A Play About Life Beyond Earth

Avi Loeb
6 min readMay 5, 2023
Avi Loeb as a 2-year old child with his mother, Sara in 1964. After surviving World War II in her native Bulgaria, Sara moved to Israel in 1948. She and Loeb’s father, David, met at a farming community, Beit Hanan, and raised their three children there.

When the brilliant playwright Josh Ravetch emailed me a message with the title: “Avi Loeb on Broadway!”, I first thought it was an April Fool’s joke because the message arrived a few days before April 1st. However, the email attachment included photographs of Josh with Dick van Dyke from `Mary Poppins,’ and those were labeled by the serial number assigned to them from a cell phone. Given this evidence, I responded.

In addition to his play about the life of Dick van Dyke, Josh wrote a play about the life of Carrie Fisher from `Star Wars.’ It was surprising to learn that he wished to write a play about my scientific work.

By now Josh wrote the first draft of the play, which brought tears to my eyes when I read it today. I will not reveal the content of the play in order not to spoil the fun for those who may wish to witness it in a theatrical production. Instead, I will make peripheral remarks about having life beyond Earth featured in a play.

Being born on a farm, I grew up collecting eggs every afternoon and driving a tractor to the village hills on weekends to read philosophy books. At present, I encounter nature through my morning jogs at sunrise and echo my early philosophical musings through my daily scientific research.

My path was decorated by about a thousand scientific papers and eight books over the past four decades. I started my senior academic career by studying the first stars and galaxies that formed hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, a topic that attracted attention even from President Biden as recently as July 2022, following the deep images obtained by the Webb space telescope. I continued by exploring the formation of black holes in these galaxies and their merger products. But over the past five years, I was mostly intrigued by questions about extraterrestrial life and the possibility of alien technological civilizations. Whereas past research on this possibility focused on the search for radio signals — akin to waiting for a phone call, it occurred to me that a better approach is to study interstellar objects that may represent packages delivered to the mailbox of the inner solar system. Such packages are bound by gravity to the Milky Way and they can outlive their senders.

Any finding from such a search would revolutionize our cosmic perspective, similarly to what Galileo Galilei did four centuries ago. This realization inspired the Galileo Project that I co-founded with Frank Laukien in July 2021. But my affinity to Galileo started a decade earlier, when I was honored in 2011 with “Cattedra Galileiana” as a lecturer at the prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore in the town of Pisa, Italy — where Galileo was born and served as Chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa. Intriguingly, the name Galileo is derived from Galilee, a name of a region in the northern part of Israel — my birth country. And even more remarkably, the Hebrew word “Galil” means a cylinder, reminiscent of the cylindrical alien starship that entered the Solar system in the book “Rendezvous with Rama”, by Arthur C. Clark. When in October 2017, the Pan-STARRS observatory discovered the first interstellar object, `Oumuamua, as having an elongated shape on the sky, I was intrigued. This discovery motivated me to search for other unusual interstellar objects. When I discovered together with Amir Siraj the first interstellar meteor, IM1 from January 2014, there was no doubt in my mind that the Galileo Project should search for its relics in the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, we plan to search the meteor site in summer 2023. The significance of retrieving artificial materials of strength larger than iron in this expedition cannot be overstated.

But there is also the possibility that we will not find anything. In that case we will continue with a search for the remnants of the second interstellar meteor, IM2 from March 2017. There is nothing more exciting for terrestrial life than to find an extraterrestrial partner. And even if this will not happen in my lifetime, the search itself gives a special meaning to the remaining years that I have left on this Earth.

Altogether, my life’s journey was unexpected. Throughout, I was driven by a childhood curiosity nurtured by my mother and never gave up on it. My current research benefits from the company of wonderful collaborators within the Galileo Project team, who share my excitement about this line of scientific research. My lifelong quest for interstellar partners stems from three terrestrial partners: my remarkable wife and two daughters.

Fundamentally, I am still a farm boy. Those who know me since my childhood could testify that I have not changed. When it comes to my approach to life: “What you see is what you get.” I do not manipulate people. When I became chair of the Harvard Astronomy department in 2011, my wife expected it to be a short stint. However, my transparent and honest deliberations ended up being a political blessing, since they garnered the trust of my colleagues. This resulted in three 3-year terms, totaling the longest service of a chair in the history of the department. I chose to allocate some of my precious research time to leadership as an opportunity to improve my academic environment. After all, reality is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagining a better future and taking responsibility for making it happen, is the best path forward. This applies to administrative goals, such as my service as the founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, as well as to charting new scientific territories in my leadership of the Galileo Project. Keep in mind that I am a theoretical astrophysicist who chose to lead an experimental project after realizing that the related scientific research had never been done properly.

When my mother passed away four years ago, I decided to search for interstellar objects that were potentially manufactured by extraterrestrial technological civilizations. We live for such a short time, and we better focus on pursuing what matters rather than maximize the number of “likes” we get on social media.

After reading Josh’s draft, I thought that it might be interesting to add a conversation with the audience at the end of each show. This way I will benefit from the insights of others. After all, what matters in any encounter, be it terrestrial or interstellar, is the dialogue it generates. And this dialogue is best handled in the creative territory between art and science.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and 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”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

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