Yuri Milner is committing $100 million to “Breakthrough Listen.” Its ten year mission: to seek out new life and new civilizations, hopefully Vulcans, not Klingons.
In my recent post, “Upon the Dung Heap of Job,” I promised – or threatened as the case may be – that a science post was soon coming to These Stone Walls. Before you click me away, I humbly ask that you indulge me for just a few minutes. For those who love science, and actually like my few posts on the modern day dialogue between science and faith, this one might have a few features that you find interesting enough to ponder and share. For everyone else, I acknowledge that this may very well seem tedious, but I beg your patience with my paranormal quest.
I know that for an imprisoned mind, it must seem as though I spend an inordinate amount of time “out there.” That’s true, but of some 300 original posts for These Stone Walls over six years, only nine – a total of just three percent – have been about the sciences of astronomy and cosmology. In one such post, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: An Amazing Discovery,” I explained:
“There is something that still compels me to write about life beyond these stone walls, something that drives me out of myself and into the Cosmos, into human history and the great wealth and depth of human reason, into the story of what it means to be human and what inspires us, and especially into the mystery of life itself…. My view of the night sky from a barred cell window is obliterated by a towering prison wall, and blinded by relentless lights that turn every prison night into long, gray twilight. I can no longer see the stars, but my mind still wanders among them.”
I simply cannot resist writing about this newest search for the Holy Grail of what for decades has been known as. Project SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Once considered to be the fringe of planetary science, SETI has for decades used radio astronomy to listen intently for signs of technology somewhere in the Cosmos beyond Earth. I first wrote of SETI in “E.T. and the Fermi Paradox: Are We Alone in the Cosmos?”
THE SCIENCE OF SETI
The science behind SETI reasons that, like humans, intelligent beings on other worlds will have discovered and developed radio technology that can be detected. This was the basis of Contact (Simon & Shuster 1985), a well known science novel by the late Cornell University astronomer, Carl Sagan that I wrote of in “Science Makes a Case for God and Respect for Life.”
My reading of Carl Sagan’s novel sparked some correspondence between us in the late 1980s about the impact such a discovery might have on Christianity. Dr. Sagan did a masterful job exploring this in Contact, but his focus was on the impact the discovery of others like us would have on more fundamentalist Christian traditions. Sagan’s TV evangelists in the novel were outraged, refusing to believe the discovery and taking every opportunity to dismiss it as a hoax.
In my exchange with Carl Sagan, which he seemed to appreciate, I pointed out that such news might not seem so detrimental to the faith lives of Catholics. After writing of that point on These Stone Walls, an excerpt of a text by C.S. Lewis was sent to me by priest, author and physicist, Father Andrew Pinsent, Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Center on Science and Religion at Oxford University, and author of the TSW post, “Fr. Georges Lemaître Father of the Big Bang.”
“Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.
“But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists, real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, [Copernicus was a priest, by the way] with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of ‘life on other planets’ if that discovery is ever made.” (C.S. Lewis, “Religion and Rocketry,” 1958)
BREAKTHROUGH LISTEN: Can you hear me now?
Last month, Silicon Valley magnate, Yuri Milner, a Russian physicist by training, announced by way of a full page ad in The Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2015) that he is committing $100 million to finance a dedicated and more scientifically advanced search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Breakthrough Listen will expand the search to detect and analyze billions of frequencies, and to gather more information in a single day than previous SETI efforts processed in a year.
Much of the data will be gathered at two listening posts, radio astronomy sites at West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory, the world’s largest radio astronomy telescope, and Australia’s Parkes Telescope in New South Wales. “It’s difficult to overstate how big this is,” said astrophysicist Andrew Siemion. “It’s a revolution.”
Under the headline, “Are we alone? Now is the time to find out. The project’s striking WSJ ad asked, “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?…”
“For the last half-century, small groups of scientists have listened valiantly for signs of life in the vast silence… 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’…. 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.”
The project has support from prominent representatives in the fields of astronomy, cosmology, and physics, including renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, of whose views on Science v. God I once critiqued in “Does Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?” The site, Nature.com interviewed him about this project: “In an infinite Universe, there must be other life,” Hawking said., “There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.”
Others lending their names to this endeavor include Ann Druyan, wife of the late Carl Sagan and formerly the Creative Director of the Interstellar Message for the NASA Voyager Mission that I previously wrote of in “The Final Frontier Voyager I Enters Interstellar Space.” Frank Drake, Chairman Emeritus of the SETI Institute, and Lisa Kalteneggar, Director of the Sagan Institute at Cornell also join a list of signatories of the WSJ ad for Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives.
In part, what has helped to drive this initiative is the recent discovery of yet another “Earth-like” planet by the Kepler Space Telescope. Dubbed “Kepler 452b,” some 1,400 light years from Earth, it is one of thousands of planets discovered by the Kepler Mission outside our Solar System. Many are similar in size to Earth, and located in what scientists have called the “Goldilocks Zone” – a region in close enough proximity to their host stars to sustain life, and yet far enough away to sustain liquid water and an atmosphere, both presumed to be essential for the formation and sustenance of life.
Evidence now supports that the Milky Way galaxy in which our Solar System is located may be home to as many as one billion Earth-like planets that may sustain water, atmosphere, and life. “Nevertheless,” says Kepler’s lead scientist Natalie Bataiha in National Geographic, “It’s one thing to know how common planets are. It’s a completely different thing to know how many of
them are living worlds.”
VULCANS v. KLINGONS
My introduction to this post was in no way meant to make light of Yuri Milner’s endeavor. I want answers to his questions just as much as he does, and I know that one way or another those answers will have an immense impact on humanity’s self-concept in the Cosmos. In many ways, I would welcome news of contact. Knowing that there are others like us – beings with minds and souls, with self-awareness and communal ethics, with scientific and spiritual curiosity – would make far more sense of this vast Universe than a continuation of the evidence that we are, in fact, alone.
But there is a lot more to the equation. Stephen Hawking has previously cautioned that we should not be so quick to hand out our address to cosmic strangers. If their nature is anything at all like ours, then we can take a cautionary lesson from our own history of conquest and colonization. Popular culture over the last fifty years has us culturally predisposed to the discovery of others. We might hope for and expect Vulcans only to find ourselves at the mercy of Klingons.
But there is also a lot more to the science of life and its evolution on Earth that is not clearly understood. I am sure the eminent scientists lending their names to this endeavor are aware of this. There is, at present, no evidence whatsoever to support that life exists in any form beyond the planet we live on. I agree with Yuri Milner and others that science, mathematical odds, an awareness of the staggering dimensions of the Universe, and pure common sense dictate that there must be intelligence-based civilizations elsewhere in the Cosmos, but the famous question of physicist Enrique Fermi cannot be casually set aside. “Where are they?”
IN THE BEGINNING…
At the same time, there is plenty of evidence in support of the theory that Earth is extremely rare, or even unique in this galaxy, and that evidence is growing. For example, recent studies of the planet Jupiter point to its important role not only in the formation of the inner, rocky planets including Earth, but in the existence of life on Earth. There is a growing body of research and understanding that points to Jupiter’s role in preventing the massive bombardment of Earth thanks to Jupiter’s immense gravity and perfect placement in the Solar System to clean up the neighborhood, serving as Earth’s protective barrier. As I have written before, the Shoemaker-Levy Comet that gave Jupiter a mere black eye in 1994 would have utterly obliterated life on Earth.
The newest research on Earth’s powerful magnetic field also points to its unique role in the existance of life on this planet. Earth’s magnetic field is generated by its rotating molten core composed of iron and nickel, and its even faster rotating inner core, known as the geodynamo, composed almost entirely of iron. The two cores generate a magnetic field that shields the planet from daily, and deadly, blasts of solar radiation thus making it possible for life to arise on this planet. The spinning core transfers heat from the planet’s interior to the surface, but also creates the field that makes a compass point to magnetic north. That same field protects our atmosphere and oceans, and also protects all life from toxic solar radiation.
It has recently been discovered that the magnetic field is far older than once thought, about 4.2 billion years which means it came into existence very early in the life of the Earth. At just about the same time Earth’s magnetic field came to live, the similar field surrounding Mars depleted and collapsed. It may well be that such a sustained planetary magnetic field is an anomaly in planetary science. Planetary scientist John Tarduno, in a recent issue of Scientific American, concludes that this is why Earth is teaming with life while Mars is barren and inhospitable to life – though both are located in the so-called habitable zone of our Sun.
Then there is the science of evolutionary biology itself, and a long and ever growing list of prerequisites that, as a sequence of events, may well be unique to Earth. Biological anthropologist Owen Lovejoy summed up the long list concluding, “Certainly we are rare and strange…. The chances that a creature like us will ever happen again are so small that I can’t even measure them.”
Are we alone? Indeed, we are not. A human being consists of some 30 trillion cells, but each of us is also host to 100 trillion other life forms, microbes which have evolved along with us in symbiotic harmony. They cannot live without us and we cannot live without most of them. In his new book, Missing Microbes (Henry Holt 2015) New York University Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Martin Blaser states that every human houses a 3-pound brain and another three pounds of microbial life forms that have colonized every square inch on us and in us performing metabolic functions vital to our existence. The person you call “myself” is actually a walking, talking, thinking menagerie of other life forms.
Are we alone in the cosmos? I’m glad the question is being asked, and I’m glad that a serious scientific effort – privately funded and free of partisan politics – is underway to arrive at an answer. But we may never find one. Continued silence – the absence of evidence – will never be evidence of anything, and we will never be able to exhaust the possibilities.
So, I’ll stick my amateur scientific neck out just a bit further. I have yet seen no evidence to sway me from what astronomer and biologist John Gribben concluded in his well-researched book, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley 2010):
“Earth is the sole abode of life in the galaxy, the result of a profoundly improbable sequence of cosmic, geologic, and climactic events….”
Upon greeting my first Vulcan, or, God forbid, fleeing my first Klingon, I’ll be the first to take that back. Meanwhile, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Who’s out there – besides me?
Live long, and prosper!
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