Like, Wow! – The search for extraterrestrial intelligence and Humanity’s inescapable fear of cosmic loneliness

“Late night for Doctor Jerry Ehman

6EQ and it’s bigger than it came in”

SETI vs the Wow! Signal, The Dandy Warhols, 2012

The Wow! Signal referenced here by Millennial Alt Rockers the Dandy Warhols is considered by many to be the strongest contender yet detected for a message beamed to Earth from an extraterrestrial civilization.

Looking through his printouts of data one evening, volunteer analyst Jerry Ehman saw something remarkable – a strong and coherent signal that had all the hallmarks of originating from an artificially engineered source in deep space. Dandies frontman Courtney Taylor Taylor only captures half of the signal in his 2012 lyrics – but in his defence “6EQUJ5” doesn’t scan so well in 4/4 time. What those letters and numbers describe is the changing signal strength in a narrow band of radio wave energy received by the Ohio State University Big Ear radio telescope as it scanned across the night sky on August 15, 1977. Not the random chirps and squawks of cosmic background noise or radio interference that the facility had been recording since it was first turned to the search for alien messages four years earlier, but a clear and substantial signal that systematically rose and fell in intensity over 72 seconds.

Stunned by what he was seeing, Ehman circled the record on his printout and added the notation “Wow!” in red pen to signal his reaction – thereby creating the catchy moniker by which the signal is still known, even in serious scientific discussion. Some commentators have suggested that if he’d written what he’d actually been thinking, we’d now be calling it the ‘Holy shit!’ signal – but I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Ehman myself, so I can’t judge how excitable he might be.

Wow_signal

Scan of a color copy of the original computer printout, complete with Dr Ehman’s excited notation that gives the Wow! Signal its name.

 

Why the ‘shock and awe’ response to this brief radio signal? Well, put yourself in Ehman’s no-doubt-sensible shoes. Imagine listening to 4 years of static hiss and the occasional random squawk coming from your home sound system, then suddenly having your speakers burst into life with 72 seconds of music at full volume.

Only it wasn’t music. Or at least, we can’t say whether it was music or not. Each of those 6 alphanumeric digits in the record simply reflects the total energy received by the detectors over a 10 second period. We have no way of breaking that down to say whether there was any kind of modulation to the frequency or amplitude of the radio waves over time – something that might represent the complexity of real information – or if this was just a burst of energy (albeit curiously narrowly focused). So in essence, the speakers roared into life, but we’re not sure whether it was Motzart’s Eine kliene Nachtmuzik, Eminem giving out Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up, or Dylan Thomas reciting Under Milkwood. Or indeed, nothing more than intergalactic feedback.

The problem we run up against with applying any kind of deeper interrogation to the Wow! Signal is that the plan of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programme of the time was essentially ‘lets see if we pick up any signals, then think about how we might analyse them and look for information later’. An understandable deficiency, perhaps – after all, if you’ve never seen a candidate signal before and don’t even know whether or not you’ll detect one, it’s probably not your top priority to invest the limited resources that you have in working out the details of what to do with one. Remember, back in the 70s the search for extra terrestrial life was basically thought of – and funded – a bit like Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd’s parapsychology research lab in the opening act of the original 1984 Ghostbusters movie. There’s a reason why Dr Ehman was a ‘volunteer’ analyst – very few people were actually getting paid to do this stuff as their day job.

In its practical application, unfortunately, this strategy is a bit like going to a bar with the vague idea of picking up girls, but not getting any farther than a plan of ‘if one comes up to talk to us, we’ll work out what to say then’. If a dark eyed vision of feminine beauty then draws herself up on the barstool next to you and starts speaking huskily in French, its too late to start wondering what she’s saying and making plans of how you’ll respond.

At the end of the day though, the Wow! Signal fit every criteria set by the SETI scientists in their “what to expect in a contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial communicator” guide for young spotters. No one-off surge that could be dismissed as an artifact of 20th century electronics, no random scatter of values that could reflect some radical malfunction of the experimental apparatus – the signal progressed in stately fashion from strong, to stronger, to the strongest value ever recorded by Big Ear in its entire 22 years listening to the skies between 1973 and 1995, and then equally steadily decayed away back down to background levels – exactly what would be seen if the stationary telescope was slowly being scanned across a point source in the distant reaches of deep space by the rotation of the Earth. Hackers playing a malicious joke on the Big Ear team can be ruled out because – sit down for a minute to process this one – it was before the development of the internet, at a time when computers were individual monoliths of mute silicon and wire rather than the networked hive minds of the modern day.

Wait – did I say every criteria? Every criterion, that is, except for one crucial element: whoever it was never got back to us. Despite re-scanning the relevant areas of the sky many times (somewhat problematically, because the Big Ear telescope had two detectors, each focused on a slightly different area of the sky, we can’t be sure which one of those the signal came from) both with Big Ear, and with other more sensitive telescopes of the era and in more modern times nothing, not the slightest apparition of a comparable signal, has been seen again. So unless it was the equivalent of an alien civilization being caught whispering “Shhhh – they’re listening – don’t call me on this number” it does become increasingly hard to credit it as an intelligent communication with every passing year.

Whatever the Wow! Signal was though, what this opens up is the interesting question of just why it is that we are so obsessed with the idea of who or what might be out there among the stars.

Humanity has always populated its Universe with creatures of the imagination – fellow travellers that we have imbued with such agency that we have built stories, mythologies, and even religions around them (and in L. Ron Hubbard’s case, all three). In earlier centuries the ‘outside’ domain where these others might wait for us started in the terrestrial sphere – blank spaces on the map filled with dragons, eldritch creatures, and kingdoms of gold – but as exploration has doggedly filled that vacant territory, alien life forms have been pushed ever further from our doorstep, until now the cracks and crevices and distant spaces of our own world are so thoroughly tested that the location of possible ‘others’ has been pushed far from our own neighbourhood, into the realm of different worlds in the far depths of space.

That’s not to say that our deep desire to find a partner has been diminished by this shift in our horizons.

I’m not even talking about fictional imaginings here. Big Ear, after all was just one cog in a substantial and coordinated investigation that has occupied the energies of serious scientific players since the 1960s. Perhaps even more telling of our human obsession, in the modern era, tech billionaire Yuri Milner has recently committed $US 100 million of his own money to a new, large-scale SETI initiative. That’s not just idle curiosity, that’s someone really willing to buy a full-price ticket on the fairground ride – investing 1700 person-years of equivalent resource (at the average Australian salary – proportionally more if you wanted to outsource it to a call centre in India) in the exercise.

What makes Milner and the SETI community think all this investment – time, money, whole careers of activity in some cases from talented and active scientists – is worth it? Do we have any real reason to believe that there are others out there wondering, like us, at the mysteries of the Universe? Or is it just an existential feeling that, as captured in the words of punk pop balladeer Feargal Sharkey in his 1985 single A Good Heart, “Anything is better than being alone”.

Looking to Geological history for insight on this question, life appears to have evolved pretty much as soon as it could have here on our own planet. The oldest sedimentary rocks preserved on Earth contain within them un-mistakable fabrics revealing the presence of bacteria living 3,700 million years ago. Earlier still, even though their body forms have been erased by the tectonic recycling of the crust, isotopic ratios of carbon reveal the telltale signature of biological processing by ancient organisms as far back as we have rocks to measure them in. Over time, these early inhabitants gave rise to multicellular life, vertebrate skeletons, and ultimately, the emergence of all the glorious complexity and variety of our worldly domain. And, of course, our own sentience – and the accompanying blessing (or curse) of wonder at our existence.

As the late paleontologist and prolific essayist Steven Jay Gould was fond of observing though, there is a real and fundamental question as to what would happen if we re-wound the clock and let the experiment start all over again. I’m not talking here about peripheral issues like whether humans would have tails (or in the prosaic words of comedian Rowan Atkinson, we would perhaps have a different shaped gear stick on the Mini Metro). We don’t even know something as fundamental as whether life of any sort would evolve, or the Earth would instead remain a sterile ball of silicate rocks.

As anyone who has ever tried to bleach a shower curtain can tell you, once life gets going it is remarkably persistent and self-moderating. But that initial quickening – the fundamental transition of inorganic chemistry into living organisms…was it a one-off event of miraculous unlikelihood here on Earth? Or is it inevitable if you put carbon, energy and liquid water together? There, surely, is one of the most fundamental questions at the heart of the mystery of the Universe.

Many theoretical concepts have been developed in this space, but empirical testing is rendered problematic by the issue of pathetic statistics: we’ve basically only got a sample set of one to look at – our own home (and history) here on Earth.

This is one of the reasons why Mars assumes such scientific interest. Ever since 1877 when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli pointed his telescope at the Red Planet and claimed to see channels built by Martian inhabitants, we Earthlings have been titillated by the possibility of life on Mars. Subsequent probing of our neighbour by observation missions and un-manned landers has clarified that, while Schiaparelli was well wide of the mark, the dry valleys of Mars may indeed have a tale to tell on the evolution of early life.

Why the big deal though? What possible relevance could the presence of life (either now or in the distant past) out there on the frigid surface of Mars have to us here on Earth? The key is that the Red Planet represents only the second place we’ve really had the opportunity to explore, even in passing. If life also developed there, then you go from a single point of data and the corresponding possibility of life originating by near-miraculous happenstance to the (still statistically dubious, obviously) situation of ‘well, every viable place we’ve looked, life developed’ – which would strengthen our expectations that it may also exist elsewhere in the Universe.

1024px-Burns_cliff

Approximate true-color mosaic image of Burns Cliff in Endurance Crater on Mars, captured by the NASA rover Opportunity. Proof that life once existed on the Red Planet’s surface would assume huge significance to thinking about our place in the Universe by demonstrating that the creation of life is replicable, and our own existence is more than the outcome of a cosmic lottery win of unimaginable unlikelihood.

 

So what about that wider universe then? In the words of Douglas Adams:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.”

Gaze up into the night sky (as the Big Ear team were probably fond of doing in between their volunteer shifts crunching data back in 1977), and the points of light you see mark out just some of the uncounted billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and, in the further distance, billions more galaxies just like our own. We have enough experience now with the careful observations of celestial mechanics necessary to say that most, if not all of these distant stars are probably orbited by their own families of planets. Some proportion of those will presumably sit, like our own comfortable residence, in the so-called ‘Goldilocks zone’ around their respective sun – not too hot, not too cold – where liquid water is stable. If we assume that some proportion of those potential alien domiciles see life kick-started as it was here on Earth (however that happens), some proportion of those biological incubators see the emergence of multicellular life, some proportion of these see development of some form of sentience…the powerful and attractive logic of extraterrestrial civilisations out there – alien eyes staring up at alien suns – becomes obvious.

Which brings us to the Fermi Paradox: when you put it like this, logical argument would seem to suggest that many technologically advanced civilizations might exist in the universe, but this belief seems inconsistent with our lack of observational evidence to support it. Or, as put more pithily by the great Nobel Prize winning Physicist Enrico Fermi himself – “Where is everybody?”

For all our uncounted generations of staring heavenwards and looking for a sign, all the millions of dollars invested in serious SETI research over the past 50 years, what have we got to show for it? No invitations to intergalactic councils. No imperious threats of our imminent destruction. Not even a poignant “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my works ye mighty and despair” from some long-vanished civilization.

For a point of comparison, the new enhanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in the United States picked up two black holes colliding pretty much the first time it was turned on for a test run earlier this year, and detected another collision just last month. Going by those statistics, collisions between black holes – astronomical features so vanishingly rare in their own right that until recently they were nothing more than abstract Cosmological theory and the fodder for science fiction imaginings – appear to be vastly more numerous than advanced alien civilisations out there.

Actually, speaking of science fiction, for my money it’s probably 20th century writer and futurist Isaac Asimov whose musings on this point best capture the philosophical implications of the search for extra-terrestrial life:

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

So to turn full circle back to the curious event that kicked off this discussion in the first place – what was the Wow! Signal? Was this Jor-El beaming out the sum total of Krypton’s knowledge as his world collapsed, in the hope that our distant civilization would receive it and carry on his work? And we’re caught here on Earth saying “hang on, I’ll just get my pencil…oh, they’ve gone.” Or possibly nothing more than some previously unknown natural radiowave phenomenon reaching us from deep space – still a mystery to be explained, to be sure, but lacking the radical overtones of extraterrestrial contact.

Well, perhaps…but then again – I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but the Wow! Signal was received the day before Elvis Presley ‘died’. Coincidence? Or the King being called home?

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