Why the radio signal from dwarf star Ross 128 is not worth freaking out over, and showcases what is wrong with scientific journalism today

Radio astronomer here! This kinda blew up yesterday, but I had work to do so didn’t notice the post until it was too late to say my thoughts on it, so I am sharing them now.

In short, there is a campaign in radio astronomy to listen to red dwarf stars using Arecibo, the giant dish in Puerto Rico that was in *Contact* and *Goldeneye*, and posted [a blog post]( The TL;DR of it is they found some weird signals from a nearby red dwarf star, Ross 128, and wanted some other observatories to check it out ASAP.

You read that right- ***a blog post***. I mean, I’m not saying astronomers don’t take to various social media outlets with unpublished findings to chat amongst themselves and sometimes even coordinate other observations- the recent [dimming of Tabby’s star ]( was actually posted on Twitter as well as the “proper” channels to make sure people knew about it. But does that mean it’s worth freaking out over? Hells no! This is nowhere near that stage!

To explain further, usually in science, as many people know, we tend to write up our research in papers, which undergo peer review. I think the paper system has some issues with it personally which I won’t go into here, but the real point of them is you want to explain to other people what you did, what you found, and what you think it might mean. A blog post does *not* tell you that. Reading the post over they sound intentionally vague on details, likely because these are results they will want to publish in the future. One example? They don’t specify a frequency, and instead only say their signal is in the range of 4-5 GHz. This is a *huge* range that frankly doesn’t tell you much- for comparison, your FM radio band is about 20 MHz wide. Think about how much stuff you can find just tuning that, and then remember a GHz is 1,000 MHz, and ponder for a moment just how well you’d find a faint radio signal if you were to just keep punching the auto-tune button.

So I don’t think the guys who wrote the post are at fault here, because as I said I think they were likely just trying to figure out what they had on their hands in something that was potentially time-sensitive (even solar flare type things don’t last super long, for example). Which is why I also suspect they wrote a quick explanation about all the mundane reasons which are much more likely for an odd radio signal, even though this wasn’t a paper where these ideas would be considered in much more detail and context. Not like it mattered- everyone picked it up anyway, because “weird signal” must mean “aliens!” Even the friggin’ *Atlantic Monthly* [called it a “transmission”]( as if no one would think of aliens first! (For clarity: natural radio signals are not the result of transmissions. Transmissions are things intelligent beings send to converse with one another.) Note, the blog post does not do that- they are in fact very careful to not freak out in excitement over what this new signal could be. This was purely fabricated by the media, even the sources you’d think are far more respectable.

Listen, I know what’s up- we unfortunately don’t have this phrase in English, but in Hungarian and Dutch (the two other languages I’m most familiar with- yeah, super useful) we refer to this time of the year as “cucumber season.” What this means is summer rarely has many exciting stories going on in it, so the little things get really played up- the hunter shooting the lion in Zimbabwe a year or two back in summer was the *perfect* example of this. So yeah, this moment of “hey, that’s a weird signal” but saying nothing more is *definitely* a cucumber season story. It certainly doesn’t merit a mention at this stage in credible news media because there’s so many ifs associated with it, but that doesn’t generate clicks to your website, now does it?

By the way, if anyone asks, my money is on this just being an unusual type of [flare star]( basically, most red dwarfs have crazy souped up solar flares that make our sun’s look like a candle by a bolt of lightning, and I don’t think it’s inconceivable that there is some higher frequency emission associated with it than we usually see. Which would be really cool! But wouldn’t be all thrown up in the news media like this story has been.”>View Source

Share this Story
Load More Related Articles
Load More By admin
Load More In From_The_Net


  1. themeaningofhaste

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    I agree entirely. A lot of fellow astronomers have been rolling their eyes at the way it’s been picked up. It’s quite the usual thing but really needs to stop because it means that people without expertise have a hard time distinguishing what are good scientific results.

    One comment on the frequency band: they say it is a broadband signal so presumably it covers the full range from 4-5 GHz.

  2. zeeblecroid

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    See, stuff like this is why most science journalists, or at least the morons editing their copy to “punch it up” with fabrications, need to be hurled into the sun.

    Not just because it’s irritating on its own, but because it also pushes people to ignore or dismiss *actual* discoveries when they assume it’s just some journalist making up conclusions.

  3. john_eric

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    I saw this in the Professor’s Twitter feed this morning.

    Prof. Abel Méndez‏

    We are waiting for all results to reach a conclusion on the nature of the signals from #Ross128 later this week. Spoilers: not aliens. 😊

  4. GrandmaGos

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    >in Hungarian and Dutch (the two other languages I’m most familiar with- yeah, super useful) we refer to this time of the year as “cucumber season.” What this means is summer rarely has many exciting stories going on in it, so the little things get really played up-

    In U.S. English, it’s known as the “Dog days of summer” and is traditionally the month of August, when a lot of people go on vacation, legislatures generally shut down, and nobody’s generating much news, so journalists end up scraping the bottom of the barrel for things to print.

    “Frying an egg on the sidewalk” used to be a traditional newspaper front-page August photo story, as was “opening the fire hydrants for inner-city kids to play in”, and “small child with bowl of ice cream”.

    It’s probably “cucumber season” because August is when the cukes really start to hit their stride out in the garden, and the novelty of having a nearly unlimited supply of homegrown fresh cukes having worn off, you start filling up bags with cucumbers and trying to give them away to people at work. Leaving cukes on the break room counter and table is one traditional method of dumping them. It works for tomatoes and zucchini, too.

  5. Tivia

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Seems to me the real problem is from the scientific community and their lack of “It’s definitely Aliens” announcements.

    On a more serious note, thanks for the detailed explanation. I really hate most of the journalistic articles as none of them ever tell you much of anything not already in the title. It’s like journalists today have no clue how to write a proper teaser and then have actual content.

  6. TEP86

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm



    Scientist to other scientists: Hey guys, found something a little unusual, wanna take a look?

    Media: Aliens discovered. Are hostile. Buy doomsday survival gear now.

  7. Endymion86

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Have I mentioned before how much I love it when you chime in on these things? Because I do.

  8. sgtpeppies

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    You’ve just summed up what literally everyone was basically saying in the comment section; *we get it, it’s nothing*

  9. DrColdReality

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Science and technology journalism stinks on ice.

    Scientifically-illiterate reporters uncritically parrot back any wild-ass claim they hear, and if the claim is too boring and science-y, they juice it up with gratuitous Star Trek references and terms like “breakthrough” and “will change everything.”

    And then the public mainly lacks the ability to spot lousy reporting because science education also stinks on ice, and kids aren’t even given any training in critical thinking, to give them the tools to spot bullshit on their own.

    The state of science and technology as reported in the popular media is VASTLY different than the reality.

  10. RelaxPrime

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    I have a question about the peer reviewing process.

    Do peers actually review the science before is published, or do you publish and then peers review it, attempting to prove or disprove what was published?

  11. graveyard_lurk

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    As soon as I see one of these headlines, I skip it and wait for the inevitable follow-up that explains why the headline is wrong. Thanks for at least trying to push back against the “science journalism” hype machine.

  12. Jakisuaki

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    It honestly doesn’t really bother me that much. As long as it gets people interested in learning more, it doesn’t do any long term damage, in fact, I’d argue it’s good for the scientific community as a whole. Public interest is never a bad thing, unless you’re the NSA of course 😉

  13. thismorningscoffee

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Could you elaborate on ‘cucumber season’? I understand it’s referring yo a period of slow news, but I’m curious about the etymology of the phrase

  14. Roxytumbler

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    The popular media, including much of the science media, doesnt distinguish a reseach paper with the researchers ‘commenting’ about the published research. I see this constantly in geology. ‘Scientists say’…etc. The actual science is in the conclusions of the research paper and not speculation about the conclusions. A scientist speculating out loud in an interview is not science.

    Anyways, I also do a lot of eye rolling on the majority of reports on geology and its subset paleontology. When the media runs a piece on medicine, climatology, astrophysics, genetic engineering, etc. I remind myslf to question. ‘Did the research actually show that?…or is that educated speculation?’

  15. ThereAreNoBadWords

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    You mean sensationalizing interesting yet unspectacular news isn’t helpful to progress? Well ALERT THE MEDIA… Oh wait, they’ve been doing this for decades

  16. davidtaylor414

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Damn I love cucumber season, definitely bringing that into my vocab

  17. gkiltz

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Falsehood is often well down the road while the truth is still pulling it’s boots on!!

  18. yonreadsthis

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Thank you for clarity.

  19. torax819

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    It gets the clicks and the traffic they want when they mention that there is a possibility of some mysterious origin to this signal.

    Even at r/aliens we didn’t talk about it much – lol.

  20. CalEPygous

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    There is a lot wrong with science journalism today, but there is also a lot right with it too. There has been an explosion of interest in covering science with the resulting consequence that there is a lot of bad journalism and click-baity headlines. That being said, a lot of sites do a good job and I would argue that the average lay person today is far more science literate because of this than they were 20 years ago. Further, one can’t exclude the scientists from blame too. We all know colleagues who are publicity hounds and love to get in the press to describe (and sometimes exaggerate) their findings. On balance, however, I think the explosion of science journalism is a good thing for science as it keeps the public interested and informed about important issues like climate change.

    One additional problem is that science most often does not produce the absolute definitive answers we would like (alcohol is good for you — err – – no it’s bad; the alien megastructure is dimming Tabby’s star – oh wait it’s not an alien structure). The truth is how many people knew what a Dyson sphere was before that sensationalist story – now many do. I have heard lay people discussing this at parties. On balance, I think it is an overall good thing.

  21. tony_gameboy

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    The sad part is we are looking for signals that only humans understand. So unless ETI started like us with radio waves then we are narrowing our search to that type of civilization. Can a civilization advance without starting with radio waves?

  22. Muzzy637

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    A lot of stupid shit has been coming out of astronomy “news” lately. The “Alien Megastructure” being the fucking King.

  23. s1res

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Genuinely curious, has a radio signal in space ever been worth freaking out over? We’ve never made contact with other life. Freaking out about possibly making contact with other life is essentially the same thing as freaking out about possibly finding bigfoot.

  24. savageburn

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate for a second here. Last night was a very clear night in my area, and I’m lucky enough to live on the outskirts of a city away from a lot of light so I get a decent view of the stars. I wandered outside at around midnight to let my dog out and looked up, and was instantly transported into that moment of sheer soul shivering existential crisis that I’m sure we all get when looking up at the stars from time to time. For me, that moment is all about the magnitude of the unknown and is one of the great lasting sources of wonder.

    So, when I see a news story about odd transmissions being picked up, it’s not about the instant cry of “Aliens!”. If and when that day comes that someone does make an announcement that alien life is out there, I will be just as excited as everyone else, but I also know that the reporters and news organizations that run these stories are aware of this as well and use that hope to their advantage. I understand why that frustrates people, and I agree that maybe it’s not worth freaking out over as you put it.

    But at the same time, if you step back for a moment, you can see that there is a beauty in the situation at hand as well. In all that vast comprehensible nothingness, someone has found something new, something never before identified. That. Is. Awesome.

    So, yes, the news is fluffing up the cucumbers. But which would you rather see, a world where this type of thing gets no coverage at all and instead its more Kardashians, or our current situation. It’s not perfect, it can definitely be better, but there is some joy in knowing that others out there can see something like this, an we can all know that we have clawed out one more scrap of knowledge, even if we don’t yet know what it means.

  25. [deleted]

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm


  26. NukEvil

    July 18, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    You can say pretty much the same thing about climate change.

Check Also

"Eva Mendes" Celebrity

Eva Mendes made her first splash in the ...


Facebook Auto Publish Powered By :