Extraterrestrial life: Stephen Hawking and tech billionaire Yuri Milner

July 21, 2015 4:13 am

The search for extraterrestrial life received a major boost Tuesday
with the launch of an ambitious $100 million (NZ$152 million) programme,
backed by famed physicist Stephen Hawking and tech billionaire Yuri
Milner.
Combining unprecedented computing capacity with the
world’s most powerful telescopes, Hawking and the Russian-born Milner
seek to intensify the so far fruitless search for life beyond the planet
Earth.
It is a coordinated plan to use the latest scientific methods to solve one of mankind’s enduring riddles: Are we alone?
Hawking,
who speaks using a computer-generated voice due to the effects of motor
neuron disease, explained the reason for the project: “We are alive. We
are intelligent. We must know.”
Milner, who made a fortune
through investments in companies like Facebook, said the power of
Silicon Valley and innovation would be used.

“The scope of our search will be unprecedented: a million
nearby stars, the galactic centre, the entire plane of the Milky Way and
100 nearby galaxies,” Milner told a packed press conference at the
Royal Society in London.
Organisers say the “Breakthrough
Initiatives” project, also endorsed by other prominent British
scientists, is the biggest ever scientific search for alien life. It
includes a “listening” program ” the effort to analyse vast amounts of
radio signals in search of signs of life ” and a “messaging” programme
that will include $1 million (NZ$1.5 million) in prizes for digital
messages that best represent the planet Earth.
The messages will
not be sent, however, in part because some scientists ” including
Hawking ” fear messages sent into could possibly spur aggressive
actions by alien races.
It will be supported by the 100-metre
Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia in the United
States and the 64-metre Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
In addition, the Lick Observatory in California will conduct a deeper-than-ever search for optical laser transmissions.
The project will be 50 times more sensitive than earlier searches, and will cover 10 times more of the sky, organisers say.
It
will also make use of SETI@home, a University of California, Berkeley
project that uses some nine million volunteers throughout the world who
donate computer power to search astronomical data for signs of life.
Milner
said the search will be entirely transparent and will rely on
open-source software so findings can be shared throughout the world.
“Our approach to data will be open and taking advantage of the problem-solving power of social networks,” he said.
The
researchers say the focused computing power and the use of some of the
world’s most powerful telescopes will allow them to collect in one day
the same amount of data that would have taken one year to collect before
the programme began.
Milner plans to back the programme for at
least 10 years although scientists agree it may take longer to find
proof that alien life exists.
Hawking said the new programme
should succeed because it has ample resources: access to time on major
telescopes, a huge data capacity, and a long-term financial commitment
that will not be withdrawn.
“If a search of this sophistication
finds no proof, that is an interesting result,” he said. “It will not
prove that we are alone but it will narrow the possibilities and it is
likely to produce data that is fascinating in its own right.”
Based
on new information about the number of other worlds where life could
have taken hold it is “quite likely” humans are not alone, he said.
“There is no bigger question,” Hawking said. “It is time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth.”

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