A Musical Piece About `Oumuamua

Avi Loeb
5 min readMay 21, 2024
(Image credit: Charlotte Symphony Orchestra)

Jeremy Lamb, a composer and cellist at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO), was inspired by my research on the first reported interstellar object (ISO), `Oumuamua.

This name means a `scout’ in the indigenous language of Hawaii, where the object was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS telescope on Haleakala Observatory in Maui on October 19, 2017. The object was moving too fast near Earth to be bound by the Sun’s gravity.

`Oumuamua was different from familiar solar system rocks. It was inferred to possess an extreme shape based on the variation of its brightness by an order of magnitude as it was tumbling every 8 hours. The best fit to the large variations in reflected sunlight suggested a flat shape, like a pancake. In addition, `Oumuamua was pushed away from the Sun by a mysterious non-gravitational force without showing signs of cometary evaporation. It also entered the Solar system while being nearly at rest in the Local Standard of Rest, the frame of reference of the Milky-Way galaxy, derived by averaging over the random motions of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun. This is the best frame to be associated with for hiding the object’s origin because 99.8% of the stars move faster than `Oumuamua was relative to it.

Where did `Oumuamua come from and what did it look like? Unfortunately, our telescopes could not resolve its image, but the amount of sunlight reflected from it implied that its size was comparable to a football field. I suggested recently in a paper that it may have been a piece of a broken Dyson sphere or some other thin layer produced technologically. This would explain the non-gravitational push as the result of reflection of sunlight because the object was thin, just like NASA’s rocket booster 2020 SO which was discovered unexpectedly by Pan-STARRS on September 17, 2020 and exhibited a push away from the Sun because its thin walls reflected sunlight.

Jeremy composed a beautiful musical piece, titled “A Ride on `Oumuamua,” which was first performed by a trio for two cellos and bass, describing “an imagined journey of the first interstellar object ever known to visit the Solar System — `Oumuamua.” That performance was posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0zi-tEIXFo

Over the past week, Jeremy’s musical piece was performed twice by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO). In anticipation of this event, Jeremy and I recorded a conversation which reflected on the complementary perspectives of an artist and a scientist. Our mutually-enriching conversation was documented on the Orchestra’s website at https://www.charlottesymphony.org/blog/cellist-jeremy-lamb-discusses-oumuamua-with-harvard-professor/

The orchestral performance of the musical piece starts at the 8:20 minute time tag of the audio recording available at https://wdav.org/programs/vtd2hfkL5yXmY9NCy/holsts-the-planets

The CSO performance was reviewed on the Orchestra’s blog page as follows:

The sentimental favorite of the evening and a satisfying aural trip came from Lamb, who sits in the cello section of the CSO. ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word roughly meaning “scout,” became the first interstellar object detected passing through our solar system. Its 2017 visit inspired Lamb to write a piece for string trio, which he expanded for full string orchestra. His thoughtful comments in the online program book — sadly, inevitably too small to read easily on any cellphone — explained how the music’s flow might reflect the sensations of someone riding this object. (Or, perhaps, of the object itself; some people feel an otherworldly entity created it.) The strings played attractively in unison, pulsed tremulously — messages from space? — and played contrasting rhythms in the Philip Glass manner, but more gently. Not surprisingly, the middle section held a long-breathed melody for Lamb’s instrument, played tenderly by principal cellist Jonathan Lewis. We stopped in mid-air, so to speak, as ‘Oumuamua bid farewell… Bits of music from famous composers — a Brandenburg Concerto, Sibelius’ Second Symphony — reminded me that NASA launched the space probe “Voyager” in 1977, bearing music from around the world that extraterrestrials might someday hear (including a different Brandenburg Concerto). It’s now the counterpart to ‘Oumuamua, the human-made object farthest from Earth.

There is a common thread running through creative compositions in the arts and the sciences, as both explore the unknown. This led the CSO to perform Jeremy’s musical piece about an ISO with an unknown origin, for the same reason that the playwright Josh Ravetch composed a one-man show titled “A Piece of Sky” , the song writer Alan Bergman composed a moving song, the poet Rick Gaul wrote beautiful poems, and the sculptor Dr. Nigel Fleming is working on a large sculpture, all inspired by my scientific work on `Oumuamua.

The exploration of the unknown also inspired a documentary team to follow closely my scientific research over the past year and their film might be featured publicly in 2025. Keep in mind that I am not a good actor. The only character I play well is myself. Apparently, that is good enough for all these creators who appeal to a broad variety of tools to describe the same thing from different artistic perspectives.


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".