But Narkevic’s and Lorimer’s discovery nearly got binned. For a few months after they first spotted the unusually bright burst, it looked like the findings wouldn’t make it any further than Lorimer’s office walls, just beyond the banks of the Monongahela River that slices through the city of Morgantown in West Virginia.
Soon after detecting the burst, Lorimer asked his former graduate adviser Matthew Bailes, an astronomer at Swinburne University in Melbourne, to help him plot the signal—which to astronomers is now a famous and extremely bright energy peak, rising well above the power of any known pulsar. The burst seemed to come from much, much further away than where the Parkes telescope would usually find pulsars; in this case, probably from another galaxy, potentially billions of light-years away.
“It just looked beautiful. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s amazing.’ We nearly fell off our chairs,” recalls Bailes. “I had trouble sleeping that night because I thought if this thing is really that far away and that insanely bright, it’s an amazing discovery. But it better be right.”
Within weeks, Lorimer and Bailes crafted a paper and sent it to Nature—and swiftly received a rejection. In a reply, a Nature editor raised concerns that there had been only one event, which appeared way brighter than seemed possible. Bailes was disappointed, but he had been in a worse situation before. Sixteen years earlier, he and fellow astronomer Andrew Lyne had submitted a paper claiming to have spotted the first ever planet orbiting another star—and not just any star but a pulsar. The scientific discovery turned out to be a fluke of their telescope. Months later, Lyne had to stand up in front of a large audience at an American Astronomical Society conference and announce their mistake. “It’s science. Anything can happen,” says Bailes. This time around, Bailes and Lorimer were certain that they had it right and decided to send their FRB paper to another journal, Science.
After it was published, the paper immediately stirred interest; some scientists even wondered whether the mysterious flash was an alien communication. This wasn’t the first time that astronomers had reached for aliens as the answer for a seemingly inexplicable signal from space; in 1967, when researchers detected what turned out to be the first pulsar, they also wondered whether it could be a sign of intelligent life.
Just like Narkevic decades later, Cambridge graduate student Jocelyn Bell had stumbled across a startling signal in the reams of data gathered by a radio array in rural Cambridgeshire. Not much of the array is left today; in the fields near the university where it once stood, there’s an overgrown hedge, hiding a collection of wonky, sad-looking wooden poles that were once covered in a web of copper wire designed to detect radio waves from faraway sources. The wire has long been stolen and sold on to scrap metal dealers.
“We did seriously consider the possibility of aliens,” Bell says, now an emeritus professor at Oxford University. Tellingly, the first pulsar was half-jokingly dubbed LGM-1 —for little green men. With only half a year left until the defense of her PhD thesis, she was less than thrilled that “some silly lot of little green men” were using her telescope and her frequency to signal to planet Earth. Why would aliens “be using a daft technique signaling to what was probably still a rather inconspicuous planet?” she once wrote in an article for Cosmic Search Magazine.
Just a few weeks later, however, Bell spotted a second pulsar, and then a third just as she got engaged, in January 1968. Then, as she was defending her thesis and days before her wedding, she discovered a fourth signal in yet another part of the sky. Proof that pulsars had to be a natural phenomenon of an astrophysical origin, not a signal from intelligent life. Each new signal made the prospect even more unlikely that groups of aliens, separated by the vastness of the space, were somehow coordinating their efforts to send a message to an uninteresting hunk of rock on the outskirts of the Milky Way.