Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner recently announced their joint plan in spending $100 billion US dollars to find signs of intelligent life in the cosmos. Hawking, known for his work as a theoretical physicist and best-selling work, A Brief History of Time, believes that there is a human imperative to seek intelligent life beyond our planet. Milner, the Russian billionaire funding the project known as Breakthrough Initiatives, likewise thinks that finding signs of extraterrestrial intelligence is one of the most important human endeavors of our time.
In reviewing their proposal, one cannot help but be impressed by the scale with which Hawking, Milner, and others will pursue their vision. Anticipating a 10-year project, Breakthrough Initiatives will use two of the most powerful telescopes on Earth to survey 1,000,000 of the Earth’s closest stars and listen for potential radio signals and messages (like in Carl Sagan’s book-turned-movie Contact) from intelligent life that lies throughout and beyond the Milky Way. If that’s not mind-boggling enough, the program will even look for “optical laser transmissions” that could “detect a 100 watt laser (the energy of a normal household bulb) from 25 trillion miles away.”
Beyond the sheer scope of the search, I think a number of interesting observations and hypotheticals can be made regarding the desire and likelihood of finding intelligent life beyond our planet.
First, what happens if they find something? How would that affect people on earth, especially those with religious convictions? Thanks to new technologies, the scientists behind the project now believe that the chances of extraterrestrial life are much greater than they once believed. Writing about the prospects of Breakthrough, Milner himself writes, “There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone.” My guess is that if scientists found evidence of life beyond earth, it would shake people’s convictions about their place in the universe much like it did during the Copernican Revolution. I don’t think, however, that finding E.T. should undermine people’s religious (particularly Christian) convictions.
From a Christian perspective, God created everything. A traditional interpretation of the first line of Scripture, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), attests to the universe having a definite starting point. The prevailing scientific perspective agrees with this much too. Since the late 1920s, Georges Lemaître’s Big Bang cosmological theory has been the consensus in the scientific community. Lemaître, by the way, was an astronomer, Catholic priest, and physics professor in Belgium whose cosmological discovery only strengthens the evidence for this reading of Genesis.
Further, while the Genesis account explains that God created the earth, it certainly never denies the possibility that God created other earths (or life forms), and it positively affirms that God created the stars (Genesis 1:16). Thus, any discovery of E.T. would only push the question of creation back further for those who don’t hold theistic convictions (“Well, who created those life forms?”) and allow Christians to affirm what theologians have claimed for centuries—that God created the world out of nothing and that everything in the universe is part of His creation.
In the end, the Breakthrough Initiatives may be a worthwhile and exciting venture, but I’m skeptical it will be as groundbreaking as its visionaries proclaim. Hawking and Milner’s expensive quest to find E.T. is, I would argue, a curiously metaphysical itch they’re trying to scratch. They might find something out there, and they might not. But either way, it will not change what the Psalmist said millennia ago, “The heavens declare the Glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4).