The SETI League, Inc., a membership-supported, non-profit {501(c)(3)}, educational and scientific organization Searching for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

Ask Dr. SETI ®

Chapter 4: Psychology

Why don't we hear about the Wow! Signal?

Dear Dr. SETI:
I would be very grateful if you would answer the following question. Why is it that SETI spokespeople never mention the Wow! Signal when asked about messages from space? For example, BBC's Horizon recently ran a documentary about the search for life in space. However, the Wow! Signal was never mentioned. In fact they suggested that so far all we have had is silence. Carl Sagan talked about 'extraordinary evidence...', yet, as far as I know, he never mentioned the Wow! Signal in any of his writings.

Justin, UK

The Doctor Responds:
It's a fair question, Justin. Although I can't take any responsibility for what the BBC chooses to include in its programs, I consider the Wow! Signal to be historically significant, if not conclusive. I do mention it in all my books, articles, radio interviews, and television documentaries, as do many other SETI scientists. However, I do not consider it definitive proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. Here's why:

One rule of science is repeatability. To be considered valid, a phenomenon must either have been observed multiple times, or observed once by multiple observers. The Wow! Signal was brief, transitory, and non-repeating. Despite over 100 follow-up studies (including one conducted by me -- see the Wow! Signal Wikipedia page), it never repeated. Thus, we have a small sample size of exactly one observation. This makes the signal intriguing, and enigmatic. It is suggestive of, but not proof of, our cosmic companions.

The transitory nature of the Wow! Signal is one of the major motivators behind The SETI League's Project Argus network. With hundreds or thousands of small radio telescopes, spread across the entire globe, we have a much greater chance of achieving the multiple observations which will allow the next Wow! event to constitute conclusive existence proof. Now, we can only wait, and hope.

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