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Nothing fires the scientific imagination like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And likewise, no discovery would have further implications to our own existence and what it means to be human. Plus, it would just be darned interesting to get to know something about them. How unique are we?
Is intelligence and self-awareness inevitable, or a rarity? What other unthought-of avenues can life take? This is all thought-provoking stuff tackled by the subject of this weeks’ review.
The Elusive Wow: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Robert H. Gray is not “just another SETI book…” Like Seth Shostak’s Confessions of an Alien Hunter, The Elusive Wow is an intensely personal journey. The author became fascinated with a signal (the Wow in question) received by the Big Ear telescope in 1977 enough that he taught himself radio astronomy and started his own grass-roots SETI campaign. But far from being a Ham-radio tinkerer, Mr. Gray has actually gotten time on the radio telescopes of the Very Large Array in New Mexico and facilities in Tasmania to scan the Wow region again. The Wow signal originated from an area in the constellation Sagittarius in the general direction of the galactic core. The signal rose briefly to 30 times the radio background and was within about 10-kilohertz of the magic hydrogen frequency-line of natural cosmic emissions that someone might use to grab our attention. The author further demonstrates the unlikelihood of Wow being from terrestrial or satellite interference, and the possibilities we are left with are, once again, darned interesting.
Could Wow have been an artificial beacon, periodically sweeping the sky? The author points out that such as strategy would be much more energy efficient than sending a broad omni-directional pulse continuously. Along with discussing the emergence of his own project, dubbed the Small SETI Radio Telescope (link), the author traces the history of SETI, the emergence of life on Earth, and thoughts on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The Drake equation famously laid out a road map to get the discussion started on just how many civilizations might be out there for us to talk to. The Fermi Paradox further posed the question of just “where are they?” I’ve never seen the difficulties faced by SETI laid out so succinctly as in this book. Folks may wonder why SETI has yet to hit pay dirt, but fail to realize that it’s been a spurious affair at best over the past half century. If the Wow signal only points at us on every 2nd Tuesday at 11:01 AM, for instance, it could have been easy to miss. Or perhaps everyone’s listening but no one is transmitting? In which case, only our military radar would give us away, especially as our civilization becomes more reliant on closed transmissions and becomes “radio quiet”.
Or perhaps we’ll detect signs of life by more passive means. We’ve yet to turn over every stone in our own solar system, and places like Mars, Europa, or Titan may yet harbor microbial life. Detection of signature molecules like chlorophyll in an exoplanets’ spectra may hint at some interesting goings on, and, more ominously, detection of synthetic elements like plutonium may signal a civilization that snuffed itself out in a nuclear conflagration. These types of detections may be possible in our lifetime, and will give us pause to think. We’ve even sent five spacecraft (two Pioneers, two Voyagers, and New Horizons) zooming out of our solar system as “messages in a bottle…” it’s fun to think just how many derelict alien spacecraft may be adrift around the Milky Way at present. (Perhaps worthy of a modified Drake Equation?)
Do check out The Elusive Wow for an interesting snapshot of a fascinating discipline. Will “The Big One” be discovered in our lifetime?