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Stephen Hawking and rich Russian to search for signs of life in universe

Stephen Hawking and Breakthrough ListenPhysicist Stephen Hawking in Zero Gravity, photo by Jim Campbell, Aero-News Network (NASA)

Hawking and ‘Breakthrough Listen’

The brilliant U.K. theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and a Russian millionaire venture capitalist named Yuri Milner have announced a project in which they will seek signs of sentient life in the Universe.  For the most part Milner will supply the money to fund the search and Hawking will provide the brains.

Mr. Hawking, the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, is among the many scientists that believe other lifeforms in the universe are a statistical certainty, and he and Milner are out to prove it with their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project.

They say they will spend around $100 million in ‘Breakthrough Listen,’ much of it on producing software and hardware designed to listen to the Universe for signs of life.  Their technology will seek to hear disturbances in radio frequencies from outer space; such disturbances could be signs of sentient life and would be investigated further.

“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth,” Hawking said during the announcement of ‘Breakthrough Listen’. “So in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life.”

Another imitative is called ‘Breakthrough Message’ in which a contest will be sponsored with the aim of getting contestants to submit the message they think humans should beam out to the stars.  They may not actually send a message from us to the Universe, but believe that considering such a message enhances our knowledge of what it means to be a human, what it means to be alive.

Space-age monitoring

The intention of the listening side of the project, they say, is to design, create and put into use the most sensitive monitoring devices the world has ever known and apply them to the task of listening to and interrupting sounds from deep space.  If there are aliens out there, and Hawking, Milner believe ETs are a reality, they are determined to encounter as many as luck, patience, equipment and tenacity allow.

Milner is 53-years-old, while Hawking is 73.

A rather interesting twist to their project is that you, I, anyone with an android phone, can be a part of it.  You will have to download an app called the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing app (powered by Wifi, it doesn’t use your data).  Tech writer Benjamin Snyder of ‘’ writes of how you can be a part of it:

“The phone app works like this: Data from two massive telescopes scan the universe for signals of alien life. By powering on the app, you allow the telescope’s collected data to be analyzed via crowd-sourcing. “BOINC computes only when your device is plugged in and charged, so it won’t run down your battery,” according to the app’s Google Play site.”

For his part, Milner says he doesn’t have particularly “high expectations” for ‘Breakthrough Listen’ but he believes that they “could find something that we’re not even looking for.”



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Marcus Hondro
Marcus Hondro

Actor, writer, father, gadfly, ‘Nucks fan.

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