Are we alone in the universe? Considering we now believe there to be billions of Earth-like worlds peppered across our home galaxy, the Milky Way, it seems highly unlikely. But scientists have been searching for signals from extraterrestrial life for decades, to no avail. We shouldn’t dwell on this. After all, as astronomer Jill Tarter likes to remind us, if you dip a drinking glass in the sea and come up with nothing but water, would you conclude there are no fish in the sea?
It’s time we stepped up our game, and scientists are doing just that. Today, at the Royal Society in London, Breakthrough Initiatives announced a 10-year international search effort to unlock the mystery of intelligent life in the universe. Joined by Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy and Ann Druyan, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner was elated to announce the $100 million endeavor, which is set to be the biggest, most comprehensive search yet for intelligent civilizations beyond our Solar System.
“In an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life,” Hawking said at the event. “It’s time to commit to finding the answer, for the search for life beyond Earth. We are life, we are intelligent, we must know.”
The project will actually involve two strands, the first of which is called Breakthrough Listen. Using two of the world’s most powerful telescopes – the Green Bank Telescope and the Parkes Telescope – scientists will survey the skies for light signals, or more specifically radio waves, with the hope of identifying any that could be the result of advanced civilizations. This will be conducted in combination with a deep search for optical laser transmissions using California’s Lick Telescope.
“The universe is bulging at the seams, if you will, with the ingredients for biology,” said Geoff Marcy, an astronomer who is also the most successful planet hunter in history. “Who among us could doubt that basic, single-celled life is common in the universe?” A more difficult question, he explains, is how commonly simple life evolves, presumably by Darwinian evolution, into an intelligent form.
And if we want to raise our chances of finding such evolved civilizations, we need to scan a decent chunk of the universe around us. In our own galaxy, telescopes will scour the closest million stars to Earth, the center of the Milky Way and its galactic plane. Beyond that, scientist will also eavesdrop on the closest 100 galaxies to ours, all in all covering an area 10 times larger than previous searches.
But it isn’t just about covering a large area. We have no idea what frequencies of light these civilizations may be broadcasting, so we have to search for all of them, explained Marcy. And that’s 10 billion frequencies, simultaneously.
“In effect, we will listen... to a cosmic piano every time we point the radio telescopes, a piano not with eighty-eight keys but with ten billion keys.”
So that’s going to generate an unfathomable amount of data. How will a small team of scientists realistically sift through that? Step forward the beautiful public and the wonderful world of social media. All of the data gathered will be open and freely available, and after developing powerful software to assist the trawl, scientists and members of the public will be able to put their heads and computers together to analyze the hordes of measurements.
We can’t possibly know what we will find, if anything, but that’s still exciting. “It is sure to bear fruit. Experimental astronomy is always worthwhile,” said Hawking. But even if it is negative, he adds, that will not prove we are alone, it will just narrow down our possibilities.
And this leads on to another important point, raised by Frank Drake, pioneer of the search for extraterrestrial life and developer of the famous Drake equation: We know very little about how long civilizations remain detectable. “We have been detectable for one hundred years,” he explains. “We may be becoming harder to find.” So if we don’t know enough about longevity, we cannot use our own civilization as an example.
Negative thoughts aside, what if we do find a signal that could be indicative of intelligent life? This is where the second strand of the project comes in: Breakthrough Message. This is a global competition to create digital messages that represent mankind and our planet. Prizes up for grabs total a staggering $1 million.
As Ann Druyan, Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, explains, the idea is to encourage people across the world to think together and conclude whether it is wise to send such a message. And what specifically do we want to convey? Do we put our best foot forward, or show how we really are? But Milner hastens to add that there is no commitment to send messages; we need to discuss the ethical and philosophical issues of communicating with intelligent life.
Hawking expressed his concerns on the matter: “We don’t know much about aliens, but we know about humans.” Although Lord Rees did not share his apprehension. “We mustn’t imagine any intelligence is like ours,” he said.
If you want to get involved in this ambitious endeavor, whether that is helping analyze the immense mass of data or sharing your ideas on the kind of messages we could potentially send, details will be announced at a later date. For now, sit back and ponder.