The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Is it really possible there are alien civilizations on distant planets? On clear nights, whenever we turn our eyes to the stars above, it’s hard not to think about what could be out there. Or, more exactly, who could be out there? Does life exist on other worlds, and are there other beings like us somewhere, looking back at our star and wondering the same thing?
In such a vast galaxy with so many billions of stars, it seems very unlikely we’d be alone. And our galaxy itself is just one of billions. Even if alien civilizations are out there, how do we find them in such a vast intergalactic wilderness?
SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is the name for the collective work underway by researchers and scientists worldwide who are asking these very questions. SETI researchers are spread out around the world, in academic institutions, private facilities, and individual research locations.
Using state-of-the-art telescopes and listening devices, they observe the sky for anything that might give us a sign that there is somebody in the galaxy besides us. For decades, SETI researchers have looked, listened, and hoped, waiting for that big breakthrough.
SETI is an incredible project with the potential to yield the greatest discoveries in the history of mankind. Contact with an alien civilization would change our world and our lives forever. Unfortunately, to date, there has been little reason to celebrate.
The universe is vast and full of bizarre sounds, but none of what we are really looking for. Despite the unwavering optimism and devotion of SETI personnel, we have yet to receive the cosmic hail from a far-off star system, inviting us to our seat in the Galactic Federation Counsel.
Or have we?
The Wow! Signal
The Wow! Signal, noted by SETI researcher Dr. Jerry Ehman, opens the door to the possibility that an alien civilization may have attempted to contact Earth.
On August 15th of 1977, the Big Ear Radio Telescope, owned by Ohio State University picked up a most peculiar anomaly. It appeared to be a radio wave signal, distinct from the usual background noise, coming our way from outer space and showing all the telltale signs of an interstellar communication attempt.
Ehman checked and rechecked the data, then noted the word “Wow!” beside the signal on the printout. From then on it became known as the Wow! Signal.
The signal has never occurred again, and many researchers believe it was simply an anomalous reading caused by noise in the nearby solar system, a distant star, or even interference here on our own planet.
But there are those who hold onto the hope that the Wow! Signal could have originated from a far-off solar system, and an intelligent culture with the ability to send messages into space.
It may even have been directed at us, our one chance to make contact with alien life, and we simply hadn’t the technology or sophistication to recognize it.
What Was the Wow! Signal?
What was it and where did it come from? Many scientists and researchers have attempted to recapture the signal through the years, but none have succeeded. The Wow! Signal appeared to be a one-time occurrence. If it ever happened again, it was not detected.
Though some researchers say there are several natural explanations available, one doesn’t need to stretch their imagination very far to imagine another possibility. Was this an attempt at communication from an alien civilization?
If the signal was indeed an attempt at communication, why hasn’t it happened again? Could beings from another planet have been reaching out for help, or in an effort to make peace? Were we expected to send a response? Did we miss our one and possibly only chance?
We may never know. These are among the great mysteries of SETI history, but in truth, it could have been something far more mundane. If there are other worlds out there, packed with other intelligent life, it is possible we simply caught a stray transmission intended for other aliens and indecipherable to us?
That may not be as exciting as aliens attempting to contact us, but it still means we are not as alone in the universe as we've thought. It means another intelligent, technologically advanced civilization exists somewhere, out there. That's a victory for SETI.
SETI Keeps Looking
The legacy of the Wow! Signal has left researchers equal parts amazed, hopeful and frustrated. This tiny nugget of information scratched down on a computer printout decades ago is the only shred of evidence that it may really be possible to make contact with an alien civilization.
Unfortunately, if SETI ever does find success with its ever-increasing array of telescopes and radio receivers, the results would have to be on a consistent level for anyone to take them seriously. As a result, the Wow! Signal is but an interesting footnote in the history of the project.
SETI has had many critics over the years, as has anyone who believes the potential for alien contact is realistic. But that surely doesn't mean we should stop looking. It seems reasonable that there must be more life somewhere in the cosmos.
In fact, life elsewhere in the galaxy isn't just possible, according to some it is likely. The Drake Equation is a calculation devised in the early 1960s by astronomer Frank Drake which tells us how many intelligent civilizations there ought to be in our galaxy that are capable of communication. It takes many variables into consideration, unfortunately, some of them are unknowable.
However, the more we learn about our galaxy the closer we get to plugging in those numbers that might give us an accurate idea of who else is out there. A verifiable signal originating from somewhere else in the Milky Way would put an end to any conjecture.
If Alien Civilizations Exist, Where the Heck Are They?
A decade before Drake, when considering the size and age of our galaxy and the near probability that if we exist so should other cultures, physicist Erico Fermi asked, “Where are they?”
This is the Fermi Paradox. Many people believe that the universe is so vast that there must be other civilizations out there. So, where are they, and why don’t we hear from them? And why does SETI work so hard for so little reward?
Of course, we don't know the answer to any of this. So the real question to ask yourself is: Do you want to live in a world you believe is alone, or do you want to assume there are other planets out there like ours? As for right now, one guess is as good as another.
Was the Wow! Signal a message from another culture on some far-off planet? Or, was it simply an anomaly caused by some mundane happening? We'll likely never know. But it does provide some intriguing food for thought, and the next time you look up at that starry night sky our galaxy may suddenly seem not such a lonely place.
References and Further Reading
- The Wow! Signal: An alien missed connection? from Astronomy.com
- Fermi Paradox: Where Are the Aliens? from Space.com
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on March 07, 2017:
This is a wow for me, I neither believe or disbelieve. This is very interesting, and I learned a lot.
cryptid (author) from USA on October 05, 2015:
Hi Isad. As I said above, the values in the Wow! Signal are not intended to mean anything but a description of the signal. They do not translate to coordinates. But again, if an intelligent life form were trying to communicate it might be one way they would give us a puzzle to solve. However, we would have to think, if they were really trying to tell us something, they would choose a more direct approach.
Isad on October 03, 2015:
Find a way to translate wow signal into Earth coordinates, and search in the location result, maybe we will be surprised. Who knows If we already have any item buried or hidden ready for use.
cryptid (author) from USA on September 21, 2015:
Hi Bill. It is my understanding that the letters and numbers of the Wow! Signal simply represent the intensity of the signal. You can see how it differs and stands out from the normal background noise. I don't believe, at least according to the way SETI used the values, it can be interpreted as coordinates, a message or anything other than a literal description of the signal itself. Of course that doesn't consider manipulation my whoever or whatever created the signal .
Bill Tanner on September 21, 2015:
Has anyone looked at the WOW signal 6EQUJ5 as global coordinates using ASCII codes?
mbuggieh on July 31, 2013:
While not convinced that the "Wow Signal" was a signal from some extra-terrestrial intelligent life-form, I do wonder. It was something, but as noted in these comments, it might very well have been a natural sound/a cosmic sound with which we are simply not familiar.
outtabox on May 02, 2013:
I think the signal was from a far more advanced civilization than ours. Maybe the Wow signal was sent to earth to identify us to other galactic civilizations as a World Of War. Hence the sudden halt of any more incoming signals. They probably thought well this planet is is doomed anyway, and marked us on their galactic map as a destructive civilization for all other galactic species to witness with their technology. Letting them know that our species isn't capable and never would be able to participate in the Universal Galactic counsel. Maybe my meds are talking. Any hoot I love discussing the unknown!!
Rain Defence from UK on June 02, 2012:
Whenever I see the word rapture, it makes me think of the game bioshock. People are sceptical, if aliens made contact, they'd have to land and come out waving for people on earth to believe it. Even then politicians would be blamed somehow for making it happen.
cryptid (author) from USA on June 01, 2012:
I've not heard about these trumpets, Amethystraven, but I suppose your theory is possible. It's hard to guess how an alien culture may choose to contact us. Interesting insight.
Amethystraven from California on May 31, 2012:
This leaves me wondering if the sounds that are being heard on certain parts of the planet, the ones that sound like trumpets or horns, are other intelligent life pinging us. People are left wondering what these sounds are, and if they have anything to do with the rapture. I would like to believe if it were the Rapture happening the whole planet would hear the trumpets, not just certain parts of the world. I believe a part of Ireland has been hearing this strange noise continuously since April 2011 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Just a thought.
cryptid (author) from USA on April 29, 2012:
Good points, Matthew. There has to be all kind of natural sounds out there we might not yet identify.
Matthew Kirk on April 29, 2012:
Wow signal is one on my favourite topics :) There are explanations, though they are all very unlikely. I vote that it is something that we haven't discovered yet, like a certain type of quasar or something similar... but just not knowing and ET being a mere possibility is exciting!
cryptid (author) from USA on April 25, 2012:
You could very well be right, Insane Mundane. But I think SETI is also taking into account that there may be civilizations more technologically on-par with us out there somewhere as well as ones that are far more advanced.