Newspaper article International New York Times

Mogul's Fortune Bolsters Search for Alien Life

Newspaper article International New York Times

Mogul's Fortune Bolsters Search for Alien Life

Article excerpt

Mr. Milner says that over the next decade he will provide money for new receiving equipment, personnel and observing time at existing facilities.

Extending his idea of philanthropy beyond the Earth and even the human species, Yuri Milner, the Russian Internet entrepreneur and founder of science giveaways like the annual $3 million Fundamental Physics Prizes, has announced in London that he will spend at least $100 million in the next decade to search for signals from alien civilizations.

The money for Breakthrough Listen, as Mr. Milner calls the effort, is one of the biggest chunks of cash ever offered for the so far fruitless quest for cosmic companionship known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. It will allow astronomers to see the kinds of radar used for air traffic control from any of the closest 1,000 stars, and to detect a laser with the power output of a common 100-watt light bulb from the distance of the nearest stars, some four light-years away, according to Mr. Milner's team.

It also ensures more observing time on some of the world's biggest radio telescopes -- a rarity for SETI astronomers who are used to getting one night a year.

"It's just a miracle," said Frank Drake, emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who joined Mr. Milner and others, including the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, in a news conference Monday at the Royal Society in London.

Dan Werthimer, a longtime SETI researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said, "This is beyond my wildest dreams."

In a prepared statement at the announcement, Dr. Hawking said atoms and the forces of nature and the dance of galaxies could explain the lights in the sky, but not the lights on Earth. "In an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life," he said. "Or do our lights wander a lifeless universe? Either way, there is no bigger question."

Mr. Milner also announced a $1 million competition, called Breakthrough Message, to create messages that could be sent if we knew there was anybody out there to receive them.

These could be propitious times for ET. The relentless improvement of electronics and computing power have made it possible to build receivers 50 times as sensitive as before, relieving astronomers of the need to guess what channels an extraterrestrial being might broadcast on. The astronomers can listen to all of them at once.

NASA's Kepler spacecraft and other hunters of planets circling distant stars have determined that there are billions of possible habitats in our galaxy.

Dr. Drake started it all in 1960 when he pointed a radio telescope at a pair of sunlike stars hoping to hear a "hello." He heard nothing, which has pretty much characterized the effort ever since.

No amount of cosmic silence, however, has been able to discourage astronomers who theorize that radio signals can bridge the gulfs between stars more cheaply than spacecraft, allowing distant species to communicate by a sort of cosmic ham radio. …

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