SETI Versus The Trickster Gods. SETI stands for the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, and the usual ways and means of doing that is to scan the heavens with radio telescopes looking for an intelligent radio signal from ET. Some of the nasty flies in the SETI ointment are deciding the direction to look at and the frequency to scan for. Fortunately, modern technology can focus in on those specific stellar candidates highly likely to be homes to ET (at high sensitivity), or sweep broad areas of the sky (at less sensitivity) and search multiple frequencies at a go. The nasty fly in that ointment is that any individual or team of individuals would quickly be overwhelmed with data such that separating the signal(s) from the noise would be so time consuming as to prohibit scientists from searching at all.
SETI scientists, fortunately, do not spend their time looking at the raw data on their monitoring screens that are linked to their radio telescopes, 24/7/52. Fortunately, modern technology has produced the computer. Computers do most of the hard yakka â€“ the tedious bit of sifting through the massive amount of radio chaos for the potential tiny bit of radio pattern.
Computer software algorithms scan the raw data quick-smart and can immediately weed out 99.9% of all the radio junk, the hiss, static, cosmic microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang, lightning discharges, and other background natural radio noise. The remaining potentially interesting 0.1% will then be looked at by another computer, this one with wetware software â€“ the human brain that resides inside the SETI scientist. Now 99.9% of the interesting 0.1% that remains after the initial computer software algorithms have done their thing will no doubt be shown the WPB (garbage bin) after the SETI scientist has done his or her wetware analysis. Most post-computer residue is eliminated as having a terrestrial and human origin â€“ this radio station; that orbiting satellite's transmission, etc.Â The types and ranges of artificial radio signals generated by humans are well catalogued and understood. It's unlikely an artificial terrestrial signal will be mistaken for ET â€“ at least not for long.
The 0.1% of the 0.1% that remains after 1) rejections by the computers and after 2) initial investigations by the SETI scientist is now getting really interesting, but again most of that can eventually be traced to various unexpected or unsuspected terrestrial emissions (say from top secret installations or satellites) and/or more likely as not various natural extraterrestrial â€˜signals' like those given off by pulsars that upon initial detection seemingly mimic ET. Anything left after that, to the SETI scientist, is in the category of â€˜WOW'. SETI has indeed found a â€˜WOW' signal, but it was a quickie one-off, never to be â€˜heard' again.
Now SETI scientists (like all good scientists) have a protocol that requires data to be verified. In the case of SETI, an interesting â€˜WOW' signal needs to be verified, first by the home telescope by turning the telescope away then back to the original position. If the signal continues when the telescope is moved away, the source is local. If the signal cuts out but returns when the telescope in put back into it's original configuration, the source is probably far away â€“ like somewhere out there. Hopefully, after some elapsed interval of time, when the telescope returns to the same celestial coordinates, the signal will be there. The signal also has to be verified by one or more other telescopes. The upshot of all of this checking and double-checking is that the â€˜WOW' signal can't be just a quickie one-off with no message content or intelligent pattern in the background noise. One very long burst would do it, or even an on-again, off-again, on-again pattern over lengthy durations, but it can't be a one-off quickie that leaves no chance for verification â€“ that's the key; verification and especially independent verification. Alas, to date, one unverified â€˜WOW' signal, or so I thought.
Based on the emphasis given to it in most books dealing with SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, as practiced by scanning the heavens with radio telescopes for ET's radio (electromagnetic â€“ EM) communication beacons or general EM leakage, the SETI community has experienced many initially anomalous radio signals, but only one that had remained unsolved and unresolved â€“ the â€˜WOW' signal. The â€˜WOW' signal was detected at the "Big Ear" radio telescope at the Ohio State Radio Observatory (since demolished to make way for a golf course) in August of 1977. To this day it 1) remains unexplained and 2) remains unverified. I thought that had been the be-all-and-end-all of anomalous signals. However, I've been corrected by a senior astronomer at America's SETI Institute who emailed me the following.
"Also, the WOW signal is only one of nearly a thousand signals that were detected, and whose origin remains unknown.Â It has the benefit of a catchy name."
So what's our SETI scientist telling us here? Well, that on at least 1000 occasions radio telescopes have detected short-duration, non-repeated, non-verifiable signals that have all the hallmarks be being artificial in origin and thus worthy of a SETI scientist's attention.
Now I didn't realize that traditional SETI had so many, if not unknown â€˜WOW' â€˜signals', at least unknown â€˜mini-wow' â€˜signals' (my phrase). But doesn't that strike you, the reader, as decidedly odd? I mean, it's pretty straight-forward to double-check and reacquire terrestrial â€˜signals', even if they originate from our space probes somewhere out there. It would be rare indeed for there to be a one-off terrestrial â€˜signal' that was picked up but a â€˜signal' that never existed before or after that detection event.
Assuming therefore that these thousand mini-wows aren't terrestrial, then they must have an extraterrestrial origin. So, if the thousand â€˜mini-wow' unknowns are extraterrestrial in origin isn't it odd each and every time the SETI community goes back to reacquire the â€˜signal' in order to verify the bona-fides as to the precise nature of that â€˜signal', it proves to be quickie one-off? I mean a few times is understandable, but a thousand times? I'm reminded of that James Bond quote from "Goldfinger" â€“ â€˜Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action'. I assume that the distribution of these â€˜mini-wows' must be pretty random, for if they all came from the same area in the heavens that itself would be in itself telling. This is fascinating â€“ it almost seems if some sort of cosmic joker is playing endless April Fool's pranks on the SETI community. It must be quite frustrating.
Now IMHO a real ETI radio signal wouldn't just last all of two seconds, never to reappear again. Even if the point-of-origin were on the surface of an extra-solar planet such that the beacon swept across us very quickly, it would still reappear to one or more of our terrestrial radio telescopes the next time the extra-solar planet rotated that point-of-origin into view again. Earth's rotation doesn't really count â€“ if a radio telescope picks up an anomalous â€˜mini-wow' signal from a target that's just sinking beneath the western horizon then it's easy of those astronomers to alert in real time another radio telescope facility further to the west where the target is still visible, and thus continue the monitoring.
The only quasi-quickie one-off natural extraterrestrial phenomena I can think of are gamma ray bursts, but SETI scientists know about them and I doubt they would be detected by radio telescopes anyway since gamma rays are high energy (short wavelength) relative to radio waves (long wavelength).
Is there an answer? Well, yes, there is, but it's so out in left field that it is in left field's left field. However, if the SETI community can't suggest anything better, here goes nothing!
Let's start off assuming that there currently exist extraterrestrials monitoring Planet Earth in their spaceships â€“ call them UFOs.
Let's further assume that these extraterrestrials have been monitoring Planet Earth for multi-thousands of years.
Let's further assume that way back then those extraterrestrials were known collectively as the polytheistic gods.
Every culture had a mythology that had at its base a motley collection of polytheistic â€˜gods'. At least one of those â€˜gods' was known as a â€˜trickster god'. It might have been called Loki in Norse mythology or Raven and Coyote in Native American Indian mythology, or Hermes and Prometheus in Greek mythology or Krishna in India but tricksters they were. These trickster gods were mischievous practical jokers, but often not in a funny â€˜ha-ha' vein. In fact at one time or another most of the â€˜gods' liked to play practical jokes on their peers and on us lesser mortals too, again, not always in the funny "ha-ha â€“ gotcha"Â mode.
So, fast-forward to the present, I can well imagine some extraterrestrial(s) up there in orbit around Earth in their flying saucer(s) having a bit of fun. They'd beam down a quickie artificial radio signal, say to some radio telescope of other, and then turn off the signal. While the poor SETI radio astronomers were busy trying to verify this â€˜wow' event, the extraterrestrial(s) were laughing their antenna off at their trickster prank!
I'm sure humans aren't the only intelligent species who like to play practical jokes and invent puzzles, paradoxes and riddles. The trickster â€˜gods' would perfectly fit the bill as cosmic jokesters.
Yet another trickster-related phenomenon could be the mystery of the LDE's â€“ Long Delayed Echoes. If you send off a radar pulse to the Moon say, you'd expect a return within a few seconds, not say a minute or an hour or a day later. If you did, an addition to the expected principal's echo's time interval, it would be a scientific anomaly of the highest order with the delayed echo having a decidedly unknown or uncertain origin. Well, such sporadic LDE's have in fact happened starting in 1927 (through to the present) with no apparent consistency. It's like sending a radar signal to the Moon at noon getting the expected few second echo and then another secondary echo one minute later; repeating the exercise at one pm with the principal few second delay echo received, but another unexpected delayed echo coming now five minutes later. In short, the phenomena is fleeting and non-repeatable and (shades of the â€˜WOW' signal) non-verifiable. Though various hypotheses have been suggested, none can adequately explain the sum total of LDE's. An alien space probe (often termed a Bracewell probe) within our solar system is one of those hypotheses whereby the probe sends back a terrestrial radar/radio signal in order to attract attention to itself and therefore the existence of ETI. Of course the space probe could be a â€˜manned' spaceship, with at least one crewmember a trickster â€˜god'.
Now I'm not making this LDE - sometimes termed long-delayed radar or radio echo - phenomena up. It's well documented in the scientific literature.
But why stop there? If trickster â€˜gods' wanted to have a bit of relatively harmless fun with us humans, well perhaps they're behind the crop circle business! Now the absurdity of ET coming across light-years of space away with a motive just to dabble in agricultural (crop circle) graffiti has been pointed out by others. I quite agree. But, if ET were already here (and agricultural graffiti wasn't the motivation) and some ET's have a wicked sense of humor and like to befuddle the humans, well that's a motive.
Then too there are all those outrageous flying saucer tales spun by the â€˜contactes' mainly in the 1950's though not confined to just that decade. Not only were they rubbished by the mainstream UFO skeptics, they were rubbished by most nuts-and-bolts UFO researchers. At best the â€˜contactees' were delusional; at worse fraudsters â€“ though nobody was ever charged and convicted with any intent to defraud. So, are we to believe their tales of rides in flying saucers to the home abodes (like Venus and Saturn) of the angelic-like â€˜Nordics' â€“ the Space Brothers whose cosmic message preempted those ofÂ the 1960's Hippies?Â Probably not you'd say because the â€˜contactees' were obviously delusional or fraudsters. Or, might the â€˜contactees', and through them their readers, have been the victims of cosmic pranksters â€“ our trickster â€˜gods'? The â€˜contactees' could easily have been relatively innocent victims of a massive hoax. You can hear the tricksters now â€“ "ha, ha â€“ fooled you â€“ again".
And so not to discriminate here, there are also tricksters among the various mythologies' fairy-folk that range from just slightly mischievous to downright malevolent. Depending on who or what you want to pin the blame on, well, there's a vast population of the potentially guilty to point fingers at!
Science librarian; retired