Ah, science. Do you never fail to disappoint?

So what’s the bottom line?  Could it be another society sending a signal our way?  Of course, that’s possible.  However, there are many other plausible explanations for this claimed transmission – including terrestrial interference.  Without a confirmation of this signal, we can only say that it’s “interesting.”

–Seth Shostak, A SETI Signal?

If you’re a nerd who’s even vaguely interested in such things, the breathless coverage in various media outlets of the radio signal discovered by Russian astronomers will surely give you heart palpitations. There is a real chance that it’s a broadcast from an intelligent species billions of light years away. (Squee!) There’s even the possibility that the nature of the signal might suggest a civilization that is (or was, I guess, at the time of broadcast) more technologically advanced than ours. (Skuh-weeeeee!) Leave it to the astronomer community to dash our hopes with a healthy dose of rational skepticism. As Shostak explains, the likelihood of this signal being definitively alien in origin (that is, deliberately sent out by another sentient species) is, if I may say, astronomically small.

The big deal, as I understand it, is that if—IF—the radio signal is definitively determined to be artificial, then that means the alien civilization that sent it either a.) has the power to broadcast it everywhere in the universe or b.) has targeted us specifically. If (a) is true, the extraterrestrials’ tech level is to humanity’s as a space shuttle is to a hansom cab; if (b) is true, then they’re looking right at us.

Given the possibilities, it’s not a net negative if that radio signal turns out to be a false positive–and Shostak’s scientific puncturing of the hype balloon may be more reassuring than disappointing.


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