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Newsmaker: Yuri Milner

A billionaire's search for aliens

Devangshu Dutta 

"We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know": Stephen Hawking announced the "Breakthrough Listen" project on July 20, which was, not coincidentally, the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon-landing. "Listen" is funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner who has made an unprecedented commitment of $100 million in the search for intelligent extra-terrestrial life.

This is a new massive endowment from Milner who also created the Breakthrough Fundamental Prizes, which make six annual awards of $3 million each to achievers in physics, life sciences and mathematics. Milner has persuaded luminaries like Sergey Brin, Jack Ma, Anne Wojcicki and Mark Zuckerberg to co-fund the prizes.

Milner holds, or has held, a significant stake in companies run by many of these IT industry stars. He was an early investor in Facebook, WhatsApp, Alibaba, Zynga, Groupon, 23andme, Xiaomi, et cetera. His partners at the venture capital firm he founded, Digital Sky Technologies Global, include Rahul Mehta and Saurabh Gupta. DST Global has Indian exposure, including stakes in Olacabs and Flipkart. Milner's personal fortune is somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion.

His reverence for the sciences, and his determination to support and reward research, arises from his background. The 53-year-old was named after Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space). He trained as a theoretical physicist at Moscow State University during the

last decade of the Soviet Union's existence. He worked as a research scholar at the prestigious Lebedev Institute.

In 1990, he abandoned his quest for a physics PhD and headed to the Wharton School of Business for an MBA. He was "disappointed in myself as a physicist". During his student years in Moscow, he supported himself by assembling and selling PCs with bootleg MS-DOS operating systems.

After Wharton, he was at the World Bank. Then he took charge of Menatep, an investment bank controlled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled former Russian oligarch. Milner entered the Internet investment space in the late 1990s. His partners include Alisher Usmanov, reputedly the richest man in Russia.

Listen assumes any civilisation above a certain stage of technological development transmits and receives electromagnetic signals. The project buys time on two powerful radio telescopes, the Robert C. Byrd Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, USA, and the Csiro Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

Many new exo-planets (planets attached to distant stars) have been discovered recently. The telescopes will be oriented to search in those directions. They are very sensitive, capable of detecting the signal of 100-watt power (a standard household bulb) from nearby stars.

The distributed network of SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence), consisting of 9 million personal computers will analyse the recordings hoping to detect an artificial signal. An associated project, Breakthrough Message, will design digital messages to beam out to space. The project data will be open.

Scientists are divided into two schools on the subject of alien intelligence. Sceptics cite Enrico Fermi's Paradox. The great physicist asked why we had not yet been contacted by an alien civilisation, if there's a high probability that many such civilisations exist. Another eminent scientist, Frank Drake, employed a probabilistic argument to assert there must be many such civilisations. (The 85-year-old Drake is on the Listen board). Hawking famously fears alien intelligences may be hostile.

Milner hopes that definitive results will be found inside 10 years. If not, he will continue funding Listen. As he says, "It's our responsibility as human beings to keep looking for a signal."

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First Published: Thu, July 23 2015. 22:29 IST