The FAST radio telescope may have seen signs of an alien civilization, a Chinese newspaper reported last week. Other scientists don’t want to know much about it.

It is an impressive structure: the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, abbreviated FAST. A dish with a diameter of 500 meters, embedded in the landscape of southwest China. It is even the largest radio telescope in the world in one piece.

And now this mega-device may have picked up signs of intelligent alien life. At least that’s what wrote Science and Technology Dailythe official newspaper of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, on June 14† In 2019, “two groups of signals” would have been seen, which could have come from “extraterrestrial civilizations”. Earlier this year, FAST saw another sign that this was true.

light the fire

The post features Zhang Tongjie, who is engaged in the search for extraterrestrial life at Beijing Normal University. He released the exciting news, but indicated that “the possibility that the suspicious signal is some form of radio interference is also very high and must be confirmed or ruled out”. Moving on, he says he’s looking forward to FAST “being the first to discover and confirm the existence of alien civilizations.”

At the end of the message, Peng Bo, director of the FAST Key Laboratory, claims that the FAST data “probably contains signals from extraterrestrial civilizations”. With this he seems to be referring to all the data that the telescope has collected so far; not specifically on the three signals his colleague Tongjie talked about. Anyway: he still stokes the fire with such a comment, of course.

Toss a Billion Coins

Soon, however, the American SETI researcher Dan Werthimer, involved in the analysis of the FAST data. “The signals we have found so far do not come from extraterrestrial, but from terrestrial sources,” he says frankly to the site, among others. futurism

“If you look for very weak signals from an alien civilization, you’ll be inundated with radio emissions from Earth,” Werthimer explains. “From televisions, mobile phones, satellites… It is then very difficult to determine what disturbing radiation is and what could be a signal from a distant civilization.” And that also applies to FAST, even though this mega dish is located at the end of the inhabited world.

According to Werthimer, the problem is also that in a search like this you are talking about billions of signals per second. There will always be something crazy in there; something you could mistake for a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence. But with such large numbers of signals, you can also expect such ‘outliers’ purely on the basis of chance. “I suspect this claim comes from scientists who have no experience with this kind of experiment, where you basically flip a coin a billion times and then always get heads somewhere ten or twenty times in a row.”

Not yet to Stockholm

Opposite the site Inverse US SETI chief Seth Shostak goes on to say that if he had to bet his monthly salary on it, he would be betting on interference from satellites. “They are the main cause of signals picked up in SETI research. Until the researchers have at least ruled out that explanation, I wouldn’t advise them to fly to Stockholm pending a Nobel Prize.”

As far as he’s concerned, the Chinese researchers should make known exactly what they saw and where those signals came from. For example, astronomers elsewhere in the world can also check whether they see anything strange in their data. “A signal seen with only one instrument is not credible,” said Shostak.

Back in the bottle

The Chinese seem to have changed their mind by now: the original piece in Science and Technology Daily has been taken offline. The article is still readable via the social media service WeChat, which has more than a billion users. Well, if you claim to have seen possible signs of extraterrestrial life, that is not a genie that you just put back in the bottle.