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 images on the previous two spreads—hangs a plaque that reads, “Here lies the body of James Lick.”
The couple in the image above 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 seriously that they receive training from a Chinese coach who worked with the US Olympic team.