by Greg Gillespie, Assistant Editor, The Institute
from The Institute, August 1996, page 20
Copyright © 1996 IEEE, used by permission
Jerry Ehman wasn't expecting to hear his name mentioned on "The X-Files," but then, stranger things have happened.
Take, for example, the reason Ehman has gained a certain amount of fame among astronomers and fans of the extraterrestrial: He was the junior professor at Ohio State University who came across the "Wow!" signal in August of 1977, the most famous and inexplicable microwave anomaly to date.
Why "Wow!"? The signal was named after the comment Ehman wrote in the computer printout margin when he discovered the signal at the Ohio State Radio Observatory, where he was donating his time working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. The SETI project was at the time using the radiotelescope at the observatory.
Armed with a paltry 1MB hard drive and 32 KB of RAM, the data from the observatory's computer was printed out and scrutinized by SETI volunteers, who stopped by the observatory every few days to reset the telescope and check the printouts. In mid-August, Ehman was checking the numbers when he had the surprise of his life.
"I came across the strangest signal I had ever seen, and I immediately scribbled 'Wow!' next to it," Ehman explained. "At first, I thought it was an earth signal reflected from space debris, but after I studied it further, I found that couldn't be the case."
Ehman later found that the signal fit the rise-and-fall pattern of an antenna signal perfectly, ruling out the possibility of a fragmented or bounced signal. The director of the observatory, IEEE Fellow John Kraus, concluded that the source had to be beyond the distance of the moon, and a check of man-made satellite data showed no publicly known earth satellites were anywhere near the position of the signal source. Last but not least, the frequency of the signal was near the 1420 MHz hydrogen line, where all radio transmissions are prohibited on and off the earth by international agreement.
So, just what did happen up there? Ehman, who now serves as a volunteer at the Ohio State Radio Observatory and collaborates with the private, non-profit SETI League, allows that "we still don't know what it was, and probably never will," but holds on to the belief that there's something out there, perhaps beyond the horizon as we know it.
"Very simply, I think there are undoubtedly many intelligent civilizations out there, some of which are certainly more advanced than we are -- and if they wanted to send us a beacon signal, this would be the best way to do it using the least energy," Ehman said. "But I've trained as a scientist, maybe too well, and I'm still waiting to see them first hand. I'm definitely a skeptic."
Well, skeptics definitely abound. Congress cut off all funding for the SETI project in 1993, and the Ohio State Radio Observatory is scheduled to be shut down on Dec. 31, 1997, to make way for a golf course and housing development. But Ehman and others in the SETI League are determined to continue the search. Why? Because the payoff, Ehman said, would be bigger than the mother of all winning lottery tickets.
"Can you imagine the information that could be gleaned if someone is out there?" he said. "I hear people saying that this is all a waste of time, but if you don't look, your chances of seeing or hearing something are even smaller."
To whet your appetite further, the O.S.U. radiotelescope has also picked up thousands of unexplained narrowband pulses since it became operational in 1973. The signals, clearly not from any single source, extraterrestrial or otherwise, could be some form of unknown astrophysical phenomenon.
The SETI League is currently launching Project Argus, an effort by private citizens to achieve complete sky coverage using thousands of small radiotelescopes. To read more about Project Argus, please check out the EXTRA EXTRA! section on our Web site at "http://www.institute.ieee.org/INST/aug96/extra.html".
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this page last updated 28 December 2002
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