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Russian Billionaire Donates $100 Million In Search For E.T.


Today, a Russian billionaire investor announced he's giving a portion of his wealth to the search for extraterrestrial life. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: If E.T. ever did give us a call, it probably sounds something like this.


BRUMFIEL: That's from the 1997 film, "Contact," in which aliens use radio waves to send a simple mathematical signal.


JODIE FOSTER: (As Eleanor Arroway) Two, three, five, seven - those are all prime numbers, and there's no way that's a natural phenomenon.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Holy...

FOSTER: (As Eleanor Arroway) OK, let's just calm down and pull up the star file on Vega...

BRUMFIEL: In real life, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence - or SETI as the pros call it - has struggled.

SETH SHOSTAK: The real difficulty with SETI has not been so much the search - it's been the fundraising.

BRUMFIEL: Seth Shostak is at the nonprofit SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. Congress canceled NASA's search in 1993. Since then, private funding to institutes like his have just barely kept things going. Then this morning, Yuri Milner, a Russian mogul who's made billions through investments like Facebook, announced a hundred million for a new, 10-year search. Milner's funding it through his own program called the Breakthrough Initiatives. Shostak isn't directly involved, but he says it should be a game changer.

SHOSTAK: They're hoping to observe at a least a million star systems. Now, to put that in perspective, the total number of star systems that have been looked at by all SETI experiments over the course of the last half-century, it's a few thousand. Obviously this is a tremendous improvement.

BRUMFIEL: Shostak says there's still no guarantee of hearing anything, but as of today, the odds are just a little better. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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