In WIRED: “Yuri Milner and the Fellowship of Silicon Valley Science Influencers”
I am quoted in this article on the funding behind the Breakthrough Initiatives and other Silicon Valley funded science. The author of the article, Sarah Scoles, has also written a book (which is on my list to read) called “Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”
I wanted to share the full text of my response, from which I was quoted. Not because anything different should have been done in the article, but simply to share more of the context and my broader perspective on the issue for those interested. After explaining the nature of my current research and noting that I had attended Breakthrough Discuss, here’s what I said in response to questions about Silicon Valley science funding:
From my experience at Breakthrough Discuss, it’s clear that Milner is genuinely fascinated by the science. It seems to me that Milner’s funding of the Breakthrough initiatives is motivated by his interest in the science of space exploration and his interest in answering the question of whether we’re alone in the universe.
At the party after the conference, Milner hosted a screening of Terrence Malick’s “Voyage of Time” and then discussed the film. He was clearly fascinated by the questions that motivate many of us to be interested in space and science. Milner asked about the nature of time, about black holes, how the early universe worked, about quantum physics and general relativity. What I saw there was a person who has the same kind of wonder and curiosity about the nature of the universe that many of us do, he just has a lot of money he can use to support research into those questions.
In addition to the Breakthrough prizes, Milner is funding SETI in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever. He’s also supporting physics, astronomy, and engineering research related to not only SETI but to developing the technologies and knowledge necessary to build an interstellar spacecraft, toward the goal of actually sending a probe to one of the many exoplanets that we have only relatively recently confirmed are out there. The communities of scientists working on these projects often include some of best researchers in their fields, and it’s my impression that many of them wouldn’t be involved in these projects if they didn’t see that the Breakthrough initiatives are all about the science.
Private investment like Milner’s is making research possible that wouldn’t be happening otherwise and that fact alone is a good thing. But if we want to fund science differently in the US, we have to rethink national priorities about where our resources are going. The Greenbank telescope is a great example of this, if we aren’t going to devote federal funding to science and private funding steps in to rescue the research that’s a situation we’ve created and permitted as a nation. The US spends more on defence than the next eight countries combined and Americans spend the same amount on Valentine’s Day as the entire NASA budget.
As one of the wealthiest nations on the planet I think we should be publicly funding all of this science along with providing everyone with healthcare, education, food, housing, and more. We aren’t, and the current economic and political system in the US prevents that from happening, so I’m personally glad someone is funding some of that science even if that’s not the ideal long-term solution.
[artwork by Tatiana Plakhova for Breakthrough Initiatives]