For the Love of the Unfamiliar

Avi Loeb
5 min readMay 18, 2024
(Image credit: Shawn Ryan)

When I arrived at Nashville, Tennessee, the captivating sounds and sights were unfamiliar to me. There was no virtue signaling on banners, nor angry encampments of teenagers on the vast green lawns. Just a bunch of people with good will who know that it is much easier to destroy what we value than to maintain it. I connected immediately with this culture. Perhaps it is not surprising that my day job entails seeking aliens in outer space, given how much I enjoy exploring the unfamiliar.

The following morning, I had breakfast with Shawn Ryan, a former U.S. Navy Seal and CIA Contractor, who is currently focused on managing a widely popular podcast. Shawn asked me what I am most excited about. I told him about a new project that I started this week. He was so excited that he wanted me to discuss it on his podcast. “Not for public consumption as of yet,” I replied. Something to look forward to in the future.

On the ride to the studio of the “Shawn Ryan Show” — which regularly ranks in the Top Ten podcasts on Spotify, I noticed the beautiful greenery all around, reminiscent of my childhood farmland.

At the opening of our four-hour conversation, Shawn insisted on reading a long description of my career accomplishments, but I corrected him that I am just a curious farm boy.

The walls of the studio were covered with memorabilia from Shawn’s military career, including documents related to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, as well as a knife collection and a door hinge with a symbolic significance. I told him that I was the first astrophysicist invited to speak at the Munich Security Conference a few months ago, where I noticed snipers with black head covers on the roof. They were not there to protect me but to secure the safety of heads of state who also attended the event. It was apparent that being a politician is far more controversial than being a scientist. Indeed, evidence-based science is better than politics. Unfortunately, some bring politics into science and that makes them mediocre scientists.

Given Shawn’s background, I would have been glad to discuss my military career during which I parachuted and drove tanks, but Shawn was much more interested in discussing the Universe at large. For him, that was an unfamiliar and exciting territory. I noticed the sparkle in his eyes when we discussed the global properties of the cosmos, the meaning of spacetime and quantum entanglement, as well as the societal challenges associated with the development of artificial intelligence (AI). We discussed everything from the Big Bang to Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs) and the Galileo Project’s search for technological objects near Earth that may have been manufactured by extraterrestrial technological civilizations. Shawn’s curiosity demonstrated our shared appreciation of the unfamiliar. The societal polarization in today’s culture could only be mitigated through conversations about the unfamiliar in both science and politics.

Shawn wondered how the Universe came to exist. I detailed the possibilities of an original quantum fluctuation, an early contraction phase that bounced and might do so cyclically, or a quantum-gravity creator of our baby Universe in a laboratory.

As far as we can see, the Universe had the same initial conditions everywhere. They reflect a flat geometry with zero local energy. This would be the simplest baby Universe to create. If the creator were a scientist, they created the simplest option on the menu.

Shawn asked whether I believe that UAPs have a spiritual component. I explained that spirituality or consciousness are likely an emergent phenomenon of complex systems, like the human brain and advanced AI systems. Their behavior is difficult to predict because they have a large number of degrees of freedom and are influenced by input from uncontrolled environments. Whether there are intelligent UAPs remains to be documented by the Galileo Project. If such UAPs exist, I would add psychologists to our research team, because they are trained to deal with intelligent systems.

Shawn observed that there are various groups discussing UAPs which tend to discredit each other with no credible evidence. I noted that tribalism is everywhere but we should be guided by evidence from the one reality that we all share. Even FIFA uses video cameras to decide whether there was a goal in controversial soccer games.

I argued that we should not ask the government to tell us what lies beyond the Solar system. This is my day job as a practicing astrophysicist. The sky and oceans are not classified and we can survey them ourselves. For the same reason, it would be inappropriate for the government to hide scientific information about our cosmic neighborhood. Shawn asked how the U.S. Government reacted to my work and I noted that the U.S. Space Command supported my study of interstellar meteors and the only pushback came from academics. I chose to take the high road and rise to the highest level of scientific practice, where there is not enough oxygen for my critics to survive. Hopefully, they will drop off like crows from the back of an eagle as it rises to high altitudes.

It can only get better if we move away from the zero-sum conflicts we have on Earth. “I would gladly board a spacecraft on a one-way trip towards interstellar space,” I told Shawn.

Over the years, I learned how to identify the underlying child in every adult I speak with. It was easy to find the childlike curiosity in Shawn. He asked me: What are black holes? Is there a physical edge to the Universe? What is dark energy? What does our cosmic future look like? What are the technological signatures we can hope to detect from other civilizations? What do aliens look like? We barely had enough time to address all of them in four hours.

At the conclusion of our conversation, I noted that the only way for humanity to do better is to find an inspiring role model in our cosmic neighborhood. Shawn agreed. We are both optimistic enough to welcome the unfamiliar.


(Image credit: Chris Michel)

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 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.



Avi Loeb

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