Lesson #34: The Wow! Signal

Despite my impending existential meltdown over turning 30 in a few months and having (relatively) nothing to show for it, I find great comfort in knowing that no matter what I do with my life, it means nothing in the grand scheme of the universe.* I find space fascinating, I think because I know that no matter how smart I am, I will never fully understand it. And there are a *lot* of people smarter than I am. And they will never fully understand space either.

So when I send you in the direction of the Wow! Signal, understand that I have absolutely no idea what any of the literature about it means. All I understand is that a very big listening telescope at The Ohio State University called “The Big Ear” picked up a frequency that was way outside the norm and was broadcast from somewhere in the vast emptiness of space. And that’s pretty freaking awesome!

I can break it down a little better than that, but not much. The signal was picked up on 15 August, 1977 by Dr. Jerry Ehman and noted with the notation 6EQUJ5. It lasted 72 seconds. It was detected within the constellation Sagittarius. It was non-solar and non-terrestrial in origin and despite efforts, it has never been picked up again.

That’s it. That’s all I understand.**

But what I understand is enough, I think. I don’t need to know the science of space to understand that in 1977, a mysterious signal was picked up in space and no one knows where it came from and no one has heard it since.***

*I actually came across a great Carl Sagan quote by accident today about the image of earth taken by Voyager I in 1990 that beautifully illustrates how inconsequential we are.

**A shame, I know. In another life, with a different high school physics experience, I could have been a decent astrophysicist.

***More about the Wow! Signal, including explanations of the 6EQUJ5 notation can be found here. An audio recording of the Wow! Signal can be found here.


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