Wow, indeed.

The famous “Wow!” signal was detected by Jerry Ehman in 1977. It was a very strong, narrowband (10-kHz wide) signal that lasted as long as his Big Ear (and our planet) was pointed in its direction. It was in the hydrogen “waterhole” band of 1420 MHz (or precisely 1420.40575177 MHz). In fact, the two estimates of the frequency bracket the waterhole frequency perfectly.

Why was this not declared proof of alien intelligence in space?

  • It wasn’t located precisely on a star.
  • It wasn’t repeated. The signal was only received once.

What did we do? We sent the Arecibo message.


NASA – The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Dust

Imagine if the rings of Saturn suddenly disappeared. Astronomers have witnessed the equivalent around a young sun-like star called TYC 8241 2652. Enormous amounts of dust known to circle the star are unexpectedly nowhere to be found.

“It’s like the classic magician’s trick: now you see it, now you don’t. Only in this case we’re talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system and it really is gone!” said Carl Melis of the University of California, San Diego, who led the new study appearing in the July 5 issue of the journal Nature.

A dusty disk around TYC 8241 2652 was first seen by the NASA Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) in 1983, and continued to glow brightly for 25 years. The dust was thought to be due to collisions between forming planets, a normal part of planet formation. Like Earth, warm dust absorbs the energy of visible starlight and reradiates that energy as infrared, or heat, radiation.

The first strong indication of the disk’s disappearance came from images taken in January 2010 by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. An infrared image obtained at the Gemini telescope in Chile on May 1, 2012, confirmed that the dust has now been gone for two-and-a-half years.

“Nothing like this has ever been seen in the many hundreds of stars that astronomers have studied for dust rings,” said co-author Ben Zuckerman of UCLA, whose research is funded by NASA. “This disappearance is remarkably fast even on a human time scale, much less an astronomical scale. The dust disappearance at TYC 8241 2652 was so bizarre and so quick, initially I figured that our observations must simply be wrong in some strange way.”

The allegory of the cave

What is real and what is imagined? What are the limits of our understanding of what we perceive? And yes, this has everything to do with the search for extraterrestrial life.

This famous allegory appeared in Plato’s Republic. Supposedly Socrates came up with this, but since Plato often put his ideas in Socrates’ mouth, it may just as likely have been Plato’s idea.

And now I will describe in a figure the enlightenment or unenlightenment of our nature:

Imagine human beings living in an underground den which is open towards the light; they have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den.

At a distance there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners a raised way, and a low wall is built along the way, like the screen over which marionette players show their puppets.

Behind the wall appear moving figures, who hold in their hands various works of art, and among them images of men and animals, wood and stone, and some of the passers-by are talking and others silent.

They are ourselves, I replied; and they see only the shadows of the images which the fire throws on the wall of the den; to these they give names, and if we add an echo which returns from the wall, the voices of the passengers will seem to proceed from the shadows.

This applies to the search for extraterrestrial life in this way: We are observing extraterrestrial phenomena, filtered, at the very least, through millions of miles of space, often looking only at data delivered by very complex technology. Many times this data is only a stack of numbers. In order to begin interpreting this data, or shadows on the cave wall, so to speak, scientists have to make a number of assumptions; otherwise, the numbers remain only numbers. In order to interpret this to the public, the need to leave out the numbers and the assumptions that they make, and present only the particular conclusions that they make.

So many times, when we observe stellar phenomena, we are essentially assigning names to the dancing shadows on the wall, often with nothing more than a working theory as to what actually cast the shadows. And scientists are constantly re-working their theories about the sources of these shadows.

So when you read about astronomers explaining stellar phenomena with constructs such as “pulsars”, “magnetars” and “blitzars”, please understand that these are the theories of humans who have never left the Earth. Take it with a grain of salt.

The Drake Equation

The Drake equation was invented by astronomer and astrophysicist Dr. Frank Drake, to estimate the probability of life in our galaxy that might be expected to communicate with us.

“How can we estimate the number of technological civilizations that might exist among the stars? While working as a radio astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, Dr. Frank Drake (currently on the Board of the SETI Institute) conceived an approach to bound the terms involved in estimating the number of technological civilizations that may exist in our galaxy. The Drake Equation, as it has become known, was first presented by Drake in 1961 and identifies specific factors thought to play a role in the development of such civilizations. Although there is no unique solution to this equation, it is a generally accepted tool used by the scientific community to examine these factors.”

Wikipedia has a more robust discussion of the equation here:

Some of the factors are well known, such as the average rate of star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy. Some factors began as vague guesses, such as the number of planets around each star, but are becoming more concrete knowable figures. Most of the other factors are actually educated guesses and may continue to be until we discover extraterrestrial life.

The Drake Equation exists mostly as a thought experiment, or as a framework to begin building a Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI), so it should be now surprise that Dr. Drake currently works for SETI.

Since most of the factors in the equation are estimates or guesses, the results differ. But generally the result demonstrates that the number of advanced civilizations that might be capable and willing to communicate to be in the order of millions. Or be as low as one.

Is there life in outer space?

“A procession of the damned.
By the damned, I mean the excluded.
We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.”
-Charles Fort (1919)

When we finally discover evidence of alien life in outer space, will we be prepared for the news?

I am uncovering evidence that even modern (or I am going to say current) science is not prepared to entertain this possibility – and may even be looking right in the face of alien life right now, without acknowledging it.

I’m not going to take you to a chase after the will-o-the-wisp or even UFO sightings.

Nor are we going to be mired down in “skeptical” denial of the possibilities. Science, Emerson tells us, does not know its debt to imagination.

The bug hunter diaries