Billionaires for SETI

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This morning’s news features reports on yesterday’s announcement in London of a $100 million private investment in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Yesterday I counted five press releases in my mailbox about this announcement.

From the Breakthrough Prize Foundation (or is it the Breakthrough Initiatives? See below): “Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking Announce $100 Million Breakthrough Initiative to Dramatically Accelerate Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe.”

From the University of California, Berkeley: “The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its founder, internet investor Yuri Milner, have signed a contract with the University of California, Berkeley, to lead a major escalation in…SETI.”

From the National Radio Astronomy Observatory: “The National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT) will join in the most powerful, comprehensive, and intensive scientific search ever for signs of intelligent life in the universe.”

From the CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility: “The Breakthrough Prize Foundation has signed a multi-million dollar agreement with CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization] to use the organization’s 64-m Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia to search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”

From the University of California Observatories at the University of California, Santa Cruz: “Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope above San Jose, California, will undertake a new deep and broad search for optical laser transmissions from nearby civilizations, if any exist.”

Breakthrough Initiatives unveiled two SETI “initiatives” yesterday: Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message. Breakthrough Listen “includes a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It scans the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. Beyond the Milky Way, it listens for messages from the 100 closest galaxies to ours. The instruments used” – the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the Parkes Telescope in Australia, and the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory in California – “are 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes dedicated to [SETI]. The radio surveys cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs. They also cover at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum – and do it 100 times faster… We are also carrying out the deepest and broadest ever search for optical laser transmissions. These spectroscopic searches are 1000 times more effective at finding laser signals than ordinary visible light surveys… The initiative will span 10 years and commit a total of $100,000,000.”

The Breakthrough Message initiative will offer $1 million in prizes for “messages that could be read by an advanced civilization.” This project “aims to encourage debate about how and what to communicate with possible intelligent beings beyond earth. It takes the form of an international competition…. The message must be in digital format, and should be representative of humanity and planet Earth…. For the moment we have no plan to send these messages. The program is a way to learn about the possibilities and constraints associated with interstellar correspondence. To encourage global discussion on the ethical and philosophical issues of sending messages into space, we pledge not to transmit any message until there has been a wide-ranging debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilizations.”

For a Silicon Valley outfit with billions and billions of dollars to blow, this Breakthrough group has a rather messy web presence. Yesterday’s SETI announcement is found at breakthroughinitiatives.org, a site that provides a link to breakthroughprize.org. There is no mention of the SETI announcement on the “news” page of breakthroughprize.org. There is no link to or mention of breakthroughinitiatives.org on breakthroughprize.org. On breakthroughinitiatives.org, Pete Worden is listed as chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. On breakthroughprize.org, Cornelia Bargmann* is listed as chair of the foundation’s board on life sciences. Is Pete Worden chairman of the foundation, or chairman of the board of directors of the foundation? If the latter, who are the other members of the board? What exactly is the relationship between the foundation and the initiatives?

Other members of the foundation’s board on life sciences, according to the foundation’s web site, are Mark Zuckerberg (net worth, $34.8 billion), Anne Wojcicki ($22.8 billion), Jack Ma ($22.2 billion), and Yuri Milner ($3.4 billion).

Speaking of Pete Worden, he apparently had opportunities to schmooze with Breakthrough’s billionaires while he was director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation held its 2014 and 2015 Breakthrough Prize ceremonies at NASA’s Hangar One in Mountain View.

In November 2014, a Google subsidiary called Planetary Ventures LLC signed a 60-year lease with NASA signed a 60-year lease with NASA worth $1.16 billion for Hangar One.

According to the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, its 2014 prize ceremony took place on December 12, 2013, at Hangar 1. “The event was produced by Vanity Fair and Don Mischer Productions…. The ceremony started with a video message from Stephen Hawking and was hosted by Kevin Spacey. From Hollywood, Glenn Close, Rob Lowe, Michael C. Hall and Anna Kendrick presented awards alongside Google’s Larry Page [net worth $29.2 billion] and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, as well as Breakthrough Prize founding sponsors Sergey Brin [net worth $29.7 billion], Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner.”

The 2015 prize ceremony, on November 9, 2014, featured “host Seth MacFarlane…actors Kate Beckinsale, Cameron Diaz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Hamm and Eddie Redmayne, who presented the Breakthrough Prizes alongside Silicon Valley’s Dick Costolo [net worth $300 million], Laurene Jobs [$19.5 billion], Elon Musk [$14.1 billion], Anne Wojcicki, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner…. The ceremony opened with a video message from Stephen Hawking and closed with a tribute to Carl Sagan and his vision of the Pale Blue Dot.”

In my blog post of July 16, I reported on some recent talks by SETI scientists, who still rely on a rationale for their work that rests on a pile of arguable assumptions. (Also see this paper.) I’ll stick by my conclusion that SETI is a bit of a boutique enterprise, and private rather than government funding is appropriate.

And, oh, by the way, if you’re puzzling over why your retirement savings look so scrawny, see above.

*Bargmann is a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University who, according to Wikipedia, is “known for her work on the behavior in the C. elegans, particularly olfaction in the worm.” She received the $3 million 2013 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and the $1 million 2012 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.

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