Earlier this year, cosmologist Stephen Hawking said that sending signals into space for possible alien life to receive was "reckless." After all, we might ring the doorbell of an army of space invaders with futuristic plasma guns.
On Monday, Hawking joined other researchers at the Royal Society in London to announce a brilliant new plan on a scale more massive than ever -- we shall listen for the aliens instead.
Called Breakthrough Listen, this project links the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the largest steerable telescope on the planet, with the Parkes Observatory in Australia in the hunt for radio emissions in our Milky Way and other galaxies. Starting in January, researchers will get thousands of telescope hours to embark on a search that is 50 times more sensitive and covers 10 times more sky than previous alien pursuits.ColumnDobie: Will we ever find new life in the universe?OpinionFiller: Earthlings, go planet huntingOpinionOpinion: One step closer to a real estate deal for the moon
Looking for aliens is really, really cool. But more cool would be finding them. And this obviously leads to the question, what if we catch E.T. watching "Guardians of the Galaxy" in a dark corner of our galaxy? What if we're not alone? The philosophical consequences are worth intense contemplation.
Before we consider what to do with this knowledge, simply knowing we are not alone is a significant piece of information. If so, life on the Earth is not a solitary miracle and the probability of there being more (because we'd have two instances) would almost be a certainty when acknowledging that our galaxy is one of billions.
Following from this would be the triviality of our spinning blue rock. A relief, in my mind. If there is other life out there, the scale of earthly problems would be diminished, as we would have the certainty of being a part of a (literally) universal community.
Theories of consciousness and of the human soul would also have to be re-evaluated if we found other sentient beings. The questions of whether humans are merely mortal beings, or possess eternal souls, and whether consciousness is endowed by God or is a product of evolution would get much trickier. If there is more advanced life, we might not seem as unique as our religious or spiritual theories suggest.
Finally, we would have the dilemma of how to act if we knew we were not alone. Would we answer their communication by sending some YouTube instructional meditation videos to let them know we exist in peace? Do we start construction on the Starship Enterprise and set a course?
I'd take the chance of contacting them, because if they are militant and end up blowing us up with some unimaginably advanced technology, then it would seem that we simply got a head start on an inevitable end.
Conservative estimates put 100 billion galaxies and 1 septillion stars in our observable universe. From Earth's existence, the probability of other life is small, but undoubtedly greater than zero.
It is our job to explore this vastness and face the multitude of questions that come with it. If we're alone or not, it's quite a profound fact.
Christopher Leelum, a student at Stony Brook University, is an intern with Newsday and amNewYork.