Writ­ten in the Stars

Philippine Tatler - - OCTOBER - Pho­tog­ra­phy AUSTIN HAR­GRAVE Styling TARA NI­CHOLS Lo­ca­tion LICk Ob­SER­VA­TORy, CAL­I­fOR­NIA

Is there life be­yond Planet Earth? Science phi­lan­thropist Yuri Mil­ner and wife Ju­lia are on a quest to find out




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 im­age on the pre­vi­ous page—hangs a plaque that reads, “Here lies the body of James Lick.”

The cou­ple in the im­age, and on the fol­low­ing pages, are Yuri and Ju­lia Mil­ner, the mod­ern-day phi­lan­thropists who are fund­ing one of the projects at the Lick Ob­ser­va­tory. To­gether they form a striking pair, look­ing as if they have walked out of the lat­est X-Men movie, he the gifted mas­ter­mind and she the lithe hero­ine with other­worldly pow­ers. 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

“if we es­ta8lish com­mu­ni­ca­tion, i don’t think we will 8e telling them a8out our dif­fer­ent coun­tries... we will 8e talk­ing a8out what makes us hu­man”

se­ri­ously that they re­ceive train­ing from a Chi­nese coach who worked with the US Olympic team.

The Break­through Prize is co-funded by the 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 be­stows six awards each year on 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 cer­e­mony held in Han­gar One, the iconic mid-cen­tury mod­ern struc­ture in Sil­i­con Val­ley, and 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, and 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.

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 the 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 on a tread­mill next to a tall, striking model by the name of Ju­lia

Bochkova from Novosi­birsk, Siberia’s cap­i­tal. 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 to ex­hibit. 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 res­o­lute 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-theart 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. But un­be­known to the cou­ple at the time of pur­chase, the hill­top es­tate has a con­nec­tion to Seti—the search for ex­trater­res­trial in­tel­li­gence—and the Seti In­sti­tute founded in 1984 to pur­sue that search. The pre­vi­ous owner of one of the parcels of land on which the house was built in 2003, who was a chief en­gi­neer at Hewlett-Packard and board mem­ber of the in­sti­tute, willed the land to Seti after his death to help fund its mis­sion. And, in an­other twist, the very first Seti con­fer­ence was con­vened 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 star­like 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 mind­bog­gling scale of the 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 (see Cos­mic Gaze on p.16)—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 any aliens yet? Some have coun­tered this with the sug­ges­tion that ad­vanced civil­i­sa­tions— alien ones in­cluded—might 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 awein­spir­ing 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 any more. 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.”

THOUGHT PART­NERS Yuri holds a pro­to­type of a nano-space­ship that has the pos­si­bil­ity to be blasted into space to­wards Al­pha Cen­tauri; (op­po­site) Ju­lia, in­side the Lick Ob­ser­va­tory, wears a trench coat by Chris­tian Dior and jew­ellery by Chopard

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