Hawking’s hunt for alien life: Stephen Hawking Alien Life
Published: July 20, 2015
Hawking’s hunt for alien life: Stephen Hawking Alien Life, The tantalizing possibility of finding intelligent life beyond Earth got a little closer on Monday, when billionaire technology investor Yuri Milner announced he was investing $100 million of his personal fortune into a scientific search that would be unprecedented in its scale and scope.
Stephen Hawking joined Milner on stage at the Royal Society in London to announce the Breakthrough Initiative, a 10-year scientific study utilizing two of the world’s most powerful telescopes, along with an international competition to explore the creation of digital messages that could represent humanity, with $1 million prize money.
The far larger, exploratory component of the program, on which most of Milner’s $100 million will be spent, is called Breakthrough Listen and will focus on exploring the universe’s entire electromagnetic spectrum.
Previous searches have covered just 2% of those frequencies, but the new program will cover them in their entirety, according to one of Breakthrough Listen’s lead scientists Frank Drake. “There’s a certain part of the spectrum where universe is darkest and quietest, and 2% has been searched,” he told FORBES. “The new search is 100% of the promising radio spectrum, the low-noise radio spectrum which is one to 10 gigahertz.”
Hawking spoke briefly on stage about why it was worth carrying out the program. “We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life,” he said from the launch event’s oak-panelled room at the Royal Society, London. “It’s time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth.”
Milner’s donation represents the biggest monetary grant ever given to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, often abbreviated to “SETI,” since Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s $30 million investment in the Allen Telescope Array in 2009. (The University of Berkeley shut down the array in 2011 due to a lack of continued funding.) Milner’s $100 million grant will be distributed over a 10-year period.
The globally renowned SETI research program at Berkeley University is more accustomed to getting grants in the thousands of dollars, such as the three-year $810,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation in 2013 or a $600,000 grant from NASA in 2012. The grant from Milner essentially represents a 20-fold annual funding increase for the entire field.
The program will cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs, and spark an unprecedented flood of new data. When use of the telescopes kicks off in January, one day of data collection will be equivalent to a year’s worth of previous global research by SETI scientists, according to Andrew Siemion, a director at the University of Berkeley’s SETI research centre, who will act as a lead investigator with Milner’s project.
The radio spectrum is about 10 gigahertz wide, and till now SETI research has only been able to look at 2o or 50 megahertz at a time.
“We’ve hunted and pecked,” says Siemion. “If you take into account hours and signal types this will be 50 to 100 times more powerful than everything we’ve done in the past.”
The program will survey 1 million of the closest stars to Earth, scan the center of the galaxy and listen for messages from the 100 closest galaxies. The researchers claim that if a civilization based around one of the 1,000 nearest stars sends out a transmission with the power of a common aircraft radar, the Breakthrough Listen telescopes could detect it.
Much of Milner’s investment will go towards gaining access to two of the world’s most powerful telescopes, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in Australia, giving a rare boost to the time they spend on SETI research.
Till today, researchers like Berkeley’s Siemion had been able to get no more than 36 hours with each telescope, per year, due to the greater demands of other scientific projects. Now under the new program they’ll get “thousands of hours per year” with them, helped in part by an increase in funding pressure for the foundations that run the telescopes, Milner says.
Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking announcing the $100 million Breakthrough Initiative in London. (Photo via Breakthrough Initiative)
Milner, who became a billionaire by coordinating a string of successful investments in Silicon Valley powerhouses like Facebook, Groupon and Zynga and who has already led $160 million in funding for the Breakthrough Prize in science, says he started thinking about a project to look for extraterrestrial life two years ago. His team began reaching out out to telescope facilities earlier this year.
Part of the impetus comes from his own personal background as a former physicist, as well as from being named after Yuri Gegarin, the first human to journey into space in 1961, the year Milner was born. “This was the first message to me, sent by my parents,” Milner told FORBES. “My mother wanted me to be inspired by what he did.”
The program is taking an uncharacteristically open approach to processing the wealth of data that the scientific team expects to collect. “We’re bringing some Silicon Valley philosophy into this,” says Milner. “All the data we accumulate will be open to the public, and we’ll make it available both for professionals and amateurs and hackers.”
Breakthrough Listen will be plugging into the SETI@home program, coordinated by Berkeley University. This is a distributed computing platform made up of 9 million volunteers around the world who have donated the processing power of their computers to search for signs of life.
With Hawking as advisor, a handful of senior scientists from around the world are leading the project, including Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees and Frank Drake, a pioneer in the field of SETI research who now chairs the Mountain View, Cali.-based SETI institute.
Even with the massive funding, dramatically more time with telescopes and faster computing power, scientists involved with the project conceded that there was no guarantee they would find that crucial signal over the next decade.
“It’s a huge gamble, but the payoff would be so colossal in recognizing there’s life out there that this investment is hugely worthwhile,” said Rees. “Even if the chance of success is small.”
The $1 million project to design a message to blast into the cosmos also has no obvious payoff: there are no plans to actually send a message, but rather gain something from the exercise of putting a message together. This appears to be partly out of caution for what could happen if such a message were to fall into the wrong hands.
Hawking, for one, is against contacting extraterrestrial intelligence. “We don’t know much about aliens but we know about humans,” he said. “If you look at history, conflicts between unmanned and less intelligence organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view. Encounters between civilizations with less-advanced technology have gone badly for the less-advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead. If so they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable that we see bacteria.”
Astrophysicist Martin Rees, whose painted portrait adorned the walls at the Royal Society where the Breakthrough Initiative was launched, said he strongly disagreed with Hawking. “I suspect if aliens know we exist, they know we’re here already,” he said. “I don’t think we should imagine any intelligence is like ours at all.”
The question of what to do if we were to make contact with intelligent life raises a host of philosophical and ethical questions. Ann Druyan who chose musical selections for the Voyager probe missions and was married to the late Carl Sagan, is leading the search for messages that could potentially be beamed into space in the hope of making contact.
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