The Breakthrough Initiatives, astronomical programs that seek answers to fundamental questions about life in the Universe, are accelerating progress in the global space science field. Yuri Milner is the Israeli billionaire behind these initiatives, the short book Eureka Manifesto, the Breakthrough Prize and the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.
While the Breakthrough Initiatives stem from Milner’s Giving Pledge commitment, the philanthropist credits three scientists for inspiring the programs’ focus on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI): Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake, and Bernie Oliver.
Why Yuri Milner Signed the Giving Pledge
In 2012, Milner and his wife Julia joined the Giving Pledge. Established by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, the Giving Pledge has encouraged over 200 of the world’s richest individuals to dedicate the majority of their wealth to charitable causes. Pledgers include Anne Wojciki, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Priscilla Chan.
By becoming signatories, the Milners vowed to support scientific projects and, as Milner wrote in his pledge letter, to “invest in our leading minds and our shared future.”
To realize the commitments of their Giving Pledge, in 2012, the Milners helped establish the Breakthrough Prize. Each year, the Breakthrough Prize recognizes the achievements of leading scientists and early-career researchers. Each of the main prizes is $3 million.
Three years later, the Milners launched the Breakthrough Junior Challenge to reward young people for educating their peers on complex topics by crafting short, educational videos. Prizes include a $250,000 post-secondary scholarship, $50,000 for a teacher who inspired the winning student, and a $100,000 Breakthrough science lab for the winning student’s school.
How Hawking, Drake, and Oliver Inspired the Breakthrough Initiatives
Milner co-founded and invested in the Breakthrough Initiatives to further contribute to the cause of science. He selected a scientific field where he knew his investment could make a tangible difference: SETI.
Milner names Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake, and Bernie Oliver as major inspirations for the Breakthrough Initiatives.
1. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
Of the three scientists, Stephen Hawking is perhaps the most well-known. A world-famous theoretical physicist, Hawking was the first person to suggest a theory of cosmology that combined quantum mechanics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He also contributed greatly to science’s understanding of black holes.
Hawking spent decades shining the spotlight of popular culture on physics: He wrote several popular science books, like his bestseller “A Brief History of Time,” and “The Universe in a Nutshell.” He even appeared on TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
Milner had admired Hawking for decades, having attended a lecture by the physicist in 1987. After Hawking won a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2013 for his discovery of Hawking radiation, Milner asked the physicist which scientific fields could benefit from private funding. Hawking suggested SETI.
Like Milner, Hawking had a long-standing interest in SETI. In 2015, they announced the launch of Breakthrough Listen, a pioneering astronomical program that searches for proof of civilizations beyond Earth.
The Breakthrough Initiatives have since grown to include Message, Watch, Starshot, and Discuss. Hawking lent his support to launch Starshot in 2016, a $100 million project that hopes to send a nanocraft to our nearest star at one-fifth of the speed of light.
2. Frank Drake (1930-2022)
Radio astronomer Frank Drake was among the first SETI pioneers. Drake understood that investigating the possibility of civilizations beyond Earth was fundamental to humanity’s mission to explore and understand the Universe.
The former director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, Drake served as chairman of the SETI Institute’s board of trustees. He also gave his name to the Drake equation, the first significant attempt to define the probability of the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations.
Drake unveiled his equation at the first SETI conference, which took place at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. The noted astronomer Carl Sagan was one of the attendees. For 60 years, Drake pioneered the field, inspiring and developing SETI leaders who would continue the hunt for alien life.
In 1974 at the Arecibo observatory, Drake transmitted a radio signal toward a star cluster over 22,000 light-years away. The now-famous “Arecibo message” transmitted for fewer than three minutes and contained information that our cosmic neighbors might use to gain insight into our civilization. The message included information about our solar system, the structure of DNA, and the dimensions of a human.
While we’ve had no reply so far, the transmission is still out there, traveling through the vast reaches of space. Perhaps one day the message will reach a civilization advanced enough to receive and decipher it.
In 2014, some 40 years after the Arecibo message first went out, the Milners accompanied Drake to Puerto Rico to visit the Arecibo observatory. Milner recalls how, standing beside the SETI pioneer, he “gained a clearer sense of SETI’s extraordinary potential.”
Milner also cites the moment as the inspiration for his book Eureka Manifesto: He realized that “even while the receiver remained silent, I could at least communicate with one intelligent civilization. Our own.”
3. Bernie Oliver (1916-95)
Besides Drake, few scientists have been as influential to the SETI cause as Bernie Oliver. He also made significant contributions to various technological fields, leading research and development at the Hewlett-Packard Corporation (HP) for four decades.
Oliver’s interest in SETI began in the early 1960s, and he attended the Green Bank Conference where Drake first announced his famous equation.
Years later, Oliver co-directed a study at NASA’s Ames Research Center on “Project Cyclops,” a scheme that used radio telescopes to hunt for evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. The resulting report laid the foundations for much SETI work today.
After retiring from HP, Oliver served as senior manager on an ambitious NASA SETI program. When NASA cut its involvement in SETI in 1993, Oliver spearheaded the drive to source philanthropic funding for the program to continue under the sponsorship of the non-profit SETI Institute. He volunteered as a senior scientist for the Institute’s Project Phoenix until he died in 1995.
While Milner never met Oliver, the SETI pioneer touched Milner’s life through a strange coincidence. After moving into their new house in California, the Milners discovered that Oliver had once owned it. For Milner, there was something about the house’s location (on a hill overlooking Silicon Valley) that inspired anew his wonder at the cosmos.
Looking up at the night sky from their garden, Milner recalled his childhood fascination with the possibility of life beyond Earth, remembering how he had read Shklovsky and Sagan’s “Intelligent Life in the Universe” multiple times and “dreamed of finding another civilization.”
The SETI Legacy of Hawking, Drake, and Oliver
Over 50 years have passed since Drake’s historic Green Bank conference, and SETI is thriving thanks to the Breakthrough Initiatives.
In particular, Breakthrough Listen has harnessed the power of some of the world’s largest telescopes to conduct radio surveys in search of technosignatures (radio signals from potential alien civilizations). These telescopes scan 10 times more of the sky than previous SETI programs, 100 times faster.
Listen’s cutting-edge machine-learning instruments then analyze the petabytes of data generated from the scans for signals and evidence of alien life.
The Breakthrough Initiatives are also expanding SETI into new directions. For example, following the discovery by NASA’s Kepler space telescope that nearly all sunlike stars have rocky planets similar to Earth, Breakthrough Watch is on a mission to find signs of life on nearby exo-Earths.
While we haven’t come across alien intelligence or cellular life yet, Milner emphasizes that “there has never been a more exciting time to look for it, or a better chance of knowing it when we see it.”
About Yuri Milner
Yuri Milner is a prolific science philanthropist and tech investor. He started his career as a theoretical physicist before moving to the U.S. to study business and launching the prominent internet investment company DST Global.
Milner is one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prize, the world’s largest physics, life sciences, and mathematics awards. From here, he developed the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, encouraging young people to compete for their own science award. He also established the Breakthrough Initiatives, taking inspiration from SETI enthusiasts Stephen Hawking, Bernie Oliver, and Frank Drake.
In 2021, Milner published his book Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilization, which is free to read online. Eureka Manifesto reflects on human civilization in the context of the evolution of the cosmos and argues that we must look beyond Earth for a unifying mission for our “Universal Story” to continue. The book also provides a glimpse into the future we could be part of if we embrace this mission.
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