Editor’s note: The Trivia Geek is once again shirking his duties, so he phoned in this Classic Geek, which originally ran on Aug. 17, 2005, to tide you over.
To those gallantly optimistic astronomers out there toiling
beneath the Flag of Earth,
we offer somewhat tardy felicitations for a significant anniversary in the obscure
annals of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). More than 29 years
ago, Dr. Jerry Ehman witnessed the reception of the “WOW! signal,”
perhaps the most famous and mysteriously compelling astronomic evidence ever
gathered by SETI in its quest to prove the existence of intelligent life
outside the bounds of our planet.
Working as a volunteer at Ohio State University’s now-defunct
“Big Ear” radio telescope observatory, Ehman’s assignment was to
observe the paper printout of the Big Ear’s signal sweep of the heavens. On Aug.
15, 1977, Ehman saw the esoteric code 6EQUJ5
appear on the printout, and he quickly circled it and scribbled
“WOW!” in the paper’s margin.
What caught Ehman’s eye was a radio pulse from outer space—one
with sufficient intensity and duration to suggest that it was neither a
naturally occurring phenomenon nor a reflection of an errant terrestrial
source, such as a misguided communications satellite or a surface transmission
reflected off orbital debris.
At first glance, the so-called WOW! signal looked like the
long-awaited “hello world” message from an alien intelligence. But
consequent research cleared the way for a cold splash of skeptical reality. In the
29 years since Ehman scribbled “WOW!” on his signal log, subsequent investigations
have characterized the transmission as a tantalizingly inconclusive piece of
The WOW! caveat? The signal was a one-time-only event, one
that neither the Big Ear nor any other major radio telescope—including the
Harvard META SETI system and the Very Large Array (VLA)—has been able to
reacquire, despite repeatedly pointing at the same spot of sky from where the
WOW! signal originated.
If an alien intelligence was trying to contact us, its
signal would almost certainly have to be an “always on” transmission—or,
at the very least, occur at regular, predictable intervals so researchers could
find it again. The WOW! signal—so far as we know—doesn’t qualify.
Still, something about the code 6EQUJ5 made Ehman—a trained
electrical engineer, physicist, and SETI scientist—sit up and take notice. And
that something keeps the WOW! signal alive in the conversations about potential
alien contacts even today.
WHAT DOES THE 6EQUJ5 CODE MEAN IN REFERENCE TO SETI’S FAMOUS
What does the 6EQUJ5 code mean in reference to SETI’s famous
“WOW!” signal, an extraterrestrial transmission received by Ohio
State University’s Big Ear radio telescope in 1977, which remains one of the
most tantalizing clues ever gathered in the case for extraterrestrial
The term is an encoded readout of the WOW! transmission’s
signal strength, translating to a whopping 60 Janskys in a 10-kHz
channel. In layman’s terms, contemporary SETI efforts (specifically NASA’s
Project Phoenix) require a signal only 2 percent as powerful as the WOW! signal
to merit further review.
As to why the exact code of 6EQUJ5 was startling, you have
to understand how the Big Ear encoded its tracking data in 1977. (Developers
dismantled the telescope in 1998 to make way for a golf course.) The Big Ear broke
up its observed spectrum into 10-kHz channels, using one single-character
column on its paper printout to represent each channel.
The values recorded represented standard deviation signal
increases from basic background noise. Essentially, the higher the number, the
exponentially more “unusual” the signal strength.
This meant the machine had to record values much higher than
nine in each column, so Big Ear researchers resorted to a base-35 notation
using all 26 English alphabet characters. One through nine would mean one
through nine, but A would mean 10, B would mean 11, and Z would mean 35. A
value higher than 35 would essentially break the system, as it would roll over
back to one. For example, 38 would register as a three.
Each number on the printout represented a period of 12
seconds. So each six-character combination in a column represented 72 seconds
of signal—and no one expected a beam of such strength to last more than a full
Now, take another look at 6EQUJ5. The U component means
that the received signal was at least 30 standard deviations beyond normal—for
a period of 12 seconds. The signal strength nearly broke the encoded recording
The WOW! signal remains the most powerful transmission ever
documented by any SETI project. So, while no one has ever been able to recover
or corroborate the signal, it remains a stand-alone light in the alien-hunting
darkness—and a shining example of enthralling Geek Trivia.
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The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia. (To see the original quibble from this article, see
This week’s quibble comes from the August 16 edition of Geek Trivia, “Quite a tail to tell.” TechRepublic member bigWillie smacked me around for my ignorance of ancient Greek etymology.
“I have to quibble your use of the term thunder lizard when talking about the Stegosaurus. Thunder lizard was a term used to describe the Brontosaurus—from Wikipedia: Brontosaurus, meaning thunder lizard (from the Ancient Greek brontē/βροντη = thunder + sauros/σαυρος = lizard). Yes, I know Brontosaurus is actually an Apatasaurus, but that would be fodder for another edition of dinosaur Geek Trivia.”
To be fair, I was using thunder lizard as an interchangeable term for all dinosaurs, not just the Stegosaurus. Still, that doesn’t entirely bail me out. Yes, thunder lizard has been a vernacular synonym for this wide swath of extinct creatures for a while now—I’ve seen trained paleontologists do it. If I were abiding by bigWillie‘s standards, I should have said terror lizard—because that’s what dinosaur actually means. Still, I feel a little vindicated by this childish retort: It’s Apatosaurus, not Apatasaurus.
Thanks for the Greek lesson, and keep those quibbles coming.
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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
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