This year’s Yom Kippur was sober. I decided to forgive a few scientists who chose not to read our recent expedition paper but nevertheless criticized it publicly. Two days later, I was asked in an extensive interview for Die Welt: “You are arguably the most famous practicing scientist in the world. How do you deal with unfair criticism?” and I replied: “This comes with the territory of acquiring public attention. I get pushback from believers and skeptics on extraterrestrial matters and their opposite pressures balance. My survival tactics are simple: I avoid social media; I avoid mud wrestling because it gets you dirty; I pursue the science to the best of my ability by working around the clock in collecting evidence from the Pacific Ocean and the Galileo Project observatory at Harvard University; and I stay on message despite the distortions of the message by reporters and commentators. Common sense is not common. Those who lack creativity, replace their child-like curiosity with child-like bullying. They resist innovation because they lack imagination.”
In a few days, I am scheduled to perform the new one-man show, titled “A Piece of Sky” about my current research, written by the accomplished playwright Josh Ravetch,. The play is scheduled to appear off Broadway in New York City within a year. It resonates with the public, irrespective of how loud the background noise is. In anticipation of the play, a junior member of my research team wished me: “Break a leg!”
Yesterday, I was invited to give a lecture at Meta (Facebook) about my Scientific American essay, titled: “Advice to Young Scientists: Be a Generalist.” At a young age, I was interested in philosophy but ended in science as a result of circumstances. My first mentor in astrophysics advised me to focus on a narrow niche and become a world expert. By my nature, I could not follow this advice because of my interest in the big picture. I mastered a broad knowledge in all aspects of astrophysics which enabled me to open new frontiers, like the first stars, mapping cosmic hydrogen in three-dimensions using the 21-cm line, imaging black holes and most recently: interstellar objects and the search for packages with a postal address of extraterrestrial technological civilizations.
Imagining the possibility that some interstellar objects could resemble Voyager 1 & 2, Pioneer 10 & 11 and New Horizons, launched by us to interstellar space, is a trait of a generalist. Josh Ravetch emailed me this morning:
“Dear Avi: You had me with ‘Oumuamua! … Your talent is on the page, you have the luxury of being simply yourself… In Hollywood, people posture, embellish, exaggerate, lie, but the people I know who happen to be at the top of their professions have nothing to prove and for the most part they are genuine human beings. “
I was trained as a theoretical physicist, yet as a generalist — I chose to lead an experimental project to the Pacific Ocean most recently. Generalists are never boring because they always imagine new territories to explore and never get stuck on the bedrock of a narrow research area that does not allow further digging. The distinguished Swiss author and entrepreneur, Rolf Dobelli, asked me whether the scientific process will ever get completed, and I replied: “It will never end, because as we expand the island of knowledge in the ocean of ignorance, we will uncover new puzzles that need to be resolved. The physicist Albert Michelson said in his 1894 speech at the dedication of Ryerson Laboratory of the University of Chicago: “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…. Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” This was a decade before Special Relativity, two decades before General Relativity and three decades before quantum Mechanics. The life of a generalist is never as boring as Michelson envisioned. Those who drill deep into a narrow niche eventually make echo chambers with no creative spark and their message becomes boring.
At the end of the Meta session, I was asked how to encourage the work of generalists. I cautioned that being a generalist is a rare skill that is not widely appreciated. During my scientific career, I admired a few polymaths like Freeman Dyson, Richard Feynman or Yaacov Zel’dovich. They pollinated their academic environment with ideas that others pursued in greater detail. They were greatly missed after they died, when their collaborators stopped making exciting contributions. The best way to support broad thinkers is by allocating them research funds with no strings attached, instead of the standard procedure controlled by risk-averse committees which prefer to dictate the likely outcome of the research in order “not to waste taxpayers’ money”. These committees would be surprised if they were to consult taxpayers on whether money should be spent on the question “Are we alone?” which receives nearly zero federal funding or on “What is the nature of dark matter?” which was supported by billions of dollars so far.
Later in the day, I was interviewed by a young podcaster from Germany who asked for my advice to young people. My recommendation was simple: “Stay forever curious and never pretend to be the adult in the room.”
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.