HAMNET Report 5th February 2023

In spite of what I said last week about “Searching for extra-terrestrial life” rather than “intelligence”, an international team of researchers looking for signs of intelligent life in space have used artificial intelligence (AI) to reveal eight promising radio signals in data collected at a US observatory.

theconversation.com says that the results of their research, published in Nature Astronomy are remarkable. The team hasn’t yet carried out an exhaustive analysis, but the paper suggests the signals have many of the characteristics we would expect if they were artificially generated. In other words, they are the kinds of signals we might pick up from an extra-terrestrial civilisation broadcasting into space.

A cursory review of the new paper suggests these are indeed promising signals. Realistically, it’s most likely that these eight new signals were generated by human technology. But the real story here is the effectiveness of AI and the techniques used by the team to dig out rare and interesting signals previously buried in the noise of human-generated radio frequency interference, such as mobile phones and GPS.

Astronomers working in the field of Seti must filter out interference produced by radio communications here on Earth. In this case, Peter Ma from the University of Toronto and his colleagues unleashed a set of algorithms on a mountain of data collected by the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia, US. The data was gathered through a Seti initiative called Breakthrough Listen, established in 2015 by the investor Yuri Milner and his wife Julia.

Here are the characteristics astronomers look for in signals that could be artificially-generated: firstly they are narrow-band, which means that the radio transmission is confined to only a few frequency channels. They also disappear as the telescope is moved to another direction in the sky, and they exhibit “Doppler drifting”, where the frequency of the signal changes in a predictable way with time. We would expect Doppler drifting because both the transmitter — on a distant planet, for example — and the receiver, on Earth, are moving.

The Breakthrough Listen project’s first candidate signal, called BLC1, was first announced in 2020. But it was later traced to transmissions associated with cheap electronic devices on this planet. The application of AI techniques to the Breakthrough Listen observing programme, however, is a potential game changer for the field. Even seasoned Seti researchers are beginning to think that we might be on the cusp of a momentous scientific breakthrough.

As the writer argued here a few years ago, Seti surveys would greatly benefit from employing multiple radio telescopes, operating in a manner that’s known as a classical interferometer network.

These telescope arrays (groups of several antennas observing together) generate huge amounts of data. With AI onboard, the challenge is perhaps more manageable than previously thought.

Breakthrough Listen is already using telescope arrays such as MeerKAT in South Africa for Seti searches. In Europe, researchers have been experimenting with arrays that span the globe.

This European approach would help us isolate signals from human-made interference, give us multiple independent detections of individual events, and permit us to localise signals to individual stars and possibly orbiting planets.

These are exciting times, and that first detection of extra-terrestrial biology may be just around the corner. Thank you to theconversation.com for these excerpts.

From the UK Daily Mail comes an article that says: “Forget Tik Tok and Instagram – children and teenagers want to learn Morse Code!”

The article says that, despite being created 180 years ago and not being a requirement for amateur radio operators to learn since 1990, it has been kept alive by radio enthusiasts – and now more young people are getting involved. 

A combination of pandemic lockdowns forcing youngsters to learn something new, and the use of Morse Code by popular K-Pop bands, has led to ‘a renaissance’ in teens wanting to learn the once ground-breaking form of communication.  

Michael Stanton, 56, from Thatcham, West Berkshire in the UK, said K-Pop is partially responsible for the surge in popularity from younger generations.

South Korean boy bands NU’EST and TXT have both used Morse Code within their music videos, and even communicate hints about upcoming songs to fans.

Michael said that, during the lockdowns, the internet exploded, the ways of communicating got better and lots of the radio things people were doing moved to the internet – including the ability to use Morse Code. It therefore became more accessible to all age groups. 

And, there have been these K-Pop bands, TXT being the most notable, that have been using Morse Code, reports Michael Stanton.

At the start of TXT’s song Crown, Morse Code is used to spell out the title before the song gets underway.

Similarly, NU’EST’s song Help Me spells out its title at the start of the song. NU’EST even had flashing lights, communicating in Morse Code, on their website to reveal the titles of their upcoming songs. 

This prompted young fans of the bands to scour the internet trying to find out the hidden meaning of the beeps. 

‘These bands have used Morse Code quite a lot in their music and communicating with fans. It is mostly written down, but in their music, they obviously use the sounds,’ Mr Stanton explained.

‘And that sparked quite a lot of interest amongst the younger generation, teenagers who think “hey my pop idols do this Morse Code thing, it seems quite cool, I can have secret conversations with people using it”.’

So, in a world where technology is continually advancing, Morse Code appears to offer an escape for some, providing a focus on communicating with others away from the pesky troubles of using social media.

Finally, here’s a snippet about a frog that doesn’t….well….ribbit! Writing in sciencenews.org, McKenzie Prillaman says this newfound frog makes no noise at all.

Many frogs have unusual characteristics, from turning translucent to being clumsy jumpers. The recently discovered amphibian lacks a voice. It joins a group of seven other voiceless frog species called spiny-throated reed frogs that reside in East Africa. This type was discovered in Tanzania’s Ukaguru Mountains.

Instead of croaking, the spines on male frogs’ throats might help their female counterparts recognize potential mates via touch, sort of like braille, says conservation biologist Lucinda Lawson of the University of Cincinnati.

I can’t see this thing working in humans. I mean – how do you get the female of your desires to come up close and read the messages your Adam’s apple are trying to convey, by touch??

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa