UC Berkeley project recruits public in search for extraterrestrials


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Campus project Breakthrough Listen Initiative released the largest amount of data regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, ever to the public Feb. 14.

The data, which is composed of radio waves, was collected from telescopes in New Mexico, West Virginia and Australia. Researchers hope this data will show signs of intelligent life in the center of our galaxy.

“We are cognizant that all of the world’s expertise in machine learning, signal processing and algorithm design is not wholly contained in our lab at UC Berkeley,” said Andrew Siemion, the principal investigator of Breakthrough Listen, in an email. “We invite our colleagues and the public around the globe to join us in sifting through this massive trove, alongside our on-site and in-house analyses.”

Anyone with access to a computer can download the data from online, while those who are more tech savvy may download larger files and apply more complex computer processing algorithms to the data, according to Matt Lebofsky, the lead system administrator of Breakthrough Listen.

Breakthrough Listen is one of several SETI projects that have originated at UC Berkeley.

“SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a field of science, like biology or geology,” Lebofsky said in an email. “No single entity ‘owns’ the science of SETI.”

Researchers can identify extraterrestrial intelligence by looking at radio waves that are indicative of compressed signals similar to those used in FM and TV signals.

One of the potential drawbacks of this type of research, however, is that it assumes extraterrestrials have radio frequency technology similar to that of humans.

“Our searches are predicated on the development of technology,” Siemion said in the email. “We would have a difficult time detecting intelligent life that didn’t have large-scale tool use – like chimpanzees or orca whales.”

According to Siemion, this research is analyzing the center of our galaxy in hopes of finding extraterrestrial technology because this is the most obvious positioning of an intentional beacon of some advanced life-form.

This is the second of a long queue of data that Breakthrough Listen has released publicly. According to Lebofsky, there may be more in the future.

Even if the search for extraterrestrial life is unsuccessful, this research will impact our perceptions of life, as humanity may then consider leaving the planet to establish civilization on new planets and other celestial bodies, according to Siemion.

“The discovery of life beyond Earth would rank among the most important discoveries in the history of humanity,” Siemion said in the email. “Whether we live in a universe teeming with intelligent, communicative life, or one in which we are effectively alone, is one of the most profound questions we can ask as humans.”

Contact Eric Rogers and Emma Rooholfada at [email protected].