Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Holy Shit, Aliens!

A while back, I mentioned my favorite folk singer - specifically, how he opened my eyes to supervolcanoes. This same gentleman tells a story on one of his albums about a friend of his named (not making this up) Vlad the Astrophysicist. Here's the full version:

The gist of it is that he asks his astrophysicist friend if there are aliens somewhere in the universe and, if so, why haven't they contacted us? The answer is, in essence, a poetic take on the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation takes the unknowable trillions of stars in the unknowable vastness of the Universe and tells us that, given the observable portion of those stars that have planets capable of supporting life, we can assume that other civilizations must exist, and estimate how many there are.

Of course, when you're dealing with something unknowable, the best you can do to solve the equation is estimate, and estimates so far for the Drake Equation have suggested that there are between 1,000 and 100,000 civilizations somewhere out in the Universe. That's a huge variation, but something is almost definitely out there.

The problem is that the universe is big, and there's an excessively slim chance that any two cultures on such a massive stage will ever meet each other. So, as Vlad pointed out, we seem to be more or less on our own.

But then there's the Wow! Signal.

The Wow! Signal
No, seriously, WOW!
The Wow! Signal was picked up by the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and yes, that's a thing) Project in 1977. It's a 72-second radio burst that came from somewhere other than Earth, and that fact alone is a smack straight to the gob. The listener on deck agreed, and unintentionally named the signal by writing "Wow!" on the printout he made of the event.

Sadly, when the excitement wore off, the stuffy and rational types wrote off the Wow! Signal, saying that if it were aliens, we'd be able to hear it again in the same spot. Case disappointingly closed.

Or not, according to a recent theory that the Wow! signal may have been specifically targeting other civilizations. In other words, this wasn't us listening in on someone's radio chatter, it was their civilization shooting off a message with someone like us in mind. We should know, we've done the same thing. We tossed a brief message off into space where we thought there might potentially be life, and we haven't repeated it.
The Arecibo Message
That's our message to aliens. Yeah. Straightforward, right?
Consider that for a second. First Contact is a concept that could potentially alter humanity's view of itself and its place in the galaxy. It could be the biggest discovery of all time. And it may have already happened.

Holy shit.

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