The "Wow!" Signal
By Barry Kawa
Sunday Magazine section, September 18, 1994
As he had done a thousand times, Jerry Ehman glanced over the Big Ear's computer printouts, not really expecting to find anything unusual.
But what Ehman saw on that Aug. 15, 1977 - and his startled reaction - would be recorded in radio astronomy textbooks and discussed by researchers to this day.
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The Columbus man saw a signal so strong that it catapulted the Big Ear's recording device off the chart. An excited Ehman scribbled "Wow!" on the printout, a tag that is indelibly linked to the recording.
"I mean, without thinking, I wrote 'Wow!' " Ehman recalls. "It was the most significant thing we had seen."
Could it be man's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence? Ohio State University researchers weren't sure. They trained the massive scope on that part of the sky for the next month, and have returned periodically since.
The signal hasn't been recorded again. And although many point to it as a possible extraterrestrial intelligence sighting, Ehman remains less convinced.
"Even if it were intelligent beings sending a signal, they'd do it far more than once," Ehman, now 54, says. "We should have seen it again when we looked for it 50 times. Something suggests it was an Earth-bound signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris." [Note. In actuality, the number of observations at that declination and nearby declinations totaled just over 100.]
Ehman was working as a volunteer then. He had worked at OSU as an assistant professor in electrical engineering and astronomy, but when the National Science Foundation cut its funding to the Big Ear in 1972, Ehman was let go, although he stayed on on a volunteer basis.
He then worked as a professor at Franklin University in Columbus, until his retirement about a year ago . Ehman recently rejoined the Big Ear's volunteer staff.
Now, Ehman is a mini-celebrity. Other volunteers ask him about the famous "Wow!" signal and it's often mentioned in the meetings. Journalists call him whenever they write about the Big Ear.
"I just wish when I talked to journalists, there was really something more to say about it. I'd like to say, 'Gee, that's a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence," Ehman says with a laugh. "I honestly can't do that."
Ehman's scientific training won't let him spin a good yarn. But, he says if the Big Ear staff could have detected the "Wow!" signal again, they might have been able to identify it.
So, until some listener is knocked off his seat again and the "Wow!" signal is rediscovered, Ehman's finding remains only a curious historical footnote.
"I can speculate, too, but there's nothing to back it up," Ehman adds.