What would it be like to communicate with another intelligent species, one not of this earth? Mankind has been contemplating that question since before the concept of "aliens" entered our cultural lexicon. Despite the assertions of religous leaders, empirical scientists and government officials that aliens are not real and that we have not been visited by UFOs, more than 36% of Americans — 80 million people! — believe that aliens, or E.B.E.'s (Extraterrestrial Biological Entities), have visited the earth, with nearly 80% of those surveyed saying that the government is keeping information about UFOs and aliens from the public.
Skeptics can always punch holes in blurry video tapes and eyewitness accounts of aliens, but what if we received a message from a foreign intelligence or intercepted one of their radio transmissions? Receiving such a message or signal is a major plot point of several of the best sci-fi movies, but the strange truth is that we may have already received a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence.
The Strange Truth
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program is the most ambitious scientific collective dedicated to searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe, boasting 5.2 million participants worldwide. The group uses many different methods for scanning the cosmos for signs of life, but primarily focuses their efforts on looking for radio signals buried in the electromagnetic radiation that bombards the earth at any given moment. The theory goes that a reasonably advanced alien culture would utilize radio waves for communication and they are easy to recognize from background radiation because of their narrow bandwidths and repetitive nature.
While working on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope of The Ohio State University in Delaware, Ohio, on August 15, 1977, Jerry R. Ehman recorded a strong narrowband radio signal that appeared to originate from outside of our solar system. The signal, a full 72 seconds in duration, was in the "protected spectrum" bandwidth reserved for astronomical purposes only, and it was about 30 times greater than the ordinary ambient noise of deep space. Ehman was so amazed by the signal that he wrote "Wow!" on the computer printout, giving the signal its name today.
For years, Ehman and others have searched the same sector of space for recurrences of the signal, but to no avail. The signal remains the longest, loudest signal that the Big Ear telescope would ever receive. Recently, on the 35th anniversary of the Wow! signal, thousands of Twitter messages and videos from celebrities and comedians were beamed into space as a belated response to the whoever or whatever sent the signal. A response to our response is expected to take quite awhile to receive. The nearest stars in the sector it is thought to have originated in are 95 light years away; the furthest are 3.4 million light years away. So, anywhere from 190 years to 6.8 million years. Longest game of phone tag ever!
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Contact (1997), Prometheus (2012)
In Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi opus, a spacecraft is sent to Jupiter to trace a signal being emitted from a mysterious black monolith discovered on the moon. Though much of the movie is open to interpretation, especially Kubrick's ending, it is commonly believed that monoliths are tools created by an advanced alien race that uses them to assist species in evolving.
SETI features prominently in Robert Zemeckis's 1997 movie about first "contact" with an alien intelligence. The story, written by famed astrophysicist, cosmologist and author Carl Sagan, centers around a signal received from the star Vega that includes thousands of "pages" of technical schematics for a device designed to allow humanity to communicate with a benevolent alien species.
A key plot point of Ridley Scott's 2012 return to sci-fi is the discovery of a series of ancient glyphs that are interpreted to be an invitation from a more advanced extraterrestrial race left behind so that humanity could come and visit them if and when we ever developed space travel. As it turns out, it was an invitation, but not to the kind of party the crew of the Prometheus was expecting to find when they arrived.
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