Inspiration from a Visit to a Terrestrial Marketplace

Avi Loeb
4 min readJun 21, 2023

Diary of an Interstellar Voyage: Part 19 (June 21, 2023)

Allan Peter (right) and Avi Loeb in the marketplace at Lorengau, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

After completing Run 10 at the location of the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1, our ship, Silver Star, sailed to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to pick up additional passengers. We had a few hours at our disposal to visit the local marketplace at Lorengau. Within an hour, I exhausted my local currency on necklaces for my wife and two daughters with time to spare on an hour-long walk back to Silver Star with Allan Peter, a PNG-born member of the expedition.

A symbol of hope: a local kid plays with a pink balloon marked with palm trees, at the Lorengau marketplace. Whether humanity will have a prosperous future, depends on whether we will be willing to exhibit a child-like curiosity and optimism, while avoiding the adulthood temptation to trade it for societal status.

Along the way we saw many red spots on the sidewalk and Allan explained to me that they are being produced by local residents chewing on the betel nut when it is mixed with slaked lime and betel leaves. The chewing results in stimulant and narcotic effects, to which a major fraction of the adult population in Manus Island is addicted. The chewed substance is not swallowed, but is spat out and results in permanent red stains on the teeth after a prolonged use. Betel nut chewing has been linked with adverse health effects, mainly oral and esophageal cancers. Nevertheless, its use within the local community is widespread.

Two betel nut trees.

We stopped at a table selling hundreds of betel nuts, each equivalent to the price of two beautiful necklaces of the type I bought earlier. The expensive habit of betel nut chewing is a status symbol within the local community and the addiction to it saturates the financial constraints on most lives.

Betel nuts offered for sale at the price equivalent of two beautiful necklaces per unhealthy but addictive nut.

When I heard these details from Allan and saw the numerous red spots on the sidewalk, I realized that human nature is universal and drives all terrestrial societies to a similar unfortunate state. The Western culture is currently addicted to social media and decades ago was addicted to cigarettes. Both addictions have adverse health effects — the social media on mental health and the cigarettes on lung cancer. But they became powerful as status symbols and placed financial constraints on their users.

If addiction to self-inflicted wounds is a universal trait among all civilizations on exo-planets, then the Fermi paradox of “where is everybody?” can be explained by the possibility that extraterrestrials are consumed by addiction and have limited remaining resources to engage with the reality beyond their home planet. Instead of a faint blue dot, their planet might be tainted with red spots like Lorengau’s sidewalks.

Red stains from betel nut chewing on a street in PNG.

Finding evidence for a technological interstellar probe in the Pacific Ocean will provide evidence for a civilization that deviated from this self-destructive tendency and perhaps inspire hope for a better future for humanity.

Halfway through our way back to Silver Star, the rain started pouring down in a powerful storm. A family called us from the sidewalk into a house for shelter and a car stopped by and offered us seats. The driver drove us all the way to Silver star. The instinctive kindness to visitors exhibited by both gestures was extraordinary.

Upon our return to Silver Star, I found out that an extended interview I gave at my home about extraterrestrials just went live on YouTube at this link. We should take inspiration from the local PNG community and be kind to extraterrestrials whenever they visit us.

And speaking about potential visits, later today we plan to launch Run 11 of the magnetic sled through a control region as we make our way back to the crash site of IM1. Just before that, we will test the sluicing device as an alternative option for retrieving non-magnetic particles from IM1.

There are 850 spoken languages in PNG but probably many more in the Milky-Way galaxy.

Here’s hoping that encounters with extraterrestrial visitors will be marked by the kindness and generosity exhibited by PNG residents.

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.

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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".