Keeping an ear on the final frontier

Well, is it, or isn’t it?

Sometimes, science is all about not having the foggiest idea about how something happens, but trying really hard to find out the truth. It also means not being afraid to go in potentially weird directions.

Jason Wright, Penn State associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics, is doing just that. He’s one of the astronomers trying to find out if — set the synthesizer on spooky and cue the weird music — a giant alien structure is causing the weird dimming of a star called KIC 8462852, better known as Tabby’s Star.

Located about 1,500 light-years from Earth, Tabby’s Star has undergone rapid and erratic dimming that typical cosmic phenomena — a rotating planet, for example, or comets — may not explain. While not proven or even likely, Wright suggests that an alien megastructure cannot be taken off the table as a possibility.

In this chat at the SETI Institute, (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute), Wright offers more information about Tabby’s Star and what it might — and might not — mean for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Members of the news media interested in talking to Wright should contact Barbara Kennedy at 814-863-4682 or

Probing Question: How can we save coral reefs?

Penn State biologist Todd LaJeunesse studies coral reefs, a crucial ecosystem in decline worldwide. In this Probing Question video, LaJeunesse touches on what people can do to reverse this trend and allow the reefs to recover.

Probing Questions videos showcase our faculty as they share their views on the question of the day, ranging from scientific advances to social trends and pop culture. We invite you to follow along! Please email series producer Melissa Beattie-Moss at with ideas, comments, and questions.

Computer program identifies leaves better, faster than humanly possible

In the video above, Penn State geoscientist Peter Wilf describes a computer program he and colleagues developed that learns, and can classify modern and fossil leaves over 70 percent of the time and place them in the appropriate biological family. By comparison, he says, it can take a carefully trained human two hours to classify just one leaf.

The software actually taught itself botany, learning from a large number of already classified leaves, but developed its own methods for classifying a leaf.  It creates heat maps that place a red marked square onto the image grid to signify features of the leaf that are critical for identification. The problem is, often trained humans can’t figure out exactly why that particular feature is important.

Wilf and collaborators spent nine years refining the program. He hopes eventually to use it to create a more accurate picture of plant evolution.

Members of the news media interested in talking to Wilf should contact Patty Craig at 814-863-4663 or

How DNA testing ID’ed the last of the Romanovs

The Adventures in Genomics video series — produced by Illumina, a life sciences technology company — highlights the many discoveries and benefits of “next-generation” DNA sequencing. This recent episode tells the story of how, with the help of this powerful tool,  forensic scientist Mitch Holland helped to solve the nearly century-old mystery of where exactly the last member of the Russian royal family ended up.  Continue reading How DNA testing ID’ed the last of the Romanovs

Probing Question: How can we prepare for storm surge?

What happens when a hurricane makes landfall and brings with it a deluge of deadly water? The storm surge in a hurricane is arguably the greatest threat to lives and one that is often ignored.

Brent Yarnal, professor of geography in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, researches the vulnerability of coastal communities to contemporary hurricane storm surge and the role of our rising sea level in increasingly destructive storms. Are there ways to rebuild the shoreline’s natural defenses against hurricanes and flooding? Can coastal communities prevent catastrophic damage to people and property?

Continue reading Probing Question: How can we prepare for storm surge?