Your current location is within the known Universe.
Zoom in a little and you are approximately 26,000 light-years from the centre of the Milky Way, on the inner edge of the Orion-Cygnus Arm, on a rocky planet designated as “Earth.” Given that the Milky Way is one among several billion galaxies in the observable Universe, Earth and its human inhabitants seem pretty small. We could easily disregard our significance in the vast scale of the cosmos as a meaningless blip in the history of time, amounting to little more than a few fleeting civilisations. Apart from some brief trips to the moon, we’ve hardly even left the planet.
Yet Yuri Milner’s short book Eureka Manifesto: the Mission for Our Civilisation argues otherwise. With a stirring message to humanity about our place in the Universe, the manifesto offers Milner’s perspective on our part in the “Universal Story” and explains that the very fact of our existence has presented us with a mission we should think twice about turning down. Let’s take a closer look at the billionaire science philanthropist’s backstory, including the Giving Pledge and Breakthrough Initiatives, and the core ideas at the heart of his book.
Yuri Milner and the Search for Intelligent Life
The earliest idea that Milner would one day crystallise into Eureka Manifesto formed during his childhood. Milner grew up in the 1960s, a time when the space race was at its peak, and read Iosif Shklovsky and Carl Sagan’s book Intelligent Life in the Universe. Hooked by the possibility that intelligent beings could live out among the stars, Milner developed a lifelong fascination with the subject.
At first, embarking on a career as a theoretical physicist in quantum field theory, Milner later decided the world of business suited him better. He moved to the U.S. to study at the Wharton School of Business and, after launching a successful internet start-up, subsequently founded DST Global, one of the world’s most prolific internet investment companies.
Despite his flair for business entrepreneurship, Milner never lost his love for science. This, coupled with his conviction that humanity’s future depends on it flourishing, led Milner and his wife Julia to join Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge in 2012. An initiative to drive philanthropic works on an unprecedented scale, the Giving Pledge’s members include some of the world’s wealthiest individuals. Through this Pledge, Julia and Yuri Milner committed to donating at least half of their wealth during their lifetimes to predominantly scientific causes.
That same year, the Milners partnered with Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, and Ann Wojcicki, to found the Breakthrough Prize, the largest-ever annual science award, also known as the “Oscars of Science.” Soon after, they added the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global video competition that encourages high schoolers to engage with tough scientific concepts. The Milners’ Breakthrough Foundation has since supported various humanitarian causes and funded the pioneering Breakthrough Initiatives.
Three years after signing the Giving Pledge, in 2015, Milner joined Stephen Hawking to launch the Breakthrough Initiatives, a set of scientific programmes searching for life beyond Earth and hoping to make interstellar space flight a reality. The Breakthrough Initiatives include Starshot, a mission to get a nanocraft to Alpha Centauri; Watch, which is on the lookout for habitable planets; and Listen, a $100 million project using radio telescopes to detect interstellar messages.
So far, Listen has received no communications from alien civilisations. Despite the radio silence, Milner remains undeterred. In fact, this has spurred him on to spread the word about humanity’s place in the wider Universe. As a boy, Shklovsky and Sagan’s book got Milner thinking about the remarkable fact of intelligent life, not only the possibility that it exists elsewhere, but also that it exists here, on Earth. A few years ago, the philanthropist decided that even if we have yet to find any other civilisations, it was worth encouraging people to think about our own civilisation’s place in the scheme of things. That was when he began his book, Eureka Manifesto.
Published in 2021, Milner describes Eureka Manifesto as his message, calling on humanity to “look beyond the horizon, to see the extraordinary cosmic story that we are part of, and there to find our Mission.” So, what is this cosmic, or universal, story? What is our mission, what are the risks, and, if we choose to accept it, how do we move forward?
The Universal Story
The entire Universe once existed in a sphere about the size of a human head. Then, the sphere expanded. Nearly fourteen billion years later, here we are.
Despite not being there when it happened and having only existed for a fraction of the timescale of the Universe, you are currently reading these words and somehow able to imagine the birth of all things. Miraculously, you are thinking with a mind formed from the Universe’s matter.
The journey from the sphere to your mind and beyond is the Universal Story, the story of everything. Somehow, we emerged as the storytellers. Could it be that we are a way for the Universe to understand itself? So goes the theory in Milner’s Eureka Manifesto.
While we know some of the broad strokes of the Universal Story, mainly thanks to a series of Eureka! moments from brilliant minds throughout human history, there is so much left for us to figure out. Eureka Manifesto suggests that the Universal Story hasn’t just led to our existence, it’s also handed us a mission, as fundamental as the laws of nature: “Explore and Understand our Universe.”
There are two good reasons to take up the mission: the rewards of success and the costs of failure. The potential rewards are infinite and exciting to consider. Imagine the technological progress for humanity, and, with space travel, the knowledge that might expand our minds. Then there’s the possibility of taking our place among a wider interstellar community — a real-life version of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
Are We Alone?
If we fail to take up the mission, we risk sacrificing the future of our civilisation. Humanity’s progress as a species might seem intrinsic, but it’s not irreversible. History has shown us that civilisations can fall, enlightenments can fail, and societies can lose interest in the science that drives them forward.
Then there’s the question that Breakthrough Listen is currently trying to answer: Are we alone in the Universe? If we are truly alone, that’s even more reason for us to advance our understanding of the Universal Story, as the sole cosmic storytellers. If we’re not alone, and alien intelligence is out there, do we risk sitting back and letting a potentially advanced species tell the story for us? Additionally, if history has taught us anything, it’s that encounters between civilisations with different levels of technological mastery tend not to end so well for the less advanced.
Extinction events present another threat to life on Earth. Some are man-made, like wars and climate change, while others could come from space, like collision-course asteroids or death bubbles. It may be a wise move for us to get our civilisation up to speed as fast as possible before any of these threats materialise.
Advancing the Mission
To advance the mission, Eureka Manifesto lays out a “Plan of Action:”
- Ensure fundamental science and space exploration are areas receiving investment.
- Drive scientific progress through artificial intelligence.
- Celebrate scientists as heroes.
- Make the Universal Story the focus of our education systems, especially by harnessing the power of art.
- Begin a new enlightenment with an open culture where everyone shares knowledge.
These steps resonate with Milner’s philanthropic work through the Breakthrough Foundation. While financial contributions like Milner’s may be unrealistic for most of us, we can all play a role in advancing the mission to explore and understand our Universe by embracing a culture that celebrates science and encourages future generations to look up and strive for the stars.
If you’re still not sure how to help humanity’s mission, you may want to start by reading Eureka Manifesto.
About Yuri Milner
Yuri Milner is an Israeli technology investor and science philanthropist who, fascinated by science from a young age, is now driving humanity’s search for alien life.
Initially pursuing postgraduate studies in physics, Milner later switched to business, moving to the Wharton School in Philadelphia. He eventually founded DST Global and, under Milner’s leadership, the successful company has developed into one of the largest technology investment funds in the world. Through DST Global, Milner was an early backer of the leading social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. He later sold those stakes and invested in Spotify and Airbnb, as well as Chinese online retailers like Alibaba.
Milner believes that scientists and tech entrepreneurs play similar roles in the progress of humanity, asking big questions about our world and imagining pioneering solutions that deepen our collective knowledge and enrich lives on a global scale.
As part of his belief in the innate value of scientific investment, Milner is the founder of the Breakthrough Foundation, which funds cutting-edge space programmes, supports leading researchers in the fundamental sciences, and inspires the next generation to engage in scientific ideas.