Last Monday, on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Russian tech capitalist Yuri Milner—who was joined by SETI Institute founder Frank Drake, physicist Stephen Hawking, and astronomer Martin Rees—announced that he would be investing $100 million of his own money into Breakthrough Listen, a project designed to ramp up our search for extraterrestrial life.
The funds will be allocated to three objectives: paying for more hours of telescope time, funding development of new technologies for receiving radio signals, and hiring astronomers.
Because scientists will have access to the telescopes both at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia (the location of the largest steerable radio telescope in the world) and at the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, the project is expected to collect the same amount of data in one day as SETI did in a year. “We would typically get twenty-four to thirty-six hours on a telescope per year, but now we’ll have thousands of hours per year on the best instruments,” said Andrew Siemion, scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. This is a dream come true for SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers who, despite having been around since the 1960s, have just now received the funding to accomplish more on their wish list. “It’s just a miracle,” Drake said at the July 20 announcement made in London. “We could never get enough telescope time. Yuri can fix that with the click of a pen.”
Yuri Milner is known in the US primarily for his early investments in Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies. He studied theoretical physics but didn’t think he was intelligent enough for the field. Instead, taking advantage of his father’s connections, he went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and later founded the investment firm Digital Sky Technologies (now known as DST Global). But Milner has maintained a strong passion for science. Incidentally, he was named after Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space who completed an orbit of the Earth in 1961, the year Milner was born.
The concentrated search for intelligent life has not been particularly well-funded prior to Milner’s involvement. The SETI Institute received government funding only briefly after its inception in 1984, and has since operated on the small amount of money given to it by private donors and other interested public entities. According to the SETI Institute website, previous notable contributors include William Hewlett, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Paul Allen, Nathan Myhrvold, Arthur C. Clarke, Barney Oliver, and Franklin Antonio.
Now, with Milner’s participation, SETI is again working with the public to make the most of its newly invigorated project. An Android app will allow millions of people all over the world—both scientists and amateur astronomers alike—to sift through the reams of data collected by SETI daily. In fact, the participation of the public is necessary for the project’s success. Not only is SETI crowdsourcing processing power by allowing millions of personal devices to aid in data processing, but the inclusion of the public both inspires passion and drives donations. And Milner assures us that the data will be presented in a format intelligible to non-scientists—in other words, millions of eyes and minds will now help to scan the sky for alien life. “The more people participate, the better,” Milner said, in an interview with TIME. “I’m sure there will be plenty of false positives, but it’s worth it.”
It seems to be the perfect project for Milner, who has a demonstrated passion for both scientific endeavors and the development of consumer applications. “That’s why I like this project,” he said. “It connects two pieces of my brain.” (He is also offering a $1,000,000 prize for the best message composed to send to these intelligent life forms upon discovery.)
Much has been written about the scientific and philosophical revolutions that would accompany the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Even the discovery of a non-sentient organism—a microbe, fungus, or bacteria—might shatter our generally anthropocentric perspective. Milner and the other scientists involved recognize the magnitude of the project and understand the potential implications of its findings. In the midst of a surge of interest in science , the excitement about potentially landing humans on Mars, and gathering data on Pluto, the time for answers is now. “I think interest in space is rising again after a long period of dormancy,” Milner said. He hopes to both benefit from and contribute to that growing interest.