5 Silly Problems Scientists Have To Deal With

The problem is sand dunes look a lot like naked people.
5 Silly Problems Scientists Have To Deal With

Science is the greatest thing ever. The various disciplines developed (or stolen) by our finest minds have allowed advances beyond our wildest dreams. We can see the edge of the universe, propel protons to near-lightspeed, and all our needs and desires are met by simple-to-use household machines. Yet, like our most adored loved ones, science is susceptible to the occasional goof. 

A Microwave Baffles One Of The World's Most Advanced Radio Telescopes

The Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia, boasts a 64-meter dish that has helped discover more than 2,500 galaxies, half of the 2,000 known pulsars, and mapped our galaxy's gas. It's 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was first commissioned around 60 years ago. It served as a primary receiver for the Moon Landing, and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) even named it "the most successful scientific instrument ever built in Australia," presumably just edging out the Victoria Bitter plant.

The 64-metre (210 ft) diameter dish with the 18-metre (59 ft) dish in the foreground (mounted on rails and used in interferometry)


Number 3 is the big magnet that stops Aussies falling off the bottom of the Earth. 

Yet this most celebrated, accomplished of radio telescopes features a funny footnote. For 17 years, it was befuddled by unidentifiable signals. These “perytons” were local and potentially caused by atmospheric activity like lightning, or interference from electronics. The enigma endured until one momentous mid-March day in 2015

The researchers were all gathered breathlessly together over a central point of interest, yet they weren't enthralled by an interstellar rebroadcasting of Hitler's state of the union address, as in Contact by Carl Sagan. They were in the break room, huddled around the kitchen's microwave. Which works at 2.4 GHz, the frequency of the perytons.  

After nearly two decades, they'd decoded the mysterious signals. Honestly, this doesn't fill us with too much confidence about the potential detection of extraterrestrial messages. Because this gigantic 200-foot telescope got punked by tech so humble its main task is preparing Hot Pockets on the first leg of their journey from food to poo. However, to everyone’s credit, the several-times-a-year signals only emanated when the microwave was opened up prematurely by a hungry or impatient worker.


Erik Mclean/Unsplash

And the waves gave that worker a superpower (cancer). 

And the perytons were only apparent during the day, and when the telescope was pointed in the microwave's direction. So this is actually an impressive show of Parkes’s might: Bombarded with a universe's worth of radiation, it faithfully detected every intern's attempt to jump the gun on some cup noodles. But then again, don't get too excited if astronomers one day announce contact with an advanced intergalactic civilization; it may just be a chimichanga.

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Monkey Tools Confuse Archaeologists

Many members of our extended primate family use tools, whether to crack nuts, sponge up water, or collect insects. In one outstanding example, orangutans may be learning to use spears, which sets up the intriguing possibility of a future three-way apocalyptic war between robots, humans, and arboreal apes.

In the meantime, some monkey tools could throw a monkey wrench into archaeological research. The timeline of ancient tools shows the timeline of ancient human innovation, but some monkey-made stone flakes resemble those of our primitive predecessors. 

The monkeys, Brazilian capuchins, create them through a "mysterious stone hammering ritual." They frequent quartz cliffs, selecting round stones and smashing them into outcroppings until the smashers are covered in "razor-sharp rock dust," which they lick up. And as they smash away, they unintentionally create stone flakes. 

The flakes share similarities with those made by pre-human species (like Australopithecus or Kenyanthropus) around 3.3 million years ago. That's about 3 million years before Homo sapiens emerged via extraterrestrial engineering experiments, according to late-night History programming. But the capuchins are uninterested in and ignore the stone flakes, unlike our hominid ancestors who at one point realized they could cut things real nice. Instead, the monkeys may be after the mineral-rich quartz dust, which could help guard against gastrointestinal parasites. 

monkey banging rock

Primate Archaeology Group

So, they don't make blades. They've just invented medicine, no big deal. 

Another difference between the little monkeys and the big monkeys (i.e., us) is that we humans are "obligate tool-users." We can't separate our tool use from our evolution, livelihoods, or even our human essentiality. We are our tools. Whereas monkeys and apes can be considered "technological primates" because they only use tools occasionally and could just as happily enjoy their orgies and flea-picking sessions (which often coincide) without ever lifting a stone.

The capuchins' (and potentially other primates') monkeying around may lead to clumsy, uncoordinated fistfights between various –ologists. But it's unlikely to overturn major discoveries, as many are corroborated by cut-marked bones, signs of Homo habitation, and other contextual evidence of our fore-elders.

Nudity-Detecting Artificial Intelligence Gets Confused By Sand Dunes

When the UK's Metropolitan Police isn't busy confiscating butter knives and arresting people for tweets, they sometimes attempt police work, none more important than cracking down on child pornography. This typically requires a living human being to go through a suspect's computer and other digital possessions to confirm the presence of actual pedophilic material and discern it from, say, clips of Timothée Chalamet.

The job is traumatizing. So to save officers the mental devastation of having to personally identify the images (shittiest job ever, btw, makes the bull-masturbator at a stud farm look like Willy Wonka), they're developing an AI to do it. And that AI is indeed fantastic at spotting most illegal things, like drugs and guns. But it keeps confusing nudity with sand dunes and other desert imagery. Partially due to the anthropomorphic curves and skin-colored tones of the dunes. 

sand dune

Sharad Bhat/Unsplash

It's not ideal, but it'll do in a pinch. 

What we've got here is the flip side of that Arrested Development plot, where officials mistake a pic of some guy's balls for the Iraqi desert. Sand dunes or other similar screensavers are super common and could provide a false positive match. And how crappy would it be getting the investigators on your ass because you like the aesthetics of the Namib Desert?

It's Real Easy To Get Planets Confused

NASA says that there are five ways to detect a far-off planet, and we'll go on a limb and trust them. These methods involve the interplay of light, gravity, or both. However, two main techniques have produced the lion's share (just a turn of phrase, space-lions are as yet undiscovered) of planetary discoveries.

First, radial velocity, or watching for "wobbles." Picture someone huge walking a tiny dog. The person (star) exerts an immense pull on the teacup terrier (planet), but the little rat-dog also exerts a teeny pull on its owner. Similarly, radial velocity detects the minuscule gravitational influence the planet exerts on its star. Method two: the transit technique. This measures the piddly light dip that occurs when a planet swings in front of its star, temporarily blocking a small amount of light. It's how the now-retired Kepler—humanity's most accomplished exo-planetary bloodhound—sniffed more than 2,660 alien worlds.

Then we have direct imaging, which will become more common as technologies improve. The primary targets will be Earth-like objects, but there’s danger of "planet confusion," making alien Earths look like "completely different types of planets." Even with next-gen imaging telescopes like the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, set to blast off circa mid-2020s.

Astronomer Nancy Grace Roman at age 88


Named after NASA's first Chief of Astronomy, not the Nancy Grace you're thinking of.

But telling bodies apart, and teasing out their habitability, is hard and will continue to be for a while. To test out planet-pinpointing prowess, Cornell researchers examined how easily planets could be differentiated. The results weren’t great. When two worlds have similar separations from their stars and/or brightness, even vastly dissimilar ones could potentially be confused. Even our planets could potentially be confused. 

Based on 21 cases in which researchers created a randomly generated solar system model, with planets of similar separation and brightness, Earth-ish bodies could be "misidentified with a Mercury-like planet" in 36% of randomly-generated models, with a Mars-like body in 43%, and with a Venus-like planet 72%. 

The Blue Marble


Earth could even look like Uranus, note the UK's Metropolitan Police.

And that's bad because telescope time is limited, expensive, and no one wants to waste either, especially in erroneously detecting a habitable planet. Imagine the disappointment of swimsuit-wearing, pool noodle-waving colonists as they step down the ramp onto a forsaken, barren rock rather than a beachy paradise.

Adventurous Eagle's Roaming Charges Bankrupt Eagle Tracking Study

In 2015, the world had just between 50,000 and 75,000 steppe eagles left. So Russian scientists from the Wild Animal Rehabilitation Center in Novosibirsk started monitoring the eagles, on their post-coital winter journeys southward after breeding in Siberia and Kazakhstan. As might be expected from such ventures, the budget was not a prodigious one. It covered 13 steppe eagles outfitted with SMS transmitters that sent four daily texts with their positions.

I. Karyakin

The budget offered no chance at all of constant GPS monitoring.

The endangered avians apparently get travel-hungry after catting about, flying as far afield as Africa, so there’s no worry when eagles temporarily go radio-silent in areas without coverage. As happened in 2019, when the team lost contact with eagle Min for five months during the summer. Then in October, Min arrived in Iran and finally regained coverage, sending the nearly-half-year-long backlog of messages at once, with massive data roaming charges. Each SMS sent from Iran cost 49 roubles, the equivalent of 77 cents and about five times the expected price. With the deluge of texts, Min instantly and singlehandedly steamrolled the entire budget for his aquiline buddies. 

His handlers crowdfunded the cost and raised about $5,000 to pay off Min's debt, else someone's knees were getting broke. Though, when the eagles' service provider MegaFon learned of the quandary, they offered a refund and enjoyed some nice social media brownie points. And the researchers will face such problems no longer, as various phone companies have since chipped in with free SIM cards.

steppe eagle

Sumeet Moghe 

Eagles are really into texting. They use the hunt and peck method. 

The eagle-debt debacle exemplifies the internet-fame era. The researchers sought data discounts when beginning their project but were turned down. Yet once their plight reached the desks of the BBC, New York Times, and others, phone companies hurdled each other to proffer bargain services. 

As for Min, he's enjoyed a journey fit for a travel influencer, flying from Iran, to Saudi Arabia, to Yemen. Godspeed, friend.

Top image: I. Karyakin

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