The wow signal!

The Wow signal was a strong narrowband radio signal detected by Jerry R. Ehman on August 15, 1977, while working on a SETI project at the Big Ear radio telescope of The Ohio State University then located at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, Delaware, Ohio. The signal bore expected hallmarks of potential non-terrestrial and non-Solar System origin. It lasted for the full 72-second duration that Big Ear observed it, but has not been detected again. The signal has been the subject of significant media attention.

Amazed at how closely the signal matched the expected signature of an interstellar signal in the antenna used, Ehman circled the signal on the computer printout and wrote the comment “Wow!” on its side. This comment became the name of the signal.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is the collective name for a number of activities undertaken to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. SETI projects use scientific methods in this search. For example, electromagnetic radiation is monitored for signs of transmissions from civilizations on other worlds. Some of the most well known projects are run by Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the SETI Institute. Since the United States government withdrew funding for SETI projects in 1995, projects have been primarily funded by private sources.

There are great challenges in searching the cosmos for signs of intelligent life, including their identification and interpretation. SETI projects necessarily make assumptions to narrow the search, the foremost being that electromagnetic radiation would be a medium of communication for advanced extraterrestrial life.

A part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence involves the analysis of the implications of extraterrestrial contact for humanity, culturally, scientifically, technologically, and socially. Numerous contact scenarios have been created by scientists who are involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in order to better contextualize what may eventually occur when humanity is contacted by an extraterrestrial species. These studies reveal that the result of extraterrestrial contact will be strongly governed by the benevolence or malevolence of an extraterrestrial civilization, how advanced it is technologically, and whether or not such a species sends robotic probes to contact humanity, as opposed to radio signals from a centralized source, as well as biological similarities and differences between humanity and the extraterrestrial species.

Malevolent civilizations, as speculated by Dr. Michio Kaku (2009) and Robert Freitas (1978) independently, may possess resources which can destroy humanity with little effort on the part of the extraterrestrial civilization and with little chance at resistance. Supporting the view of aggression, Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, speculates that the finite quantity of resources in the galaxy and the “explorer” nature of any civilization would cause it to be aggressive in the same way that human explorers have been historically.

However, these views have been disputed by, among others, the late Carl Sagan, who speculated that any technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization would be advanced ethically as well, and would not be aggressive, and that humanity would, due to the extraterrestrial civilization’s technological prowess, reciprocate this non-aggression. Corroborating this view, a study conducted by James W. Deardorff states that only a small percentage of extraterrestrial civilizations may be aggressive. Such civilizations may use various methods in order to help humanity, such as immediate actions to avert catastrophe (i.e. creating computer glitches in nuclear-weapons systems on the eve of global nuclear conflagration) or long-term mitigation of risks which may destroy humanity before true technological cooperation.

Extraterrestrial civilizations may also have specific implications for various aspects of humanity against a backdrop of these broad contact scenarios. In particular, religion may undergo various degrees of change, from a reinterpretation of religious texts by theologians to accommodate the new discovery to a complete reinvention of religion, with extraterrestrials bringing humanity into an all-encompassing cosmic faith.

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