By Lee Billings
Based on breathless news reports from many prominent media outlets that should know better, this week’s biggest non-story in science is the discovery of a possible radio signal from talkative aliens elsewhere in the Milky Way. I’m here to tell you, alas, that anyone hoping for this to be the moment of First Contact with another galactic civilization is very likely to be disappointed.
It all started innocently enough, with a carefully worded blog post this past Saturday from the respected science journalist Paul Gilster. Gilster wrote about a message he had received from some SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers who reported a curiously powerful 3-second burst of radio waves from a star less than 100 light-years away. The researchers, led by Nikolai Bursov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, couldn’t rule out the possibility that the signal was artificial, and were intrigued enough that they called for “permanent monitoring” of the star.
Gilster’s post ignited a firestorm of sensationalistic and credulous news coverage that is still blazing as I write this, burning through newspapers and websites to astound most everyone who encounters it. Soon, I predict, it will burn out—as these sorts of stories (almost) always do.
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