For decades, Robert Gray has been trying to duplicate the most surprising and still-unexplained observation in the history of the search for extraterrestrial life.
Late one night in the summer of 1977, a large radio telescope outside Delaware, Ohio intercepted a radio signal that seemed for a brief time like it might change the course of human history. The telescope was searching the sky on behalf of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and the signal, though it lasted only seventy-two seconds, fit the profile of a message beamed from another world. Despite its potential import, several days went by before Jerry Ehman, a project scientist for SETI, noticed the data. He was flipping through the computer printouts generated by the telescope when he noticed a string of letters within a long sequence of low numbers---ones, twos, threes and fours. The low numbers represent background noise, the low hum of an ordinary signal. As the telescope swept across the sky, it momentarily landed on something quite extraordinary, causing the signal to surge and the computer to shift from numbers to letters and then keep climbing all the way up to "U," which represented a signal thirty times higher than the background noise level. Seeing the consecutive letters, the mark of something strange or even alien, Ehman circled them in red ink and wrote "Wow!" thus christening the most famous and tantalizing signal of SETI's short history: The "Wow!" signal.
Despite several decades of searching, by amateur and professional astronomers alike, the "Wow!" signal has never again been found. In his new book, The Elusive Wow, amateur astronomer Robert Gray tells the story of the "Wow!" signal, and of astronomy's quest to solve the puzzle of its origin. It's a story he is well-positioned to tell. That's because Gray has been the "Wow!" signal's most devoted seeker and chronicler, having traveled to the very ends of the earth in search of it. Gray has even co-authored several scientific articles about the "Wow!" signal, including a paper detailing his use of the Very Large Array Radio Observatory in New Mexico to search for it. I spoke with Gray about the "Wow!" signal, radio telescopes, and the economics of prospective extraterrestrial civilizations.
From a technical standpoint, what makes the "Wow!" signal so extraordinary?
Gray: The main thing is the profile of the signal, the way it rises and falls over about seventy-two seconds. When we point these big dish antennas up at the sky, and a radio source moves across them, they have a special signature, a kind of fingerprint. That fingerprint results from the "loudness" of the radio source slowly increasing, getting to a peak as the dish points straight at it, and then slowly decreasing as the object moves across the dish and past its beam of observation. In the case of the "Wow!" signal, the signal followed that curve perfectly. It looked exactly like a radio signal in the sky would look, and it's pretty unlikely that anything else---like an airplane or satellite or what have you---would leave a special signature like that.
Also there's not much doubt that the "Wow!" signal was a radio signal, rather than something from a natural source like a quasar. That's because Ohio State was using a receiver with fifty channels, which is sort of like having fifty AM radios, each tuned to adjacent stations. With the "Wow!" there wasn't any noise on any of the channels except for one, and that's just not the way natural radio sources work. Natural radio sources diffuse static across all frequencies, rather than hitting at a single frequency. So it's pretty clear that this was a radio signal and not a quasar or pulsar or some other natural radio source, of which there are millions. It was very narrow band, very concentrated, exactly like a radio station, or a broadcast, from another world would look.
The "Wow!" signal turned up very close to the frequency at which hydrogen glows. Why is that significant?
Gray: Well there's a little history there. In the early sixties when people started thinking about the possibility of detecting extraterrestrial broadcasts with radio telescopes, one of the first frequencies suggested was the frequency that interstellar hydrogen glows at. At the time, it was one of the few interstellar emission lines that was known, and a lot of radio observatories had a receiver that could pick it up so it was especially convenient to look for broadcasts there. If you imagine that there are all of these radio astronomers around the universe looking at the stars with big antennas, which is what you need to pick up a signal from that far, chances are that they too would be listening at the frequency of hydrogen, because there is so much of it around. It's the wave you can use to map the gas in galaxies, so it's a natural "channel" for astronomers to look at. There weren't a lot of frequencies that had that natural characteristic. So in the early decades of SETI, that's the frequency that most people chose to listen at.
By the way, not everybody agrees with this strategy now. A lot of new emission lines have been found, and so the current best practice is to listen to millions of frequencies at a time so you don't have to guess which one ET might favor. And that's exactly what NASA's SETI project tried to do, and that's what the Allen Telescope Array at U.C. Berkeley is trying to do. But it just so happened that the Ohio State people were using the hydrogen strategy when they found this thing, and, it just so happens that the "Wow!" signal was fairly close to where Hydrogen was dwelling. So if you believe the magic frequency strategy, that extraterrestrials would necessarily broadcast in the Hydrogen frequency, then the "Wow!" signal sort of fits that.
The Very Large Array in New Mexico
Is it possible that the "Wow!" signal is somehow a computer glitch, or a signal from earth that was reflected off of space debris of some sort?
Gray: Of course it's possible. It could have been any number of things. However, it almost certainly wasn't a computer glitch, because it showed this rise and fall of intensity that's just exactly what a radio source from the sky would look like. Also, the Ohio State radio telescope was cleverly rigged to filter out local stuff.
The only thing that conceivably could have made that special signature is a satellite of some sort at just the right distance, going just the right speed, in order to mimic a celestial object traversing the sky. So that's a possibility, but it seems pretty unlikely for a number of reasons. First, it would have been seen by a lot of people. Ohio State would have seen it repeatedly, because satellites broadcast repeatedly. Secondly, if it was a secret satellite it would have been pretty stupid to broadcast at a frequency that radio astronomers across the world listen to.
For a long time, Jerry Ehman, who actually scribbled "Wow!" on the original computer printout, considered the possibility that it was a piece of space debris reflecting a signal from the earth back down into the antenna. But he no longer believes that to be the case. And I'm not saying that it definitely was an extraterrestrial broadcast; there's no proof of that. The best way I can think to analogize this thing is to say that it was a tug on the cosmic fishing line. It doesn't prove that you have a fish on the line, but it does suggest that you keep your line in the water at that spot.
Some have suggested that if the "Wow!"
signal was alien in origin, then perhaps it sweeps around its home
planet or star, the way light does from a lighthouse, which would
explain why it hasn't yet reappeared. Do you think that's plausible?
That's my favorite theory. And it's just an idea of course. But when
you step back from all of this a little bit, you notice that almost all
searches for extraterrestrial intelligence have been surveys that look
at all of these different spots in the sky for just a few minutes at a
time. And the assumption such searches operate on is that there is a
beacon, or a broadcast of some sort, that is on all the time, and so all
you have to do is survey the sky and if it's there you'll find it. It's
the easiest method, and it's the right thing to do when you're first
But if you look at this in a
deeper way, and you calculate the kind of energy it would take to
operate a beacon that is on all the time, broadcasting in all
directions, strong enough so you could pick it up from many, many light
years away, the amount of power is enormous. It's in the range of
thousands and thousands of big power plants. We humans certainly
couldn't do something like that now. So to have a signal that's always
there, you have to assume a very advanced intelligence, and you have to
assume that it's highly motivated to talk to us, and neither of those
things may be true of a broadcaster. They might not be so rich, or
profligate with their energy, or, for that matter, very interested in
talking. They might use some other cheaper strategy---brief periodic
broadcasting, a sweeping lighthouse beam, or other methods.
you may know, there's another thrust in SETI, which has become the
focus of a lot of people's interest over the past ten years and that's
optical SETI, where you look at starlight and see if you find any
sudden, brief, flashes of light that are much stronger than what the
star normally puts out. The idea is that you might find
extraterrestrials communicating by shining a giant laser at us, and it's
an idea that's become quite popular. But as with most SETI projects,
they're simply scanning the sky, looking at each spot for roughly a
minute. And at the end of a couple of years they can tell you they've
looked at every spot in the sky and they didn't see any flashes, but of
course there you have the same problem as you do with radio surveys. You
look in every direction, but you only do it for a couple of minutes,
and so if anyone were broadcasting with the lighthouse method, you'd be
unlikely to find them.
Did the "Wow!" signal come from a particular star or group of stars?
Gray: That's a good question, and the short answer is that there's no way to tell.
Even though the Ohio State radio telescope is really big, it looks at a rather large spot in the sky---a spot shaped like an ellipse that's taller than the moon and about a quarter as wide. In a spot of that size, you have literally millions of stars. I've looked at the photographs for that area of the sky, and there are tons of stars there---no particularly intriguing star that stands out as being a likely source of the signal. Now, several years later I looked for the signal with the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Unlike some of the older telescopes it can give you a pretty good radio image of the sky, because its various telescopes make up one giant antenna that's twenty miles across. And it gives you pretty good resolution, so if you'd seen the "Wow!" with the VLA you really could tell which star a radio signal would have come from.
The Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory in Tasmania
What was it like working with the Very Large Array in New Mexico? Did you get a thrill out of that?
Gray: I did. The Very Large Array was, until the end of the twentieth century, the largest radio telescope ever built. It's the same array of antennas featured in the film Contact. It's an unbelievable machine. It can take pictures of the radio sky with the same resolution as an optical telescope, allowing you to see literally millions of objects across the sky. Most of them are distant galaxies with wild things going on at their core, most likely having to do with black holes.
Getting to use the Very Large Array to look for the 'Wow!" was very unexpected. As far as I can tell, no amateur astronomer had ever done it. Nobody had ever used the full array to look for an extraterrestrial signal at all. It's funny when you show up, they give you a rundown of all the technical stuff, but they also give you a brochure on how to survive rattlesnake bites, because if you go wandering into the desert out there you might get bitten.
But it's a credit to Big Science that they let me use the Very Large Array to look for the "Wow!" signal. I wouldn't have expected it, and it suggests that Big Science, as an enterprise, isn't quite as ivory tower or exclusive as you might think.
You're coming at this as from the field of data analysis, rather than as a professional astronomer, do you think you brought a
special skill set to this problem? Were there any insights you had that might
not have been as intuitive to an astronomer?
astronomers generally look at things like stars, things that aren't quite
eternal, but that last for a really long time. As a result some astronomers may
bring a certain expectation to a radio signal, an expectation that it's going
to be there all the time. The people who do SETI, who are often but not always
astronomers, have a mindset that it's sensible to look for the really strong
signal that is going to be there all of the time.
Because my education is not in astronomy or engineering, it may be that I bring a kind of practicality to this, especially as it concerns the
practicality and economics of what it takes to broadcast a signal like that. Broadcasters, just like those of us who are listening, might not be able to command enormous
resources, they might not be in charge of whatever political systems are
responsible for distributing resources to science in their little corner of the universe. And so as a result they might be forced to use signals that are not present all of the time and therefore those signals may be difficult to find.
The other thing is: Over the years I've talked to a lot of
astronomers and a lot of people involved with SETI, and whenever the topic of the
"Wow!" comes up, they seem to believe that everybody has looked for
it, that it's been checked out. But I've never been able to find anyone else who looked for it. In fact, nobody other than Ohio
State seemed all that interested in trying to confirm it at all. Now
fortunately that created a situation where I was able to convince several
scientists to help me look for it, using various kinds of radio telescopes,
including the Very Large Array, the Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory in Tasmania, and the small one that I built myself. So it's
possible that what I bring to this is simply the willingness to go out and
In a hundred years from now it's likely that we won't be
limited to these giant dish things that stare at the sky and only see one
little spot. It's possible that there will be some sort of technology that can
look at the whole sky at the same time, with the same sensitivity as you get
with a big dish, and perhaps, when we look, at some interval we'll see a flash, a
signal, and maybe that's the way we'll find broadcasters, if any are out
there. But in the meantime, you know, you have to keep a line in
The Fox host’s insistence that black laborers building the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodgings” fits in a long history of insisting the “peculiar institution” wasn’t so bad.
In her widely lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Michelle Obama reflected on the remarkable fact of her African American family living in the executive mansion. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly discussed the moment in his Tip of the Day. In a moment first noticed by the liberal press-tracking group Media Matters, O’Reilly said this:
As we mentioned, Talking Points Memo, Michelle Obama referenced slaves building the White House in referring to the evolution of America in a positive way. It was a positive comment. The history behind her remark is fascinating. George Washington selected the site in 1791, and as president laid the cornerstone in 1792. Washington was then running the country out of Philadelphia.
Slaves did participate in the construction of the White House. Records show about 400 payments made to slave masters between 1795 and 1801. In addition, free blacks, whites, and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here.
In 1800, President John Adams took up residence in what was then called the Executive Mansion. It was only later on they named it the White House. But Adams was in there with Abigail, and they were still hammering nails, the construction was still going on.
Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well. Got it all? There will be a quiz.
The billionaire former New York mayor denounced the Republican nominee as a “dangerous demagogue” and a “risky, reckless, and radical choice.”
Michael Bloomberg, a brand-name billionaire far wealthier than Donald Trump, a famously independent voter who derides both the Democratic and Republican parties, endorsed Hillary Clinton on Wednesday and called Trump a “risky, radical and reckless choice” for president.
“Let’s elect a sane, competent person,” he said.
The normally soft-spoken owner of Bloomberg financial-news service excoriated his fellow New Yorker, labeling him a “dangerous demagogue,” a hypocrite, a con, and—slashing at the core of Trump’s self-worth—a horrible businessman.
“Throughout his career,” Bloomberg said in his prime-time address. “Trump has left behind a well-documented record of bankruptcies and thousands of lawsuits and angry shareholders and contractors who feel cheated and disillusioned customers who feel ripped off. Trump says he wants to run the nation like he’s run his business. God help us!”
Does the Democratic Party—open to all immigrants, races, genders, and sexual orientations—have enough room for less educated white voters?
The evocative sound of barriers falling was the signal note during the Democratic National Convention’s first two nights.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s riveting Monday-night speech condensed the centuries of racial pain and progress bound up in her husband’s two victories into a single indelible phrase: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” One night later, Hillary Clinton shattered another ceiling when she became the first major-party female presidential nominee.
The delegates have displayed understandable pride in these twin social milestones. But there is also an undercurrent of concern that something old is being lost in this celebration of the new. The fear among some is that this polychromatic Democratic Party, open to all races, both genders, all sexual orientations, welcoming to immigrants, and championing diversity, may not have preserved enough room for the working-class white voters who anchored the party from Andrew Jackson through Lyndon Johnson.
The Republican presidential nominee appeared to suggest he’d recognize Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory in 2014.
Donald Trump’s call on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails Wednesday resulted in widespread criticism. But his comments on Crimea, coupled with ones he made last week on NATO, are likely to have greater significance if he is elected president in November.
The question came from Mareike Aden, a German reporter, who asked him whether a President Trump would recognize Crimea as Russian and lift sanctions on Moscow imposed after its 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian territory. The candidate’s reply: “Yes. We would be looking at that.”
That response is likely to spread much cheer through Russia—already buoyant about the prospect of a Trump victory in November. But it could spread at least an equal amount of dread in the former Soviet republics. In a matter of two weeks, the man who could become the next American president has not only questioned the utility of NATO, thereby repudiating the post-World War II security consensus, he also has seemingly removed whatever fig leaf of protection from Russia the U.S. offered the post-Soviet republics and Moscow’s former allies in the Eastern bloc.
His call for Russian hackers to break into Hillary Clinton’s email validate the worst suspicions of security-state critics.
PHILADELPHIA––On Wednesday, Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA, declared on stage at the DNC that the Republican Party’s nominee is unfit for office. He was responding in part to news that Donald Trump “hoped Russian intelligence services had successfully hacked Hillary Clinton’s email, and encouraged them to publish whatever they may have stolen, essentially urging a foreign adversary to conduct cyber-espionage against a former secretary of state.”
For Panetta, that was unforgivable.
“Donald Trump today once again took Russia’s side,” he said. “He asked the Russians to interfere in American politics … It is inconceivable to me that any presidential candidate would be that irresponsible. I say this out of a firm concern for the future of my children and my grandchildren: Donald Trump cannot become our commander in chief. In an unstable world we cannot afford unstable leadership.”
His first Q&A on the site seemed free-wheeling and open to all, but it was actually obsessively controlled.
Cruising the skies above Ohio (and perhaps looking to take more attention away from the Democratic National Convention), Donald Trump tried a new publicity tactic Wednesday night. Instead of his typical podium-and-flag setup, he opened his MacBook and invited users of Reddit to ask him anything.
AMAs—that’s the popular abbreviation—are a staple of the free-wheeling forum site, which has hosted hundreds of celebrities and slightly less famous people who are willing put out a shingle and take questions from strangers on the internet. Reddit—part old-school forum, part meme-machine, part possible-future-of-human-society—prides itself on its community, which moderates itself and (in theory) highlights the best the internet has to offer. Barack Obama hosted his own AMA back in 2012; so have Bill Gates, Patrick Stewart, and a guy who fought off a bear.
A casual survey at the DNC reveals not youthful folly, but Millennial pragmatism.
You could call it the Twilight of the Bernie Bros: the young men (and women) who have animated the convention hall of the DNC with their incessant booing, cries of mistrust, and suggestions of delegate vote suppression. On Tuesday, their candidate officially lost the nominating race to Hillary Clinton in a roll-call vote, and on Wednesday, her campaign moved forward with the most public endorsement yet from the titular head of the Democratic party, President Obama. There will no doubt be forthcoming analysis about the effect this movement has, or hasn’t, had on the next three months of general election campaigning; about how precisely Clinton and Kaine have embraced or denied their progressive base. But for a community of young people who have found a home in this world of outsider camaraderie, this particular party—as they say—is over. Cue the lights.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
His call on a foreign government to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account is a complete subversion of GOP ideals.
The first excuse for Donald Trump’s amazing press conference on Wednesday, in which he called on the Russians to hack and publish the 30,000 emails wiped from Hillary Clinton’s home server, was: He was only joking.
That excuse almost immediately dissolved. When Trump was asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta whether he would call on Vladimir Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, the presidential nominee answered that he would not tell Putin what to do. After the conference ended, Trump tweeted out a slightly tidied up request to the Russians to find Clinton’s emails—but to hand them over to the FBI rather than publish them.
The second excuse, produced on Twitter minutes later by Newt Gingrich, is that Trump’s remark, while possibly unfortunate, mattered less than Clinton’s careless handling of classified material on her server. That defense seems likely to have more staying power than the first—about which, more in a minute.
Twelve years after introducing himself to the American public as the son of an immigrant, the president recast himself as a bearer of Scotch-Irish values.
Twelve years ago, Barack Obama introduced himself to America as just a skinny kid with a funny name. He made his story into the American story—a tale of immigrant hopes, of opportunities, of success that could only come true in the United States. That speech launched him to the presidency.
In Philadelphia on Wednesday night, as he tried to anoint his successor and secure his legacy, he returned to his biography to close his appeal. But this time, he pulled out a different strand of the story. He spoke not just of his grandparents in Kansas, whose stories he has told many times before, but of their kin and communities, of their vision and values. They were, he said:
Scotch-Irish mostly, farmers, teachers, ranch hands, pharmacists, oil-rig workers. Hardy, small-town folk. Some were Democrats, but a lot of them, maybe even most of them, were Republicans—Party of Lincoln. My grandparents explained that the folks in these parts, they didn’t like show-offs. They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies. They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, what they valued were traits like honesty and hard work. Kindness; courtesy; humility; responsibility; helping each other out. That’s what they believed in. True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids.