Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
Joseph Lockhard, who hailed from the Newberry section of Williamsport, PA (coincidentally just six miles from my present residence), was never a SETI League member. He was not a radio amateur, and as far as I know, evidenced no interest in the electromagnetic Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Nevertheless, his passing on 2 November 2012, at the age of 90, should be marked by historians and SETIzens alike. For Joe was, as far as I can determine, the first person to follow the SETI Post-Detection Protocols.
Joe Lockard's fifteen minutes of fame started shortly after 7 AM on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941 (in FDR's words, "a date which will live in infamy"). Lockard was one of two US Army privates operating a primitive radar at Opana Point on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, when a huge echo appeared on their radar screens, heading directly toward the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Lokhard called nearby Fort Shafter to warn of possible approaching enemy aircraft. An officer at the other end of the circuit dismissed his detection as probably just American B-17 bombers inbound from California.
Of course, Lockard's target turned out to be a swarm of Japanese aircraft launching the attack that took over 2400 lives, and triggered the entry of the US into the Second World War.
"There was this thing up on the screen," stated Lockard in a 1988 interview. "It was the biggest blip I'd ever seen! At first, we thought something was wrong with the equipment, so we ran it through a series of tests. I checked out the receiver and transmitter to see if anything was mechanically wrong. There was nothing electronically wrong that we could see, so we started plotting the blip. We did that for a while, then decided we'd call to see if there was anyone down there on the phone."
All of this should sound vaguely familiar to The SETI League's cadre of Project Argus observers. Unwittingly, Lockard had established a set of procedures that stand to this day as the SETI Post-Detection Protocols. First, run a diagnostic on your equipment, to make sure it's not lying to you. Continue to track the detection for as long as possible, and call up another observer to try to get verification.
Joe Lockard was neither seeking, nor detecting, extraterrestrial intelligence. But the same procedures used then to detect terrestrial hostility still apply in our more peaceful pursuit. Unlike Lockard, who on Pearl Harbor Day was operating one of the very few radar warning systems in the world, we in the SETI community are blessed with the availability of dozens of very capable radio telescopes around the world, all straining to confirm our individual observations.
We should continue to monitor the skies, as Joe Lockard did 72 years ago, and follow our own post-detection protocols. When we do get a credible hit, let's just hope that the person on the other end of the phone line doesn't casually dismiss our detections as "probably just American B-17s, inbound from California."
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this page last updated 1 December 2012
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