This kind of thing always piques the sci-fi nut in me: If E.T. called us – should we call back? Excerpt:
Nearly 40 years ago, radio astronomer Jerry Ehman was scanning a part of the sky hoping to detect a signal from an alien civilisation. All of a sudden, he picked something up. The signal was incredibly short, just a burst, but it registered as a distinct spike – a sort of momentary broadcast. On a print-out, he circled the blip in red pen and wrote one word: “Wow!”.
The “Wow! signal”, as it became known, has never been explained, and nothing quite like it has ever been heard again. But an organisation called the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute has continued listening for signals that might be created by intelligent life forms out there in the galaxy and beyond.
What would happen if Seti heard such a signal? How would it confirm the broadcast really was sent to us by aliens? A new Science Channel documentary has explained how astronauts on the Apollo 10 mission heard strange “space music” in their earphones when orbiting the far side of the moon. Many scientists believe the cause to simply be radio interference. However, the episode has raised the question of how we are able to distinguish one space sound from another in our search for a sign of life.
But here’s the real money shot:
“There’s still divided opinion on what to do – the two main camps being yes, you do respond and the other being no you don’t,” says Elliott, adding he believes that it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t try to reply.
The whole idea of sending a reply may make an interesting debate among the high-forehead types, but it’s really not of any consequence.
Granted, the detection of an alien signal would be an earth-shattering (and hopefully that is figuratively and not literally) event, and one wonders about the wisdom of sending out a bright, shiny signal announcing “hey, here we are!” Any alien civilization capable of hearing us and dropping by for a visit would be, by necessity, hundreds if not thousands of years more advanced than we are. If you look at our own history, advanced civilizations aren’t generally kind or helpful to primitive civilizations when the two bump destinies.
In any case, it’s a moot point. While it would be amazing to pick up a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, once received it would be hundreds or thousands of years old. Any reply we sent would not be received for hundreds or thousands of years.
That, of course, is thanks to the speed of light; that pesky universal cosmic speed limit. Thanks, Einstein.
I suspect, like the scientist quoted in the article, that the universe may well be teeming with life; but I’m also confident that any such life outside the solar system (like lots of biologists, I’d love to know what’s under Europa’s ice pack) it’s probably unalterably beyond our reach.
So, for the time being, True Believers, we’re stuck here on this rock with just each other.