Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

Probing the Universe

Radio Telescopes: Scientific American writes about the radio telescope in West Virginia: “The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, and one of three telescopes Breakthrough Listen will use extensively in its groundbreaking search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” 
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Geremia

An article, by Lee Billings, in Scientific American says that Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawkings have teamed up on a new 10-year project that searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. The amount pledged toward this project, code-named Breakthrough Listen, is $100-million (US). Hawking, a theoretical physicist at University of Cambridge’s  Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and a public proponent of SETI, has signed on as the project’s adviser; it will be chaired by Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

In “Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner Announce $100M Initiative to Seek ET” (July 20, 2015), Billings writes:
SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—has been one of the most captivating areas of science since its inception in 1960, when the astronomer Frank Drake used an 85-foot radio telescope in the first-ever attempt to detect interstellar radio transmissions sent by beings outside our solar system. Yet despite its high public visibility and near-ubiquity in blockbuster Hollywood science fiction, throughout most of its 55-year history SETI has languished on the fringes of scientific research, garnering relatively scant funding and only small amounts of dedicated observation time on world-class telescopes.
[…] 
Although Milner has made his name—and billions of dollars—through investments in Facebook, Alibaba, and many other tech start-ups, his true passion is science, which he has demonstrated through his formation of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. This organization awards the world's most lavish scientific prizes. Milner's latest project is part of the Foundation's new Breakthrough Initiatives division and is called Breakthrough Listen. Providing $100 million in funding over the next decade to top SETI researchers, Breakthrough Listen will allow new state-of-the-art radio and optical surveys to take place using the world's premiere telescopes, creating the most ambitious and robust SETI program yet performed. The project is set to begin making observations in 2016.
What these observations will entail is explained by the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which received some funding from Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. It  says:
The intention is to use existing radio telescopes in West Virginia (the 100 meter Green Bank Telescope) and Australia (the 64 meter Parkes Telescope) to examine up to one million star systems for radio signals that would betray the presence of intelligence. The funding will allow the development of new receiving technologies that can speed up the search for radio broadcasts.
What a wonderful initiative; this huge private infusion of cash is a shot in the arm to SETI, which stopped receiving public funding as part of NASA’s budget in 1993, a year after High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) got started (on Columbus Day). It fell under the axe of budget cuts, which seemed a prudent way to deal with a $300-billion federal budget deficit that President Bill Clinton had inherited. It became an easy target—even though the SETI program then received $12.25 million annually, or less than 0.1 per cent of NASA’s total annual budget. No doubt, it was an easy target and open to ridicule, viewed in some quarters as money used for “looking for little green men.” [For details, see this excellent paper by Stephen J. Garber of NASA; 1999].

Even so, or despite the actions of the U.S. Congress (one controlled by Democrats) under the furor of a budget deficit, the public interest and appetite for such cosmological research and interstellar surveys has remained great. Why this is so is not hard to understand on many levels. One of the chief questions that humans eternally ask is whether life exists outside the boundaries of earth ? I remember reading about the research of Frank Drake, in the late-1970s, when I was in college studying pure & applied sciences.

Yet, strangely enough, it was for a course I took in philosophy and on the issues of determinism and free will, which also tied in to what I was then studying in physics, including Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the Schrödinger wave equation—all relevant today. I do not recall the name of the course, but one of the readings we were assigned was on the work of Prof. Drake, particularly his radio astronomy work with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico; this both intrigued and interested me and got my brain imagining and wondering in many directions.

This was a fertile period of intellectual awakening for me: five years after I had read about the Pioneer Plaque (1972) and a few years before I discovered Carl Sagan and his 1980 series, Cosmos. These were formative years in the development of my humanistic thinking; and while I have not often thought about the questions of ETs in the last few decades, the questions related to their existence are nonetheless no less exciting than they were when I was a young man. And now we might get some more answers.

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For more, go to [ScientAmer].

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