SETI, the 'Wow' signal and the film 'Contact'

Just a quick note to say that another of my letters has appeared in the New Scientist magazine. This one is all about the 'Wow!' signal; the interstellar signal picked up by a U.S. radio telescope in the 1970's. The 'Wow!' signal is probably the most important result so far in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Here's my letter:

In your article on a new strategy for those involved in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), David Messerschmitt says that alien civilisations would logically choose to send short, wide-band radio signals rather than prolonged narrow-band ones, to improve both energy efficiency and bandwidth (31st January, p17). Yet probably the most important signal so far detected by SETI is the narrow-band 'Wow!' signal, picked up in 1977. It came from the direction of Sagittarius and was almost exactly on the hydrogen line, a frequency many thought would be ideal for interstellar transmission. Should we tell the alien civilisation in Sagittarius that they're being a bit primitive?


contact-film
Reading the letter again, it reminds me of the film 'Contact', starring Jodie Foster, based on the book by Carl Sagan. 'Contact' is a great movie, not only as a story but as a scientifically valid idea. In the film, Foster's character is an astronomer obsessed with finding evidence of transmissions from alien civilisations. She has to fight tooth and nail for funding. She is on the point of giving up when she is given a grant by a mysterious billionaire. She continues her work. One day, her team picks up a signal. It is a narrow-band signal, just like the 'Wow!' signal and it contains detailed information on how to build a device with which to make contact with the aliens who sent the message.

The U.S. government builds the machine described in the blueprints. Eventually, Jodie Foster's character gets to travel in the machine. I won't reveal any more to avoid spoiling it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but the way the story unfolds and is finally resolved is both clever and intelligent.

There is a terrible irony if we compare 'Contact' with the 'Wow!' signal. If we had received the 'Wow!' signal today, rather than in 1977, we'd have the technology to record it in detail and analyse it, just as Foster's team did with the signal they received in the film. It's perfectly possible that the 'Wow!' signal was an extremely detailed signal, just like the film. Unfortunately, the technology available at the time could only record a few alphanumeric values, so we'll never know. Argh! How frustrating!

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There is also a funny side to the story of the 'Wow' signal. To quote the Wikipedia article:

In 2012, on the 35th anniversary of the Wow! signal, Arecibo Observatory beamed a response from humanity, containing 10,000 Twitter messages, in the direction from which the signal originated.


To think, we might have had better kit and found the 'Wow!' message to be full of data. We'd have decoded it, delirious with excitement at the prospect of receiving messages from an interstellar civilisation, and read ten thousand alien social networking messages! CHECK OUT HER TENTACLES! OMG! LOL! :-)