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Yuri Milner Bets $100M That 'We Are Not Alone' in the Universe

Making it easier for E.T. to phone home.


In a new initiative announced today in London, well-known Russian tech investor Yuri Milner said he was spending $100 million to “discover whether intelligent life exists beyond Earth.”

While raising the question whether intelligent life lives here right now (see: Reddit, Donald Trump, etc.), Milner held a conference call today with big-name theoretical physicist and professor Stephen Hawking at the Royal Society in London to tout the worldwide effort called Breakthrough Listen.

In an interview, Milner said it was a “low-probability, high-impact experiment” that only the private sector could now take on. “The government got out of this business in the 1990s, but I think it is really critical to probe the universe to see if others are out there.”

Named after Milner’s series of science prizes, the 10-year project will use open data and software — along with two powerful telescopes, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in Australia — to scan the sky in hopes of receiving signals from others who might be out there.

“If a civilization based around one of the 1,000 nearest stars is transmitting to us with the power of a common aircraft radar, the Breakthrough Listen telescopes can detect it,” said Breakthrough Listen in a statement. “If they are transmitting from the center of the Milky Way, with any more than a dozen times the output of the interplanetary radars we use to probe our own solar system, Breakthrough Listen telescopes could detect them.”

Along with a number of prominent scientists who Milner has wrangled into the effort, the project will also use a distributed platform called SETI@home from the University of California at Berkeley that uses the computers of nine million volunteers to search astronomical data for signs of life.

While the first step in the initiative will be Breakthrough Listen, Milner also announced Breakthrough Message, a competition to create messages to send out to other civilizations scattered throughout the cosmos.

Milner made his fortune here on terra firma, with investments in companies like Facebook, Twitter and many others globally. But his background training as a physicist has spurred him to spend some of that money on efforts to push science forward, including his annual Breakthrough Prizes that give money to leaders in fundamental physics, math and life sciences.

When I asked Milner if he thought we were alone in the universe, he demurred. “That’s what I am trying to find out,” he said. “But it would be a shame if we were all there was and I hope that we are not alone.”

Silicon Valley’s interest in space has gained traction over the years, with a myriad of investments in all kinds of satellites and rocket technology. The most famous effort has been from Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is trying to privatize space. Musk himself has said he hopes to someday colonize Mars.

Here is a letter Breakthrough Listen has sent out, signed by a plethora of prominent names in the astrophysics arena:

Are we alone?
Now is the time to find out

Who are we?

A mature civilization, like a mature individual, must ask itself this question. Is humanity defined by its divisions, its problems, its passing needs and trends? Or do we have a shared face, turned outward to the Universe?

In 1990, Voyager 1 swiveled its camera and captured the “Pale Blue Dot” — an image of Earth from six billion kilometers away. It was a mirror held up to our planet — home of water, life, and minds. A reminder that we share something precious and rare.

But how rare, exactly? The only life? The only minds?

For the last half-century, small groups of scientists have listened valiantly for signs of life in the vast silence. But for government, academia, and industry, cosmic questions are astronomically far down the list of priorities. And that lengthens the odds of finding answers. It is hard enough to comb the Universe from the edge of the Milky Way; harder still from the edge of the public consciousness.

Yet millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child — our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings — an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “In either case the idea is quite staggering.”

That means the search for life is the ultimate “win-win” endeavor. All we have to do is take part.

Today we have search tools far surpassing those of previous generations. Telescopes can pick out planets across thousands of light years. The magic of Moore’s law lets our computers sift data orders of magnitude faster than older mainframes — and ever quicker each year.

These tools are now reaping a harvest of discoveries. In the last few years, astronomers and the Kepler Mission have discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. It now appears that most stars host a planetary system. Many of them have a planet similar in size to our own, basking in the ‘habitable zone’ where the temperature permits liquid water. There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. And with instruments now or soon available, we have a chance of finding out if any of these planets are true Pale Blue Dots – home to water, life, even minds.

There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilization, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.

But as well as a call to action, this is a call to thought. When we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilizations? Who decides? Individuals, institutions, corporations, or states? Or can we as species — as a planet — think together?

Three years ago, Voyager 1 broke the sun’s embrace and entered interstellar space. The 20th century will be remembered for our travels within the solar system. With cooperation and commitment, the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.

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