11/09/2018

‘Oumuamua Is Probably Not Aliens—But It’s Still Really Interesting

11:43 minutes

Just over a year ago, an unusual cigar-shaped object zoomed by Earth. The speed and trajectory of the object, dubbed ʻOumuamua, led astronomers to suggest that it may have come from outside our solar system. This week, two researchers suggested in a scientific paper that ʻOumuamua could be some sort of alien spacecraft—but there are other, more conventional explanations for the object’s behavior.  

Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, joins Flora Lichtman to discuss the reasons that ʻOumuamua probably is not an alien scout ship. They’ll also discuss a newly elected group of legislators with STEM backgrounds, an extinct 10-foot tall blind bird, measuring photosynthesis in progress, and the tool-building prowess of goffin cockatoos.


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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer at Gizmodo in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman, sitting in for Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll take a look at what happens to your microbiome when you move to another country. But first, this Tuesday, people across the country went to the polls, with Democrats taking control of the House and Republicans expanding their representation in the Senate. But how about the science seat count? Americans voted in eight new legislators with backgrounds in science.

Joining me now to talk about that and other science stories from the week is Ryan Mandelbaum. He’s a science writer at Gizmodo here in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Nice to be here, Flora. How’s everything going?

FLORA LICHTMAN: Everything is great. How about you?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I’m good.

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK, so this week, I mean, everyone was talking about the election. Who are these new legislators with science backgrounds?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Sure. So there’s a bunch of names. We’ve got Lauren Underwood, Joe Cunningham, Elaine Luria– I don’t need to go through the whole list, but they’re all Democrats, and they’re a bunch of candidates that people are especially excited about, because they’ve taken over Republican seats or they’re first timers. And they have backgrounds in science, such as nursing degrees and engineering degrees and even one worked in nuclear reactors.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Here’s what I want to know– will it make a difference in terms of science policy? Like, if we look to the past and look at scientists in Congress or in the Senate, have they done more for science than people without science backgrounds?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: In fact, I don’t know. I think that we had– we recently, this past year, wrote an article about Bill Foster, who is the only science PhD in Congress. And he seemed to stress a little bit more frustration. And in fact, recently, Maggie Koerth-Baker from FiveThirtyEight had written something along the lines of, we haven’t decided what it means to be a science candidate at all, or whether it will do anything at all. So we’re unclear.

FLORA LICHTMAN: I guess we’ll wait and see.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh yeah.

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK, so there’s another election coming up, a science election of sorts. Tell me about it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so the kilogram– approximately a little more than two pounds– is getting redone. So we’re frequently– the old kilogram is actually just a hunk of metal in Paris.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Wait, wait. So there is an actual kilogram.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s called Le Grand K.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And is it locked up in a safe or something?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it has separate keys and underneath bell jars. Yeah, totally.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And what is the purpose of having this physical kilogram?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So the kilogram has a long history dating back to– when merchants needed to sell things, they would sell them by weight. And they could always change things and lie, so they began standardizing the kilogram based on the measurements of water. But water is obviously a little difficult to carry around everywhere, so instead, they made a kilogram. Now, countries across the world agreed on that piece of metal being the kilogram, and then they’d make copies and base their own measurements of what a kilogram meant on that kilogram.

FLORA LICHTMAN: On this physical kilogram.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: On this piece of– it’s platinum and iridium I believe. A piece of metal. But now what’s going to happen is, that is not good. What if somebody loses it? What if the building burns down? So–

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yeah, I can see why having a whole unit of measure tied to one physical object might be tricky, might be a problem.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Exactly. And I do believe the vote is expected to pass, that next week, we’ll actually see the kilogram instead be redefined based on a constant of nature called Planck’s constant.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Is there a way to get into this without it being too technical?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, sure. Planck’s constant is basically the relationship between a photon’s energy and its wavelength. So just a packet of light, how much energy it has based on its color. Now, it’s got a unit of kilogram built into its units at the end of this number. And it’s always the same, from our understanding. So because of that, you could derive the kilogram from our base measurements of Planck’s constant, instead of the other way around.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So you wouldn’t need the physical kilogram anymore?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: No. Instead, you’d need this big machine called a kibble balance. But–

FLORA LICHTMAN: A kibble balance?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yep, but countries have kibble balances, and you could build a kibble balance.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Oh, OK. So when is the vote?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s next week now. I don’t remember the exact day, but it should pass.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And the vote is to get rid of the physical kilogram and move to this other way of defining the kilogram.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right.

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK. What about this alien frenzy this week?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yes. If you were on Twitter at pretty much any point this past week, you may have seen a little bit about an alien space rock. Now, back last year in October, a asteroid whizzed through the solar system and flew off, and it’s now orbiting the sun. It was what we think was the first interstellar visitor.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What does that mean? Like, it came in like a boomerang?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean, pretty much. It just– in, said hello, and then whizzed out. Initial measurements, estimates– people thought it was 800 meters by 80 meters by 80 meters and cigar shaped, was what they thought. But the issue is that it’s accelerating too fast. And people wanted to know, well, what is causing it to accelerate so quickly? And–

FLORA LICHTMAN: Accelerating too fast as in faster than what you would expect it to be doing?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Based on gravity alone. So the idea is perhaps it’s being pushed along by the radiation from the sun, which would work, but according to a paper from Harvard scientists, it would have to be really big and flat, like an object we’ve never seen before, in order to experience this acceleration. Now obviously, we all wrote debunkers that were like, it’s not aliens. It’s obviously not aliens. You need to rule out everything else, like all the other asteroids it could be, before saying that it’s aliens.

But it is, at the same time, an interesting question to ask– why is this thing accelerating so quickly out of the solar system, and what are the parameters around it? What does it look like? I mean, I think the only way to answer these questions is, of course, to hope for another one.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So these scientists in this paper suggested maybe it is aliens.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They– so–

FLORA LICHTMAN: What did they actually say?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They did absolutely say that is perhaps a solar sail visiting the solar system, a solar sail being this propelled big, giant, solar sun-propelled thing. Yes, they did in fact imply that it could be aliens.

FLORA LICHTMAN: How did other scientists react?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Mm, varying. I would say most said no, it’s obviously not aliens. A lot we’re mad that this hype was being built around it being aliens before definitively ruling out non-aliens. And I would say that we should leave open the possibility that it is something weird, because that’s how science works. I mean, scientists create hypotheses, and then they try and rule them out. But if it was something– you can’t just say it was aliens. You can’t go aliens first.

FLORA LICHTMAN: But you can keep your mind open.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: And in fact, these scientists behind this mission are currently working with the breakthrough initiative to develop a solar sail. So it’s almost beneficial for them to say, oh, maybe somebody else built a solar sail first. Now we can build one and see if we can get to a new star. That’s my own speculation, but who knows.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Is there anything else we can learn from this object, or any other questions people are asking about it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: In fact, there are. I think again, this why is it accelerating so quickly is a good question. And I think the other question is just, where is it from? What is it? What’s on it? I mean, we recently wrote a story over at Gizmodo that was like, maybe it’s storing some information from another star system, that maybe there’s hints of life or hints of the composition of another planet. And maybe Jupiter, for example, has some moons orbiting in it that seem to be moving incorrectly, which I’ve spoken about on Science Friday before. And maybe Jupiter’s captured an object like this that we can go find and see if it came from another star system.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Speaking of mysterious oversized things, there was some other news about a bird this week, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh yes. Bird fans might be familiar with the elephant bird, which was the height of an elephant, the weight of a horse, and is extinct for about 1,000 years. So it at one point did live around the same time as humans did.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Height of an elephant.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: And we recently found out that it perhaps was also blind and nocturnal.

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is mind boggling to me.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s like a big, pathetic bird.

FLORA LICHTMAN: It’s amazing that it existed at all– a blind bird the size of an elephant.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, yeah. I mean, so this bird would have been cousins with the other flightless birds– kiwis, emus, cassowaries– but the difference– and so actually the reason why we think it might be nocturnal is because kiwis are nocturnal, and they’ve mostly lost the part of their brain in charge of vision. So now this bird also, based on scans of the inside of its skull, seems to have lost the similar part of its brain. But the question is that the kiwi has a really good makeup system for smelling and for getting around, but we don’t know if the elephant bird had that same system.

FLORA LICHTMAN: How can you tell anything about whether the elephant bird could see or not given that it went extinct 1,000 years ago?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Thankfully, there are museum specimens of skulls and pieces of the bird, and this inference that it may have been blind and nocturnal came from a scan of an inside of a skull.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Oh, interesting. So you can use that to recreate what the brain looked like, and then deduce whether it had big lobes related to vision.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, precisely. Just like that.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Got it. You had another piece of bird news for us?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yes, I am chock full of bird news. Well, and other than the duck, which I also recently wrote about. I love the Central Park duck.

FLORA LICHTMAN: I love the Central Park duck too. I’m glad we can get that shout out in.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Excellent. But the other– I’ve written, actually, two stories in the past month about birds using tools, and one story was New Caledonian crows can construct compound tools. So they can see something that’s a little too far away from their reach, take one piece of what was these cylinders, plug it into another, and then go reach for this thing, which, I mean, that is mind boggling. And then the other one is that Goffin’s cockatoos can bite out little pieces of cardboard with their beaks, and judging by the distance of the object, build a tool the length of the distance of whatever that object they want to reach is.

The coolest part about that paper was the fact that these birds were building cardboard sticks that were a little too short to reach the object and then dropping it as soon as they’re like, no, that’s not going to fit. They didn’t even try.

FLORA LICHTMAN: They didn’t even try using it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They were like, this is too small. And then they built a longer one, so–

FLORA LICHTMAN: They built a short tool, they looked at it, and they said, not good enough. I got to go back to the drawing board.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Not in every case, but in some cases.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Cockatoos are amazing birds though. Did we know that they used tools before this?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I don’t remember reading it, but I mean, they’re not known to use tools in the wild. These cockatoos had been taught. A lot of them already knew how to make these cardboard sticks, but actually seeing them adjust the length of the cardboard strips just by the length and the distance of the food was pretty amazing. And shout out to the crows too, because crows are also amazing.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Absolutely. Have you seen videos of cockatoos destroying complex block sets from kids?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, I’ve seen all sorts of cockatoo videos.

FLORA LICHTMAN: I mean, this news about cockatoos does not surprise me.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Excellent.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Ryan, thanks so much for being with us today.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Thanks for having me, Flora. This was great.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer at Gizmodo here in New York.

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