Geek Trivia: Alien evaders

What does the 6EQUJ5 code mean in reference to SETI's famous "WOW!" signal?

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 scientific evidence.

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 "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 intelligence?

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 minute.

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 system.

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 Listing A.)

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 duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...