“And Yet It Deviates”, Discussing Extraterrestrial Life and `Oumuamua with Avi Loeb
Published 26 February 2021 by Rob La Frenais
In ‘Extraterrestrial – The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth’, Avi Loeb, former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, confirms that the mysterious first interstellar object to be detected, `Oumuamua, could be a sign of extraterrestial life. Review.
For decades the SETI community has been trying to raise sufficient funds and gain telescope time to try to replicate the ‘Wow signal’, first seen in 1977, accompanied by a scribbled ‘Wow’ on the observation log’s margin. Many readers will remember installing the SETI@home software on their computers in an effort to crowd-source the search for radio signals coming from an apparently intelligent alien civilisation. Now, in a dramatic development a highly respected pillar of the astronomical establishment, Professor Avi Loeb, former chair (2011-2020) of the astronomy department at Harvard University, founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has just published an extremely well-publicised book, ‘Extraterrestrial – The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth’ which avers that the only possible explanation for the mysterious first interstellar object to be detected, `Oumuamua (a Hawaiian name for the geographical location of the telescope where it was discovered), detected in 2017, is most likely to be an alien artefact. It could well be some sort of lightsail or even a piece of alien space junk that was deflected in an anomalous way from our Sun, changing its path though the heat of the sun without emitting gases, like a comet or an asteroid. It was inaccurately illustrated in 2017 as a long rock, but we have no actual images of the object.
Makery had a short conversation with Avi Loeb about some shared interests between our readers and the world-shattering changes that could come about if evidence for extraterrestrial civilisations are found. We asked him if there be could be a modern-day equivalent of the early SETI@home programmes that our DIY lab community could participate in to help detect interstellar artefacts that might pass by. “Yes, when the sky survey LSST (Large Synoptic Survey display), on the Vera Rubin Observatory, (currently under construction in Chile and due to come online 2022) the public could search the data for unusual objects moving faster than expected. The extreme limit will involve objects near the speed of light”.
In other words Loeb proposes a genuine open-source citizen science search with the streamed data from the new telescope unlike SETI@home, which was a crowd-sourced approach to managing the data from radio telescopes.
Such objects could be ‘relics’ of other civilisations or even interstellar ‘beacons’, standing as they do at LSR (Local Standard of Rest – an average of all the movement of stars) which makes our Solar System move 10 times faster than the object itself. We asked if the implications of finding evidence of other civilisations would change the social and political history of the world. Could he give an example of what might happen? “The implications were summarized in the following commentaries I wrote, for example, ‘How can our civilisation mature? The same way kids do: by leaving home, going out into the neighbourhood, meeting others and comparing notes with them. In other words, we can develop a balanced perspective on our current technological accomplishments by engaging in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Since our own technological development accelerates exponentially with an ‘e-folding time‘ of a few years, it is difficult to imagine what a much more advanced technology crafted by a civilisation that had lived for a cosmic timescale—billions of such e-folding times—would look like’. Another quote Loeb referred us to: “Finding life on another planet would have a profound impact on human psychology, too, as well on philosophy and religion, and not just on the science of astronomy. In a general sense, it is not too much to presume that this discovery would also have an impact on the way people behave and how they interact with each other here on Earth, because we might come to feel as though we are a part of a single, unified team, humanity, and stop focusing so much on mundane issues like geographical borders.” Loeb points out the many trillions of dollars spent on the Second World War and speculates on what the outcome would have been if it were spent on SETI instead.
The book is critical of the effects of science fiction on the public. He says in his book that a lot of prejudice in the science world towards searching for extraterrestrial civilisation comes from tropes created by science fiction but did he include in this intelligent SF like Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels and Cixin Liu’s ’The Three Body Problem’ – which is a very smart approach to the issue of SETI messaging and its dangers? In speaking to us Loeb agrees: “Indeed, some science fiction stories, like the ones you mentioned, are very helpful in expanding our imagination and promoting the frontiers of science and technology.” It’s interesting that Cixin Liu’s latest translation ‘Ball Lightning’ depicts the hacking by Chinese military ball lightning researchers of SETI@home.
“And yet it deviates”
His citing of the historical account of the clerics refusing to look down Galileo’s telescope draws parallels to us with climate and pandemic denialism. We asked, would he consider that the case? “Yes, evidence is the key for revising our notions of reality. Science is a dialogue with nature, not a monologue, as I explained here”. (Loeb is critical about unprovable areas of theoretical physics that drain resources from the search for evidence of life elsewhere, such as supersymmetry and Multiverse theory, which he regards as ‘sandbox’ research. “Social pressure does not only fashion popular speculations in the realm of theory, but also limits the empirical exploration of far less speculative notions with instruments that we readily have. For example, the search for technological signatures of civilisations on exoplanets—in the form of industrial pollution, artificial lights or heat, photovoltaic cells, structural artefacts or artificial satellites—could have been conducted with far more rigour if not for the reluctance of the mainstream to pursue this task. The related prejudice and peer pressure echo the refusal of some philosophers to look through Galileo’s telescope.”
In Loeb’s book many references are made to the allegorical covert rebuttal made by Galileo when was forced to recant under threat of torture after using the evidence from his telescope to show that the Earth moved around the Sun as opposed to the orthodoxy of Ptolemy. “And yet it moves” he was said to utter with his fingers crossed behind his back. Loeb in his description of the anomalous behaviour of `Oumuamua obviously identifies with Galileo in continuing to rebut his many critics in the statement “And yet it deviates”.
“The future will be interdisciplinary”
Loeb is also the chair of the advisory board of ‘Breakthrough Starshot’, a radical attempt to reach another star within 20 years by means of tiny lightsails propelled by a powerful laser, funded by Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner. Would there be a role for the Makery community of young engineers, citizen scientists and artists in participating in ‘Breakthrough Starshot’, perhaps along the lines of The Planetary Society’s Lightsail 2 project? “Yes, there is. The engineering expertise is obviously useful, as described here: ‘In principle, the spacecraft are relatively cheap, with most of the investment being spent on the infrastructure (the laser and launch systems). Once that is in place, that spacecraft would only cost in the region of $100 (~€88) each, and so the idea would be to launch a number of them (perhaps one per day or one every few days) and we could potentially aim them at different targets, with some visiting other planets and systems as they travel to their final destination. And, given the speed at which these spacecraft – which will be the size of a typical mobile telephone – will be travelling, they would be able to reach a number of interesting targets within the Solar System in relatively short timeframes.” The ‘Challenges’ section of Breakthrough Starshot encourages citizen scientists and engineers to add to the knowledge base.
It strangely recalls Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene Explorer project. He also added that the humanities can also contribute as described here: “ Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and artists should participate in the future development of technology, so that it will better match human needs and values. Like canaries in a coal mine, humanists have the moral compass to warn us of impending dangers to our future society. They also possess the skill to imagine realities that we should aspire to have before scientists develop them. There is no doubt that the future will be interdisciplinary and that humanists should play a major role in shaping it.”
There is an interesting postscript to this story, unfolding as I was reading ‘Extraterrestrial’. Not only critics from orthodox astronomy were attacking Loeb’s thesis but also from the long-standing SETI community. In an incendiary Q&A after the Golden Webinar on Astrophysics on February 12 this year, the Director of the SETI Institute, Dr Jill Tarter, the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s heroine of Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’ clashed with Loeb on his decision to go public with the contention that `Oumuamua was most likely an alien artefact: “So Avi, I get a little bit pissed off when you throw the entire scientific culture under the bus. Because some of us have been thinking about – and building instruments to find – anomalies for a very long time. And I think that when we say that, ‘if we are ever going to announce such a detection, that we require extraordinary evidence,’ we’re doing that as a way of differentiating ourselves from the pseudoscience that is so much a part of popular culture, with UFOs and all kinds of claims of things that people have detected.”
Loeb countered by saying that, on the contrary, he felt that thousands of times more money should be spent on institutions like the SETI Institute, but that the public had the right to know about the scientific thinking behind the analysis of the data, rather than it being ‘revealed’ at the appropriate moment when all the evidence had been proven. You can understand, however the frustration coming from established SETI researchers who have laboured under mainstream prejudice for decades when a former astronomical gatekeeper become a SETI advocate seemingly overnight. Loeb admits himself in the book that when he tells students and post-docs that “accessible short insights tend to stimulate the field”, they tend to respond: “That’s easy for you, Chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, to say.”
Loeb’s reply to Tarter caused a Twitterstorm and he later apologised to her. But in my view, in Loeb’s carefully reasoned and accessible book, he certainly makes a good case that science should not always be in the hands of those who try to sanction and control information about the processes of research.
This is a must-watch for anyone who has covered (or is thinking about covering) Avi Loeb. For context, Jill Tarter has been working in SETI for decades. The character Ellie Arroway in ‘Contact’ was based on Tarter. https://t.co/YSn4qAqlOC
— Marina Koren (@marinakoren) February 16, 2021
There is certainly a strong push-back from many elements of the science community to Loeb’s strong views, claiming that Loeb is appealing to the court of public opinion and ‘amateur’ scientists and that there are other explanations for the object’s anomalous behaviour other than an alien lightsail. It’s also ironic that the second interstellar object 21Borisov, a naturally formed object with which is useful to compare `Oumuamua – was discovered by a Crimean ‘amateur’ astronomer Gennadiy Borisov, who we might more usefully call a citizen scientist.
The controversy around Loeb’s book recalls another spat – over SETI messaging or ‘METI’ in 2015, when several SETI Institute board members resigned over the Institute’s tolerance of Russian astronomer Alexander Zaitsev’s messaging programme. I recall attending the first IAA Search for Life Signatures Symposium in Paris when this dispute was brewing, and encountering Špela Petrič and Miha Turšič’s project ‘Voyager/ Non-human agents’ for the first time, an ambitious attempt to ‘update’ Voyager 2 while it was still in range, with an artificial life algorithm which would rely “on the information carried in its process, allowing an open-ended collection of data that is based on arguably universal mathematics. The message is substituted by an entity expressing its own agency” (Petrič).
In the conclusion of ‘Extraterrestrial’ Loeb also discreetly advocates messaging by suggesting we should send out an indication of our level of knowledge about the origins of the universe: “An encounter with another civilisation may be humbling … Such a civilisation will no doubt know the answers to a great many questions we haven’t figured out and perhaps haven’t asked. But in order for us to gain some intellectual credibility, it would be nice to start the conversation by offering our own scientific wisdom about how the universe was born.”
Avi Loeb, ‘Extraterrestrial – The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth’, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021, €14.99.