Wow! What Happens When We Know ET Is Real?

For movies and television, including eight Oscar nominee (to include Best Picture), Arrival, Earth’s realization that we are not alone is generally direct, quick and traumatic. From ET to Close Encounters of the Third Kind the aliens just show up on our front door. Often they have hostile intentions, e.g. Independence Day, V, and War of the Worlds. In others they have more beneficent intentions, to help an incompetent and hateful humanity, as in the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In Brenda Hiatt’s Starstruck series, the aliens (of a sort) are already secretly among us and have been helping humanity for centuries.

Getting face time with aliens, whether friendly or hostile, makes for good drama and fun cinema or reading. However, such gripping drama is not how are we are likely to discover we are not alone in this universe. The much more likely means would be from disturbingly ambiguous observations over great distances.

In August 1977 exactly this might have happened. Astronomer Jerry Ehman was reviewing data from the Ohio State University’s “Big Ear” radio telescope when he discovered a computer coded data summary of a strong spike well above background noise. It so compellingly suggested an intelligent life source that he circled it and wrote “Wow!” next to the data summary.

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To this day no explanation for the signal, other than extraterrestrial life, has ever been thought to adequately explain the nature of the signal received. Every more mundane explanation for the now called “Wow Signal” has been deemed inadequate, and many have been proposed.

The Wow Signal was not a code, just a continuous wave spike 30 times above normal deep space noise and at a frequency matching quite exactly what scientists had speculated an intelligent species might use to communicate. The “Big Ear” radio telescope is fixed and moves only with the rotation of the Earth. The signal lasted precisely the 72 seconds (gradually strengthening as the antenna moved towards it and then weakening as the Earth’s rotation moved it away) that would be expected by its origins being from a fixed and distant source.

The Wow Signal would be compelling evidence for intelligent alien life but for one thing. It didn’t happen again. Scientists searched and searched, using far more sensitive equipment than the Big Ear, but found nothing unusual. Further, because the Big Ear was really two fixed antennas the other antenna should have detected the same signal either three minutes earlier or later, but it did not. To this day it remains an enigma, but the failure to reproduce the result, a key requirement of scientific inquiry, leaves it only that.

But what if another Wow Signal type event happens that does stick around? What then? How will we react to knowing others are out there while knowing next to nothing about them?

It is even remotely possible this is starting to happen right now as scientists investigate another disturbingly ambiguous distant observation for which at least one proffered explanation is intelligent life. About 1,300 light years from Earth, Tabby’s Star, more formally designated KIC 8462852, has presented such bizarre fluctuations in its brightness to earn the name the “WTF Star.” Among polite circles “WTF” supposedly stands for “Where’s the Flux,” in reference to the title of the original article noting phenomenon, but it is well understood to also represent the more conventional expression of disbelief. Unlike the Wow Signal the observation of the unusual light patterns from Tabby’s Star is not fleeting, its has been observed reliably many times from many different instruments. In fact, at least one study looking retrospectively at old pictures taken of the star, indicates that such dimming may have been going on for over 100 years.

One explanation for the strange dimming of light from Tabby’s Star suggests the star is surrounded by artificial “mega-structures” such as a Dyson Swarm or Dyson Bubble. The amazing thing is that as more mundane explanations (such as a cloud of comets) are posited, observations tend to shoot them down, while the mega-structure theory perseveres. Scientists are far from concluding that the best explanation for the irregularities with Tabby’s Star is an alien mega-structure, but the question has made the star a priority target for more sensitive telescopes as they become available.

While both may be false leads, the Wow Signal and Tabby’s Star observations provide a model of how the proof of the existence of alien life is likely to happen. It likely will happen not with a big splash of absolute proof, but rather with a ripple from an observation amounting to “wow, that’s odd.” Then the observation will require confirmation from additional sources, something that did not happen with the Wow Signal but has happened with Tabby’s Star. Still, the observation is likely to be sufficiently ambiguous in nature that more mundane possibilities must be ruled out, after all, extraordinary conclusions require extraordinary evidence. So scientists will test the hypothesis of intelligent life by more observations aimed at proving that hypothesis or determining the veracity of a competing hypothesis.

All of that will take time. The process to prove an ambiguous observation is truly alien life will evolve over an indeterminate time as more data takes scientists from the conclusion that it might conceivably could be evidence of alien life, to believing the data suggests there is a credible chance it evidences alien life, to more studies showing it probably is alien life, until scientists finally get to where they can state with confidence it almost certainly is alien life. It will likely happen this way because that is how science, at least good science, works in real life.

Because the discovery of life outside our planet is likely to evolve over time, with gradual notifications of increasing confidence in the evidence, the people of the world will not have to react to the sudden shock wave produced by a splash of absolute proof. Rather, we will be able to adapt slowly as the scientific investigation unravels the mystery, a far less traumatic process. To be sure, some will be more resistant to the evidence than others, and wacky conspiracy theories will abound. However, in time an increasing portion of humanity will understand that science has at last proven we are not alone.

We likely we will have to live with the ambiguity of what they are like for quite a bit longer. A verified Wow Signal today would not tell us anything about who sent it other than that they had the ability to send it. Further, depending on how distant the signals or observations we see are, they will reflect the reality only of what the ETs were like hundreds or thousands of years ago. We may see evidence of a civilization that existed before any civilization existed on this planet, and have no knowledge of what they are like today, or even whether they still exist today.

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