The Search for Alien Life: Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Listen Initiative

Scientists are hunting for proof of alien life on other planets by listening out for their “technosignatures.” This is the focus of Breakthrough Listen, one of a suite of space science programs called the Breakthrough Initiatives. Founded by Israeli tech investor Yuri Milner in collaboration with the late, great Stephen Hawking, Breakthrough Listen harnesses some of the planet’s most cutting-edge telescopes in the hopes of detecting communications from an advanced alien civilization.

Here, we’ll explore Breakthrough Listen’s backstory, the project’s connection with Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge and Breakthrough Prize, and the latest research that could open new swathes of the Universe in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

What Is Breakthrough Listen?

Breakthrough Listen is an astronomical program that searches for evidence of intelligent alien life in the Universe. Yuri Milner has provided $100 million to sponsor the Breakthrough Initiative and, with thousands of hours of radio telescope time clocked, it’s the most comprehensive search for alien communications in history.

Julia and Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge

In 2012, Yuri Milner and his wife Julia joined the Giving Pledge. Conceived by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the Giving Pledge invites the world’s wealthiest people to commit vast sums of private capital to philanthropic enterprises. A childhood passion for science led Yuri Milner to direct his Giving Pledge promise toward scientific causes and further the communication of scientific ideas.

So far, Yuri Milner’s commitment to fulfilling his Giving Pledge has funded several impressive projects, including the Breakthrough Initiatives, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, and the Breakthrough Prize. Famously the world’s biggest scientific award, the Breakthrough Prize recognizes top scientists and mathematicians working in the fundamental sciences today.

Stephen Hawking and SETI

In 2013, the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics went to Stephen Hawking. Yuri Milner had long admired the renowned physicist, ever since attending one of his lectures in 1987. The entrepreneur reached out, inquiring after which scientific fields could benefit from private investment, and Stephen Hawking proposed SETI.

In July 2015, Yuri Milner launched the Breakthrough Initiatives at the Royal Society in London with Stephen Hawking. The first project, Breakthrough Listen, officially began in January 2016 and will continue for 10 years. Subsequent programs include Starshot, co-founded by Mark Zuckerberg, which hopes to send ultra-fast, light-driven nanocrafts to Alpha Centauri in the not-too-distant future, and Watch, a project focusing on the hunt for habitable planets around the stars closest to Earth.

Searching for Alien Life

So far, we haven’t discovered proof of extraterrestrial life. However, the Universe is vast, and the fact that we haven’t yet found anything could come down to the sample size we’ve so far investigated. Before Breakthrough Listen, former director of the SETI Institute Jill Tarter described the search for aliens as scooping up a glass of ocean water and expecting to find a fish.

Now, thanks to Yuri Milner’s $100 million injection into the project, SETI can cast its net wider. As the search continues and technology improves, it could only be a matter of time before we stumble across evidence of alien life.

New Cosmic Objects

Thanks to a recent development in the analysis of existing data, two of Listen’s leading investigators, Michael Garrett and Andrew Siemion, have identified more than 140,000 new cosmic objects beyond our Milky Way, including radio galaxies, galactic nuclei, and systems with a gravitational lens.

Uncovering these once-hidden astrophysical exotica and numerous new galaxies and galaxy clusters should improve Breakthrough Listen’s chances of discovering an alien signal. Are we alone in the Universe? Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

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