A remarkable meeting of minds took place in California last month on April 20 and 21. Stanford University was the scene for the second annual Breakthrough Discuss, where scientists from a variety of fields came together to tackle arguably the greatest question we have ever faced – are we alone in the universe?
The event was part of Breakthrough Initiatives, a bold program started by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to spark advancements in the search for life. This includes searching for alien signals via Breakthrough Listen and potentially traveling to Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to Earth, with Breakthrough Starshot.
The idea of Breakthrough Discuss was not only to talk about these ventures, but also to explore the broader search for life. This includes finding potentially habitable worlds around nearby stars like the TRAPPIST-1 system and more recent discoveries relating to Enceladus. There were also discussions on the possibility of finding signals from aliens, known as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
“I’m just so delighted with this meeting,” Jill Tarter from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, told IFLScience. “We want to know what our place in the universe is. Are we part of something that’s quite common, or are we totally separate and unusual and unique?”
A panel discussion at the event. Jonathan O'Callaghan/IFLScience
Breakthrough Discuss began with a series of talks on red dwarf stars and their potential for hosting life. The idea has come to the fore recently, particularly with places like TRAPPIST-1 40 light-years away found to have multiple rocky planets in orbit. Red dwarfs are the most numerous stars in our galaxy, and their relative dimness compared to our Sun makes it easier to see and study the planets in orbit around them.
It’s still not clear if a planet in orbit around a red dwarf can be habitable; the stars are temperamental and prone to flaring. But they are undoubtedly attractive targets, and they may be some of the best places to look for life. Just the other day, a new planet was found around the red dwarf LHS 1140b, also about 40 light-years away, which has been heralded as a great place to look.