The National·The National Today

Purple planets, alien probes and a cosmic hot tub: Search for extraterrestrials goes in new directions

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: search for alien life in space; search for civility in U.S. politics; Canada apologizes for rejecting MS St. Louis refugees; a monument to fallen Canadian WWI soldier Pte. George Price.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Feb. 21, 2015. A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the future of space exploration - mandated by U.S. Congress - calls on NASA to look for signs of alien life as part of every mission. (NASA/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • The search for extraterrestrial life has always required a certain amount of imagination, and scientists are imaging some new directions in which it could go.
  • Tennessee seems to be trying to tamp down some of the nastiness in American political discourse.
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's formal apology to the Jewish community for Canada's refusal to accept any refugees from the MS St. Louis during WWII is a long time coming, particularly for Sol Messinger.
  • While many Canadians may know Pte. George Price from history books, few know him quite as intimately as the Belgians.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

The search for aliens

The interstellar object appeared by the sun a year ago, and disappeared from view in January.

At first scientists assumed it was a comet, then an asteroid, before acknowledging that it was unlike anything they had ever detected before — 400 metres long by 40 metres wide, tumbling end over end and travelling at speeds of up to 315,000 kilometres an hour.

Researchers in Hawaii gave it a romantic name, Oumuamua, meaning "a messenger that reaches out from the distant past."

But it took two Harvard University professors to make it famous, via a new paper which suggests that the unexplained object might be some sort of alien probe. 

This artist’s impression shows the first interstellar asteroid, Oumuamua, as it passed through the solar system after its discovery in October 2017. (Reuters)

The evidence to support this notion is a bit scant, but the search for extraterrestrial life has always required a certain amount of imagination.

Take, for example, a paper published late last month in the International Journal of Astrobiology, which theorizes that the reason we haven't yet found alien life is that we're looking for little green men instead of purple ones.

The study, by two American microbiologists, suggests that the first forms of life on Earth might have been a shade of lavender, because they captured solar energy via a molecule called retinal, which made both the organisms and whole planet appear purple. Something we might be missing in the cosmos because we're busy looking for the "red edge" reflection of far-away worlds filled with green plant life.

Or maybe it's just because we've hardly looked at all.

A bunch of mathematicians at Pennsylvania State University recently created a brain-stretching model that tries to capture just how much space we have yet to scour for alien life — eight dimensions with a volume of 6.4 × 10116 m5Hz2 s/W, which sounds awfully large. (This MIT Technology Review article comes up with a helpful analogy; if we were searching the world's oceans, we've basically mapped out the equivalent of a hot tub so far.)

The Gran Telescopio Canarias on the Canary Island of La Palma, Spain, is one of the the world's largest telescopes. It's estimated that humans have so far surveyed only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of space. (Carlos Moreno/Associated Press)

Even before the new Oumuamua theory, the search for extraterrestrials was heating up.

Last month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine unveiled a U.S. Congress-mandated report on the future of space exploration, which calls on NASA to look for signs of alien life as part of every mission. Now that we have discovered thousands of exoplanets, we should always be on the lookout for the possible biosignatures of otherworldly creatures, the study argues, calling on the U.S. space agency to develop "flight ready instruments" and imaging systems to carry out the search.

(This past weekend, NASA answered their plea by awarding a $7 million US grant to the Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures to start laying the groundwork for such explorations.)

Meanwhile, the Trillion Planet Survey, a new project at the University of California Santa Barbara, is using a "pipeline" of software to process images of the Andromeda galaxy. It's looking for evidence of optical signals from faraway civilizations, instead of the radio waves we have been listening for since the early 1960s.

Radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array are seen in Hat Creek, Calif. A new project searching the heavens concentrates on optical signals rather than radio waves. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

And a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal this week suggests that Earthlings adopt a similar signalling approach, creating a powerful 1 or 2 megawatt laser beacon to beam our presence into deep space — turning on what one of the scientists calls "Earth's Porch Light."

Over the past few months, the U.S. Congress has been considering whether it should again start funding the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, better known as SETI, reversing 25 years of indifference.

And then there's Donald Trump's calls for the creation of Space Force, a new branch of the U.S. military. The American president has suggested that there's a need to safeguard the world in case other powers like Russia and China decide to wage war outside the atmosphere.

But conspiracy theorists aren't convinced. They think the real purpose of Space Force is to fight off a pending alien attack.

However, given that the theory's main proponent is the same website that spread the anti-Democrat "pizzagate" whopper, it is surely "fake news."

Tennessee taunting

Adrienne Arsenault is in Nashville, Tenn., covering the U.S. midterm elections.

"Shake it off, shake it off" is the less-than-original, more-than-gleeful Twitter taunt to Tennessee's Taylor Swift this morning.

She of the "Go vote" Instagram post — urging those in the state to register and cast their ballot for Democrat Phil Bredesen for senator — was mercilessly mocked online as soon as Republican Marsha Blackburn was declared the winner last night.

During his midterm election campaign Democratic candidate and former Gov. Phil Bredesen pledged to work with anyone, including President Trump, if he thought it would be best for Tennessee. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

The superstar may mope at the result, but the nudge to get Tennesseans engaged may indeed have made a difference. While the wait is on for total turnout numbers, there was a 700 per cent boost in young voters in Tennessee in early voting compared to the 2014 midterms.

That's not a typo. The caveat, though, is that Tennessee ranked dead last in turnout in 2014, so any improvement will boost the percentages.

So yes, the enthusiasm is a win. The taunts are less so.  

Tennessee is a curious place for the way it seems to be trying to tamp down some of the nastiness in American political discourse, and its newspapers appear to be leading the charge. The Chattanooga Times Free Press, for example, makes a point to always ensure it has two editorials, one liberal and one conservative.

The Tennessean newspaper is going a little farther — last January it launched Civility Tennessee, a year-long project that is dedicated to highlighting those who reach across divides. The editors appear to go well out of their way to find the people who manage to disagree without rancor and seek solutions that look like compromises.

The goal seems to be to avoid what some refer to as a "long-term civic divorce."

Which brings us back to last night.

The democratic candidate was trying to ride that civility wave. Bredesen made a point of saying he would work with anyone, President Trump included, if he thought it would be best for Tennessee.

Until the dawn of voting day, the pollsters thought this grand experiment in the spirit of civility might work, might send a message that moderate voices could be the future.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn greets supporters Tuesday in Franklin, Tenn., after she was declared the winner over former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Blackburn's campaign supported many of the policies of the Trump administration. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

But the conservative south stayed red, and elected a senator who campaigned in the image of the President. Blackburn warned of the dangers of the caravan, encouraged the building of the border wall, and slammed her opponent.

That's politics. And that's particularly politics now, with the middle ground still elusive.

All this makes the Civility project so much more curious. The experiment ends in two months. It'll be worth checking in to see what, if anything, has changed.

  • WATCH: Analysis of the U.S. midterm results tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

  • Like this newsletter? Sign up and have it delivered by email.
  • You may also like our early-morning newsletter, the Morning Brief — start the day with the news you need in one quick and concise read. Sign up here.

Remembering the MS St. Louis

For Sol Messinger, a formal apology from Canada has been a long, long time coming, writes producer Perlita Stroh.

"Well, you know that picture with the little boy, it's a famous picture, it always makes me think that could have been me," says Sol Messinger.

He was referring to the iconic, grainy black-and-white image of a young boy raising his hands as he surrendered to German troops in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

Sol Messinger reflects on the luck that helped him survive the holocaust, while looking at an iconic photo of a Jewish boy surrendering to Nazi officers in the Warsaw Ghetto. 1:01

Messinger is one of a group of about 900 Jewish refugees who tried to escape the horrors of the holocaust by leaving Europe on the MS St. Louis. He set sail for Cuba with his family in 1939 before World War II broke out.

But Cuba turned the ship back, and Canada and the U.S. both refused it entry. At the time, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King argued that opening Canada's door to any of the refugees would lead to further claims after the war.

The ship eventually took its passengers back to Europe, where many died at the hands of the Nazis.

Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is formally apologizing to the Jewish community for Canada's refusal to offer sanctuary to any of those refugees.

Sol Messinger, centre, and his parents aboard the MS St. Louis on its voyage to Cuba in 1939. (Sol Messinger)

Miraculously, Sol's family survived the war — but not without trauma. They were arrested and sent to a detention camp in France, where living conditions were brutal. They were separated and starved before escaping and securing passage on another ship bound for the U.S. in 1942.

Of the passengers on the MS St. Louis, 288 were sent to England and survived. Another 87 managed to leave Europe in 1940. Of those who didn't find sanctuary from the Nazis, 278 survived the holocaust and 254 perished in concentration camps in Europe.

"I think the Canadian apology is really important for Canadians, for Canadian youth, because it's important for them to say we did this and we were wrong, and we hope that we never do that again," Messinger says.

Paying homage to a fallen Canadian

While researching a story about a memorial to Canadian Pte. George Price, the last British Empire soldier killed in WWI, producer Stephanie Jenzer and her team discovered a remarkable radio recording in the CBC archives — as well as a community that has embraced his memory.

While many Canadians may know Pte. George Price from history books, few know him quite as intimately as the Belgians.

Price, born in Nova Scotia in 1892, is widely believed to be the last Commonwealth soldier killed during the First World War. He was shot by a sniper, on Belgian soil, unaware that a war that had already claimed more than 60,000 of his compatriots was itself heaving its final dying breaths.

Canadian Pte. George Price, the last British Empire soldier killed in WWI, was shot by a sniper just two minutes before the armistice came into effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. (Price family)

Across Canada and around the world there are countless monuments to the fallen, just like Price. But many are impressionistic markers, whether it's that towering symbol of sacrifice at Vimy or a small cenotaph in a community near you. They are memorials that honour all who gave their lives to war.

But that last victim of the Great War had a name and a face many wanted to hold onto. Not because his story was particularly special, but precisely because it was a symbol of so much more — of the inexplicable loss and senseless tragedy that all too often comes with war.

Here is a remarkable bit of radio tape we managed to dig up in the CBC archives, a 1965 CBC interview with a veteran named Arthur Goodmurphy. He describes being with Pte. Price on patrol that day in 1918, and how the soldier was shot and fell lifeless into his arms just two minutes before the armistice came into effect at 11 a.m. almost 100 years ago.

Art Goodmurphy recounts how Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was shot and died in his arms on Nov. 11, 1918 -- the last soldier of the British Empire to be killed in action in WWI. (CBC archives) 2:22

There are other perhaps more romantic versions of Price's final moments, including the story of a young woman who waved to him from across a road, prompting him to step out from the protection of a house into the line of fire.

But while some of the fine details have varied slightly over the past century, the municipality of Le Roeulx, near Mons Belgium, has remained unwaveringly loyal and grateful to the man, and the name George Price.

There's the school named in his honour. And there's quite a long footbridge dedicated to Price as well, not to mention the woman who lives next to the bridge who greets visitors at the door with a portrait of him clutched close to her heart.

Marilyn Lahaie, who lives near the bridge named after George Price, holding her portrait of the fallen Canadian soldier. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

And now, there's a new addition to Le Roeulx's growing testament to their Canadian hero — a monument commissioned and sculpted in Price's honour.  

Belgian artist Sylvain Patte has laboured over the statue in a nearby quarry for many months — much of 2018, in fact. He drew inspiration from, among other things, spending a night in the very spot Price is believed to have been killed.

CBC correspondent Nahlah Ayed, videographer Pascal Leblond and I recently spent some time with Patte and the massive pieces of bluestone that he has carved and buffed and readied for a grand unveiling this coming Remembrance Day weekend.

Belgian artist Sylvain Patte works on the George Price memorial. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

To give you a sense of the respect the Pte. George Price name commands locally, Le Roeulx has an official population of just 8,500 people, yet a Belgian Princess and the Prime Minister are scheduled to show up for the occasion.

Canada will get its own sneak peek, with a special documentary on the life and legacy of Pte. George Price tonight on The National. The monument may not be what everyone expects, but it's a good bet you will find it memorable.  

After all, as Sylvain Patte told us, it's important to preserve history for the children.

  • WATCH: The story about Pte. George Price and the Belgian memorial tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

Remembrance Day on CBC:

Rosemary Barton will host CBC's Remembrance Day special coverage on Sunday, Nov. 11.

  • Watch the special from 10 a.m. ET to noon ET on CBC News Network across the country and CBC TV in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. If you live in Manitoba or farther west, the special starts at 10 a.m. local time on CBC TV.
  • Livestream it at, or on the CBC News YouTube, Facebook or Twitter pages from 10 a.m. to noon ET.
  • Listen to the radio special hosted by Tom Harrington on CBC Radio One from 10:55 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. ET in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. If you live in the Central, Mountain or Pacific Time zone, listen starting at 10:55 a.m. local time.

Quote of the moment

"This is totally absurd and a giant waste of money. Fumigating the office with chemicals is probably more dangerous to the people working in that office than a spider would have been."

- Catherine Scott, a University of Toronto arachnologist, on a decision to twice shut down and fumigate a federal office building in Ottawa after a bureaucrat claimed to have seen a venomous, brown recluse spider. (Spoiler: it wasn't.)

Arachnologist Catherine Scott. (Sean McCann/SFU)

What The National is reading

  • Battle for Yemen's vital port intensifies (BBC)
  • Tony Clement demonstrated 'terrible lapse in judgment,' Scheer says (CBC)
  • UN, Western powers quietly bury December plan for Libya election (Reuters)
  • U.K. Royal Mint rejected Roald Dahl coin over his anti-Semitic views (Guardian)
  • Boeing issues safety bulletin to pilots about 737 MAX jets after Indonesia crash (CBC)
  • Dead brothel owner wins Nevada Assembly race (Fox News)
  • Coast Guard looks to squeeze more years from oldest ship (CBC)
  • What happens when you pour molten lava through a metal shredder (Digg)

Today in history

Nov. 7, 1990: UFO phenomenon over Montreal

A guest swimming in the outdoor pool on the roof of Montreal's Place Bonaventure hotel sees an odd object with flashing lights in the sky and tells the lifeguard, setting off a chain reaction. Soon the police, a newspaper reporter and the RCMP are also there trying to figure out where the huge, metallic disc — estimated to be 540 metres wide — came from. It didn't belong to the Canadian military, and there was nothing showing on the radar at Dorval and Mirabel airports. Three hours later, the lights stopped flashing and the object disappeared. Some experts say it was the northern lights. Others aren't so sure.

A group sighting of a UFO sparks a major investigation in 1990. 9:54

Sign up here and have The National Today newsletter delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

Please send your ideas, news tips, rants, and compliments to ​

About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.