Ken Ham and the Wow! Signal

We recently posted SETI Will Eventually Destroy Creationism. Our thinking was that when SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) eventually finds life elsewhere, it will utterly devastate the creationists, because their creation tale is essentially a one-planet view of the universe. Well, one planet with life on it.

The usual suspects have previously declared their positions on this. The granddaddy of all creationist outfits — the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) is flat-out on the side of “life-on-Earth-only” and we wrote about that here: ICR Flat-Out Predicts: “No Alien Life Exists”.

It’s a little bit different with Answers in Genesis (AIG), one of the major sources of young-earth creationist wisdom. AIG is the online creationist ministry of Ken Ham (ol’ Hambo), the Australian entrepreneur who has become the ayatollah of Appalachia.

Ol’ Hambo is definitely against the idea of intelligent aliens. He declares that even if they exist (which he doubts) they can’t go to heaven. See Ken Ham v. Vatican Astronomer & Aliens. But on the subject of alien life in general, he has a slightly more slippery position.

In AIG Accepts Possibility of Alien Life we discussed AIG’s opinion that:

The Bible does not say that God didn’t create life elsewhere, but the Bible does tell us God created all life on Earth during the first six days of Creation week about 6,000 years ago. God spent that week preparing a place for Adam and Eve, and He created them in His image.

They’ve carved out a little bit of wiggle room there, but it’s pretty clear that in AIG’s universe, the only life that matters is here on Earth. They also said:

And yet, even if life were to be indisputably found on another world, its existence would not prove molecules-to-man evolution ever occurred. Such life would simply be another demonstration of God’s creative power to create life where He chooses.

Despite leaving the door open a crack, they also say that they doubt “the existence of sentient life elsewhere.” Okay, now what?

Well, we recently read at PhysOrg that National Geographic looking to respond to “alien” Wow! signal from 1977. It’s a bit of silly news about the Wow! signal. They say that:

[T]he National Geographic Channel is sponsoring a Twitter messaging event that will result in Tweets from people from all walks of life having their messages combined into one giant Tweet back to those who may have sent us the Wow! message … .

We told you it was silly. But it triggered a post by ol’ Hambo which appears on his personal blog at AIG. It’s titled Wow! Hambo discusses a Fox news account of the original 1977 Wow! signal and the proposed Tweets in response, and then he says, with bold font added by us:

Now look at the scan of the original computer printout from 1977 showing the supposed evidence of aliens in outer space:

He includes a tiny pic of the computer printout in his post. Then he assumes he’s qualified to interpret it, and he tells us:

Wow! Certain people look at these few numbers and letters, and they see it as evidence of an alien intelligence. However, those same people would look at the most complicated information system and language system on earth — the DNA molecules — and they immediately think of how it arose by chance!

Hambo is certainly qualified to opine on such matters. After all, he’s read Genesis, so he knows everything there is to know. Let’s read on:

These people look at a few letters and numbers and think of an alien intelligence, yet they look at the Bible with its detailed record of origins and scoff at any suggestion of an intelligence behind the Bible!

Foolish people! Hambo continues:

These people would rather believe in unseen aliens because of a few letters and numbers, but they refuse to believe in a Creator God when it is obvious from what is observed in life and the universe that there is a Creator. They would rather believe in aliens and scoff at a Creator God when the laws of logic, laws of nature, and uniformity of nature cry out there is a God!

Then he quotes some scripture, and that’s the end of his post. So what’s AIG’s position on all of this? Who knows, but if Hambo were consistent, he’d believe in his bible and the Wow! signal too. Hey, Hambo: If it looks like the product of intelligence, then it must be so. Right?

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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32 responses to “Ken Ham and the Wow! Signal

  1. aturingtest

    Ham: “…yet they look at the Bible with its detailed record of origins and scoff at any suggestion of an intelligence behind the Bible!”
    I have no doubt of the “intelligence” behind the bible- purely human. If, OTOH, someone at some observatory picked up a transmission, from undoubtedly extra-solar space, containing the bible…well. That would just be weird, wouldn’t it?

  2. aturingtest

    Also, from this:
    “Certain people look at these few numbers and letters, and they see it as evidence of an alien intelligence. However, those same people would look at the most complicated information system and language system on earth — the DNA molecules — and they immediately think of how it arose by chance!”
    I get the impression that Ham thinks the Wow! signal is some kind of yet-to-be-decoded message, when, in fact, it’s a purely human code denoting a signal strength (if I’m reading Wikipedia right). Nothing really arcane about it, except its strength, its frequency placement, and the fact that it was never repeated (or at least not detected again).

  3. The Wow Signal arrived just one day before the “king” “left the building.” I’m anxiously awaiting whether the DI considers that “specified complexity.”

  4. @aturingtest: Agreed. He thinks the letters and numbers are some kind of coded message, not just representations of amplitude. The plot provided is the 1977 version of a spectrogram, with frequency on the horizontal axis, time on the vertical axis, and alphanumeric characters representing signal amplitude. Nowadays, we’d simply use colors instead of these alphanumeric characters. The problem with this “signal” is that because the bandwidth of the signal is equal or less than the resolution bandwidth filter of the spectrogram, we have no way of seeing signal details. Those details, if they had been available, would allow us to make a determination of whether it was modulated with alien life information, or just a hydrogen atom having a party. I can’t fault the SETI people. The RBW (resolution bandwidth) of this spectral display is 10k, which is pretty good considering the large swatchs of spectrum they’re covering.
    Ham, on the other hand, once again has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. He’s the epitome of the old Robert Frost saying of, “Half the people have something to say and can’t; the other half have nothing to say and keep on saying it.”

  5. docbill1351

    I ran the Seti at Home program on my fleet of Macs for many years, logging thousands of data sets. I’d watch the peaks appear and disappear and always wondered, “Is that The One? Is that Neo?”

  6. docbill1351

    I forgot to add that I find it very sad to think there are people like Ham who couldn’t share the wonder of watching those peaks.

  7. Ceteris Paribus

    Ham needs to talk to William Lane Craig, who has no problem at all with possible alien life. It’s the same frame as “Pascal’s Wager”, in which Pascal allegedly said he might as well profess belief in a deity since if it turns out there is none, he suffers no additional harm. And if it turns out there is a deity, then Pascal is in like Flynn with the Big Guy in the sky, having already professed allegiance to the supreme being.

    The only possible downside of aliens turning up is that they may proclaim that their alien god is the one true god, host of hosts, etc etc, and proceed to slaughter all the Christians who don’t agree. (But maybe saving for themselves the younger ones who had promised their fathers to remain virgins until marriage).

    In this case, Ham could proclaim the possibility of alien life. If it turns out none turn up during Ham’s lifetime, he suffers no disgrace. And if little green men do show up at the Ark Park, Ham can just say their existence proves that human evolution is obviously just a prank being played by degenerate sinners with no moral compass.

  8. I don’t think it is true that SETI will necessarily find life (necessarily capable of radio communications) It is worth looking but the idea of the “time cone” where signals won’t reach between civilizations in their time of existence is a real issue. It is important to keep in mind we can only search a small part of our own galaxy the rest of the universe really can’t be tuned in.
    Now even if they do find them creationists won’t bat an eye. While the Bible only designates celestial bodies as “lights in the sky to mark the seasons”, not worlds and distant suns, this can easily be ignored as it is now. If it does cause some kind of dogmatic incongruity that a particular creationist finds disquieting they simply question the data just as Ham does here by complaining that the data set is mere letters on a page. And of course there is the alternative, hey God you’ve just created the universe! What are you doing next week?

  9. @Doc Bill: “I forgot to add that I find it very sad to think there are people like Ham who couldn’t share the wonder of watching those peaks.”
    I once had the opportunity to use a spectrum analyzer that provided a waterfall display, much as you describe with the SETI program. I tested it by tuning to a local FM station that played classical music. I watched and listened as a Mozart piece was playing; the combination of the light and sound show was just incredible.

  10. Yeah, regarding lights and music, we did that back in the 70’s under “altered” conditions. I mean, have you ever really, really, really looked at your hand, dude?

    What is now obvious is that our little planet’s experiment with broadcasting is nearly at an end. Most communications are local, digital and low-power (I think) and, at least in my neighborhood, it’s fiber optic.

    What once was thought as a great way to discover new worlds may not be so hot an idea after all just because of more efficient technology being adopted. Let’s hope that our first contact isn’t “I Love Lucyzoid 3.14” flapping her red pseudopods together!

  11. Doc Bill says: “What once was thought as a great way to discover new worlds may not be so hot an idea after all just because of more efficient technology being adopted.”

    True, but if they’re sending world-to-world messages, we might pick up some of that, if we’re lined up in the right direction. Maybe not. If I were sending messages to a colony on Mars, or to one on a world orbiting Alpha Centauri, I’d give some though to scrambling it so it looked like noise to anyone who intercepted the signal by accident.

  12. docbill1351

    I’d give some though to scrambling it so it looked like noise to anyone who intercepted the signal by accident.

    Maybe they’re not Republican, i.e. paranoid!

    No, no! Maybe they simply encode their Secret Transmissions ™ as Foxizoid 3.14 Nooze! They might even have a Megynzoid Kellyzoid with three whatevers!

  13. Doc Bill said:

    Most communications are local, digital and low-power (I think) and, at least in my neighborhood, it’s fiber optic.

    There are still a fair number of high-powered transmitters since most TV stations still broadcast a lot of local programming. Many of these towers are broadcasting 10s to 100s of thousands of watts. Mind you, it’s rather omni-directional, but still these are some strong signals… um… dude! (I never looked at my hand while in an “altered” state… unless you consider an overdose of Mt Dew “altered”…) There are also many, many microwave towers which are transmitting lower power, but they’re tightly focused. The result is an emitted isotropic radiated power (EIRP) which is not much lower than the TV stations.
    What this means is that aliens will either be watching the Earth-based version of “Megynzoid Kellyzoid”, or listening to our phone calls, which won’t be much more intelligent.

  14. docbill1351

    You know, the thought that aliens won’t intercept my text message to Gary, “LOL,” fills me with despair. I mean, what’s the point, you know?

  15. aturingtest

    Gary: thanks for that explanation, it makes a lot more sense to me now. The “u” is the point in time where the signal strength peaked, correct? And that, compared to the surrounding and prevalent 1’s and 2’s, and combined with its placement on the horizontal axis, is the reason for the Wow!? Kind of like boosting, on my computer recording software, say, the A at 440hz and seeing that frequency turn red every time it comes up?

  16. @aturingtest: Yes, you have it correctly. I don’t know what software you’re using, but most audio software provides a spectrogram capability similar to what the “Wow!” signal is showing. The only difference between it and your typical audio software is that the audio software puts time on the horizontal axis and frequency on the vertical; it’s switched in the Wow! signal (as it is with most spectrum analyzers used for actual radio-frequency signal work). I’m guessing the reason it’s a “Wow!” signal is the amplitude combined with the amount of time it was up. And, yes, I would agree that the “u” (being the “highest” letter in the alphabet shown on the graph) is where the signal peaked. And you gave it about, what, 2 seconds (if that long) of thought before you understood what the graph is showing you? Guess that shows how blind (to the bleeping obvious… heh) Ham is.

  17. @Doc Bill: “the thought that aliens won’t intercept my text message to Gary, “LOL,” fills me with despair. I mean, what’s the point, you know?”
    Do you need Ham to pray for you?

  18. retiredsciguy

    Gary & Doc, aren’t you forgetting about all the super-strong early-detection radar that we use to watch for ICBMs? I know the Cold War is over and all, but I think the radars are still up and running. I remember reading an article about that many years ago, I think in Scientific American. Most of it is broadcasting in a broad band from both directions over the North Pole, and if the alien receivers were lined up right, we’d be the strongest radio signal within something like at least 60 light years. As said, it was a while ago, and my recollection is a bit fuzzy, but at that time the radar was by far the strongest radio frequency signals we were sending out.

    Also, about the “Wow!” signal — wasn’t that received on the large, semi-fixed antenna just north of Columbus, Ohio? It was similar to a huge parabolic drive-in movie screen, only wire mesh instead of a solid surface, and was not pointable. It just let the earth’s rotation do the directional scanning. Actually, it was in two parts — there was a tiltable flat reflector that could change the declination (up & down) of the point, and that screen bounced the signals into the parabolic antenna. The thing is, since the antenna depended on the earth’s rotation to sweep new parts of the sky past the receiver, the rise and fall of amplitude recorded on the chart was just the bright, steady signal sweeping through the radio telescope’s field of “view”. It was not necessarily the source that was changing signal strength. By the time the antenna swept by the source the next day, it was gone.

    I believe the radio telescope has been torn down to make way for a golf course for THE Ohio State University. I visited the site when it was still up & running in the ’80s, and the “Wow!” event was their big news. I’ve got slides around here somewhere that I took; one of these days I’ll find them and digitize them so I can put them with the other 12,410 photos on this computer. Isn’t it amazing how fast the pics pile up when you don’t have to pay for film or processing?

    When I started typing this, Gary’s post at 11:44 pm was the last post.

  19. retiredsciguy

    Ah! It still is.

  20. Pete Moulton

    @Doc Bill: “You know, the thought that aliens won’t intercept my text message to Gary, “LOL,” fills me with despair. I mean, what’s the point, you know?”

    The NSA still cares, Doc. Some people might consider them aliens.

  21. aturingtest

    Gary, many thanks again for the clear explanations.
    RSG- yes, this was OSU’s “Big Ear” located (then) at Ohio Wesleyan’s Perkins Observatory in Delaware, Ohio. And it was a fixed system, using Earth’s rotation to scan; any given point would register for 72 seconds, peaking (at “u”) at about 36 seconds.
    Fascinating stuff- and Ham wants to throw it all away, ’cause “goddidit.” Disgusting.

  22. We need another cold war so people will be interested in space again.

    Maybe if it looked like the Chinese were going to eclipse the US in space technology… oh wait, it’s that happening now?

  23. docbill1351

    The NSA still cares, Doc. Some people might consider them aliens.

    Message for Gary. Repeat, message for Gary:

    Mummy is very angry. LOL. Mummy is very angry.
    The dish drives a Volvo. LOL. The dish drives a Volvo.
    The chair is against the wall. LOL. The chair is against the wall.
    John has a long mustache. LOL. John has a long mustache.

  24. @RSG: Holy crap! How could I have forgotten about radars, especially the DEW line? I’d have to agree with you that those are probably the strongest signals on this planet, especially when they can be focused down a narrow beam giving them a very high EIRP. Those will probably be the first indications to an alien intelligence that we have something going on here. But the signals themselves don’t have much in the way of information. The signals themselves tend to be fairly simple (swept FM or “chirped”); the intelligence is gathered on the receive end where all of the processing takes place. IF the aliens want to know more about us, they may get more from satellite uplinks. Some of those are fairly high power and tightly focussed. Plus, they’re modulated with information and they’re already pointing into space.
    Oh, and thanks for the information on the fixed antenna. I was wondering if the antenna was fixed and that was why the signal dropped off on the ends.

    — AND FINALLY —

    Message for Doc Bill. Repeat, message for Doc Bill:

    Mickey Mouse has warts. ROFL, Mickey Mouse has warts.
    My chardonnay is lazy. XYZ, my chardonnay is lazy.
    It was machine whipped with butter. PDQ, it was machine whipped with butter.
    Can I haz cheezeburger now. OMG, can I haz cheezeburger now.

    Over.

  25. retiredsciguy

    There’s a lot more info about the “Wow!” signal and the Big Ear Radio Telescope available online, and rather than providing links here, let me suggest Googling those two titles. Interesting reading!

    My own gut feeling about the “Wow!” signal is that it was a natural, transient event, similar to a gamma-ray burster.

  26. retiredsciguy says:

    My own gut feeling about the “Wow!” signal is that it was a natural, transient event, similar to a gamma-ray burster.

    It was a message to me. It said: “Good luck, Agent Curmudgeon.”

  27. Decades ago I read a science fiction story in Isaac Asimov’s SF magazine. Scientists detect an artificial signal from space. They analyze its spectrum. Its a sequence of signals, and every type of signal (“Letter”) has equal probability. They talk to a linguist. He says no natural language can ever consist of letters or words, in which all have equal probability.

    The only way that can happen is cryptography. Meaning: there’s an interstellar war. And then the protagonists wet their pants…. DA DA DA DUMM.

  28. retiredsciguy

    Just changed my “gut feeling” about the “Wow!” signal. If it had been something like a gamma-ray burster, it would have been strong across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, rather than being so tightly confined to one frequency. So, never mind. It really was a signal to Curmy.

  29. retiredsciguy

    But wait a minute! That happened 35 years ago. how old are you Curmy? In earth years, that is, not some planet in the direction of Chi Sagittarii.

  30. docbill1351

    You should Google “John has a long mustache.”

    Srsly.

  31. retiredsciguy asks: “how old are you Curmy? In earth years, that is”

    I don’t ask you how old you are in e. coli years.