No alien signal

By Phil Plait | January 16, 2008 3:01 pm

Some important updates are at the bottom of this article.

OK folks, nothing to see here.

I talked with my buddy Seth Shostak, who is a Senior SETI astronomer, and he told me that this whole alien signal thing is a big misunderstanding on the part of the KTVU reporter.

Basically, Dan Wertheimer, a radio astronomer who is affiliated with SETI, detected a pulse from space told the reporter about a signal that had been detected from space. The source is certainly extragalactic, and is most likely some sort of natural event. It’s unclear exactly what kind of event, but there is a long list of things it could be. Aliens phoning us is pretty far down that list. But since Dan does do some SETI work, the reporter just botched things up a bit and misattributed the source. The news article reads oddly, like he took a mishmash of topics and wrote them all up into one article, so this misunderstanding doesn’t surprise me much.

The signal was detected quite some time ago, and had it been alien, believe me you would have heard from the folks at SETI!

So chalk this one up as yet another in a long line of false alarms. Sorry to burst the ET bubble.

UPDATE (18:45 Mountain time):

1) The original news article — shocker — has been pulled off the KTVU site. However, someone should tell KTVU that there exists this thing called Google, and they sometimes cache web pages. I also took a screen capture of the meat of the article and uploaded it to my Flickr page.

2) I just talked to Dan Wertheimer, the astronomer quoted in the article. He told me that the original interview was about sending signals into space (so-called "active SETI") as opposed to just listening for aliens. After the interview, he talked to the reporter about some of the astronomy he does, including looking at what are called radio transients: bursts of radio waves that are seen once and never repeat. These may come from one-off events like colliding neutron stars, exploding stars, and so on. Somehow, in the article the reporter mixed up the observation of the transient signals with detecting a signal from E.T. Worse — if that’s possible — the observations of the transients weren’t from Arecibo, and they weren’t from Wertheimer. It was another astronomer altogether, observing with the giant Parkes radio dish in Australia.

So basically, the news article is utterly wrong about everything it discussed concerning the signal. Wow.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Debunking, Science, Skepticism

Comments (96)

  1. Yeah, sure, Phil – that’s what they *want* you to believe . . .

    Jim D.

  2. Nat

    Thanks for clearing that up for us. I didn’t think it’d be anything, but I couldn’t help hoping that maybe, somehow, it might be…

  3. Mister Earl

    Looks like I win five bucks.

    … I’d rather not have.

  4. Gnat

    Anyone hear about the buried tree stumps that got mistaken for buried aliens? Of course, now I am having trouble finding the article…conspiracy?!

    Seems like there are aliens on the brain lately in the media…I think I’ve seen like 5 alien-related articles in two days. Oh wait, one of those articles was on clowns…well, close enough!

  5. Cello Man

    Hooray for responsible journalism.

  6. C’mon!! What about the reports on the news of the “mile long” UFO in Texas?

    They are here already!!!!

    (this message brought to you by the scientist sarcasm society of america (sssa)) :)

  7. Rasputin

    Sometimes reality sucks. This is one of those times.

    Just as an aside, if aliens ever do arrive and they look like the big eyed gray dudes I’m going to be totally freaked out.

  8. Mike J.

    I’m starting to get *really* skeptical of the skeptics..

  9. You mean you won’t be freaked out by arriving aliens as long as they don’t look like the big-eyed grey dudes? :-)

  10. Michelle

    What a shocker. :P

  11. Jorde

    Well, that confirms it, Phil is part of the conspiracy. Of course, that was already evident when he photoshoped out the pictures of the cities on Mercury. :)

  12. Shawn S.

    The Men in Black got to Phil, too… :)

  13. andy

    Well the fact we haven’t picked up transmissions can only be regarded as a good thing given the completely nonexistent policy about sending replies.

    Who gets to play Earth’s ambassador to the cosmos? Is replying even a good idea?

    Who should we consult about a reply?

    The active SETI (or METI) proponents and practitioners don’t want to deal with these questions. They just want to be the first to talk to aliens. In fact, they are so keen to talk to aliens that they refuse to even consider the policy that they should consult humanity.

    So at present, anyone with suitable equipment can decide to beam signals at nearby stars and play ambassador for all humanity, sidestepping any kind of accountability to the people they are representing by doing this.

    As for safety culture, or attempts to mitigate any negative effects, who needs that, after all their deep knowledge of the galactic political situation and interspecies relationships means they UNDERSTAND that beaming out transmissions is not dangerous. It is those who urge caution who are acting on unsubstantiated BELIEF. So says Dr Alexander Zaitsev, Ambassador for Earth from Evpatoria.

  14. Davidlpf

    Gone for a couple hours and we are almost had contact from an intelligent species then message is found out it to a reporting not knowing what he is talking about, what a shocker next politicians not knowing much about science.

  15. MandyDax

    @Rasputin:
    >Just as an aside, if aliens ever do arrive and they look like the
    >big eyed gray dudes I’m going to be totally freaked out.
    Me, too! I’ll be all, “Thor!! I’m your biggest fan! Will you sign my brain?”

    Oh, and BA, I commented this on the previous post, but the site has taken down that article. Brilliant. :P

  16. bharat

    can we please have a happy ending for once

  17. Christian X Burnham

    Reddited.

    “The Bad Astronomer gives the dope on the supposed Aricebo ET radio signal.”
    http://reddit.com/info/65p59/comments/

    (Oh, and I mispelt Arecibo)

  18. Fritriac

    Meh. Seems that the KTVU article is farked.

    /Wharevar – still running Seti@Home

  19. Davidlpf

    I know the signal will never be detected in the Washington DC, or any other capital city,
    (sorry resistance to a bad joke was futile)

  20. anomaly

    jeez phil we would have even accepted the actual account of the story
    found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080114110715.htm so much for journalism *nothing to see here, move along* regardless its still interesting news.

    building blocks of life found by new instrument at arecibo sounds a whole lot better than NO ALIEN SIGNAL.

  21. Just as well. If aliens ever did land on Earth, Bill O’Reilly would immediately brand them as illegal and call for them to be deported.

  22. Mike

    I knew the ‘Aliens’ would find a way to get over that border fence.

  23. Hmmm, this one’s on Reddit, the one about the asteroid missing us the other day is on Fark, and my new server is humming along like this is business as usual. Cool.

  24. Oh bummer. (The “no Transgendered Purple Octopus Aliens from 55 Cancri” thing, not “the server is doing good” thing.)

  25. Chip

    Just today I heard a local radio interview with Jill Tarter of the SETI program. She’s speaking in my town this Friday and I’m going. She didn’t address this report, but in answer to the expected question of what SETI would do if they received an artificial carrier signal, she said they’d have to verify it with additional analysis from unrelated (to SETI) organizations. They wouldn’t just blurt out to news media that they heard something without verification.

    She also said something really curious, there is a concept that a signal (not a SciFi alien voice over a speaker but rather a coherent artificial carrier or radio emission from deep space,) might be masked as a natural signal. For example, a subtly variable pulsar. This type of hidden transmission would be detected by going over filed pulsar data records.

  26. A misunderstanding, or an attempt to sensationalize? We’ve had a rash of news reports about UFO sightings in our local media that make is sound like Earth is being invaded by an armada of aliens.

  27. Ema Zee

    This Cassini signal is odd

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGeWBiLVn8g

    of course the analysis is over the top, but they give sources:

    ————————-

    Speech patterns have been found in a radio signal released by NASA almost 3 years previously in 2004.

    Judge for yourself what the voices are saying, it is a very bizarre anomaly but very much worth investigating.

    Instructions:

    1) Download and save the original WAV file from NASA/Cassini website:

    http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/multimediahttp://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/images/saturn/audio/pia07967-072504.wav

    2)Open an audio editor like Cool Edit or Sonar and raise the pitch/frequency of the file by 12 tones with the pitch shifter..

    and there it is, speech patterns.

    How can anyone explain this anomaly. Certainly NASA have no explanation for it after we presented the file to them for their opinion. SETI also dont know what make of it. What do you think?

    SOURCE:

    http://cassini.physics.uiowa.edu/space-audio/cassini/SKR2/

    ——————–

  28. Frances

    I really wonder what form the signal will take, once we find it.

    And whether the US will claim it as their god-given right to do all the research on it or whether they will allow free nations to also do work on it?

    They better not land in the US unless they carry a mighty big stick.

  29. I just updated this story with more info from Dan Wertheimer. The reporter managed to mess this up pretty badly.

  30. mike

    Aww man! I was quite excited to hear about this hard evidence earlier today. When I got home and followed my bookmark back to the “news” site to find the article removed, I grew ever more disappointed until seeing the truth spelled out here. :(

  31. TSM_in_Toronto

    Ema Zee, in reply to your link to the YouTube item — check out any entry from http://www.google.com/search?q=apophenia and fill yer boots.

  32. Bill Rehm
  33. BTP

    As or friend Carl Sagan noted, at this point in history we have a populace utterly non-technical, using technology.

    Most ‘journalists’ these days are as ignorant as much of the citizens. They dont know what a star even is-“gee do we go around it- doesnt it go around us?” are still, sadly, common questions.

    I have no doubt life abounds out there. But space is B.I.G., and so is Time. We are but a dust mote, circling an unremarkable star far out in the unfashionable end of an unremarkable galaxy. (Sorry for the poor paraphrasing)

    Reporters like this continue to help spread the dumbing-down of society. Them, and rap music.

  34. Alex Toronto On Canada

    Darn it all, I thought Arthur C. Clarke was going to fulfill one of his three wishes.

  35. autumn

    In response to those who have intimated that speech-like noises can be constructed from Cassini’s radio data, are you really stupid enough to think that something that you or I can fit to some human cadence of speech will represent a truely alien dialect? If I can envision something as speech-like, I have proven that it is either locally produced, or a product of my whimsy.

  36. The truth is out there.

  37. THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

  38. aApe
  39. Ema Zee writes:

    [[How can anyone explain this anomaly. Certainly NASA have no explanation for it after we presented the file to them for their opinion. SETI also dont know what make of it. What do you think?]]

    I think if you amplify noise that’s just at the level of recognizeability it will often turn out to sound like something familiar. But it’s not the noise that’s doing it, it’s your brain’s tendency to find patterns.

  40. BTP writes:

    [[We are but a dust mote, circling an unremarkable star far out in the unfashionable end of an unremarkable galaxy.]]

    This is a popular trope nowadays, but it’s not quite accurate. The Sun is more luminous than about 95% of its close neighbors. And the Milky Way is a fairly large galaxy. There are bigger stars and bigger galaxies (especially those huge ellipticals formed from 20 or so normal galaxies falling together), but ours aren’t too shabby.

  41. The article has since been replaced with a much more subdued one.

  42. Seth Shostak’s response is at:

    http://www.seti.org/news/features/has-a-seti-signal-been-detected.php

    (The BA’s link points back to this page!)

  43. realistically, things like this can be cover-ups.
    think through what would happen if the whole world knew we had located another race deep in space. isn’t anyone in the slightest bit suspicious that our governments pay to have all these radio telescopes pointing out into space. it’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend.

  44. Shoeshine Boy

    Johnald: SETI is not government funded, at least not by the US Government. (It once got government funding, but hasn’t for many years).

  45. Shoeshine Boy

    Johnald: SETI is not government funded, at least not by the US Government. (It once received government funding, but hasn’t for many years).

  46. SenorSushi

    My favorite fact about the Texas sightings is how none of those people had a camera to document what they saw. I say we all pitch in and send a box of disposible camera’s down there for the next big sighting.

  47. romrix

    Beaming signals into space towards stars is akin to going out in your yard and pointing a torch (flashlight) toward a rock. The likelihood there will be something there that understands what it is is about the same also.

  48. mapexvenus

    I know that this is off-topic (or is it?) but any thoughts on the alleged UFO sightings in Texas?

    Are they already here and we haven’t been told about it?

  49. Phil – how’s your server holding up, now that this post’s been Slashdotted?

  50. It’s real, i communicate with them every two to five days.
    They have a strong message for mankind.
    We are facing destruction,
    they have no guns to help us.
    Destruction in the worst way,
    there is an asteroid or a comet coming home
    and nobody can stop it.
    The message was encrypted, so i decrypted it.
    The message says.

    Rock aproaching,
    humans divided,
    earth´s magnetic dipole twisted,
    black hole calling for matter,
    matter aproaching earth,
    mankind’s final days,
    deliver to your endless creator,

    signed: we the ETs.

  51. Judging by how the station pulled the original article, and then published a classic “we regret the error” non-apology, I suspect that the original article was put up by an idiot editor who didn’t bother to read the thing in the first place. I used to see that all of the time in the weekly newspaper business: “We regret the error” means “A high-level editor was responsible for the horrible rewritten/misattributed/blatantly misrepresented/potentially libelous article you just read, but he’d rather blow up the sun than admit that he wasn’t the product of a virgin birth.” In these cases, nobody else will admit to the failure in the chain of command for fear of losing their jobs, and you’ve never seen anything so petty and vindictive than an editor being forced to admit that he isn’t fit to manage a Dairy Queen.

    Besides, I have a slight tibia to pick, because the aliens really are talking to us all the time. Just last week, during my monthly alien abduction, I stopped after the pregnancy test and before the anal probe to ask the aliens if they’d made contact with anyone else. When I threw out the name “Whitley Strieber,” the aliens responded “STRIEBER IS AN ENEMY OF THE DALEKS! EX-TER-MI-NA-TE!!!”

  52. Randy

    With regard to the audio signal from Cassini:

    Once you do things like apply pitch changers to any sound file, you will create artifacts that are not present in the original signal. This is not too different to people who take images from Odyssey or the rovers, convert them into JPEGs who then start noticing “regularity” on the ground, which is just the lossy compression boxing showing up. It’s an effect of the processing, which your brain tries to interpret as something familiar.

    As a guy who composes music using mostly audio samples and software, I’ve gotten effects similar to that by pitch and tempo shifting all sorts of natural sounds. It’s not aliens, but it’s still a fascinating sound which I love listening to.

  53. iTruth

    It Solely Depends On Your Capability To Grasp The Truth… The Fact Is that The Greater of Humanity Cannot Grasp It. It Should In Theory Be Quite Obvious To Any Human Being Capable of Rational Thought… To Any Intelligent Being With a Drive To Learn the Truth; The Knowledge Is There. Open The Pandora’s Box; You Will Be Very Familiar With What I Tell You Now is A Paradigm Shift. You Will Awaken.

    This Is All De-Classified Information Dating Back To 1961 ; After Countless Encounters On Radar and Several Instances Where There Were Loss of Both Soviet & American Pilots. The Higher Ups On Both Sides Acknowledged What Was Actually Going On and Made Contact With These Beings As Well.

    Here Is An Extraordinary Message Delivered by Retired Command Sergeant Major Robert Dean.You May Find In This Hour of Great Material Something That May Just Shift Your Paradigm. Thus Far You Have Read ; I Should Inform You That There Is No Such Thing As a Coincidince.

    http://markoadamic.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!165F82

    iTruth

    “I’m Getting Very Skeptics Of the Skeptics” As have I Always Been. The Ironic Part About That Is There Are Two Groups Of Skeptics. Those Who Belive, And Those Who Do Not.

  54. sys admin

    Damn. I was looking forward to the massive military buildup, what with the new demand for giant lasers pointed at the sky, etc.

  55. Scotty Matthews

    My four computers and I have been working with Seti@home for some time, crunching numbers on research data. (If you have a computer, you can help too… search for Seti@home for info).

    I work in broadcasting, and I know a bit about radio signal technology. Unfortunately, when we peer into space, we only look at the EM spectrum… visible and invisible light, microwaves, radio waves and the like.

    Since EM energy cannot propogate faster than the speed of light, which is actually shockingly slow, considering the size of the Universe, it seems unlikely that a highly advanced civilization would use EM for long range communication. EM is easily absorbed, blocked, and distorted by matter in space, and all but laser light quickly disperses radially perpindicular to the direction of travel, continually dissipating energy.

    We might record evidence of some long-dead civilization that used radio signals like we do now, and that would be quite a scientific breakthrough, but if we want to contact existing ET’s, then we should research other spectra, and figure out how information could be transmitted faster than light (like some of the latest developments in quantum tunnelling phenomena…)

    We’ve been broadcasting radio signals into space for a hundred years, and those signals won’t reach even the center of our own galaxy for another 25,000 years. That’s how long it’s been since modern humans emerged as a species!

    And the Milky Way Galaxy (ours!) is just one small and not particularly interesting galaxy among billions of galaxies, each one with millions or billions of stars, seperated by billions upon billions of miles across the vastness of space.

    Just for scale, our search is roughly equivalent to a spider in Tokyo hoping to observe a grasshopper on the moon. Even if there are a million grasshoppers on the moon, and the spider is fortunate enough to land on a lens which happens to focus eight different ultra-high-power telescopes on each of it’s eight eyes, the spider and his decendants could exhaust a million generations of observation before a grasshopper springs into view.

    What we hope to find is out there. I have no doubt. And unless we can identify the signatures of faster-than-light signalling, if it exists, then we will never know them, and they will never know us.

    Personally, I think that’s a reasonable motivation for researching metaphysics while my computers extract information from gazillions of bytes of data from the Aricebo Multi-Beam Array.

    ET just isn’t a phone company customer.

    “Once we figure out peace on Earth, we will reach out to the stars, to other civilizations, and force peace upon them as well!” (Woodrow Wilson Smith, a.k.a. Lazarus Long, yelling at the night sky, prior to the crazy years, whilst drunken.)

  56. Paul Freedman

    “Just as an aside, if aliens ever do arrive and they look like the big eyed gray dudes I’m going to be totally freaked out.”

    They’re called the Asgard.

    ;)

  57. JIM

    Sounds like a Fox news story to me.

  58. pepe

    If you are looking for meaning in your life by finding Aliens must as well find Jesus. He is closer and as meaningless.

  59. dmx

    “Just as an aside, if aliens ever do arrive and they look like the big eyed gray dudes I’m going to be totally freaked out.”

    Meh. I’d be trying to hitch a ride. Imaginary physics defying space buggies would be damn fun.

    “Burn out Zorlag! Lay some rubber!”

  60. Anonymous

    SETI@HOME IS A JOKE! AND WASTE OF TIME

  61. @dmx, What if his Mother’s Name is Rubber …

    Back to Topic, I’d LOVE if this were True …

    But, Science is About The Way The World is, Not The Way you Want it to be!

    #-o

  62. *wow*, Phil? Good one.

    Pretty funny, really, to those of us old enough to remember a certain previous *wow* signal…

    Michael

  63. If You Wish to Convince People of An Extraordinary New Fact, Like the Truth About Aliens, You Should Capitalize Nearly Every Word.

  64. Communicate with aliens? Not so fast! Modulated rf, light or laser diminishes to undectable levels at fairly short comic distances. Do some “what if” math starting with, say, a million watt transmitter at 10 light years distance. There simply isn’t anything left to amplify for detection. And that assumes a directed signal on target.

  65. Steve Eagleson

    I’m beginning to think that there is no intelligent life in the Universe. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any at KTVU…

  66. Jason C.

    Anybody else catch the pun at the VERY end of the article? Sweeeeet.

  67. Unabashed and not impressed

    I want to say the big words too!

    One or two morsels of nutrition for your faceplate.

    I think its funny that our own skepticism about the theoretical existence of et’s is a far more effective censor on their transmissions than the government could ever hope for. Sure, any boob can write in a newpaper or newsletter saying “we found em” and hundreds of people will believe that to the exclusion of the everything else even if the writer came forward and admitted he made it up, but the great majority of humans would disregard even a real transmission as something ~ anything else. I mean, come on, what’s your first reaction? So likely, they’re up there going “send it again, they must not have heard us.”

    More likely, they intercepted our transmissions from about 69 light years away and said “turn left, they aren’t ready yet.” I mean, we don’t even know if the Centauri system has planets, and its only 4 light years away.

    If an alien civilization can even see us, they saw us long before they would have come here. Would we just blindly fire an interstellar vehicle to another star hoping that it would have a habitable planet? No. They would have studied us for a long time.

    Then if they did send a probe, what do you think… would it be manned or unmanned? Lets see… how many manned flights past our own moon have we made compared to unmanned flights? Very likely they would send a robotic vehicle to scope the area first.

    The robotic vehicle either falls into orbit (unlikely) or observes from a safe distance, monitoring anything that the aliens think we would be capable of producing. Namely EM band wavelengths (by the way, there aren’t “other” frequencies. Quantum tunneling is not a frequency.) The robotic probe would record our tv, radio, microwave, visible light and quite possibly even audible data and beam (or “tunnel”) it back to the home base. There they would pore over this data for years (just like we would) very likely agonizing over several fundamental questions….

    1) are they a threat?

    2) will our presence be detrimental to their development?

    3) will their microorganisms kill us?

    4) If we land will we destroy their entire ecosystem with our microorganisms?

    5) do they have any positive contibution to make to our culture?

    6) if they end up learning our technology, will they try to purify the galaxy? (I bet that’s happened at least once)

    7) how long can we study them without being detected?

    8) Will our politicians allow us the funding to send a manned mission, and if so, how much will they give us?

    Of course, these questions depend heavily on how much like us they are, although similar questions would most certainly come up no matter what they are… if they even exist and if they even know we’re here and if they even care and if they are benign and if they have any inkling that life exists on the mysterious blue grain of salt in the cluster of saltmines.

  68. I don’t believe that aliens can contact man on earth. Someone in Thailand said that he can contact them by concentration.

  69. pie

    “The signal was detected quite some time ago, and had it been alien, believe me you would have heard from the folks at SETI!” – not so.

    If there is something to this signal, the government may be putting a cap on it becasue of natiional security concerns. Or until the signal can be understood better.

  70. rprebel

    I for one would like to say hello our new alien masters. Welcome, Xenu! How was the flight over here?

    ‘Wow’ indeed.

  71. JRS

    Interesting, but check out the SETI@home thread, which I think may have been related to the whole issue popping up at this particular time.

  72. JRS

    Interesting, but check out the SETI@home thread, which I think may have been related to the whole issue popping up at this particular time. Go To: http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread326729/pg1

  73. stop believing in aliens and get on with your lifess loallz.x
    Your not gunna live 4 anotha 100 years to fynd out if there r aliens u people
    get over it . […]

  74. If you have a peek at thehiawathatriad.org, triadexp.info, and triadblog.info/blog you may find that it is not necessary to go Carl Sagan distances for chatter.

  75. Daniel

    As you could say… there goes another big thankyou to the U.S. Intel. Who I’m sure would of Classified any such discovery or confirmed signal almost as it was confirmed. So you might as well have Angels fly out of your Ass… lol

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