By Brandon Engel: Stephen Hawking is one of contemporary history’s greatest living geniuses. He is a leader in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology as well as something of a medical miracle; having battled the motor-neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for the majority of his life, he operates a computer with his cheek in order to communicate. Today he is currently the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, at DAMTP in Cambridge, previously he served as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge – a position once occupied by no less a scientific personage than Sir Isaac Newton.
In the past, Hawking has been cautious about his involvement in attempts to communicate with extraterrestrials, asserting that potential alien encounters would likely be disastrous for humankind. Any serious warnings from him, however, seemed largely unnecessary, given that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has been poorly funded and largely staffed by volunteers over the several decades of its existence. Anyone who concluded that Hawking is against SETI work, however, was mistaken. In collaboration with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, on July 20 he announced the creation of the “Breakthrough Listen” project at a press conference at the Royal Society, another group to which Isaac Newton belonged. The project will be endowed with $100 million over the course of 10 years.
The plan is to use powerful radio telescopes around the world, such as at the Parkes Observatory in Australia and Lick Observatory in California, to listen for alien signals. About a million stars will be observed by the project, which will focus its efforts on frequencies between 1 gigahertz and 10 gigahertz, which is thought by experts to be the most likely range for finding meaningful communications. It’s estimated that the amount of data gathered in one day of Breakthrough Listen will be as much as was collected in a year of previous SETI endeavors.
Alongside “Listen” is a similar but smaller-scale effort called “Breakthrough Message”, centered around composing a message to send to any alien life that we may find. Message will incorporate an element of competition, with a prize pool of $1 million for the winning creation of digital messages that reflect humanity and its values. Project leaders have not yet committed to sending any such message even if another civilization is found on some distant planet, but the possibility is being carefully considered.
Any attempt to communicate over interstellar distances is, of course, a very tricky business.
Breakthrough’s approach may be superior to the system used in the Voyager spacecraft: the launching into space of physical material containing information about Earth and the human species. This attempt seemed to be more of a publicity stunt rather than an actual, viable means of transmitting information to extraterrestrials. The chances of another civilization actually finding such a physical artifact within the vast volume of space is almost zero, despite what we may have seen in Star Trek.
Some more outlandish theorists claim that we have already come into contact with alien races, and they have already shared an impressive wealth of information with us. Over the last fifty years, it’s clear that we’ve witnessed a massive influx of technological discoveries that would have been unimaginable to those just several generations earlier. Some of these breakthroughs — powerful lasers, fiber optic internet, and advanced microchips — are believed (by a vocal few) to be proof of back-engineered alien technology. It’s hard to find credibility in these claims, but they nevertheless ignite a hope that extraterrestrial communities may assist us in the future, should we ever find a way to reach out.
Even if Breakthrough Listen detects a faraway culture and Breakthrough Message gives us the means to communicate with it, there might not be much that can be said. We have no way of knowing the ways in which alien lifeforms have evolved, and if their conceptions of time and space are anything like our own. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” After all, consider what aliens would think about us if they accidentally detected one of our transmissions, say, a YouTube cat video?
Complicating matters is the universal speed limit – the speed of light in a vacuum – faster than which no message can travel. This means that it will take several years between transmission and reception, even if we detect intelligent life orbiting one of the stars closest to our home planet. All things considered, it’s highly implausible that aliens could teach us how to live in peace with our fellow creatures, preserve our Earth’s environment or how to address any of the other problems that currently affect us.
If we do end up communicating with aliens, the outcome will likely reveal more about our own personal perceptions and biases than anything else. In the words of Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln, “When we talk about the more intelligent extraterrestrials, we’re really holding a mirror up to ourselves. If we didn’t see ourselves in the vision, we wouldn’t find them nearly as fascinating.” Ultimately, the notion of extraterrestrial peoples encourages us to see outside ourselves, and imagine new, alien, ways of doing things.