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“Who are we?”

That impossible question opened the 2015 public letter announcing a well-heeled SETI project called Breakthrough Listen. Dozens of people—scientists, astronauts, and also a producer, a chess champ, and a soprano—signed the note, which kicked off a $100 million effort by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to catch signals from alien civilizations. That quest, Milner and the signatories hoped, would answer that existential query. “With cooperation and commitment," the letter continued, "the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are."

This wasn’t Milner’s first foray into science funding. In 2012, his foundation set up the Fundamental Physics Prize, which passes $3 million and red-carpet accolades to promising researchers. The next year, he set up the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and the year after that came an award in math. Milner has also started a program to send a missive to aliens (Breakthrough Message), to develop technology to find Earth-like planets nearby (Breakthrough Watch), and to send tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri (Breakthrough Starshot). Together, Listen, Message, Watch, and Starshot are called the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Milner, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Silicon Valley companies Facebook and Twitter, isn’t alone in his scientific ventures. Joining him on Breakthrough’s boards and bank accounts are some of the tech world’s other heavy hitters, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet's Sergey Brin, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma. In a time when scientists have to scrounge for every last penny of grant money, these philanthropic efforts seem like lifesavers, helping keep a select few afloat while others continue to flounder.

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Category: Science