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Are We Alone? Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives and the Search for Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life

ByDave Stopher

Jul 17, 2022 #life

“Just knowing we are not alone … is something that can bring us together here on Earth.”

– Yuri Milner

Are we alone in the universe? A 10-year, multi-million-dollar project is attempting to find the answer. Yuri Milner, a technology investor, science philanthropist, and founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives is leading the search for intelligent civilisations beyond Earth and hoping that the exploration could unite civilisation here on our planet.

What Are Breakthrough Initiatives?

Breakthrough Initiatives is a series of space science programmes with a unified mission to find life beyond Earth. These Initiatives make up one of several “Breakthrough” enterprises that Julia and Yuri Milner have founded and funded, including The Breakthrough Prizes and The Breakthrough Junior Challenge. The Breakthrough Initiatives investigate fundamental questions about life in the universe and include the projects Message, Watch, Starshot, Enceladus, and Listen.

In 2015, Yuri Milner launched Listen with co-founder Stephen Hawking at the Royal Society in London. Listen is the largest ever astronomical research programme to search for evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth, surveying stars and galaxies on an unprecedented scale. It has covered 10 times more of the sky and at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum than previous programmes, 100 times faster.

Listening for Alien Life

Fascinated by the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth during his childhood, Yuri Milner began a career as a physicist. Years later, he joined the Giving Pledge, a movement that started with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage philanthropists to donate half of their wealth to charitable causes during their lifetimes or after they pass away. The moral commitment inspired Milner to consider how private funding could transform areas of scientific interest, such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Made aware of SETI’s financial struggles to continue its important work by Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner provided over $100 million to fund the Listen project and accelerate the search for alien civilisations. The initiative was originally set to span 10 years, ending in 2025, but Yuri Milner has alluded to funding it for a subsequent 10 years and, potentially, forever.

Thanks to Yuri Milner, Listen has supercharged SETI experiments, with machine learning and other technological innovations streamlining and speeding up the process of detecting signals. The project works with some of the world’s leading observatories and most powerful telescopes, including the Green Bank Telescope, West Virginia, USA, the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, and the 64-antenna MeerKAT array in South Africa.

Humanity’s Shared Mission

In his short book, Eureka Manifesto, Yuri Milner addresses the human race’s current lack of a unified mission. He describes how a shared goal could give our existence purpose and meaning, help guide our collective choices, and see us unite and thrive as a civilisation. But with people, nations, and cultures varying so greatly, what could such a mission involve? He suggests that we look beyond Earth and take up the challenge to explore and understand our Universe.

Since its launch in 2015, Listen has made many exciting observations, such as the interstellar object “Oumuamua” and the mysterious Boyajian’s Star. Listen has also discovered more than 15 Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), believed to be of natural (non-alien) origin, as well as a significant radio signal in 2019, apparently originating from our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. However, a rigorous analysis by the project team concluded that the signal was likely to be terrestrial interference. If extraterrestrial intelligence does exist, so far the universe seems quiet, but humanity’s mission to explore proceeds undeterred.

Learn more about Breakthrough Listen.

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