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
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
The charismatic senator’s candidacy was flying high—until he hit turbulence at Saturday’s debate. Will it stall his surge?
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Until Saturday’s debate, it was clear that this was Marco Rubio’s moment.
The moment he had waited for, planned for, anticipated for months, for years: It was happening. He had surged into a strong third-place finish in Iowa, outpacing the polls and nearly passing second-place Donald Trump. He’d ridden into New Hampshire on a full head of steam, drawing bigger and bigger crowds at every stop, ticking steadily up into second in most polls, behind the still-dominant Trump. The other candidates were training their fire on him, hoping to stop the golden boy in his tracks.
And then, in the debate, he faced the test he knew was imminent. They came right at him. First it was the moderator, David Muir of ABC News, leveling the accusation put forth by his rivals: that Rubio was merely a good talker with nothing to show for it, just like another eloquent, inexperienced young senator, Barack Obama.
Hillary Clinton’s realistic attitude is the only thing that can effect change in today’s political climate.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Like it or not, their halftime booking is a reminder they're the biggest youngish rock band going.
It seems like a sign of some sort of existential crisis that Coldplay will play the halftime show of the 50th Super Bowl, but I’m not sure whose crisis it is or what it’s about. Should people worry about the famously tough sport of football giving airtime to the biggest soft-rockers of the millennium? Should they lament that America’s favorite championship has been conquered by the Brits? Should they fret about whether Chris Martin will be able to find a confetti gun big enough to cake each and every seat in San Jose’s Levi’s Stadium with rainbow confetti?
Probably no, no, and no. Regarding the macho/wimpy dichotomy: The pop likes of Madonna, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé have, in some critics’ words, queered the halftime show irrevocably; intentionally or not, Coldplay can continue the tradition. (Remember that 40 Year Old Virgin “How I know you’re gay” banter about them?) As for xenophobic concerns: The Who, U2, Paul McCartney, and The Rolling Stones have all headlined in the past. As for the logistics, one imagines that Coldplay’s got excellent colored-paper technology stockpiled from its previous arena tours.
In honor of the just-begun new Chinese Year of the Monkey, and in keeping with the Chinese fondness for numbering discussions—the Three Represents of Jiang Zemin, the Four Comprehensives of Xi Jinping—here are some number-based assessments of last night’s ABC Republican debate. Please also see the Atlantic’sgroup liveblog from last night, anchored by David Graham; and Molly Ball’s post about the travails of Marco Rubio.
The One Opening Screwup
The jumble of candidates coming out through the tunnel, Big Game-style, was an appropriately weird start to a weird evening. At most live events I’ve been part of, including those the Atlantic puts on, someone from the production staff (sometimes me) is standing one inch out of camera range. That person has a hand on the shoulder of the guest about to be called on stage, and gives a gentle push and says “Go!” when the moment comes. Presumably ABC had such a handler at the off-camera end of the tunnel but not at the other end, to keep people moving onto the stage. Thus the strange Carson-Trump-Bush-Kasich pileup in the tunnel.
The championship game descends on a city failing to deal with questions of affordability and inclusion.
SAN FRANCISCO—The protest kicked off just a few feet from Super Bowl City, the commercial playground behind security fences on the Embarcadero, where football fans were milling about drinking beer, noshing on $18 bacon cheeseburgers, and lining up for a ride on a zip line down Market Street.
The protesters held up big green camping tents painted with slogans such as “End the Class War” and “Stop Stealing Our Homes,” and chanted phrases blaming San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for a whole range of problems, including the catchy “Hey Hey, Mayor Lee, No Penalty for Poverty.” They blocked the sidewalk, battling with tourists, joggers, and city workers, some of whom were trying to wheel their bikes through the crowd to get to the ferries that would take them home.
Thenew Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he hasn’t found his edge.
It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
The three leading candidates—Trump, Cruz, and Rubio—stumbled, as the governors in the race made their presence felt.
When is it bad to be a frontrunner? During a presidential debate three days before the New Hampshire primary, evidently. At Saturday night’s forum in Manchester, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all hit rough patches, while three often-overshadowed governors—Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich—delivered some of their strongest moments of the campaign so far.
Rubio, surging nationwide and in New Hampshire, believed he had a target pinned to his back coming in, and he was right. Christie was the hatchet man, coming after Rubio in the earliest moments of the debate and never letting up. (At one point, Christie even pivoted from responding to an attack by John Kasich to slam Rubio.) Christie jabbed that Rubio, as a senator, doesn’t have the executive experience needed to be president, citing Barack Obama as a cautionary tale. Rubio was ready with an answer to that: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing?” he said. “He knows exactly what he's doing.” Rubio isn’t the only candidate to suggest that Obama is more evil genius than bumbling fool—Ted Cruz has done the same—but the crowd wasn’t buying it. Maybe Rubio’s phrasing was just too clever.
The armed standoff in Burns, Oregon, is a perfect case study for why all defendants need excellent representation—and why the current criminal-justice state is no panacea.
In the early hours of the morning, law professors wonder whether anything we do makes the world a better place.
Today, I feel pretty sure that the answer is yes. That’s because, on January 28, I awoke to a televised image of Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Mike Arnold of Eugene, Oregon, reading a statement urging the other Malheur protesters to stand down. Arnold is a former student of mine. So is Tiffany Harris of Portland, who represents Shawna Cox, the 59-year-old woman who was arrested in the car with LaVoy Finicum, the militant spokesman who was shot during a traffic stop near the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
I couldn’t be prouder.
That’s not because I like their clients. I taught Mike and Tiffany during 16 happy years at the University of Oregon School of Law. During that time, I also taught students who had grown up on ranches in the eastern desert, on farms in the state’s irrigated south, on hippie settlements on the rain-drenched Oregon coast, on the state’s Indian reservations, in the Willamette Valley wine country, and in the sophisticated urban areas around Portland. Oregon, a state the size of Italy, supports a population roughly half the size of New York City. Much of the state is desert or forest; its ecosystems are exquisite but fragile. It is a place that needs careful tending. And by and large, those who live there take that responsibility seriously. Land-policy issues—and there are many—tend to be resolved through painstaking negotiations among local farmers and ranchers, Indian tribes, urban dwellers, and state and local governments.