There are many popularizers of science, including journalists, bloggers and those who call themselves “astrophysicists” without writing a single scientific paper for decades. But there are only a few practicing scientists who engage the public in their ongoing research. Just as sport commentators suggest to soccer players how to pass the ball, science popularizers portray an idealized way science is supposed to be done. By attempting to make science look better than it is, they deliver an unrealistic image of what it is about. Practicing what you preach for is harder work. Creativity is not truly appreciated by those who lack it.
The practice of science is an iterative dance of trial and error between the world of ideas and reality. New scientific knowledge is acquired by testing ideas through experiments. The process requires creative minds of theorists to come up with ideas that would motivate experimentalists to test them empirically. In rare circumstances, experiments discover an anomaly that no theorist predicted. This is an exciting opportunity to learn something new, but a threat to those who established their reputation on past knowledge. A leading astronomer told me: “I wish `Oumuamua never existed.” He missed the point that every child knows: unexpected findings are thrilling because they represent an opportunity to grow.
Anomalies are the foundation of scientific breakthroughs. They broadcast nature’s message about a facet of reality that we all missed. Anomalies are absent in fields of research with no experimental data. These fields condense into theoretical dogmas that are dictated by a belief system controlled by prophets and followers, without allowing for the privilege of being wrong.
When both my parents passed away five years ago, I realized that time is short and we should focus on opportunities to learn something new. Remarkably, two lectures that I gave over the past two days suggest that the public resonates with this approach.
Two nights ago, I was invited to give the Annual Paul C. Bartlett Lecture organized by the Harvard-Yale-Princeton association at Kansas City. The event brought an audience of nearly 500 people to the Linda Hall library of science research, where rare books of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton are stored alongside one of the largest collections of current research papers. The motto of the library is “where science lives”, and its goal is to be “a leading independent science research library, which brings science, engineering, and technology to life in new and relevant ways.”
Shortly after the Q&A session that followed my lecture, I had the privilege of speaking to more than a hundred people including young aspiring scientists, while signing their hardcopies of my new book, “Interstellar”. It was thrilling to hear from readers of my books and listeners to my podcast interviews, and to realize that the practice of science matters greatly to many. Eric Dorfman, the president of the Linda Hall Library, said that audience members told him that they connected to the societal impact of my research dedicated to seeking new knowledge based on the hard work of collecting evidence.
Scientific maturity comes with age. Over four decades of practicing theoretical physics, I wrote about a thousand scientific papers in the realm of ideas, interpreting existing data and forecasting what physical reality might be like. But in recent years, I chose to lead experimental initiatives within the Galileo Project — which aims to collect new data on anomalous objects near Earth in search of interstellar objects. Our latest expedition to the Pacific Ocean retrieved material from the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1. The elemental and isotopic analysis in the laboratory of my Harvard colleague, Stein Jacobsen, indicated that IM1 had extrasolar composition, as summarized in our extensive scientific paper. The audience at my lecture was fascinated by these findings.
The following day, I gave a TED talk at the “Art of Living” conference in Woodstock, Vermont. The air was fresh and the stars showed up in the dark sky with no light pollution. Once again, the audience was electrified. Snow Raven, an artist born in arctic Siberia, approached me to say that she was inspired by the humanity of my scientific quest, and that in her culture finding extraterrestrials represents the highest level of human existence.
After returning home the following morning, I had the privilege of hosting a reception celebrating the beginning of the academic year with members of the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard University, for which I serve as director. The company of the scientists who practice what they preach for, felt like home.
A colleague once confessed to me that he plans his life with the overarching goal that people will say good things about him after his death. Personally, I consider this goal pointless since he will not have an opportunity to enjoy the outcome. Moreover, the outcome might not follow expectations. For example, the obituary on one of my early academic mentors was published in one of the most prestigious science journals by his adversarial rival. So much for predicting post-death outcomes. Another colleague, Bob Kirshner, suggested a better idea: creating your own obituary on your website with the title: “In case of my death, click here.” This way your voice may be heard on how you wish to be remembered.
But as far as I am concerned, the most worthwhile imprint on the future is accomplished by inspiring young scientists to pursue their passion for gaining new scientific knowledge by taking risks and studying anomalies. As Robert Frost noted in his famous poem:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
There is nothing more rewarding than watching new beautiful flowers bloom along the road you have taken.
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.