Simanaitis Says

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NASA’s RECENT announcement that there are signs of water on Mars is a long, long way from any chance that it has life as we know it. However, this news heightens interest in mankind’s search for anyone else out there.


Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, had an article about this on July 24, 2015, “Web Billionaire Bankrolls Search for Alien Signals.” It’s a rare article indeed that quotes eminent scientist Stephen Hawking and a Russian entrepreneur of social media.


Yuri Borisovich (Benstionovich) Milner, Russian-born, 1961. Entrepreneur, venture capitalist and physicist. Image from Forbes by Paul Eng.

Yuri Milner, Russian internet whiz, is said to be worth $1.8 billion, made through investments in Facebook, Groupon, Spotify and Twitter (a skill that I’ve somehow avoided). In 2012, he became a benefactor of science in the Breakthrough Prizes, with individual awards of $3 million.


The Breakthrough Prize, in recognition of scientific achievement.

The new project is named Breakthrough Listen, to which Milner has pledged $100 million. He says it will “take the search for intelligent life in the universe to a whole new level.” The project boosts funding fivefold in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.


According to Science, Breakthrough Listen will be 50 times as sensitive as previous efforts while monitoring 10 billion radio frequencies simultaneously in 10 times more of the sky. The project will underwrite 20 percent of the observing time of West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope for the next decade and 25 percent of the next five years’ time at the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. Also involved will be the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at the Lick Observatory near San Jose, California.


The Milky Way, our neighborhood galaxy. Image based on one from The Dark Cosmos.

The project will survey the plane of our Milky Way galaxy, with focus on the closest million stars to Earth. It will also scan 100 nearby galaxies. Observations will produce an incredible richness of data, literally 10 gigabytes per second. (My smartphone would overflow in less than 3 seconds.)

Data processing will be on-the-fly, using signal analysis developed by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, led by exoplanetary specialist Geoff Marcy. He says, “I’d bet my house that [somewhere] in the nearest 100 star systems there are single-celled life forms flourishing.”

I’ve heard others apply purely statistical reasoning in consideration of the sheer number of galaxies, each with innumerable stars, and the probability of inhabitable planets orbiting these stars. Based on this argument, though, it has also been suggested that somewhere in the vastness of the universe is another really great northern Italian restaurant.

Stephen Hawking says, “It’s time to answer the question of whether there’s life beyond Earth…. Intelligence is the great unknown. It may be very rare. We only have to look in the mirror to see that it is very fragile and prone to self-destruction.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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