August 31, 2016
In 1959, two Cornell physicists, Giuseppe Cocconi and Phillip Morrison, published an article in Nature, arguing that we might be able, by turning radio receivers toward the stars, to intercept alien transmissions, and answer one of the most riveting questions about the universe: Are there other civilizations out there?
A year later at Green Bank, West Virginia, Frank Drake launched Project Ozma, designed to pick up artificial transmissions. SETI was on its way. It was an exciting time. The USSR had put Sputnik in orbit a few years earlier; we'd followed quickly with Explorer. NASA appeared in 1958. And we were, finally, talking seriously about going to Mars. I wondered what we'd see by the end of the century.
We lost interest in Mars fairly quickly. At least I did. Vikings I and II put landers down in the mid-70's. We'd known for a long time by then that there were no canals. But reading that in a book and seeing the cold, dismal reality were two different things. And Venus, which writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs had depicted with blooming forests and wide oceans, all hidden beneath that classic layer of clouds, was confirmed as a blistering desert.
Over its first decade and a half, SETI detected only silence. Which was disappointing, but gradually we got used to it. And eventually something did happen: We received a strong narrowband signal on August 15, 1977. It was picked up by the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University, and it lasted for the entire 72 seconds before the telescope lost its angle. The transmission seemed to have originated in the constellation Sagittarius. Jerry Ehman, who discovered the reception a few days later, wrote Wow! off to one side, thereby christening it as the Wow! Signal. But all efforts to confirm the transmission failed. We never heard it again.
That's all a long time ago now. And of course we got a report Tuesday of another (possibly) artificial transmission. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/30/health/seti-signal-hd-164595-alien-civilization/
Maybe it's valid. The response from the scientific world is about what we'd expect: They'll believe it when they get confirmation. I guess at this point I'm on that train too. A lifetime of waiting for something to happen eventually leads to a sense that maybe, after all, we are alone. I understand that there are billions of stars in the Milky Way and billions of galaxies. So there have to be others out there somewhere. But there is a sense of solitude that, eventually, takes over.
I do periodic addresses for various groups. And I've learned how to provoke questions that will play to everyone's interests. Especially, whether I believe in UFO's.
When I respond that I do not, that if anyone wants me to believe we've had visitors, he should park the saucer in my front yard, let me kick the tires and tool around town in it. The curious aspect of that is that it upsets everyone. Which, maybe, leads to the real question about all this: Why do we care so much?