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Sunday, February 19, 2012
Outer Space ...

I see that not everyone has given up on the “WOW Signal“, a narrow-band electomagnetic radio signal from the sky that was picked up in 1977 by the on-going Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence project. This search has been going intermittently since the early 1960s, in both the USA and Russia. For the most part, nothing interesting has been found coming in from the stars beyond a lot of static. But on August 15, 1977, a signal was picked up by some radio dishes at Ohio State University that seemed to have been the real deal, an organized radio signal originating in a distant star system. Unfortunately, no one was monitoring the equipment full-time, and by the time the technicians saw the read-out for the WOW signal, it was too late. They tried pointing another antenna at the spot in the sky where the WOW signal appeared to come from, but it was gone. (Actually, another antenna came into range a few minutes later that day; but failed to pick up anything unusual.)

I thought that the whole subject had been debunked and forgotten; i.e., the signal must have been a glitch, or something from we earthlings. It was likely just another observation flaw. But not everyone gave up as quickly as me. There’s a short but interesting interview on The Atlantic web site with an amateur astronomy buff named Robert Gray who thinks that the signal could have been the real thing, some sort of signal sent intentionally by a technological civilization many light years away. Mr. Gray recently published a book on the topic, “The Elusive Wow“.

Two caveats here, of course. First, the signal might still be debunked as a mistake or human artifact — but according to Gray, over the 35 years following WOW, no one has been able to convincingly do that. At the same time, the signal has some characteristics that make it seem like what we might expect of an inter-stellar intelligent communication, and other characteristics that lower the chances of human mistake. The second caveat is that the signal was mostly likely NOT an attempt to get our attention, given that it came and went and never reappeared.

Gray makes it interesting by posing scenarios about what the signal might have been, other than an attempt by one civilization to broadcast its presence to other possible intelligent civilizations out there. (It’s possible that other intelligent civilizations would not want to do that; recall Stephen Hawking’s advice not to send out radio beacons advertising our position, given that we might just as easily attract a Clingon-like warrior race versus an ambassador of good will from a rational breed like the Vulcans). Some of his scenarios indicate that the signal may have been a communication between a home planet and a deep space colony ship, or a message to an outpost on a planet circling an adjacent star. The source of the signal was a focused signal intended for a small target, something like a laser; and not a wide-ranging signal meant to go in all directions. It was a one-shot message, and just by accident we moved into the line of transmission on the night of Aug 15, 1977. Since then, our relative positions are out of alignment, and so we hear nothing more from that source — and probably won’t again. It was a needle in a haystack thing.

And thus, 35 years have passed and nothing. First off, as I reviewed in a recent blog entry, some astrophysicists have lowered their expectations on the prevalence of intelligent life in the Milky Way and even in the universe as a whole. We may be rarer than we thought. Even worse, we are looking for a civilization that is maybe 500 years advanced from us, and has established bases and colonies at stellar objects beyond a light year or two — thus having the need for an occasional powerful signal to be sent, one that might reach our neighborhood.

Second, given that the process of evolutionary selection based on fitness for life probably applies on distant worlds, any other intelligent civilized life-form has probably experienced war, and probably is going to be cautious about sending any signals into the blue that could attract some cosmic bullies. It will send messages on a need-only basis, and has probably developed protocols to communicate a lot of info in very little time. Third, sending a usable signal that goes a long way (hundreds of light years) is an energy-intensive process and is expensive. So, the civilization in question might not do it too often; it might let its colonies operate on their own, and just blast out a message every now and then to keep in touch.

Well, then maybe it’s not such a surprise that we got lucky in 1977 and may not get lucky again for quite a while. Unfortunately, the technology of 1977 wasn’t nearly what it is today, and could not narrow down the signal origin to any one star or galaxy system (as a wide array antenna system of today might be able to do). There are millions of stars in the patch of sky where the 1977 signal could have come from, small as that patch of sky seems. And the signal itself couldn’t be processed as music or Morse Code or whatnot; it was mostly a schmere of vibes that could not be broken down, even by a code-cracker. Again, because the antenna system in question wasn’t all that sensitive.

So, we may have heard something, but our radio receiver couldn’t tune in properly and all we got was a short blast of gibberish; like when you try to tune in an AM radio station on an old plastic radio with a radial dial. Thus the SETI search goes on, I hope. I take my hat off to the SETI people, and to Mr. Gray for keeping the WOW signal alive to public attention. I hope they all someday get a Nobel prize, or at least get their pictures on a US postage stamp series! Or get a cameo appearance on a new version of The X-Files, which will no doubt be back on TV once SETI finally does hear something.

The truth is out there.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:53 pm      

  1. Jim, Interesting. This to me is a “who knew?” Obviously, I don’t keep up much with the SETI business, which I think I made clear in a previous comment.

    I find myself thinking again the same things I tho’t in what I wrote before, but this time, with another, additional tho’t:

    Only humans on earth would think that intelligent life on another planet would be just like we are here, doing the same things we do here, acting the way we do here, thinking about things the way we do here.

    I never find a scientist who thinks in terms of other intelligent life as having some totally different form and thus a different way of thinking, different ways of doing things, etc. This tendency is seen also in how we see God; we imagine God as a “him” (for one thing), having human characteristics, etc. Now we are doing the same kind of imagining with aliens.

    I also *do* understand that seeking intelligent life that isn’t made like us, doesn’t think, act, do things like we do, etc., then proposes the problem of just *how* would such a life form think, act, etc. We might take a hint from the other kinds of intelligent life we have currently on this planet—whales and elephants particularly and even some of the animals considered less intelligent than man. Perhaps more attention should be given to those scientists who are already studying these two groups of animals in order to get some idea of communicating with another species. MCS

    Comment by Mar — February 20, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

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