August 15 – Wow!

Today’s factismal: The “Wow!” signal was heard 36 years ago.

One of the Universe’s biggest questions is “Are we alone?” Though some estimates place the number of other civilizations out there as high as 20,000, we have never detected any signals from one of the other civilizations. Or have we?

On August 15, 1977, a strong radio signal was heard in the “water hole” (a part of the radio spectrum where long-distance radio signals aren’t absorbed by hydrogen). Now radio astronomers are no strangers to interesting signals; they’ve heard Jupiter and pulsars and even stranger things. But this signal was something special. It was 30 times stronger than the background noise, strongly directional, and just long enough to be heard once. And therein lies the mystery. If the signal was a deliberate attempt to call other civilizations, then it should have been repeated but it hasn’t been. If the signal was a natural phenomenon, then we should have seen it elsewhere but we haven’t.

Of course, part of the problem may be that in 1977, they were using computers that are about as smart as the average toaster today. If they had had access to our current computing capacity, perhaps they would have been able to decipher the signal and discover that it was an order for pizza to go from Sagittarius or just a reflection of a terrestrial signal off of a piece of space junk. If you’d like to help today’s researchers from facing the same problem, then why not donate your extra computer time to the search for extraterrestrial intelligences? Head over to SETI@home to participate:

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