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How's the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Going?

Dr. Ragbir Bhathal, who leads Australia's Optical SETI project, thinks if there is extraterrestrial life out there, we may be just a generation or two away from finding it.

by Hannah Scholte
Jul 22 2015, 4:20pm

Image via Wikipedia Commons

This week Stephen Hawking announced that he was partnering with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner on a ten-year, $100 million project called "Breakthrough Listen," the largest effort to date to find proof of aliens. That led me to wonder how all the other attempts were faring.

Most of the world's scientific activity in the field comes under the collective name SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Dr. Ragbir Bhathal leads Australia's initiative, the Optical SETI project. As an astronomer and professor at the University of Western Sydney, he regularly scans the skies from the college's observatory. He thinks if there is extraterrestrial life out there, we may be just a generation or two away from finding it.

VICE: Hi Dr. Bhathal, can you explain why we're so fascinated with finding extraterrestrial life?
Ragbir Bhathal: It's been a fascination since antiquity. It would seem an absolute waste of space if there is no other intelligent life in the universe, so it's a curiosity about how could we be the only ones here. Of course this causes problems for people who are religious, because in some religions a god made mankind, so you wouldn't be wasting your time making other beings in the universe. But I'm not a religious man, I'm a physicist.

What personally compels you to do this?
It's one of the great questions in humankind. I think if we find ET it would change our view of the world we live in. Like when it was discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. It didn't change the price of cheese as such, but it changed the whole way we think about the universe. It was a real conceptual shift.

You've been at this a long time. Is there actually any evidence yet?
There's no evidence at the moment. But if you asked this question say 50 years ago, they hadn't found any extrasolar planets. Now the Kepler mission has found over a thousand possible extrasolar planets. So the chances are becoming much better; people are realizing, "Hey look, there are extrasolar planets in the universe, surely one or two of them might have life." It's a logical statement, that's all. And in science, that has to be proved with evidence.

Stephen Hawking just launched the Breakthrough Listen project, funded by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner. Do you think initiatives like this will help us get there?
Yes, definitely. If government money is put into projects like this there can be complaints that it's a pie in the sky-type thing. But here's a person in the private sector putting up money himself. That's great, I think we should have more people like this guy.

How long do you think it will take to find that evidence?
Possibly a couple of generations. Technology is changing so fast, it used to change within a generation or so but today it's much faster, say in 12 or 18 years. Even so, all these technologies that we're building now on the earth might be obsolete. We don't know how far they've gone, if it's 5,000 years, 10,000 years they must be very much ahead of us. If so, the technology we're using may be old hat.

What could making contact with extraterrestrial life mean for humankind?Advanced civilizations teach other civilizations how to do things. But the drawback is that they take over. They can teach us something if they're benevolent, but if they're not they can do things we won't welcome. That's what we have to be very careful of. But I suppose if you find an intelligent civilization it will be so many light years away that the possibility of them landing on earth may be very slim. We don't know, but it's an assumption we make.

So how do you search for extraterrestrial life, anyway?
There are two ways of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence or ET. We use radio wave technology and radio telescopes, which was the major way of searching up to about 2000. But from when that started in 1960, they hadn't found anything in 40 years. So it was time for another search strategy. That's laser technology: There's the optical search strategy, which is looking for very fast "nanosecond pulses" of laser flashes coming to earth.

Both strategies are good. Arthur C. Clarke, the late science fiction author and SETI patron, said to me he thought laser technology would win in the end. That's my view. If ET is so intelligent, they would have passed the stage of radio technology.

Say we do find extraterrestrial life. What form will it take?
Extraterrestrial life is possibly like you and me, but not the same form as us. What I am sure of is if there is ET they must be highly intelligent; they must be communications engineers, mathematicians, citizens. That's sort of a scientific definition. I don't know what ET looks like, but Hollywood seems to know the answer.

Why is this work important?
Basically to satisfy a curiosity in the human mind. Human beings are curious, and I think if you're not curious about the universe you live in, you might as well become a cabbage. That's how I'd put it.

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