Paging Enrico Fermi and Frank Drake. The Breakthrough Listen search for intelligent life has completed its latest analysis of one petabyte of data collected on over 1,300 stars within 160 light-years of Earth and has found … nothing. Or, as Russian billionaire Yuri Milner who put up $100 million for the project might say … bupkes. Did he save his receipt? Did they include Earth in this search?
“Anyone who thinks the team might have missed something can go over their results and see for themselves.”
After reviewing the article published in The Astrophysical Journal about the study and the actual data available to the public on Breakthrough Initiative’s Open Data Archive, Jason Wright, an astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the work, gave billionaire Milner the correct answer in an interview with LiveScience. The team led by Danny Price, an astrophysicist at the University of California Berkeley, used the 328-foot-diameter (100 meters) Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the 210-foot-diameter (64 m) Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, to collect the 1 million gigabytes (1 petabyte) of radio and optical wavelengths from Earth’s closest neighbors and then searched for the technosignatures of life. You know, communication signals like radio waves or laser lights. After eliminating all of the knowns (signals from Earth satellites, for example), they were left with the list of unknowns. It wasn’t a very long list, according to Price.
“There’s certainly nothing out there glaringly obvious. There’s no amazingly advanced civilizations trying to contact us with incredibly powerful transmitters.”
Science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which means that we shouldn’t be searching for known unknowns, but for unknown unknowns – things we have no idea of what they might look like. Price somewhat agrees, saying that his team is limited by human knowledge, but he also holds out hope that they‘re just looking for the wrong frequencies or the signals are being blocked by our own global blanket of radio interference. Besides, he still has plenty of Yuri Milner’s left to spend, which he plans to do by adding the massive MeerKAT telescope array in South Africa to the mix and expand the study to a million stars.
He’d better hope Milner has never heard of Drake and Fermi.