In case the forthcoming expedition of the Galileo Project to the Pacific Ocean discovers that the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1, was a technological relic from an extraterrestrial civilization, the future of humanity will be different from its past. Human history will be split into two periods: before IM1, abbreviated as BIM1, and after IM1, abbreviated as AIM1.
BIM1 had been marked so far by scientists arguing that the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is an “extraordinary claim” that requires “extraordinary evidence” and by ridiculing technological interpretations of the anomalous material strength of IM1 and the disk-like shape and non-gravitational acceleration exhibited by the subsequent interstellar object, `Oumuamua. The first objects spotted by humans from outside the solar system did not resemble the familiar meteors, asteroids or comets in the solar system, but were explained by mainstream astronomers as natural rocks of a type that we had never observed before. The hypothetical possibility that they might have been manufactured artificially like our own space debris was considered heretical to the point where students and postdocs were afraid to co-author papers with merely a brief mention of the technological possibility and where arXiv moderators would block such papers from being featured even after these papers were accepted for publication in scientific journals. In fostering a much-needed change in intellectual climate, the Galileo Project that I lead at Harvard University published 8 scientific papers over the past year.
In case IM1 is verified as a technological relic, the people who ridiculed this possibility will bring up references to papers from half a century ago which discussed this possibility and that they themselves suggested long before IM1 was discovered. The realization that we are not alone will be argued as self-evident. NASA launched five probes to interstellar space over the past five decades and billions of Earth-like planets could have given birth to another civilization which sent IM1 for a billion-year long journey before it collided with Earth and appeared as a meteor over the Pacific Ocean. They would argue that there is nothing fundamentally new in this knowledge and the arXiv will be flooded by papers discussing the implications of this widely-accepted notion. Fledgling scientists will proudly write PhD theses and feel privileged to lead papers that establish their future careers on this well-appreciated and self-evident notion.
As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” That human nature tends to follow these steps because of groupthink, prejudice and jealousy, would establish a clear historic transition between BIM1 and AIM1. The common thread running through the three stages is the tendency of humans to step on flowers that rise above the grass level. It is not the mark of conservatism, because some hypothetical notions of extra dimensions or the multiverse gain traction within the astrophysics community even though they have no evidence in their favor. In contrast, the existence of a technological civilization was demonstrated in at least one case: the Earth, and the physical conditions on Earth are shared by numerous other planets.
The traditional Jewish blessing for birthdays: “May you live until you are 120 years old”, implies that I recently reached the midpoint of my life. Therefore, I started counting backwards the number of years left. Given this perspective, I decided to focus my attention on substance and not on the number of likes I get on social media. My newly defined goal is to act as the agent that makes the transition between BIM1 and AIM1.
The fundamental question is whether this transition will be good for the future of humanity?
My answer is a resounding yes, as I explain in my forthcoming book, Interstellar. First, this transition would allow us to recognize scientific and technological knowledge that goes beyond what we acquired over the past century. Our current scientific knowledge has giant holes. To name a few of them: What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy that make 95% of the mass budget in the present-day Universe? What happened before the Big Bang? What happens to matter or radiation that falls into a black hole? How are quantum mechanics and gravity unified? When did life start to form in the Universe? How many technological civilizations preceded us in our own Milky-Way galaxy alone and what did they accomplish? What are the capabilities of the most advanced form of artificial intelligence (AI)? Is time travel possible?
Whenever new knowledge is acquired, it leads to new questions, and so it is likely that we will learn things in the AIM1 era that we cannot even imagine — given our limited knowledge in the BIM1 era.
Second, the transition to AIM1 will be accompanied by a new perspective on our place in the Universe, akin to the realization of my daughters that there are smarter kids in their neighborhood after their first day in kindergarten. This realization will change our aspirations for space in an attempt to imitate the inspiring capabilities of our neighbors.
Third, realizing that there are superhuman capabilities beyond the solar system would bring a sense of awe and admiration that characterized traditional religions and belief in God. Just imagine the deep feelings that a family of cave dwellers would experience during a visit to the present-day New York City.
Fourth, a global perspective that extends beyond Earth may convince many humans that conquering a piece of land on the rock that we happened to inhabit or feeling superior relative to other people based on their ethnic origins or skin color are ridiculously superficial and inappropriate in the grander scheme of reality. My sincere hope is that it will convince us to respect each other as equal members of the human species. Instead of spending 2 trillion dollars each year on military budgets, we could invest the financial surplus in space exploration and send a CubeSat with AI towards every star in the Milky-Way galaxy by the end of the century.
And speaking about counting our centuries and blessings, we should start all over again with the `first century after IM1,’ labeled `01 AIM1’. Here’s hoping for a brilliant first millennium in the new future of our intelligence!
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.