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 number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Issued last summer, the rules are the centerpiece of the White House’s climate-change-fighting agenda, and they play a big part in the recent, tepid optimism about global warming. Without the proposal of the plan, the United States couldn’t have secured the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, last December. And without the adoption of the plan, the United States almost certainly won’t be able to comply with that document. If the world were to lose the Paris Agreement—which was not a total solution to the climate crisis, but meant to be a first, provisional step—years could be lost in the diplomatic fight to reduce climate-change’s dangers.
Everything that was supposed to be silenced is suddenly being said.
The tight grip of oligarchy upon the American political system slipped a little last night in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, voters cast their ballots for one of the most implausible candidates in modern presidential history—less because his rhetoric was so mesmerizing or his program so inspiring than as a protest against an expected winner perceived as a lavishly compensated servitor of organized wealth.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton boasted of her small donors. More than 70 percent had given less than $100, she claimed: “I know that doesn’t fit with the narrative.” As Ken Vogel of Politico immediately tweeted, the claim also distorts the facts. Clinton may have a lot of donors, but the bulk of the value of her donations—85 percent—has come from the biggest givers. And her family’s personal wealth, and its foundation’s assets, can also be seen as built on the largesse of banks, corporations, and foreign governments.
When he tweets “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” is one example.
There are quite a few plausible theories for why Kanye West tweeted “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” last night. One might be that during a late night in the studio working on an album scheduled to be released in less than 48 hours, he decided to procrastinate and grab some publicity by tweeting out the most trollish thing possible (closely preceded and followed by more banal missives about sneakers and Michael Jordan). Another might be that he’d seen the news that a judge had dismissed Janice Dickinson’s defamation suit against Cosby’s ex-lawyer and mistook that small victory for the Cosby camp for a larger one. Or maybe he wanted to remind people of America’s innocent-till-proven-guilty paradigm, as if the entirety of the Cosby conversation in the past two years hasn’t already engaged directly with it. Or maybe he really believes Cosby is innocent, despite, as Sarah Silverman put it, the testimony of around 50 women with nothing to gain due to the statute of limitations on rape.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
Why Donald Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric was enough for movement conservatives to forgive his history of liberalism.
Last summer, Donald Trump described Mexican immigrants as “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In December, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Many commentators claim that this wild rhetoric helps Trump suck up media oxygen or appear like a straight-talking political outsider. But the most important benefit of the anti-immigrant language is that it inoculates Trump against the charge of being a closet liberal.
Trump has a seemingly fatal vulnerability in the Republican primary: His past support for a host of moderate and liberal positions. In recent years, Trump said he would “press for universal health care,” claimed that he was “pro-choice in every respect,” remarked that “I hate the concept of guns,” stated that Hillary Clinton would “do a good job” in negotiating with Iran, asserted that the GOP was “just too crazy right,” and even said, “In many cases, I probably identify more as a Democrat.”
The script for J.K. Rowling’s new play, set to premiere in the summer, will also be published in book form.
When J.K. Rowling announced last October that her Harry Potter series would get a new story—in the form of a play that featured her beloved book characters as adults—fans greeted the news with mixed feelings. As I wrote at the time, it was exciting to see the author experiment with a new medium and a non-Harry-centric tale in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The play picks up the story 19 years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and focuses on Harry’s relationship with his son, Albus Severus. The casting choices that were later announced—with a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, in the role of grown-up Hermione—were even more heartening.
And yet. I complained that few of Rowling’s millions of fans would be able to actually attend (or afford tickets to) the two-part play during its run in London’s West End: “The nature of the theater experience means the vast majority of fans won’t get to experience the communal joy of seeing what Rowling’s dreamed up for them. They’ll be trying not to feel too sad that the first new Harry Potter story in almost 10 years won’t be one they can binge-read the day it comes out.”
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
This article appears in the March print edition alongside the cover story, “Can America Put Itself Back Together?”—a summation of James and Deb Fallows’s 54,000-mile journey around America in a single-engine plane. More dispatches from their ongoing reporting trip can be found here.
By the time we had been to half a dozen cities, we had developed an informal checklist of the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work. These items are obviously different in nature, most of them are subjective, and some of them overlap. But if you tell us how a town measures up based on these standards, we can guess a lot of other things about it. In our experiences, these things were true of the cities, large or small, that were working best:
But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. Housing discrimination, historical and present, may well be the fulcrum of white supremacy.
This is (in my view) the crux of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument. Class-based solutions are good, and will by their nature affect the most change within communities of color that have greatly suffered for the entire history of this country and beyond. Simply addressing the symptoms, which have been disproportionately been suffered by people of color, will not address the problem, and there are symptoms of systemic racism (which Coates cites) that cannot be addressed in the frame of a class struggle.
I agree with him. Fully and truly, if a policy could address these systemic and greater-than-class symptoms of a problem I have been an unwilling beneficiary of, I would support them.
They would not, however, be an issue by which I decide my vote for president. This is in part because of the absolute dichotomy of our political system. When I view the candidates, and the state of our electorate, I could not support a candidate who purely thought the way I thought. There is too much to be lost by supporting the grander ideas of my intellectual person than the practical implications of embracing someone whose ideas were succinctly in my own sphere at the expense of that person being written off to history while their opponent governs our country.