Saturday, August 15, 2009


Thirty-two years ago today, something very interesting happened. It only lasted 72 seconds and, as far as anyone knows, it never happened again. Yet in that one minute and 12 seconds, we may have experienced the first--and only--communications from another planet.

It's called the Wow! signal. And it looks like this:

A pretty restrained reaction, actually.

Those letters and numbers represent a far-stronger-than-background-noise signal that rose and fell in intensity exactly as a broadcast radio signal from a point source would. The signal was picked up from a giant array at Ohio State University called the Big Ear. (it has since been dismantled to make way for a golf course)

Scientists at the university and elsewhere looked in that same patch of sky over and over with all kinds of high-tech listening devices and never saw the signal again. That's a bad thing in terms of really nailing down what it was the array picked up. But it's a good thing in that it would appear to rule out a lot of natural explanations.

The guy who jotted down the "Wow!" note on the printout gives a pretty good summation of what all of this means three decades later:
Thus, since all of the possibilities of a terrestrial origin have been either ruled out or seem improbable, and since the possibility of an extraterrestrial origin has not been able to be ruled out, I must conclude that an ETI (ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) might have sent the signal that we received as the Wow! source. The fact that we saw the signal in only one beam could be due to an ETI sending a beacon signal in our direction and then sending it in another direction that we couldn't detect. Of course, being a scientist, I await the reception of additional signals like the Wow! source that are able to be received and analyzed by many observatories. Thus, I must state that the origin of the Wow! signal is still an open question for me. There is simply too little data to draw many conclusions. In other words, as I stated above, I choose not to "draw vast conclusions from 'half-vast' data".
But until we can draw a conclusion, I'm going to dream, because that's what I do, that someday soon the odds will catch up with us and we'll find something--whether it's a bacterium or a radio signal--that makes us all, collectively, scream "Wow!"

1 comment:

ayo said...

Instead of just listening that direction, can we send them a "woot-woot" signal?