Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur and former physicist Yuri Milner announce a $100-million, 10-year initiative to look for signs of intelligent life in the cosmos
Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur and former physicist Yuri Milner announce a $100-million, 10-year initiative to look for signs of intelligent life in the cosmos
Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk posted on July 20, 2015. I am Steve Mirsky.
Earlier today entrepreneur and former physicist Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Prizes in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics, announced a $100-million 10-year initiative to look for signs of intelligent life in the cosmos. The announcement took place at the Royal Society in London, where Milner was joined by Stephen Hawking; Frank Drake, of the Drake equation for estimating advanced civilizations in the universe; Martin Rees, England's astronomer royal; Ann Druyan, author and science documentary producer, including both versions of the Cosmos TV series; and U.C. Berkeley's Geoffrey Marcy, astronomy's most prolific exoplanet hunter. Here's part one of this morning's event.
Yuri Milner: My name is Yuri Milner and some of you may know me as a technology investor from Silicon Valley. But today I want to tell you about a different kind of investment. Investment in science. But first let me tell you the story behind it. In 1961 John F. Kennedy announced his dream of landing man on the moon by the end of the decade. And on this very day, 46 years ago, we made the first step onto the moon. The same year, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin has become the first human in space. It was an important year for humanity. We stepped out into the solar system. It was also an important year for me; I was born. My parents were so inspired by Gagarin's voyage that they called me Yuri. Later I was told that my mother, who is right here in the room, that she wanted me to be inspired by what he did.
Meanwhile, Frank Drake, who is also with us here today, was thinking far beyond the moon and the solar system; he was wondering how much of the galaxy was home to life. Also in 1961 he invited a group of brilliant and original thinkers to the Green Bank Observatory, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Among them was a young Carl Sagan. Ann Druyan, his collaborator in work and life, is with us here today as well. At this seminal conference the team addressed the question "Are there civilizations beyond our planet?" Frank Drake presented his equation, the Drake equation. This was a way to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy that could communicate with us.
In the meantime, Carl Sagan and Iosif Shklovsky wrote a book about it, Intelligent Life in the Universe. Growing up I was deeply affected by this book. For the first time it got me thinking about reality beyond the world I knew, about the big questions of the universe, life, intelligence, and the biggest question of all, are we alone. These ideas inspired me to become a physicist. I didn't find any answers to the big questions myself, but I did get a chance to meet others who are making progress. In 1987 I had the honor of meeting Stephen Hawking for the first time. He inspired me then and he has inspired me ever since. I will let Professor Hawking speak for himself.
Stephen Hawking: I am here today because I believe the Breakthrough initiatives are critically important. To understand the universe you must know about atoms, about the forces that bind them, the contours of space and time, the birth and death of stars, the dance of galaxies, the secrets of black holes. But that is not enough. These ideas cannot explain everything; they can explain the light of stars, but not the lights that shine from Planet Earth. To understand these lights you must know about life, about minds. 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, or do our lights wander lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons, announcing that here on one rock the universe discovered its existence. Either way, there is no bigger question.
It's time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough initiatives are making that commitment. We are live, we are intelligent, we must know.
Milner: Thank you, Professor Hawking. Now I'm excited to announce our first initiative, called Breakthrough Listen. There was a time when even our best scientists and engineers could only speculate on the subject. Tesla and Marconi both believed that they heard signals from Mars. Edison too, gave advice on how to communicate with this planet. In 1924 Mars came closer to our planet than it had in a century. The U.S. government declared National Radio Silence Day, asking radio users to stop broadcasting for five minutes every hour. In this telegram they warned that Mars may attempt communication by radio waves with this planet. Since then when it comes to life in the universe our public conversation has not become much more serious, but signs has.
Over the last half century astronomers have significantly refined their search technology. They have brilliant leaders, like Frank Drake, among others, but they often operated on the shoestring budget from government funds and Silicon Valley donors. And they often relied on the passion of enthusiasts. It was this unpaid volunteer, Jerry Ehman, who found perhaps the most promising signal so far. In 1977, analyzing data from the Big Ear telescope in Ohio, he found a clear signal. He was so excited that he scribbled "Wow" on the margin of the printout. But this result has never been confirmed. Yet we should not read too much into the lack of confirmed signals. In fact, our experiments so far have only begun to explore the space of possible signals.
Thanks to Kepler mission, it is now estimated that there are billions of potential habitable planets in our galaxy alone. As another leader of the search, Jill Tarter, said, "If you dipped a drinking glass into the sea once and came up without a fish would you conclude that there are no fish in the sea?" Breakthrough Listen will dip much more than a glass in the sea, by bringing a completely different scale of technology to the problem, that includes significant access to some of the world's best and most powerful telescopes.
First, the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank telescope, the largest telescope in the U.S. It is also the site of the first radio search by Frank Drake in 1960, but with a much smaller telescope. The 64-meter Parkes telescope, the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, on this very day in 1969 it was this telescope that received the famous footage of the first step onto the moon. While the other telescopes look for radio signals, the Automated Planet Finder telescope at Lick Observatory will hunt for laser signals. It was here in 1995 that Geoff Marcy, who is also here with us today, confirmed the first discovery of a planet orbiting a sun-like star.
But all these instruments, as powerful as they are, are they really powerful enough for interstellar messaging? The answer is yes. Let's take our receiver telescope, the biggest telescope in the world, that Mr. Drake was a long-time director of for a while. So here is our receiver on our planet. It will only take a similar sized transmitter in the center of the galaxy for a receiver on our planet to detect it. This is a pretty impressive range; it is 150 million billion miles. So it basically means that the technology on the other side have to be just as developed as we are for us to get the signal from a single instrument from the center of the Milky Way and to receive it on our planet, which I think is pretty incredible. So we don't need to assume that the civilization is way more developed than we are.
And it gets even more impressive. If someone wanted to call us from the Andromeda galaxy one R receiver to another, how much power would it take? This is the Three Gorges Dam in China. It would only take two of these power stations connected to one R-receiver sized transmitter to reach us here on Earth. And this is almost 15 million trillion miles away. So it means that even intergalactic communication can be achieved with pretty much the same level of technology that we have today.
So today we are launching the most comprehensive search program ever. Just in one day Breakthrough Listen will collect more data than a year of any previous search. The scope of our search will be unprecedented, a million nearby stars, the galactic center, the entire plane of the Milky Way, and hundreds of nearby galaxies. Breakthrough Listen will generate vast amounts of data, all of it will be open to the public. In fact, more data will be open than ever in the history of science. But we'll use and further develop the most powerful software. All software will be open source. The hardware and software used in the Breakthrough Listen project will become compatible with other telescopes around the world, so they too could search for intelligent life.
The idea is to bring a Silicon Valley approach to the search. That means an approach to data that is transparent, that is innovative, and that uses the problem-solving power of social networks. That is why we'll also be joining forces with SETI@home. SETI@home is a distributed computing platform of nine million personal computers around the world. Collectively it is one of the largest existing supercomputers. The concept is extremely empowering. If you hear about the question of intelligent life in the universe you can now join the search by then lending your spare computing power and joining forces with a community already nine million strong.
In summary, Breakthrough Listen takes the search for intelligent life in the universe to a completely new level. It is, first of all, the most comprehensive in scope. Second, it is faster and more sensitive than any previous search. In addition, we'll cover the broadest ever spectrum. In fact, it will be about five times wider. We will be committed to full transparency. Both data and software will be open. We will also establish an open platform for external developers to create new applications for analyzing the data. They probably will spend a decade with a total commitment of $100 million. And it probably will be managed by renowned leaders in astronomy and search for intelligent life.
Lord Martin Rees will chair our advisory committee, made out of specialists in technology, engineering, astronomy, and astrobiology. Lord Rees is a celebrated astrophysicist and cosmologist, he's the former president of this society, in fact he is looking on us from that wall. And for the last 20 years he has been astronomer royal, a title that goes back 340 years. Lord Martin Rees, please.
Martin Rees:Thank you. Well, as Yuri has said, I'm the 3-D animated version of the picture up on the wall there. And let me just say what a privilege it is for me to be here this morning to help launch this very important initiative by Breakthrough and by Yuri Milner personally and to be on a panel with distinguished people; with Frank Drake, who as has been said, is the pioneer of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and with Ann, who sadly is no longer accompanied by the late Carl Sagan, who was also, of course, a great pioneer and inspiration; and Geoff Marcy, one of the pioneers of searches for planets, who is actively involved.
It's a huge gamble, of course. No boards count on success, but the payoff would be so colossal in recognizing that there was life elsewhere, that this investment is hugely worthwhile, and will attract huge public interest, even if the chance of success is small. And I'd like to give just three reasons why this is especially timely. The first is that technology allows much more sensitive searches than could be done before, and the latest instrumentation on the biggest telescopes will be able to the hugely extend what's been done, give broad bandwidth and do an exploration of stars in all parts of our galaxy. The second reason is that the chance of finding life has risen in effect a billion-fold when we realize that Earth-like planets are not rare, but that there are literally billions of them just within our own galaxy. And this is work from Kepler spacecraft and Geoff has been one of the pioneers. The third reason is that this is a time when citizen science and social media allow the project to have a real global reach in a way it never could before.
And I think all of us in astronomy know that the question one is always asked by non-astronomers is "Is there life out there?" We may not answer it, but this gives a bigger chance that it will be answered in our lifetime, and is an inspiration, not just to astronomers and the public, but to biologists, because the biggest uncertainties in the origin of life are the biological ones, and we don't know what we'll see out there; it may be organic life, it may be some kind of machines created by a long-dead civilization, but any signal, even if it's hard to decode, but _____ manifest the artificial would tell us that concepts of logic and physics aren't limited to the hardware in human skulls that exists elsewhere and would transform our view of the universe. So that's why I'm privileged to be here today and I'm delighted to be a supporter of what the Breakthrough initiative is doing. Thank you very much.
Milner: Thank you, Lord Rees. I will now hand over to Frank Drake to tell us some more about Breakthrough Listen. Frank Drake is the founding father of the field, he is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. Professor Drake, please.
Frank Drake: Thank you, Yuri. It's a great pleasure to be here on this day, when we are announcing such an important and magnificent new initiative in this very important search, important in a very profound sense, or extraterrestrial intelligent life. I'm here I think because I started the modern search. There were previous searches by Marconi and Tesla and other people for intelligent life, but the first modern search was done in 1960, at the time when for the first time we had developed radio telescopes sufficiently powerful that they could detect the strongest radio transmissions that we then were sending from Earth. So we knew such transmissions could exist, and now we had an instrument which could detect them across the distances which separate the stars. And so the field of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, came into being.
I remember the first day of the search we pointed our telescope and it was actually the second target, which was the star Epsilon Eridani, one of the nearest sun-like stars that might have planets; we didn't know at the time whether it did or not. And as soon as we pointed the telescope we heard a signal. And I was astonished. We were all astonished, because we wondered "Can it really be this easy? Is it true that in fact the universe is full of transmitting civilizations and we just did not realize it?" Well, unfortunately that signal was one that was coming from us and was mimicking a signal from another star, but it revealed to us, yes, you know, it could happen, they could be out there, and we must search.
Well, since that time, here on Earth we have searched in many countries with many different instruments for many, many thousands of hours and have yet to see a signal that we can conclude conclusively was of extraterrestrial origin. So we learned, no, it wasn't that easy. It's not easy. There are just so many stars and so many frequency channels that we must make a very comprehensive search with very sophisticated equipment that allows us to search the whole radio spectrum in a very short time with high sensitivity for signals.
Now we live in a time when things have come together to make this possible. One is that we have the large telescopes, such as the Green Bank telescope, the Parkes telescope, and perhaps Arecibo. We also have at this time major developments in digital technology which allow us to construct at acceptable cost radio receivers which can monitor literally billions of channels at the same time. And at the same time the other thing we have needed, which is the funding to allow these searches to proceed, is being provided by Yuri Milner.
Historically in astronomy many of the most major developments have been supported by private people, private benefactors who recognized the potential significance of the searches they were supporting. Yuri has done that, and as you heard, he is about to contribute a massive sum of money to make this search go on, to make it persist for at least ten years, it may take longer. But for once, after all these years of being guest observers of the poverty-stricken we'll finally have stable funding so that we can plan from one year to the next, we can hire very talented people to carry out the work, and we will have the most powerful search and enduring search that has ever been launched. So this is a very great milestone, it may take a long time, but it's our best chance to get all of those treasures of knowledge that will accrue if we do indeed detect another intelligent civilization.
Milner: Thank you, Professor Drake. We will now hear from Geoff Marcy. He's a Professor of Astronomy at University of California Berkeley. He is also the most successful planet hunter in history. Professor Marcy, please.
Geoff Marcy: Thanks, Yuri. It's a great honor to be here today. I think we're witnessing a historic moment. I'd like to go back over the past two years that I think offered us a historic scientific discovery. I'd like to highlight three different teams led by Eric Petigura, Courtney Dressing, and Natalie Batalha. Independently analyzed data from the Kepler satellite, the NASA Kepler satellite, each of those teams showed that at least ten-percent of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy harbor a planet of nearly Earth's size at lukewarm temperatures. Astronomers, of course, had previously detected organic molecules in space, such as amino acids; they're found on comets, they're found within interstellar clouds, and elsewhere. And of course we've known that the energy of starlight can power the biochemical reactions, leading to more complex organics: proteins, DNA, perhaps other types of replicating molecules that we humans have never dreamed of.
So the universe is apparently bulging at the seams, if you will, with the ingredients for biology. Indeed, even the origins of cell membranes are being understood and reproduced in the lab these days. Given all that, who among us could doubt that the basic single-celled life is common in the universe? I would bet my house that among the nearest 100 star systems single-celled organisms can be found and are flourishing. Or at least I bet Yuri's house.
However, the more difficult question and the reason we're here today is to explore the issue of how commonly life evolves, presumably by Darwinian evolution, into intelligent technological species. And indeed, a parallel question is how long such civilizations last. These two questions remain utterly unanswered by many orders of magnitude. We have no idea. We don't know whether the nearest technological civilization is ten light years away or ten million light years away. With the Breakthrough initiative we will target the nearest million stars, the nearest 100 galaxies, we will target the entire plain of our Milky Way galaxy, including the center, with its billions of stars, and we'll be looking for any transmissions of radio waves, and including optical light, laser light.
In effect, we're going to do something else which is even more technologically impressive; we will be examining something like 10 billion frequencies of light waves, radio waves, simultaneously. This is an unprecedented frequency coverage and it's made possible by new high-bandwidth technology that we will invent at UC Berkeley. In effect, we will listen, if you will, we will listen to a cosmic piano every time we point the radio telescopes; a piano not with 88 keys, but with 10 billion keys. Our electronics will be designed to pick out any note with a frequency that is consistently true against the background noise of the 10 billion notes out there. We will also use long telescope dwell times, up to an hour, to detect extremely faint radio and visible light waves.
I want to reemphasize what Frank said, I think this is a special moment for SETI. The reason we're here, the reason this is the correct time to do SETI, Yuri mentioned it, Frank did too, I'll say something similar. We have fortuitously at our disposal two of the world's largest radio telescopes. We also have the advent of digital signal processing at tens of gigahertz bandwidth. And then finally we have the funding to support brilliant scientists who are going to carry all of this out. I'm absolutely delighted and honored to be here. Let's do this.
Milner: Thank you, Professor Marcy. So what happens if we succeed, if we do find another civilization? What, if anything, could we say to them or should we say to them? This is a question that needs to be debated, and that is why we came up with our second initiative, Breakthrough Message, to describe ourselves and our planet in a language that other minds could understand. In 1974 Frank Drake and Carl Sagan created this coded message and sent it to a star cluster 25,000 light years away. In 1977 Frank Drake again, Carl Sagan, and Ann Druyan created the Voyager Golden Record. This disc encoded the recordings of nature and culture, including Ann's own brainwave activity. That means your thoughts, Ann, have now passed beyond the solar system, to begin a great conversation through space and time.
We are inspired by these messages from the past, but now it's time for new messages. Breakthrough Message is a global competition to create digital messages that represent us and our planet. The best messages will be rewarded from a pool of prizes totaling $1 million. But this is not a commitment to send messages; it's a way to learn about constraints and possibilities of interstellar communication and to encourage global discussion on the ethical issues of sending messages into space.
Ann Druyan will tell us a little bit more about this initiative. As you know, Ann is a writer and producer of award-winning television, including both original and new version of Cosmos programs. Ann, please.
Ann Druyan: Thank you, Yuri. I want to say what an honor it is to be in this distinguished company and to echo the previous speakers in expressing my profound thanks to Yuri Milner for giving us the means to answer the question that I think virtually every single human being who's ever looked up at the stars has wondered about. And here we now have the means to search in the myriad ways that Geoff described. My task, which I hope to share with Frank—I wish Carl were with us to join us, because the experience of making the original Voyager interstellar message was a great way to develop a degree of self-awareness of what it is to be human, of what it is to be on this planet, to be alive. And so during the many months that we and our colleagues worked on this question we felt that we were creating a kind of Noah's ark of human culture and human feelings. Voyager was that intersection of the rigorously scientific and the cultural and the emotional.
And what we hope to do in this new initiative is to think together and discover whether or not we as a planet, by engaging the broadest possible public in the adventure of formulating this message, if we can think together, and if we can think together and come to a conclusion about whether or not it's wise to send such a message and what specifically we want to convey about who we are. During the making of the Voyager record one of the big tensions was do we put our best foot forward or do we show ourselves as we really are. I think that will be a continuing question that we will want to deal with. But I love about this, about this search, is how democratic it is in the sense that it's an undertaking for all of us. The passion of popular culture is the question of what other beings might reside in the cosmos. And now, through the tremendous generosity and vision of Yuri Milner we now have a chance to do this together. I really hope you'll join us.
Yuri Milner: Thank you, Ann, and thank you, all the speakers. This was once a dream. It is now a truly scientific quest. The 20th century we stepped out from our planet to space, to the moon, to the solar system. In the 21st century we will find out about life at a galactic scale. Professor Hawking, you once said "Although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free. Free to explore the universe and ask the big questions, such as do other civilizations exist?" Today, with Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message we are joining you on that quest. It is time to open our eyes, our ears, and our minds to the cosmos.
Mirsky: Come back for part 2, which starts with an extended question-and-answer period with Stephen Hawking.