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A $100 Million Infusion for SETI Research

SETI received a much needed boost this morning as Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, along with physicist Stephen Hawking and a panel including Frank Drake, Ann Druyan, Martin Rees and Geoff Marcy announced a $100 million pair of initiatives to reinvigorate the search. The first of these, Breakthrough Listen, dramatically upgrades existing search methods, while Breakthrough Message will fund an international competition to create the kind of messages we might one day send to other stars, although the intention is also to provoke the necessary discussion and debate to decide the question of whether such messages should be sent in the first place.

With $100 million to work with, SETI suddenly finds itself newly affluent, with significant access to two of the world’s largest telescopes — the 100-meter Green Bank instrument in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales. The funding will also allow the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory to search at optical wavelengths. Milner’s Breakthrough Prize Foundation is behind the effort through its Breakthrough Initiatives division, a further indication of the high-tech investor’s passion for science.

Figure1

Image: Internet investor Yuri Milner announcing the Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message initiatives in London at The Royal Society. Credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

Organizers explained that the search will be fifty times more sensitive than previous programs dedicated to SETI, and will cover ten times more of the sky than earlier efforts, scanning five times more of the radio spectrum 100 times faster than ever before. Covering a span of ten years, the plan is to survey the one million stars closest to the Earth, as well as to scan the center of the Milky Way and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, Breakthrough Listen will look for messages from the nearest 100 galaxies.

According to the news release from Breakthrough Initiatives, if a civilization based around one of the thousand nearest stars transmits to us with the power of the aircraft radar we use today, we should be able to detect it. A civilization transmitting from the center of the Milky Way with anything more than twelve times the output of today’s interplanetary radars should also be detectable. At optical wavelengths, a laser signal from a nearby star even at the 100-watt level is likewise detectable.

Frank Drake noted the changes in technology that have made such searches possible:

“Today we have major developments in digital technology and also the necessary telescopes to monitor billions of channels at the same time. But we needed the funding to allow all this to proceed. Fortunately there are private benefactors who realize the significance of the search. We will finally have stable funding so we can plan from one year to the next. This will be the most enduring search ever launched, a great milestone and our best chance for success.”

Figure2

Image: Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Ann Druyan and Geoff Marcy at the announcement. Credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

Geoff Marcy (UC-Berkeley) pointed out that we simply have no idea whether the nearest civilization is ten light years or 10 million light years away, but the Breakthrough Listen project will attempt to find out by scanning 10 billion frequencies simultaneously.

“We will listen to the cosmic piano every time we point a radio telescope, but instead of 88 keys, we’ll be using ten billion keys, with software designed to pick out any note with a frequency that is ringing consistently true against the background noise of all the other frequencies.”

Milner spoke of bringing a ‘Silicon Valley approach’ to SETI, one that will develop its own software tools using open source methods and maintaining open databases. Organizers estimate that what Breakthrough Listen generates will amount to the largest amount of scientific data ever made available to the public. Thanks to its open source nature, the software effort will be flexible enough to allow scientists and members of the public to use it and to develop their own applications for data analysis. As part of the crowdsourced aspect of Breakthrough Listen, Milner announced that the effort will join the SETI@home project at UC-Berkeley, in which nine million volunteers donate spare computing power to assist in the SETI search.

The project leadership team listed on the Breakthrough Initiatives site:

  • Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge.
  • Pete Worden, Chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation.
  • Frank Drake, Chairman Emeritus, SETI Institute; Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz; Founding Director, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center; Former Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University.
  • Geoff Marcy, Professor of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley; Alberts SETI Chair.
  • Ann Druyan, Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager; Co-Founder and CEO, Cosmos Studios; Emmy and Peabody award winning Writer and Producer.
  • Dan Werthimer, Co-founder and chief scientist of the SETI@home project; director of SERENDIP; principal investigator for CASPER.
  • Andrew Siemion, Director, Berkeley SETI Research Center.
Figure3

Image: Stephen Hawking addressing the audience at the Breakthrough Initiatives announcement. Credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

As to the Breakthrough Message initiative, it should be stressed that it is not an effort to actually send signals to other stars. This last is an important point, so let me quote directly from the news release: “This initiative is not a commitment to send messages. It’s a way to learn about the potential languages of interstellar communication and to spur global discussion on the ethical and philosophical issues surrounding communication with intelligent life beyond Earth.”

The news of these two Breakthrough Initiatives comes on July 20, the day humans first landed on the Moon in 1969. Hawking noted the scope of the challenge. We already know that potentially habitable planets are plentiful, and that organic molecules are common in the universe. Intelligence remains the great unknown. While it took 500 million years for life to evolve on Earth, it took two and a half billion years to get to multicelled animals, and technological civilization has appeared only once on our planet. Is intelligent life, then, rare? And if it exists, is it as fragile and as prone to self-destruction as we ourselves?

“We can explain the light of the stars through physics, but not the light that shines from planet Earth,” Hawking said. “For that, we must know about life, and acknowledge that there must be other occurrences of life in an infinite universe. There is no bigger question. We must know.”

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lionel July 20, 2015, 10:28

    Fantastic!

  • spaceman July 20, 2015, 11:34

    This new funding initiative is good news. Maybe no one is out there, but we will never know unless we continue the search. When it comes to the limit set based on the current data, I was under the impression that the constraint on the distance to the nearest technologically advanced civilization is greater than 10 light years. Is it true that there could be a technologically advanced civilization right under our nose (astronomically speaking) without us knowing about it? Perhaps there could be a less advanced, primitive civilization that close but that wouldn’t be the kind of civilization relevant to SETI searches in the first place.

  • Harold Daughety July 20, 2015, 11:39

    Being that chemistry is the same throughout the universe, it is logical to assume CHON life is common. If it happened on earth, it can happen elsewhere. To assume that earth and its inhabitants have a special place in the scheme of things is anthropomorphic arrogance. The physical nature of life is determined by chemistry: the nature of intelligence , I presume, is not. What motivates those beings who evolved a few billion years before humanity? Is curiosity innate or is it an adolescent hominid trait? Is paranoia a survival trait, universally leading to a shoot first philosophy?
    Our stories are about humans, regardless of exotic settings and weird creatures. That is all we know, that is all we assume, that is all we can understand. So, how do we look for ETI, and how can we recognize it when we find it? We have a very poor record in contacting slightly different human populations. At least, let’s leave the missionaries at home this time.

  • RobFlores July 20, 2015, 12:09

    In a volume of a radius of 1,000 Ly (4 x Pi x R^3) 3 = 4,188,000,000 cu/ly
    we can expect 16,752,000 stars. Using stellar density close to our sun.

    Assumption: Main sequence stars from K2 to F8, comprise about 10% stars
    that could be considered near solar analogue. = 1.67 Million stars.

    We can draw some inferences from Kepler data.
    1) Our is but one of many Solar system configurations. call it 10% abundant
    2) RE2 to Neptune sized planets will not yield carbon based life. We don’t
    know how many Near RE 1 worlds there are out there, but there no reason
    that they should not exist commonly. call it 20% abundant.
    3) Terrestrial not tide Locked. this is dependent on distance from
    primary as well as age of the each solar system. 30% (assuming the
    candidate stars are on the younger side.) ( I don’t think it is possible for
    a high life forms to arise from a tide locked world

    Avg number Earth like planets in a sphere 1,000 Ly radius = 10,020.

    Is this a high enough number that might yield 2 technological civs, (including
    our own) ? If we found one, it would have pretty startling implications beyond “hello there”

  • Cambias July 20, 2015, 12:27

    Shaven-headed billionaires and wheelchair-bound scientists making contact with aliens . . . this is looking more and more like the beginning of an action movie.

  • Alex Tolley July 20, 2015, 12:32

    $100m seems so small a budget for space exploration, yet so much can be done with it at SETI. However, I am skeptical any messages will be found. Will this put pressure on the messaging side to “do something” after a decade of so?

  • Kathleen Toerpe July 20, 2015, 12:57

    Such an exciting announcement! These years before a putative discovery is made – of either microbial or intelligent ET life – will be the most exciting yet in the quest to answer ancient questions and chart future paths! I look forward to getting involved somehow in the Breakthrough Message initiative on both the social science and outreach fronts. What an opportunity for personal and communal self-reflection on so many levels – whether we ever actively send a message or not! – and what possibilities for engaging the public – and especially young people – to contemplate a future in which humanity may not be alone. With the triumph of New Horizons, July has been quite a month!

  • Alex Tolley July 20, 2015, 13:50

    @RobFlores – there could even be many worlds with advanced metazoan life, but how many will have technological civilizations like ours or more advanced? That might be vanishingly small. It is often assumed that once technological civilization arises it doesn’t disappear, but that may be a false assumption, and the Drake equation value for the lifetime of such civilizations may be quite short.

    If so, the universe may be teeming with advanced life, just not technological life. And that is apart from some concerns of civs staying silent deliberately.

    To my mind, this makes telescopic and interstellar probe searches the way to go. I would bet money that we find extra solar life before we hear from ETI.

  • Robert July 20, 2015, 13:52

    My skepticism is not that signals may never be seen but that SETI scientists are capable of admitting a signal is of an intelligent alien society. Search mode is safe and and generates interest and funding but discovery mode is unsafe, controversial and potentially career destroying.

    Also, the search process is incomplete without a thorough examination of human history, myth and culture as it potentially relates to human/alien interaction in the past including a revisiting of all UFO related phenomenon.
    Perhaps that aspect could be included under the Breakthrough Message part of the project.

  • David July 20, 2015, 14:51

    It is nice to know that both the GBT and Parkes will continue
    to operate as there were moves to close down both.
    On the other hand, I find it more than a little strange that
    nothing was said about using the Allen Telescope which was designed for SETI work.

  • ljk July 20, 2015, 15:32

    If this goes through, SETI can finally stop being fed (and having to act grateful for) table scraps and conducting largely token search efforts – at least for a while. The Russians always were more amenable to the concept of searching for alien life and minds. Maybe now the rest of humanity will start taking this important idea more seriously, because money does talk.

    Nadia Drake, Frank’s daughter, has her take on this momentous event:

    http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/20/the-new-100-million-search-for-life-in-the-cosmos/

  • Andrew Palfreyman July 20, 2015, 16:49

    Excellent news!

    Hopefully they’ll take Claudio Maccone’s advice and drop the DFT (Discrete Fourier Transform) in favour of the KLT (Karhunen-Loeve Transform).

    As for the Message, I vote the KISS Principle: a sequence of primes in unary, exactly as per the movie “Contact”.

  • Rangel July 20, 2015, 18:16

    Good news, while i think alien civilizations use completely diferent communication systems that we can’t even imagine right now, i feel we should keep trying with the best we have, who knows what we may find out there.

    To me radio signals seems quite unlikely to be used by advanced civilizations, as the spreading signal are so ineficient, but again who knows, they may keep using that tech with the exactly purpose of communicating with civilizations who doesn’t know how to use better technology than that.

    So, let’s wait and see what we can find with these new searches. The great turnoff about it is that if we really find a signal highly likely to be from another civilization, the communication will have a delay of centuries to millions of years because the light speed limit.

  • Charlie July 20, 2015, 20:48

    Is there anyone else out there who feel that this is not necessarily the best use of the money? What does anyone estimate the odds are that a civilization will be able to detect transmissions of any kind to respond to us? The Drake equation aside that is.

  • J. Jason Wentworth July 20, 2015, 21:41

    I’ve been wondering if some kind of multi-plexing with radio telescopes (and with optical telescopes, regarding laser messages) might be possible, so that SETI might be able to “piggyback onto” radio & optical astronomy observations (and vice-versa), as both fields could benefit. Also:

    Robert, that–having the guts to go public and announce “We may have heard an intelligent message”–*is* a big problem, for the reasons you mentioned. Not only did Carl Sagan (in his book “The Pale Blue Dot”) call attention to unusual narrow-band signals originating in the galactic plane, but John MacVey mentioned (in his book “Space Weapons, Space War” [his book “Whispers from Space” is excellent as well]) unexplained “glitches” in signals received from a few Sun-like stars during the Ozma 2 SETI experiment that seemed to possibly be intelligent signals (and, of course, there’s the famous “Wow!” signal). A bona-fide message from another civilization might *not* be absolutely, unambiguously “artificial-sounding” in nature (John MacVey mentioned that high-level encoding might look like noise to our instruments). In addition:

    I agree with Alex Tolley–a balanced SETI approach should include radio and optical searches, but also interstellar probes (sending our own when we can–Robert Freitas’ “needle probes” might be a fairly near-term *and* quick-transit solution), including being on the lookout for any alien ones that might be lurking in our solar system. In addition:

    An advantage of sending out our own probes is that even if target star systems contain no life, or unintelligent life, or non-technological intelligent life, we’ll still get back fascinating information on other planetary systems, and maybe even find races we might go visit in person someday. Sending Bracewell probes (messenger probes) would also facilitate contact with any races who do have radio, even if they don’t have the means to signal us (or hear from us) directly by radio (or maybe even by laser). Robert Freitas (please see his website) provides a good case that probes are actually a cheaper search/contact method than radio, in terms of energy as well as money–but even he doesn’t advocate abandoning seeking signals; following the Gray Path of doing *both*, in balanced measure, is the best way forward.

  • Eniac July 20, 2015, 23:12

    Paul:

    We already know that potentially habitable planets are plentiful, and that organic molecules are common in the universe. Intelligence remains the great unknown.

    Organic molecules do not equal life. Far from it. Life is just as great an unknown as intelligence, and far more fundamental.

    Harold Daughety:

    Being that chemistry is the same throughout the universe, it is logical to assume CHON life is common. If it happened on earth, it can happen elsewhere. To assume that earth and its inhabitants have a special place in the scheme of things is anthropomorphic arrogance.

    Having a low probability is not the same as having a “special place”. It would be perfectly consistent with both our observations and with the Copernican principle if only one in 10^40 worlds had developed life.

    As for the SETI money, there are worse ways to waste money. In my opinion, the money would be better spent on space exploration.

  • David Cummings July 21, 2015, 7:41

    This is great news. It still represents a tiny fraction of what we could and should be spending on this subject, but it is very welcome.

    No matter what we find out there, this is the most important question for our civilization to answer. Is there other intelligent life out there? Even if we find none, even after another century of looking, with every-increasing technological sophistication, it still remains the most important question for our civilization. Finding that our galaxy is devoid of detectable signs of other technology will be, in a sense, as important an answer as finding other technologies.

    Either way, the quest is and will remain extremely important for all humanity.

    My personal layman suspicion is that we will find nothing in our galaxy. Oh, I believe we will find live, lots and lots of life, and we’ll find that with telescopes analyzing atmospheres of exoplanets. I think will get a huge number of “green hits” in the coming decades.

    But other technology in this civilization? I suspect not.

    I think life will pop up spontaneously wherever conditions are even remotely favorable. That’s one of the things this universe does, in my opinion, spawns life.

    But intelligent life? I suspect that is rarer than once-a-galaxy.

    I’m going by the incredible number of accidents in our own history. If you read evolution (I’m not a biologist so I don’t study it but I do read it) you know there are a large number of accidents that finally let to upright walking on the plains of East Africa. Subtract how many of those accidents and you get no technology on earth today? Unknowable but worth contemplating.

    Anyway, I applaud the search. Both the space-telescope search for exo-planets with green gases and the radio telescope search for ET.

    But I think we are alone in this galaxy. That’s just my hunch. And that’s all any of us have, when you think about it, is a hunch.

  • Antonio July 21, 2015, 7:49

    “The first of these, Breakthrough Listen, dramatically upgrades existing search methods, while Breakthrough Message will fund an international competition to create the kind of messages we might one day send to other stars, although the intention is also to provoke the necessary discussion and debate to decide the question of whether such messages should be sent in the first place.”

    Totally dissapointing. The same old “only hear, not transmit” way of doing things that is so popular in these last decades. I stopped computing for SETI@Home when they started discouraging METI. This is the same boring business-as-usual. What a waste of money.

  • ljk July 21, 2015, 9:28

    Stephen Hawking launches $100m search for alien life beyond solar system

    Breakthrough Listen, funded by Yuri Milner, will allow telescopes to eavesdrop on planets that orbit the million stars closest to Earth and 100 nearest galaxies

    Astronomers are to embark on the most intensive search for alien life yet by listening out for potential radio signals coming from advanced civilisations far beyond the solar system.

    Leading researchers have secured time on two of the world’s most powerful telescopes in the US and Australia to scan the Milky Way and neighbouring galaxies for radio emissions that betray the existence of life elsewhere. The search will be 50 times more sensitive, and cover 10 times more sky, than previous hunts for alien life.

    The Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the largest steerable telescope on the planet, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, are contracted to lead the unprecedented search that will start in January 2016. In tandem, the Lick Observatory in California will perform the most comprehensive search for optical laser transmissions beamed from other planets.

    Full article and videos here:

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jul/20/breakthrough-listen-massive-radio-wave-project-scan-far-regions-for-alien-life

    To quote:

    Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley Seti Research Center, said the Breakthrough Listen project would be the first to scan the entire range of a crucial 10GHz frequency band. “We can now do huge chunks of radio bandwidth all at one go,” he said. “These telescopes are going to be much more sensitive and comprehensive than searches in the past thanks to the dramatic increase in our computational capabilities.”

    and…

    Drake said: “Right now there could be messages from the stars flying right through the room, through us all. That still sends a shiver down my spine. The search for intelligent life is a great adventure. And Breakthrough Listen is giving it a huge lift.”

    A second initiative, called Breakthrough Message, establishes an international competition open to all-comers to create digital messages, encoding a description of humans, our civilisation, and planet. The signals will not be beamed into space, but Milner hopes the challenge will spur a debate about how to communicate with alien life, and the ethical and philosophical issues involved.

  • ljk July 21, 2015, 9:56

    Read the Inspiring ‘Questions of Existence’ Letter from the World’s Greatest Thinkers

    Matt Vella @mattvella

    July 20, 2015

    Why we should be searching for life beyond our solar system

    On July 20, a consortium of scientists funded by billionaire investor Yuri Milner announced a $100 million project to scan the universe for signs of intelligent life. Milner, 53, a prescient technology investor, is also a former physicist.

    The endeavor, named Breakthrough Listen, is being supported by some of the world’s most well-known scientists and thinkers. As part of the announcement, the group release a letter explaining why the search matters and why it must continue.

    Here is the document in full:

    http://time.com/3964301/breakthrough-listen-letter/

  • tesh July 21, 2015, 9:59

    @ Antonio

    I’m just not convinced that sending out a message of any kind is a good idea.
    1. where do you send it?
    2. what to say?
    3. how to send it with any hope that it will actually get there?
    do we even have the tech
    what to send that they will be able to understand it?
    4. why bother?
    5. etc…

    There are just too many unknowns, even is you choose not to think about the “why?” of sending something. For me the “why” is the biggest issue.

    Listening is much more within knowns. You know where you are listening to, how you’re listening and there is a very good reason for listening in the first place – to answer one of the most fundamental questions there is, “Is there anybody (else) out there?”.

    For me knowing would be enough, at least for another 500 years after finding out. I reckon we’ll need that much time to digest the findings and come to some sort of a united, constructive and balanced statement to send.

  • Harry R Ray July 21, 2015, 10:33

    MORE BREAKING NEWS: At noon, this thursday, NASA will host a teleconference to announce “new Kepler discoveries”(note the PLURAL). Go to http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-hosts-media-teleconference-to-announce-latest-kepler-discoveries to get the FULL SUMMARY. Here is a very interesting exerpt: “…Today, and thousands of discoveries later, astronomers are on the cusp of finding something people have dreamed about for thousands of years–another earth.” HERE”S MY TAKE: If you remember, back in January, I posted a comment stating that rumers were rampant that KOI 4878.01 would be confirmed by summer (go to http://www.habitablexoplanets.com, click on The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, and then click “DATA”.) Andrew LePage cautioned, at that time, that the HEC parameters in the DATA section could change drastically, even if the planet candidate IS confermed. Based on the above exerpt, I seriously doubt that is the case. My reason for such EXTREME OPTIMISM is the recent retirement of Bill Barucki. If I were in his shoes, I would NOT retire until I KNEW Earth 2.0 was in the bag! I only regret this announcement( if I AM correct) would be held off until the upcomming IAU meeting in August.

  • Wojciech J July 21, 2015, 17:26

    An interesting project and it is good to see the rich being sponsors of science.
    Personally I do not think we will detect any directed communication attempt, the differences in time and technological advancement between two civilizations are just too great. If they wanted to contact us, we would be contacted already-but for various previously discussed reasons like culture shock and cargo cult they probably don’t want to if they exist.
    What would be interesting would be detection of signals like WOW more often, there was a nice theory that it could have been sort of a “ping” signal from a probe or artificial craft, not intended at us at all.
    If they are large, uncaring civilizations far more advanced than we are, perhaps we will see glimpses of their shadows.
    As to the debate about the dangers of METI-a useless discussion I am afraid.
    Any civilization advanced enough to pose a threat and travel across the stars, would know of our presence since millennia thanks to advanced telescopes. Both our biosphere and technosphere are constantly sending signals indicating our presence visible to any advanced civilization.
    Nevertheless a very interesting project and I hope we will get some interesting results.

  • Antonio July 21, 2015, 18:07

    @tesh:

    If everybody hears and nobody talks, who will receive a message? What do they expect to receive if they think that the sensible choice is not to transmit?

    “1. where do you send it?”

    To the known near solar systems.

    “2. what to say?”

    We have already sent some messages (mostly from Yevpatoria). We can send similar messages or new ones, but postponing METI indefinitely and spent the time only thinking about what to send, without any intention to actually send messages, seems nonsense to me.

    Also, I think that, for the first message between two civilizations, it’s more important that the messages is clearly artifical (can’t be produced by natural sources) than the actual content.

    “3. how to send it with any hope that it will actually get there?”

    Using a big antenna and enough power, like the Yevpatoria messages, or the Arecibo message (but this one wasn’t actually sent to any star).

    “4. why bother?”

    If METI don’t bother you, why would bother SETI?

  • Tom Mazanec July 21, 2015, 18:11

    As enthusiastic as I am about those strange “pings” from the Milky Way, especially the one from TYC 1220-91-1, my personal take is that the odds of a replicating chemical system capable of further evolution arising by pre-evolutionary processes is so unlikely that we may be the only life bearing world in the galaxy, if not the observable universe.

  • Antonio July 21, 2015, 18:14

    @Harry:

    I don’t understand the hype that surrounds the search for an Earth 2.0. It seems boring to me. The interest is in the diversity of the exoplanets, not the similarity to the Earth. We send probes to Mars, Saturn, Pluto, comets, … because they are DIFFERENT from Earth. We wish they surprise us. What is so exciting about an Earth-like planet around a Sun-like star 1000 light-years away?

    Here is a similar news: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1529/ A Jupiter twin. So what? We have the original Jupiner here, within our reach.

  • G. Cecil July 21, 2015, 22:13

    I’m looking forward to reading the specific hypothesis that these funds intend to test: to what RF flux limit on what stars over what volume after another decade of most probably fruitless listening? If there isn’t a specific a priori falsifiable hypothesis, this won’t be science. Of course the only comm mode to be tested is something that 4% of the matter in the Universe bothers itself with … EM radiation. We’re focused on that because we’re drunks under the street-light. Who knows what sort of chatter is ongoing in the 24x more common (average) dark sector?

  • J. Jason Wentworth July 21, 2015, 23:21

    The notion in the SETI community that METI (actively trying to contact other civilizations) is a bad idea, or isn’t worth doing, saddens me. While “maintaining radio silence”–in the event that would-be conquerors of Earth might hear us–is frequently used as a rationale for listening to instead of talking to the universe, I wonder if this attitude may stem from the human desire to not be embarrassed in public? Saying “Hello” and getting no response is, I suppose, more embarrassing than just listening intently and getting the same result. But:

    This attitude could possibly cause us to miss many opportunities to make that hoped-for First Contact, including with possible alien relay devices in our own solar “back yard.” In his book “The Eerie Silence,” SETI researcher Paul Davies discussed Bracewell probes and the possibility that one might be lurking at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. He also noted that, to his knowledge, no one had ever tried sending strong radio signals to those points in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun to “wake up” any hypothetical probe that might be there. While the odds of rousing any such alien automaton there aren’t large (there first has to *be* one there, and in working order, which we just don’t know), *not* trying will certainly give us zero chance of success. More and more often, I feel that humans, with such attitudes that are common (but not universal, fortunately) among them, have advanced in science and technology almost in spite of themselves…

  • Eniac July 22, 2015, 0:01

    David Cummings:

    I think life will pop up spontaneously wherever conditions are even remotely favorable. That’s one of the things this universe does, in my opinion, spawns life.

    You are entitled to your opinion, but I fear there is not the slightest bit of actual evidence for this one. It is blatantly optimistic speculation pushing up against decades of negative results.

  • tesh July 22, 2015, 4:54

    @Antonio

    “If everybody hears and nobody talks, who will receive a message? What do they expect to receive if they think that the sensible choice is not to transmit?”

    I think it would be presumptuous to assume anything and especially the above. There is nothing known about those listening (if indeed there is anyone) and what their motivations are.

    Are we sure that a message would indeed get to its destination? No (at the most, very unlikely) would be the answer.

    Is there anyone listening there, probably not, if not a flat out no.

    What to say? The message you mention is/was by and large incoherent and decided upon by a tiny percentage of world population, with a vast, vast majority not even knowing about it at all or indeed unable to respond even if they did. This is potentially highly worrying as (with my tin foil hat on) if the listeners turn out to be more of the Conquistadors ilk, then I think the majority of the worlds population have every right to be super peeved at the tiny minority that sent the message.

    SETI is completely different. We NEED to know. Once we know, we need to collect as much data as is possible about our brethren before we reply and I hope that if we do, we do so after a lot (centuries) of procrastination and in a uniform, coherent manner.

  • Harry R Ray July 22, 2015, 9:57

    Is it possible to kill two birds with one stone? RE:TYC 1220-91-1; Could this “magic frequency” be ALSO be used to detect potentially threatening asteroids? Correct me if I’m wrong, but; I THINK the frequency used to IMAGE asteriods is around 6 GHz. Ground based radar on a planet orbiting TYC 1220-91-1, and also rotating in a NON-tidally locked manner would MIMIC the dopplar shift observed during the ten second signal. This would also explain the LACK of follow-up signals. I hope there are funds available in Breakthrough for INTENSE REPEDITAVE OBSERVATIONS of stars like TYC 1220-91-1, just in case we get lucky enough to pick up ANOTHER attempt to detect potentially hazardous asteroids from this source.

  • Antonio July 22, 2015, 12:20

    @tesh:

    [quote]I think it would be presumptuous to assume anything and especially the above. There is nothing known about those listening (if indeed there is anyone) and what their motivations are.[/quote]

    Thus, it would be also presumptuous to discourage METI. What if they know about us but are waiting a message from us before contacting us? This seems to me as some kind of ‘argument from ignorance’: “we don’t know anything, so A is true”.

    This can be used to discourage SETI too. “We know nothing, so don’t hear until we know enough.”

    [quote]Are we sure that a message would indeed get to its destination? No (at the most, very unlikely) would be the answer.[/quote]

    See? You are discouraging SETI too.

    [quote]Is there anyone listening there, probably not, if not a flat out no.[/quote]

    Again, this discourages SETI.

    [quote]
    What to say? The message you mention is/was by and large incoherent and decided upon by a tiny percentage of world population, with a vast, vast majority not even knowing about it at all or indeed unable to respond even if they did. This is potentially highly worrying as (with my tin foil hat on) if the listeners turn out to be more of the Conquistadors ilk, then I think the majority of the worlds population have every right to be super peeved at the tiny minority that sent the message.
    [/quote]

    This leads to eternal inaction. We will become extinct before we reach worldwide agreement on something, let alone METI. Science doesn’t progress that way, nor any other human endeavour. Using your example, if Colombus would wait until total agreement of Spanish government (the kings, the noblemen and the counselors) instead of using personal funds from the queen, he would never arrive to the Americas.

    Also, as I said before, for the first message, it’s much more important to transmit a clearly artifical message than the content of that message. With an artificial message, we show that there are intelligent beings here, instead of a natural phenomenom producing radiowaves. We are transmitting the most important message: you are not alone. The rest is of less importance.

    [quote]SETI is completely different. We NEED to know.[/quote]

    What if we need METI to know? Again, what do you expect to receive if you think that the sensible choice is not to transmit? Are we Searching for Extraterrestrial Idiots?

  • ljk July 22, 2015, 13:09

    But enough about those aliens, let’s bring the focus back on us, because humans rarely ever think they’re the center of it all….

    http://phys.org/news/2015-07-aliens-unveil-secrets-universe.html

  • tesh July 22, 2015, 13:49

    @Antonio

    There is a big difference between SETI and METI. One is proactive and the other passive.

    I know this is an n=1 but we are a conservative (not politically) folk. To err on the side of caution is not a fail. The cave men that went out to seek newer pastures were not the majority. Furthermore, the attrition rate of the ones that left the cave must have been horrendous and at a guess for every one that went looking (for said pasture) and was successful, a hundred (possibly thousands) ended up the way of the dinos. The METI thing, even before discussing whether it will work, just isn’t a chance I’d be willing to take. The unknowns, as to the consequences of the endeavour, are just too open.

    Before you overreach in your “conclusion” to my response, this is not to say we shouldn’t spend on science and go back to the middle ages. Something of this magnitude requires very careful thought. We need the whole population reading the same language, let alone the same book or page before we make this magnitude of decision for them. I’m not saying we need to sort every issues on this rock before ewe do anything, we just need to ALL understand the magnitude of the implications of what METI constitutes.

    As to “what if we need METI to know?”, I’d be happy with not knowing if METI was the cost. I’d happily endeavour toward SETI with the risk of never being successful. That has been the pretty much the basis of all scientific endeavour for, well, ever. The potential risk with METI is for me a wonton risk too far.

    SETI need not fail. I’m all for an expenditure in the range of defence level funding of trying to find out whether there is anyone else out there. I am off the opinion that life is rare in the universe, multi cellular life rare and intelligent life vanishingly rare. The universe and the expanse of time are just too grand for either SETI or METI to work but I’d rather try SETI than METI just on past human experience. All assumptions on my part admittedly of course.

  • ljk July 22, 2015, 14:03

    J. Jason Wentworth said on July 21, 2015 at 23:21:

    “…I wonder if this attitude may stem from the human desire to not be embarrassed in public? Saying “Hello” and getting no response is, I suppose, more embarrassing than just listening intently and getting the same result.”

    Among the many reasons I often imagine why humans reject the notion of other intelligent beings in the Universe (or at the least they have to be VERY far away) is that SETI’s lack of any definite signal of artificial origin after six decades of mostly limited and sporadic searches (which seems like a long time to your typical human but is a cosmic drop in the bucket) seems to make many feel that ETI are rejecting Earth’s highest inhabitants by this deliberate snub of radio and laser silence. So let’s say they don’t exist and snub them right back!

    It’s not easy to go from thinking you are the most important beings in the Universe to the equivalent of little bugs crawling around on a single grain of sand on a beach whose scale boggles the minds of said bugs. And then to have the neighbors on those other cosmic sand grains not even invite you over for tea! Even an invasion would be more tolerable than this perceived galactic silence!

  • ljk July 22, 2015, 14:11

    I wonder what Alexander Zaitsev has to say about all this and if Breakthrough Listen has contacted him yet? Part of this program is METI after all.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleksandr_Leonidovich_Zaitsev

  • Wojciech J July 22, 2015, 14:37

    The discussion about METI is quite honestly pointless.
    While this was debated in more detailed fashion before, here are main arguments why METI is both harmless and unnecessary:
    -any civilization due to differences of time scales of evolution,geology and planet formation is likely to be millions of years ahead of us or behind us(if not by hundreds of millions of years)
    -our own civilization is already on the threshold of being capable of detecting life bearing worlds through telescopes
    -a civilization millions of years advanced would already know of our presence through telescopic observations since aeons in cases of biosphere and thousands/hundreds of years in case of our civilization(depending on available resolution abilities they would have allowing them to image cities, fields and night lights)
    -if such civilization would be interested in contacting us it would already know of our presence and have enough time to reach us

    For these reasons it is unlikely that METI is either a threat or useful in any way.Our biosphere and civilization is one giant METI project working since a long, long time.

  • ljk July 22, 2015, 14:37

    Antonio said on July 21, 2015 at 18:07:

    “If METI don’t bother you, why would bother SETI?”

    Maybe he read or saw A for Andromeda:

    http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/A/AforAndrom.html

    http://auxiliarymemory.com/2012/07/02/forgotten-science-fiction-a-for-andromeda-by-fred-hoyle-and-john-elliot/

    Perhaps it is time for everyone to read (or reread) Stanislaw Lem’s great SF novel, His Master’s Voice:

    http://www.conceptualfiction.com/his_masters_voice.html

    http://english.lem.pl/works/novels/his-masters-voice

    http://htmlgiant.com/reviews/25-points-his-masters-voice/

  • J. Jason Wentworth July 22, 2015, 23:45

    ljk wrote:

    “Among the many reasons I often imagine why humans reject the notion of other intelligent beings in the Universe (or at the least they have to be VERY far away) is that SETI’s lack of any definite signal of artificial origin after six decades of mostly limited and sporadic searches (which seems like a long time to your typical human but is a cosmic drop in the bucket) seems to make many feel that ETI are rejecting Earth’s highest inhabitants by this deliberate snub of radio and laser silence. So let’s say they don’t exist and snub them right back!”

    That attitude–while I don’t dispute that many humans have it–is (no pun intended) alien to me. Knowing the depth and breadth of even the “nearby” reaches of our galaxy (encompassing our closest stellar neighbors) in both space and time, as well as the nearly countless frequencies and forms that messages might come in/as, I’m not discouraged by the present results. It’s even possible, based on what Carl Sagan and John MacVey noted (in their books “The Pale Blue Dot” and “Space Weapons, Space War,” respectively), that intelligent signals may *already* have been received but not yet recognized for what they are. Few scientists would risk their reputations and careers on being wrong about such a huge matter, yet an intelligent signal need not “look like” what we expect one to look like.

    “It’s not easy to go from thinking you are the most important beings in the Universe to the equivalent of little bugs crawling around on a single grain of sand on a beach whose scale boggles the minds of said bugs. And then to have the neighbors on those other cosmic sand grains not even invite you over for tea! Even an invasion would be more tolerable than this perceived galactic silence!”

    This attitude (which I don’t dispute exists among many humans as well) is even more alien to me. Our SETI results so far suggest that intelligent life (at least of a technology-using kind that we would recognize) is rare. Finding just *one* other example of it would be not only cause for celebration, but also–perhaps to -both- races, when/if two-way contact took place–a great relief, to know at last that we (and they) aren’t alone amid that vastness out there, and:

    In his 1962 book “Challenge of the Universe,” astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek (who soon became famous for his *other* work, for Project Blue Book…) spoke of the feelings of insignificance that many people feel when contemplating the size of the universe as compared to themselves. He wrote (after pointing out how immense we are compared to the microscopic plants and creatures):

    “We should also remember, as we live our own lives, that size, like so many other things, is relative; indeed, size itself has very little meaning. The human mind, which…can question the universe, transcends the limits of size. ‘In the last analysis, the mind which encompasses the universe is more marvelous than the universe which encompasses the mind.'”

  • Rob Henry July 23, 2015, 4:25

    Tom Mazanec says ” the odds of a replicating chemical system capable of further evolution arising by pre-evolutionary processes is so unlikely that we may be the only life bearing world in the galaxy, if not the observable universe”

    Wow, that packs a powerful amount of information in a short sentence. All those handwaving ideas of so-called chemical evolution are completely devoid of any known theoretical device to helping guiding complex systems to the starting point described above. Well put Tom!

  • Rob Henry July 23, 2015, 4:48

    J. Jason Wentworth wrote “Paul Davies discussed Bracewell probes and the possibility that one might be lurking at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. He also noted that, to his knowledge, no one had ever tried sending strong radio signals to those points in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun to “wake up” any hypothetical probe that might be there.”

    And I feel this massively understates the case. 2010 SO16 is 200m-400m across, yet was only found because its orbit strayed so far from L4 and L5
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/(419624)_2010_SO16

    Closer in to the glare of the sun there might be hundreds city-sized conglomerates of Bracewell probes programmed to respond to the first signs of an artificial electromagnetic signal directed from Earth, yet we wouldn’t be able to see them. Some times I wonder – could contact really be that easy? Perhaps the assumption that it couldn’t is why no body tries this.

  • RobFlores July 23, 2015, 10:59

    Thinking like a devious alien life form. (IMO devious is part of the High Life Requirement) If you wanted knowledge about possible rivals in your neck of the woods, your best bet is to transmit a communication no one could miss.
    But yet, you would not want that transmission to be traceable to your
    home solar system. You would want to build a Beacon Vessel to travel to a
    well behaved main sequence star with high luminosity (think A type), and probably use that main sequence star to generate an artificial signal by varying it’s luminosity at intervals that are unquestionably not natural.
    See who responds by having a fleet of Listening vessels there too.

  • Harry R Ray July 23, 2015, 11:34

    CONFUSION REIGNS: The new Kepker planet has the designation: Kepler 452b, but, its DISTANCE is given as 1400 ly. The HEC data for KOI 4878.o1 has a distance of only 1085 ly. This could mean that KOI 3456.02, with a HEC distance of 1470 ly, is Kepler 452b, instead. But this makes no sence either, because, if so, it should be Kepler 452c, NOT Kepler 452b. On the other hand, if it IS KOI 4878.01, being at a greater distance should increase the radius of the planet (this recently happened to Kepler 186f), which would also mean that the planet is not nearly as earthlike as stated in the HEC data

  • Robert July 23, 2015, 13:01

    It become standard dogma these days to proclaim how likely it is that the universe is inhabited with intelligent life but equally dogmatic that it is impossible to ever meet them. SETI fits perfectly with these assumptions and in fact the SETI scientists are generally hostile to the possibility that such alien intelligent species, no matter how ancient and advanced, have cracked the physics of easy interstellar travel because we simply know its impossible. How self serving such assumptions are.

  • ljk July 23, 2015, 14:55
  • ljk July 23, 2015, 16:49

    How difficult would it really be to elude detection by humanity? Even if a terrestrial professional astronomer somehow detected an alien probe (and look at me not imagining that advanced ETI could work on really small scales, making them even more invisible to us), he or she would have to have some seriously solid evidence to prove the claim. Otherwise it would career suicide. And no amateur would be really taken seriously.

    Another assumption I often read: That really advanced ETI already know about us even if they are far away. Maybe we are in some catalog of alien worlds and species, but unless they are also planning on interacting with us in some manner, Earth and its inhabitants might be no more than the equivalent of a footnote: We already know there are hundreds of billions of worlds in the Milky Way galaxy alone. If there are an equivalent amount of species, to say nothing of beings in terms of sheer population numbers, then we are indeed but one voice in the cosmic fugue.

    How many of us even get all worked up over an exoplanet discovery these days, unless they are supposed to be Earthlike or really bizarre by our standards? And this is just twenty years after 51 Pegasi. So imagine how much it would take for an ETI society that knows billions of worlds and their inhabitants to get interested in the noisy little bugs on Sol 3.

    There was another comment in this thread about how remarkable human brains are. Well, yes, to a degree, but look again at my comments about a galaxy with billions of inhabitants. We don’t even need something like a Matroishka Brain to easily outmatch our minds, and if there are more than a few of those types of ETI – plus add in the alienness – we can add another reason to why they aren’t trying to contact us. Just think about what most people do and contemplate all day and night long, and let us be amazed we are as far along as our society is, to say nothing of the fact that we are still intact as a technological civilization – so far.

  • Eniac July 23, 2015, 19:10

    Tom Mazanec:

    the odds of a replicating chemical system capable of further evolution arising by pre-evolutionary processes is so unlikely that we may be the only life bearing world in the galaxy, if not the observable universe

    Exactly right. This should be our default hypothesis, because it makes sense. SETI also makes sense, as an attempt to falsify this hypothesis. However, in my opinion, SETI is about as likely to succeed as efforts to falsify general relativity, and, until it does, will remain a frustrating exercise at the fringe of science.

  • Alex Tolley July 23, 2015, 22:37

    Earth and its inhabitants might be no more than the equivalent of a footnote

    Mostly harmless