Who sent back the WOW signal, and from where did it come?
September 8, 2014
TREY TRIED TO WALK DOWN the carpeted basement stairs. It was hard to see where he was going. He was carrying a huge wooden salad bowl of air-popped popcorn that he had just popped and salted himself.
The basement had been turned into a sort of rec-room with a ping pong table, a long, roomy sofa, and an older 25” TV that a DVD player had been hooked up to. The three high-schoolers had decided to make a day of watching old Sci Fi and horror movies. They were nerds.
Their favorite movie so far was War of the Worlds with Gene Barry, but The Day of the Triffids was still very high on their list.
“Those were pretty good aliens in War of the Worlds,” Bryson said.
“Yeah,” Paxton agreed. “For a movie that old, those were pretty good special effects. What’s up next?”
Trey wiped off his hands on his jeans and passed the large bowl of popcorn to Paxton. He popped another DVD into the player. “How about a mummy movie?”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha! This is so bad, it’s good!” Bryson exclaimed as the movie picked up speed. “Look how stiff he is walking—and it looks like he is wrapped up in toilet paper.”
“Yeah. It’s Charmin!” Trey concluded. In the old black and white movie filmed in the early 1930s, the pharaoh, Seti, was coming back to life and killing innocent bystanders. It was revenge for breaking into his tomb.
“This Seti is so evil,” Paxton announced. “Hey, speaking of Seti have you ever heard of the radio telescopes that are part of The SETI Project?” Paxton was the biggest nerd of them all, his head filled with tidbits.
“SETI Project? What’s that?” Trey wanted to know. “It sounds like a rehab program for ancient mummies.”
“Yeah, Paxton. Where do you come up with this stuff, anyway?” Bryson asked in a sarcastic voice.
Paxton was ready with his fantastic answer. “The SETI project is a scientific project that has been looking for aliens in outer space for almost fifty years.”
“You are kidding, of course. You mean like the aliens in War of the Worlds?” Bryson asked another question.
“Well, actually, maybe. May be!” Paxton exclaimed. “Something out there with some kind of intelligence.”
“You wanna explain to us what you are talking about?”
“Okay, a few years back, a bunch of scientists figured out that other worlds are really too far away to travel to or from, but…”
“But what, Paxton?” Trey asked.
Paxton continued. “But what about this? What if they could beam out radio signals?”
“Cool. Good Thinking!” Bryson exclaimed.
“And more importantly, what if Earth could receive a radio signal back?”
“Now that is even cooler. Go on,” Bryson prodded his good friend.
“The SETI Project was born as a result: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, SETI.” Paxton delivered his punch line.
“You mean there really is a SETI?” Trey asked.
“Yes and this SETI is not a mummy from 1279 B.C. At the time SETI was set up there was plenty of funding for it, and even donor money. They built huge radio dishes in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. They would be able to pick up all kinds of signals, rake them in from the heavens. After awhile they set up more SETI bases, not as sophisticated,” Paxton explained.
“What happened?” Trey asked.
“Sagittarius is what happened.”
“Sagittarius, the constellation. That is where it came from.”
“What came from?” Bryson asked. “What?”
“The WOW signal,” Paxton announced with great drama.
Bryson was irritated. “The WOW signal? What is that? I think you are making all of this up, Paxton.”
“No, I’m not. I swear! In 1977, a radio signal came into The Big Ear in Ohio, another SETI facility. It was in a pattern. It differed from billions of other signals that were merely static gobbledygook. It was so shocking to Jerry Ehman, the scientist that discovered it, that he circled the signal on the computer printout and wrote ‘WOW!’ beside it. It has been known ever since as the WOW signal. Get this: It is on frequency 1420 MHz, and that is a frequency that radio signals from a naturally occurring source would not come in on.”
Trey was eager to hear the rest of it. “Have they ever gotten any more of those kinds of signals?”
“No, not on record. It is very disappointing that the funding for SETI has dwindled away, as has money from private donors.”
“That’s awful!” Bryson exclaimed.
“But something else did happen. The [email protected] Project came into being. It is based on the idea that millions of home computers and university computers and so forth all over the world are running idly all day. Someone decided the data sorting process of these idling computers could be used in the form of screen savers that would record the information coming in. [email protected] was implemented in 1999, and no, there have been no signals discovered by that means, yet,” Paxton explained some more. “You know who started up some of this SETI stuff, over fifty years ago?”
“Who?” Bryson was curious.
“Frank Drake–the astronomer who came up with The Drake Equation.”
“That SETI stuff is so over my head with the screen savers and all, and I am a nerd,” Bryson admitted. “I don’t get how that works.”
“And furthermore, I don’t think I could ever work a real Drake Equation if I had to,” said Trey, “but looking at it always gives me some hope there is something out there.”
“Me too, Trey!” Paxton agreed.” The Drake Equation always gives me hope and The Fermi Paradox always dashes it.”
“That Fermi Paradox is a big deflater, all right,” Bryson agreed. “Because of the age of the Milky Way, the Fermi Paradox states that there has been an adequate amount of time for someone to contact us if they were out there.”
“Maybe someone did contact us in 1977,” Paxton added with a snicker.
“Wow,” Bryson said. “What a big mystery!”
“Wow,” Trey echoed, as he reached for another handful of popcorn.
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