from lapis lazuli was perhaps one of the most expensive pigments. And so not only was she an artisan in a field that, I guess, over history, people have traditionally assumed men were dominating, but she was probably a really good one. She was using such an expensive pigment in her work. 

IRA FLATOW: So, you know, you normally think that it’s a group of monks who are scribes. So this sort of says there were other people who were around. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. And it’s actually an increased body of evidence now that’s leading towards sort of this conclusion. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Thank you, Ryan. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo here in New York. And happy birding to you. 


IRA FLATOW: Whatever we can do.

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