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The recent announcement of Breakthrough Starshot has reignited a fervor for space exploration, a flame that was nearly extinguished during the past few decades. Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner’s plan to send iPhone-sized space crafts, powered by ground-based lasers, to Alpha Centauri in 20 years reads like the stuff of science fiction giants.
While the goal of Breakthrough Starshot is not direct alien contact, the palpable excitement does come from our enduring fascination with extraterrestrial intelligence. Earlier this year the internet buzzed over the possibility of an alien megastructure causing unusual light patterns around a star. Last November, California lost its collective head when a military test appeared to be a bright UFO.
We’re talking about more than just the “lunatic fringe” of UFO watchers and X-Files aficionados insisting that “The Truth That Is Out There.” Anyone who spent their childhood immersed in science fiction, dreaming about aliens with tentacles and five heads, or just looking up at the sky in awe, feels the same sense of exhilaration. Reaching the stars is no longer limited to the fantasies of Asimov and Heinlein.
The latest scientific vision for galactic exploration comes from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. The new initiative is to target the SETI Allen Telescope Array at 20,000 new star systems scanning them for technological traces of extraterrestrial intelligence.
There are two important differences between this project and other SETI projects.
The first is that most SETI research focuses on astrobiology. Scientists probe under the ice of Jupiter’s moons or on the surface of Mars, searching for microbial life but not evolved and technologically advanced beings.
The second big difference between this project and previous SETI searches is that they are listening to the radio waves of a different type of star. Traditionally astronomers have sought only Sun-like stars, presuming that star systems similar to ours are the likeliest to contain inhabitable planets like Earth. Those stars, however, are few in the grand scheme of the galaxy. Scanning different types of systems explodes the possibilities exponentially.
According to Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior SETI Institute Astronomer, the project targets 10 times the number of stars than other projects have previously monitored.
BTRtoday speaks with Dr. Shostak as well as Dr. Gerry Harp, director of the Center for SETI Research, both of whom are working on the new project.
We ask both scientists what compels them to work on a project that is quite literally “out there.”
Shostak’s believes we are programmed from an early age to be curious about creatures outside ourselves.
“We’re wired to be interested in other creatures that compete with you, could mate with you,” he tells BTRtoday. “You’re interested in whether there’s a tribe over the hill there because it’s important for your survival to know about it.”
He listens because he sees little reason not to.
“With Kepler telescope results we’ve seen that almost every star has a planetary system and one in maybe five stars has an Earth-like planet,” he adds. “So the circumstances for the development of life are pretty common in the galaxy.”
Despite this perspective, both Harp and Shostak are remarkably unconcerned about the possibility of finding nothing but lifeless space.
Shostak reminds us that the search itself contains intrinsic benefits that extend beyond the central goal of finding E.T. New technology is continually being developed, more and more cosmological discoveries are being made; the universe is opening up to the scientific community even if we remain alone here on the rock we call home.
“I don’t think I would say ‘oh, this is discouraging. I didn’t find anything, I’m on my deathbed, they’re about to put me in a box and I didn’t find anything,’” Shostak muses. “I don’t think that’s the way I would feel about it because there’s always something new in this biz. The equipment is always getting better, we’re always getting new exoplanets, we’re finding out things about stars that we didn’t know.”
This is in contrast to the ubiquitous depiction of the lone, passionate-bordering-on-obsessive scientist, which Shostak frankly snorts at.
“We’re not doing the same thing over and over,” he scoffs. “It isn’t like Jodie Foster putting on earphones every day, hoping to hear something. We monitor 40 different channels, it would take 20 million pairs of earphones. That’s really gonna mess up your hairdo.”
Harp, meanwhile, displays an almost startling amount of optimism for making the discovery.
“Not finding [alien] life in my lifetime, I think that’s unlikely,” he tells us, as though the idea were just a little bit silly. “And if it happens, then we will have learned something very important, which is that life actually isn’t very common in the galaxy. That would say something very surprising about humans: that we are special in some way or another. Ordinarily, scientists don’t think of humans as being special.”
A bold perspective, given the tendency of humans to weave elaborate tapestries of self-importance in the form of religion and science fiction that inevitably places humans at the center of a grand cosmological scheme.
Harp suggests that finding E.T. could spell hope for humanity, despite our penchant for destroying ourselves. With global challenges among many other large hurdles ahead, he wonders whether intelligence and technology aren’t just merely ticking time bombs that no civilization can survive. Even if other civilizations start, they might very well die after only a few hundred years of industrialization.
“In that case,” he explains, “the chance that we would overlap in time with another civilization is vanishingly small.”
So if we find E.T., this means that civilizations can be long-lived, since they almost certainly have been around a lot longer than us.
“Finding E.T. would be a very hopeful fact for the human race. If other civilizations have done it, then so can we,” says Harp.
Let’s hope he is right.
Shostak also believes that discovering intelligent life would be socially destabilizing, for better or worse.
With faith in most young people’s belief in microbes on Mars, he tells us that a confirmation of base forms of life would not shock them. “They will simply say ‘sure, I figured there was life out there,’” he suggests.
“The bigger discovery, however, would be to find evidence of intelligent life,” he tells us. “We can easily accept other biology–after all, we’re just one of at least a million species on Earth–but it’s perhaps far less easy to accept that we might not be the smartest creatures in the Galaxy.”
A not altogether surprising observation of the reaches of the human ego.
“So if we found signals coming from a society hundreds, thousands, or millions of years more advanced than we are, would that destroy humanity’s self-confidence? Would it dissuade us from making progress and making discoveries? That’s possible, but only if we were able to decode information in a signal and actually learn something from it.”
Rest assured, he does not think such a consequence likely.
“I’m not sure that will happen, so I’m not terribly worried. We may find the evidence that the aliens are out there… We may pick up their radio signals — but I doubt we’ll ever understand what they’re saying. We’ll have to discover the truths of the universe on our own.”