Towards the end of two podcasts in the past few days, I was asked for my advice to young people. I started my reply with a metaphor.
At birth we are like seashells swept ashore for the first time. We have our unique colors and shapes. Over time, ocean waves rub these seashells against each other, removing their special colors and breaking them into indistinguishable grains of sea sand. My first advice is to resist the analogs of these ocean waves which are prevalent on social media, and preserve the true colors you were born with. Erosion by friction can be avoided at will. Pay less attention to how many “likes” you get on Twitter at each moment in time than to what would make you feel that the journey was worthwhile at the last moments of your life.
Often circumstances place obstacles that block our nascent ambitions. As a young kid, I was passionate about the most fundamental questions concerning our existence. These were in the realm of philosophy. But military service was obligatory in my birth country, Israel, and so I opted to study physics because it was deemed useful for national defense. Subsequently, I was offered a five-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, under the condition that I will switch to astrophysics. When I received tenure at Harvard Astronomy, a department that I later chaired for nine years, I realized that even though my career felt like an arranged marriage, I happened to be married to my true love. There are fundamental philosophical questions, like “how did the universe start?” or “is there an intelligent neighbor on our cosmic block?”, that we are privileged to address through the scientific method. My unique career path gave me a philosophical perspective on my discipline and shaped me differently than my colleagues. The lesson from my personal experience is that even if circumstances force you to a path different than you wished for, you can navigate to a unique position while staying true to your first love. You might eventually arrive at an inspiring destination despite the strong headwinds.
In 1964 Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for plotting to overthrow South Africa’s racist apartheid system. In 1994, he was elected the nation’s first Black president. No prison cell can confine your passion if you speak the truth, irrespective of how unpopular it is at times.
A few months ago, my former students, postdocs and senior colleagues celebrated my 60th birthday in Martha’s Vineyard. During the event, a few junior faculty members told me that they are having second thoughts on whether to stay in academia given its intellectual atmosphere that frequently suppresses innovation and deviation from the beaten path.
Flowers that rise above the grass level tend to be stepped on because of jealousy. I repeated to them Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, which ends with the words: “
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
My footnote to Frost’s poem is that along the path not taken, one often finds low-hanging fruits because nobody went there to pick them up.
The second point I emphasized in the podcasts is how important it is to maintain our childhood curiosity. As kids, we are not afraid to ask fundamental questions, to raise doubts about dogmas and to make mistakes as we explore the unknown. Often, kids get bruised because they make uncalculated moves or take risks out of raw curiosity. But sometimes they discover the unexpected because they make an uncalculated move or take a risk out of curiosity.
My genuine belief is that science would have progressed faster if the adults practicing it were guided by their childhood curiosity. Instead, “experts” often worry about their public image and pretend that they can explain all new evidence based on their past knowledge. The rest of us have the privilege of behaving honestly, like the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. We can all admit it when the emperor is naked.
The reason I enjoy working with young scientists is because they carry no baggage and are driven by passion rather than by ego and professional pride. The bottom line I wish to convey is that our freedom comes from within. The regression to the mean, driven by societal forces, is not good for our mental health because each of us is unique and special.
Finally, a note about the big picture. Newspapers and social media are consumed by events on Earth. But there is much more to the universe than meets the eye on Earth. Let me illustrate that with three examples. First, the doctoral thesis submitted in 1925 by the young scientist, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, showed that the Sun has a different composition from that of the Earth and is made mostly of hydrogen. She was dissuaded by the authority on stars at the time, Henry Norris Russell, from including this conclusion in her thesis. Four years later, he confirmed her conclusion. In the second example from 1933, a young Fritz Zwicky argued that most of the matter in the Universe is made of a substance different from what we find in the Solar system. For four decades his suggestion was still sidelined by his colleagues at Caltech. By now, Zwicky’s notion is mainstream although we still do not know what the dark matter is. In a third example, the first two interstellar objects discovered over the past five years, CNEOS 2014–01–08 and `Oumuamua, have anomalous properties relative to the comets and asteroids found in the Solar system. Yet, the possibility of an artificial origin for them is sidelined. This is on the backdrop of us knowing that the dice of intelligence was rolled tens of billions of times in the Milky Way alone and that humanity launched five spacecraft out of the solar system over a period as short as one part of a hundred million of the age of the Sun.
While adult “experts” celebrate the “known” and sideline the “unknown”, the actual message we get over and over again from the cosmos is that we should not pretend to be anything more than curious children on their first day in class.
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.