Stephen Hawking: There is 'no bigger question' in science than the search for extraterrestrial life

The professor is advising on a new search for intelligent life on other planets

Humanity has taken a step closer to knowing whether or not we are alone in the universe, Professor Stephen Hawking has said, as scientists announced a major new £64m investment in the search for intelligent life on other planets.

Backed by the Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner, the Breakthrough Listen project will give leading researchers access to two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes, enabling the search for extra-terrestrial radio emissions to operate with sensitivity 50 times greater, and across 10 times more sky, than ever before.

Launching the project at the Royal Society Professor Hawking, who will act as an adviser, said that there was “no bigger question” in science.

“Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean,” he said. “Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos – unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence.”

The new project, unprecedented in its scope, was “sure to bear fruit”, he added. “If a search of this scale and sophistication finds no evidence of intelligence out there it will be a very interesting result. It will not prove that we are alone, but will narrow the possibilities.

“It is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.” 

 

The 10-year initiative, which will commence in January 2016, will give researchers searching for radio signals that could be emitting from distant planets, or from machines made by intelligent life-forms, thousands of hours of time at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.

A third telescope, at the Lick Observatory in California, will perform the biggest and deepest search yet for extra-terrestrial optical laser transmissions.

The survey will be sensitive enough to detect signals emitting from planets orbiting the one million stars closest to Earth. Stronger signals could be detected from even further afield, among the 100 galaxies closest to our own.

Milner, the US-based co-founder of the Breakthrough Prize initiative, which rewards and funds scientific endeavours, said that modern technology had reached a point at which humanity now has “a real chance” to find out whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Universe.

The huge amounts of data collected by the intergalactic search will be processed, in part, by joining the SETI@home programme, a University of Berkeley project in which nine million volunteers around the world have donated their spare computing power to search data for signs of alien radio signals.

All the information gathered will be open source and the software and hardware used will be compatible with telescopes all over the world so that they can join the search.

“With Breakthrough Listen, we’re committed to bringing the Silicon Valley approach to the search for intelligent life in the Universe,” said Milner. “Our approach to data will be open and taking advantage of the problem-solving power of social networks.” 

Dan Werthimer, co-founder of SETI@home, said that because some of the stars to be surveyed were much older than our own sun, the planets orbiting them could be home to civilisations billions of years more advanced than ours.

“For thousands of generations people have been asking: are we alone? The answer is profound either way,” he said. “If we find that the universe is teeming with life, we can learn how they get through their bottlenecks when they were killing each other, and we can become part of the galactic civilisation. But it’s also profound if we are alone. If that’s the case, we’d better take pretty damn good care of life on this planet.”