Elvis, the Pledge, and Extraterrestrials

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S1: At 12 twenty eight a.m. on August 16th, 1977, a man from Indiana snapped a photo of Elvis Presley with a Kodak Instamatic camera. That picture shows Elvis at the front gate of Graceland, heading back home after a late night dentist appointment. He’s driving a black luxury car, a stutts Black Hawk three Elvis, his right hand is on the steering wheel and he’s holding up his left as though he’s giving a casual wave. He’s wearing dark sunglasses. And it looks like he might be smiling, but it’s hard to tell. As far as anyone knows. It’s the last image ever taken of Elvis Presley alive.

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S2: Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, is dead at the age of 42. He sold millions of records more than anyone in the music industry except the Beatles that we left with is a life that was the stuff of fables. I think he’ll be the greatest thing ever. Remember that came out of America.

S1: On the afternoon of August 16th, Iain Caulder convened an emergency meeting at his office in Lantana, Florida.

S3: We wouldn’t have dreamed if he was still alive, running a major front page story.

S1: And Elvis Caulder was the editor of the National Enquirer. It was on him to decide how to cover the king’s death.

S3: He had gone downhill. He had got fat. He was not a major star at that particular point. No, that changed big time when he died. You don’t have to be any kind of brilliant person to know that this was the biggest thing I decided. I’ve got to send in the troops for this.

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S1: Caulder needed to get a whole bunch of reporters to Memphis, Tennessee, and he needed to do it very quickly.

S3: We rented the jet plane, put about six different people on the jet plane with fifty thousand dollars in cash and said, let’s just do it.

S1: How do you get 50000 dollars?

S3: I called up my money guy, my treasurer, and said, get me 50000 dollars. And he went to the bank and picked it up. We sent another fifty thousand later.

S1: That money was the Enquirer is not so secret weapon. The reporters that Ian Calder sent to Memphis were going to buy up as many scoops as possible under traditional journalistic ethics, paying for information is forbidden in The New York Times wouldn’t do it, and neither would the Memphis Commercial Appeal. But The National Enquirer had absolutely no qualms.

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S3: And what happened was that the local papers who really didn’t like us, started making up a big story. They want to give money away. They’re trying to bribe people and stuff like that. It’s true, we don’t have money and we did bribe people. We just did it legitimately.

S1: The Enquirer, and its huge pile of cash ripped through Memphis like a tabloid tornado. After Elvis’s death, Caulder and his team broke every rule of journalistic propriety, and when their work was done, they’d made newsstand history. Elvis’s death on August 16th, 1977, captivated the nation, but it wasn’t the only thing that happened that day. On this season of one year, we’re looking at the most consequential and most fascinating moments of 1977. And in this week’s episode, I’m going to tell three stories from a single day in August. One is about a mysterious signal from outer space. Another is about a high school sophomore who became an American pariah. But first, the National Enquirer’s quest for the ultimate celebrity scoop. I’m Josh Levin, and this is one year, 1977. Iain Caulder started working for newspapers in Scotland when he was six years old. The media scene in the UK was extremely competitive and Caulder would do anything to win.

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S3: If some little kid had drowned in a canal, you would go in and you’d interview the parents. And I learned how to cry on cue, but then you’d ask for photographs. We need a photograph of the little boy and you try and pick up every single picture in the house so that when the other papers weren’t there, there’d be a desert. If you were second, that was a problem. You had to beat your way because the other guy would do the same thing.

S1: Caulder got hired by the Enquirer, in 1964. In those days, the American tabloid distinguished itself by publishing Gore, including a photo of a police officer carrying a severed head. But by the 70s, the Enquirer, had cleaned itself up and become a supermarket staple. Caldas newspaper ran stories on government waste, fad diets and every kind of celebrity scandal in 1977 and had a weekly circulation of five million and an editorial staff full of hard charging, mischievous British expats.

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S3: It was the only place in the world where you had an unlimited budget. Basically, if you wanted to set aside a celebrity on the Concorde, you could do it.

S1: That’s Tony Brenner. He was a roving editor for the Enquirer,,

S3: which led me to the Philippines, Japan, Moscow. Pretty nice gig, actually,

S1: when Elvis Presley died. But when I got on that private jet from Florida to Tennessee in the days that followed, the Enquirer, sent more and more reinforcements and took over an entire floor of a Holiday Inn,

S3: turned into a newsroom printers and fax machines and phones. And we had about 30 reporters and stringers there.

S1: In August 1977, it felt like the whole world had descended on Memphis.

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S3: It was as if the king of England had died. No, it was insane.

S2: The thousands of mourning Presley fans who had converged on Memphis came from all over the nation. I just can’t believe he’s dead. It’s terrible. I don’t know Elvis personally, but I’ve seen a lot of his shows and I feel like he’s a friend to me. This is unreal right now. I just can’t believe it. I’m just numb. So I’m going to do

S1: all of those people wanted to pay their respects to the king of rock and roll, and they wanted something to remember Elvis by, something they could hold on to

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S2: think this is going with these T-shirts. It’s going great. It really is. I think Elvis would have probably like, you know, he probably does. You know, I think his spirit is, you know, consciousness rises around

S1: the Enquirer is money could buy the stories that Elvis fans were desperate to read who was with him when he died, what it is final hours look like, what were the family secrets that hadn’t yet been revealed? All that cash could also buy exclusivity for the Enquirer,, which came out only once a week. Signing sources to exclusive contracts was essential, the only chance they had to beat the daily papers. And so it was a huge coup. When the tabloids struck a deal with the paramedics that carried Elvis out of Graceland, they told the Enquirer, that Elvis face and neck were blue and then it took five people to lift him onto a stretcher. And they said that Elvis’s father cried over the body. Recognizing the value of what they had, the Enquirer, put the paramedics on a plane to Florida where the competition couldn’t find them. The Enquirer, also bought up Elvis’s girlfriend, Ginger Alden Aldan was in bed with Elvis on the morning of August 16th. That afternoon, she found his body slumped in front of the toilet.

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S3: That was the big get. We we thought nobody could beat that because we had her entire exclusive story.

S1: Ginger Alden’s first person account was going to sell a lot of newspapers, but the Enquirer’s owner, Generosa Polk Jr., demanded something more. Pope believed he understood what readers were looking for, even if they didn’t know it themselves. Ian Calder, again,

S3: the major thing was you got to get a photo of Elvis in his coffin that was like going to be the piece de resistance. How could people who loved Elvis not want to keep that as a souvenir?

S1: There are a bunch of competing accounts of how the National Enquirer went about getting that photo, but those stories all start in the same place, the public viewing of Elvis’s body on August 17th, 1977.

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S2: Those who did get in entered a small anteroom which was almost filled with a copper casket. He was dressed in a white tuxedo wearing a simple silver tie. Many of the people, as they came out with, brought

S1: tens of thousands of mourners passed through Graceland to get a glimpse of the open casket. But cameras were strictly forbidden and Elvis’s bodyguards were ready to enforce that order.

S3: They suspected that the tabloid press might try and do something crazy like this. So they were right.

S1: Even with those bodyguards standing watch the Enquirer, did try to sneak in some photographers, one editor later claimed they went so far as sending in people dressed as nuns. But in the end, he said, everyone just chickened out. By this point, it was clear they were going to need another way in. Their best hope was to get some help from the inside the Enquirer. Photographers waited outside Graceland looking for family members walking out the gate. When they spotted one, they trailed him to his next destination.

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S3: The guy goes into a bar and then goes into the restroom. You doing whatever he does there? And another guy shows up beside him and says, Hi, I’m from the Enquirer,. You’re one of Elvis’s people. He said, Yeah, I’m his second cousin. He was he said, How would you like to make a few thousand dollars? And the guy said, Tell me about it.

S1: When that cousin heard the assignment, he said he’d give it a try. The Enquirer, gave him a three hundred dollar Minnoch spy camera with a strange set to five feet. The cousin managed to snap four images. The Enquirer, then whisked him and the camera downwards Florida headquarters on yet another private jet. This was precious cargo and the tabloid wanted to develop the photos in a secure location.

S3: We then took it over to the darkroom. Well, I’m waiting on the phone and our photo editor, he called me first picture. I said, how is it? He said the guy had the camera in the wrong direction. He took a picture of himself. Well, oh, my God. A few minutes later, he comes the second one, terrible. He put up in the air, took a picture of the lights above Elvis. Oh, my God. Only to left the third time. He said fantastic. It was almost like a professional picture. And the fourth was exactly the same.

S1: Those pictures show the right side of Elvis Presley’s face and profile his hair is Jet-Black and his eyes and lips are closed. He looks a good bit younger than in that photo taken just after midnight on August 16th, the one that shows him driving back from the dentist’s office in the coffin. He seems serene and unbothered. The September six, 1977, issue of the National Enquirer featured six pages of exclusive Elvis material, there was that interview with the paramedics and the tell all from his girlfriend, Ginger Alden. There was also a story about Elvis’s bizarre behavior in the months before he died, that he kicked his karate partners in the groin, talk to his own reflection, and hired someone to sing the high notes he can no longer hit. But grocery shoppers and NEWSSTAND browser’s didn’t need to flip inside to see the piece de resistance, it was right there on the front. The last picture. Tony Brena and Ian Caulder say the establishment media did not respect the Enquirer, journalistic triumph.

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S3: This is disgraceful. This is disgusting stuff, you know? I mean, those those sort of comments. I got a call from the AP Associated Press, and they wanted a story on how terrible it was that we would run a picture of Elvis in his coffin. I said, well, let me tell you, I said Elvis was a king. You know, of anybody who’s an Elvis fan didn’t want that picture. I said our readers demanded that we do that and we were the only ones who could do it.

S1: Elvis Presley’s cousin got 18000 dollars for those photographs, the equivalent of 81000 today for the Enquirer. It was a great investment. The September 6th, 1977 issue sold nearly six point seven million copies, almost a million more than the tabloids previous all time record.

S3: And that’s absolutely a seller. I mean, that was every copy we printed. There was a story I don’t know if I believe it or not. We’re a couple of armed bandits came in to hold up a supermarket, but they didn’t take money. They took all the copies of the Elvis story and photographed.

S1: I don’t know if I believe that story either, those sales figures, however, were very real. The Enquirer, Zoner, Generosa, Pope Jr. was extremely pleased, but Pope didn’t get everything he wanted.

S3: I actually got thrown out of Memphis by the police, escorted to the airport because of Pope’s desire to see Elvis organs on scales in the mortuary. We tried to buy up some mortuary attendants and to try and get them to photograph. They he would never have published these pictures. He just wanted to see them

S1: where he just wanted them for his personal collection of origin photos.

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S3: He wanted to see Elvis’s liver and Elvis heart. And I don’t know why he wanted to see it, but he did. He it was a very quirky guy.

S1: And you said, OK, I’ll do I’ll try to get that for you.

S3: I said, well, I you know. Did what I was asked to do, and it was almost like being a paid assassin, if you want,

S1: you can buy the Elvis coffin issue of the National Enquirer on eBay for about 20 dollars. There’s another less tightly cropped version of the famous coffin photo inside the paper on page 23, the caption says ATP’s. Up next. A high school student in New Jersey takes a stand by refusing to stand up,

S4: you can challenge America itself as long as you leave the flag alone. The minute you mess with that, you are the worst kind of person in many people’s eyes.

S1: On August 16th, 1977, she got her day in court, that’s coming up after the break.

S4: I was the kid that this is one of my favorites, I got them to allow girls to wear pants to school.

S1: That’s Debra Levin. She was born in 1961 and grew up in northern New Jersey. Her sartorial rebellion came in elementary school.

S4: Girls were supposed to wear skirts and I just wasn’t having it. So I would just go to school in my pants. And the other girls started to notice that I was not getting in trouble. And within a few weeks, all the girls were wearing pants to school. I got backed into a corner. This was not something I felt I should be doing, so I didn’t do it.

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S1: Lip calls herself a loudmouth, and she says her childhood wasn’t a peaceful and contented one.

S4: I was very combative. I was angry, a lot moody, smarter than everybody. Absolutely convinced that the fact that I was smart made me exempt from many of life’s rules. I definitely made the decision when I was 12 that Judaism was not feminist and therefore I did not wish to be Batmitzvah. And so I refused to go through with that.

S1: In 1975, Lip moved to Massachusetts to live with her dad. For the next year and a half, she went to what she describes as a hippie school.

S4: It was great. The entire school was run. One person, one vote. You decide what classes you’re going to you put together your own educational curriculum. You can decide never go to class at all. So I didn’t attend a lot of classes, but I knew Robert’s Rules of Order.

S1: Lips dream education didn’t last in early 1977, her dad got a job back in New Jersey, Lipp enrolled in public school in Mountain Lakes, a small, hilly suburb 30 miles outside New York City. She was in 10th grade.

S4: I was in peak angry rebellion. I was new in town in a small town where everybody had gone to kindergarten. There my social life was, you know, basically a disaster. And then I had to have this pledge of allegiance. I pledge

S2: allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to Republic for.

S1: The Pledge of Allegiance has been around since the early 80s, 90s, and it began as a marketing gimmick. Francis Bellamy, who worked for a magazine called Youth’s Companion, wrote the pledge as part of a push to sell American flags to public schools. Bellamy was a former Baptist preacher, and he believed the true Americanism was being threatened by mass immigration. He once wrote that the people must guard more jealously even than their liberties, the quality of their blood. The pledge was quickly adopted in classrooms across America up until World War Two students recited it with their right arms outstretched in a stiff salute that got changed to a hand over the heart because the original gesture resembled the Nazis. Sieg Heil. Another change came in 1954, when Congress added the words under God to distinguish the United States’s values from those of godless communism.

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S2: One nation under God.

S4: When I just knew that that was not something that I believed in. I am very conscious of the way that religious liberty in this country is one of the core freedoms that we have. And most of the people who want to say under God believe that this is a Christian nation and it is not.

S1: The Pledge of Allegiance hadn’t been a thing. A Deborah Lipps hippy school in Massachusetts, but at Mountain Lakes High School in New Jersey, standing up to say the pledge was an everyday homeroom ritual, one that Leape refused to go along with.

S4: So the minute I was seated during the Pledge of Allegiance, there were people cursing at me. Other students, there were people muttering under their breath and they’re pointing at me. They’re being disruptive. I’m not the one being disruptive. And the teacher was doing nothing.

S1: It went on like this for a couple of months, Deborah Hleb continued to stay seated and her classmates continued to grumble. And then and May 1977, she got a new homeroom teacher.

S4: I was sitting, the rest of the class was standing, the teacher was standing in front of the room with her hand over her heart and with her other hand going like making hissing at me and and motioning to get up

S1: when the kids are muttering under their breath. When the teacher is making that hissing sound, does that make you feel more like adamant that if you’re trying to get me to do it, I’m going to sit that much more firmly in my seat?

S4: Oh, yeah. Like who doesn’t react that way when they are told that here is the one thing you must not do?

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S1: Deborah Lib’s teacher, she was adamant to

S4: the next morning. I got to school a few minutes early and she grabbed me outside the classroom and said, you can either stand or you can be expelled. So I went to the principal. And he pulled out a little handbook of the legal rights of students in the state of New Jersey, and I was shocked.

S1: In 1943, the United States Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not force students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance, but a New Jersey state law required students like Deborah Lipp to always show full respect to the flag by standing at attention

S4: to stand at attention for the Pledge of Allegiance is, in fact, participating. And I knew I had the right I absolutely understood that sitting was a form of speech, I was unable to articulate this in these words when I was 16, but the thoughts were definitely these, that the way to be a loyal American to me is not to make a pledge of loyalty. The way to be an American is to be fundamentally a revolutionary, to fight for what’s right, to use our constitutionally provided protections to advocate for free speech and freedom of religion and freedom of the press. And an oath of loyalty is the opposite of that.

S1: Threatened by her teacher and principal, Lip had to make a choice.

S4: I mean, one of the thoughts that went through my head is I could just be late every day for school until I graduated so as to miss the pledge. I mean, I didn’t know what to do. And I got home from school that afternoon and found the ACLU in the phone book and they took my case.

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S1: Within a couple of weeks, a New Jersey judge issued a temporary restraining order barring Lipps High School from punishing her.

S4: I remember turning to my stepmother and saying, I guess this is going to show up in The Citizen, which was the local weekly giveaway. Like, I had no idea what was about to happen. Somebody picked it up and it went very quickly from local to The New York Times. Then it was everywhere.

S1: In that Times article, Lipp called the New Jersey law absolutely absurd. She said, if I’m only free to stand and not sit during the pledge that I’m not free at all. The story also included a photo of the teenager. She was wearing glasses and a striped halter dress, and she was standing in front of an American flag. One slip story hit the papers. She got some supportive phone calls, strangers praising her quest for justice and telling her she was brave. One of those well-wishers would later become her first husband.

S4: I remember distinctly that I was cleaning up a huge mess that the dogs had made. So I was just eager to take a phone call, you know, and he had seen my picture in the Times. So he called and he congratulated me. And then he chatted me up and then he flirted with me and then he asked me out on a date. And our first date was the Fourth of July, which was great, as it turned out, because there was a rally against me in my hometown, but I wasn’t home for it.

S1: The Veterans of Foreign Wars, disabled American veterans, Catholic War veterans, they were all united against her. In the year after the flag waving frenzy of the bicentennial, that July 4th rally reflected the mainstream consensus and Deborah Lipps community. Someone even made bumper stickers that said Ship the lips to Siberia.

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S4: They were passionately vitriolic and the level of nastiness and just. Craziness to this day blows my mind, I had a five year old sister who was not allowed to play with the five year old across the street because she was a lip. What was the five year old going to do? My parents, they were kind of horrified politically, they agreed with me, but they did not want this to be happening. They did not want the attention. They did not want any of it. I asked if we could have an unlisted phone number because they hate calls, would not stop. And they said, well, all of our friends have this number that would inconvenience us. So in addition to keeping a listed phone number, I was required to be the one who answered all phone calls so that if it was hate speech, I was the one receiving it. It was brutal. You’re a communist. Go live in Russia. String of unintelligible curses, bomb threats and antisemitism. That that would be the highlights.

S1: On August 16th, 1977, Deborah Leape traveled to a federal district court in Newark, New Jersey. She went with her attorney and her boyfriend, the guy she’d met over the phone. Her parents chose not to attend.

S4: I was completely confident and my lawyer was also 100 percent confident. The judge’s name was Curtis Minar, and he was very Norman Rockwell looking guy. He ruled in court that day. I mean, we were not in court for even a half an hour.

S1: Judge Curtis Minar declared the New Jersey state law unconstitutional. He said that it illegally compelled symbolic speech in violation of the First Amendment. And he said that Deborah Lip wouldn’t cause any disruption by sitting down so long as she didn’t whistle drum or tap dance.

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S4: I felt great. I felt vindicated. I felt patriotic. I do remember that my case was decided the day that Elvis died. So my picture and Elvis’s picture were on the front page of every paper in the U.S. You don’t forget a thing like that.

S1: Not long after the judge ruled in her favor, Deborah Lip went back to Mountain Lakes High School for her junior year.

S4: A lot of people hated me, but the teachers gave me a wide berth because they knew that if they messed with me, I would fight them. And I became kind of a little bit of a leader among the alternative people and the hippies, which was very few in that very conservative town. I had a voice.

S1: Deborah Lipp is 60 years old now, she’s a practicing Wiccan and lectures on paganism and the occult. She’s also the author of The Ultimate James Bond Fans book.

S4: I’m kind of an interesting person and most of the other things I’ve done have not been political. But I look back at this case and I am proud that I did it. And I still believe that what I did was patriotic. Some of it was traumatic. I got some skittishness that took me a fairly long period of time to get past in terms of not wanting to be exposed like that again. If I’m in a public place today and everybody stands for the Pledge of Allegiance, I actually do stand because my tolerance for being attacked by crowds has gone down as I’ve aged. I fight for things all the time. I remain a troublemaker. But I learned the hard way that making a spectacle of myself isn’t an easy thing to live with.

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S1: Lips victory changed the law in New Jersey, but the Pledge of Allegiance is still highly contested terrain. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether it’s constitutional to require students to stand at attention during the pledge. All these decades later, children nationwide are fighting the same fight. Deborah Lipstadt. In 1977,

S2: the state of Texas is supporting a Houston area school, expelled a student after she refused to stand for the flag during the US pledge. An 11 year old Polk County student arrested at school after refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. And you just asked me to get up. I mean, I still would have said no, but it’s better than snatching me out of the chair.

S1: Is that frustrating to you to see this story still

S4: in the world? It’s enormously frustrating. I have made it a point every time there’s been a case since then to sit down and write a supportive letter. My daughter’s high school teacher contacted me because she wanted me to know that my daughter was sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance and that she wanted me to give permission for that. And I said, by law, you cannot ask for my permission. She has the absolute right to do that, regardless of my opinion. And the teacher responded, OK, I just wanted to make sure she had your permission. It horrifies me that that teachers are not taught that students have civil rights. I weep for a country that doesn’t cherish its own freedoms. To the extent that I am the villain in somebody else’s story. They don’t know what it is to be an American.

S1: Up next, just before midnight on August 15th, 1977, an unexplained transmission arrives from outer space.

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S3: I think there is a strong possibility that it was a signal from extraterrestrial civilization.

S1: We’ll be right back. Think. The first season of the television series in Search Of aired in 1976 and 77, it featured episodes on the Bermuda Triangle, the Mummy’s Curse and Bigfoot.

S2: He’s been seen many times in the rugged mountains and deep woods of the Pacific Northwest. The encounters have not always been peaceful.

S1: In Episode 12, host Leonard Nimoy took on the biggest question of them.

S2: All the stars and galaxies beckon us to ask, Are we alone? We listen for the answer.

S1: The episode was titled A Call from Space, it focused on a group of scientists who believe that giant, ultra sensitive instruments might help them tune into the frequencies of other worlds. One of them was an astronomer at Ohio State University. His name was John Kraus.

S2: I think one of the exciting things about all this work is that those of us who are involved are like pioneers. We are exploring the universe. It’s a pioneering venture to find out what is out there and perhaps who is out there.

S1: Kraus designed and built a massive radio telescope near the city of Delaware, Ohio, and starting in 1973, he used that telescope to do something unprecedented. He launched the first ever long term systematic SETI project. He was searching for extraterrestrial intelligence.

S2: The probability of life developing elsewhere is hard to determine, definitely, but I don’t think it is zero. And if it is not zero, then I think we have a chance.

S1: Kraus telescope was nicknamed Big Ear.

S2: Well, it’s just simply a big antenna, an enormous antenna that’s flat reflectors, about one acre in size. It’s movable and that’s what reflects the incoming waves into the parabola.

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S1: Big ear had been set up to detect narrowband radio signals.

S2: That is the kind of signal that travels furthest. And we would suspect that any civilization out there would use signals of that type.

S1: The telescope scanned the skies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Kraus colleague, Bob Dixson was in charge of the search.

S5: Once we had everything running, we rename the telescope to Ado Place in the sky every few days and the computer would process all the data

S1: every 12 seconds. An IBM mainframe calculated the strength of the radio signal. The telescope was detecting the signal to noise ratio got recorded using a single character, either a digit from one to nine or four. Anything stronger, a letter from A to Z. Every four or so days, a technician gathered the latest readings. He’d then bring those reports to a volunteer named Jerry Ehman.

S3: Let me see. I’ve got a sheet here, so we’re almost up to 400 pages. So we used a lot of paper.

S1: Eiman didn’t find much to get excited about. The signal’s big ear was getting weren’t particularly strong and there was no indication that they were coming from far off worlds. A grandiose quest to communicate with Extraterrestrials had turned into a dull routine. It seemed like that call from space might never come. Nevertheless, Jerry Ehman kept up with the tedious work of poring over those printouts sometime around August 19th, 1977. He sat down in his kitchen and began his usual ritual.

S3: I was just sitting at the table looking at the printout.

S1: He looked at one sheet of paper, then another. As usual. He didn’t notice anything remarkable. And then suddenly he saw it,

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S3: there was just a few pages in it took me maybe 10 seconds after seeing it and I just without thinking, just wrote the word wow, exclamation point with my red pen.

S1: Something had come in to Big Ears receiver on August 15th, 1977, at around Levin, six p.m. Eastern Time on Jerry Eiman sheet of paper. That signal appeared as a peculiar string of letters and numbers.

S3: I saw the sequence six huge five in channel to

S1: that sequence wasn’t a secret code. It was a measure of signal strength. Over time,

S3: six goes up to E, which goes up to cue, which goes up to you, and then back down to J and then back down to five. The strongest signal I had ever seen on the computer printouts,

S1: six I.Q. yuge five meant that the radio signal got stronger and stronger, peaking at the letter. You then got weaker until after 72 seconds it disappeared

S3: and looked at that sequence and realized it looks like I’ve got an antenna pattern here.

S1: That pattern suggested the signal itself was coming from a fixed position. In other words, it wasn’t getting stronger and weaker because it was moving around in the sky. It was like a flashlight was shining down from space and the telescope spotted the beam for a brief moment as the earth rotated past. It even had never seen anything like six EKU UJA five. He thought it might be a broadcast from another world, a message from aliens. Can you explain why you wrote wow in the margin?

S3: Well, I’m actually surprised to hear that question. Most people who speak English know what the word wow means.

S1: I think that it means that you’re surprised.

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S3: Yeah, surprised. Something unusual or interesting.

S1: Are you the kind of guy who says, wow, a lot and day to day life?

S3: No, not really. If I see video of the Grand Canyon, I’m thinking, wow, or animals that are behaving in an interesting fashion

S1: after Jerry emens, scribbled wow on that sheet of paper, he called his colleagues John Kraus and Bob Dixon,

S5: here’s Dixon. He said, well, we’ve found something here. You know, he probably should look at this. And we all got together for a meeting at the observatory and we excitedly discussed this and trying to think of something that could have made this happen accidentally.

S1: The team at Big Air wasn’t going to jump to the conclusion that they’d found a sign of intelligent life while the rest of the world was mourning Elvis Presley. They ran through all the most plausible explanations for six IQ uj five. They consulted Star Catalog’s to see if the signal might have come from a sunlike object. But they didn’t find anything in that area of the sky. There weren’t any space probes in the vicinity either, and because the signal tracked the pattern of the telescope so precisely, it didn’t seem possible that it was just interference. They reset the telescope to scan that same region again, but the signal never reappeared. All they had was one tantalizing clue. The astronomers at Big Air started calling it the wow signal.

S5: Was it an intentional broadcast, just sort of casting a signal out into space or was it part of some space communication is that maybe there was another civilization, had a spacecraft and they were communicating with it and it just happened to be in our direction at a particular time and then never again.

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S6: There’s no doubt, no major doubt that it is a technological signal. The question is just did it come from Earth or did it come from elsewhere?

S1: Jamie Green is the associate editor of Future Tense, a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University. I asked her to lay out the evidence that the signal might be a sign of extraterrestrial life.

S6: I think the biggest indication that it’s Extraterrestrial is that it’s a very narrow signal. The telescope was recording at 50 different channels, basically, and this is only on one of them. And natural sources, while they may be loud on one channel, make more noise sort of on adjacent channels. Nature doesn’t make such clean signals. There was nothing that we know of human made out in that direction. So it’s like we picked up a dial tone that someone was shooting from far out there.

S1: But there’s a good chance the wow signal actually came from closer to home.

S6: The most plausible explanation is that it was some sort of terrestrial earthly technology bouncing off of something and the telescope was so rudimentary that we just weren’t able to figure it out.

S1: And there’s no way for us to possibly

S6: there’s no way to figure it out now.

S1: It’s just going to be this enticing thing forever.

S6: All of the information that we have is that one spike of a signal. There was something there. It got loud, it got quiet because we panned away from it. That’s all we know. There’s there’s no data from the telescope other than that that we could dig into a process or squeeze for more information.

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S1: In 1977, the Great Beyond loomed incredibly large in the popular imagination. The two highest grossing movies at the American box office were Star Wars and Close Encounters of the third kind. But the astronomers at Big Here weren’t looking to capitalize on all that outer space hype. They were serious scientists and they didn’t want to be accused of peddling science fiction. And so for a while they kept their findings to themselves. Bob Dixson did reference the WOW signal obliquely in a short documentary broadcast in early 1979.

S2: Ducharme Nixon. Have we received signals that he received signals that we simply can’t explain? There’s one really particular that we’ve heard a lot about. The call came from outside the Earth. We feel there’s no question about that. Very strong. But it was only that once.

S1: John Kraus finally published an article about the Wow signal in the summer of 79, his conclusion, it could have been a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization. But until it comes back again, we can only wait and wonder.

S6: No one has ever been able to figure out what it was, and it’s the biggest unsolved SETI candidates signal mystery that we have.

S1: Jamie Green is writing a book about how we imagine alien life beyond earth in science and science fiction. So we went through a thought experiment. What would it mean in the grand scheme of things if the WOW signal did come from Extraterrestrials?

S6: I think if there is a second instance of complex life, of technologically advanced life in the galaxy, there’s probably a lot of it. I think a lot of scientists would agree that either life is unique or it is abundant.

S1: That’s interesting. So it’s either one or a lot?

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S6: I think so, yeah. I think once you could know that life has evolved more than once, to me that’s the ballgame. That means that it’s probably everywhere. And odds are mathematically that if there’s another technological civilization, they would probably be more advanced than us. And so once they’ve sent us this little dial tone saying, hello, we’re here, this little beacon, are there conversations to be had? Is there a back and forth?

S1: In Close Encounters of the third kind, the scientists figure out how to communicate with the aliens mothership,

S2: trying to use a basic tunnel escape escapers schoolfellows,

S1: even if the Wow signal was a message from aliens and almost certainly wasn’t a close encounter,

S6: depending on how far away they are. That could be a response time of centuries.

S1: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really interesting thing to think about is. If they’re so far away that it’s just not really possible to have a conversation, then what is the point?

S6: And even if we could get it back and forth, would we be able to actually communicate if they don’t send us a Rosetta Stone? All we know might be that they’re out there.

S1: Why would a civilization send us a signal in the first place?

S6: So the idealistic theory is that they want to welcome us into the galactic community, that they are the really idealistic versions that they see that we are struggling, whether that’s with climate change or war or poverty. And they being so advanced have solved these problems. And so they’re going to send us the solution. They might just be curious. They might be scientists. Maybe they just want to know who’s out there. There are also the more cynical views of this that they want to find us so that they can come murder us and steal our water or whatever. But it’s a lot of energy to expend. Just to murder someone, but I guess is also a lot of energy to expend just to give someone a long distance hug.

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S1: So let’s imagine an alternate timeline here where the wow signal comes in. And for whatever reason, we’re able to confirm with some degree of certainty that it’s Extraterrestrial signal in 1977. How do you think the world we live in now would be different, if at all?

S6: I would think that there would have been a big push to send a message back. I think that it would have been diplomatically very interesting. You know, who gets to decide what the message is like? Who gets to speak for Earth? A very idealistic view of this would be that it would have inspired some some more global unity, maybe ended the Cold War a little earlier. Maybe it would have exacerbated the Cold War and made everyone more freaked out by aliens coming to kill us. There’s so many people and animals all across the planet that don’t really enter into our daily sphere of concern. So what happens when there are more people millions of miles away? How does that change your daily life? I don’t know.

S1: And I think I mean, one thing that you’re kind of circling around is that one reason to do this kind of search is that it tells us something about ourselves.

S6: It’s a mirror. The way that we imagine aliens tells us a lot about what we think is even more intrinsic than human nature. You know, what is biological nature? Do we assume that becoming more advanced, becoming more intelligent means developing technology? We had radio technology because of the military, because of conflict, because of war. Do we assume that war is universal? Do we assume that war is something to be transcended and that aliens are going to give us a little boost? The way that we imagine aliens is ways of trying out different futures for humanity.

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S1: Big in our search for extraterrestrial intelligence went on for 22 years. The telescope never found anything like the wow signal again. But six IQ yuge five hasn’t been forgotten by scientists who are still looking for extraterrestrial life or by purveyors of science fiction.

S2: While sitting in August 1977, my buddy Jerry Aimen found a transmission on the printout like this. He was so excited he wrote Wow in the margins. What was their signal? 30 times stronger than galactic background noise. While signal is the best evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence,

S1: in 1998, four years after that X Files episode aired, big ears got demolished to make way for a golf course. The astronomer who designed the telescope, John Kraus, died in 2004.

S2: Some day this call from space may come. It’s hard to say when it will. The signal that we looking for might be found within a day, but it might be weeks, years. But it will have profound significance to man.

S1: Bob Dixson, who ran big in search for extraterrestrial intelligence, thinks it’s very likely that there are other civilizations out there.

S5: Our galaxy even is so vast with so many millions of stars and planets, it’s hard to think of all the other galaxies. There are the universe. It just doesn’t seem likely that life evolved on this particular planet.

S6: This is a really, really hard question. Earth is a really good planet to live on. The sun is a particularly calm star. We are lucky to be here. But there’s this principle that’s just called the Copernican principle. It’s like a rule of thumb. You should never assume that we are central, that we are special, that we are any of that. So I think I don’t know. I want it to be I want there to be lots of other people out there.

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S1: You have a rooting interest, don’t you?

S6: I mean, wouldn’t that be better?

S1: Slate plus, members can hear more about the culture of 1977 and the making of one year in a series of members only shows in tomorrow’s episode. You’ll hear one year producer Evan Chang and Cris Motlanthe, the host of the Slate podcast hit Parade, talking about the music of 1977 from number one hits by Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles to the 1970s library music that you’ve heard on this show. Next time on one year nineteen seventy seven, how America and LeVar Burton got swept up in the Roots phenomenon.

S2: My very first days were professional actor Cicely Tyson played my mother, Dr. Maya Angelou, played my grandmother. I mean, who was I was this 19 year old kid from Sacramento.

S1: One year is produced by me and even charged with editorial direction by Lowe and Lou and Gabriel Roth, Madeline Ducharme is one year’s assistant producer. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1977 at one year at Slate Dotcom. We’d love to hear from you. Our mix engineer is Merritt Jacob, the artwork for One Year is by Jim Cook. He Calder wrote a book about his time running the national Enquirer,. It’s called The Untold Story. And Tony Brena is the author of an unpublished memoir, Anything for a headline. Thank you to the Library of Congress and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Archives and special thanks to Jack Hamilton, George Plus Skerries, Bill Smy, Mark Joseph Stern, Caleb Scharf, Jason Trey Sung Park, Katie Raeford, Ozma Solutia, Amber Smith, Seth Brown, Rachel Strahm and Chow too. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back with more from 1977 next week.