Thursday, January 17, 2008

By now you've probably heard about the alleged SETI signal. Here's the scoop:

No alien signal (Bad Astronomy)

Basically, Dan Wertheimer, a radio astronomer who is affiliated with SETI, detected a pulse 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!

I've no reason to doubt Phil Plait's journalism. It's that naively enthusiastic op-ed sentence at the end that bothers me.

I've always maintained that the content of a bona-fide SETI signal will dictate whether it's deemed fit for public dissemination. A series of prime numbers might be acceptable for relatively immediate disclosure, but what about plans for a super-weapon? Are we to accept that the SETI Institute (a privately funded enterprise) possesses the jurisdiction to divulge any and all potential ET transmissions with impunity?


Anonymous said...

It's a bad sign when most of us didn't even care about this story. I think the cry wolf syndrome has hit. SETI just isn't cutting it compared to how revealing and tangible the exoplanet search is. I would think an advance society would use quantum non-local technology, since instant messages could be "transported" faster than light. Radio communication would be worthless--unless leaked like we do here on Earth.

Dr. X said...

The KTVU-TV story reported by John Fowler was a real mess--it has since been "corrected" on their website.

Dan Werthimer, with the SETI@home group at UC Berkeley was quoted in the story, in a way that was misleading due to editing, but he was not the person who detected the massive burst of radio frequencies that originated 1.5 million light years away from a distant galaxy. The Bad Astronomy website doesn't have the story quite correct, either.

The actual signal was detected on Aug. 24, 2001 at the Parkes radio telescope observatory in Australia, and a report on the analysis of the data was published on Sept. 27, 2007, by a team led by Asst. Professor Duncan R. Lorimer on the Science Express online journal website.

The signal lasted less than 5 milliseconds, but was unprecedented, as it saturated the Parkes Observatory radio telescope, and was initially thought to be either a form of man-made radio interference, or perhaps an artifact of the telescope itself.

When, upon further analysis, the signal was determined to be extragalactic, research determined that the probable source of the radio frequency burst was the result of either two neutron stars colliding, or possibly the collapse of a black hole, although this has not been conclusively determined. The radio burst may represent some new, as yet unknown, astronomical phenomena.

The signal was extremely powerful, if very short-lived, but had nothing to do with a SETI-related signal. KTVU Channel 2, based in Oakland, CA badly reported and edited their broadcast report, and have made a bit of a mea culpa on their website since, but it's rather inadequate, as they admit no fault of their own, when it is provable that they, at the very least, completely screwed up just about every element of the story (view the video for comparison to the revised and updated text), which lead to people thinking it might actually be a SETI signal, or they intentionally hyped and misconstrued the story to create a false, sensationalistic impression.

KTVU is also a Fox News affiliate, and Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has a history of and is rather notorious for hyped up, sensationalistic reporting previously, imho.

For further info, check out these links:

(this is a link to the revised, updated story--compare and contrast this new text to the words of the reporter on the accompanying video--quite different)

(the link above is to, and is the abstract of the actual report by the Lorimer team)

(this link is to supporting online material about the Lorimer report from

Altogether, a very shoddy, quite misleading report from John Fowler of KTVU-TV.

I also spoke to both Brian Luce and Seth Shostak at, who confirmed the report as essentially bogus, although they were very diplomatic in saying the jumbled report might have been caused by some "miscommunication" between the reporter and Dan Werthimer.

That's putting it very politely, to say the least.

mr. intense said...

"Are we to accept that the SETI Institute (a privately funded enterprise) possesses the jurisdiction to divulge any and all potential ET transmissions with impunity?"

No, in fact they don't and would not "divulge and and all" potential ET signals with impunity.

There are some fairly elaborate protocols would activate if a "genuine" (however that would be defined or determined) ET transmission were received.

First, there would be internal fact-checking and analysis to determine as best possible whether any such signal was artificial, and originated outside the solar system. Then there would be consultation with various governmment agencies about their findings, and just what should be done with them, in reference to public disclosure.

Interestingly, regardless of SETI related organizations, protocols, and various government laws or regulations on these issues, any real SETI signal would be most likely picked up by other radio telescopes and might be reported publically anyway, regardless of restrictions on such disclosure by government or SETI groups.

dad2059 said...

Disappointing indeed. Apathy from crying wolf is thick in the air.

Either people are getting acclimated for ET, or just plain ol' ate up with the dumb-ass crap that passes as journalism today.


W.M. Bear said...

Mac (and everyone) -- I can virtually GUARANTEE you that if a genuine ETI signal is ever detected, the public will not hear about it. One suspects there is even a protocol in place for this. Unless some real maverick of a radio astronmer detects the signal and its the kind of signal that amateurs can receive as well, you and I and Virginia who doesn't believe in Santa will never EVER hear about it. I GUARANTEE this and am will to make a large bet with anyone who disagrees. And it makes ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE whether ET is sending a sequence of primes or plans for a planet-buster....

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head Mac! A "legitimate" signal found via SETI is most certainly bound by a secret government release protocol. There are too many factors which essentially necessitate a policy of "research the shit out of it first" tell the public later, if at all modality.