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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Breakthrough Listen intensifies search for alien life

On July 20, when billionaire Yuri Milner’s The Breakthrough Listen project went live, the broadest search for alien life in human history began, giving special relevance to the oft-quoted Arthur C. Clarke gem: “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Using two of the world’s largest telescopes, the new project hopes to detect radio signals in the heart of the galaxy that would indicate advanced civilizations. The center of the galaxy, dense with stars, is thought by many scientists to be the most likely region in which life could evolve.

Stephen Hawking is serving as an adviser on the project, his interest in the search for intelligent life elsewhere already well known. At the launch of the new initiative, Hawking was quoted as saying, “… there is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer, to search for life beyond Earth. We must know.”

Hawking’s sentiment echoes the Clarke quotation, both brilliant men noting that to finally answer this age-old question would fundamentally alter how human beings perceive their own existence. Does the Earth-centric, often religiously tinged view hold? Is the universe actually part of an intricate design, all with the final end-game of producing the human race?

Or, like an H.P. Lovecraft story, are humans a galactic accident, nothing more than fleas on the back of an unknowable, terrifying cosmos? Indeed, either discovery could herald the dawn of a new era, or the collapse of organized society.

I once asked a devout friend of mine if the theoretical future discovery of intelligent alien life would affect her faith at all. Much to my surprise, she admitted that such a revelation would cause her to “seriously question” her religion.

In many ways, discovering intelligent alien life would function as the “answer” to existence that we’ve all been waiting for since the dawn of time. After all, the human condition is a terrifying thing. Being born into it is like being hired to work for a company where the work is lethal and none of the other employees can tell you why they’re doing it.

Depending on whom you ask, the boss might be a loving father, a fire-breathing squid monster, or worst of all, non-existent.

Of course, the possibilities extend beyond the abundant life/no other life dichotomy. One of the fathers of the atomic bomb, Enrico Fermi, once asked, “Where is everybody?” in response to the intelligent life question. From this developed Fermi’s paradox, or the analysis of the apparent contradiction between the theoretical number of inhabitable planets, and the lack of observed intelligent life thus far.

Since this form of analysis became popular, countless scientists and more mundane observers have formulated a wide variety of hypotheses to explain the lack of observed extraterrestrials in the universe. These include ideas that posit intelligent civilizations as too far apart, too different or too shy to contact one another.

Some have been moved by the question to suggest even deeper reasons for our lack of extraterrestrial contact. Perhaps the universe as we see it is a mirage, or maybe aliens already live among us a la “Men in Black.”

Obviously, such a fundamental question stabs at the heart of what it means to be alive, and can lead the interested into philosophical territory as much as scientific. Humans may go another 1,000 years without meeting another civilization. Conversely, we may all wake up tomorrow to news footage of an extraterrestrial landing party shaking hands with the president.

While scientists continue to search for the truth, the rest of us have no choice but to search for our own truth within the myriad daily tasks and agendas we occupy ourselves with. And even if we should find ourselves coming into contact with celestial neighbors, who is to say that their response to the question “What does it all mean?” won’t be “We thought you guys could tell us.” 

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