Harvard’s Professor Avi Loeb, former and longest-serving Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University and Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, is not your regular scholar. In 2012 Time Magazine elected Avi Loeb as one of the 25 most important people in space. Professor Loeb argues that aliens and UFOs are real, but if you ask him he despises sci-fi fiction for not complying to the laws of physics and he would rather spend time reading existentialist philosophers.
This Play Is Not About Us
“We enter life like actors on a stage, without even knowing our part or what the play is about”, he says. “And the theater is as large as the whole universe”. Life seems absurd, and yet we live like ants holding on to our little grain of sand, one in many billions of billions on the beach, with our indestructible convictions about life and afterlife. “Evidence” and “cosmic modesty” are Avi Loeb’s key words, his guiding stars in work and life, and while you would expect that all scientists would adhere to data evidence, cosmic modesty is too often overlooked as a fundamental quality of scholars in the field of astrophysics as well in the scientific community at large.
“Out of arrogance we prefer to believe that we are unique”, he says.
“Fundamentally, we are born into this world like actors that are put on on the stage, without knowing what the play is about, and the one thing we see, when we look at the universe, is that the stage is huge. It’s 10 to the power 26 times bigger than our body, and also the play has been going on for 13.8 billion years, and we just came at the end. So, clearly the play is not about us. And that should give us a sense of modesty. One way to approach it, is to try and find other actors. Perhaps, they have a better idea on what the play is about.” (Avi Loeb)
“It threatens our ego to believe that we might not be the smartest kid on the block. It’s a much more comfortable position to basically close the curtains on our windows and not look out. But the point is that whether we have neighbors or not; whether our neighbors are smarter than we are or not; does not depend on whether we look through the window. Reality doesn’t really care whether we ignore it or not.”
Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash
The Appearance of Oumuamua
Oumuamua is an interstellar object detected in 2017 entering our solar system. By all standards Oumuamua behaved in a very strange way, particularly with respect to its speed, acceleration and route. Despite his established career and position Avi Loeb was not afraid to address the appearance of Oumuamua providing an unconventional answer that attracted a lot of attention and a great deal of criticism from within and outside the academia.
When scientists looked through the lenses of a telescope in Hawaii called PAN-Starrs they found an object flying at 60.000 miles per hour, very bright, oddly shaped, tumbling, and following a weird trajectory. Right after passing the sun Oumuamua deviated from its expected course and started accelerating, without any sign of loss of material or cometary tale as it would have been expected from an asteroid or a comet. All the anomalies detected about Oumuamua, which Professor Loeb describes in detail in his book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth an many scientific articles, are very rare; so when you combine them together you have an object that, if natural, is statistically so rare to be close to impossible, “something never seen before”.
Just a few days after its appearance the object disappeared into dark interstellar space leaving behind many unanswered questions.
“I do believe that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence should be in the mainstream of science, and the reason there is opposition to it is partly out of arrogance. You know, we prefer to believe that we are privileged and unique and special, just like the philosophers in the days of Galileo thought that we are at the center of the universe.” (Avi Loeb)
(Un)conventional Hypothesis About Oumuamua
Some scientists suggested that Oumuamua could be a cloud of loosely aggregated dust or a piece of pure hydrogen iceberg — or nitrogen. But according to Professor Loeb all these solutions are weak in many perspectives, primarily because they don’t take into consideration the fact that no piece of ice that size (more or less a football field) could survive that kind of interstellar voyage. After excluding all possible natural explanations, Professor Loeb, like a modern Sherlock Holmes, was left with the only possible solution and conviction that Oumuamua must be artificial. Determined to look objectively at the evidence at his hands and not being able to find any convincing explanation for Oumuamua as a natural object, Loeb suggested it was artificial in origin.
A Relic From an Alien Civilization?
Oumuamua could be a piece of technology, not necessarily still functioning, that either belongs or have belonged to an alien civilization, a piece of interstellar junk, sort like a plastic bottle found on the beach. Among the many hypothesis put forward, Loeb indicates that Oumuamua could also be an interstellar buoy or signpost used for intergalactic navigation or as a communication station. He also suggests that Oumuamua could be a light-sail, a kind of probe that moves by the push of light. Pretty much as a boat-sail would intercept the wind and make the boat move, Oumuamua seems to be intercepting light and move accordingly. That would explain why once passed the sun it would accelerate and deviate from its course, without releasing material or showing any cometary tale.
“You know, there are tens of billions of stars and [Giordano Bruno] was right about that, but then he said, maybe those planets have life, and that’s what infuriated the Church, in the sense that, it implies that, if those forms of life have sinned, then Christ should have saved them, and you need billions of copies of Christ to visit all these planets and save the lives there from their sins, and that didn’t sound reasonable, so they burned Giordano Bruno on the stake for that.”
Extraterrestrial Life and the Scientific Community
Professor Loeb’s hypothesis did not receive a nice welcome from the scientific community, which seemed unwilling to even consider the “alien theory” for further investigation on Oumuamua and other similar objects. “Recall the clerics who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. The scientific community’s prejudice or close-mindedness is particularly pervasive and powerful when it comes to the search for alien life, especially intelligent life.”
“The inquisitors that put Galileo under house arrest refused to even look into Galileo’s the telescope because they thought they knew the answer already: the sun moves around the earth. Centuries later we know who was right and who was wrong”. Cosmic modesty is much needed when studying the universe “because our knowledge — he continues — is but an island in a vast sea of ignorance”. Given the size and the age of such sea, about 13.8 billions years, it is very unlikely that we are the only intelligent civilization around. Whether we find alien civilizations or not, their existence is highly probable and their non-existence highly unlikely.
“It’s to our benefit to gain scientific knowledge, in fact the way we act by not gathering evidence is not intelligent. I define an intelligent species as a civilization that follows the guiding principles of science, which is cooperation and sharing of evidence-based knowledge, rather than being trapped in convictions and prejudice.”
The notion that we are not alone in the universe is not one that a great part of public opinion and the scientific community is ready to hear and accept. “There is a lot of pushback”, says Avi Loeb, “You know, reality is whatever it is, and sooner or later it will present itself.” Loeb suggests a compelling example to describe the delusional conviction we must be alone, and thus no further investigation is required. “When my daughters were very little they thought they special and unique; when they started going to kinder garden they found out there were other children, and some of them were smarter than them. Reality is what it is”
However, things are changing very fast at the political and military level, following the Pentagon’s recent release of a report on UFOs.
Pentagon’s report on UAP
After decades of denial — or, as some suspicious analysts suggest, cover-up? — they are coming to terms with the fact that UFOs exist, but they felt like they’d better change their name into UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) as if such change could embellish years of blindness.
Eventually, on June 25, 2021, the Pentagon released an official report on UAP. The report seems to have let down a significant part of public opinion that was keen to hear detailed information and eager for an explicit admission of the existence of alien civilizations. It did not happen. However, it was not a small step towards general acceptance of UAP and extraterrestrial life.
“What you can imagine is equipment that is made of electronics and artificial intelligence, perhaps with 3d printers so that the system can replicate itself and produce more copies of itself. But pretty much it could be just a piece of equipment operating on its own. And of course the fundamental question is what the purpose of such a thing is, and why is this thing here? That’s the kind of questions that one can ask if indeed these objects are not natural and are not human-made” (Avi Loeb)
Not long ago Donald Trump himself, said he had some very interesting information about UFOs — but he could not speak yet. Public personalities of the caliber of Barack Obama confirmed that “There’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are… We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory…”. John Ratcliffe – former chief of 18 US intelligence agencies – said to Fox News: “Frankly, there are a lot more sightings than have been made public.” “We are talking about objects […] that engage in actions that are difficult to explain. Movements that are hard to replicate, that we don’t have the technology for.” Republican Senator Tim Burchett in a recent interview says this is technology from a different galaxy.
Luis Elizondo, former director of US Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program suggests on different interviews that UFOs display a technology thousand years more advance that we have, for example they travel at incredible speed and and follow weird trajectories, and also they seem to interfere with US nuclear facilities. Haim Eshed, Former Israeli Space Security Chief for 30 years suggested recently there is an intergalactic federation and that the US have signed military treaties with alien civilizations. One wonders: is everyone going crazy or they are not telling us something?
Whatever the case is, now the Pentagon is basically saying that a) UFOs are real; b) They own a technology that is more advanced of anything we know; c) UFOs are often seen in proximity of military sites or nuclear facilities and seem to have interfered with human technology; d) It’s probably unlikely that these objects belong to Russia or China or any other country. Furthermore, whoever owns such technology could make a lot of money out of it. Is it possible to think that humans could have such technology at their disposal and yet they would now use it, for commercial or geopolitical purposes? So, the idea that UFOs come from extraterrestrial life must be now taken seriously. UFOs is not a laughing matter anymore. And not one to be ashamed either.
A Sociocultural Stigma to Remove
The most interesting passage in the Pentagon’s report, greatly overlooked by newspaper and commentators, is the fact to address explicitly one of the main obstacles found during the past years to investigate UFOs and UAP: that is, a pervasive “sociocultural stigma” in our society. Basically, they say, we could not investigate freely because people talking about UFOs have not been taken seriously. In order to move forward towards a more complete truth with respect to UAP, we have to remove the sociocultural stigma that surrounds it, we should talk about this phenomenon openly and invest more funds in scientific research.
Although the military in this respect seems to be ahead compared to the scientific community, Avi Loeb welcomes the Pentagon report’s appeal to invest more money and he’s willing to bring his contribution to the search of alien life. “I would be happy to take part in such project if funding is secured”.
But when you ask him if he thinks we are going to make contact with creatures from other worlds, he gives you an answer that is possibly more puzzling than a possible meeting with some green little guys driving anti-gravitational flying saucers.
“I believe we are going to find probes driven by a super-advanced artificial technology rather than biological creatures, as in my opinion, they would not survive intergalactic travel. In 10 years, artificial intelligence will supersede human abilities in a decade”. An alien civilization with a technology thousand years ahead of us could have designed artificial intelligence that exceeds our understanding. “These intelligent objects might have on board 3D printers to repair and replicate themselves!”
“We developed our technologies only over the past century, or so, the modern science and technology. Most of the stars spawned billions of years before the sun, so if some of them had similar history and produced technological civilizations, like us, then it could have happened billions of years ago. Anything they sent into space, any advanced computers or technology that… such equipment would be found by us…” (Avi Loeb)
We Should Learn from Our History
Galileo Galileo taught us that we are not the center of the universe. Giordano Bruno theorized (in 1600!) the plurality of the worlds (what we would call, nowadays, exoplanets) and that such worlds could be inhabited by alien souls — and he died for this idea. During our time we could possibly find smoking-gun evidence that we are not alone in the universe. The day this happens everything will change forever. We will change our way of thinking, our way of living, our way of doing everything.
Old religions might die and new religions might be born. Also school will change. New disciplines might see light. We might take classes on alien history, language, religion, philosophy, technology. You could go to college and major in extraterrestrial literature. What an amazing jump this would be for human kind! “We could learn and mature from this experience” suggests professor Loeb.
However, I wonder if this encounter hasn’t happened yet. What if, once we meet an alien civilization, we find out that we knew them already, that they are in fact not dissimilar from us. What if it turns out that our paths crossed already and we do look similar, like mother and daughter, father and son. What if we find out, so to speak, that we are the aliens?
Looking up to the sky with a telescope is not only looking into the deep space, but it is also looking back in time. So, alien civilizations that are looking at us with their telescopes, they are looking back into our history as human kind. What would they see? I can’t help but thinking of all the examples of ancient literature filled with UAP and flying objects, from Sumerian tables to Indian vedas, from ancient Roman sources to the Bible. Take the prophet Zechariah just to make an example, chapter 5: “I looked again, and there before me was a flying scroll. He asked me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll, twenty cubits long and ten cubits wide.” The book of Ezekiel is pretty explicit about it too. And there are more examples. Italian scholar and Bible translator Mauro Biglino offers more insight into this subject. So I wonder: Would it be possible, as a working hypothesis, that this encounter has already happened?
Would it be possible that religions are nothing but cargo cults on a larger scale?
“There is also the biblical story of Abraham hearing the voice of God telling him to sacrifice his only son. If Abraham had a cellphone with a voice memo app, he could have pressed the button and recorded the voice of God. That would have been much more believable. Otherwise, if you just read the stories you can’t really tell if something really happened. Science is about reproducibility of results and I think we have the technology, we have the instruments right now. We should clear the foam, we should clarify the mystery. You know, we are in the 21st century. There is no room for a belief system that we inherited from the dark ages where you know the answers in advance, and you have convictions.” (Avi Loeb)
Fear or relief?
When Dante and Virgil find the exit of hell at the end of Inferno, after the most terrible part of the journey that will take the pilgrim through Purgatory and Heaven, they come to a point where they raise their eyes towards the sky: “Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars” (Inferno, XXXIV, 139) notes the poet as he looks again at the stars that the deep darkness of hell had taken away from them — like sailors who find the polar star again, their secure point of reference in the sky.
We should feel relief not fear at learning that we are not alone in the vast universe after all, that someone else is around and has been around already for long time. Aliens might have answers to our many existential questions, questions that we might have individually and collectively about the meaning of life and its purpose. A close encounter to other sons of the stars, would help us find new routes to explore and would open new frontiers for humanity.
In fact, we should be all excited at this idea, especially considering that wars, nuclear armament, pandemics, climate change and so forth and so on, are putting at risk our own survival us as a species. Maybe we can leave behind the hellish part of this whole mess we did, and raise our gaze towards the sky. And we could maybe join Dante as he exclaims: “Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars”. (Inferno, XXXIV, 139)