how the media discovered an alien signal

In its quest or clicks, the media turned a single footnote in a paper on a sequence of fast radio bursts into proof that scientists found the second coming of the Wow! Signal.

radio telescope

Well, as you were warned, Weird Things is back in action, coming to you from Los Angeles with the latest in high tech, astrobiology, strange, bleeding edge science, and skepticism, and I can’t think of a better way to return than with tackling an alien contact story that spread across much of the web like wildfire, appearing in everything from IBI, university blogs, Forbes, and featured by the usual suspects like New Scientist. According to this story, fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are not actually the bizarre, millisecond-length death cries of distant exotic neutron stars collapsing into black holes, as one of the front-running hypotheses states, but may be aliens trying to ping our radio telescopes to see if we’re out there and listening. Think of them as a Wow! Signal on repeat, something not giving us much to work with, but ultimately fascinating by the possibilities they offer, in one of which, SETI’s Seth Shostack sees the work of his alien colleagues…

These fast radio bursts could conceivably be ‘wake up calls’ from other societies, trying to prompt a response from any intelligent life that’s outfitted with radio technology.

But what exactly makes these FRBs so special that someone would even consider them as the work of an intelligent mind? It all comes down to a number called a dispersion measure in radio astronomy, the density of free electrons affected by the signal on its way to our receivers. This might not tell you exactly how far away a radio source is, you’ll have to do some work to adjust your measurements for what’s known to exist in the direction from which you’re getting a signal to do that, but it does tell you something about the distance and power of the object. And when one cluster of FRBs was recently observed in real time, this measurement consistently came in as some multiple of 187.5 which, according to the experts, has a 1 in 2,000 chance of occurring naturally. This is not a wandering, random signal we happened to pick up. There is a very clear and distinct pattern.

Of course all this doesn’t mean that we have a slam dunk case of alien contact because we’ve already gotten some very steady, regular pulses the distance and location of which we did pin down to fixed points in space, unlike FRBs. We also wondered if these were otherworldly minds trying to see if there was anyone out there because the pings were so regular, predictable, and clear, also unlike these FRBs. Now, when we get such regular signals, we know it’s a neutron star with a powerful magnetic field pointing at us, not a distant alien civilization saying hello. A pattern in a signal doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence, even if the pattern is odd. All that was determined so far is that some pattern exists with significant certainty. What’s actually causing this signal is still a mystery, and the best we can do for now to identify a culprit is to say that the FRBs are most likely coming from our own galaxy. So how did we go from basic signal analysis to a deluge of announcements about the possibility of first contact with extraterrestrials?

You see, when the researchers were speculating about what causes FRBs, they spent the vast majority of their time talking about the relationship between the bursts, the pattern they found in the distribution measure, and the Earth’s integer second, a number used for syncing devices to keep very precise track of time. In fact, the explanation they consider most likely involves some sort of a ping between cell towers bouncing around high in the atmosphere, confusing delicate equipment, and the scatter plot of distribution measures show that the signal coming from deep space would either be on the move, or going through a very irregular cloud of gas and dust. So just for the sake of completeness, they add the the following thought…

A more likely option could be a galactic source producing quantized chirped signals, but this seems most surprising. If both of these options could be excluded, only an artificial source (human or non-human) must be considered, particularly since most bursts have been observed in only one location (Parkes radio telescope). A re-assessment of man-made phenomena, such as perytons, would then be required.

They then go on to say that the strong relationship between the detected FRBs and a common timekeeping standard we use in precision equipment pretty much “clinches” the case for a very straightforward explanation that we’re detecting our own electronic noise. So out of a four page paper talking about how likely it is the FRBs are noise form our devices trying to stay in sync to provide us with reliable communication channels, a single speculative mention of “non-human” sources from space which is dismissed in light of the collected evidence turned a summation of some purely technical analysis of radio noise into “we’re being called by aliens!” splattered on a thousand news sites and pop sci blogs. Did no one read the paper? Looking at some dates, it’s possible to find to at least one of the big culprits of this very inventive take on this research.

Bet you won’t act too shocked when I point the finger to the Daily Mail since they’ve done the same sort of thing before, claiming that an astronomer detected signals he didn’t detect from a planet which never actually observed, and it appears they did it again, to be copied by as many other sources as possible to get the traffic. Considering that their journalistic standards are not so much lax as they are completely non-existent, they’re not going to be above warping what a scientific paper says to manufacture news where there really aren’t any. They’re technically not lying as such; the researchers did say that we could consider a non-human artificial sources of the signals they detected. It’s just that the Mail and those rushing to run with the same story in editorial haste just so happened to omit that the researchers followed this thought up with “but seriously, no, don’t, it’s pretty much certainly our own noise” to draw in a few million clicks…

# astrobiology // alien civilizations / astronomy / first contact


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