The ‘Wow!’ Signal

There is only one scenario under which the scientific community will ever accept that we are not alone: aliens land on the White House lawn, obliterate the government with their superior proton ray weapons, and enslave all of humanity. One wonders, then, what is the point of having a large and expensive program to Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, if scientists are simply going to ignore any results the program generates?

For instance, the SETI apparatus lit up with an incoming narrow-band radio signal from outer space on August 15, 1977 — exactly the sort of signal the system was looking for, a signal so extraordinary that the astronomer on duty scribbled “Wow!” on the printout. And while no one knows to this day what caused the signal, any scientist will tell you it sure as hell wasn’t alien life.

Of course, there is some ground for skepticism. The signal did not offer a blueprint for clean, efficient solar power. Nor did it contain a cure for cancer. Nor did it read “To Serve Mankind.” No, the first thing that outer space had to say to the world was the following bit of profundity:


OK, that wasn’t exactly the content of the message. It’s actually a transcription of signal intensities over about 60 seconds, but that little string of characters is what prompted astronomer Jerry Ehman to write the infamous Wow! on a hard copy of the signal.

The SETI Project consists of a battery of radio antennae pointed toward outer space and listening for any sign of life out there — whether reruns of “I Love Alien Lucy” and “Alien Star Trek”, late-night alien Cinemax or a notice that the planet has been scheduled for demolition.

The problem, of course, is that aliens are not likely to speak English or send messages in conformant ASCII code. Therefore, SETI just listens for anything that sounds unnatural or out of the ordinary. Whenever something like that actually happens to pop up, SETI immediately declares it the result of radio-band interference from passing helicopters, terrorism or sunspots, then everyone goes home safe in the knowledge that there are no aliens. This costs millions of dollars per year, which, shockingly, is not underwritten by taxpayers.

The signal was received by the “Big Ear” Ohio State University Radio Observatory, which almost 20 years later was razed — much to the future embarassment of Ohio Wesleyan University, which owned the land and is responsible for transforming the site of possibly the first ever message from intelligent life in the universe into the back nine of a nearby golf course.

That’s assuming, of course, that the Wow! signal ever amounts to anything. Ehman, the scientist who immortalized himself with those three little letters (plus exclamation point), has gone over the data at some length and feels that the source of the transmission remains unexplained.

Ehman listed the possibilities that he and his colleagues have ruled out in a 1997 article marking the 20th anniversary of the signal’s reception:

* Signal from an asteroid or planet in this solar system: None were in the right position. Plus, it would still be a spooky weird signal even if it did come from one of them.

* Aircraft or non-extraterrestrial spacecraft: Prohibited from narrow-band frequencies in the appropriate range, plus the signal would have been moving perceptibly had it originated with a local craft, and it wasn’t.

* Ground-based transmitter: Banned from using the Wow! frequency, plus this was ruled out for very technical reasons having to do with the arrangements of Big Ear’s antenna array. Ehman concedes that a land-based signal could have bounced off a piece of space debris. However, this possibility is, statistically speaking, roughly on a par to a bank shot off a pool table accidentally knocking an eight-ball into orbit only to have it land in the middle of the array.

* Gravity lens: A gravity lens is produced when very heavy objects far off in the cosmos warp the space around them so exorbitantly that it produces the same effect as a magnifying glass (for pretty much the same reasons a magnifying glass works). While this is possible, it doesn’t actually explain the signal — it just means it came from farther away.

* Twinkling radio waves: Like stars, radio waves sometimes twinkle because of atmospheric interference. As with the gravity lens, this could be true, but it explains little.

* Satellite: No official satellites were in the proper location at the time of the signal, and satellites are prohibited from narrow-band transmissions in the frequency. Still, a secretive military-industrial satellite could have been sending some secretive message to some secretive recipient. We note that George W. Bush met his wife Laura in August of 1977, but we are certainly not suggesting that Laura Bush is some sort of Soviet-era sleeper agent programmed to become a ticking time bomb when stimulated by a satellite radio signal produced by technology now in the hands of al Qaeda. So please, people, don’t walk away from this article with that impression.

Ehman believes that the signal may very well have originated with extraterrestrials. Of course, if you had received the signal, you would want to believe that too. Other scientists have a considerably more skeptical view of the Wow! signal.

For example, in 2005, Dan Wertheimer, a SETI researcher who would himself like to be listed in the history books, told New Scientist magazine: “We’ve seen many signals like this, and these sorts of signals have always turned out to be interference.” Of course, the fact that other signals have turned out to be the result of interference is not the same thing as saying you have evidence that the Wow! signal was the result of interference.

Despite all this scientific jibber-jabber, no one seems to want to talk about the elephant in the room. At the very moment the Wow! signal was received by the Big Ear, another historic event with tremendous interstellar ramifications was taking place just a few hundred miles to the South — Elvis Presley was sitting in a dentist’s chair being treated for a toothache.

Presley returned home from his appointment and “died” the following morning. Obviously, the Wow! signal was received by the King’s fillings, no doubt calling him to the mountaintop where he would hitch a ride to the stars, perhaps to meet his higher destiny — as a quaint zoo exhibit peforming three times nightly in a casino on Betelgeuse Five.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Wow!’ Signal”

  1. “aliens land on the White House lawn, obliterate the government with their superior proton ray weapons, and enslave all of humanity.”

    We can only hope!

  2. I just read the first sentence of your article and found it intriguing. I’ll go back and read the rest of it, of course, but I’d like to know which scientists you’ve been speaking to who have made the conclusion that we ARE alone…

    Not only do simple statistics/biology/physics/etc point towards life elsewhere in the galaxy and universe, but any scientist worth anything ought not to reject a hypothesis without a reason, but this may be the point of your article. I don’t know, I haven’t read it, but I think most scientific folk reading that opening line would be offended.

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