We go through life feeling powerless that it may end any day and so we seek a greater meaning by belonging to a theme bigger than our existence. Even the physical foundation of our existence was inherited from our parents, just like a car delivered to us from a dealer. We cannot take pride in its performance, and so defining its destination makes us unique. In the words of Robert Frost,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
What is the biggest theme that gives us meaning? Perhaps the congregation of all sentient beings in the Universe. A recent paper by the astronomer Elizabeth Stanway, reported a survey of UK astronomers in which 93% expressed an interest in science fiction, while 69% stated that it had influenced their life or career choices. This provides strong statistical evidence for the role of science fiction in influencing the adoption of astronomical careers. On this backdrop, it is surprising to see the pushback that accompanies any research program, like the Galileo Project, aiming to shift “science fiction” into mainstream science.
It is easy to dismiss a big theme such as the search for extraterrestrial technological relics near Earth as a waste of resources, by arguing that anecdotal advocacy for it lacks robust scientific evidence. But at the same time, we must keep in mind that credible evidence is lacking in various scientific searches within the mainstream of astronomy. For example, we now know from smashing particles at the highest-energies attainable by the Large Hadron Collider, that the lightest supersymmetric particle does not exist in the natural range of parameters for it to be the dark matter. In addition, mainstream scientists might feel frustrated by the futile observing time dedicated on the biggest telescopes to the search for Planet Nine. This is the risk trademark in searching for the unknown. Science advocates must promote the gathering of evidence at all cost, even if it ends up disproving expectations.
It is therefore surprising to witness several individuals being rewarded by “likes” on Twitter for negative comments they made about a scientific expedition of the Galileo Project funded by private donations, to seek evidence about the composition of the first interstellar meteor CNEOS 2014–01–08. The interstellar origin of this meteor was confirmed at the 99.999% confidence level in an official letter from the US Space Command, which was accompanied by fireball data - indicating that this object was tougher than iron and all other 273 meteors in the full CNEOS catalog. The critics pretend to stand up for science but are actually opposing the scientific method in their dismissal of gathering new scientific data as the basis for advancing our knowledge on interstellar objects. The expedition was motivated by three scientific papers (here, here, and here), but was criticized superficially through offhand remarks with no backing from detailed calculations in even one scientific publication.
Oscar Wilde noted: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars,” to which I would add: “… while others advocate for staring only at the gutter.” The pushback against new data collection echoes the refusal of theologians to look through Galileo’s telescope. Jealousy makes some people step on any flower that rises above the grass level. But in the long arc of history, the grander vision often wins.
Perhaps we should draw solace from the recent example of a congressman who for many years made anti-gay comments and eventually confessed that he is gay. This gives hope that critics of a scientific expedition to analyze the composition of an interstellar object will eventually confess that they are deeply intrigued by it.
The remaining harm stems from the impact of negativity on fledgling scientists who hold the promise for innovation and discovery of new frontiers. When deviations from the beaten path are blocked by the moderation system of the arXiv without peer review, young researchers think twice about the implications for their job prospects. A simple solution for the current distress is to establish an innovation category on the arXiv that allows creative scientists to post 1–2 risky papers for every 8–9 mainstream papers that they post in the regular categories. Mitigating censorship and allowing exchange of ideas will advance the rate of progress at the frontiers of scientific research.
And speaking about progress, today I met one of my former students at Harvard, Allyson Reneau, who wrote her thesis about sending people back to the Moon, thus laying the foundation for the Artemis Program at NASA — the first spacecraft of which is about to be launched in the near future. Allyson told me that my early support of her career led her to the amazing leadership roles she has taken since then. There is nothing more rewarding than hearing such feedback, in making my life journey in a “borrowed car” worthwhile.
As Freeman Dyson used to tell me during our routine lunches at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study three decades ago: “The best we can do is to let many flowers bloom.”
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.