In Defense of the $100 Million Donation Toward the Search for Extraterrestrial Life July 20, 2015

In Defense of the $100 Million Donation Toward the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

After all those pictures of Pluto came back last week, plenty of people oohed and aahed over the details in the images. It’s really incredible that we landed on the moon 46 years ago and we’re already exploring the edge of our solar system.

But for all the jaw-dropping pictures, there are still people who wonder why we spent money on the journey at all… even though the $720 million New Horizons satellite cost less money than a football stadium. For that cash, we now have a slightly better understanding of the universe we live in and our place within it, arguably the biggest ideas humanity has ever grappled with. More directly, scientists will be parsing through the mission data for years to come, so there’s more information coming down the pipeline, and that doesn’t even address all the economic benefits that come from space exploration in general.

Following that, it’s exciting (yes, really) to hear that philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner has just put down $100 million of his own money over the next decade to further the search for extraterrestrial life:

The money for Breakthrough Listen, as Mr. Milner calls the effort, is one of the biggest chunks of cash ever proffered for the so far fruitless quest for cosmic companionship known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. It will allow astronomers to see the kinds of radar used for air traffic control from any of the closest 1,000 stars, and to detect a laser with the power output of a common 100-watt light bulb from the distance of the nearest stars, some four light-years away, according to Mr. Milner’s team.

It also guarantees bounteous observing time on some of the world’s biggest radio telescopes — a rarity for SETI astronomers who are used to getting one night a year.

His endeavor was announced with the support of a rather eclectic mix of people, including Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane (who was responsible for the Cosmos reboot), chess champion Magnus Carlsen, and singer Sarah Brightman.

Once again, there will surely be people who see this as nothing but a waste of money: Why not donate it to help people here on Earth?

That’s a valid question… but you could ask it about anything: Military spending, McDonald’s advertising campaigns, etc. Even if you think it’s a colossal waste, at least it’s his loss. We should count ourselves lucky that he’s throwing it toward an attempt to answer a Big Question even when it may not result in anything tangible. (That said, there are probably better uses for that money even with regard to space exploration. See: Elon Musk.)

Government officials have no chance of justifying an expense like this to voters — NASA’s budget gets smaller all the time, and their results have undoubtedly helped mankind — so private investment of this sort is the only hope for this kind of exploration, even if it’s nothing but a lark.

It’s not how I would spend the money. I doubt it’ll turn up anything interesting. And if the government suggested spending this much money on the effort, I’d oppose it. But it’s hard to complain about a guy using his own money to explore this question.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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