A new survey suggests that more than one-third of Americans believe in UFOs, and now, they'll have a real chance to try and contact intelligent life outside Earth. Starting this Friday, on the 35th anniversary of 1977's mysterious Wow! radio frequency that some speculated had come from aliens, humans interested in writing a short message to supposed galactic pals will be able to do so via Twitter. Here's how the wacky yet ambitious project came about:
What's the Wow! signal?
Astronomers have long been pointing their ears to the stars hoping for hints of intelligent life through a project called Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. Over the project's four decades of activity, scientists haven't really heard much. The lone blip came in 1977, when the Big Ear radio observatory at Ohio State University received an "intense 72-second radio transmission coming from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius," says Natalie Wolchover at LiveScience. (Listen to it here.) The radiation from the signal was 30 times more powerful than most of the white noise typically taken in, subsequently causing on-duty astronomer Jerry Ehman to scrawl the word "Wow!" next to a data printout. To this day the strange transmission remains a mystery, but many believe the signal was sent by aliens to try and reach us.
How will the Twitter messages work?
Starting June 29 from 8 p.m. EDT to 3 a.m. EDT Saturday, all tweets tagged with the hashtag #ChasingUFOs will be cobbled together into a single message by the folks over at the National Geographic Channel as part of a promotion for their new series, Chasing UFOs. Then on Aug. 15, the date the original Wow! signal was detected, those Twitter messages will be beamed back into space towards the direction of Sagittarius. This project is obviously "blatant self-promotion," says Chris Taylor at Mashable, but it's also "so-crazy-it-might-just-work."
What will the beamed transmission look like?
The goal is to create a "complex but noticeable pattern" to stand out from deep space's chorus of random noises, says National Geographic spokeswoman Kristin Montalbano. The message will use "binary phase codes," or sequences of 1s and 0s, and be sent using the enormous radio transmitter at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
What happens if the message actually... reaches something?
Whoever — or whatever — is on the other side will have to try and decipher the message we send. "No small feat, but surely finding a signal of intelligent origin from another planet would be a momentous and impactful find for them — assuming they don't already know about us from past visits!" says Montalbano — "or already follow us on Twitter."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- 10 things you need to know today: December 21, 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- How I lost all my money
- How Wall Street is chipping away at reform
- A brief history of the Christmas present
- Pope Francis' American problem
- Vox, derp, and the intellectual stagnation of the left
Subscribe to the Week