Sorry, But Still No Aliens

7:06 minutes

An illustration of a hypothetical uneven ring of dust orbiting KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby’s Star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week, the hopes of alien hunters were dimmed again with a report on the unusual “Tabby’s Star,” a distant object that appears to regularly brighten and dim. A Kickstarter-backed observation and work by over a hundred astronomers led to the conclusion that the strange stellar behavior probably isn’t caused by an alien megastructure around the star—rather, dust is likely to blame.  

Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, joins Ira to talk about that report and other highlights from the week in science, including the sequencing of the genome of a Native American infant from 11,000 years ago, research into representing the possible physics of extra spatial dimensions, and the puzzling conversation around ‘raw water.’

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. Making your New Year’s resolutions? Well, how about one of them– well, it should be to not get hacked this year. And later in the hour, we’re going to talk about how to build up your digital security.

Do you have a question about passwords, VPNs, and protecting devices? Give us a call, our number 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or tweet us @scifri. We’ll be talking about digital security.

But first, if you’re on the East Coast, you may still be digging out from that big winter storm and facing the icy cold. It’s actually eight degrees outside here today. But there is news this week about an ancient infant and the last ice age. Joining me to talk about that and other selected short subjects in sciences, Ryan Mandelbaum, a science writer at Gizmodo here in our pretty warm studios.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s nice. It’s not too bad. [CHUCKLES]

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about this infant. Who was this infant?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so like you said, in the last ice age, so 11,500 years ago, it was a six-week-old girl who was discovered in the ice up north. And the local communities let the scientists actually search, look through her DNA and reconstruct her genome, and found that, in fact, she was an ancient Beringian, which is a never before seen lineage of human.

And it also helped date just about when humans came over the Beringia, the ice bridge that, during the Ice Age, linked Russia and Alaska. So there are some disagreements on the dates and the locations of the splits between these human lineages but definitely some really interesting stuff going on here.

IRA FLATOW: So why does this matter? What’s the important part of it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean, so what really matters here is that it just supports that the Native Americans originally came over from Siberia, and again shows this whole new human lineage that we hadn’t seen before that was probably later absorbed by the other– those further south lineages of Native Americans.

IRA FLATOW: Because there are other theories about the boats and coming by water and things like that, this sort of–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: [LAUGHS] Well, Beringia was pretty big. So it’s likely that the people were there for quite a long time and living and maybe even settling on it.

IRA FLATOW: And one big migration, this issue.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Potentially, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. You had some mind-bending news about research into other– I’m doing my Rod Serling imitation– taking you to other– you’ve entered another dimension here, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: [CHUCKLES] That’s right. This is some research that’s really weird. But you know that there are three dimensions in space and one dimension in time. You have a line, a square, a cube– that would be one, two, and three dimensions. But what if there was a fourth spatial dimension, some sort of hypercube or tesseract.

So there is a physical effect that the math says should exist in this fourth dimension called the quantum Hall effect, which we don’t really need to get into. But two teams of scientists actually found evidence of this fourth dimensional quantum Hall effect in lower-dimensional systems, basically signatures in a mathematical number that one team measured and then this strange light-jumping behavior in the other one.

IRA FLATOW: So if you have a three-dimensional world, like we have. And you had a cube, and you shone a light on it. Then the shadow would be in two dimensions.


IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying they could see a fourth dimension by doing something that shows up in our three-dimensional world.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: The experiments, in fact, were in two dimensions–

IRA FLATOW: Two dimension.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: [CHUCKLES] –but yes, almost exactly like that. It’s like they’ve seen this eerie shadow of some fourth-dimensional effect in a lower-dimensional system, which [SIMULATES EXPLOSION], real mind-blowing. [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: But we always think of the fourth dimension as time. You’re saying there’s a physical fourth dimension here.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: They’re seeing hints of a physical fourth dimension in this system. They’re not saying that a fourth spatial dimension exists. They’re just saying they found some weird physics stuff happening that looks like it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and we love weird physics. [LAUGHS]


IRA FLATOW: And so this could open a pathway to other things, if this is true?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Sure. Yeah, with this effect, maybe there are other places where there are signs of some fourth spatial dimensional physics occurring in these lower systems that might help explain things like quantum gravity or–

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, maybe some other strange–

IRA FLATOW: Entanglements or–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Maybe, who knows?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we love to speculate on that. You can’t be wrong at this point. [LAUGHING]

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, right, right, right.

IRA FLATOW: In other physics news, it’s still probably not aliens. You know what I’m talking about?


IRA FLATOW: The star that has some weird things going on around it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, so we’re talking about Tabby’s star, Tabitha Boyajian’s star. It’s 1,000 light years away. It’s about 50% bigger than the sun. It’s 1,000 degrees hotter.

And citizen scientists recently noticed this strange dimming behavior that was just unexplainable. The star would dim for days or even weeks at a time. And everybody was like, well, maybe aliens are building some strange megastructure around it.

But after a big crowdsourced funding activity, they used the Las Cumbres Observatory to find that probably not aliens. The best explanation is maybe dust.

IRA FLATOW: How disappointing. [LAUGHING]

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s disappointing, but it’s exciting. What is this dust, and why is this dust there? That’s cool.

IRA FLATOW: And they don’t have a speculation about that, why the dust is there, or where it came from? And just the fact that they can see it on an exoplanet is just crazy–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right. I mean, it’s just a weird thing. And this is a whole– this is new science that we’re looking at here. So it’s definitely just an exciting thing to keep our eyes on.

IRA FLATOW: Where did you get money to study this? This is a Kickstarter?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. It was crowdfunded.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, wow. And finally, this one– [LAUGHS] I mean, I’ve seen it all week. We have to talk about the raw water. People are drinking raw water and thinking that it’s healthier than other stuff. The stuff is flowing out of pipes and in streams or–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s really– this one is killing me. I mean, there are companies that are selling untreated, unfiltered water for prices of like $35 for two and a half gallons, as was reported by The New York Times, which is of course insane.


But it’s this wariness of tap water, this conspiracy theory about fluoride. I think there’s a lot of different things combined here. But I’m here to tell you that you should not drink raw water, Ira.


RYAN MANDELBAUM: It could have E. coli in it. It could have Giardia in it. I had Giardia once, and it was the worst. It was so bad. Don’t drink this stuff.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, well look, if people will drink water shipped from a South Sea island–


–pay a lot of money for it, like they’re going to drink the raw water, right? I mean, get yourself a home filtration system. Bottle your own water and take it with you, yeah.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well you’ve heard my warnings, so–

IRA FLATOW: There you go, and from a man who knows. You don’t have any of those bottles with you. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo. Thank you for being with us today.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Thanks so much, Ira.

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