Can Birds Fly Faster Without Air?

Avi Loeb
5 min readOct 13, 2023

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Friction with air slows down birds. Naively, one might argue that removing the air would allow birds to fly faster. But the truth is that if we were to remove the terrestrial atmosphere and imitate conditions on the Moon or Mars, birds would fall down to the ground.

Over the past century, Harvard University had a complicated history with Jews. When I arrived at Harvard thirty years ago, I considered it a relic of the past which will never show up again in my lifetime.

Over the past week, the lack of a proper condemnation by Harvard’s leadership of the statement issued by more than 30 Harvard student groups who blamed the victims for the Hamas massacre, made me rethink what I never imagined I would. The role of an educational institution is to educate, namely to correct statements when they are wrong. “Free speech” is a sacred principle, but when students are wrong they should be corrected.

The correct response has nothing to do with political views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It should reflect moral clarity. My alma mater, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, issued a letter criticizing Harvard’s leadership on exactly this issue. President Biden defined the Hamas massacre last Saturday as evil and called it the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. Why can’t Harvard do the same?

Here is what the University of Florida’s President, Ben Sasse, wrote:

“I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn’t be hard. Sadly, too many people in elite academia have been so weakened by their moral confusion that, when they see videos of raped women, hear of a beheaded baby, or learn of a grandmother murdered in her home, the first reaction of some is to ‘provide context’ and try to blame the raped women, beheaded baby, or the murdered grandmother. In other grotesque cases, they express simple support for the terrorists…

This thinking isn’t just wrong, it’s sickening. It’s dehumanizing. It is beneath people called to educate our next generation of Americans…

When evil raises its head, as it has in recent days, it is up to men and women of conscience and courage to draw strength from truth and commit ourselves to the work of building something better — to the work of pursuing justice and pursuing peace. That is what we aim to do through education, compassion, and truth here at the University of Florida.”

Several Jewish billionaires decided to pause their intent to send donations to Ivy League schools. This is a fine reminder that `birds cannot fly without air’.

In 1922, Harvard’s President Abbott Lawrence Lowell argued: “If every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews, I suspect we should go a long way toward eliminating race feeling among the students.”

In 1934, Harvard’s President James Conant oversaw a controversial gesture to the Nazi party in Germany. Ernst F.S. Hanfstaengl ’09, a close friend of Hitler and a high-powered press officer in the Nazi party, was invited to act as a vice marshal at his 25th reunion. News of Hanfstaengl’s invitation spurred a flurry of protests from Jewish alumni and anti-Nazi student groups. Harvard administrators responded that the decision to offer the invitation was made by the reunion committee and was out of the hands of the University. Hanfstaengl eventually declined the marshal position, but he attended receptions at the homes of prominent alumni, including a tea party at Conant’s residence.

Repeated historic problems make me sad. Two days ago, I attended a WORLD.MINDS conversation with the brilliant writer, Ian McEwan. He started by stating that most problems in human life remain unresolved and we should treat their unresolved nature as inseparable from our life. I asked Ian whether death plays a central role in allowing history to move forward and deleting unresolved problems. He was not sure.

The most important lesson I learned from leading a scientific expedition to the Pacific Ocean a few months ago is that it is better to be an optimist, because life is sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without searching for relics of the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1, we would have not reached the exciting scientific results that I described in two new papers, posted here and here.

The navigator of the IM1 expedition, Art Wright, had his 88th birthday this week. I wrote him an email with a brief message: “We are all happy that you were born!” Art replied: “I am also happy that I was born.” I found that simple message uplifting.

I also hope that we will be able to create a better world. That could become possible if we ever gain a better understanding of quantum gravity so that our engineers will create a baby universe in the laboratory. Once we reach that level of intelligence, I have some advice to give to the designers of that universe. In the meantime, I hope that the designers of my university will recognize that even the most powerful birds cannot fly without air.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Credit: Chris Michel (October 4, 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".