Inverse Daily

Astrophysicists are on track to finally spot alien life — here’s why

Plus: Puffy planets are melting away.

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If we ever find them, aliens may be disappointing. They’re more likely to be single-cell blips than the floppy-headed geniuses that live in our collective consciousness. But although it’s impossible to know for sure what alien life looks like, a new theory could help scientists get a much better idea.

“Epsilon machines” are part of that technology — you can learn more about them in the story below. But before you do, take a moment to hit ‘reply’ to this email and let me know: What do you think aliens look like? We’d love to hear your hypothesis and see your drawings, and we’ll feature some of your answers in next week’s Inverse Daily. Until then, thank you so much for reading, one human to another.

This is an adapted version of the Inverse Daily newsletter for Thursday, February 10, 2022. Subscribe for free and earn rewards for reading every day in your inbox. ✉️

Aliens eat dinner, too!

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Bleeding edge tech could help us find alien life

“Does alien life exist?” asks Charles Q. Choi. To answer this question, astronomers typically scavenge for biosignatures, or evidence of life like oxygen, but there’s a tricky possibility that alien biosignatures are completely different from what we’re used to on Earth.

This is where “epsilon machines” come in. “An epsilon machine is a series of sophisticated algorithms designed to compute the statistical complexity of data,” writes Choi. So, not a tangible machine, but still cool. In a new paper published Monday in Nature Astronomy, scientists propose using an epsilon machine to “look at several factors — including how complex the systems in the world seem to be — to use it as a sign of life, even if the conditions don’t quite seem like Earth.”

Wait, what? “In order to find life that, for example, is based on silicon instead of carbon,” writes Choi, “we should look at if it has richer dynamics of the world as a whole — a complex atmosphere, for instance — and see it as a potential biosignature.” Oh, okay.

Continue reading.

What’s your biosignature?: We’re looking for ancient life on Mars

Like Neptune, but puffier.

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“Puffy” planets could solve an exoplanet mystery

Mini-Neptunes, which sounds like a cereal brand but just indicates the exoplanet is smaller than Neptune, “typically contain rocky cores and puffy, gaseous atmospheres,” writes card story editor Jennifer Walter. They share this type of atmosphere with their larger namesake Neptune, but some Mini-Neptunes want to shed the connection.

“Some Mini-Neptunes might be shape-shifters,” writes Walter. “Researchers observed two losing their atmospheres — suggesting that they may eventually morph into a different type of planet.”

Though the final result of their transformation is unclear, it’s possible these exoplanets will end up looking like Super-Earths, which are “smaller than Mini-Neptunes and common among exoplanets found in the Milky Way,” writes Walter. Click through the card story for the surprising visual and more about these molting planets.

See for yourself.

It’s not a phase, Neptune: Exoplanets are more diverse than we realized

“It all started with my mother.”

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The “science” behind most mental health apps is widely flawed

Mental health is difficult to safeguard under normal conditions, let alone during a global pandemic where going outside and hugging loved ones can feel scarier than they should be. “To make matters worse, necessary stay-at-home measures hamper access to care,” writes Nick Keppler. “In the gap, some people have turned to mental-health apps for solace.”

These apps seem to provide it all — cognitive behavioral therapy, guided meditation, all from the comfort of your own home — but a new study published in PLOS Digital Health suggests these claims are too good to be true.

“Generally, the apps were more effective than no treatment at all,” writes Keppler, “but their usefulness waned when they were compared to other treatments or interventions for mental health.” That said, many people find mental health care to be inaccessible or confusing to navigate, and these apps could be better than nothing.

Continue reading.

There’s no one answer to mental health: How long should you stay in therapy?

Iron Man would be great at football.

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Marvel changed superhero movies forever with one perfect shot

Inverse is getting ready for the Super Bowl. Do you have your dips planned yet? I’m partial to Buffalo chicken.

Recently, Inverse entertainment editor Eric Francisco teamed up with the Clio Awards to talk through some of the Super Bowl’s most memorable advertisements, and pop culture writer Isaac Feldberg is zeroing in on the Super Bowl’s greatest sci-fi commercials.

In this installment, Feldberg revisits Disney’s marketing campaign for The Avengers, which eventually overlapped with the 2012 Super Bowl. In some ways, the fact that Disney had already been heavily promoting The Avengers before the Super Bowl put extra pressure on the company. “In 30 seconds, [a Super Bowl teaser] would heighten audience anticipation for what was already shaping up to be one of the biggest films of 2012,” writes Feldberg. But Disney pulled it off.

Continue reading.

More to marvel at: Why Marvel is stuck with anti-vaxxer Evangeline Lilly

This impressive Douglas fir was sent in by reader Cindy D. “I used to have a big yard with lots of big trees: oak, maple, beech, sassafras,” she writes. “Now, I live in an apartment, and my favorite tree is the one outside my small patio — a large Douglas fir.”

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  • On this day in history: Today is American acoustician James West’s 90th birthday. West is a big part of why you can use a headset microphone to talk during those pesky Zoom calls — he helped develop the foil electret microphone in 1961, and the technology continues to be used in built-in microphones today. In 1999, he was the fourth Black American to join the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and since then, West has amassed over 260 international patents and now teaches at Johns Hopkins.
  • Song of the day: INVENTED IT,” by Baby Keem.
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