10 Baffling Scientific Mysteries Of Everyday Things


How do bees fly? Why do some corals pulsate? What is ball lightning? Those questions are now answered (or at least mostly answered). You might even think that all everyday things are now well understood, with mysteries relegated to the rare, the remote, and the recondite. Yet many everyday things still harbor their secrets.

10Sticky Tape


If you peel certain kinds of sticky tape (including Scotch tape) in a vacuum, it produces short bursts of X-rays. A group of UCLA scientists first noticed this crazy fact in 2008, although Soviet scientists had observed something similar (producing high-energy electrons rather than X-rays) in the 1950s. It seems that no one believed the Soviet findings. How could peeling tape generate such high-energy electrons? Since 2008, many other scientists have produced X-rays with sticky tape, so it seems to be a real phenomenon—but how does it happen?

We know that peeling the tape causes charge to build up, just like static charge builds up if you pet a cat with a credit card. It’s called the triboelectric effect. Once the charge (and associated electric field) gets big enough, there’s a sudden discharge—a burst of electrons jumps and gets going so fast that when the electrons hit some matter, they emit X-rays. The problem is understanding how the electrons get going so fast. The 2008 paper concluded: “The limits on energies and flash widths that can be achieved are beyond current theories of tribology.”



Everyday objects are made of atoms and every atom contains one or more protons. The simplest atom—hydrogen—consists of one proton and one electron. A proton can be modeled as a tiny ball with a constant radius. Using data from experiments with hydrogen, scientists have estimated the radius of the proton. Their current best estimate (the CODATA 2010 value) is 0.8775 femtometers, with an uncertainty of plus or minus 0.0051 femtometers. A femtometer (fm) is one quadrillionth of a meter.

Scientists wanted a smaller uncertainty than 0.0051, so Randolf Pohl and his colleagues did experiments with an exotic form of hydrogen called muonic hydrogen. It’s just like regular hydrogen, except the electron is replaced with a muon, a particle similar to an electron but with much greater mass. As expected, Pohl et al reduced the uncertainty down to 0.00067 fm and a later experiment reduced it even further. But there was a surprise—they got a much smaller value for the radius of the proton itself!

Here’s an analogy. Suppose you had a cheap measuring stick and you used it to measure the radius of a giant beach ball to be 1 meter, with an uncertainty of 0.1 meters. Then suppose you got some fancy giant calipers and you used them to get a measurement of 0.5 meters, with an uncertainty of 0.01 meters. What’s going on? The ball shouldn’t have a different radius depending on how you measure it! Yet that’s exactly what’s happening with the proton radius measurements.

Maybe the stated uncertainty in the CODATA 2010 value is too small? Maybe some other values used in the calculations are wrong? Or maybe some new physical phenomenon has been discovered? It’s a mystery.



Men have an X chromosome from their mom and a Y chromosome from their dad. Women have an X chromosome from their mom and a (different) X chromosome from their dad (other combinations of X and Y chromosomes can occur, but XY and XX are the most common). Each cell in a woman’s body has copies of both X chromosomes. Starting in 1949, a sequence of discoveries led to the realization that one of those X chromosomes is always inactive—most of the genetic information on that X chromosome is ignored.

Suppose we have a cell from a woman where the X chromosome from her mom is inactive and the X chromosome from her dad is active. Let’s call that a “dad-cell.” Let’s call the other possibility a “mom-cell.” How does a cell decide whether to become a mom-cell or a dad-cell? Scientists once thought it was completely random—the cell did the equivalent of a coin toss. But recent experiments with mice showed that an entire organ (an eye, for example) can be mostly mom-cells or mostly dad-cells. It’s not random! It’s a mystery how the cell decides.

7Animal Magnetoception


Birds do it, bees do it, even ocean-roaming sharks do it—sense magnetic fields, that is. It’s known as magnetoception (or magnetoreception). How do they do it? There are two leading hypotheses.

The first (and oldest) hypothesis is that some animals have tiny bar magnets in some of their cells. The idea is that those bar magnets line up with the Earth’s magnetic field like compass needles, and their orientations are communicated to the brain. It’s not a crazy idea: Tiny bar magnets were found in pigeon beaks, for example. Unfortunately, the beak cells with bar magnets turned out to be immune system cells, unable to communicate with the pigeon’s brain.

The second leading hypothesis is that there’s a protein in the eye which, when it gets hit by blue light, splits into two pieces which are sensitive to magnetic fields. Of course, it’s possible that some animals use both mechanisms. It’s also possible that there are other mechanisms entirely. The science of animal magnetoception is still young, so a lot remains unknown.



Blushing is an involuntary reddening of the face, usually due to strong emotion or stress. It’s well-known that the reddening is due to widened blood vessels (vasodilation), but what triggers the vasodilation?

The first hint came in 1982, when Mellander et al found that facial veins have beta-adrenoceptors in addition to the usual alpha-adrenoceptors. Those receptors can be triggered by adrenaline and similar molecules associated with emotional response. Maybe the beta-adrenoceptors in the facial veins are what trigger blushing?

In the 1990s, Peter Drummond, a professor of psychology at Murdoch University, did some experiments to find out. Some of his test subjects were given drugs to block alpha-adrenoceptors and others were given drugs to block beta-adrenoceptors. He then had them perform stressful mental arithmetic, sing, or do moderate exercise (things which typically cause blushing) and measured their response. As expected, blocking alpha-adrenoceptors didn’t affect blushing. Blocking beta-adrenoceptors caused a decrease in blushing, but it didn’t prevent blushing altogether. There must be something else triggering blushing (vasodilation)—but what? It remains unknown.



Glass is everywhere in modern life: smartphone screens, soda bottles, coffee mugs, kitchen windows, you name it. Surely scientists and engineers understand glass. But in reality, glass is still deeply mysterious.

The mystery is in how glass forms. You can make glass by heating up a glass-forming substance like silicon dioxide until it’s liquid and then letting it cool. Unlike, for example, salt, which changes from a liquid to a crystalline solid at a specific temperature, glass gets more and more viscous as you cool it. If you get the temperature low enough, glass gets so viscous that it becomes solid, even though its molecules aren’t neatly arranged. In 2007, the American physicist James Langer wrote: “We don’t know what kind of transformation occurs when a liquid becomes a glass or even whether that familiar change of state is actually a thermodynamic phase transition like condensation or solidification, or something completely different.” The mysterious “glass transition” is still a topic of active research.

4Peanut Allergies


In the United States, the number of children with a peanut allergy has risen dramatically in recent years. One study found that the prevalence in children rose from 0.4 percent in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2008. Similar results were found in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Why? There are lots of theories.

Probably the most common idea is the hygiene hypothesis. Some modern children grow up in very clean environments, where they’re not exposed to the same bacteria, fungi, pollen, viruses, etc. as the children of previous times. The hypothesis is that their immune system develops differently as a result, so it responds differently to peanuts.

Another possibility is that peanuts are processed differently now (they’re roasted) which could conceivably make them more allergenic. Or perhaps modern kids aren’t getting enough vitamin D? Maybe peanuts are being introduced too late? There are lots of possibilities, but not many answers.

3Black Widow Venom


Black widow spiders are found in temperate places all over the world. When they bite humans, the venom often causes awful, body-wide pains and blood pressure fluctuations which can go on for days. According to Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass, “Some [victims] have tried to kill themselves to stop the pain.” How does the venom work? This is where things get mysterious:

“A dose of the venom contains only a few molecules of the neurotoxin, which has a high molecular weight—in fact, the molecules are large enough to be seen under an ordinary microscope. How do these few molecules manage to affect the entire body of an animal weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds? No one has explained the specific mechanism.”

Somehow, the neurotoxin must trick the body into attacking itself. Understanding how it does that might provide insights into autoimmune disorders and other conditions where the body attacks itself.



Hockey players and figure skaters glide across the ice because it’s very slippery—but why is it so slippery? The same skates won’t glide across asphalt, glass, or steel plate.

The old answer was that the skate exerts pressure on the ice. The increased pressure lowers the melting point of the ice, causing it to melt and create a thin layer of liquid water, which is slippery. The problem with that answer is that the pressure isn’t big enough to explain the observed slipperiness.

Two other answers have been proposed. One is that friction melts the ice. The other is that the ice/air boundary always has a thin layer of liquid water. There’s experimental evidence for both of those answers, so it might be a combination, but the relative contribution of each isn’t known. There might also be other mechanisms at work. The slipperiness of ice isn’t water’s only weird property—there are many more. For example, it has an unusually high melting point.

1The Dominance Of Matter


Almost everything around us is made of matter, not antimatter. When antimatter does manage to get produced (in the radioactive decay of certain atoms, for example, or in some thunderstorms), it usually runs into some matter and quickly vanishes in a burst of high-energy gamma rays.

The problem is that the current best model of fundamental particle physics, the Standard Model, predicts that equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been produced by the Big Bang. Yet there seems to be more matter than antimatter. Why?

One possibility is that the Standard Model needs to be revised so that the revised version predicts a slight preference for producing matter over antimatter. Another possibility is that the Standard Model is fine, but somehow the antimatter and matter became separated, with empty space between them. But what mechanism would separate them? Gravity would pull them together, not push them apart.

This problem is known as the baryon asymmetry of the universe. It remains one of the big unsolved mysteries of modern-day physics.



Fossils Are Cool, But Finding Really, Really Old Food? That’s Even Better.

Food has been around since the beginning of time. (That is probably pretty obvious.) We need it to survive. But did you know exactly how old your favorite foods and drinks are? Scientists who study ancient foods have found and determined how old these foods and drinks are and it is quite astonishing.

1. Chocolate


The world”s oldest chocolate was found in Utah actually, not in Italy, Egypt, or and other place you”d expect to find the world”s oldest things. At around 1,300 years old, researchers discovered a chocolate residue on 13 ancient pots near Chaco Canyon. The bowls could prove that Native Americans in Utah were trading with the Mayans, but some believe its evidence of Mayan migrations.

2. Beer


Beer isn”t that old apparently. Scientists found the world”s oldest beer comes from around 1842. It was a Belgian beer found in a shipwreck and now a Finnish brewery plans to distribute the beer with a percentage of the profits going to scientific research.

3. Honey


The oldest-ever honey is 5,000 years old, almost 2,000 years older than King Tuts honey back in Egypt. The ancient honey was found in Georgia, and it shows a diversity of tastes. There were berry, meadow flower, and linden flavored honeys found.

4. Butter


The oldest butter was found in Ireland and is thought to be over 3,000 years old. The butter had become white and waxy with time, but didn”t look too bad. Unfortunately, no one gets to taste it. The National Museum of Ireland has declared the butter and the barrel to be a national treasure.

5. The Food of Ur

The Food of Ur

Scientists found a wooden box containing ancient food from Ur on top of a cupboard at the University of Bristol. It had previously been labeled as a find from a royal tomb. Ur, once part of Mesopotamia, is now Iraq. The box was originally found in the 1920s or 30s, and is around 4,500 years old.

6. Noodles


At 4,000 years old, the oldest noodles in the world were found in China. Sorry, Italy. Looks like China had you beat on the noodle front.

7. Soup


Most liquids dont last through the ages of time. This is why scientists were so shocked to discover ancient soup, still sealed so tightly in a bronze pot that it remained intact. The soup is rumored to be around 2,400 years old.

8. Wine


In ancient Rome, wine was plentiful. But researchers were shocked to find a bottle of wine still in tact that was over 1,600 years old

9. Cheese


Cheese has to age in order to become cheese, but 3,600 years is a little ridiculous. This cheese, reduced to lumps of yellow, was discovered in China. It was on the necks and chests of mummies that were buried in cowhide that helped preserve the cheese.

There you have it! Now the question is would you tempt eating 3,600 year old cheese or drinking 200 year old beer? That”s the real question.

H/T Allday



President Obama Just Unveiled The First-Ever National Plan To Save Our Honeybees

Im sure that you have all heard that honeybees are in grave danger of becoming extinct. Over the last decade, United States beekeepers noticed that their bees were dying at shocking rates during winter. This could have a dire impact on our economy, because bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion to our economy. President Obama recognized their importance and on Tuesday he unveiled the first-ever national plan to save our bees and other pollinators.

Last year, beekeepers reported losing more than 40 percent of their colonies. The bees are suffering from something known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD has no scientific cause and it is defined as a dead colony with no adult bees but with a live queen. Usually honey and other immature bees are still present in the colony. Thats not the only threat to bees though:

Since the 1980s, honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of new pathogens from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, new parasites such as Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources, and possible sublethal effects of pesticides. These problems, many of which honey bees might be able to survive if each were the only one, are often hitting in a wide variety of combinations, and weakening and killing honey bee colonies. [Source]

Bees are not the only pollinators in danger; in the last two decades the Monarch butterfly population has declined by 90 percent.

To combat this problem, President Obama issued a memo last June that directed an interagency task force to create a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. This task force released a three-step plan today to ensure that our pollinators return to healthy, robust numbers:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels.
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration.
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action.

The United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency will work together to create pollinator gardens across the country at federal buildings, as well as on private and public lands. President Obama also said that he will ask Congress to allocate more funding to the project.

President Obama said that we must all work together to make sure that our insects, birds, and bats are protected. You can help by planting a garden for pollinators at your house, limit your use of insecticides and if you have to use them, make sure you follow the instructions.

To find out more ways to save our bees, go here.

Featured image via Wikipedia

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  • Bruce 7

    There can be no saving OUR Bees plan that fails to recognize the primary cause Murder! Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta are Murdering OUR Bees! They created bee killing pesticides and are creating nanobot robobees in a Havard Lab. Yes really! Theyre making a killing off selling their pestacide and theyll make another from selling their robobees once all OUR bees are dead! Stop Monsatan and their friends and save OUR Bees!!!

  • some_guy_1

    Its good to see actual reality based solutions here instead of DERP DERP BAN NEONICS (and go back to the much more toxic stuff we were using before that). Though I wish theyd do more for the native, non-honeybee bees since they tend to be in smaller areas, are immune to colony collapse (since they dont hive like honeybees), and in theory should be easy to bring the numbers back up.

Using Any Of These 9 Simple Tricks Will Help You Stay Warm This Winter

It”s that time of year again. Short walks from your door to the car seem like year-long excursions in the Arctic Circle. Doing anything outside that isn”t near a fire pit seems like a chore. The cold weather is back, and this time it”s here to stay…until it”s warm again.

Just because the sleeting might be fleeting, it doesn”t mean you shouldn”t do everything you can to stay warm this winter. Unlike the heat, you have to fight back against this sort of weather. Since we don”t hibernate, you can stay warm with these epic winter hacks to keep the cold out.

If your thermostat is locked, put something frozen on top of it so it thinks the room is colder than it is. If you do this, you”ll want to use something like a plastic-wrapped ice pop that won”t cause moisture to get into the thermostat.

If your thermostat is locked, put something frozen on top of it so it thinks the room is colder than it is. If you do this, you

Fill empty soda bottles with hot water and keep them under the covers with you. Not only is this a cheap way to keep yourself warm, it also allows you to save some money by turning your thermostat down at night.

Fill empty soda bottles with hot water and keep them under the covers with you. Not only is this a cheap way to keep yourself warm, it also allows you to save some money by turning your thermostat down at night.

Exercising will make you feel warmer in seconds, but also ensure that your body is doing what it should to keep yourself warm when you”re not active.

Exercising will make you feel warmer in seconds, but also ensure that your body is doing what it should to keep yourself warm when you

Instead of letting the heat from your hot shower go down the drain, keep the water in the tub until it becomes room temperature. This will help keep your place warm and add much-needed humidity.

Instead of letting the heat from your hot shower go down the drain, keep the water in the tub until it becomes room temperature. This will help keep your place warm and add much-needed humidity.

Preheat your bed with an electric blanket so your covers are nice and warm by the time you”re ready to sleep.

Preheat your bed with an electric blanket so your covers are nice and warm by the time you

You can also use an electric blanket to warm your clothes before you put them on and face the brutal outdoors.

You can also use an electric blanket to warm your clothes before you put them on and face the brutal outdoors.

If you don”t have a coffee maker that already has an outlet timer, buy one and set it so you have fresh, hot coffee to wake up to each morning.

If you don

Fill a long sock with uncooked rice and put it in the microwave. This will give you a nice and warm heat pad that you can use over and over again.

Fill a long sock with uncooked rice and put it in the microwave. This will give you a nice and warm heat pad that you can use over and over again.

Check out the video below for a helpful guide to making your very own hot ice hand warmers.

I”m feeling warmer already. It looks like I won”t have to take a trip to Los Angeles or burn all of my furniture for warmth like I”ve threatened to do for the past couple of winters. Thank goodness!



10 Ways Our Search For Alien Life Is Evolving

In 1950, Nobel Prizewinning physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked his colleagues at lunch, Where is everybody? His question became known as the Fermi Paradox. He wanted to know why we havent met any aliens if there are so many habitable planets in the universe.

There are a lot of theories as to why we havent made contact yet (that we know of). But perhaps, we simply made a cosmic mistake in our calculations. We began by assuming that alien life would be like us. If that assumption is wrong, all of our calculations about finding alien life make no sense. So now were changing that assumption, broadening our thinking and our strategies to make contact with alien life that isnt like us.

10The Sunset Of Radio Wave SETI


Photo credit: SETI

For over 50 years, SETI has been listening for radio signals from space. In 1974, astronomer Frank Drake sent the first radio wave message, the Arecibo Message, directed to aliens in outer space. As far as we know, we havent received an answer. Listening to NASA these days, youd think that searching for alien life is their priority. Yet, Drake complains that NASA isnt funding the search. In fact, they may dismantle our two biggest radio telescopes, the Arecibo telescope and the Green Bank Telescope. If that happens, then SETI will be effectively shut down on the radio side. China has unveiled a complex radio telescope, although Drake isnt sure if they can get the technology working correctly.

On the other hand, optical SETI, which scans for laser flashes, is going strong from a funding standpoint due to private gifts. Unlike radio wave messages, optical messages depend on aliens targeting their narrow beams right at us. The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them, said Drake. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success. Drake likes to think that if aliens are willing to target us, they may be altruistic.

Not everyone shares his optimism. Experts are engaged in a heated debate about whether we should send messages into outer space at all. Many scientists believe we could be jeopardizing our safety by contacting aliens before were advanced enough to protect ourselves. According to John Elliott of SETI, there are members of the SETI community who are already sending messages despite the controversy. For the record, Drake is against actively sending signals to extraterrestrials, a project called active SETI. He prefers to simply listen for their signals.

9Talking To Aliens 101


John Elliott of the UK SETI Research Network believes we should go beyond looking for alien signals and instead determine the difference between an alien language and random sounds. By studying more than 60 human languages, he found a common signature of rhythms and structures in each language. For example, we have content words and short function words (such as if and but) that bond phrases together. Regardless of the language, humans use nine content words at most in one phrase.

Some animal species, like dolphins, have the same language signature. Although we cant speak dolphin language yet, we recognize about 140 distinct sounds in their speech. They always identify themselves by an individual name or call sign when they begin to communicate, limiting themselves to no more than five words per content chunk. Elliott believes that limit is consistent with their smaller brain size and ability to process information.

Hes developed a series of small computer programs, the Natural Language Learner, to analyze alien signals for the complexity and internal structure of language. However, he probably couldnt decipher the content yet.

Communicating with intelligent animals on Earth may be a first step toward developing our ability to talk to aliens. Weve taught dolphins hundreds of our words, the difference between questions and statements, concepts like none, and other syntax. As a first attempt to establish two-way, interactive communication between animals and humans, biologist Denise Herzing created a game where dolphins and humans could learn to talk to each other with a primitive, shared language. Female dolphins were more interested in talking than male dolphins. The female dolphins also invited dolphins from other species to join in.

Weve also learned that wild Campbells monkeys add suffixes to certain sounds to warn others about different dangers. For example, krak signals that a leopard, their natural predator, is near. But krak-oo just generally warns of danger from a branch falling or other monkeys invading their territory. Diana monkeys also understand the calls from Campbells monkeys.

Another study found that adult chimpanzees from the Netherlands slowly changed their call for apples to match the local chimp language after they moved to a Scotland zoo and became friends with the local animals. However, its debatable whether its a change in accent or actually a second language that indicates bilingualism.

8Party Like Its AD 1015


The success of SETI depends on intelligent alien life using technology to send signals. While beings who use technology must be intelligent, the reverse isnt necessarily correct. Again, we come back to dolphin intelligence. Dolphins dont have the limbs to invent and use complex tools, but theyre intelligent. Other types of alien life may be like that. Is it the use of technology or the ability to communicate and socialize that defines intelligence?

Are we being too arrogant in believing were more intelligent than creatures like dolphins? As Carl Sagan pointed out, While some dolphins are reported to have learned Englishup to 50 words used in correct contextno human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese. They dont use technology to kill each other, either.

To prepare for alien contact, Laurance Doyle of SETI also intends to research communication between trees. They use chemicals to tell each other about pests and other threats. Who knows? Brains might not be necessary, he said.

In either of those two cases, wed have to travel to where the aliens live instead of waiting for them to contact us.

But theres an even simpler reason we may not hear from aliens in our lifetime, even if theyre just like us. When we use telescopes to view outer space, we dont see things as they are today. We see the past. We . . . see back in time because light takes time to get from there to here, explained Jonathan Gardner of NASA. So, as we look further and further away, it takes longer and longer for the light to get from where its emitted to here and we can actually see backward in time. And if we look far enough away, were actually looking back to when the universe was much younger than it is today, when the light was emitted from these galaxies.

If aliens are looking at us through their telescopes, they would see us in the past, too. For example, aliens who live 1,000 light-years from us would see us in AD 1015. With radio amplifiers only invented in 1907, it may take at least another 900 years before aliens can pick up radio signals from Earth (if theyre even using that technology).

7The Social Scientists Weigh In


Usually, we look to the hard sciencesastronomy, computer science, engineering, physicsto lead the way to communicating with aliens in space. But Doug Vakoch, the SETI Institutes Director of Interstellar Communication, has edited a free book called Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication that tackles the topic from the perspective of social scientists.

Every day, archaeologists and anthropologists try to unravel the secrets of ancient civilizations from mere fragments of information. We can never be sure if their interpretations are correct. Too often, we base our conclusions about past civilizations on the beliefs of our current cultures. But at least we have a common human ancestry. How will we go about deciphering messages from an alien culture about which we know nothingaliens who may have different sensory organs than we do, causing them to interpret messages differently as well?

We also assume there will be one culture in alien civilizations. But, in fact, this may be the one common thread between humans and aliens. We must face the fact that we could be dealing with a world fragmented into different cultural frameworks, much as our own is, and consisting of beings who may not respond to contact with us in a uniform way, says John Traphagan in the book. Technological advancement on Earth has not always been associated with increased political and social integration (think World Wars I and II) . . . It seems reasonable to think that we will be dealing with beings shaped by common memories (among themselves) and who will share, but who will also debate and contest, ideas developed within the frameworks of those common memories and experiences about what to do with the fact of having contacted humans.

Theyre pretty much saying we have no hope of deciphering an alien communication at this point or of responding in a coherent manner.

6Heat Signatures


Using data from 100,000 galaxies observed by NASAs Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft, scientists looked for heat signatures that would suggest the existence of advanced alien civilizations. Whether an advanced spacefaring civilization uses the large amounts of energy from its galaxys stars to power computers, spaceflight, communication, or something we cant yet imagine, fundamental thermodynamics tells us that this energy must be radiated away as heat in the mid-infrared wavelengths, said researcher Jason Wright of Pennsylvania State University. This same basic physics causes your computer to radiate heat while it is turned on.

Unfortunately, scientists didnt find irrefutable evidence of an advanced civilization. It was an odd outcome considering that the galaxies have been around for billions of years. In that time, they should have become filled with aliens. The researchers concluded that either the aliens arent there or they simply arent advanced enough to show a heat signature.

Even so, the team found 50 galaxies with abnormally high mid-infrared radiation levels. Theyll need to do more studies to see if this heat is coming from the natural environment or if its an alien heat signature.

5Frugal Aliens


Even though we dont explicitly say it, our assumptions about aliens have included the belief that they have unlimited resources with which to communicate. Weve been acting like they should spend every moment of their day trying to send us signals. If not, aliens cant possibly be out there.

Thats human arrogance at its finest. If NASA has to cut funding to conserve resources, why wouldnt it be possible that aliens face the same problem? In 2010, a study from Microwave Sciences suggested that aliens may be broadcasting signals at higher frequencies than monitored by SETI to save money. SETI researchers listen to 1.421.72 gigahertz wavelengths because certain interstellar clouds emit radiation at that frequency. However, the scientists from Microwave Sciences believe that aliens would be more likely to use a frequency near 10 gigahertz because they could create a strong beam more easily and cheaply at that frequency.

To further conserve resources, aliens may broadcast brief pulses, similar to a tweet on Twitter, rather than a continuous signal. Possibly, the aliens would construct a powerful beacon and swing it across the Milky Way disc to broadcast to most of the galaxys stars. That way, they could send a 35-second burst of pulses to every star within 1,080 light-years.

With that type of strategy, the aliens would only send a signal a few times a year. Astronomers have seen some unexplained signals that lasted for tens of seconds then were never seen again, says Benford. Some of those could have been extraterrestrial beacons, but there wasnt enough observing time to wait for any repeats.

This may explain the 72-second WOW signal that was detected by a SETI researcher in 1977. Some scientists believe this was an alien signal. Its called the WOW signal because the man who heard it wrote Wow in the margin of his notes. Its still a mystery, both what it was and where it came from. It has never been detected again.

4Ether-Based DNA


Photo credit: Edgar181/Wikimedia

For the most part, weve assumed that water is necessary for life. But now, scientists are studying whether other liquids, such as the hydrocarbon methane that covers Saturns moon Titan, could work, too. Wed need different types of molecules called ethers to produce the chemical interactions for life, preferably in a warmer environment than Titan. Strung together, ethers may combine into complex polyethers to create living things. The DNA and RNA molecules found on Earth cant dissolve in hydrocarbons. In fact, theyd become clogged up.

Like water, hydrocarbons can be liquids, solids, or gases. Solids and gases wont allow biomolecules to interact to create life, so liquid hydrocarbons are what we need to finda kind of oily Earth, so to speak. Octane stays liquid over the largest temperature range, providing the most favorable condition for life. Propane and methane also work in smaller temperature ranges. Unfortunately, it appears that Titan is too cold to support life.

Within our own solar system, we do not have a planet big enough, close enough to the Sun, and with the right temperature to support warm hydrocarbon oceans on its surface, said researcher Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. But with the number of new solar systems were finding, it may not be long before we discover a planet or moon with the right temperature to support life in a hydrocarbon ocean.

3Contact Scenarios


Although it seems unlikely that well make face-to-face contact with intelligent aliens soon, its possible that theyre living underground on one of the planets or moons in our solar system. They may also be living in the asteroid belt.

In 1950, the US military devised Seven Steps to Contact, a plan to handle first contact with intelligent aliens. First, we would surveil them from a distance, gathering as much data as we could. Next, we would visit them covertly to assess the level of their weapons and vehicles. If we had superior technology, then we would approach the aliens planet to see if they were hostile. If not, we would briefly land in remote, unpopulated areas of the planet to take samples of plant and animal life. The military also intended to abduct some aliens without harming them.

After that, we would engage in low-level approaches to be seen by the aliens while staying out of reach. Wed want to have as many aliens as possible observe our craft, yet wed want to appear friendly. Finally, if we thought it was safe, wed land and try to meet them.

This is one procedure thats remained roughly the same, but were getting closer to the day that we may use it. Its unclear what would happen if we encounter a race with superior intelligence. Wed have to hope they were friendly. If not, wed probably be goners.

2The Nanosensor

When we look for life on other planets, we usually try to detect a biochemical signature. As we talked about earlier, scientists have observed biosignatures that indicate life on lifeless planets with lifeless moons. So our current methods can easily yield a false positive.

MIT scientists Sara Seager and William Bain believe we should expand our search beyond methane, oxygen, and the most well-known biosignatures. We know there will not be huge numbers of accessible planets, said Seager. We want to make sure we do not miss any signatures, by trying our best to think outside the box. Oxygen is a great biosignature gas for Earth, but what are the chances it will be present on an exoplanet?

Reinforcing the idea that alien life may be quite different from us, Seager and Bain point to the zoo of diverse exoplanets weve found so far. A specific, astonishing finding is that the most common type of planet in our galaxy are those with sizes between those of Earth and Neptunea new class of planet that is neither terrestrial nor giant and one without an accepted theory for its formation, wrote Seager and Bain in a paper.

To get around some of these limitations, researchers from Belgium and Switzerland have recently tested a new device that detects life without identifying biosignatures. Using a cantilever (a beam fixed at one end), the nanomotion detector scans a surface for small fluctuations in the metabolic activity of cells or in their movement. The scientists successfully tested their device on bacteria, human cells, mouse cells, plant cells, and yeast. Afterward, they killed the cells and retested to prove that the device could correctly distinguish between life and background signals. The nanosensor also performed well with soil and water samples containing microorganisms. Each experiment takes about 10 minutes.

While researchers need to do more testing, the nanomotion detector could be a breakthrough method for finding alien life. Its simple, fast, small, and needs no biochemical information. If we combine it with biochemical detectors, wed have an especially powerful way to look for life on places like Saturns moons.

1The Best Place To Look For Life


While largely ignoring the outer solar system, weve tied up a lot of capital, human or otherwise, in exploring Mars, with the hopes of finding alien life there. Its possible well find something on the Red Planet. But the icy moonssuch as Enceladus (Saturn), Europa (Jupiter), and Ganymede (Jupiter)in the outer part of our solar system may have the greatest chance of supporting life. Many of them have buried oceans. Currently there are five orbiters and two surface robots exploring Mars, said Corey Powell of Discover magazine. Here are the equivalent numbers for the four moons: Europa, 0. Ganymede, 0. Enceladus, 0. Titan, 0. We may have been looking for life in all the wrong places.

Part of the reason weve ignored the outer solar system in the past is the cost and time it takes to get there. We can fly to Mars in approximately eight months. But we may need six to seven years to get to Jupiter and Saturn, respectively. However, weve already sent the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn, while the Europa Clipper may be looking at a 2022 launch. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo probe also gathered information from Ganymede and Enceladus.

At the moment, the best place to look for alien life seems to be Enceladus. In addition to liquid water under its icy surface, researchers have found evidence of active hydrothermal vents on the moons seafloor. Heat and water are important to life. In addition, its subsurface oceans appear to be in contact with the moons mantle, so the water is mixing with rich minerals like sulfur that could lead to life. The water is quite alkaline, with a pH of 11 or 12. However, life has formed in similar alkaline environments on Earth.