"Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. 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" - Prof Stephen Hawking
Mankind has launched its biggest and most elaborate search ever for signs of alien intelligence outside planet Earth.
It is a quest Prof Stephen Hawking , acknowledged as one among the most brilliant minds ever, has described in a simple but telling sentence, "We must know." If there is anybody who can be trusted on the necessity of the project - named Breakthrough Listen - it must be Hawking.
Like Hawking, many others including experts and amateurs, believe that life exists elsewhere in the universe, made up of zillions of planets in millions of galaxies. It is just a question of reaching out to them in one way or the other.
The 10-year marathon project will hunt for broadcast signals from millions of stars closest to Earth, with experts hoping that two of the world's most powerful radio telescopes will enable them to listen to any signal with clarity like never before.
As part of the $100-million (approximately Rs 630 crore) project, the two telescopes will track the million closest stars, the centre of the Milky Way and the 100 closest galaxies for radio and laser signals.
But if we ever make contact with extra-terrestrial life form, what will we encounter? It is a question as fundamental as the main issue.
Will they be little green-eyed humanoids, as projected in science fiction books and movies? What if our first encounter of the third kind is with creepy, crawly worms - the highest and most intelligent life on another planet? Or even flesh-eating bacteria with intelligence higher than humans?
We have all grown up with a romanticised vision of aliens as doe-eyed, friendly beings like the ET, made famous by the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name. And in recent times, the green-eyed, do-gooder alien played by Aamir Khan in PK
But what if our alien contact is a vicious, killer with tentacles or the monster depicted in another Hollywood classic simply called Alien?
Nature functions in her own style. Once dinosaurs were the dominant species on Earth for millions of years till Nature selected them for extinction. It took millions of more years for humans to take over, his intelligence and straight posture giving him the advantage over all other species.
If humans had not evolved, some other life form would have. Chimpanzees, for instance, or dolphins. And even pigs, known to be among the most intelligent animals on Earth.
And there is also the possibility that alien life forms already know about Earth and earthlings but were put off by the violent, war-mongering human beings.
Quest for the unknown
But human quest is not bound by what if. The possibilities are numerous, the prospects exciting yet scary. But search we must.
It is as scary as the first explorers setting off from one corner of the world in search of unknown land, not knowing what terrible monsters they would encounter. This will be a quest as ground-breaking as the first voyage of Christopher Columbus or Vasco da Gama. Or the first space trip by Yuri Gagarin and the first step on moon on Neil Armstrong.
The quest is what makes human beings what they are - inquisitive and fearless.
(You can also join the search for ET by simply clicking here to join the SETI@home project which uses millions of personal computers to search data for signs of alien radio signals)
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @diary_of_a_hack )