Finding Alien Civilizations: Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen Initiative

By Carl Avery Dec7,2022

There is every possibility that intelligent, extraterrestrial life exists in our infinitely large Universe. But our explorations of the Universe have so far been quite limited. That’s why Yuri Milner launched his suite of Breakthrough Initiatives: space science programs that widen our ability to examine the wider cosmos. Among these future-facing programs, Breakthrough Listen injects life into SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and is beginning to uncover the answers that scientists all over the world are looking for.

Here, we’ll dive into Breakthrough Listen, its latest developments, the fascinating story behind why Yuri Milner launched the initiative with Stephen Hawking, and the millions of dollars he has poured into the Breakthrough Initiatives and Breakthrough Prize fulfilling his promise stated in his Giving Pledge.

Introducing Breakthrough Listen and Its Latest Developments

A decade ago, Yuri Milner and his wife Julia decided to commit much of their wealth to the future of scientific research and development through Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge. In his Pledge letter, Yuri Milner explained that he hoped his donations would breathe life into currently under-capitalized scientific brilliance.

With a $100 million donation from Yuri Milner and use of the world’s most advanced telescopes, Breakthrough Listen is the most comprehensive search into extraterrestrial civilizations to date. The 10-year program listens out for “technosignatures,” which are measurable properties or effects that provide scientific evidence of past or present technologies. These properties or effects may originate from other intelligent life forms. So, while our radios on Earth produce signals that are different from the natural energy that radiates from stars, the discovery of other unnatural radio signals in the Universe could suggest the existence of extraterrestrial life.

In one of Listen’s latest developments, the program introduced a new data analysis technique. Previously, SETI observations of target stars were often cluttered with cosmic foreground and object backgrounds. But a new study that has taken place in partnership with Listen has seen the development of a new technique that filters these objects away to make more accurate cosmic observations. This study has uncovered over 140,000 discoveries that include interacting and radio galaxies, galactic nuclei, and a galaxy with gravity that has formed a gravitational lens. The discoveries also include various neighboring galaxies and galaxy groups that could be ideal for seeking technosignatures.

Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking’s Breakthrough Listen Roots

Before launching Listen, Yuri Milner introduced the Breakthrough Prize with Ann Wojcicki, Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan, and Mark Zuckerberg in 2012. The Breakthrough Prize, commonly referred to as the “Oscars of Science,” is the largest science award on the planet. In 2013, Stephen Hawking won the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

Stephen Hawking had long inspired Yuri Milner, especially since he attended one of the theoretical physicist’s lectures in 1987. When selecting a scientific field to dedicate funding to, Yuri Milner asked Stephen Hawking for his advice on which field to choose. With Stephen Hawking’s guidance, the science philanthropist opted for SETI, and they launched Breakthrough Listen together in 2015.

Yuri Milner’s Other Breakthrough Initiatives

After the successful launch of Listen, Yuri Milner launched an array of other Breakthrough Initiatives. These included Watch, Starshot, Message, and Discuss, which involve:

  • The search for habitable planets.
  • The plotting of a nanocraft space mission to Alpha Centauri, the gravitationally bound system of the closest stars and planets to the Solar System.
  • Opportunities for the public to create messages for potential alien civilizations.
  •           Opportunities for academics to generate new ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence and space exploration.

The future of scientific research and development waits in the hands of these initiatives.

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