Let’s be careful about this “SETI” signal

August 31: See update at the end of this post

Several readers have contacted me recently about reports that a group of international astronomers have detected a strong signal coming from a distant star that could be a sign of a high-technology civilization. Here’s my reaction: it’s interesting, but it’s definitely not the sign of an alien civilization—at least not yet.

Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact"
Jodie Foster in the movie “Contact”

Here’s why:

Where does the windblown stuff come from?

A Piece of Mars: How far do windblown materials move on Mars? This scene (0.9×1.2 km, 0.56×0.75 mi) shows a bright layer of bedrock (top right) that is eroding, exposing a darker, bluish rock (bottom left). Ripples 5-20 m wide have slowly moved towards the lower right, with some migrating into the darker terrain. Those