Politicians and social media algorithms tend to separate groups of people from each other. The resulting polarization feeds on differences in nationality, socioeconomic background, religious upbringing, education, gender, skin color or ethnicity. But the underlying truth is that all humans are nearly the same, made of elements produced in the Big Bang and the interiors of stars, with genetic blueprints from a common biological ancestry. As Martin Luther King Jr. so insightfully argued in his 1963 speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands…”
Why is the reality still so different sixty years later? The tendency to congregate must be deeply rooted in human nature. Just as with herds of animals in the jungle, groups amplify the power of an individual. But to preserve their membership they make a caricature of humans that belong to competing groups, and this leads to conflicts in a world described by a zero-sum game of limited resources. Most people choose their alliance based on nationality, geographic or socioeconomic origin, religious upbringing, gender, skin color, or ethnicity. This fuels polarization based on the same traits.
But we are born with a genuine wonder about the world. Kids are happy to make mistakes and learn about the world agnostically and collaboratively. Adulthood is accompanied by the pretension to patch up our ignorance by belief in stories that have no evidence to support them. These stories are different for different groups. The bruises inflicted by differing stories sway our mind away from our childhood tendency to collaborate.
The antidote to polarization is obvious. The physical reality we all share is universal, and gives us no choice but to focus on a universal narrative in making sense of it. We already developed this narrative: the scientific method of gaining knowledge through experiments. Science allows us to focus on what unites us rather than on what separates us, since we all share the same physical reality.
The understanding of gravity as curvature of spacetime enables a Global Positioning System (GPS) that all humans can use for navigation. Quantum mechanics was discovered a century ago through blue sky research, and laid the foundation for computers, cell phones, and the internet, available to all people. Similarly, the vaccine for COVID-19 promotes the health of all humans irrespective of their nationality, socioeconomic background, religious upbringing, education, gender, skin color or ethnicity.
The glue for keeping humanity together is scientific knowledge. Why is the scientific method so powerful? Because it focuses on what is universal. Because its spirit follows our childhood curiosity and wonder, enabling us to take risks and make mistakes as we learn about the world. The universal scientific knowledge can be shared and agreed upon, and so it fosters collaboration instead of separation. As an astronomer, I can go to any country around the globe and enjoy the kind hospitality of my scientific colleagues there.
Even though evidence-based knowledge provides fruits that benefit everyone, there are threats to its spirit even within the halls of academia. The reality we all share is sometimes frustrating because it is not the best we could have hoped for. This leads to communities which are detached from experimental verification and focused on imagined realities — tailored to satisfy an emotional need. Imagined realities of extra dimensions, the multiverse or dogmas favoring belief over experimental data, are gaining traction with subscribers.
As long as we resist the temptations of these imagined realities, our intelligence will be empowered by empirical evidence. Conflicts were the trademark of early history with scarce resources of food, water and fertile land. But science and technology allow us to increase our resources indefinitely. Science makes the world an infinite sum game.
From a cosmic perspective, conflicts make little sense. In the competition within the intelligent civilizations within the Milky Way galaxy, survival of the fittest implies avoidance of existential catastrophes. Science allows us to learn about the actual reality we all share through trial and error, adapt to its limitations or optimize our gains. By exploring space, we can acquire access to new resources, not available on our birth planet.
The wakeup call may arrive in the form of an advanced technological gadget from another civilization that will carry a message for our salvation. A sophisticated package in our mailbox may give us a clue about the prosperity that awaits a truly intelligent scientific culture, an interstellar taste of the Garden of Eden experienced by the senders.
The Galileo Project searches our cosmic backyard for interstellar packages. Here’s hoping that its upcoming ocean expedition will retrieve fragments from the first interstellar meteor in Papua New Guinea to figure out whether its composition was natural or artificial in origin. The evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence does not necessarily lie far away in the form of radio signals from distant civilizations, but rather in the form of packages that accumulated over time in our cosmic neighborhood, because their chemical propulsion resulted in terminal speeds that are an order of magnitude below the local escape speed from the Milky Way gravity, 500 kilometers per second, as I argued in a new paper with my student Carson Ezell. During several public forums in recent weeks, I met people from all over the world who told me how inspired they are by the Galileo Project initiative.
Earthlings must unite in order to dream about interstellar travel. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s 1962 address at Rice University: we choose to go to interstellar space and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.
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”, is scheduled for publication in June 2023.