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Scientists search unusual star for signs of extraterrestrial life

Scientists have pointed one of the world's largest telescopes at a star located nearly 1,500 light-years from Earth in an investigation into purported signs of an advanced civilization in the area.

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The search is part of the Breakthrough Listen Project, a program created in 2015 with $100 million in funding and an aim to search the solar system for evidence of intelligent life.

Scientists at UC Berkeley in California are turning the Green Bank radio telescope toward KIC 8462852 – more commonly known as Tabby's Star – to investigate an unusual dimming pattern visible from Earth. Scientists have speculated that the strange pattern could be evidence of a highly advanced civilization living in the area that is capable of building "orbiting megastructures" to capture the star's energy, researchers said.

"Everyone, every SETI program telescope, I mean every astronomer that has any kind of telescope in any wavelength that can see Tabby's Star has looked at it," said Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and co-director of Breakthrough Listen. "It's been looked at with Hubble, it's been looked at with Keck, it's been looked at in the infrared and radio and high energy and every possible thing you can imagine, including a whole range of SETI experiments. Nothing has been found."

The telescope will watch the star, located in the Cygnus constellation, for eight hours three separate times over the next two months, according to Berkeley researchers.

Tabby's Star has generated much speculation since citizen scientists flagged it for its strange dimming pattern. Unlike other stars, which briefly dim one or two percent, Tabby's Star dims by as much as 22 percent for days at a time and at irregular times, according to researchers.

The star is named for Tabetha Boyajian, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University who studied the star's dimming patter last year during her postdoctoral training at Yale University.

Researchers don't, however, expect to find inarguable proof of extraterrestrial life while viewing Tabby's Star.

"I think that ET, if it's ever discovered ... It'll be some bizarre thing that somebody finds by accident," said Dan Wethimer, chief scientist at Berkeley SETI. "And then we look more carefully and we say, 'Hey, that's a civilization.'"

The results of the observations won't be known for more than a month after the experiment concludes because of the data analysis needed to pick out patterns in the radio emissions and finish the investigation.

What if robots could send messages humans can’t read? Google did that

The computers have a secret, and some people are worried.

According to a story from New Scientist, researchers working on the Google Brain Project announced recently that computer systems they created based on a system of artificial neurons have not only created a basic encryption technique, but have learned how to keep it a secret.

In a paper titled, “Learning to protect communications with adversarial neural cryptography,” researchers with the Google Brain Project, which is a deep learning research venture at Google, reported that two neural network systems they created worked together to come up with a message, encrypt the message and then decode it.

In the paper, researchers said, “'We ask whether neural networks can learn to use secret keys to protect information from other neural networks.” That question was answered when the neural network that created the encryption system did just that.

Researchers with the Google Brain Project use deep learning, a branch of machine learning based on a set of algorithms, to conduct research.

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In deep learning, computer systems called neural networks use algorithms, or specific rules to be followed in calculations, to try to teach themselves how to do certain tasks.

Here’s how the encryption processed worked:

Researchers Martín Abadi and David Andersen created three “neural networks,” or computing systems using something like an artificial neuron. A neuron in the human body is a nerve cell responsible for transmitting information to other nerve cells, gland cells, or to muscle.

The neural networks created by Abadi and Anderson have names: Alice, Bob and Eve. Each of the networks had a specific job. For Alice, it was to send a secret message to Bob; for Bob, it was to decode the message that Alice sent; for Eve, it was to eavesdrop on Alice’s message and try to decode it.

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According to the paper, something interesting happened. Alice eventually, and on her own, created an encryption system, despite the fact she was not taught how to build out such a system. The paper emphasized that the encryption system Alice came up with is very basic, but the fact that Alice was able to create something no one thought neural networks could achieve was remarkable in itself.

What Alice created was a 16-bit message with each bit representing either a “1” or a “0.” She took the original message and mixed it up (cipher text) before sending it to Bob. Alice and Bob had an agreed upon a set of numbers that was the key used to decipher the message, according to the researchers.

Next, Bob did his part by converting Alice’s cipher text message back into plain text. It took 15,000 attempts, but Bob got it.

Then came Eve. Eve’s job, remember, was to try to figure out what Alice and Bob were saying. Eve managed to get half of the message figured out, but researchers say Eve’s attempt was more akin to someone getting it right by guessing the numbers.

Scientists did see something notable from the research – the networks were not very good, initially, at creating, decoding, or trying to decipher a coded message, but with practice, they not only created a system, but kept that system secret from the developers. As a post in New Scientist pointed out, the way the machine learning works prevents even the researchers from figuring out what kind of encryption method Alice came up with.

The neural networks are considered a form of artificial intelligence, which encompasses the theory that computer systems will be able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence.

Famed scientists Stephen Hawking, director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge, warned at a conference in London last week that artificial intelligence could develop a will of its own that is in conflict with that of humanity. Or, he said, if care is taken to avoid certain risks, it could be helpful to humanity.

"Alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many," Hawking said.

To read the research paper, click here.

Humans killed nearly two-thirds of the world's wildlife over 50 years, report says

By the end of the decade, global wildlife populations could be just one-third of what they were 50 years ago because of humans, scientists warned in a World Wildlife Fund report released Thursday.

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According to the Living Planet Report 2016, populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. The report tracks more than 14,000 populations of more than 3,700 species.

"Wildlife is disappearing within our lifetimes at an unprecedented rate," said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. "This is not just about the wonderful species we all love; biodiversity forms the foundation of healthy forests, rivers and oceans. Take away species, and these ecosystems will collapse along with the clean air, water, food and climate services that they provide us."

Wildlife populations have been hardest hit by the loss and degradation of their habitats due to unsustainable agriculture and logging and changes to freshwater systems, according to the WWF report. Currently, one-third of the planet's land area is covered in farmland and agriculture accounts for nearly 70 percent of our water use.

Other threats to wildlife include pollution, climate change, species overexploitation and the introduction of invasive species and disease.

Freshwater populations have been hardest hit, according to WWF, with populations falling a staggering 81 percent between 1970 and 2012, due mostly to habitat loss and degradation. The habitats are particularly difficult to protect, the nonprofit said, because they're affected by everything from pollution to dams and often cross administrative and political borders.

"Importantly however, these are declines, they are not yet extinctions – and this should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations," said Ken Norris, director of science at the Zoological Society of London.

In its report, the WWF outlines a number of measures aimed at reforming the way humans interact with the planet in order to stymie wildlife losses. The nonprofit notes that global initiatives aimed at stopping global warming, such as the Paris climate deal, will help support wildlife growth.

"The world is reaching a consensus regarding the direction we must take," the report says. "Furthermore, we have never before had such an understanding of the scale of our impact on the planet, the way the key environmental systems interact or the way in which we can manage them."

Still, more work needs to be done to address environmental degradation, according to the report.

"We must create a new economic system that enhances and supports the natural capital upon which it relies," the report says. "These kinds of changes to societal values are likely to be achievable only over the long term and in ways that we have not yet imagined."

This is what football can do to a child's brain after just one season

The results of a new study may have some parents rethinking whether they allow their children to play football.

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Three million children in the U.S. play in tackle football programs. While many doctors and scientists have taken a look at the impact of concussions, new research by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center studied the impact of less-serious blows to the head that are common during games.

The study included 25 players between the ages of 8 and 13 and was centered on a youth program in Winston-Salem, N.C. Each boy was outfitted with a helmet that measured the severity and frequency of head blows.

“This is important, particularly for children, because their brains are undergoing such rapid change, particularly in the age category from maybe 9 to 18. And we just don’t know a lot of about it,” Dr. Chris Whitlow, a lead researcher, told NBC News.

Researchers say their findings indicated that even at this young age, the boys were receiving pretty hard hits.

The doctors then performed MRIs on the players and determined there were some changes in the brain’s white matter, the tissue that connects the gray matter of the brain.

“We have detected some changes in the white matter,” Whitlow said. “And the importance of those changes is that the more exposure you have to head impacts, the more change you have.”

Young players who did not have concussions were also found to have been impacted by repeated hits. Brain changes were found even after a single season of playing the sport.

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So far, doctors are not cautioning parents against letting their children play football since there are still some unclear areas following the study. Doctors don’t know if these changes will continue as the boys play football. They also don’t know what long-term impact the repeated blows to the head will have on the players.

Still, some parents say the sport is worth the risk — for now — because of the joy it brings to their children. Football also encourages their kids to stay on top of their grades.

Kindra Ritzie-Worthy has two sons who play football. She says they take their footballs everywhere they go. One even sleeps with his ball.

“Worth the risk?” she told NBC. “I say absolutely.”

The study is published in the journal Radiology.

Rare shark has even rarer two-headed offspring

A sawtail catshark in the Mediterranean is making headlines in the science world. 

Scientists from Spain say they've discovered the first case of a two-headed shark developing in an egg-laying shark species, National Geographic reported.

The creature was featured in an article in the Journal of Fish Biology.

The shark species lives only in one region: the western Mediterranean, and is considered "near threatened."

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Scientists were collecting embryos of nearly 800 sharks to study their cardiovascular systems. Only one embryo showed two heads.

The embryo has two heads, two mouths, two sets of eyes, two brains, two sets of gills, two stomachs and two livers, but only one, shared, intestine.

The condition, called dicephaly, is rare in the animal kingdom, but can be found in species from snakes to dolphins and even people.

Normally dicephaly has been found in sharks that bear live young or lay eggs that hatch inside the mother.

"There's a reason you don't see a lot of sharks with two heads swimming around: They stand out like a sore thumb, so they get eaten," George Burgess, director the Florida program for shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

‘Scrotum frogs’ found dead in South America

More than 10,000 Titicaca water frogs have been found dead in South America, most likely victims of pollution.

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One of the largest aquatic frogs in the world, the endangered species goes by a unique nickname. It has “amazingly baggy skin, which gives it the common name scrotum frog,” says National Geographic explorer Jonathan Kolby, a PhD student who studies frogs in Latin America

The deaths occurred along a 30-mile stretch of the Coata River, according to members of the Committee Against the Pollution of the Coata River. The river is a tributary of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia in the Andes Mountains. 

Authorities said raw sewage was found near the lake. 

Although the frogs were found dead on the Peruvian side of the lake, similar events also have occurred on the Bolivian side

The IUCN Red List declares this species as “critically endangered” and it’s believed the highly fragmented populations are all in decline. 

When Jacques Cousteau studied the Titicaca frogs in the 1970s it was common. He found individuals that stretched out to 20 inches long and weighed 2.2 pounds, National Geographic reported.

Super hunter's moon to delight skygazers

Get those telescopes ready, skygazers. The 2016 hunter’s moon also happens to be a supermoon, making it extra special.

An autumn phenomenon, the hunter’s moon is the full moon after the harvest moon. This year, the full moon is particularly close to the Earth’s orbit, according to EarthSky. During this time, the moon may look larger and be brighter, with a yellow, orange or red hue.

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For those who want to set their watches, the hunter’s moon will be best seen on Oct. 16 at 12:23 a.m. EDT. If you miss it, don’t fret, as National Geographic says the full moons in November and December will also be supermoons.

Government spends $700K on missing letter ‘A’

It’s one of the most famous quotes in human history: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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The words that Neil Armstrong spoke while taking his first steps on the moon are ingrained in the minds of generations of Americans, but is the quote accurate? The astronaut contends that history misquoted him, claiming that he said: “That’s one small step for "a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The National Science Foundation used portions of two taxpayer-funded grants to try to settle the dispute once and for all. The grants, totaling more than $700,000, were distributed to improve and understand communications for people with conditions that may affect speech, like autism and Parkinson’s disease. One of the grants came through money provided by the 2009 American and Recovery Reinvestment Act. The NSF acknowledges that a portion of the money was used to try to find the missing “a," but it was also used to research how the brain understands speech. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., calls the study an “egregious” waste of taxpayer dollars and profiled it in a monthly “Waste Report." The report provided no conclusions on whether Armstrong did include the “a” in his memorable quote, saying: "These results demonstrate that substantial ambiguity exists in the original quote from Armstrong."

Have we reached the limit of human life expectancy?

How old will you be when you die? Sorry to be so grim, but you probably won't outlive Jeanne Calment, who died at 122 back in 1997.

Fourscore and 42 is likely out of the question, and a new study says exceeding that age limit is, too.

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Albert Einstein College of Medicine professor Jan Vijg and colleagues examined at least two international databases on longevity and found the age of the oldest person to die every year had plateaued. Vijg says the ceiling is at 115 years.

Part of his reasoning is that if there weren't a ceiling, we'd see more Calments — but we haven't.

What about technology and better nutrition? Vijg says it's unlikely those developments will increase our average lifespan. Many others say that's where he's wrong.

There's nothing to account for what future medicine will do for us, and maximum age hasn't plateaued in every country. One of those countries is Japan, which has the world's highest life expectancy.

Ultimately, researchers will have to continue documenting when we drop off to see if this study holds up. Fortunately for us, we won't have to wait around to find out.

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Bees placed on endangered species list for first time in US

For the first time in U.S. history, bees will receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Seven yellow-faced bee species, Hawaii's only native bees, are now considered endangered after years of extensive research, according to The Associated Press.

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The yellow-faced bees pollinate plant species indigenous to the Hawaiian islands, some of which are also endangered. In addition, these bees favor heavy shrubs and trees, supporting the health of forest regions, which provides a habitat for other animals.

>>Millions of bees died from Zika pesticide

The bees face threats from "feral pigs, invasive ants, loss of native habitat due to invasive plants, fire, as well as development, especially in some for the coastal areas," Sarina Jepson, director of the Xerces Society, told The Associated Press.

The protection goes into effect Oct. 31, according to CNN.

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