Are we alone in the Universe? Some of the greatest thinkers in the world are about to try to answer this, which is one of the biggest questions ever asked. A group of scientists, astronauts, cosmonauts, scholars, Nobel Prize laureates, and chess world champions is creating a $100 million project called Breakthrough Life in the Universe Initiative. The huge project aims to find intelligent life in the Universe.

The project, sponsored by billionaire investor and former physicist Yuri Milner, will put together some brilliant minds to search the cosmos for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The project’s prominent supporters include Stephen Hawking, Kip Thorne, NASA astronauts Mark Kelly and Thomas Stafford, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (the first person who walked in space), SETI director Seth Shostak, Frank Drake (who developed the notorious Drake Equation, see notes 1), and for some reason, Seth MacFarlane.

Open letter: are we alone in the Universe? Now is the time to find out

The group has published an open letter to the public, outlining the philosophical and scientific motivations behind the renewed search for extraterrestrial life.

Are we alone in the Universe? Gaia spacecraft (artist conception)
Why we still couldn’t detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization? Are we alone in the Universe? Now is the time to find out.

Who are we?

A mature civilization, like a mature individual, must ask itself this question. Is humanity defined by its divisions, its problems, its passing needs and trends? Or do we have a shared face, turned outward to the Universe?

In 1990, Voyager 1 swiveled its camera and captured the ‘Pale Blue Dot‘ – an image of Earth from six billion kilometers away. It was a mirror held up to our planet – home of water, life, and minds. A reminder that we share something precious and rare.

But how rare, exactly? The only life? The only minds?

For the last half-century, small groups of scientists have listened valiantly for signs of life in the vast silence. But for government, academia, and industry, cosmic questions are astronomically far down the list of priorities. And that lengthens the odds of finding answers. It is hard enough to comb the Universe from the edge of the Milky Way; harder still from the edge of the public consciousness.

Yet millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child – our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings – an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”

That means the search for life is the ultimate ‘win-win’ endeavor. All we have to do is take part.

Today we have search tools far surpassing those of previous generations. Telescopes can pick out planets across thousands of light-years. The magic of Moore’s law lets our computers sift data orders of magnitude faster than older mainframes – and ever quicker each year.

These tools are now reaping a harvest of discoveries. In the last few years, astronomers and the Kepler Mission have discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. It now appears that most stars host a planetary system. Many of them have a planet similar in size to our own, basking in the ‘habitable zone‘ where the temperature permits liquid water. There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. And with instruments now or soon available, we have a chance of finding out if any of these planets are true Pale Blue Dots – home to water, life, even minds.

There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilization, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.

But as well as a call to action, this is a call to thought. When we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilizations? Who decides? Individuals, institutions, corporations, or states? Or can we as species – as a planet – think together?

Three years ago, Voyager 1 broke the sun’s embrace and entered interstellar space. The 20th century will be remembered for our travels within the solar system. With cooperation and commitment, the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.

This open letter was signed by:

  • Cori Bargmann Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, The Rockefeller University
  • Sarah Brightman Soprano
  • Magnus Carlsen World Chess Champion
  • Ding Chen Professor and Principal Investigator of the Search for Terrestrial Exo-Planets Mission, Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Frank Drake Chairman Emeritus, SETI Institute; Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz; Founding Director, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center; Former Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University
  • Ann Druyan Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager; Co-Founder and CEO, Cosmos Studios; Emmy and Peabody award-winning Writer and Producer
  • Stephen Hawking Professor, Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research, University of Cambridge
  • Paul Horowitz Professor of Physics and of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, Harvard University
  • Garik Israelian Professor and Staff Astrophysicist, Institute of Astrophysics of Canary Islands
  • Lisa Kaltenegger Director, Carl Sagan Institute; Associate Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University
  • Nikolay Kardashev Director, Astro Space Center of PN Lebedev Physics Institute
  • Mark Kelly Astronaut
  • Eric Lander President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Professor of Biology, MIT; Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School
  • Alexey Leonov Cosmonaut, the first person who walked in space
  • Avi Loeb Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, Chair of the Astronomy Department, and Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, Harvard University
  • Seth MacFarlane Writer, Director, and Actor
  • Geoff Marcy Professor of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley
  • Lord Martin Rees Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge
  • Kenneth Rogoff Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics, Harvard University; International Grandmaster of Chess
  • Dimitar Sasselov Phillips Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University; Founding Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative
  • Sara Seager Professor of Planetary Sciences and Professor of Physics, MIT
  • Sujan Sengupta Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Seth Shostak Professor, Senior Astronomer, and Director, Center for SETI research
  • Thomas Stafford Astronaut
  • Jill Tarter Astronomer; Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research, SETI Institute
  • Kip Thorne Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology; Scientific consultant and an executive producer, Interstellar
  • James Watson Chancellor Emeritus, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; Nobel Prize Laureate
  • Steven Weinberg Professor of Physics and Astronomy, the University of Texas at Austin; Nobel Prize Laureate
  • Edward Witten Professor, School of Natural Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study
  • Pete Worden Chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation
  • Shinya Yamanaka Professor and Director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University; Nobel Prize Laureate

Notes

  1. Written in 1961 by the American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake, the Drake equation is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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