weird things talks to astronomer ragbir bhathal

Ragbir Bhathal responds to Weird Things to set the record straight: the story about his detection of laser signals from Gliese 581g are pure fiction.

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It looks like my earlier post about astronomer Ragbir Bhathal’s supposed claim of a laser signal from Gliese 581g was based on a story that was more creative editing than fact. After receiving several comments from a reader on this subject, I went back and took another look at all the reports of how Dr. Bhathal found a pulse coming from the same area of the sky as Gliese 581g, noticing that the size of the area is unspecified and the quotes from the astronomer never actually name the star or the planet. And yet just about everybody out there, with the exception of those focused on his earlier detection of a pulse from globular cluster 47 Tucanae, had a story about how we might’ve seen a laser light show from 581g. So I decided to do what I really should’ve just done in the first place and contacted Dr. Bhathal himself, asking for a comment. He quickly replied…

There has been a mix up by the press and two different stories and quotes from various sources have been put together. We found a laser look alike signal about two years ago from 47 Tucanae. However, after searching for this signal for several months we did not see it again. In physics we need to have a repeat of the phenomenon to say anything about it. We had a put a large question on it and had discounted it. You may wish to know that I’ve sent emails to the editors [ of the Daily Mail article ] but they have not printed them.

Well, that pretty much settles it. The rumors are false and Dr. Bhathal did not in fact detect any signals from a potentially habitable world just 20.5 light years away. He did detect what may have seemed like one relatively promising pulse from a nearby stretch of the sky, but it had nothing to do with Gliese 581g, and the culprit is a far more distant 16,700 light years away. And to me, the farther away the laser pulse is, the less likely it would be an attempt by intelligent aliens to contact us since detecting us from 100 quadrillion miles away is far, far harder than from a thousandth of that distance, and a directed pulse implies that the aliens have a good idea where we are and could aim a powerful laser very precisely. Or they were randomly shooting pulses across a stretch of sky hoping to hit something and maybe hear a signal back, which would indicate a civilization that’s just toying around with the idea of talking to someone out there. But until we see a repeat of the signal, which is definitely not a sure thing even if it was sent to us by an alien civilization, we couldn’t know for sure.

However, rather than take the time and think things through, the Daily Mail once again pulled one of its typical stunts and got the entire web talking about something one of their editors coughed up to drum up page views while misrepresenting a scientist who never really claimed anything at all. And unfortunately, I must admit that I should’ve done more homework on this story myself and e-mailed Dr. Bhathal right away. Of course you can expect an addendum to my original post and I would really encourage you to share Dr. Bhathal’s note about a gross distortion of the facts by the Daily Mail and their refusal to print his corrections. While mistakes might be inevitable, they have to be corrected, and while speculation is all well and good, it must be based on facts and avoid being slyly attributed to a scientist who doesn’t endorse the views being espoused.

# science // astrobiology / mass media / scientific research


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