“Ashes to Ashes”: Superficial Toxicity is the Enemy of Curiosity-Driven Innovation in Science

Avi Loeb
5 min readNov 25, 2023

The culture of superficial toxicity poses an existential threat to curiosity-driven innovation in science. This culture is fueled by social-media mobs, whose members use the megaphone of blogs and tweets to amplify hate towards professional scientists who are following the traditional practice of evidence-based research. Why would the critics do that? Because of jealousy at the public’s attention to novel ideas.

One might naively argue that there is nothing to worry about because scientific innovation was always about “survival of the fittest” in the realm of ideas. However, the professional test of innovative ideas is empirical evidence, and following it requires extensive work. In contrast, the opinion of superficial critics is easier to come by. It involves raising ash and claiming that they do not see anything. Toxic critics often use personal attacks to nip innovation in the bud. They poison the well of novel ideas by creating fear among young scholars who, as a result of witnessing trauma, hesitate to come up with new ideas because of the damaging repercussions to their job prospects.

Let me illustrate this toxic culture with a timely example. Recently, a coordinated submission of a research note, an arXiv note, and a blog post peppered with personal attacks, argued with confidence that the unique BeLaU-type spherules collected in an expedition to the Pacific Ocean, were nothing but terrestrial coal ash. This claim was not peer reviewed. It was based on a superficial comparison of the abundances of a few elements to the preliminary results that our Galileo Project’s research team released in a preprint about 10% of the spherules.

In reality, our state-of-the-art instruments measured the spherule composition in terms of sixty elements from the periodic table. Our detailed analysis demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the BeLaU spherules are not coal ash.

Why do I label this criticism toxic? Because it was accompanied by personal attacks on curiosity-driven scientists. Why do I label this criticism superficial? Because it was not based on any significant amount of work. The critics did not analyze any material whatsoever.

For comparison, it took the Galileo Project a year to plan for the expedition to the Pacific Ocean, two weeks in the ocean to collect the spherules with a meticulously-designed magnetic sled, and six months to analyze the spherule composition with the best instruments that the world has to offer. This hard work required dedication and sacrifice on behalf of the 34 members of our research team. It also inspired the general public to appreciate how evidence-based science is done. My 45 diary reports from the expedition in June-July 2023 were followed by millions of readers around the world and translated to Spanish. I had received hundreds of emails from readers who expressed their gratitude for the inspiration associated with a risky mission to uncover new knowledge.

But for the sake of the argument, let us imagine for a moment the virtual reality advocated by the critics, where the BeLaU spherules are truly coal ash. Why would anyone celebrate this conclusion in tweets, preprints and blog reports? Why would anyone derive joy out of showing that a huge effort to recover materials from an interstellar meteor failed? Should we be happy to realize that there is nothing new to be learned? Is it satisfying to remain ignorant about interstellar space and insist that an expedition to uncover new knowledge was wasted? Or is it instead jealousy at the public’s interest in curiosity-driven research?

Irrespective of the reasons, we should all feel sad about critics who reach conclusions without having access to the materials they are talking about. Their claim pales in comparison to the hard work that the Galileo Project team invested in the analysis of the spherules over the past six months. Our analysis was led by Professor Stein Jacobsen’s team — using the world’s best electron microprobe and ICP mass spectrometer in the Cosmochemistry Laboratory at Harvard University, and by Dr. Roald Tagle — using the world’s best X-ray Fluorescence analyzer at the Bruker Laboratories in Berlin, Germany. Our team’s preliminary report involved merely 10% of the spherules. We are now engaged in analyzing the remaining 90% of the nearly 800 spherules that we recovered from the meteor site in the Pacific Ocean. We plan to report all results as soon as the analysis will be completed in Spring 2024. For now, the suggestion that the BeLaU spherules are coal ash is misinformation akin to a commentator insulting your sister when you do not actually have a sister.

This toxic culture has unfortunate consequences. Students and postdocs in our research team are terrified by the aggressive nature of the attacks. Let me clarify one thing: those who terrorize real scientists at their work will not be remembered in the future as protectors of science but rather as its enemies.

In witnessing the casualties of this behavior, we could passively mourn unborn babies. But better yet, we can actively resist the culture of superficial toxicity before it inflicts all of science.

Only by celebrating the excitement involved in scientific exploration will we discover new knowledge. Yes, the scientific process is often work in progress and we might temporarily reach wrong inferences because of insufficient data. But we can learn from mistakes and find the light at the end of the tunnel. Curiosity-driven, evidence-based research is the only measure by which our civilization will qualify as being intelligent. Let those who throw coal ash in our direction remain in those ashes as we explore the space above it.

As Oscar Wilde noted: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Let it be known that “some of us” are those who are practicing science by doing the hard work of collecting evidence and analyzing it, and not those who spread superficial toxicity and pretend to be the protectors of science without seeking evidence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 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".