Was 'Oumuamua​ an alien spaceship? No. Here’s what it is.

MICHELLE THALLER: In 2017, we discovered the first visitor to our solar system that actually came from another star. This is really true. We discovered a really interesting type of asteroid-- a rock flying through space. And it was something that we'd never seen before. We knew for a fact that this rock could not have come from our solar system. It was going so fast that it had enough velocity to escape the Sun's gravity entirely. In fact, when it went past the Sun, in late 2017, at top speed it was going 196,000 miles an hour. That's by far enough velocity to completely go away from the Sun's gravity and go all the way out into interstellar space. Now, this object was discovered by a program called Pan-STARRS, which is run by the University of Hawaii. It's a telescope that looks for near-Earth objects, as partially funded by NASA.

NASA actually scans the sky, looking for asteroids. We want to make sure the earth is never under any threat from an asteroid that might be coming near us. We're also very interested scientifically in where the asteroids are and how they formed. It was named 'Oumuamua. And that's the Hawaiian word for scout-- the first arriving of many. And this was the first thing we'd ever seen from another star. So the idea of being the first, being a scout was a wonderful and poetic thing to name this thing. To give you a sense of how unusual 'Oumuamua is, we know that it's a rock like an asteroid in our solar system, but it has a completely different shape. We've never seen anything in our solar system that looks like this. It's about a quarter of a mile long, and it's actually elongated like a cigar. It's 10 times as long as it is wide, and we know that it's tumbling through space. It actually tumbles and rotates around its axis about once every seven hours.

Now, that means it's tumbling pretty fast. So in order to stay together and not just fly apart, it must be pretty rigid, made of rock or even something metallic. So it's a hard object, elongated, tumbling through space at incredible speeds. There also is something mysterious that happened as this object left our solar system. It's actually now around the orbit of Jupiter. And that is it changed its trajectory just a tiny little bit. It actually sped up a tiny little bit as it went away from the Sun. And that wasn't expected. We've seen that sort of behavior from things like comets. That when comets have a bit of gas or something trapped under the surface and the Sun warms it up, you can get a little jet that comes off the comet-- a little jet of gas that changes its velocity. We didn't think that 'Oumuamua had any of those volatiles, those gases on it, but apparently it did. As it went away from the Sun, it changed its trajectory just a little bit.

It also has attracted some attention because some people have wondered, could this be a technology? Could this be a spaceship or part of a spaceship? Or some people have talked about a lightsail-- something that actually can use stellar winds to accelerate and move between the stars. I'm always very concerned when somebody suggests a natural object like 'Oumuamua might be an alien spaceship because, for one thing, I think it takes away from the incredible real facts we know about this object. And in my view of the universe, aliens are definitely not impossible-- there could be other life outside the earth. There could even be other technologies outside the earth, more advanced races than us. That's not impossible in my view, but we have no evidence of this. And this is a natural object that you really don't have any reason to say has an artificial origin. And if you're going to say that something is an alien technology-- I mean, it reminds me of the quote from Carl Sagan that I come back to over and over again and that is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This looks like a really interesting rock. There's nothing about it that suggests it's artificial. So I would like us to spend some time appreciating the mysteries of the universe for what they are. The real facts that we know. We don't need to layer aliens and technology over this. It's already a wonderful thing to study and I hope we learn more about it.

  • Oumuamua, a quarter-mile long asteroid tumbling through space, is Hawaiian for "scout", or "the first of many".
  • It was given this name because it came from another solar system.
  • Some claimed 'Oumuamua was an alien technology, but there's no actual evidence for that.
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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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