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Sci-Tech

Stephen Hawking backs $100 million effort to find aliens

Technically Incorrect: Funded by billionaire Yuri Milner, the project will be listening very hard for alien noises, with Hawking and other scientists in support.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Billionaire Yuri Milner has won the support of Stephen Hawking for his project to search for intelligent life beyond Earth. Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Breakthrough Initiatives

You know those things you're afraid of, but still want to know more about?

They tantalize you, just as they frighten you. So even if, like Stephen Hawking, you fear that aliens might hate us you still want to know whether they exist and where.

On Monday, Hawking lent his support to a new $100 million initiative, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner, to finally make contact with E.T. and family.

As the BBC reports, the people behind the 10-year project -- the so-called Breakthrough Initiatives, which Milner founded -- say this is the biggest alien-hunting exercise ever undertaken.

They say that their listening and observing devices will embrace 10 times the amount of sky that previous projects have. Their scanners, they claim, will listen in to five times the radio spectrum and do it with 100 times greater speed. They also say that these efforts will be "50 times more sensitive than previous programs."

Breakthrough Initiatives says it will survey the 1 million stars closest to our own planet.

Two telescopes have been co-opted to this search: The 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

The Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory in California will also contribute its efforts.

At Monday's launch at the Royal Society in London, Hawking explained: "Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean."

(Or intelligent life might be watching these lights and thinking: "Sigh. These primitive beings. They're just not worth bothering with.")

Hawking offered another possibility -- a lonely one. He said: "Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos -- unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence? Either way, there is no bigger question. It's time to commit to finding the answer -- to search for life beyond Earth."

Milner, an early investor in Facebook and Twitter, said in a press release that the project will bring "the Silicon Valley approach to the search for intelligent life in the Universe."

"Our approach to data will be open and taking advantage of the problem-solving power of social networks," he said.

Others involved in this exercise include: cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees, of the University of Cambridge; Frank Drake, chairman emeritus of the SETI Institute; astronomer Geoff Marcy, of the University of California at Berkeley; and Ann Druyan, co-writer of the TV series "Cosmos" and widow of Carl Sagan.

Seth MacFarlane, movie director and creator of TV's "Family Guy," added his voice to the emotional promotional video released Monday.

We've made movies about extra-terrestrial life for so long that it's time we ascertained whether alien beings are merely figments of our limited imaginations.

Hawking presented this notion in immensely lyrical language. He said knowledge of atoms and black holes is fascinating, but not enough.

He explained: "These ideas cannot explain everything. They can explain the light of stars, but not the lights that shine from planet Earth. To understand these lights, you must know about life. About minds."

There's something poetic, almost romantic about the notion that we might want to know what's out there -- and have so far failed -- and that there might be beings out there who have failed to find us too.