Yuri Milner made billions of dollars by investing early in internet companies like Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon. Now, he's spending $100 million on another improbable venture: the search for intelligent life in space.
The donation, which Milner announced at a London press conference this morning attended by Stephen Hawking and other scientific luminaries, will mean more funding for finding extraterrestrial life than ever before. Milner will create a program called "Breakthrough Listen," which will hire 25 astronomers to search for signals of life on the million stars closest to us and another hundred galaxies farther out. The program will also pay for time at two of the largest radio telescopes in the world, in West Virginia and Australia.
Researchers will point these telescopes at the distant stars and galaxies and listen to see if anything—or anyone—is sending radio waves toward us. There are billions of stars and billions of radio frequencies to cover, and the scientists who have been doing this since 1960 have heard nothing but silence so far. (You can help out with the effort using UC Berkeley's SETI@home, a program that runs in the background of your computer and crunches data from SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—while you surf the web.)
But until now, there was very little funding available for SETI and similar studies. “We could never get enough telescope time,” Frank Drake, a UC Santa Cruz professor, told the New York Times. “Yuri can fix that with the click of a pen.”
Milner told Business Insider that the new program would cover 10 times more area than any other previous search for extraterrestrial life, and complete the search 100 times more quickly. Another telescope in California will try to pick up laser signals from elsewhere in our galaxy. All the data will be open source.
Not everyone is convinced that we should be spending time and money on listening for messages from far, far away, and even the plan's supporters say they aren't expecting a big discovery anytime soon. “I don’t think any of us are holding our breath for success,” astronomer Martin Rees told New Scientist.
This isn't not the first time Milner, who studied physics before going into business, has funded scientific research. He's also bankrolled several previous science challenges in the single-digit millions. Milner's namesake is Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet astronaut who was the first person to leave Earth in 1961, the year Milner was born.
He first invested $200 million in Facebook in 2009, and since then has taken his place among the global tech elite. While Milner is fascinated with finding intelligent life in space, he's also mused about creating it here on Earth: In 2011, he predicted “the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer.”
Milner is also known for purchasing a Silicon Valley mansion that was possibly the most expensive single-family home ever to be sold in the U.S.
Related: While radio may be our best hope of finding intelligent life, scientists say a good old-fashioned space mission to the Jupiter moon Europa is our best chance of finding life at all.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.