Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE WOW SIGNAL EXPLORED


Somewhere in the cosmos a tiny blue planet receives an alien signal. A researcher writes "Wow!" Nearly forty years lapse. It quickly passes into legend and UFO lore. TheBigRetort investigates a mix of signals.
(Picture. The View at Hilly Fields. Copyright (c) TheBigRetort.)

In August 1977, a researcher with SETI - Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence - claims to have noted an unusual signal that is said (by some) to have emanated from a far-flung civilisation somewhere in the cosmos. The "Wow Signal" has entered the global lexicon but it was never authenticated and there is still to this day much debate about its alien credentials. Be that as it may...

TheBigRetort notes an infinite number of details that have expunged the down-to-earth facts in the telling and retelling of this interstellar tale, which makes it all really - rather - curiously... human.

'Curious' in that the computer printout contains a handwritten date; 'rather' in that it may have been inserted at a later date; and, 'human' in so many down-to-earth ways that the gravity of it all weighed so heavily that it caused us to pause and turn our telescope into a microscope. Why we wondered is there a lack of contemporaneous reporting of the discovery.

At that time, August 1977, the national press in the United States and the worldwide press appear to have been kept in the dark about the Wow Signal. Press recordings following the alleged discovery are absent, or even dismissive, too. Ohio State University publicly stated (twenty-nine days later?): “So far, several years of detection, have recorded no such listening, have detected no such identifiable signal, according to Dr Dixon’s latest report on his results.” (The Morning Record and Journal, Sep, 13, 1977.)

It appeared that 'Dr Dixon', the head of SETI, didn’t know what the ears were hearing. (Yes, technically it was the eyes that were doing the hearing.)

But why did Jerry Ehman, the researcher who wrote "Wow" on the computer printout, or SETI head Dixon, and other ‘listeners‘, consider the discovery not then worthy of any public notification?

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence SETI [http://history.nasa.gov/SP-419/sp419.htm.] edited by Philip Morrison, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Billingham and John Wolfe, NASA Ames Research Center, is worth scrutiny. Under the heading “NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Scientific and Technical Information Office, (1977), it states: [Para 8] “The first authentic signals will attract intense headline attention.”

Clearly, as the signal as curiously grown in strength anyway - we use 'in strength' as a metaphor - we ask why this would be so if it has not been authenticated - ever.

Perhaps because it has been stylishly promoted by SETI as a 'possible' signal from outer space.

Which of course leads one to ask a number of questions: at which date was the Wow Signal publicly reported? in which publication? and by whom?

One would have thought, following this statement and publication (presumably before Ehman’s Wow Signal discovery of August of that same year?) that the report would have been updated to include the Wow Signal. Why was it not included in an update?

Could the answer be that the Wow ‘discovery’ was never accepted in the first instance as authentic by anyone at SETI?

If so, why has it been apparently inserted into the history books at a much later date than the discovery was made?

[The report also goes on to state: “In addition to on-going radioastronomical observations, there have been several deliberate attempts to detect signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin, all with negative results." [185] COMPLEMENTARY DOCUMENT 8 RADIO FREQUENCY INTERFERENCE. SP-419 SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [229] COMPLEMENTARY DOCUMENT 12 SEARCHES TO DATE. [231]. ]

America likes to dream. It is the dream that led it into a nation of can-do-ers. It is that dream that moved it towards a United states and on towards building the mightiest nation on the planet. It is the same dream that put American boots on a planet we call the moon, a seemingly impossible task, then and now. It was also that dream that moved Americans to attempt what President Kennedy termed ‘all the other things’.

Did SETI foster belief in an alien dream in order that it could do the 'all the other things'? To do these other things did it need a signal from outer space? Did it attempt this by passing off the possibility of first contact? Did it know that the signal was of the earth, or near it?

The Saratogo Herald Tribune (23 Oct 1977) confirms the following: “ALTHOUGH their requirements for the initial program [a]re modest, the SETI scientists do have one priority - protection for the band of frequencies at which they want to observe. There is beginning to be completion for this band by planners of advanced navigation satellites, above others. Such satellites would broadcast so much noise they would ruin any search for extra-terrestrial signals, the SETI report warns. The band runs from 1400 to 1727 mega hertz.” The newspaper report also noted that it would ‘take international agreement to protect this band‘. An agreement that could not be sought until 1979 - at the earliest. [http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=tC0eAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Sb4EAAAAIBAJ&pg=1249,1022864&dq=seti&hl=en]

Perhaps the reports authors’ realised that the search up to that point and slightly beyond had been compromised. Therefore, SETI was, despite what its proponents now say - prior to any international agreement being in place - severely compromised by infringements into its bandwidth; certainly at the date of the Wow‘ Signal’s recording and (later?) discovery. Presumably the reason why its scientists were desperate to protect the galactic watering hole - apparently 1400 to 1727 mega hertz - around which all technological interstellar civilisations are said to gather (but have so far failed to do so). It should be further noted that the newspaper was published over two months after the alleged discovery of the Wow Signal - which itself remained unreported.

Unreported until much later… Not many SETI disciples realise it but there have been two Wow signals. It all began when, in 1956, a 26-year-old scientist named Frank Drake pointed a 25ft radio telescope at the Pleiades star cluster, 440 light years from Earth. He saw two spikes on the read-out that shouldn’t have been there. “It was a wow moment,” Drake, now a large, grandfatherly, pleasantly ironic individual, tells me. “I remember feeling a very strange emotion… it was the feeling, ‘Wow, this looks like an intelligent signal, there’s the evidence.’ The whole world is going to change.” [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7050554.ece]

In fact, whilst the date the Wow was reported is a bit of a mystery - do you know? - did the Times reporter name the wrong discoverer, and date? Did he mean Jerry Ehman, and 1977? Why were two potential alien signals - decades apart - coincidentally carrying the preface “Wow!”? (Why not Gosh or Golly?) Coincidence, or what?

Lack of ‘same time’ verification and coincidences apart, and news of the greatest discovery of all time to one side, even if the Wow Signal had been reported at that time in some obscure publication somewhere on planet-E, SETI itself was severely compromised by the lack of an international (or national for that matter) agreement to protect its bandwidth.

Additionally, if we accept Jerry Ehman’s August 1977 discovery date at face value we still cannot possibly accept it being contemporaneous - it isn‘t. In fact, recorded on the 15th August 1977, noticed (at some point later) by Ehman, handwritten date (?) from the computer of the unmanned telescope written on it, ignored by the press (or kept from the press?), how extra special, extra terrestrial, extra whatever, did that make the SETI Wow?

Coming soon in TheBigRetort… The Wow Signal: Not that extra?

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