Berkeley Gets $100 Million from Russian to Look for Aliens

Alien ET (Thos Robinson / Getty)
Thos Robinson / Getty

A Russian billionaire has offered $100 million to fund researchers at UC Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center to find extraterrestrial life.

On Monday, Yuri Milner, who invested early in Facebook and Twitter and made a fortune, joined physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking at the Royal Society of London to announce Breakthrough Listen. Hawking stated, “Mankind has a deep need to explore, to learn, to know. We also happen to be sociable creatures. It is important to us to know if we are alone in the darkness.”

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center has been fruitlessly exploring the universe since 1961, but scientists there are planning to use Milner’s funding to study the nearest million stars and 100 galaxies, as well as the Milky Way galaxy and its billions of stars. That effort will examine an area ten times wider in scope than any area examined before. The group will use the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, two of the world’s largest telescopes.

Milner asserted that the new technology available influenced him to make his hefty donation, saying, “Now we have completely different software and hardware to look through the enormous amounts of data that these telescopes will be collecting. it’s only now we really have the capability to process as much information in a day than any previous search in a year.” He also said any data collected will be made available to the public, and that Breakthrough Listen will make a platform available for developers to build applications that can examine the data collected.

Milner also offered $1 million in a competition called Breakthrough Message for the best messages that could be sent to any prospective forms of extraterrestrial life. He recalled that as a theoretical physicist in the 1980s, he dreamed of looking for extraterrestrial life, but now that dream could come to fruition, saying, “It is now a truly scientific quest. In the 20th century, we stepped out from our planet to space, to the moon, to the solar system. In the 21st century, we’ll find out about life at the galactic scale. It is time to open our eyes our ears and our minds to the cosmos.”

Andrew Siemon, one of the co-founders of The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, was delighted at how the scenario for the group has changed, stating, “We would typically get 24 to 36 hours on a telescope per year, but now we’ll have thousands of hours per year on the best instruments. It’s difficult to over state how big this is. It’s a revolution.”