“What is the greatest question ever asked?” poses Yuri Milner, layering smoked salmon atop toast.
My palms are sweating. As if the meeting at the Ritz Carlton with one of the most powerful men in the world (for which I was slightly late) wasn’t intimidating enough, the wait for him to join me — during which the hotel staff informed me of his preferred booth — had me more rattled than I’ve ever been for a briefing. “Mr. Milner doesn’t mind that you’re in a T-shirt,” the waiter said to me as I waited. “He cares about what’s up there,” pointing to my head.
And now Milner is putting it to the test.
“What is the meaning of life?” is my first guess, and he seems mildly pleased but dissatisfied, so I follow with “How do we achieve happiness?”
Milner shakes his head politely, and corrects my mistakes with a smile.
“Are we alone?” he says, with all the wonder of a young boy.
Yuri Milner was named Yuri after Yuri Gagarin, and he explains to me that space exploration has been a dream of his since childhood. Before he was a founder or an investor (in companies like Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, and a number of other unicorns), he was a scientist. It is his passion, not his business. Until now.
Milner is investing $100 million into a new project, announced today at the The Royal Society in London with Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy, Pete Worden and Ann Druyan. The project is called Breakthrough Initiatives, and the first piece of the initiative will launch today.
Breakthrough Listen, in the words of Milner, is the most powerful, comprehensive and intensive scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond our planet. The project will include the use of two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes — Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.
Milner explains that the program will survey the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth in hopes of finding conditions suitable to life, searching the entire galactic plane of the Milky Way and beyond to the 100 closest neighboring galaxies.
This means that Breakthrough Listen will scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum, 100 times faster than previous initiatives funded by the government, and will cover 10x more of the sky than anything to have come before it.
The program should be 1000x more effective than any previous search for intelligent life beyond Earth.
Milner is tapping the collective intelligence of SETI@home, Berkeley’s distributed computing platform, which will afford the project 9 million volunteers around the world donating their extra computing power to the project.
But even with the support of one of the biggest supercomputers in the world, which those volunteers collectively represent, Milner isn’t leaving anything up to chance.
The entire project will be open-sourced, including the data pulled in from these telescopes and the software used to interpret it. The software built will also be compatible with other telescopes around the world, so that others can join in the search for intelligent life.
By open-sourcing the data and the software, the project will comprise its own open platform wherein developers, scientists and engineers can create their own applications and programs to further analyze the data, which will be the largest amount of this type of data (on space exploration) to ever be put in the hands of the public.
Of course, what good is the ability to detect a message or a sign of extraterrestrial life without the ability to communicate.
That’s why the second part of the Initiative, Breakthrough Message, will center around the actual content we’d like to transmit into the heavens for our potential galactic neighbors. The project will award $1,000,000 to the individuals who create digital messages that represent humanity and planet Earth. Thus far, there isn’t a lot of public information about this phase of the project, but Milner says that more details around the competition will be announced at a later date.
Milner has announced Breakthrough Initiatives today, but this has been a work in progress for some time now. To kick off the search, Milner has published an open letter signed by 30 of the world’s leading scientists.
Call To Action
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.
As I sit across from this man — part scientist, part entrepreneur, part husband, part billionaire — I wonder why he’s here with me. There are colleagues of mine who are far deeper into space exploration, science fiction, etc. than I am. I’m the girl who covers Tinder.
And yet, each time he gets to explain the full scope of the project, the historical context and technological progress with which it has been made possible, his eyes lighten and his smile softens. He represents the fulfillment of a dream had by millions of individuals, scientist or not, across the globe. It will take time, perhaps more than he or I has left on this Earth, but the quest has truly begun.
If there is intelligent life out there, beyond our own atmosphere, we are going to find it.
“We’re out of time,” Milner says looking at his watch. He stands, shakes my hand with a warm smile, and heads for the door.