Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen Initiative: The Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations : Space : Science World Report

In the decades following the space race of the 20th century, it seemed that space exploration and the subject as a whole had lost some of its charm. Lack of interest from governments and private investors meant dwindling funds, and the once shining allure of the cosmos seemed to be burning low in the public consciousness. However, in recent years, the technology investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner has fanned the flames of the space science sector, reinvigorating the field with a much-needed injection of funding and insight.

Breakthrough Listen, one of Milner’s Revolutionary Initiatives and a project he co-founded with the late Stephen Hawking, announced several partnerships with some of the largest telescopes in the world, on five continents, extending the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to new expanses of the universe and reframing the parameters of what the program hopes to find: extragalactic “technosignatures” proving the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

The spark

Growing up in the 1960s, Milner read Intelligent Life in the Universe by astronomers Carl Sagan and Iosif Shklovsky. The book triggered a lifelong passion for the subject this, along with some of the other big questions in science, inspired Milner to study physics at the postdoctoral level. After graduating with a graduate degree in theoretical physics in 1985, the physicist continued his research in quantum field theory but soon realized that his talents lay elsewhere.

Milner put science aside and turned to business, moving to the United States to study at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. The move paid off: Milner went on to found a successful internet business in 1999, and after taking the company public in 2010, he launched DST Global, hoping to focus on global internet investments. Indeed, DST Global has become one of the leading technology investors on the planet, with an enviable portfolio of clients including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Spotify, Airbnb and Alibaba.

The Giving Pledge and the Breakthrough Foundation

In 2012, Milner and his wife joined Bill and Melinda Gates’ Warren Buffett and Giving Pledge, deciding to donate at least half of their combined lifetime wealth to primarily science-based causes. In his Giving a Letter of Commitment, Yuri Milner cites his belief that scientific genius is “undercapitalized” and explains that he joined the Giving Pledge to “invest in our leading minds and our shared future”.

That same year, Milner and his wife founded the Breakthrough Foundation. The Breakthrough Foundation invests in pioneering space programs, supports leading researchers in the fields of basic science and mathematics, and hopes to inspire a love of science in younger generations. Here’s how.

The price of breakthrough

The Milners launched the Breakthrough Prize in 2012, partnered with Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg to provide funding through their foundations. As the world’s most important scientific prizes, the Breakthrough Prizes recognize significant and recent achievements in mathematics, life sciences and fundamental physics. Six $3 million prizes, along with other scholarships, are awarded annually to researchers in these fields.

In his Giving Pledge letter, Milner asks “why shouldn’t superstars in science have the same inspirational power as their peers in art, media and sport?” Not content with offering only financial rewards, part of Milner’s vision is to also provide scientists with cultural capital, hence the Breakthrough Prize hosting and televising an annual awards ceremony in Silicon Valley. .

The Revolutionary Junior Challenge

The Breakthrough Foundation has also organizes the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a competition that invites high school students around the world to create and submit videos explaining a stimulating scientific concept in no more than 90 seconds. The prizes make young people and their schools dream: the winners receive a scholarship of $250,000 for the university, a new scientific laboratory of $100,000 for their school and $50,000 for their teacher.

Revolutionary initiatives

Over the years, the Breakthrough Foundation has funded several groundbreaking initiatives propelling SETI and space exploration. These programs study the fundamental questions of life in the Universe, and two have the distinction of being co-founded by none other than Stephen Hawking.

In July 2015, Milner and Stephen Hawking launched the first Breakthrough Initiative, the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project, spurring the search for technological civilizations beyond Earth. In April 2016, Mark Zuckerberg joined Stephen Hawking and Milner to launch Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million research and engineering program that aims to develop new technologies for unmanned interstellar travel.

Another multimillion-dollar astronomical program, Breakthrough Watch, searches for Earth-like planets in our neighboring galaxies and determines if they harbor extraterrestrial life.

Other groundbreaking initiatives include Message, an international competition to create a message for an extraterrestrial civilization, and Discuss, an annual academic conference on space science.

Intelligent life in the universe

The original Breakthrough initiative, Listen, searches the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, partnering with leading observatories in Europe, China and South America to use some of the best telescopes on the planet.

Listen’s plan seems simple enough: if his telescopes detect a verified “technosignature”, a signal that differs from natural sources of radio waves and therefore suggests a technological origin from an advanced civilization, then we will have proof that we we are not the only ones in the universe.

The main problem is that the Universe is huge and there is a lot to analyze. In a 2017 interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the former director of the SETI Institute, Jill Tarter compared the search for extraterrestrial life in the Universe to the search for fish in Earth’s oceans and, so far , the organization’s 50-year research has resulted in the study of a sample size. of a 12-ounce glass of seawater. No wonder we haven’t found anything yet.

The heavens have opened

Milner’s funding accelerated the pace of SETI, turning the glass into a “gushing torrent”, as Breakthrough Listen lead researcher Andrew Siemion puts it. Over the past few years, Listen has released the most comprehensive search for technosignatures ever; published an unprecedented survey of the galactic center and terrestrial transit zone of the Milky Way; and produced an innovative catalog of astrophysical exoticism, one listing nearly every type of observable object or phenomenon in the known Universe.

Now Siemion and fellow researcher Professor Michael Garrett of the University of Manchester in the UK have announced a new analysis of existing data and subsequently identified weird and wonderful aliens like interacting galaxies, radio galaxies, various active galactic nuclei and numerous gravitational lensing systems, all on a large scale. cosmological distances from Earth.

However, the inventory also lists several nearby galaxies and galaxy clusters which, although still millions of light-years away, could be of primary interest to Breakthrough Listen. These systems make excellent places to look for rare and powerful signals, as they contain hundreds of billions of stars that may have habitable planets orbiting them.

Parameter limitation

Listen also transforms SETI’s reputation, proving that alien hunting can work within the strict limits of scientific validity.

Garrett felt “troubled” that previous SETI surveys failed to account for the radio telescope’s field of view containing unwanted background objects as well as the predicted target star. Now the project’s final paper, “Constraints on extragalactic transmitters via Breakthrough Listen observations of background sources”, accepted for publication in “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society”, describes how Siemion and Garrett were able to impose new constraints on the prevalence powerful transmitters that could come from these newly identified systems and on the luminosity function of possible extraterrestrial transmitters. This is another step towards narrowing the search field and increasing the likelihood that Listen will find indisputable evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Listen now has a lot more targets to scan, so for now it’s a waiting game, but the possibilities of the project’s findings are tantalizing to consider. The groundbreaking initiatives recall the thrilling age of a bygone era when humanity placed men on the moon. Thanks to Milner, who knows what the next big breakthrough of the space age will be?

About Yuri Milner

Yuri Milner is an Israeli entrepreneur and former physicist, co-founder of internet company Mail.Ru Group and founder of technology investment firm DST Global. His work includes investments in the areas of internet technology and science philanthropy. The latter began in 2012 when Milner and his wife Julia joined the Giving Pledge and created the Breakthrough Foundation.

The Breakthrough Foundation funds several large-scale projects that contribute to the advancement of science and the widespread dissemination of scientific ideas, including the Breakthrough Prize, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, and the Breakthrough Initiatives. The Breakthrough Foundation has contributed to various other humanitarian causes, including programs that support science, medicine, and technological innovation in Israel.

Milner continues to split his time between DST Global and his philanthropic ventures Breakthrough Foundation.

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