Breaking News: We Are Not the Smartest!

Avi Loeb
6 min readJun 2


The design of a magnetic sled for the Pacific Ocean expedition.

Humanity reached a major milestone recently, when the most complex system that it constructed, GPT-4, has similar complexity to the most complex organ that terrestrial biology produced, the human brain. The number of connections in future versions of GPT will likely exceed the measure of quadrillion synapses in the human brain, constituting a system that would potentially be more intelligent than humans. This near-term reality will be a blow to our ego, which is used to treating the human brain as superior to any other terrestrial intelligence.

Given that there are billions of habitable Earth-mass planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone, it is not surprising that two thirds of Americans believe in extraterrestrial intelligence. In this context, GPT-5 might bring us a needed sense of cosmic modesty. In the same way that the Galilean moons of Jupiter suggested that Earth is not central, the realization that human brains are not the most intelligent systems would suggest that Homo-sapiens might not be the focal point of cosmic intelligence. We know that most stars formed billions of years before the Sun, that we discovered General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics only a century ago and that our artificial intelligence (AI) technologies evolve exponentially. One way to realize our technological future is by uncovering the products of technological civilizations that preceded us by more than a billion years — the time it takes chemical rockets to traverse the full diameter of the Milky-Way disk. Did our predecessors send packages that arrived by now to our front door? If so, this would constitute an interstellar analog of the Amazon delivery services.

Until recently, scientists secured the privileged status of human intelligence by 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 the first interstellar meteor, IM1, and the disk-like shape and non-gravitational acceleration exhibited by the subsequent interstellar object, `Oumuamua.

In a TV interview today for “The Hill’s Rising”, I was asked whether I notice more open-mindedness to the scientific search for extraterrestrial technological objects near Earth. I noted encouraging signs in the form of the NASA Study team embracing now the two-year-old principles of the Galileo Project that I lead at Harvard University. The NASA Study recommends that new observatories with well-calibrated and controlled instruments be built. The Galileo Project already built a functioning observatory at Harvard University and is in the process of making multiple copies of it in other locations. The NASA Study argues that new scientific-quality data would be collected. The Galileo Project is already collecting continuously such data on the entire sky from its Harvard observatory, as well as analyzing satellite data. The NASA Study suggests that the data be analyzed by artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms. The Galileo Project is already doing that. Members of the NASA Study have read the 8 scientific papers that were already published over the past year by the Galileo Project. According to Oscar Wilde: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

However, there is also pushback. Nature magazine published recently a new paper about `Oumuamua, claiming that it was a water iceberg in which a third of the water molecules were broken by cosmic-rays into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen evaporated near the Sun — providing the observed non-gravitational acceleration. According to this model, `Oumuamua was accompanied by an invisible cometary tail made of molecular hydrogen. A day after this model was published, I showed in a paper with Thiem Hoang that the Nature paper made a major mistake in its energy balance calculation by omitting a term associated with evaporative cooling which was orders of magnitude larger than the terms considered, making the proposed model untenable. Most science journalists who reported a day earlier that the natural origin for `Oumuamua was finally identified, refused to include an update to their reports in order “not to confuse their readership.” According to their narrative, it is damaging to point-out mistakes in a short time frame because they would damage the public’s faith in science. But in effect, them not admitting mistakes when they happen is a valid reason for losing faith in science journalism. It takes a beginner’s mind to suggest to cave dwellers that a cell phone is not a shiny rock or that the emperor’s clothes are not invisible but absent.

The beauty of physics is that the answer that makes most sense can be derived by a kid that uses the laws of physics and is not dictated by the “adults in the room” who miss a term in their energy balance equation.

This is why I will be leading soon an expedition to the Pacific Ocean to try to retrieve the fragments of the first interstellar meteor, IM1, using magnetic sleds. One reporter asked me: “Why would you go to the Pacific Ocean if the chances of finding tiny meteor spherules in the giant ocean are so small?” My answer was straightforward: “Without searching, we will not find anything. The expedition is funded by a dedicated donation and is not taking away funding from any other scientific project. Consider, for comparison, the search for dark matter. Over the past five decades, scientists consumed billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money in failed searches for the nature of dark matter. Did the same reporter ever ask them why they did that if the chances for their success was in retrospect zero? The frontiers of our knowledge are pushed forward by searching the unknown and willing to take the risk of failing.”

In my forthcoming book Interstellar, I note that it is arrogant to contemplate the extraordinary notion that we are the smartest in the Universe. To find evidence that we are not, requires an extraordinary scientific effort.

Groupthink is addictive. That Galileo Project members find themselves alone in seeking scientific evidence on a question of great interest to the public is a testimony that many people do not get it, namely do not realize how science should be done. There is no reason for science to be boring and out of touch with the public’s interest, nor for us to pretend that science is not full of uncertainties. Science journalists who put makeup on the face of science in an attempt to make it more appealing to the public are damaging its reputation. The biggest lesson learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is that scientific research is work in progress and we should admit uncertainties or correct mistakes as they happen if we wish to save lives.

When a famous artist decided to create a piece about my scientific research, he noted that nobody had to convince him to treat this topic with the respect it deserves: “Convince me? Ha! That’s like saying you convinced a leaf to go over Niagara Falls.” Later today, I spoke with a BBC reporter and a presenter in a New Zealand breakfast show, who were extremely excited about the historic significance of the Galileo Project expedition because it may represent the first time that humans put their hands on material from a large object that originated outside the solar system. Apparently, some people do get it.


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.



Avi Loeb

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