The first two postdoctoral fellows of the Galileo research team, Richard Cloete from the University of Cambridge in the UK and Laura Domine from Stanford University, told me independently that since a very young age they dreamt of applying the scientific method to unidentified objects near Earth that could have originated from an extraterrestrial technological civilization. They were thrilled to find the Galileo Project and applied to its fellowships. When I called them with an offer for a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, they told me that being part of such a project was their lifelong dream.
This was surprising to me. During the two decades of my service as director of Harvard’s Institute for Theory & Computation, I had offered nearly a hundred postdoctoral fellowships and was never told by an offeree that it was their lifelong dream to engage in a particular aspect of theoretical astrophysics. In most cases, postdocs follow the theme of their PhD thesis in their postdoctoral years. However, Laura and Richard did their PhD theses on a completely different topic, compromising their childhood dream by what was available in their academic environments. And then the Galileo Project came in July 2021, half a year after my book Extraterrestrial appeared in 29 editions worldwide and a month after the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, with a bachelor’s degree in physics, delivered a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) to the US Congress.
When establishing the Galileo Project team, I had no clue that there are brilliant fledgling scientists out there who are eager to apply the scientific method to UAPs, a subject colored by eyewitness testimonies and not substantiated by scientific-quality data. As an astronomer, my personal interest stemmed from scientific data demonstrating that three out of the first four objects that entered the solar system from interstellar space and were discovered between 2014–2019, did not resemble solar system rocks. These were the two interstellar meteors IM1 and IM2 — which were tougher than all solar system meteors in the CNEOS fireball catalog of NASA, and `Oumuamua — which had a flat shape and was propelled by a non-gravitational acceleration without any trace of cometary evaporation.
Why were Laura and Richard eager to apply the scientific method to UAP, when mature adults argued for decades that they witnessed UAP from an extraterrestrial origin? Because when multiple people are involved in a car accident or soccer players argue with a referee about an offside ruling, they give different accounts on what happened. This is why FIFA had used semi-automated offside technology at the Soccer World Cup 2022 in Qatar, offering a support tool for officials “to make faster, more accurate and more reproducible offside decisions.”
Think of the Galileo Project as a support tool for scientists to make faster, more accurate and more reproducible decisions on the nature of UAP. As obvious as this sounds, such a tool never existed before.
Astronomical observatories ignore UAP flying overhead, partly because of their small field-of-view and partly because they are focused on distant sources which move very slowly on the sky as the Earth rotates. The Galileo research team had to design an original assembly of infrared and optical cameras accompanied by a passive radar and audio system. Multiple copies of these sensors will enable reliable distance measurements to UAP through triangulation.
It took more than a year for the exceptional Galileo team to assemble the first new observatory at Harvard University. We are currently in the process of planning additional observatories at other locations.
Laura and Richard will develop the machine-learning software that will classify objects in the sky and distinguish birds from balloons, drones or airplanes. If the software they develop will notice an object that maneuvers in ways that cannot be reproduced by human-made technologies, their finding will be recorded as the most important scientific revelation in human history. The path to this outcome is paved with hard work.
Within the coming years, the Galileo Project’s data will contain more information than all past UAP reports combined. Rather than debate the validity of eyewitness testimonies or seek blurry images from millions of cell phones, our scientific knowledge on UAP will be advanced by well-calibrated instruments under the control of brilliant scientists. The rate of UAP reports around the globe is correlated with population density. The more eyes are on the sky — the more UAP are seen, most likely because balloons are everywhere.
Some scientists think they know the result in advance. But if Laura and Richard find the unexpected, the skeptics will become believers and argue that the results are self-evident. It would be arrogant for us to ignore the possibility that other civilizations launched probes to interstellar space as we already did. It makes sense to check.
The use of calibrated, well-controlled instruments is key to advancing our scientific knowledge about the cosmos. Instruments allow us to quantify and reproduce results. A scientifically rigorous study maintains direct control over as many of the factors that influence the outcome as possible. Other scientists using identical materials and methods, should achieve the same results. Chaotic environments do not allow to tease apart causation.
Scientific measurements are first interpreted based on known physics, and only if exquisite data cannot be explained based on what we know, it is appropriate to contemplate new physics. A hole in the clouds is not sufficient evidence for a wormhole in spacetime, as much as a moving object without triangulation cannot be claimed to avoid a sonic boom.
Having control over conditions makes experiments repeatable. A rigorous science is able to reproduce the same result over and over again. Moreover, rigorous science is able to make testable predictions, and in doing so it carries the risk of being proven wrong by experiment. The philosopher Karl Popper famously used the criterion of falsifiability to distinguish science from other endeavors that do not stand up to empirical scrutiny.
The verdict on whether there are extraterrestrial technological objects near Earth will be vetted by Laura, Richard and all other visionary members of the Galileo research team. We know that most of the matter in the Universe is different than the ordinary matter that we see in the Solar system; perhaps some interstellar objects resemble tennis balls thrown into our backyard by a neighbor, appearing different than the familiar rocks there. Finding them will change our future, as I elaborate in my forthcoming book, Interstellar. There is no better way to shape the future of humanity than with the raw curiosity exhibited by fledgling scientists like Laura and Richard.
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 August 2023.