Since the earliest days of radio, mysterious and seemingly intelligible signals have occasionally been received from outer space. Are they merely chance anomalies, or are alien forces trying to make contact?
Michael Vinter investigates.
OFFICIAL RECORDS STATE that the first radio transmissions directed specifically at the stars were dispatched from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1974. But this was not, in fact, our earliest attempt to attract the attention of other worlds. Well before the term 'extraterrestrial intelligence' was coined, two men had received intelligent signals - at a time when theirs were the only functioning radio sets on the planet earth.
The first man was the eccentric genius Nikola Tesla. In 1899 he was working his own, employing dangerously high voltages in an attempt to develop a means of transmitting energy by radio and thus eliminate the need for wiring systems. Throughout that long, hot summer he loosed artificial bolts of lighting into the sky from a 200-foot (60-metre) tower at his base in Colorado Springs - in an intelligible sequence. The began a mystery that still puzzles scientist. Having succeeded in making the lights and other electrical equipment work without wiring, Tesla saw his radio equipment inexplicably begin to register signals - in which, he later said he could discern 'a clear suggestion of number and order not traceable to any cause then known to me.' He was entirely familiar with the natural phenomena of solar disturbances, earth currents and aurora borealis, and he dismissed them all, adding: "The feeling is constantly growing on me that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.'
Unfortunately Tesla's strange, mystic nature, his identification with telepathy and the growing school of modern Spiritualism led to ridicule, especially when he was unwary enough to say to a reporter, 'We cannot even with positive assurance assert that some of them [life forms from other realms] might not be present here in this world, in the very midst of us...their life manifestations may be such that we are unable to see them.'
It is perhaps understandable that, at the time, this seemed to many to be merely the ramblings of a madman. But in the same summer of 1899 another genius, a man with none of Tesla's Mysticism, was reaching similar conclusions. That man was Guglielmo Marconi.
At the time of Tesla's startling 'other worlds' announcement, Marconi was developing radio as a means of communication, busily sending the letter V in Morse code to his fellow workers over a 50-mile (80-kilometre) distance. And by 1921 he, too, had announced that he had received inexplicable signals, which he quickly identified as some kind of cipher. He later noticed a very strange feature. Within the cipher, there appeared a measured recurrence of the Morse V he had been transmitting to his assistants back in 1899.
In the New York Times of 2 September 1921, Marconi was reported as believing that the mysterious signals, or some of them, originated on Mars. Incredible as it seems, no one made the connection with the signals Tesla had received 22 years earlier.
This oversight becomes more understandable when it is realized that the only common factor in the work of Tesla and Marconi was radio. The nature of their experiments was very different: Marconi was working in Morse code on the development of communications technology, while Tesla was entirely preoccupied with the wire-less propagation of electrical energies. It was only much later that Tesla admitted that, if it were possible to draw power from the Earth's magnetic field, it would be of such awesome intensity that it would be possible to deploy it as a signal to other worlds.
Both Tesla's and Marconi's observations were largely ignored until 1924. In that year, Mars was due to approach its closest opposition to the Earth. Mr David Todd, a prominent British astronomer, conceived the notion of using a brand-new invention to scan the red planet for traces of life. This was the Jenkins radio camera, a revolution in technology, which converted radio signals into visual images and was used for sending press photographs. Todd's imaginative project captured news headlines, and whole governments devoted their broadcasting systems to monitoring the experiment.
The project required total silence from radio transmitters on Earth - something that would be impossible today. But in 1924 there were few commercial stations, and radar had not been invented. It is easy to imagine the tension as radio operators waited, in total radio silence, for signals. And then, suddenly, even 'ham' operators began to register signals. This was almost incredible, for early amateur receivers would generally pick up only exceptionally strong signals originating close at hand.
The New York Times of 28 August 1924 reported an examination of the developed film from Jenkins radio camera:
a fairly regular arrangement of dots and dashes along
one side at almost evenly spaced intervals are curiously
jumbled groups, each taking the form of a crudely drawn
STRANGE CRIES AND VOICES
Freak signal continued to come in throughout the 1920's and 1930's particularly on the 30,000-metre wavelength. And in the late 1930's a new factor entered the puzzle: a wave of reports of strange aircraft - today we would call them UFOs seen in the skies of Scandinavia and northern Europe. During the sightings, short-wave receivers in the 'flap' area would alive with strange cries and voices. The language used caused many a headache for philologists, because what they heard often seemed to be a mixture of Swedish and other tongues. But, if translated setting aside rigid rules of grammar, it often seemed to have some kind of intelligible sequence, even if its actual meaning remained obscure.
The dawning of the space age brought with it more strange phenomena. On 16 May 1963, in his Mercury capsule above Hawaii, astronaut Gordon Cooper was talking to mission control on a special frequency channel when extraneous voices broke in. Later examined on tape, these were found to correspond to no language known on Earth. The phenomenon was repeated on the Apollo VIII Borman-Lovell-Anders mission on 21 December, when UFOs were seen in the lunar orbit and more voices broke into the communications channel with mission control.
This, not unnaturally, caused some consternation back on Earth. The frequency channel they were using is such that it is virtually impossible for any amateur operator to intrude. Controllers were left with a problem that they could not explain, but at the same time could hardly ignore - the security risk was too great.
But, as far back as the 1927, two Americans, Taylor and Young, had taken such phenomena seriously enough to try and locate the source of the radio signals They had identified an echo-periodicity of 0.01 seconds originating from a distance of between 1800 and 6250 miles (2900 and 10,000 kilometres), and were comparing their observations with those of Marconi. By December 1928, a number of scientist were interested Jurgen Hals of Philips's Eindhoven laboratories in Holland had discussed his findings with Professor Carl Stormer of Oslo, mentioning three-second delays he had experienced with an experimental radio transmitter. After another year, on 28 October 1929, Dr van der Pol, also of Philips, confirmed that he had noted further odd echoes from a planned emission of impulses at the same time every morning. It was van der Pol's analysis of the delay between emissions and the receipt of their echoes, always on the same wavelength, that effectively excluded ideas that they may have been bouncing off the moon or the inner Van Allen belt, or that they might have been somehow stored and reflected from layers of ionized gas.
A Scottish science writer, Duncan Lunan, studied the records of these anomalous radio echoes over a period of some years, and eventually came up with the assertion that they originated from an alien space probe. He also commented on the misfortune that the signals 'happened to be received at a time when they would as a matter of course be attributed (by a majority of people) to some natural phenomenon.'
Working on the assumption that the signals constituted some intelligible message, Lunan proceeded to try to crack what he envisaged as a coded pattern. His report, published in the April 1973 issue of Spaceflight, is extremely complex and has to be read in the original to be appreciated. But what it boils down to is a graphical diagram of the constellations of the northern hemisphere - a picture that contains one startling incongruity: the binary star epsilon Bootis is wrongly aligned. Using astronomical measuring techniques, Lunan has deduced that the binary star appears in his diagram as it would have been 13,000 years ago - a hint that this was the time when the probe first reached our solar system. Unfortunately for Mr. Lunan, there are a number of serious objections that can be raised to his theory. First and most serious as Robert Sheaffer has pointed out in his book The UFO verdict - Lunan's map does not correctly represent the echoes published by van der Pol, as Lunan claims. And, even allowing for alterations in the positions of epsilon Bootis that Lunan claims, the map is only a very crude approximation to the actual positions of the stars in the Bootis region. As Sheaffer says, 'one would not think it too difficult for advanced, space-faring civilization to make its interstellar probes capable of transmitting its star maps correctly.'
But perhaps the most damming indictment of Lunan's theorizing is his own reaction to criticism. If the map does not depict the stars of the constellation Bootis, then perhaps, he argues, it is the constellation Cetus - an extraordinary claim, given that Lunan once believed that the map showed the epsilon Bootis solar system down to the smallest moon, and that epsilon Bootis is a double sun whereas tau'Ceti is single, something that one would expect to be apparent from so detailed a man.
But Mr John Stonely of the London Enquirer, at least, has taken Lunan's claims seriously enough to calculate mathematical odds, of 10,000 to 1, against delayed echoes producing such a diagram merely by chance. Of the nature of the probe, Stonely writes that it must be some kind of incomparably advanced computer. 'As soon as the existence of the probe is definitely established, we should interrogate it...it might lead to the release of information from its certainly immense store of data.
Writer John A. Keel has made an intensive study of strange signals and explicable broadcast. One intriguing example took place in 1960: scientist Otto Struve and Frank Drake had just aligned the dish antenna at Green Banks, west Virginia, USA, on epsilon Eridani and tau'Ceti when their recording needles were blasted off the dials by a signal of 8 pulses per second. The frequency was 1420.4 megahertz (the frequency of the radio waves emitted by hydrogen in interstellar space), and it continued coming in for five minutes. The Naval Research Laboratory later reported that it had recorded similar anomalies during the preceding months, but test showed that they were definitely not of cosmic origin: they seemed to come from an unidentified and unimaginably powerful terrestrial transmitter close at hand. Signals of unknown origin (SUOs) have been with us since 1899, and may have been around for many years before we had the apparatus to detect them. The range of signals is puzzling wide: dot-dot-dot-dash codes and radio echoes to vocal transmissions and vibrational loudspeaker effects - it is difficult to conceive that these diverse phenomena could have a common source. But perhaps we are confusing the issue by thinking of the mysterious signals in terms of simple electromagnetic transmissions. Perhaps, in our quest for extra-terrestrial beings, wee could be not so much trying to identify the wrong sources as confining ourselves to the wrong methodology.
A few years after Cleve Backster's startling discovery, in the late 1960s, that plants give out signals when attached to a polygraph lie detector, Mr L.G. Lawrence of the Ecola Institute in San Bernardino, California, USA, was testing newly developed apparatus that incorporated what he called an organic transformer. Its purpose was to transform into sound waves the electrical oscillations of the polygraph. In 1971 Lawrence was working in the Mojave Desert, experimenting with cacti. He had prepared his instruments and was about to wire up the electrodes to the planets when, to his consternation, they began to record signals - signals that could not possibly be electromagnetic in origin, for the apparatus was completely shielded from all known electromagnetic sources by a Faraday cage. Lawrence noted that the instruments were aligned with the Great Bear - and the only possible explanation he could think of was that the signals were some totally unknown form of energy emanating from that constellation.
No matter how often Lawrence rechecked for faults, failures and misalignment, the inflow of data from Ursa Major remained constant and continuous - seemingly intelligent signals in a rhythm that ruled out the mere chance.
Further experiments are proceeding under controlled conditions, but a huge challenge remains: are we, as a race, sufficiently advanced enough to grasp the opportunity of a cosmic connection in a completely new medium - before it, like radio, becomes too clogged by our own exploitation of it?
Shall we, unlike Tesla and Marconi, be able in time to answer a strange world's greeting to us?