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We Shouldn’t Give Up on SETI

It’s been 35 years since the most tantalizing signal, but the prospect of finding cosmic company is looking brighter than ever

4 min read
Astronomer Jerry Ehman annotated this computer printout of radio data
Photo: The Ohio State University Observatory/North American Astrophysical Observatory

It’s undoubtedly the best-known evidence that someone might be out there. Thirty-five years ago, on 15 August 1977, the “Big Ear” antenna at the Ohio State University Radio Observatory picked up a signal that had all the trademarks of a deliberately produced transmission from deep space. It was so impressive that Jerry Ehman, the astronomer on duty, wrote “Wow!” on the computer printout generated by the telescope. That bit of creative labeling ensured that the blip would become the most famous signal event in the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

No one knows what the “Wow!” signal was. Several experiments have tried to find it again, including an automatic reobservation by the Ohio State antenna at the time of the detection. But it remains a permanent no-show. Maybe it was E.T. pinging our solar system. Then again, perhaps it was merely an instrumental glitch or terrestrial interference. The latter explanation is likely, according to the Ohio State scientists I’ve talked to. But in any case, without a confirming detection, no one can rightly claim that aliens were responsible for the “Wow!”

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Top Tech 2023: A Special Report

These two dozen technical projects should make significant advances in the coming year

2 min read
Top Tech 2023: A Special Report
Edmon DeHaro

Each January, the editors of IEEE Spectrum offer up some predictions about technical developments we expect to be in the news over the coming year. You’ll find a couple dozen of those described in the following special report. Of course, the number of things we could have written about is far higher, so we had to be selective in picking which projects to feature. And we’re not ashamed to admit, gee-whiz appeal often shaped our choices.

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