Science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once famously said, "Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
The question of whether or not we are alone in this vast universe could be seen as the most fundamental question ever asked - transcending all other scientific, philosophical or political concerns. So far, attempts to find life elsewhere in the universe have only been conducted on a fairly ad hoc, unofficial basis, with organizations such as the SETI Institute usually having to rely on private funding and support.
Due to this, the search for extraterrestrial life out there in the vastness of the cosmos has often been limited to a fairly small scale - especially due to the difficulties and expense of using the Earth's biggest radio telescopes. However, that is about to change.
World famous physicist Stephen Hawking is teaming up with Russian technology billionaire Yuri Milner to give SETI programs the boost they need to maybe even categorically answer the question: Are we alone?
On Monday, the duo announced they will launch the 'Breakthrough Listen' program, a well-funded project which aims to give leading researchers access to two of the world's most powerful radio telescopes. This support means experts can now search for extraterrestrial life on a magnitude hitherto unknown by science.
The $100 million donated to the 10-year project will help support operations with the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia, which allow experts to search for radio broadcasts across 10 times more sky and with a sensitivity 50 times greater than previous attempts. Furthermore, the project will also support efforts with the Lick Observatory in California, which will conduct the biggest and deepest search for extraterrestrial optical laser transmissions seen so far.
Aliens got in touch with us in the movie Contact, although their first call was a little disconcerting:
This means SETI programs can now detect signals from planets orbiting the one million closest stars to Earth, while it should also be able to detect signals from among the 100 galaxies closest to ours, casting the biggest net yet over the universe.
In fact, both Hawking and Milner believe this project could be the one to definitively answer the question of whether there really is life out there. Hawking, who will be acting as an advisor to the project, explained to the Royal Society in London:
"Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos – unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence... If a search of this scale and sophistication finds no evidence of intelligence out there it will be a very interesting result. It will not prove that we are alone, but will narrow the possibilities. It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark."
Dan Werthimer, the co-founder of the [email protected] project, which aims to use social networks and over 9 million volunteers to support SETI projects, also claimed the results of this initiative would have major ramifications for humanity in general. He stated:
"For thousands of generations people have been asking: are we alone? The answer is profound either way. If we find that the universe is teeming with life, we can learn how they get through their bottlenecks when they were killing each other, and we can become part of the galactic civilization. But it’s also profound if we are alone. If that’s the case, we’d better take pretty damn good care of life on this planet."
Is It Really a Good Idea to Search for Aliens?
If science-fiction films and novels have taught us anything, it's that aliens are probably best left alone. The instances in which they 'come in peace' are vastly outnumbered by the instances in which they blow up our major tourist attractions and probe our cavities.
Although it might sound silly to use Hollywood blockbusters to dissuade scientific research, it is an issue which even Hawking himself has waded into in the past. In a documentary for the Discovery Channel, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, he explained it might be in our interest to avoid contact, stating:
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans... Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."
Of course, it seems he has changed his position somewhat since then. Perhaps the allure of answering one of the most pertinent questions of our civilization was too much to ignore?
Source: The Independent