A Tale of Two Nobel Laureates

Avi Loeb
5 min readSep 21, 2023

My Harvard colleague and 2007 Nobel laureate in Economics, Eric Maskin, invited me last night to dinner in the company of the 2017 Nobel Laureate in molecular biology, Michael Rosbash.

As soon as the three of us sat down, Michael said: “The discovery of recombinant DNA changes everything in my field. What are the equivalent transformative discoveries in your fields of research?”. “This is an easy choice in my field,” I noted, and encouraged Eric to answer first.

Eric suggested game theory in Economics, pioneered by John von Neumann’s paper on the desired strategy in a zero-sum game of two players. This strategy has been helpful in optimizing the outcome of military conflicts.

I pointed out that in contrast to zero-sum conflicts in territorial disputes on Earth, the Universe at large offers unlimited opportunities with infinite-sum games. The scientific exploration of interstellar space could be beneficial in liberating us from the terrestrial constraints of von Neumann’s model.

Michael reasoned that even when we are engaged in unlimited frontiers, scientific exploration is not always beneficial for the practitioners, especially when dealing with discoveries that are not popular at their time, like plate tectonics. The paradigm shift proposed by Alfred Wegener encountered fierce opposition for 50 years from distinguished scientists of the time, such as Harold Jeffreys and Charles Schuchert, who were outspoken critics of continental drift. Such opposition stems from the tendency of scholars to dismiss data that deviates from their past belief system. Their tactics is to raise metaphorical dust in the form of uncertainties and doubt until they cannot see anything, dismiss the credentials of the discoverer and prevent the new voice from being heard. The representatives of the Roman Catholic Inquisition who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope made sure that Galileo’s voice would not be heard by placing him in house arrest. As Arthur Schopenhauer noted: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; and third, it is accepted as self-evident.” But he neglected to mention that the third stage might never arrive in a tribal society, dominated by polarization and superficial undertones of social media.

I wondered quietly: Why is child-like bullying more prevalent in human nature than child-like curiosity? The paste of discoveries would have been accelerated if the priority was the other way around. Bad behavior is more common in traditional disciplines that resemble mud wrestling — like meteoritics, than in those that resemble chess playing — like cosmology.

It is also important to acknowledge that some scientific knowledge could have a negative societal impact. For example, the potential acknowledgement that COVID-19 originated from a laboratory leak could have had a devastating impact on international politics. Similarly, a device that forecasts our maximal biological lifespan to the day would have introduced anxiety akin to the deteriorating morale of individuals with a death sentence.

From a grander perspective, these frustrations are associated with human psychology and are immaterial in the big scheme of the cosmos. Continents drift and the Earth moves around the Sun, irrespective of how violently scholars oppose to these ideas.

Which brings us to my field of expertise. “And so Avi, what is the transformative discovery in astrophysics and cosmology?”, Michael asked. “Without a doubt, it is the discovery that the Universe expands,” I answered. The work of Vesto Slipher — who discovered the recession speed or redshift of distant galaxies, as well as the work of Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaître — who realized that the cosmic recession speed is proportional to distance. The ratio between distance and speed is the universal period of time that elapsed since the Universe started from a dense and hot state, the so-called Big Bang. This assertion was confirmed by the serendipitous discovery of the cosmic microwave background, a relic of the hot and dense beginning of the Universe, by Arno Penzias & Bob Wilson, when Bob Dicke’s team at Princeton was attempting to detect it intentionally. The transformative implications of the expanding Universe are obvious from Albert Einstein’s philosophical inclination to argue for a steady state cosmology with no beginning in time. We still do not know what happened before the Big Bang, as resolving that singularity requires a predictive theory of quantum gravity which we do not have. Finding the answer to this question will mark another major transformation in our worldview.

Transformative discoveries of these magnitudes are rare. But they can be fostered by an intellectual culture that rewards exploration of ideas outside the beaten path. To promote a higher discovery rate, funding agencies should fund creative individuals in a way that is free of the risk-averse nature of existing grant-allocation committees.

The Nobel Prize celebrates and rewards path-breaking discoveries. But the important task ahead is to create a fertile intellectual ground for breakthroughs while reducing the friction with the headwinds of the day. If the third step in Schopenhauer’s quote will arrive too late, humanity might face existential risks before it resolves them. In such a case, Enrico Fermi’s paradox: “Where is everybody?” could be explained by the scarcity of long-lived technological civilizations as a result of their focus on conflicts and self-declared zero-sum games.

My personal hope is that we will actually find cosmic neighbors by tracing packages sent to our mailbox. This will be possible if scientists will not insist that all interstellar objects must be rocks. Finding these packages is an I.Q. test, as it will deliver the knowledge that there are smarter students in our class of intelligent civilizations and inspire us to imitate them.

The acceleration of our scientific knowledge may also be assisted by our self-made alien intelligence. Agents of artificial intelligence (AI) might be free of the psychological roadblocks of the human ego. Once progress will be dominated by AI, the Nobel prize incentives might not be needed.

At that hopeful point in the conversation, I raised my wine glass and smiled at the two Nobel laureates: “Cheers!”

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”, was published 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".