“These have been intriguing as an engineered signal, or evidence of extraterrestrial technology, since the first was discovered.”
Jill Tarter, former director of the SETI Institute.
For some time now our Aussie friends have been leery about going out alone at night. It wasn’t because of a national crime wave or a nyctophobia pandemic. Those are things we understand (more or less). No, this was something far more terrifying. It all began in 1960 when scientists began using radio telescopes to search for intelligent life in space. Things were pretty quiet for the next fifty-one years, but in 2001 a fast radio burst (FSB) lasting only a few milliseconds was detected by the Parkes Observatory in Australia. Since then, ten more have been received. These FSBs seem to originate from some distant locale in the Milky Way. While the actual source remains a mystery, they do appear to follow a mathematical pattern. This means they could represent a “beacon from extraterrestrials,” as some scientists hypothesize.
You have to admit that’s pretty exciting news. But just as folks started high-fiving one another and popping champagne corks, things took an alarming turn. The good folks at Parkes started receiving what they called perytons. Unlike the FSBs, perytons seemed to emanate from a place near earth or from the planet itself! If FSBs were beacons from extraterrestrials, who was sending terrestrial messages in return? It doesn’t take an astronomer to figure out that the aliens might already be living among us. The scientists immediately scrambled to find a pattern in these transmissions. They noticed that the perytons were most frequent at 2:00 AM Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Discussing their findings over lunch, one wag noted that 2:00 AM GMT was noon at Parkes. Everyone dropped their sandwiches. That was the meaning behind the pattern. ET was phoning home (so to speak) on his (its) lunch break! Excitedly everyone began discussing the implications. Aliens might be more human-like than ever imagined. Forget those bug-eyed, spindly gray creatures of fiction. These aliens must be able to pass for regular folks and enjoy shrimp on the barbie and beer. Eager to refine their data and triangulate the alien’s location, the team installed a real-time radio interference monitor. Life began to imitate a sci fi movie when the results located an ET in the cafeteria. Armed with the modern equivalent of pitchforks, scythes and torches, the scientists carefully made their way to the lunch room where they discovered—the microwave. As it turned out, whenever someone popped open the microwave before the timer dinged, a short radio transmission, or peryton, was released. The public could rest easy and the search for ET went on.
Although it’s reassuring that aliens aren’t surreptitiously living among us (as far as we know at any rate) it’s disappointing to have another false start on the search for intelligent life in space. Too often when the press reports these stories it’s about the wrong things. We don’t want to hear about fungus growing on the space station, electricity eating microbes or guesses about methane-based lifeforms on Saturn’s moons. We want real, live, walking, talking aliens. We want the kinds of creatures that will take us on orbital cruises in their space ship for ten bucks a pop rather than waiting for Richard Branson’s promise to deliver three minutes of weightlessness for $100,000 on Virgin Galactic. So skip the science, give us ET! —Ebert