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A recent Inside Philanthropy article discusses Breakthrough Listen, a project backed by the philanthropy of Yuri and Julia Milner to seek out extraterrestrial life. The program, which is led by the UC Berkeley SETI Research Center, listens for radio signals from distant stars. At a recent conference discussing the initiative, there was nothing to report; no sounds have yet been picked up that are likely to have come from extraterrestrial life.

But as the author of the article notes, that’s perfectly okay. First, because the project is still young: The samples collected so far come from nearly 700 stars, which is nothing compared to the project’s target of 1 million stars. Second, because even a negative result yields new information. Scientific research takes time, and often, it is just as important to know what doesn’t work as what does. Negative results help us narrow down choices for future tests.

Finally, as the author notes, this is a positive story for the philanthropic world, because “it’s a long-term commitment from a funder who is totally cool with the possibility of finding nothing.” Despite the lack of results thus far, Milner has pledged $100 million over ten years to the project, and has also expressed interest in continuing beyond the initial ten year term.

At a time when so much giving is focused on immediate, measurable results, it is heartening to encounter a donor willing to commit to a project he believes in regardless of its success. Of course, the project will still have yielded important data even if it does not achieve its goal of finding extraterrestrial life. But I am willing to bet that what motivates Milner is not so much the massive collections of data as the wonder and excitement of exploration and discovery.


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