Is any­one out there?

The Hawk­ing-Mil­ner ini­tia­tive prom­ises to of­fer the quest for alien in­tel­li­gence a new lease of life

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

LMONTH, as the New Hori­zons space probe was AST beam­ing the first-ever im­ages of Pluto, Stephen Hawk­ing and Yuri Mil­ner, the Rus­sian bil­lion­aire and phi­lan­thropist, an­nounced a US $100 mil­lion ini­tia­tive dubbed ‘Break­through Lis­ten’ to seek ex­trater­res­trial (ET) in­tel­li­gence.

The idea that we may not be alone in this unimag­in­ably vast cos­mos is a tan­ta­lis­ing and hoary one. Most an­cient civil­i­sa­tions have flirted with this no­tion.The Sume­ri­ans at­trib­uted all their knowl­edge to am­phibi­ous aliens. An­cient Hindu and Bud­dhists myth­mak­ers imag­ined the cos­mos to be teem­ing with Earth-like bod­ies. But it was the an­cient Greek philoso­phers who forged ET worlds in the cru­cible of rea­son, shorn of any mytho­log­i­cal bag­gage. Dem­ocri­tus, who gave us the atomic the­ory of mat­ter, taught that space was in­fi­nite and that it was dot­ted with count­less worlds.How­ever,Plato and Aris­to­tle, the high priests of Greek phi­los­o­phy, were averse to the idea of mul­ti­ple worlds.Un­for­tu­nately for xenol­ogy,the Catholic Church made Aris­to­tle its pa­tron philoso­pher and en­shrined his Earth-cen­tric cos­mol­ogy as gospel truth.

For the next 1,800 years, the ET idea went un­der­ground. It was kept alive by a few bold heretics, such as the Ital­ian friar and math­e­ma­ti­cian Gior­dano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake in 1600 for go­ing against Church doc­trine. The ad­vent of as­tron­omy and the Coper­ni­can revo­lu­tion gave ET a new lease of life.For the next three cen­turies,the idea in­spired an as­sort­ment of artists, writ­ers and, sci­en­tists to fash­ion plau­si­ble fic­tions about ET worlds.

De­spite its cur­rency, how­ever, it had re­mained just that, a fic­tion. The turn­ing point came in 1959, when Na­ture pub­lished a pa­per by two Cor­nell Univer­sity physi­cists, Giuseppe Coc­coni and Philip Mor­ri­son, in which they sug­gested that we should start look­ing for sig­nals that may have been ra­dioed by aliens. The idea sounded quixotic, but their plea was that “if we never search, the prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess is zero”. The pa­per in­spired ra­dio as­tronomer Fran­cis Drake to look for ET ra­dio sig­nals. His en­deav­our re­sulted in what is now pop­u­larly known as the seti (search for ex­trater­res­trial in­tel­li­gence) project, which for the last 50 years has been scan­ning the skies for some sign of alien in­tel­li­gence.

How­ever, the truth is that there is no sign of them yet. Does that mean there are no aliens? In 1950, much be­fore seti took off, Ital­ian physi­cist En­rico Fermi had posed the same ques­tion as “where is ev­ery­body?” His point was that if the uni­verse is as old and as large as we be­lieve it is, then it should be teem­ing with in­tel­li­gent civil­i­sa­tions like ours, and, more im­por­tantly, that at least one of them should have spied on us by now.Known as the Fermi Para­dox, it has per­suaded some about the im­prob­a­bil­ity of alien life. Stephen Webb in his book Where is Ev­ery­body? de­scribes 50 other ex­pla­na­tions. One of them is that we haven’t looked hard enough and long enough. Not sur­pris­ingly, seti apol­o­gists favour this in­ter­pre­ta­tion. So far, the search has cov­ered only a few thou­sand stars within 100 light years or so, which is not even a mi­nus­cule frac­tion of the Milky Way’s ex­panse! Be­sides,seti en­thu­si­asts ar­gue,the power of the scan­ning ap­pa­ra­tus is dou­bling ev­ery year or two, al­most like Moore’s law for com­put­ers. Starved of funds for long (the us gov­ern­ment stopped fund­ing for seti in the early 1990s), the Hawk­ing-Mil­ner ini­tia­tive has come as a shot in the arm of seti. Aus­pi­ciously enough, just a few days af­ter their an­nounce­ment, nasa’s Ke­pler Mis­sion con­firmed that it had dis­cov­ered the first Earth-like cousin around a sun-like star. Cu­ri­ously, a couple of days later,an­other study put down the im­prob­a­ble evo­lu­tion of life on Earth to sheer serendip­ity, al­most equat­ing it to a mir­a­cle,which of course,is anath­ema for seti afi­ciona­dos. As Arthur C Clarke put it:“Some­times I think we’re alone in the uni­verse,and some­times I think we’re not.In ei­ther case the idea is quite stag­ger­ing.”


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