Monday, July 20, 2015

Stephen Hawking announces $100 million hunt for alien life

On Monday, famed physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian tycoon Yuri Milner held a news conference in London to announce their new project: injecting $100 million and a whole lot of brain power into the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, an endeavor they're calling Breakthrough Listen.

"We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth," Hawking said at Monday's news conference, "So in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life."

Geoffrey Marcy, a University of California, Berkeley, astronomer who found most of our first exoplanets, also spoke at the event as part of the group's brain trust.

"The universe is apparently bulging at the seams with the ingredients of biology," Marcy explained. Indeed, Marcy and other scientists have found a surprising number of Earth-like exoplanets in recent years — rocky planets the right distance from their suns to support water — suggesting that life as we know it is at least possible, if not probable, all over the universe.

That being said, the group of esteemed scientists gathered on Monday didn't make any bold claims about immediately hunting down intelligent life-forms — or ever finding them at all, for that matter. But the likelihood of success is about to shoot up exponentially, because right now we're barely trying.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been active since 1960, when scientist Frank Drake — another of the great minds joining Breakthrough Listen — sought out radio signals from neighboring stars. But even the largest group looking for life, the SETI Institute, doesn't receive any government funding, and this particular aspect of space exploration now relies on dwindling support from universities and private organizations.

“We would typically get 24 to 36 hours on a telescope per year, but now we’ll have thousands of hours per year on the best instruments,” Andrew Siemion, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the group's co-founders, said at the news conference. “It’s difficult to overstate how big this is. It’s a revolution.”

Milner, best known for investing in technology companies like Facebook and Alibaba, is footing the entire bill for the project. It's the latest endeavor of his Breakthrough Prize Foundation, a Silicon Valley funded group that currently gives the biggest prize — $3 million per laureate — of any scientific award. The prize is funded by investors including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sergey Brin, but Breakthrough Listen will start with a $100 million, 10-year budget from Milner's own pocket.

According to Milner and the scientists joining him, the project will allow scientists to collect as much data on SETI in a day as they now do in a year. The data will be made available to the public, so anyone can help search for the radio signals that could be used to track down alien civilizations. Meanwhile, others at Breakthrough Listen will be working to improve our own signaling techniques, brainstorming the best way to send a message out into the cosmos.

"I've been thinking about this since I was a child, reading Carl Sagan's book 'Intelligent Life in the Universe,' " Milner told The Post. "The year that I was born, 1961, that was a big year in science — the first man was launched into space, and I was named for him. And Kennedy made his famous speech about putting man on the moon."

(The first man in space was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.)

As far as Milner is concerned, we owe it to ourselves to try to answer the question of whether or not humanity is alone.

"I don't have high expectations, but the search itself will teach us quite a bit," Milner said. "We could find something we're not even looking for."

And while his expectations aren't high, he says he has a gut feeling we're not alone.

"I think it's a low probability but high impact event," he said. "Irrespective of what the answer is, it's a powerful answer. At any given time, we should apply the best technology and use the best instruments available to search for that answer."