In the 1997 movie “Contact,” based on Carl Sagan’s novel, Jodie Foster’s character is a SETI scientist (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) stationed at the Very Large Array (VLA) in west-central New Mexico, about 50 miles west of Socorro on the Plains of San Augustin. Sitting out one evening among the giant radiotelescopes, she hears through her earphones a regular, rhythmic thrumming of a signal from deep space, drowning out the usual interstellar background noise. And so begins a very good and suspenseful sci-fi movie about contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.
It’s such a good movie it’s easy to forgive some of its innacuracies, like hearing deep space noise (the VLA gets all its data as digits, not sounds), and having the VLA doing work for SETI in the first place (the VLA says it doesn’t do that).
When we went there in 2010 on a photo excursion, our tour guide made this point – regarding “Contact” – quite emphatically. “The VLA’s radiotelescopes listen to quasars and pulsars and supernova remnants, but despite depictions in popular culture we don’t do SETI research.”
The “Wow” Signal
Actually, this turns out not to be true.
On several occasions in 1995 and 1996, the VLA was indeed pressed into service by SETI to try to find the famous “Wow” signal first detected in 1977 by SETI investigator Jerry Ehman, using the Big Ear radiotelescope at Ohio State University. The VLA wasn’t alone in doing this. Also having a serious listen for the “Wow” signal were the META array at Oak Ridge Observatory in 1987 and ’89, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia in 1995, and Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory in Tasmania in 1999. All of them came up with nothing. The “Wow” signal was a spectacular and headline-worthy thing, but apparently a one-time-only event.
Let’s take a look at it, because it really did have scientists’ pulses pounding. First, it was detected very close to 1420 MegaHertz, the resonating frequency of hydrogen (the most common element in the universe) coming from the direction of a star group in the constellation Sagittarius. The signal lasted 72 seconds, peaking about halfway through that span, which is as long as the stationary Big Ear radiotelescope grid could receive it since, being earthbound, it was rotating underneath the signal. The strongest part of the signal was 30 times the level of normal deep space noise – far and away the most anomalous intensity SETI has detected over more than 40 years of listening – and strange enough for Ehman to write “Wow!” next to the numbers and letters. (By way of explanation in the image below, their alphanumeric scale is linear: 1 to 2 is the level of most deep space noise. 9 is nine times as strong, and then the letters start, with “A” being about 10 times as strong, “B” about 11 times, etc. So in the red-circled numbers and letters – 6EQUJ5 – the “U” represents about 30 times the signal strength of background noise. Actually, to put a finer and more accurate point on it, “A” is 10 to 11 times as strong, “B” 11 to 12 times, and so on).
Even slightly more “Wow!”-ish is that further analysis showed the signal to be sent on two tightly-packed frequencies, not one, each one being slightly off-center of the hydrogen line at exactly equal distances – precisely 0.0498 MHz away on each side. No one has a clue what this means.
Could it have been natural in origin – like a deep space pulsar? Not likely, for many reasons, but remotely possible for reasons that others have explored, and that are a bit beyond me. Could it have been an Earth-sourced signal bouncing off, say, space debris? No, because 1420 MHz is a protected frequency – a forbidden spectrum for terrestrial transmitters – used mostly for radioastronomy. If it was in fact from an artificial source, it would require over two billion watts to transmit – quite a bit more than anything we have on this planet.
It happened 37 years ago, but it’s still a “Wow!”
Headed west on US 60…
If you take US 60 west of Socorro from I-25, you’ll pass through the small town of Magdalena, and then, some 20 miles later, you’ll cross one of the three 13-mile-long tracks that each support nine huge VLA radiotelescopes on wheels. If you’re just passing through and don’t know the VLA is there or even what it is, it’ll blow your socks off when you first spot it – this vast symmetrical array of gleaming white discs aimed uniformly skyward.
If you’re on US 60 cruising west, you’re probably headed for Arizona on the scenic route to Phoenix. But US 60 in New Mexico reveals its quintessential nature – huge sprawling plains, distant mountains, tiny forlorn towns, loneliness, silence. You can turn south from US 60 on NM 12 into the enormous Plains of San Augustin, stop the car, get out and take a stroll on this ancient seabed (now much of it handled/owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management). Or you can continue on to the village of Datil (pron. “Dattle”) and later on down the road stop in Pie Town, walk into the Pie-o-Neer Restaurant and have some (you guessed it) pie – any kind you want.
Farther along, in Quemado, you might pause at “The Lightning Field,” an enormous outdoor art installation featuring 400 stainless steel poles between 15 and 26 feet in height but all with tops equidistant from the sun, arranged in a rectangular grid one mile by one kilometer. And, despite its name, lightning doesn’t strike here very often.
What is New Mexico, anyway? It’s my favorite state by far (though Maine is growing on me, in leaps and bounds), and it’s on view at its best along US 60. But it’s hugely more than my assessment of it. I think of it as a kind of sprawling “grand opera” of science, mystery, ancient tradition, and persistent puzzlement – seen through the lenses of wild-eyed physicists, dedicated astronomers, legions of New Agers and light-workers, centuries-old Spanish, Pueblo, and nomadic Indian cultures, contemporary artists and UFO enthusiasts. And what’s unique about this grand opera is the prevalence of a gentle silence that takes some effort to understand.
The cook’s tour: From Roswell, home of a popular UFO museum, it’s a few hours northwest to Santa Fe and one of the world’s leading art gallery centers. Santa Fe is also home to the Santa Fe Institute, which I visited a few times, co-founded by physics Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann (the first to propose the existence of quarks, though Richard Feynman had an earlier, similar idea with a different name – “partons.”). SFI has done lots of work in chaos theory and self-organizing systems through computer models, and many other things that strain the brain.
From Santa Fe, it’s nearly a bike ride over to Los Alamos and the archetypal home town of theoretical physics, some of which was put to use in making atomic bombs 70 years ago. And now crossing down to Alamagordo, where the first bomb was tested in 1945, and back up to Albuquerque and Sandia Labs, an incubator of futuristic science and nanotech with big DoD and DoE backing. Then 50 miles south to Socorro, site of one of the top ten UFO cases in history (according to many sources) and then a scant 45 minutes back to the Very Large Array, which is listening, always listening.
If you spend seven years there, as I did, New Mexico is never not under your skin.
For a terrific book on the intrigues of science and faith in New Mexico, you can’t do better than George Johnson’s “Fire in the Mind.” Johnson was for many years a science writer for The New York Times, specializing in particle physics, quantum mechanics, and string theory.
A report on the VLA investigation of the Sagittarius “Wow” signal is here, by the two men who made it happen.
Dr. Ehman wrote a 20th anniversary follow-up report on the “Wow” signal here. Some of it’s quite technical. He has also written a 30th anniversary report here, that concludes the signal was most likely not a natural or terrestrial phenomenon.
No recipe this week, but soon we’ll ask — why does store-bought, “not from concentrate” orange juice taste so much richer than fresh-squeezed at home? We’ll take a look…
There you have it.