Life is the way we spend our time before we die. And if we spend life on diminishing activities like hate and destruction, we hasten the doomsday and reduce our precious lifespan even more. Peace and exploration are wiser alternatives. The remaining question is: what should we explore?
Most of the available real estate lies beyond Earth. Our routine experiences occur near us and this leads us to focus our thoughts on Earth. But frustrations at home could be relieved by a thrilling party down the street. True, it takes time and effort to arrive at the party, but we can get a teaser of what we are missing by using a telescope.
Given this rationale, it is surprising that only a handful of astronomers are using their telescopes to search for signs of a neighbor on our cosmic street. And it is even more surprising that some of them argue forcefully that we are alone and that considering the alternative is “an extraordinary claim” without “extraordinary evidence”, and because of that they have other priorities on how to spend their time rather than seek the evidence. And to that I reply: what could be more important than the search for this evidence? And why should our life be soaked in the meaningless misery of loneliness when finding a cosmic partner could gift us with a new meaning to our existence?
This is what I argued in recent interviews on Boston Public Radio and the Boston Globe. Yes, I live near Boston. And yes, I care about what happens in my immediate environment. But I care even more about what happens in interstellar space. So much so that tomorrow I will hold a public event at 6PM in Hall C of Harvard University’s Science Center on the topic of “Interstellar: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future in the Stars”.
Consider our neighbors. Naturally, they are also entrenched in their immediate environment. Just like us, they might engage in hate and destruction and generate misery for each other during their short lifespan. But the most intelligent among them might have recognized the virtues of peace and exploration, and chose to send probes to outer space. Their “message in a bottle” could have travelled by now to our back yard through the vast ocean of interstellar space over the billions of years that separated the birth of their star from the birth of our Sun. Finding this bottle on the shores of our secluded island, the Earth, would be as thrilling as learning about a block party. The Galileo Project is the only scientific research program to search for “interstellar bottles” using telescopes and other scientific instruments. And yet some vocal critics focus their effort on arguing that the Project’s scientists will not find anything, and that even if they had found something, it must be nothing.
Last week, the Galileo Project had two publications (here and here). Our research team analyzed a sample of 850 spherules from a 2014 meteor site in the laboratories of Professor Stein Jacobsen at Harvard University and Dr. Roald Tagle at the Bruker Corporation in Berlin, Germany. We found that 2–12% of our spherules show a new class of differentiated elemental composition, which we labeled BeLaU, never reported before for solar system materials.
Patricio Gallardo from the University of Chicago wrote a paper suggesting that these BeLaU spherules are coal ash. He was followed by Steve Desch and Alan Jackson from Arizona State University who posted a preprint and by Ethan Siegel who posted a blog article, repeating the same claim. All four critics did not have access to the expedition materials but expressed strong opinions. In one of our recent publications, we demonstrated that their “coal ash” claim is invalid. We studied a dozen BeLaU spherules and showed that they are distinctly different from coal fly ash based on the abundances of 55 elements from the periodic table. Beyond any reasonable doubt, this rules out the coal ash interpretation.
The elemental composition of the BeLaU spherules was never reported in the scientific literature and is different from familiar spherules out of terrestrial origins or known solar system meteors, which we found as well in the background materials that our expedition retrieved. The BeLaU abundance pattern does not resemble natural materials on the Earth, Moon, Mars or solar system asteroids. It features enhanced abundances of some elements by up to a factor of a thousand relative to the initial composition of the solar system. It is particularly natural to imagine it being from outside the solar system, since it was found near the site of an unusually fast meteor whose fireball was spotted by US Government satellites on January 8, 2014. The velocity of the bolide indicated that it originated from outside the solar system because it was significantly higher than the escape speed from the Solar system. It is the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1.
The differentiated composition of the BeLaU spherules and the observed speed of IM1 can both be explained naturally as a result of tidal disruption of rocky planets on highly eccentric orbits around the most common stars. When I wrote a paper with my brilliant postdoc, Morgan MacLeod, that offered this origin, the paper was instantly rejected by referees who repeated the arguments voiced by the above critics. This was odd since our theoretical paper merely suggested a process in nature that makes interstellar objects. The editors of the journal were so convinced by the referees that they did not allow us to respond. And so, we submitted the paper to an even more prestigious journal, where it was instantly recommended for publication by a new referee. I wrote to Morgan: “At last, a reviewer with no hidden agenda who enjoys the pleasure of doing science.”
This brings me back to the question asked in the play “A Piece of Sky”, which was written by the accomplished playwright Josh Ravetch about my research. Josh asks: “Why is childlike bullying more prevalent than childlike curiosity?” To which I would add: “Our species would survive only if it learns how to focus on peace and exploration instead of hate and destruction. This is what intelligence is all about.”
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.