Responding to extraterrestrials, better lab coats for all, space shuttle debris found off Florida

SETI post-detection team
Good listeners: the St Andrews SETI Post-Detection Hub team, from left: Derek Ball, Emily Finer, Martin Dominik, John Elliott, Emma Johanna Puranen, and Adam Bower. (Courtesy: University of St Andrews)

If extraterrestrials ever got in touch, what would you say in return? It’s not clear as there are no procedures in place if a radio signal from ET ever did get picked up. The only agreed “contact” protocols, which were originally drawn up in 1989 by the SETI community, were last revised in 2010.

That document, however, focused entirely on general scientific conduct and fell short of being useful for managing the full process in practice, which includes searching, handling candidate evidence, confirming detections, post-detection analysis and interpretation – as well as a potential response.

In future, however, this endeavour will now be carried out by a new international research group – the SETI Post-Detection Hub – based at the University of St Andrews in the UK.

Better prepared

“Will we ever get a message from ET? We don’t know,” admits computer scientist and hub co-ordinator John Elliott. “But we cannot afford to be ill prepared for an event that could turn into reality as early as tomorrow and which we cannot afford to mismanage.”

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Do you like your lab coat? If not. You are not alone. A survey of 1000 chemists and life scientists has revealed that about 90% of respondents are not happy with their lab attire. According to Chemistry World, common complaints included poor fit, lack of appropriate pockets, and no choice of colour.

The survey was done by US-based Genius Lab Gear, which aims to improve the working lives of lab-based scientists. The company’s founder Derek Miller is developing a prototype lab coat that addresses problems highlighted in the survey. Instead of taking a one-design-for-all approach, the new lab coats will be available in men’s and women’s cuts. Miller says the garments will be tailored for a better fit at the waist, cuffs and collar. The lab coats will also have a plethora of pockets (external and internal) and loops for carrying a range of objects including tweezers, pipettes, pens – and, of course – mobile phones.

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The lab coats should be available next year and are expected to cost $50.

Horrific event

Many people of a certain age can remember where they were when they heard about the horrific break-up of the space shuttle Challenger. Just after lift-off from Florida on 28 January 1986, the spacecraft disintegrated, killing all seven crew members. The presidential commission into the disaster found that cold temperatures on the launch day caused the failure of O-rings – which led to the escape of hot gases. This was famously demonstrated by physicist, commission member and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman.

Now, divers have found previously unknown wreckage of Challenger off the coast of Florida. According to the BBC this is the first time in 25 years that remains of the shuttle have been discovered. The discovery was made earlier this year, but video of the find has just been released. In it, two divers investigate a patch of the seafloor that appears to be covered in tiles. Presumably, these are the heat-resistant tiles that were used to protect shuttles from the high temperatures that build-up as the spacecraft descends through Earth’s atmosphere. It was damage to some of these tiles that led to the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, which also led to the death of all seven crew members.

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You can read more about the discovery and watch the video on the BBC website.