This month–July 2015–Russian billionaire Yuri Milner made headlines by donating $100 million to one of space science’s most starry-eyed organizations: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a collective dedicated to exploring the origin and nature of life in the universe.
Ever since its early 20th-century inception–and despite support from scientific heavyweights like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking–the search for intelligent life on alien worlds has been poorly funded. Over the years, a hostile U.S. Congress has repeatedly denied requests for NASA funds to survey the skies and scan nearby stars, forcing SETI practitioners to rely on private sources of funding. Until recently, those funds were a mere trickle, allowing researchers only hours of work with small telescopes every year–and placing the hunt for alien life on what one senior astronomer described as “life support.”
Milner’s donation will dramatically change the game, affording researchers the ability to purchase thousands of hours of observation time on the most powerful radio telescopes in the world. It’ll let them scan 10 times more sky than before, covering the “quiet zone” in the electromagnetic spectrum where transmissions can travel the farthest with little interference. If smart aliens were trying to send us a message, this is where they’d do it.
The problem is, unless we get very lucky, 10 years isn’t really long enough for a search that will yield anything. There’s a lot of space out there, and we’re trying to survey almost all of it. What’s more, a big chunk of the cash will go toward technology for analyzing and interpreting the data gathered. There’s a long road still to travel, and Milner’s donation just takes us down it slightly faster.
But that doesn’t matter–because even if we don’t find evidence of little green men, the process of looking is worthwhile in and of itself for several reasons. Firstly, it can deliver massive advances in seemingly unrelated fields. Research conducted under SETI’s auspices thus far has benefited areas as diverse as cryptographics and air traffic control. Looking forward, the sheer amount of data we’ll gather as a result of Milner’s donation will require advances in data processing and analysis that can be applied to a whole host of other industries.
Secondly, there’s all the discoveries that we don’t know about yet. SETI’s work should be considered basic research–fundamental science born out of curiosity, as opposed to the need to solve a pressing problem. While basic research is sometimes hard to justify on its own merits, it often makes subsequent applied science possible. For example, without research into pure mathematics over the past centuries (with no practical application at the time), we’d have no computers today.
Thirdly, SETI generates interest and excitement around science among the public. Hunting for aliens is a far easier concept for kids and parents to get behind than the “Dependence of the Saturation Level of Magnetorotational Instability on Gas Pressure and Magnetic Prandtl Number,” to quote the title of one paper picked at random in The Astrophysical Journal . Public support and outreach is crucial in science, as it provides the necessary education and context to understand and operate in the modern world, as well as being an inspiration for the next generation of researchers.
Finally, there’s the end of the road itself: either proof that there are aliens with equal or greater intelligence to ourselves in the universe, or the eventual conclusion after a comprehensive search that there are none at all. Either result will have huge and hard-to-predict implications for mankind, philosophically and perhaps even materially. In almost every situation on Earth wherein two vastly different cultures have met, the result has been the destruction of the civilization that received contact from the other. In short, SETI’s hope to intercept alient signals could, plausibly, directly result in the end of the human race.
That’s only one possibility, though, and this is where things veer into the land of science fiction. Maybe the aliens will be friendly cuddle-monsters who require only love and hugs for sustenance. Or maybe by the time we intercept an extraterrestrial signal we’ll have the ability to cloak our planet and stop a hostile species from finding it, or escape into another dimension altogether. Perhaps there’s another outcome that we can’t even imagine right now. Or maybe we are, after all, cosmically alone–the only intelligent species in the universe.
The only way to find out is to keep scanning the darkness above our heads.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Above & Beyond section, which looks at our understanding of the universe beyond Earth. Click the logo to read more.