Being Curious and Humble is Key for Learning

Avi Loeb
5 min readMar 24, 2024


The 1966 launch of the Surveyor 2 rocket booster, which was discovered floating near Earth on September 17, 2020 by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii. The same telescope discovered `Oumuamua on October 19, 2017. (Image credit: NASA, LeRC)

Saul Bellow noted: “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.

For example, a notion that boosts our ego by stating that humans are the most intelligent species which ever existed since the Big Bang, is likely to capture our mind. By regarding the alternative as extraordinary and not seeking evidence, we can maintain our ignorance and justify this premise. The zealots who wish to signal their conviction to the tribe will go further and ridicule any attempt to seek such evidence as a waste of time. For that matter, they would even dismiss an anomalous interstellar meteor which was localized by sensors aboard U.S. Government satellites and claim that it is a truck detected by an independent contemporaneous signal from a seismometer. If the Tesla Roadster car launched by SpaceX in 2018 were to return unexpectedly and collide with Earth, astronomers with a similar mindset would argue that the U.S. Government data about the resulting meteor’s fireball must be wrong because they cannot fit the data with a model for solar system stones.

My point is simple. The only way for us to learn that we are not alone is by having the humility to search for technological space trash, like the Tesla Roadster, produced by our cosmic neighbors. The prerequisites for expanding our knowledge base are curiosity and humility. We must not pretend to know the answer in advance and we should tolerate mistakes as we update what we know about our cosmic neighborhood.

The decade of 2014–2024 is the first in human history during which we discovered interstellar objects from outside the solar system. The reasons are twofold. First, during that decade, the U.S. Government developed a network of satellites in Geosynchronous Earth Orbits (GEO) and Highly Elliptic Orbits (HEO) with sensitive sensors that serve as an early warning system, capable of detecting the launch of ballistic missiles around the globe within a fraction of a second. On January 8, 2014, this network detected the first interstellar meteor, IM1. Given the scientific value of the discovery, the data was declassified and documented publicly by NASA/JPL in the CNEOS catalog of fireballs. Following my request, the research team of the U.S. Space Command double-checked their data and certified the interstellar origin of IM1 in an official letter to NASA. Nevertheless, some astronomers insist that this report is unreliable and the velocity measurement was overestimated by a factor of 3 because otherwise the data does not agree with their favorite model for solar system stones. This academic response lacks humility as well as curiosity. Refusal to accept data leads to self-inflicted ignorance, which can persist forever — because it denies the opportunity for gaining new knowledge. Ignorance can even be celebrated by adding a viral joke that the meteor is a truck.

But as foolish as some scientists choose to be, the U.S. government remains serious. In 2005, the U.S. Congress tasked NASA to identify 90% of all near Earth objects that are larger than 140 meters, the size of a football field. The Pan-STARRS observatory was constructed on the summit of Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii to survey the sky in accordance with this task. On October 19, 2017, Pan-STARRS discovered an anomalous interstellar object, `Oumuamua, near Earth. Detailed analysis indicated that `Oumuamua was anomalously flat in shape based on its reflection of sunlight and that it was pushed away from the Sun without showing cometary evaporation. And, yes, you already guessed it! Astronomers insisted that it was a natural comet of some type, never seen before, and there is no reason to be excited.

As it turns out, three years after `Oumuamua’s discovery, Pan-STARRS detected an object that was pushed away from the Sun by reflecting sunlight with no cometary evaporation. This object, named 2020 SO, was later identified as a rocket booster launched in 1966 by NASA. This one was definitely space trash launched by a technological civilization: us.

In addition to interstellar space trash, there might be functional devices near Earth. The Galileo Project operates a new observatory at Harvard University, and plans to construct two additional observatories in Colorado and Pennsylvania in the coming year, thanks to a generous donation by the Richard King Mellon Foundation. These three observatories are of a new brand. They monitor the entire sky at all times in the infrared, optical, radio and audio, in search of Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs). Of course, UAPs are likely a mixed bag since there are plenty of human-made objects in our sky. Some UAP discussions within the government could also be part of a strategic deception campaign by the government to fool the public in case someone notices new technologies that are being developed in secrecy for national security purposes. Mark Twain argued “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” Nevertheless, out of curiosity and humility, we must ask the question whether even one in a million technological objects in our sky might have an extraterrestrial origin.

The key is to search. Most interstellar objects are much smaller than a football field, so we need more sensitive survey telescopes to search for them. The next advance will be delivered by the Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will employ a 3.2-billion-pixel camera to survey the southern sky every four days starting in 2025. Together with my postdocs and students in the Galileo Project, we will study the Rubin data in search of anomalous interstellar objects like `Oumuamua. The enhanced sensitivity of this observatory relative to Pan-STARRS could result in the detection of dozens of `Oumuamua-like objects over the coming years. If any of them happens to be an interstellar object resembling NASA’s rocket booster from 1966 or SpaceX’s Tesla Roadster from 2018, humanity’s future will be far more exciting than our past.

In the years following such Rubin Observatory’s discoveries, I can imagine conferences full of astronomers who argue that the data is wrong or that these anomalous objects are natural comets. But I sincerely hope that there will also be a session of open-minded scientists who are curious and humble enough to admit that we are not alone in this vast cosmos.


Image 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 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.



Avi Loeb

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