Click above to listen to discussion about how the odds of finding extra-terrestrial life have improved with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke (Broadcast 28th July 2015)
Ever since humanity emerged as an intelligent species here on Earth, people have wondered whether we are the only intelligent creatures in the Universe? Or whether other intelligent beings exist somewhere out there?
It is a huge question for our species, and our identity, yet finding an answer to it has never been placed at the top of any political or scientific agendas.
Many politicians and scientists believe it is a waste of time and money to search for so-called ‘little green men’ when there are so many problems here on Earth that need attention and resources.
Some leading scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have also, in the past, questioned whether it is a good idea for us to make contact with an alien intelligence that may have superior technology to ourselves.
We can think of what happened to Africa, when the Europeans ‘made contact’ with Africans in the 19th century.
And there is a risk, Hawking has said that we could end up like the Africans did after contact with Europeans; exploited, enslaved, or even wiped out.
Assuming an ET intelligence is ‘benign’ could be the worst, and last mistake mankind every makes.
There is, Hawking has said, an argument that we would be better off not just to stop seeking contact, but to ignore an alien signal even if one should come our direction.
But the main problem facing the tiny number of top scientists who have dedicated their careers to finding ET is a lack of funding. The lack of funds has meant that we are little further down the road to answering the question Are we alone? than we were 50 or 60 years ago at the dawn of the Space Age.
Some dedicated ET-seeking scientists, have even begun to ask the question, was it still worth it, given the lack of success since the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) began with the setting up of the SETI Institute in 1960.
After all, as one leading astronomer has pointed out, despite 55 years of listening for signals from ET, scientists have been met with nothing more than ‘An Eerie Silence’.
Into this atmosphere of pessimism, came news just last week that an Earth-like planet Kepler 452b had been discovered by NASA’s Kepler telescope.
This planet is 60 per cent larger than Earth, with a similar surface temperature; it has twice the gravity, lots of sunshine, probably liquid water, a rocky surface, and a 385-day year.
It is very like the Earth, and all the conditions exist for life to develop there. Also, it is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion older than Earth, so there has been even more time for life, even intelligent life to evolve there.
This is just one of many Earth like planets that the Kepler telescope is discovering in the Milky Way, so there is lots more Kepler 452b’s out there.
Kepler cost $600 million when it was launched in 2009 and has found thousands of exo-planets since; planets that are outside our own Solar System, and some of these, like Kepler 452b, have conditions that allow for life.
Allied to this, came the news that Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire is to pump $100 billion of his own funds into the search for ET intelligence.
Yuri Milner is a 53-year-old Russian, science graduate turned entrepreneur with an estimated personal net worth of $1.8 billion.
He studied theoretical physics at Moscow State University, graduating in 1985. In 1990, he went to the US to do an MBA after reportedly being disappointed in himself as a physicist.
Milner made a fortune through his early involvement in a Russian email service, the mail.ru group, and investing in Facebook and Twitter.
He was inspired as a child by reading ‘Intelligent Life in the Universe’ by Carl Sagan, listening to the inspiring speeches by President John F Kennedy, and watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon as an 8-year old.
This is not the first time that a wealthy private investor has come to the rescue of resource-starved ET hunters. In 2001, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, provided $30 million in funding for the Allen Telescope Array, a linked collection of telescopes north of San Francisco dedicated to the search for ET.
Allen was the eccentric character depicted by John Hurt, some might remember in the film Contact, which featured Jody Foster, playing the role of astronomer Eleanor Arroway, based on real life ET hunter Dr Jill Tarter.
Allen’s investment was remarkably, but Milner’s investment is more than triple that, and is a game changer for scientists searching for ET intelligence.
The story begins really in 1960, when legendary astronomer Frank Drake, set up the SETI, or Search for Extra-Terrestrial, Institute in California.
Drake is still alive, aged 85 now, and actively involved in the SETI Institute’s work, which has the mission statement to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”
From the start it was decided to focus on trying to pick up radio signals from space, which could only have been generated artificially.
It was thought more likely, for scientific reasons, that an alien civilisation would transmit at certain frequencies, so these frequencies became the focus of the search, while many others were ignored.
So, SETI was limited in its scope from the start, by a lack of funding. It was directly funded by the US taxpayer for a time, but this stopped in the mid-1970s. Since then it has been reliant on funds from private donors, big and small.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, a few years after SETI’s Federal funding was cut, one of its researchers, a man called Jerry Ehman, who was now working on SETI project without pay, made perhaps the most important discovery in the history of the search for ET.
On August 15, 1977, a huge, and apparently artificially produced radio signal was ‘heard’ by the Big Ear Observatory in Ohio. This showed up in the data later read by Jerry Ehman. The signal was immensely powerful, lasted about 90 seconds long, and came from an uninhabited area of deep space.
All man-made possible radio sources were ruled out systematically by Ehman and his colleagues, but the signal never repeated and there the mystery was left.
Famously, Ehman wrote the word ‘Wow’ beside the data which showed the massive pulse on the paper printout, as he read through it in amazement.
I managed to track the now retired Ehman down last year, as part of an RTE Radio 1 science series called What’s It All About? He spoke to me about his experience, and he still thinks about the Wow signal every day, 38 years later.
It remains mysterious, and was the inspiration for the contact made by alien intelligence depicted in the Hollywood film contact, based on a book by Carl Sagan and staring Jody Foster.
The reason, SETI researchers would argue has to do with the size of the Universe, and the lack of resources put into the search up to now.
Most scientists now accept that given the size of the Universe and the number of earth-like planets that exist out there that can potentially hold life, that life, and intelligent life – mathematically speaking – simply must exist elsewhere.
Consider the figures:
There are an estimated 11 billion earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone which could hold life. And, there are 100 billion galaxies in the Universe.
To many scientists, those numbers suggest one thing: Life and lots of it.
Yet, given the vast distances involved with space, ET life remains elusive.
But, it’s perhaps a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack somewhere in the Soviet Union, but we don’t even know which haystack the needle is in yet.
Frank Drake, whom I mentioned before, famously came up with the Drake Equation in 1961 to estimate, using mathematics, and the number of active, communicative extra-terrestrial civilisations in the Milky Way galaxy.
Drake estimated that there would be between 1,000 and 100,000 such civilisations in the Milky Way. The Drake equation has its critics, who argue over the mathematical parameters used to come up with its conclusions.
However, perhaps the most powerful argument against Drake, and the entire SETI enterprise came from the physicist Enrico Fermi.
Fermi looked at the Drake equation, made some calculations of his own, and came up with something which became known as the Fermi Paradox.
The Paradox is that if there was such a high probability intelligent ET civilisations out there, as Drake proposed, then why Fermi asked, was there no evidence of human contact with them?
Fermi put forward the simple, provocative question ‘Where is everybody?”
The involvement of Hawking is interesting and significant because of his former statements, as I mentioned earlier, about the wisdom of seeking contact with alien intelligences.
Yet, Hawking’s presence, certainly helps to add scientific credibility to the initiative and guarantees lots of press coverage, as huge press coverage follows whatever Hawking does.
Hawking said to British press in 2010:
“We should be wary of answering back, until we have evolved,” said Hawking. It “might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don’t think they were better off for it.”
But Hawking has obviously changed his mind for whatever reason, as the Milner projects will involve both passively looking for signals coming from space, and actively seeking to compose messages which mankind ‘might’ (it has to be discussed further) decide to send out into space.
Hawking now says it is right that we should seek out other civilisations as we can learn things from them, such as how to best use and allocate natural resources.
The other interesting thing about Hawking worth mentioning here is that he believes that life spontaneously arose on Earth.
This is at odds with many reputable scientists who now increasingly believe that life was ‘seeded’ here following comets or asteroids slamming into the Earth.
There are two initiatives called ‘Breakthrough Listen’ and ‘Breakthrough Message’.
Breakthrough Listen is, by far, the more important of the two.
It will search for life on planets orbiting the some 1 million stars, like our Sun, which reside in our own galaxy the Milky way. It will also search for life in the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way.
Breakthrough Message, meanwhile, will fund an international competition to determine the content of messages that we humans want to send to alien civilisations. This is open to everyone – what would you like to say to an alien civilisation? And there is prize money of $1 million for the best messages.
This is probably more to do with public relations and winning the public over to get interested and involved in the search for ET intelligence.
Most of the $100 million will be used over the next 10 years to buy expensive telescope time on the Green Bank Telescope in west Virginia USA and the Parkes Telescope in Australia.
The ET intelligence researchers plan to use that telescope time to examine up to one million ‘relatively’ nearby star systems for artificially produced radio signals which would indicate the presence of intelligent life.
The funding will also enable researchers to develop new receiving technologies which can speed up the search for radio broadcasts across a wide spectrum of frequencies and from many locations of the sky.
Aside from searching ‘local’ stellar targets, the researchers will also look at a large number of galaxies beyond our Milky Way for signs of very advanced intelligence which may be capable of sending signals across inter galactic distances. This would require immensely powerful transmission technology.
The money will also be used to look for laser flashes, which can also indicate the presence of an advanced civilisation.
Last year, I interviewed Seth Shostak, a highly regarded researcher with the SETI Institute and he answered that exact question. He has worked in the field all his life, and is in a good a position to make a prediction.
Seth has said publicly that he believes that we will have discovered signs of an intelligent extra-terrestrial civilisation by about 2040. By then, he said, astronomers will have scanned enough star systems to give themselves a great shot of discovering alien-produced radio signals.
At that point in time, scientists will have scanned about one million star systems, instead of the few thousands which have been scanned to date. Seth made this prediction even before the Milner funding came online.
I’m guessing that he would probably revise his date several years downward after this latest news, which he no doubt is elated by.
In the next 25 years it’s likely we’ll live to witness the historic discovery of an ET civilisation.
We will have finally discovered that we are not alone.
I could envisage that for our grandchildren, the discovery of new ET civilisations will become humdrum, and that ‘contact’ will be the next milestone sought.