The Ancient Alien Question  Published by New Page Books To order,

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by Philip Coppens
  It was 1960 when American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake conducted the first search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) had just begun. Shortly afterwards, Drake created the “Green Bank formula”, a mathematical formula that could calculate the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. The Green Bank formula tried to identify the number of planets similar to Earth in the Milky Way galaxy, as earthly conditions were deemed to be required for life to develop anywhere else.

Ever since, the Drake Equation – as it became popularly known – has been a beloved instrument in the quest for alien life, though it has never been properly able to provide a good indication of how universal, or not, life is. Some exobiologists find that the equation is too limited as it only focuses on planets where life originated, rather than where life was seeded; as people move from country to country, so life might have moved from planet to planet. Specifically, in the event that life on Earth itself was seeded from elsewhere, even life on Earth would not be included in the results of the Drake Equation! Most scientists, however, will point out that all the factors in the equation are unknowns and therefore nothing but guesses, meaning that the possibility of life in the universe, if based on the Drake Equation, can be anywhere from zero to billions of billions, depending on the predisposition of the person feeding the Drake Equation with these values. The Drake Equation is a nice gimmick, and from the manner in which Drake created it, it seems like it was designed that way.

Another scientific tool linked with the Drake Equation is the Fermi Paradox, created by Enrico Fermi in 1950, which argues that there is an apparent contradiction between the high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. Of course, as science refuses to look for, or validate, evidence of potential contact with extraterrestrial civilizations, the existence of this paradox is something of a paradox in itself.

Adrian Kent of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, actually argues that there might be a very good reason why ET has not made its presence known to us through radio astronomy. Kent argues that it is possible that there is competition for resources not just on planet Earth, but throughout the universe. Advanced species might want to exploit other planets for their own purposes. If this were the case, then Star Wars would not simply be a thing of science fiction, but pretty much what we would find in galaxies far, far away. Within this interstellar economy, evolution might favor the inconspicuous, Kent believes. For many years, SETI went about its business on its own, but with the advent of the internet, the public became involved in the search for ET, with the so-called Seti@home, which begun in 1999. The Seti@home project was run by the University of California, Berkeley and used a downloadable screensaver on millions of computers around the world to sift through data that had been gathered from the Arecibo radio telescope for anything unusual. In September 2004, it was reported that an ET signal had been found by Seti@home, but astronomers quickly denied the claim: “It’s all hype and noise,” said chief scientist Dan Wertheimer. “We have nothing that is unusual. It’s all out of proportion.” The hundreds of thousands of signals that were detected were subjected to statistical techniques to identify them as possible ET signals or interference. About 150 signals eventually survived the process, and these were analyzed further. The signal detected in September 2004 was classified as SHGb02+14a and had a frequency of 1420 megahertz – one of the principal frequencies of the most abundant element hydrogen – and was deemed to be a candidate, until it was classified as interference. But the manner in which this conclusion was eventually reached drew criticism and intense speculation. For example, it was argued that the SETI Institute never disclosed the full details of the signals, i.e. its exact location, just one example in a series of examples detailing the manner in which the Institute handled disclosure poorly, leading to a string of allegations and conspiracy claims, all largely arguing that SETI is covering up the “fact” that ET signals have been received, but that this has never been divulged to the public.

What happened in 2004 was not new – nor the last time something like it would happen. First of all, radio astronomy is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is done by people who have no idea what the needle looks like. The methods employed by the scientists involved are all to do with what we would expect to be a signal that cannot be natural, but which shows clear signs of intelligence. Alas, nature itself has patterns similar to those developed by human intelligences, and the bursts created by pulsars is the best example of this. Indeed, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish’s discovery of pulsar PSR 1919+21 in 1967 was dubbed LGM-1, a nod to the “Little Green Men”. At the time, many scientists considered it a very real possibility that pulsars were evidence of extra-terrestrial life because the bursts were so perfect.

Interestingly, according to British physicist Peter Sturrock, there were discussions within the scientific community as to whether or not the public should even be informed of the discovery. The scientists at Cambridge University concluded they could not make an announcement until they had consulted with “higher authorities”, indeed: “There was even some discussion about whether it might be in the best interests of mankind to destroy the evidence and forget it!” The announcement, of course, then came that pulsars were natural and the suspicious minds could ponder whether this in itself is a lie – one constructed between the “higher authorities” and the scientists would seemed convinced it was artificial. Interestingly, some scientists, like Paul LaViolette, have always argued that pulsars are intelligently-controlled, but they are currently lone voices in the wilderness. LaViolette, in “The Talk of the Galaxy”, states that “If extraterrestrial civilizations are attempting to communicate with us and are distinguishing their transmissions by doing ‘something that can’t be done in nature,’ the pulsar signals certainly are the closest thing known to fit this criterion.” But the best example that SETI may have discovered an ET signal and then explained it away is the so-called Wow! Signal. The signal was a strong narrowband radio signal that was detected by Dr. Jerry R. Ehman on August 15, 1977. It lasted 72 seconds, but was detected only once, which is why SETI never embraced it, as it could not be verified. The signal became known as the Wow! Signal as Ehman circled the signal on the computer printout and wrote “Wow!” on its side. Like SHGb02+14a, it sat around the 1420 MHz rate. The reason for this is that it is the only frequency actively explored by radio-astronomer, who work under the assumption that intelligent life would use that frequency because it is linked with hydrogen, which is deemed to be a building block of life. It is another example of the “needle in a haystack”-approach, as this is clearly an assumption that a non-human intelligence would somehow think like us when it comes to sending out messages of their existence.

The Wow! Signal originated from the constellation Sagittarius, near the Chi Sagittarii star group. The fact that the signal lasted 72 seconds had to do with the manner in which the Big Ear Telescope was constructed. A true signal was expected to register for this period of time, whereby the intensity of the recording would increase for the first 36 seconds, when the signal reached the telescope’s observation window, while it would wane for the final 36 seconds.

After its detection, Ehman looked for recurrences of the signal, but no such thing ever happened. In 1987 and 1989, Robert Gray searched for the signal, this time using the META array at Oak Ridge Observatory, but he did not re-detect it either. Another attempt, this time in July 1995 and executed by SETI League executive director H. Paul Shuch using a 12 meter radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, equally had a negative result. Similar attempts by Gray in 1995 and 1996 using the Very Large Array in New Mexico, and again in 1999, this time with the help of Dr. Simon Ellingsen, using the 26m radio telescope at the University of Tasmania’s Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory, all came up negative.

Whereas the Wow! Signal could merely have been classified as “interesting, potentially ET, but alas, never heard again, so we don’t know for sure”, what is remarkable is that the SETI went on a campaign to explain it away, arguing all types of potential reasons why it was most likely not extra-terrestrial in origin. Ehman himself said that “something suggests it was an Earth-sourced signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris.” “Something” is not a very scientific term, nor is it well-defined! To his credit, later, he did admit that the signal likely did not have an earthly origin. This should, in fact, have been a straightforward conclusion: the 1420 MHz bandwidth is actually never used in terrestrial transmitters, as laws dictate this frequency can only be used for astronomical, observational purposes. Another example of the quaint handling of SETI occurred in early January 2012, when SETI researchers at UC Berkeley published twelve signals which in the original press release were described as signals that “look similar to what we think might be produced from an extraterrestrial technology”. When the news was picked up by various news providers, there was a quick follow-up from the university stating this was interference, not an actual signal. Why, therefore, a press release was issued, is a bit of a question mark.

These few examples show the quite bizarre, but definitely intriguing manner which has always accompanied SETI. In 1992, NASA launched its own SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey. After only one year of operation, the program was stopped through the efforts of Sen. Richard Bryan, (D-Nevada), who told the Senate that “millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow. Not a single Martian has said take me to your leader, and not a single flying saucer has applied for FAA approval.” It was an absurd, short-sighted approach, but Bryan was able to convince the government to halt the program.

In short, the program has always been haunted by bizarre claims of cover-up, and these seem justified based on how in 1967 the discovery of pulsars was handled by the astronomers involved. The scientists involved with SETI have a track record of bizarre press releases, which are normally quickly refuted or corrected. Why? Whereas there is no clear evidence of a cover-up, there is clearly something intrinsically wrong and suspicious with the manner in which SETI has been performed, if only because, science-wise, we have narrowed down the search criteria to what we think a non-human intelligence would do. But as has been pointed out by many critics, the 1420 MHz is “used” by many things in nature, which actually means that an intelligence would think twice about using it, knowing that signals broadcast on that frequency would always be subject to analysis as to whether or not it is natural or artificial. And so whether or not ET phoned us using radio astronomy, may forever remain a question.