A potentially monumental moment in human history may be upon us. Last winter various radio telescopes around the world—over the span of about 3 days—picked up a repeating signal emanating from the region of space near Alioth (highlighted in the image), a star in the constellation Ursa Major, or the Big Bear. While this is nothing out of the ordinary for astronomers, some further details warranted a deeper investigation. Everything in the cosmos gives off some form of radiation; the trick is determining whether it is random noise, some natural repeating signal, or something we can't identify as a natural product, which might suggest an intelligent source. The signal in particular here was odd because of the frequency it was detected at, 5.0832 GHz.

At first glance this is nothing extraordinary, but a student of mathematics might realize that this is the product of two of the most important numbers in the world: π and φ. Pi, of course, is recognized by everyone who has taken grade school mathematics as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is a number that has been known throughout human history because of its intrinsic link with shapes and geometry. The other number is a bit more obscure, but holds similar importance to the foundations of mathematics. Phi is known as the golden ratio, approximately equal to 1.618. It was deemed to be the perfect ratio by Greek mathematicians and architects. It can be defined as follows: given two line segments a and b, it is the ratio of the lengths of a+b to a, and the ratio of a to b. It is also claimed to show up in natural forms, such as the ratio of area of mollusk shells, and in proportions seen in the human face, although variations in species and individuals make this statement tenuous.

The other intriguing fact about this signal is the pattern that the signal arrived with. The signal came in discrete pulses of radiation; from the beginning of the sequence, two single pulses were 'heard', then two pulses together, then three, then five, following this pattern until a sequence of 34 short bursts occurred. The series then repeated itself over and over for about three days. Again, aspiring mathematicians should pick up on this immediately as the first 10 Fibonacci numbers… (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34). This ties back into the frequency it was broadcast on: the ratio of the (n+1)st Fibonacci number with the nth Fibonacci number as n gets very large is the golden ratio,φ, part of the frequency the signal was broadcast on.

What this means is the subject of heated debate. Alioth is only about 81 light years away from Earth and no one on Earth has produced a signal of sufficient strength that might have reached there in time to have been detected and triggered a reply. Given the distance, the signal recently detected had to have been sent over 81 years ago, but who or what sent it is not now, or may never be known. What it does suggest—emphasis on "suggest"—is that this is no naturally occurring phenomena. The frequency is composed of two irrational numbers that are universal, meaning they do not rely on any specific understanding of measurement or units. They are ratios found in naturally occurring shapes, and would suggest that the senders understood geometry similar to the way humanity's mathematical understanding evolved from natural forms to what we know today.

One final thought before I close what may be the biggest story ever… April Fools!