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Extraterrestrial Exclamation

This story originally appeared in ONU Magazine.

On Aug. 15, 1977, it is completely possible that something or even someone from beyond the stars reached out to Earth and said hello. On that day in Delaware, Ohio, for 72 seconds, Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope detected an unusually strong narrowband radio signal from the constellation Sagittarius. The signal was noteworthy because the project that the Big Ear telescope was undertaking was focused on one thing, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Despite the Big Ear’s redundant system, the signal was only detected the one time and has not been detected since, even with the benefit of today’s superior technology.

For the past 40 years, people have been trying to explain one of science’s most intriguing mysteries. Dubbed the Wow! signal, due to astronomer Jerry R. Ehman’s handwritten exclamation next to the series of numbers on the computer printout that recorded the signal data, it remains the strongest candidate for an alien radio transmission ever detected. A new documentary film with a strong Ohio Northern University connection is not only seeking answers to the Wow! signal, but also sheds light on the fascinating history of radio astronomy and the ongoing search for life beyond Earth.

Next Future Films, a nonprofit production company started by ONU Trustee Dr. James Lehr Kennedy, teamed up with documentary filmmaker and former ONU videographer Bob Dawson and writer Michael Shaw to produce Wow Signal. With Aug. 15, 1977, as its fulcrum, the film tells the history of radio astronomy in the United States, particularly the origination of the famed Big Ear telescope, and then accounts for the next 40 years of scientific debate over the Wow! signal and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

The film’s sincere scientific approach was important to the filmmakers. In some circles, the Wow! signal is on par with the purported 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, N.M., and Bigfoot sightings. In other words, those who study it “want to believe.” But that is not the case in Wow Signal.

Shaw (left) and Dawson (right) speak with ONU students after an on-campus screening.“It could’ve gone in that direction, and that’s the thing that neither Bob nor I wanted to do,” says Kennedy. “There’s no making fun of anybody in our film. These are sincere people who want to find an answer.”

Experts from across the field of astronomy appear in the film, and their opinions on the signal differ significantly. The film presents the evidence one needs to see the Wow! signal in its entirety, but even beyond that, the film speaks to much larger themes. It captures our desire to not be alone in the universe. It poignantly shows the life cycle of a tremendous discovery that leaves a lump in your throat at the end. It makes a strong case for the importance of funding scientific research.

I think that’s kind of an allegory to where we’re at today. I’m 70 years old, and when I grew up, we were all concerned about Sputnik, and science was a matter of patriotism. You learned science and math because that was how we were going to beat the Russians,” says Kennedy. “Basic research was really, really important. Answering the cosmic questions was really important.

Kennedy founded Next Future Films to produce scientific documentaries for museums and science centers that can help rekindle the public’s understanding and appreciation of science. In March, ONU’s Astronomy Club and Dr. Jason Pinkney, professor of physics, hosted a screening of Wow Signal on campus followed by a Q&A with Dawson and Shaw. The film was a finalist at the 2017 Raw Science Film Festival and an official selection at the Roswell Film Festival. All profits from it will be used to produce more Next Future Films that will continue Kennedy’s mission.

“The other reason we’re on this planet, other than being kind to each other, is to try and answer these questions,” he says.

You can learn more about Wow Signal and watch the trailer at wowsignalmovie.com.