Looking at the Stars, But Living in the Gutter

Avi Loeb
5 min readFeb 29, 2024
Massachusetts Hall is the oldest surviving building at Harvard College. Constructed in 1720, it is older than the United States.

Oscar Wilde famously noted: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” It actually gets better than that: some of us get paid to think about the stars. As a result, `down to Earth’ politics rarely affects conversations within Harvard’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), for which I serve as director.

The weekly ITC luncheons fill the largest auditorium at the Center for Astrophysics of Harvard & Smithsonian, and are regularly the most popular astrophysics gatherings in town — covering the latest exciting developments in our understanding of the cosmos. The astronomical proportions of the cosmic playbook — where time is counted in billions of years, are grandiose in comparison to our life on Earth. They uplift our spirit by connecting us to a bigger context than the gutter.

My extended academic family at the ITC surprised me a few days ago with a spontaneous birthday party, as a prelude to the twenty-year anniversary that the ITC plans in a few months. Many of the most accomplished theoretical astrophysicists worldwide were trained at the ITC and will be featured in the anniversary conference, titled “To Our Cosmic Horizon and Beyond.” When I arrived at Harvard thirty years ago with the vision of transforming the local theory group to the best center in theoretical astrophysics worldwide, a senior colleague argued that it would be impossible to do better than the theory groups at Princeton, Caltech or UC Berkeley. But with hard work and perseverance, we did. Life is sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can only be as good as you aspire to be. If you accept what others say, you never do better. But if you wish for more and the stars align in your favor, the sky’s your limit. Excellence promotes excellence. A culture which cultivates diversity of opinions and innovation is a fertile ground for breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, the gutter cannot always be ignored. Sometimes it gets a hold of our thoughts even as we try to look at the stars. The political turbulence that engulfed Harvard University in recent months is in the minds of everyone on campus. The former President, Claudine Gay, stepped down on January 2, 2024, only six months after taking office. And a week ago — a congressional committee subpoenaed Harvard University , requesting documents that might implicate the university in tolerating antisemitism on campus.

The troubles within academia are broader. Two days ago, a lecture on black holes at the University of Las Vegas by former ITC postdoc, Asaf Peer, who is currently a professor in Israel, was interrupted within 15 minutes by pro-Palestinian protestors. Asaf invited the protestors to join the audience and learn about black holes, but they continued to shout. The campus police ended the lecture and escorted Asaf off campus to secure his safety. This is not what academia should look like. What happened in Vegas, does not stay in Vegas.

Given my identity as a Semite, I felt obligated to speak with Harvard’s interim President, Alan Garber. I had known Alan since he took office as Harvard’s Provost in September 2011. His appointment coincided with the beginning of my 9-year-long service as chair of the Harvard Astronomy department. In 2011, I invited Alan to visit the Harvard College Observatory and never stopped speaking with him ever since. We met this morning in Massachusetts Hall, the oldest surviving building at Harvard College. I greeted him as “the last man standing.”

Before arriving at Alan’s office, I prepared seven recommendations for making Harvard’s future better than its past:

1. Adopt political neutrality on campus, as recommended by the Kalven Report at the University of Chicago fifty-seven years ago.

2. Ban disruption of academic education or research by groups with a political agenda.

3. Select faculty, students and administrators based on excellence without a political agenda regarding the statistical outcome. Remove barriers for success based on socio-economic background, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and so on. The laws of nature can be discovered equally well by Republicans and Democrats.

4. Select scholars that reflect a balanced diversity of political opinions within society. Leaning to one extreme of the political map alienates some students and faculty. Academia must alleviate rather than amplify societal polarization by creating an intellectual atmosphere that accommodates both sides of the political map. Currently, only 2.5% of the Harvard faculty identify themselves as conservatives in the 2023 survey by the Harvard Crimson.

5. Streamline the growth in the population of administrators relative to the population of scholars. Administrators are supposed to serve the scholars. During the past few decades, the distance between faculty and the top leadership increased by new layers of administration.

6. Enhance free speech and innovation by rewarding creative individuals and fostering dialogues among people who disagree with each other.

7. Establish mechanisms for transparency and feedback to correct missteps by Harvard’s leadership, most importantly the Corporation — which is currently not held accountable. Harvard’s President should return to the traditional practice of attending ad-hoc committees for tenure appointments and faculty meetings. Academia is not a commercial enterprise. Its top management must be in steady contact with faculty and students. No university business is more important than attending to its members.

I presented these seven principles to Alan, with which he broadly agreed. As of this week, Harvard established new task forces to discuss antisemitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab biases on campus. But as the saying goes “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.” What Harvard needs right now is brave leadership that will announce structural changes and reboot the University based on higher principles. Task forces tend to justify the past and lead to incremental changes in posture. Those who wish to maintain the status-quo argue that the current troubles are the fault of external bad actors. These arguments soothe but reality bites: reputation affects fundraising and congressional scrutiny could tax endowments and limit federal funding.

I drew the above seven lessons from my experience as ITC director, founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative (BHI), and the longest-serving chair of the Harvard Astronomy department. The fundamental question that reverberated in my head after the meeting with Alan is whether these recommendations will affect Harvard’s future. Time will tell. Here’s hoping that Harvard will take the correct exits on the highway ahead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

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".