In the Fall of 1967, a small team of radio astronomers came face-to-face with a profound mystery that they didn't want to be true.
At one point they half-seriously thought about destroying the data and staying stone silent. That's because announcing it to the world could open a Pandora's box for science, and derail at least one astronomer's PhD thesis.
A small group of radio astronomers in the United Kingdom had stumbled upon clock-precision radio pulses coming from deep space. The signal was unlike anything ever seen before or even predicted in astronomy. In the absence of a natural explanation, the researchers pondered, for three long weeks, whether this was really a "hello" from an extraterrestrial civilization.
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The team faced a cultural black hole with regard to the public response. How do you verify the signal? How do you announce it to the world? Do you send a reply to the stars, or is that too dangerous?
As is the case in our compulsive universe, nature was cleverer than imagined. This story of mistaken identity, as recently researched by Alan Penny of the University of St. Andrews, set the stage for preparing a SETI protocol for how to announce the discovery of the real deal sometime in the future.