High on my bucket list of destinations worth visiting is a town (in fact an entire county) in West Virginia. Green Bank is not very big; in fact Pocahontas County is neither large nor famous other than for the facility which lies at its center. The rather remote area is not very well known itself other than to a particular scientific “community” for which it might as well be the center of the universe. So to speak. And that takes me back to a different – though related – story.
THE WOW MESSAGE
On the night of August 15, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ellman was holding down the fort at Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope in the town of Deleware when he noticed that a cryptic set of alpha-numeric symbols had crept mysteriously across the computer screen. So surprised and excited was he that he quickly made a distinctive scientific notation in red ink on the printout: WOW! Both the symbol and its intensity represent a close approximation of the chemical formula for hydrogen, known to be the most plentiful – and most commonly-recognized chemical in the Universe. The event quickly became the closest evidence yet for intelligent life outside our own planet – this one emanating from somewhere near the constellation Sagittarius. The search for intelligent life (SETI) beyond earth thereafter became much more serious. Over the years following WOW, a whole new scientific importance was placed on the very expensive hunt for “messages” from a long distance away from home; for instance a four-hundred-eighty-feet tall tower in Green Bank, West Virginia.
IS ANYONE THERE?
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank radio-telescope is so sensitive it can detect the electro-magnetic arrival of a snow flake on earth one of the most alert “listening posts” anywhere, with a parabolic collecting area covering more than two acres in size. To make the “steerable” installation as efficient as possible, the entire surrounding area of more than 2300 square miles is officially defined as a “National Quiet Zone”, within whose boundaries electronic emissions are tightly restricted. Not only are CELL phones and other electronic signal sources restricted, but most micro-wave ovens and spark plug-equipped appliances and vehicles cannot be operated in many areas where they might interfere with operations; diesel equipment is therefore favored. In the interest of communications a single low-powered public radio station serves much of the region.
What I find interesting is that when asked about their unusual limitations most of the residents of the “quiet zone” seem to like it just the way it is. What’s more, they may be among the first folks anywhere to know when we find someone listening somewhere out there.
CONSIDERING THE FERMI PARADOX
The very fact that intelligent contact from outside our solar system has not yet been demonstrated to have occurred, presents scientific “thinkers” with something of a puzzle. As physicist Enrico Fermi famously pointed out in his Paradox, given the billions of star systems similar to ours, many of which are far older, dozens or even hundreds of resident “earth-planets” ought to have visited us by now. He lists some very thought-provoking – even cautionary – reasons why this might be so.
Oh, by the way, the current “favorite” prospect is a planetary system nicknamed Tabby’s Star in Cygnus. Stand by.