Science & Technology

Is anyone out there?

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

By Rakesh Kalshian
Last Updated: Wednesday 19 August 2015

Last month, as the New Horizons space probe was 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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  • The WB State Government has been doing exemplary work in transforming the coastal town of Digha into a premier tourist destination of the state for attracting local, national and foreign tourists similar to Darjeeling. While the initiatives and investments made by the government for promoting this tourism drive should be greatly appreciated; however, it is also important to voice few concerns about the project from a long term ecological perspective. Digha represents a fragile and highly vulnerable ecosystem that has been seriously impacted by the advancing sea resulting in coastal erosion; and from the neglects and serious environmental pollution that spans over several decades. Although it is important to allow the development of Digha into a model coastal tourism destination but at the same time it will be necessary to reduce the severe anthropogenic pressures on this grandeur tourism hub by opening additional tourist spots in the adjacent locality and area. From this perspective, the newly emerging tourist centers such as Sankarpur could be looked upon as viable alternatives. Digha has been over run and thickly populated by tourists. Hence opening additional tourist destinations is not only important from a long term environmental perspective to reduce anthropogenic pressures; but, also for generating additional tourist revenues by promoting unique tourist destinations. The proposal for ropeway connectivity between Digha and Sankarpur, improved roads, community gardens and parks, promoting and investing on additional affordable as well as classy tourist accommodations and associated facilities in Sankarpur can transform the economic opportunities of south Bengal if the development initiatives are extended beyond Digha. Furthermore, the sea beach in Sankarpur being less exploited will be more attractive to eco-tourists and foreigners who would like to enjoy the serenity and beauty of coastal Bengal while avoiding the din and bustle of over populated Digha.

    Thanking you

    Sincerely yours

    Saikat Kumar Basu
    Lethbridge AB Canada

    Posted by: Saikat Kumar Basu | 4 years ago | Reply