Why Yuri Milner’s $100M Hunt for Aliens Isn’t Just About Aliens

The Russian billionaire is now supporting the hunt for intelligent extraterrestrial life, potentially indefinitely, and on a level nobody has ever attempted before. Whether he finds it or not, science will still win. 

Yuri Milner, the former physicist and investor who was an early backer of tech companies such as Facebook, recently wowed the science community with the commitment of $100 million over 10 years to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

It’s not just the fact that such efforts have struggled for funding for decades, although they have. Milner’s investment expands the project to cover 10 times more of the sky than previous searches. It will look at the 1 billion stars closest to Earth, and 100 galaxies beyond our own. The initiative is an offshoot of Milner’s Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which bestows lavish prize money on scientists.

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While Milner has backed science for a while now, this is a big roll of the dice for the investor. 

That’s not just because the hunt for alien life is a literal shot in the dark; when asked what happens after 10 years, he told Time: “I’ll fund it for another 10 years. This thing can go on forever. It’s our responsibility as human beings to keep looking for a signal.”

Consider, for a moment, what he’s saying there. 

Milner is open to funding at a bare minimum $100 million over 10 years, very likely $200 million or more over 20 years, and potentially indefinitely support the effort—even without one shred of contact. 

It’s hard to imagine many other unqualified philanthropic commitments toward a goal that may never find any resolution. 

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For Milner, it’s simply a duty of human existence, not really a question of metrics. And yet, if you look a little closer at what the grant will fund, there’s another level of potential benefit here. 

A big impetus behind the project is that two of the radio telescopes that will be utilized have struggled for funding in recent years. Flat national funding has meant the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in Australia have fought just to keep the doors open. 

Milner’s project is underwriting 20 percent of their costs, in return for 20 percent of observing time. This will greatly relieve the pressure of finding new private partners to stay solvent. The other 80 percent of the time can be used for many other worthy, if lower-profile, projects.

Then there’s the potential for development of new technology. While a third of the investment will go toward observing time, and another third toward staffing, the remaining third will fund new receiving equipment. Combine that with the advancement in techniques for collecting, analyzing, and sharing massive stores of observation data, and the project will undoubtedly provide benefits for researchers regardless of their interest in aliens. 

Defenders of NASA frequently cite the lengthy list of innovations that came into existence during space exploration research, but we now use on Earth. Taking on lofty, if far-fetched research projects like Milner’s new investment will likely benefit other areas of research. Shoot for intelligent extraterrestrial life; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. 

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