Have Chinese astronomers stumbled upon the techno-signatures of a distant extraterrestrial civilization? Unfortunately forthe answer is no, but numerous reports over the past 72 hours have suggested that an anomalous radio signal from deep space may be pointing to extraterrestrial technology.
As a science journalist who feels like he’s constantly scrutinizing false claims(and he’s a bit of a party animal), let me explain exactly how we got here.
It all starts with a headline: “China Says It May Have Detected Signals From Extraterrestrial Civilizations”.
On June 14, Bloomberg shrewdly picked up a report from the Science and Technology Daily website, a Chinese state-backed media outlet. According to Bloomberg, the Chinese report cited “Zhang Tonjie”, chief scientist of an extraterrestrial civilization research team co-founded by Beijing Normal University. He was referring to unusual signals picked up by the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, or FAST, a huge circular dish carved into the top of a Chinese mountain.
The dish is very real and very powerful. It can focus on regions of the sky and “listen” for radio signals, and it is one of the most sensitive on Earth to certain electromagnetic frequencies. In fact, just last week Chinese researchers using the telescope announced, a brief shot of a signal from deep space. This research is unrelated to the Science and Technology Daily report.
Bloomberg and numerous other publications noted that the original Chinese report has since been deleted, but the reasons for the deletion are unknown. This, of course, adds intrigue for some – the idea of governments covering up aliens is a fairly well-established conspiracy (think Area 51 again).
But to me, the deletion is a huge red flag, suggesting that the original report shouldn’t have been published without a much higher level of vetting and probing of the original report.
One of the real problems with the media jumping straight at ETs every time we hear about scientists discovering an anomalous signal is that it erodes trust in science and scientific institutions. This appears to be the case for Science and Technology Daily, where intriguing and unusual signals were interpreted as potentially extraterrestrial – even before data became available in peer-reviewed journals. This then spun out of control internationally.
Critically, it can also harm the scientists at the center of the research. Other astronomers told CNET that a peer-reviewed scientific study is underway regarding the findings. When “results” are released early like this, it can jeopardize the publication of these findings in a journal, but it also prevents the proper process of checks and balances from occurring. Perhaps other researchers who looked at the data would immediately see it as something other than extraterrestrial or unusual – and we would never end up here in the first place.
There’s also another lingering issue: who is Zhang Tonjie referring to in the article, and is it just a different spelling or transliteration for Zhang Tong-Jie, a man nicknamed ” China’s best alien hunter? Zhang Tong-Jie is affiliated with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) with FAST and is based at Beijing Normal University, according to the International Astronomical Union.
CNET contacted this Zhang Tong-Jie to try to clarify the situation.
“These signals come from radio interference,” he told CNET via email. “All signals detected by SETI researchers so far are emitted by our own civilization, not by another civilization.”
Radio Frequency Interference, or RFI, can come from cell phones, TV transmitters, radars, satellites, and even the device you’re reading this article on right now, although these are pretty weak signals, a he added.
Dan Werthimer, a University of California, Berkeley astronomer who works with the team, provided similar comments to Space.com.
As our instruments of listening and looking across the universe improve, it becomes a little more likely that we will come across extraterrestrial civilizations. However, all of this new data presents a bit of a puzzle for scientists because it will inevitably generate signals we’ve never seen before. Jonti Horner, an astrophysicist at the University of Southern Queensland, compares it to the videos you see of people hearing for the first time. When they put that hearing aid on, all kinds of new information comes in. Over time, they are able to filter them more effectively.
While you can tell these unusual new signals are genuine… there’s still a lot we don’t know about the cosmos. “You’ll likely find new astronomical and astrophysical phenomena that you never thought of before,” Horner said.
Astronomers have been listening for extraterrestrial techno-signatures among stars for the past few years. Earlier this year, a research team using Australia’s Murchison Widefield Array pointed this telescope at the galactic center, their search covering billions of stars – and turned out to be empty. Not.
In December 2020, Zhang told Sixth Tone that he thinks “China will probably find aliens first” because FAST can detect things that other telescopes cannot. So far, however, scientists have been found wanting.
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