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Dude...What's that Sound?
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Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Wendy Wippel

The Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, has had its glory days, being one of the radio antennae used to broadcast the live images of the Apollo moon landing in 1969. It’s scientists since then have contributed much to our understanding of space. They have had another stretch of fame lately. But not for a good reason.

The telescope at this point has long been operated by scientists working remotely, with only a small support staff onsite. In 1998, the physicists that manned the Parkes Radio Telescope began to notice random interference in the normal signals from space, interference that seemed to be—possibly-- relayed from deep space. Interference described as fleeting bursts of radio signals. Though not a predictable regular occurance, these anomalies persisted. Finally, convinced they had made an actual discovery of a new form of radio wave, they named their discovery after a mythical chimera half stag and half bird: the Peryton. It was high up at the time of scientific mysteries.

Not that long ago, the enduring puzzle of the radio bursts was featured in the Magazine Astronomy Now:

"The theories are now that the signals must be coming from a compact kind of stellar object, like neutron stars or black holes, and the bursts could be connected to collisions or star quakes."

Not so fast. As time went on, it became more and more obvious that the signals weren’t coming from deep space. And then that they weren’t coming from even our galaxy. And, eventually, that they weren’t coming from space at all. The signals had a terrestrial origin.

The Peryton appeared to be much more stag than bird.

And then—finally, they with a little bit of earthbound research—found exactly where the mysterious perytons were coming from.

And like every good scientist does, they wrote their findings up for inclusion in a scientific journal.

Every scientific paper starts with a section called the abstract, which gives the reader a three minute overview of their procedures and results. Here is theirs:


"Perytons are millisecond-duration transients of terrestrial origin, whose
frequency-swept emission mimics the dispersion of an astrophysical pulse that has
propagated through tenuous cold plasma. In fact, their similarity to FRB 010724 had
previously cast a shadow over the interpretation of fast radio bursts, which otherwise
appear to be of extragalactic origin. Until now, the physical origin of the dispersion-
mimicking perytons had remained a mystery. We have identified strong out-of-band
emission at 2.3(2.5 GHz) associated with several peryton events. Subsequent tests revealed that a peryton can be generated at 1.4 GHz when a microwave oven door is opened prematurely and the telescope is at an appropriate relative angle. Radio emission escaping from microwave ovens during the magnetron shut-down phase neatly explain all of the observed properties of the peryton signals."

It was the microwaves at the Parkes radio telescope facility. Every time one of the few staff members there grabbed their hot pocket before the timer went off.

The peryton was actually, all these 17 years, was actually a microwave.

The moral of this story is that there is a vast difference between a theory and a scientific fact, a good thing to keep in mind as you read the newspapers and watch science on TV.

About Wendy Wippel

Last week: Swarms Without Number

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