The smartest man on Earth hunts alien life, or so go the headlines. Together with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking on Monday launched the $100-million Breakthrough Listen, perhaps the most intensive search for alien life yet. The project will attempt to eavesdrop on radio conversations taking place between advanced life forms light years beyond the solar system, much like the satellite dishes of the Allen Telescope Array at the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California — frequently seen in first contact Hollywood movies — have been doing for more than a decade. But for the next 10 years, Listen will secure time on the world’s best radio telescopes and develop instruments to scan the sky in a far more comprehensive and sustained fashion than before.
“Is anybody out there?” is a question that is dismissed as fanciful, but the possibility of an affirmative response exercises such enduring appeal that it has preoccupied generations of storytellers, from H.G. Wells to George Melies to Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Such stories have imagined the gamut of alien encounters: hostile conquerors searching for a new home (The War of the Worlds), cuddly and curious explorers stranded on our planet by accident (E.T.), not-so-benevolent dictators determined to impose world peace at the barrel of a gun (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and back home, do-gooders whose befuddlement with our strange ways serves to shame us (PK). When mankind goes exploring, the results are usually just as dire. Intrepid human astronauts encounter terrifying and terrifyingly intelligent monsters (the Alien movies, Star Trek).
As seen on screen (or on page), like most other science fiction, aliens in popular culture reflect very human anxieties. They are simulacra of ourselves, embodying our fear of the Other. What Listen might reveal, though, is that intelligent alien life may not come in any form we recognise. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the lion might speak, and we’d not be able to understand him.