The internet has been abuzz this week with the “news” that scientists working on data collected by the Kepler telescope may have found evidence of “alien megastructures” surrounding a distant star. This is… not quite accurate. But the exciting part is that it’s not completely, totally, 100% fabricated, either. KIC 8462852, one of the many, many stars Kepler stared at, exhibits some strange behaviour. Kepler, as you may or may not know, watches stars to see if their light dims a little now and then, looking for “transiting” planets — planets that come between the star and us. Usually it’s pretty regular: the light dims every X days, where X is how long it takes the planet to go around the star. And it goes down by maybe a percent. KIC 8462852 (which I will henceforth refer to as Unknown Subject or UnSub) does neither. It dims in weird, non-periodic-seeming ways, and it dims a lot, and then not a lot. Hundreds of dips, and occasional mega-dips (up to 22% at one point). But that doesn’t mean aliens. The thing is, we aren’t totally sure what it could mean yet, either. It’s not likely to be asteroids, because there’d be a lot of dust in the signal, which would turn up as infrared signatures. It could be comets, but that’s a whole lot of comets. And yes, it could be a very advanced bunch of aliens building megastructures around their star, to harvest sunlight ever more efficiently. “Could,” in this instance, being the same as “the Alcubierre drive could be possible,” or “I could win the lottery next week.” But, being good scientists, they’re going to point a radio telescope at UnSub just to see. I’m not sure how helpful that’ll be, of course, given that radio is seriously low-tech when compared with the ability to build Ringworlds, Matrioshka Brains, and Dyson Spheres, but why not? But remember, it’s much much more likely that it’s something we’ve never thought of before, like pulsars were when they were first detected. Even that would be exciting — it just wouldn’t be aliens. Finally, even if it were, they’re 1500 light years away, which means whatever we’re seeing happened about the time Rome was getting sacked by the Vandals, give or take a decade or two, which is to say they’re a long, long way away. Anyhow, check out Phil Plait’s article for a great breakdown of the data, or the Atlantic for another view. Who knows? Maybe it will be aliens. Maybe I’ll go buy a lottery ticket.
This week saw the launch of the third US-based Bitcoin exchange, Gemini, founded by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (of The Social Network infamy). It hasn’t seen stellar performance as of yet, and certainly not “NASDAQ of Bitcoin” success, but it’s only early days yet. Last week it was still only trading in the hundreds of bitcoins per day, an order of magnitude below its established US-based competitors ItBit and Coinbase, who are trading the the thousands of bitcoins per day. Also different is the payment scheme: while ItBit and Coinbase have been incentivizing liquidity providers (charging much less to those putting money in vs. those taking it out), Gemini charges everyone (buyers and sellers) for each transaction. It remains to be seen whether their branding as a “by the book” New York “bitlicense” compliant exchange will catch on in a market currently dominated by anti-regulation sentiment. Coinbase has more in-depth coverage in the meantime.
In other Bitcoin-related news this week, TØ.com, a company founded by overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne to facilitate stock trades using the Bitcoin blockchain, just recorded its first $10-million transaction. The company aims to use Bitcoin technology to streamline the process of buying and selling (and keeping track of) stocks, cutting out middlemen (and saving money) in the process. Check out more on that story over at Wired.
Also making the rounds this week has been the story of a new anti-drone weapon for use in secure areas developed by the Batelle Memorial Institute. The DroneDefender is being marketed as the “the first portable, accurate, rapid-to-use counter-weapon to stop suspicious or hostile drones in flight,” and uses powerful, directed radio waves to essentially jam the instructions from the remote operator — rendering the drone generally immobile. This, they’re arguing, can either be done briefly, to force the drone operator to recall the drone to prevent it from crashing, or for a longer duration, until the drone runs out of power or is otherwise more destructively disabled. It’s an interesting idea, and the miniaturization of the technology is fairly remarkable. It has a range of 400 metres, and can be fired for about five hours at a shot, in case the drone in question has big batteries (they tend not to, at least these days). Check out the YouTube video for more.
Model S 7.0
This week Tesla announced the release of version 7.0 of the software for its Model S, which finally turns on some of the car’s self-driving features. Most notable is the stay-in-lane-and-maintain-distance feature they’re calling Autosteer, which is like a more intelligent cruise control. A later version of the software (7.1) will act like your personal valet, letting you out and going to park somewhere nearby, and coming back when you’re done. Right now they’re calling the Autosteer function a “beta” — a test users can engage in themselves, though Musk says they strongly advise people to keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention while using it. As someone who’s used beta software myself, I, too, recommend this. The Verge and Wired both have more on the story.
This week was another full one here at This Week In Tomorrow, so in case you missed them, here’s the stories we covered: On Monday, I looked at robots having a bad time on the covers of old sci-fi novels; on Tuesday we celebrated Ada Lovelace Day; on Wednesday we examined the strange case of three teens who died after being “treated” with hypnotherapy; on Thursday, I talked about Hillary and Bernie and the first presidential debate; and on Friday Lindsey came back after a two-week hiatus to talk about the lacking range in women’s Halloween costumes. If you missed any of those, go check them out!
Best of the Rest
Here’s the linkspam section of the weekly rundown, because there’s always too much to cover. This week we also saw:
- That Vermont’s largest city is now using 100% renewables
- That we’re a step closer to artificial limbs that can “feel”
- That an iPhone app under development might one day help diagnose autism at a much younger age than at present
- That you can make the Galaxy Note 5 clear (and that looks pretty cool), and
- That the new cyber “security” bill deserves those scare-quotes.
I’ll leave you this week with the incredible remix work done by Emmanual Delabaere, Adrian Dezalay, and Simon Philippe of Gump Studio, who’ve made this amazing short film about Jimmy Stewart being stalked by characters from Stanley Kubrick’s movies (because why not?).