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Aliens Are Never the Answer

Paul Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and the chief scientist at COSI Science Center. Sutter is also host of Ask a Spaceman, RealSpace and COSI Science Now.

You may have heard in the news recently about weird or mysterious radio signals coming from outer space. It doesn’t matter when you’re reading this article — mysterious radio signals from outer space are almost always in the news. About every six months or so, a flash of excitement and discussion ripples around the world as reports come in from some telescope or probe and the unexplained nature of its observations.

An unusually strong signal from a sun-like star. A repeated pattern that seems too precise to be natural. Bleeps and bloops from unknown sources with head-scratching signatures. Sure, there’s a ton of stuff in space that could potentially maybe kind-of-sort-of create those signals, but could this … be it? Could this be the key piece of evidence that answers one of the ultimate existential questions? Are we alone?

No serious astronomer ever wants to rush out and blurt, “Hey, everyone! I’ve found aliens!” But at the same time, there’s a strong desire to get your name in the history books. So when these signals pop up, you get lots of shrugging and hemming and hawing and “Look, we’re pretty sure it’s natural, but we can’t rule out aliens,” kind of talk.

Let me tell you a couple of stories.