Two Articles from The Delaware (Ohio) Gazette
July 7, 2007
By: Liz Robertson, Staff Reporter

(1). Big Ear, big documentary
(2). Does my hair look OK?

Click on each photo for a larger image.

Big Ear, big documentary

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Liz Robertson
Staff Reporter

Filming Jerry Ehman Who will talk to E.T. first? And how?

There is a protocol, drafted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 1996, that addresses such an issue. The academic paper discusses and outlines an international approach to communicating with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Prosper de Roos, a Dutch filmmaker, is making a documentary about this protocol. De Roos makes independent nonfiction and fiction films for cinema, television and the Internet. Many of his films have been selected for film festivals around the world, earning him some awards for his work.

He traveled this week from the Netherlands with producer Jaap van Hoewijk and team members Benny Jansen and Rob Hodselmans to film part of his project in Delaware County. He was interested in Big Ear, the Ohio State University radio telescope, that listened for signals from outer space for more than 30 years.

The Big Ear Radio Telescope Big Ear, constructed in 1963 and located just south of Delaware on U.S 23S, was as large as three football fields. Big Ear was torn down in 1998, once the lease for the property expired. The telescope’s demise cleared the way for a housing development and an expansion of the Dornoch Golf Club.

The Dutch film crew planned to meet and interview Jerry Ehman, a retired Ohio State University professor in the department of electrical engineering. Ehman worked at Big Ear until funding evaporated in 1971 and he lost his position. But he continued to do volunteer work for the project. It was the practice to review the computer print-outs every few days, and in 1977, during Big Ear’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Ehman discovered what is now known as the Wow! signal, an unexplained 72-second spike.

It was “after supper around Aug. 19,” Ehman said, that he was reviewing the latest batch of data. Ehman, 47-years-old at the time, noticed a signal that he thought was “very interesting” and he wrote ”Wow!” with a red pen in the margin. The signal had come in at 10:16 p.m. Aug. 15, 1977.

He said the day “was not relative except in hindsight. The signal strength hit a peak and then dropped off. I knew we had something very remarkable.”

Ehman said the signal was clearly the strongest ever seen.

“Meeting Strangers” is the working title of the documentary on which de Roos is working. He said when he read about the protocol on the Internet dealing with the procedures for making contact with extra terrestrial intelligence, he began researching it and located 40 to 50 people around the world that were thinking about what to do when intelligent life was found.

This will be de Roos’ first long film; it will be 55 minutes for television and 70 minutes for the cinema. The film will be shown in the Netherlands on public broadcasting.

So far, the project has taken four years to get to the filming stage. Editing, de Roos said, is to begin in November, and the film will debut in March 2008. The previous four years were spent on research and obtaining funding for the project.

“Funding is the reason it took so long,” he said.

On this three-week trip, de Roos also plans to interview scientists in Williamsburg, Va., San Francisco and Puerto Rico, where the largest radio telescope in the world is located. Later he will interview people in Austria, Russia and the Netherlands for the documentary.

One of the challenges of the project, he said, is to make a human interest subject of a scientific topic. One way to appeal to that human interest, de Roos said, 0is to show what finding intelligent life elsewhere “means to me, to you, when we find it. How will it change our world or not?”

Does my hair look OK?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Liz Robertson
Staff Reporter

Filming Liz Robertson What began as the reporter covering the story ended with both the reporter and the photographer being part of the story, as Delaware Gazette photographer Amy Allan and I were drawn into a documentary by a Dutch film production company on Ohio’s only radio telescope, fondly called Big Ear.

Filming in a room at Perkins Observatory Thursday morning got off to a late start as the crew had to rent equipment to replace a tripod and lens that were lost on the flight to Ohio. As they prepared to begin shooting, director Prosper de Roos explained to Jerry Ehman, the scientist that noted the best evidence of a signal to date from outer space, the process and what they were doing. Speaking quietly at time in their native Nederlands [sic; Dutch], the men quickly and deftly made final touches to the light and angle of the camera.

The men were filming a documentary, “Meeting Strangers,” about people who are preparing for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. The crew interviewed Jerry Ehman because he is the one that discovered the Wow! signal in 1977. Ehman was a volunteer at the time at Big Ear, the radio telescope that was located just south of Delaware on U.S. 23. The telescope was demolished in 1998 to make way for development.

The filmmakers gave me permission to observe and reminded me to turn off my cell phone.

Benny Jansen controlled the sound and the boom microphone while Rob Hodselmans was busy filming. They would stop periodically and film from another angle, resetting the camera. This was also a good time to adjust my standing position, as the floor in the 84-year-old observatory creaked audibly when any movement was made.

After filming at the observatory, the group took a break and had lunch at Delaware (formerly Dornoch) Golf Club. Amy and I were to meet them at the end of their lunch break. We caught up with them as they were walking along the road, with de Roos and Ehman discussing where Big Ear would have been located.

But de Roos had an idea. Rather than interview Ehman himself, he wanted to film me interviewing Ehman. So Amy and I became a part of the project instead of just writing about it.

Jansen fitted me for sound and Ehman and I began walking down the road with the camera and boom mic keeping pace. Amy circled us, snapping her photos. Every now and then we would be stopped and given some instructions.

De Roos wanted a shot of Ehman pointing to the sky in the direction that the signal came from. I could ask my own questions while adding those that the director wanted answered.

Walking the course under the blazing sun, Ehman tried to locate where Big Ear was. Because of the changes to the landscape, with hills and landscaping added to create the golf course, it was not an easy task. He used tree lines as guides and noted that a pond was said to be in the vicinity, if not the actual area. But there were no remnants of the telescope to be found. Ehman said there could still be patches of concrete that supported the main structure which covered almost three acres. The pillars were two feet around and three feed deep. We looked for these, as well.

Ehman said the last time he was at the site was in 1997, when he was moving the data and equipment out of the office building. He does have a piece of the mesh from the telescope but the rest had been sold for scrap. [Actually, the SETI League has made and sold plaques with samples of the mesh. Although Jerry does not have one of these plaques, NAAPO (the continuing group of volunteers) does.] The original piece of computer printout with the famous Wow! written on it is at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus, where it can be preserved.

Walking from golf hole to golf hole searching for any remnants of the massive telescope, Ehman said he does believe there is life beyond our planet.

“My thought is there are roughly 300 billion stars in just our galaxy. And we know one planet already with intelligent life, so there could be thousands of them, tens of thousands.”

He said there was not enough information to prove one way or the other if the "Wow" signal was from another life source. But he said they “eliminated all other possibilities for the signal as far as we know.”

So does Ehman really believe in aliens?

“Yes, I do. We are only one of our hundreds of billions (of stars). Finding them is the crick [sic; trick],” he said.

Topping the rise on one hill, the pond stretched out before us. Ehman pointed to the south, indicating the direction the signal came from.

“There’re so many possibilities. We can only try. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. But we do not know where the haystack is, or what the needle looks like,” said Ehman.

The breeze made the heat bearable, but not enough to make it comfortable for the visitors who came from a country where temperatures were much cooler. And even though it was not even 4 p.m., the film crew was fighting jet lag. It was 10 p.m. at home and they had been working since 7 a.m. our time.

As we walked, de Roos asked me if I knew of the Elvis Presley theory. Presley took his fatal overdose on the day the "Wow!" signal; he died the next day. There are some who believe the signal was an alien message that the famous singer responded to, he explained.

We wandered over to the 13th hole which is said to be an area where Big Ear was located. A foursome was playing there. We were motioned to be quiet while some footage was shot of them hitting the ball and the ensuing sound.

“Are you filming a documentary?” one of the golfers queried, little knowing the subject matter had little to do with golf.

I asked de Roos if he was pleased with the progress of the film so far. He said he was, except for the missing equipment.

“With a documentary you are not fixed. It is not scripted in that sense. I have a feel of whom to film and why,” he said.

And were there any surprises? He said that I was a surprise. Not anticipating a reporter and a story on the project, he incorporated my being there into the film.

"So what’s the angle of the documentary?" I asked de Roos. Jansen and Hodselmans laughed and said that’s what they were wondering, as well.

De Roos smiled. “The angle is human interest. To look for the fascination of why someone is doing something,” he said.

He explained further “In (Ehman)’s story, it is not only the 'Wow!' signal, but the personal fascination of looking into the skies.”

He turned to Ehman. “What does it mean when we find aliens?”

Ehman said, “It answers the basic question, 'Are we alone?'”

The two discussed the possibilities of intelligent life as missionaries. It seemed strange to be standing in the middle of a golf course discussing philosophical treatises on the contingency of intelligent life existing somewhere in the universe.

We began walking back towards the clubhouse.

Afterward, there were releases to sign and a brief chat in the shade with some cold water to quench our thirst. The others would go back to the observatory while I needed to head back to the newsroom. The crew would be in the area until today, when they would head for their next destination. If meeting extraterrestrial intelligence is anything like meeting strangers from across the big pond, then I think we would get along famously.

Webpage created by Jerry Ehman.
Last modified: July 7, 2007