The Wow Signal

In Stephen Hawking’s television series Into the Universe, he explores the possibility of alien life. And in that exploration, he comes to a problem I’ve often wondered over, though undoubtedly in much more vague “this would make a cool essay” ways than he thinks of it: “The lack of alien contact raises a serious scientific problem: where is everybody?”

You figure that if intelligent alien life is out there, they must at least be curious whether anyone else is sharing the universe with them.

As Hawking says, “We have been listening to space for over forty years. And in all that time, we’ve picked up nothing. Well, except for one mysterious occasion.”

After many years of silence and more silence, a large radio telescope in Perkins Observatory, Delaware, Ohio, picked up a signal. The telescope had two feed horns, and given various statistics like the speed of the earth’s rotation and the fact that the telescope itself was fixed and used Earth’s rotation to scan the sky, the longest it could observe one point was 72 seconds. On August 15th, 1977, one of the telescope feed horns picked up a strange signal for the full 72 seconds it was trained on that spot in the sky. It should have been heard again three minutes later in the other horn; it was not.

In fact, despite repeated scanning of the point where the telescope was fixed, the signal has never been heard again.

Jerry R. Ehman, who detected this mysterious occurrence, took the computer printout of it and circled the signal, writing one word in the margin beside it: “Wow!”

Thus was the Wow Signal given its name – a fitting one for a single, strange occurrence that kept scientists scanning the same spot for years afterwards.

I am not a scientist, of course. But as we draw upon the 35th anniversary of the Wow Signal, I wonder more and more about the impact of that “Wow!” on what we all do every day, year after year, in the same place, much like those scientists who kept scanning the same patch sky. What makes us do it?

For as long as I’ve been working, I’ve worked with writers. Partly this is because I genuinely like writers and writing. (In my spare time I’m that one person on Facebook who corrects the grammar in your status updates.) The other part of why I do what I do is because of the Wow Signal I encounter in my work with words. In writers, you find people who have such a gift with the written language that topics once boring, incomprehensible, or far removed from you are all-at-once fascinating. A single sentence or turn of phrase will forever change the way you think of something. It’s a Wow Signal that resonates deeply.

At Scripted, we are continually honing and refining the ways we look for Wow. Right now, the most obvious place you may see it is in the specialty application. There, writers are asked to select an industry about which they are passionate and knowledgeable, and then display expertise in it through a writing sample. The application is then scored on clarity, voice consistency, flow, and reader engagement.

Essentially, we’re looking for Wow. And we’re lucky enough to be in an industry where we are able to find it over and over again.

So where do you look for it? How do you measure it? What gives Wow its Wow-ness in your world? Whether it’s written on paper or in the stars, I’d love to hear about it.

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