To find life in the universe, a new initiative to help us hear the signals

Are we alone in the universe? A new project called the Breakthrough Initiative may help scientists like Stephen Hawking get closer to the answer. Tech investor Yuri Milner pledged $100 million to help survey one million of the closest stars to Earth for signals from other forms of intelligent life. Gwen Ifill discusses the project with Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The search for signs of intelligent life in the universe may have been a fruitless one so far, but the effort got a major boost today with a new initiative from scientists Stephen Hawking and others.

    Using some of the world's biggest radio telescopes, the project will spend the next 10 years surveying a million of the closest stars to Earth, trying to find any signals from the 100 closest galaxies. It's called the Breakthrough Initiative and it's funded by Russian billionaire and Silicon Valley tech investor Yuri Milner. He's pledged $100 million for the project.

    Earlier today in London, physicist Stephen Hawking spoke to reporters about the eternal quest.

  • STEPHEN HAWKING, Physicist (through computer voice):

    It's time to commit to finding the answer to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough Initiatives are making that commitment. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Andrew Siemion is director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and is affiliated with the Breakthrough Initiative. The acronym SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

    Andrew Siemion, thank you for joining us.

    So, aside from Hollywood movies, how hard have we been looking for extraterrestrial life in the universe?

  • ANDREW SIEMION, Director, Berkeley SETI Research Center:

    We have been looking pretty hard.

    The modern radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, this is the experiment to try to detect extraterrestrial technologies by their radio emissions, has been going on for about 55 years.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    This $100 million investment that's being made, how significant is that and what will it do?

  • ANDREW SIEMION:

    It's absolutely incredible. And it's coming at a very fortuitous time.

    In the last couple of years, we have learned that at least 10 percent of the stars in our galaxy have an Earth-like planet, a planet about the size of the Earth that liquid water could exist on the surface. And at the same time, our computing technology has advanced dramatically. So we have the opportunity now to pair our knowledge of extrasolar planets and possibilities for life in the universe with incredible advances in computing technology to conduct the most sensitive search for extraterrestrial intelligence that we have ever undertaken in the history of humanity.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, you're speaking to a laywoman here. What are we talking about, bigger telescopes, higher-frequency radios signals?

  • ANDREW SIEMION:

    That's right.

    Well, so it turns out that we don't know exactly what frequency extraterrestrial intelligence might be transmitting on. So we need to scan as much of the electromagnetic spectrum, as much of the radio spectrum as we possibly can.

    And that's what the computing technology gets us. It gets us the ability to search a huge amount of the radio spectrum, 20 to 50 times more of radio spectrum than we have ever been able to look at before, and we're hooking those — these instruments that we're building up to the largest radio telescopes in the world, so that we can conduct a very sensitive search.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK. One of the things that caught my attention is that the public can be involved in this search.

  • ANDREW SIEMION:

    That's absolutely right.

    There's a broad open philosophy to this entire project. All of the data that we collect from these telescopes will be open. All of the software we use, all of the hardware we use, everything will be open source.

    And a component of that is a pairing with the SETI@home project. This is a screen saver that some of your audience may have heard of that they can download on their computer and run it and they can actually analyze some of the data from these telescopes that we collect on their home computer and contribute to the search.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So there are two pieces of this. One is what we want the world — the universe to know about us and what we want to learn about the universe. So who gets to decide how much we want them to know about us?

  • ANDREW SIEMION:

    That's right.

    Well, that's the beautiful thing about this project, is, is that we all get to decide. Two Breakthrough Initiatives were announced today. One is Listen. That's the search for extraterrestrial intelligence initiative that we just talked about. The other is called Message.

    And this is a project that's going to try to unite the world in considering what we might want to say to an advanced civilization that we might some day get in contact with. It's important to point out that there's no commitment to send the message, but this is just a project to try to determine what type of message we might send. Would it be art, would it be music, would it be pictures, would it be sound?

    And the whole world will participate in that endeavor to think of this message.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What if we discover life out there that is not friendly and, therefore, there is only so much we want them to know about us? Who controls that?

  • ANDREW SIEMION:

    Well, that's a very good question. As I said, there's no commitment to send a response.

    And I personally think that if we do detect advanced life, we should undertake a broad discussion with all segments of humanity, social, political, governments, economic, and consider whether we do want to try to communicate with the life we encounter.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Very fascinating, a lot of questions to be answered, as well as asked here.

    Andrew Siemion with U.C. Berkeley SETI project, thank you very much.

  • ANDREW SIEMION:

    Thank you.

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