Cover Story: Breakthrough Prize Founders Yuri & Julia Milner On Philanthropy & The Search For Alien Life
There were too many uncanny signs in the life of billionaire philanthropist Yuri Milner for him to ignore a childhood calling. We travel to Silicon Valley to meet him and his wife, Julia, and find out about their quest to solve the question: Are we alone?
There could have been a giant pyramid in California. In the late 1800s, James Lick, a property tycoon who had become California’s richest person, wanted to leave a legacy and took inspiration from Egypt’s pharaohs. The Pyramids of Giza have long sparked the collective imagination, with some experts positing that they were built as afterlife launchpads, designed to send the soul of departed rulers shooting up into the stars.
And, like a modern-day pharaoh, Lick wanted to be buried inside his creation, perhaps harbouring a hope that his soul would be sent on an eternal voyage through the cosmos. However, Lick was talked out of it by an astronomer friend who suggested that a more philanthropic legacy would be to fund the establishment of a world-class observatory.
Perched atop San Jose’s Mount Hamilton, the Lick Observatory was officially opened in 1887 and housed what was at the time the world’s largest refracting telescope. But by then its benefactor had passed away; at the base of the telescope mounting—a thick metal column visible in the images on the previous two spreads—hangs a plaque that reads, “Here lies the body of James Lick.”
The Breakthrough Initiative
Enter Yuri and Julia Milner, the modern-day philanthropists who are funding one of the projects at the Lick Observatory. The Milners are well known in global tech circles; Yuri’s early investments in Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Spotify, Alibaba and JD, as well as his pioneering role in Russia’s nascent tech industry in the ’90s, have earned him a US$4 billion fortune and a place on numerous published lists of the world’s top tech titans. Through the company he founded, DST Global, Yuri has more recently invested in Meituan and Didi.
But it is for their philanthropic projects that the Milners are perhaps best known. As founders of the Breakthrough Prize, the couple are committed to supporting science with awards and by raising its profile among the influential as well as the general public.
Julia and Yuri, a former physicist, have pulled together a formidable network of supporters through regular gatherings at their sprawling Los Altos mansion, private screenings of science-themed movies and, surprisingly, through games of their favoured sport, badminton, which is apparently de rigueur in Silicon Valley circles. The couple take the sport so seriously that they receive training from a Chinese coach who worked with the US Olympic team.
The Breakthrough Prize is co-funded by a who’s who of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan of Facebook, Google’s Sergey Brin, and Anne Wojcicki, the founder of genome-testing company 23andMe. The most recent addition is Tencent co-founder Pony Ma.
With this calibre of patronage one would expect sizeable financial incentives and indeed there are: the Breakthrough Prize awards six prizes each year to outstanding scientists—four for work in the life sciences, one for physics and one for mathematics. Each award comes with a cash payment of US$3 million, nearly three times that of a Nobel Prize.
Since 2012, the prizes have been handed out at a lavish event held in Hangar One, the iconic mid-century modern structure in Silicon Valley, which is televised live around the world. Hollywood stars, wrangled by Julia, and tech entrepreneurs, wrangled by Yuri, share the stage with boffins in what is often called the Oscars of science.
Says Julia, “Who are today’s superstars? Hollywood actors, athletes, Instagram bloggers. Scientists are completely unknown to most people. We wanted—to put it very literally—to make them celebrities too, and in this way popularise science.”
“If celebrity is the measure of our priorities as a civilisation, then we need science to be more represented because science should be one of the main priorities, if not the priority,” adds Yuri. “And celebrities are now the ones talking to hundreds of millions of people. If we don’t have scientists represented, then their message will get lost. And if their message is lost, there’ll be no public support for science.”
But the Milners’ efforts to raise awareness are working. In 2015, the foundation created the Breakthrough Junior Challenge for teenagers with the winner receiving a US$250,000 university scholarship, US$50,000 for the teacher who inspired them and a US$100,000 upgrade for their school’s science lab.
The inaugural recipient, a Cleveland-based 18-year-old named Ryan Chester, was honoured by his hometown in an unexpected way: “The mayor issued a decree for a day of the year to be named after Ryan, to celebrate science. That’s the type of thing we’re looking for. The word spreads,” explains Yuri. “We would like the next generation, the young people to watch this ceremony. And now we are thinking of branching out with a dedicated prize for high-school kids in China.”
Aside from the Breakthrough Prize, the Milners’ foundation also supports Breakthrough Initiatives, highly ambitious projects designed to help find the answer to what they believe is the most profound question of our time: Are we alone in the universe? It is a question that has fascinated Yuri since childhood.
How Yuri Met Julia
Born in Moscow in 1961 to Jewish intellectuals, Yuri—who was named after Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut who that same year became the first man in space—reaped the benefit of a well-stocked home library from a young age, “even before I went to school.” His favourite book and the one that inspired his lifelong fascination was Universe, Life, Intelligence, a seminal text by a Soviet astronomer, Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky. (The book also caught the attention of US astronomer Carl Sagan, who published an English-language edition; Sagan later gained global fame with the TV show Cosmos.)
Yuri’s passion led him to study theoretical physics at Moscow State University and then work as a physicist alongside Nobel Prize winners. Despite his passion, Yuri felt his contributions to the field were limited and he decided to change tack. In 1990, he took an MBA course at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, becoming the first non-emigre from the Soviet Union to do so. By the time the decade (and millennium) came to close, Yuri had shifted his focus completely onto the internet.
It was during this period that he found himself at a Moscow gym, standing on a treadmill next to a tall, striking model by the name of Julia Bochkova from Siberia’s capital, Novosibirsk. The two clicked immediately, perhaps in part because she was undergoing a career change of her own.
Since the age of 14, when she was scouted by an agency, Julia had travelled extensively, dividing her time between the world’s fashion centres, New York, Paris and Tokyo. “Then at about 20 years old I decided to stop my modelling career. Since I had made some money, I could leave and plan what to do next. So I lived in Moscow, where Yuri advised me to study photography,” she says.
The advice proved to be sound: Julia’s successful studies and apprenticeships under notable artists culminated in her own exhibitions around the world and, in 2007, Julia was invited to participate in the prestigious Venice Biennale, where she was the youngest artist.
For the show, Julia created an unusual work, one of the first “internet art” installations, Click I Hope, which displays “I hope” in 50 languages on a giant touch screen as well as the internet. As the words glide across the screen, viewers are encouraged to touch the ones in their own language, triggering a live tallied score.
Although conceived before the Milners’ foundation, the work somehow pre-empts the sense of relentless hopefulness that imbues the Breakthrough Initiatives and the vastness of the search for life in the cosmos.
For a couple whose work is mired so heavily in science’s immutable axioms of rationality and reason, a series of uncanny coincidences has occurred. When the couple relocated from Tel Aviv to Silicon Valley with their children in 2011, they bought a US$100 million mansion on a hilltop in Los Altos.
The mansion boasts state-of-the-art technology, including a video-screen ceiling (which typically displays dramatic scenes of supernovas) as well as giant TVs in every room showing Nat Geo or Discovery, the preferred channels of the notoriously sleep-averse Yuri.
Into the Cosmos
But unbeknown to the couple at the time of purchase, the house played a historic role in the establishment of Seti, the organisation that takes its name from the acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. A previous owner, who was a chief engineer at Hewlett-Packard, willed the house to Seti after his death in order to fund its mission.
And, in another twist, Seti convened its very first meeting in 1961, which Yuri is quick to point out is the year of his birth.
According to him, there’s never been a better time to engage in the search for alien life. Nasa’s Kepler spacecraft observatory, launched in 2009, has shown the world that there are many more planets than previously thought.
“It turns out that there are many of them and almost every star-like sun has a planet like Earth, basically. It means that there are dozens of billions of planets like Earth in our galaxy alone. There are a hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, so you multiply that hundred billion by dozens of billions and you get a very big number of possibilities. A few years ago, we didn’t know that. So now we know,” he says, with a nonchalance that belies the mind-boggling scale of his concept.
The Milners’ Breakthrough Listen project is designed to harness the world’s best telescopes—from California’s Lick Observatory to the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and Australia’s Parkes Observatory—to look for signs of civilisation on one of those many, many billions of planets.
The facilities’ operators, mostly academic institutions, were only too happy to accept the foundation’s much-needed funding in return for usage time, especially since “in the last few years there’s been a dramatic improvement in our understanding of the odds and probabilities of [alien life] existing. So that’s why it’s harder and harder to believe that we’re alone. It’s not impossible but it’s less likely than it was a few years ago.”
One criticism levelled at those searching for alien life stems from what is known as the Fermi paradox: if alien civilisation is so inevitable, then why haven’t we met them yet? Some have countered this with the suggestion that advanced civilisations can often cause their own destruction, a notion not inconceivable given our own relatively recent threats of thermonuclear conflict. With the current political climate charged by global tensions, how do the Milners see themselves?
“We think about ourselves as the product of globalisation,” says Yuri. “We were born in Russia. I was born into a Jewish family and Julia was born into a Christian family. Julia had her modelling career in Europe and Japan. I studied at Wharton. Our kids were born in Israel and the US. We live in Silicon Valley. We spend time in Asia. So it’s hard for us now to really establish a key affiliation. We see one global civilisation. When you look at our projects, they all assume that our planet is one: we’re looking for [alien] civilisations. And if we establish communication, I don’t think we will be telling them about our different countries. We are not going to be talking about elections. We will be talking about what makes us human. In a thousand years we will be one world. And, by the way, a thousand years is a very short period of time in the 14-billion-year history of our universe.”
The most astonishing manifestation of Yuri’s cosmic dream falls under Breakthrough Starshot, a US$100 million project so awe-inspiring that it dwarfs the unfettered ambition of James Lick’s giant Californian pyramid by several orders of magnitude.
Breakthrough Starshot will research the possibility of manufacturing thousands of nano-spaceships resembling microchips. These could be blasted out into space towards Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to our solar system that could potentially harbour life on its planets.
As the chips hurtle past the celestial bodies at one-fifth the speed of light, they will capture information on their sensors and beam it back to Earth. The journey there will take about 20 years, and the data will take four years to get back to Earth.
The hope is that it will include intelligence about alien worlds. The laser technology required to blast the chips is still being developed but the clock is ticking; the Milners hope to receive the information about Alpha Centauri within the lifetime of a generation.
Like James Lick, they may never see the completion of their mission but, as Yuri explains, that is immaterial: “This laser beam will not only send probes to Alpha Centauri, it will continue. The most incredible revelation we realised through calculations is that this beam of light will be the first artefact of our civilisation that can cut across the whole universe. In other words, if there is another galaxy 10 billion light years away, in 10 billion years they will receive it and know that our civilisation existed—even if we don’t exist anymore. It will be something that we will leave behind and will never be erased. If we encode all of our knowledge in this powerful beam of light, it could be our civilisation’s ultimate legacy in the universe.”
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Learn more about the Breakthrough Prize.
Photography: Austin Hargrave | Styling: Tara Nichols | Hair and Make-up: Lisa Strutz | Producer: Joe Daley | Location: Lick Observatory, California