Internet tycoon commits $100 million to alien life search

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Russian internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner has given SETI $100 million for a ten year project to accelerate their effort to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Understanding why SETI needs private funding is important:

SETI has been going on since 1960, when radio telescopes became sensitive enough to detect signals from another planet if it was broadcasting signals similar to those which our civilization does. Researchers developed devices that could monitor millions of frequencies at once for any signal that looked at all different from that produced by astronomical objects or the natural background. At first funded by universities and NASA, public funding for SETI was axed by Congress in the early 1990s. Since then, the nonprofit SETI League has received funding of a few million dollars a year from private donors.

Congress correctly cut the funds because it isn’t really the business of the federal government to search for alien life. Some taxpayers really don’t want their money used for that purpose, and they should have the right to say no. Instead, Congress essentially told SETI to do it right: Get private funding from people who want the research done. The work will be done more efficiently for less, and no one will be required to contribute who doesn’t want to.

Milner’s contribution now is the biggest donation yet, and suggests that interest in this research is building culturally.


  • Nick P

    What happened with Paul Allen’s radio telescope array up in Northern California, Hat Creek isn’t it?

    I though he put a lot of money into it.

  • J Fincannon

    I can see your point that it is not the function of government to send messages into space to potential alien civilizations. However, I do see a role for government to regulate the sending of such messages.

    As to the role of government in funding scientific research to try to detect signals from potential civilizations, I do not see a difference between this activity and using radio or optical or infrared telescopes to look into space for whatever scientists seem to feel is important enough to look at. If you dismiss government funding of SETI, you might as well dismiss the public funding of all deep space, ground based telescopes. Is the rationale that SETI sounds crazy? It is still knowledge, and some can argue the value of the knowledge is greater than something about distant quasars or black holes or galaxies.

  • Edward

    The Allen Telescope Array (owned by SETI, not Allen) is still there and operational. Allen’s donation was enough to build 42 of the planned 350 radio telescopes and the buildings and support hardware. Funding for operations has been a problem in the recent past, and they occasionally rent out the telescopes to other researchers.

    The article makes it sound as though the funds will go toward software creation and signal analysis rather than to go toward completion of the remaining telescopes at Hat Creek.

  • Cotour

    Q: How likely is it that any advanced civilization is detectable by our level of technology?

    I think that the numbers would indicate that any other civilization that might exist in the universe would probably be very much more advanced than we are.

  • Edward

    Funny you should ask. That would be the combination of the unknown values fc and L of the Drake Equation, invented by SETI’s own Dr. Frank Drake.

    BTW: I have a facetious saying that SETI is futile:

    – We could be the first intelligence in the universe; some species has to be, and it’s possible that it is us. Therefore SETI is futile.

    – Other intelligent beings could have a policy of non-interference. Therefore SETI is futile.

    – Other beings could be too advanced for us to detect. Therefore SETI is futile.

    On the other hand, a couple of minutes ago, just before I hit the submit button, SETI could have announced that they found a signal. Don’t you just hate when that happens? ;-)

  • Cotour

    Our ability to generate, send, detect and interpret signals in the electromagnetic spectrum is lets say a little more than 100 years old (technically able to detect and interpret a signal is probably more like just 60 years), and the universe itself is 14 billion years old. That’s a pretty less then microscopic slice of time in comparison, the timing overlap for detection for two advanced technologies to detect each other would have to be incalculable. Keeping in mind that our solar system has come to exist in the aprox. last third of the universes existence. What happened in the first two thirds ?

    I would tend to say the odds were futile at best for detecting a more advanced technology and maybe just slightly better than futile for detecting a less advanced technology. But there is always the potential for something to be learned when someone is able to spend a whole lot of money on some very cool high tech equipment.

    And we wait.

    Q#2: If a verifiable signal was to be detected would the discovery be immediately released or might it be withheld for security or “other” reasons? Might it be a Homeland Security issue?

  • Edward

    Cotour asked: ” What happened in the first two thirds ?”

    Some years ago, I was at a seminar in which the speaker suggested that it probably takes three generations of stars to create the amount of rocky material that makes up our solar system, meaning that the material of our rocky planets may have been through a couple of nova explosions before becoming our solar system.

    If this is true, we may be early in the timeline for life to form.

    Second question: ” If a verifiable signal was to be detected would the discovery be immediately released or might it be withheld for security or “other” reasons? Might it be a Homeland Security issue?”

    That is hard to say. From behaviors over the past century or so, when many people believed that life existed on Mars or believed that UFO sightings are actual space aliens, we can assume that no one is going to panic if we find a verified signal, nor should there be any immediate security issue over a signal. It would take too long for space aliens to get here in order to strip mine our planet, as in the movie “Independence Day,” or for friendlier space aliens to get here with their book “To Serve Man” and their cures for diseases, abundant food sources, and their popular free vacation flights to visit their paradise home planet. ;-)

    There have been no rumors that I have heard that SETI has been asked to delay issuing any news of unusual signals, verified or not. There is also the famous and mysterious “Wow!” signal. It was not kept secret, but no radio astronomer has been able to get it again — it is unverified.!_signal

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