Russian theoretical physicist turned tech billionaire Yuri Milner announced on Monday that he would spend at least $100 million in the next 10 years to find an answer to the age old existential question of whether there is any intelligent life out there in the universe.
“The idea is to bring a Silicon Valley approach to the search for life,” said Milner, sponsor of the annual 3 million Fundamental Physics Prizes who made his reputation through investments in Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook.
“That is, an approach to data that is transparent, that is innovative, and that uses the power of crowdsourcing,” he added.
Milner, who has secured observation time in the world’s two largest radio telescopes – the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and Csiro Parkes Telescope in Australia – has gained the backing of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking along with Lord Martin Reese from the University of Cambridge, NASA veteran Peter Worden and Ann Druyon, the widow of Carl Sagan.
“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life. Somewhere in the cosmos perhaps intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. It's time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Initiative is making that commitment,” said Hawking, speaking at the announcement.
In the Breakthrough Listen project, astronomers will listen signals from 1,000 closest stars in our galaxy with equipment that is now more sensitive and can cover a 10 times greater area than the equipment used in previous attempts that began 55 years ago.
The SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project began in 1960 when Frank Drake, famous for the Drake equation which estimates the probability of finding alien life which is technology advanced enough to communicate, turned a 26-metre radio telescope to the heavens.
However, for 55 years, the efforts of scientists were in vain save for the “WOW signal” of 1977, which hasn’t been explained or heard again since.
“We have a responsibility to not stop searching,” said Mr. Milner, cited by The New York Times. “It should always be happening in the background. This is the biggest question. We should be listening.”
Breakthrough Listen will also attempted to detect laser pulses with the power output of a household 100-watt light bulb from the nearest stars within a distance of some four light years from earth.
Milner will also pay an extra 1 million to anyone who can devise a way to create and send a reply if the attempts bear fruit.
“It is sure to bear fruit," Hawking said. "If a search… finds no evidence of intelligence out there it will be a very interesting result. It will not prove that we are alone but… it is important for us to know if we are alone in the dark.”
Conversely, the discovery of intelligent life could have an enormous philosophical and theological impact on humanity.
Whether or not this new endeavour discovers whether extraterrestrial life exists, the attempt may ultimately provide just as much gain as the goal itself.
“We’ll roll it over for another 10 years,” Milner told tech magazine Wired. “Why stop? The question is interesting enough to keep going.”