STRANGEBUTTRUE- Going silent: How digital jumping vexes spying aliens


Q. How are we Earthlings changing the nature of our "noise" drifting into outer space? –K. Jansky

A. The Earth is going silent as digital television signals via cable or satellite are quickly replacing analog broadcasts and reducing the number and power of radio waves leaking into space, says Elizabeth Quill in Science News.  For viewers at home, this means more channels and unsurpassed clarity, but it's problematic for scientists hoping to signal any advanced civilizations beyond our solar system.

And it's not just changes in TV. Military radar, once the prime outgoing evidence for intelligent life on Earth, now jumps from channel to channel to confuse enemies trying to jam the signals. Meanwhile, the power radiated by cell phones is spread across more than a thousand channels, making their emissions– to a planetary outsider– indistinguishable from noise.

In other words, our improving technology is causing the Earth to become less "visible," sums up astronomer Frank Drake of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). 

"If we are the model for the universe, that is bad news," he writes.  Or as other SETI researchers are now wondering, "If extraterrestrial can't hear us, how will we hear them?"

Q. Why would people confess to crimes they didn't commit, which happens more than might be expected? –B.R. Hauptmann

A. Publicity-seeking in high-profile cases is one reason, as when more than 200 people confessed to the 1932 kidnapping of the son of world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, says Scott Lilienfeld in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology.

In the late 1940s, aspiring actress Elizabeth Short– who always wore black–  was brutally murdered, and the notorious "Black Dahlia" case prompted the confessions of more than 30 people. In other instances, false confessors may have a need for self-punishment, or a desire to protect the real perpetrator, or difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. Nowadays, police keep the details of crime scenes from the media to weed out such individuals.

According to the Innocence Project (2008), in more than 25 percent of cases where DNA evidence later exonerated convicted individuals, they had pled guilty to crimes they didn't commit. Case in point was John Mark Karr's 2006 confession to the 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, though his DNA failed to match crime scene evidence. As TV and movies hammer home the message that those who confess to a crime are almost always the true culprits, reality says otherwise.

Q. You remember that first kiss with the woman you love, or trivial facts like the air mileage from London to Chicago, but then you turn right around and forget the name of a new colleague or where you left your sunglasses. That's the quirkiness of human memory. On the other hand, consider someone like Jill P., who was studied at the University of California and whose life is overtaken by "having too good a memory." How good is "too good"? –A. Alzheimer

A. In her memoir, published with writer Bart Davis in 2008, Jill describes her memory as "like a running movie that never stops"–- like a split screen, with her

talking to someone and seeing something else, says David G. Myers in Psychology. Whenever she sees a date flash on TV ("or anyplace else for that matter"), she'll automatically go back to that day and remember where she was, what she was doing, what day it fell on, and on and on and on and on. 

"It is nonstop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting," says Jill. She remembers every day of her life since age 14 with detailed clarity, both the joys and the unforgotten hurts.

A good memory is helpful, sums up Myers, but so is the ability to forget. "If a memory-enhancing pill becomes available," he says, "it had better not be too effective."


Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at