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Stephen Hawking's not alone: a rich history of man's search for aliens

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 18:51 IST

The attempt

  • Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has launched a $100 million project to find aliens
  • It\'s called Breakthrough Listen, and he\'s even enlisted Stephen Hawking
  • The goal? To find other occurrence of life in the universe

The thought process

  • This is not new. Humankind is obsessed with alien contact
  • A British survey showed more people believed in aliens than they did in God
  • NASA says we are on track to establish contact by 2025

The obsession

  • The organisation SETI - Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence - wants to broadcast the entire Internet to the universe
  • Crazy, right? But crazy attempts have been made before: by Russia, USA
  • We continue, in fact, to send videos and tweets regularly into the universe

The truth

  • But the only alien life discovered so far have been miniscule organisms that we\'re not even sure aren\'t terrestrial
  • Has all this research and shouting into space been for nothing?

Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire you've never heard of, just allotted $100 million of his personal fortune towards finding ET.

Amazing, right? Surprisingly, slightly less so. Humankind is obsessed with aliens. In fact, on a list of things we are morbidly interested in, aliens probably rank in the top ten.

You'd think the recurring theme of anal probes and genocidal invasions would put us off aliens a little bit, but it really hasn't. We're looking for them more than ever before.

An unhealthy obsession

Not that we actually need much convincing. A survey in the UK showed more people believed in aliens than God. And while we generally think of men in tinfoil hats (and men in black) when we think of finding aliens, today's greatest minds are on the case as well.

The top brass at NASA, in fact, expects us to discover extra-terrestrial life by 2025. Even Stephen Hawking, who's a part of Milner's Breakthrough Listen project, said at the launch that "in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life." For him to say that, though, is a brave move - coming from a man who actually voiced concerns that an alien visit might play out more like Independence Day than Paul.

Still, to worry about bad-tempered aliens is probably getting a bit ahead of ourselves. We need to find them first. That's where the SETI institute comes in. SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and they're the go-to guys for alien contact. And they've been at it for a while.

They've been using radio telescopes since 1960 in the hopes of hearing a broadcast from an alien race. And if aliens do exist, they don't seem to want to talk to us, because the most we've ever received was a 72-second radio signal (Called the Wow! signal) from a part of space with no stars or planets. SETI's heard nothing since, but like a spurned lover, they're still at it.

But we wouldn't be talking about them if all they did was listen to radio silence. They're also actively trying to make contact with aliens. SETI, through its SETI Active programme, wants to broadcast encoded messages through powerful radio signals to potentially habitable planets.

If aliens do exist, they don't seem to want to talk to us. But like a spurned lover, we aren't giving up

In fact, SETI's director Seth Shostak (Try saying that fast over and over; I dare you) wants to broadcast the entire contents of the internet. ALL OF IT. If he has his way, there's a chance we could become the solar system's worst spammers - burying unsuspecting alien civilisations under a deluge of porn. And other cats. But mostly porn.

You'd think this sort of solar spamming might piss off an intelligent alien race. And you wouldn't be alone. Stephen Hawking, among others, fear we may just be announcing ourselves to a hostile alien race - which sounds both terrifying and like the plot of a movie I'd definitely watch.

As half-baked as Shostak's let's-broadcast-the-internet idea seems, it's a marked improvement on some of our previous attempts at interstellar communication.

Been there, tried that

NASA's Pioneer probes were affixed with plaques bearing symbols as well as a naked couple waving. Shortly after, we beamed an image of a stick man and the double-helix into space.

In 1999, Russian scientists sent their own messages into space, and I imagine the aliens they reached probably don't have the best impression of America. In 2008, NASA decided to communicate with irony - by broadcasting The Beatles' Across The Universe just in case some UFO needed driving music.

And finally, in an attempt to democratise our efforts, we broadcast a digital message comprised of videos and 10,000 tweets in the direction of the Wow! Signal.

Given how far away potentially habitable planets are, though, we're unlikely to see a response to most of these messages within our lifetime. So if there is hostile intelligent life out there, a future generation of humans will have to explain why the 21st century was filled with galactic spambots.

All this for nothing?

In all this hysteria, though, we need to pause and ask ourselves a very important question - what if there is life out there, but it isn't intelligent?

As of now, that's actually the most realistic possibility. The closest we've come to anything resembling alien life is far from anything we've conjured up on-screen. This is it:

Alien life dragon diptych

That, on the left, is the rather dramatically named 'dragon particle', which was discovered 27 kilometres above the Earth's surface in the stratosphere. It's a carbon-based organism that's just 10 microns in size. Whether it's really alien though, is heavily debated, because while it's almost impossible for an organism that tiny to be lifted so far from the Earth's surface, we also have no way of knowing where it came from.

Regardless, the fact is that it's more than likely that alien life will resemble something as small as that. Russian cosmonauts recently claim to have found plankton that survived on the outside of the International Space Station and smaller organisms would probably find it easier to survive the harsh environments of most stars and planets.

So for all the yelling into space we've been doing, there's a good chance it's all been for nothing.

First published: 14 February 2017, 18:51 IST