Looking Up for Anomalies

Avi Loeb
5 min readDec 2, 2023
The Death of Socrates”, a painting by Jacques-Louis David (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

At a VIP dinner before my recent public lecture at CERN, I was joined by a dozen high net-worth individuals who traveled from afar to meet me in person. As soon as the conversation kicked off, three of the attendees reported witnessing a highly unusual object in the sky over the past few decades. All three said that the object they saw was very unusual and disappeared quickly in a manner that cannot be ascribed to a human-made device. In one case, the object was chased by fighter jets which were much slower and could not catch up with it.

The content of this conversation explained why a significant community within the general public as well as within the military and intelligence agencies is seriously discussing Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs). The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, submitted two reports to the US Congress about UAPs in 2021 and 2022, and the All Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) at the Pentagon, studied hundreds of UAP reports, filed a report in 2023, and concluded that a few percent of the cases remain unresolved. The reported cases were all anecdotal, based on eyewitnesses who happened to be at the right place at the right time, similar in character to those mentioned at the VIP dinner.

Because of the classified nature of the military sensors, most government data is not available to scientists. Hidden data is as unhelpful as the undocumented reports I heard about during the VIP dinner. Could some classified data — with no bearing on national security — be shared with scientists who could help the government figure out what it means? After all, the government has no jurisdiction over what lies outside the solar system. Interstellar knowledge is what I signed for as a practicing astronomer. Related evidence, just like the material composition of the cosmos, should be shared with all humans.

The US Congress is currently debating the level of public disclosure that should be applied to its UAP data. In July 2023, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity for the Armed Services Committee, crafted an amendment UAP Disclosure Act of 2023 along with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) — Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) — Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities for the Armed Services Committee, Senator Todd Young (R-IN), and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). If signed by President Biden this month, the proposed legislation would foster scientific research on UAPs.

As suggested by the AARO analysis, the label of UAPs is a mixed bag, with many unidentified objects being balloons or drones. However, rare objects might still be intriguing. In particular, the anomalous objects discussed at the VIP dinner were too large and fast to be dismissed by a trivial explanation.

As a scientist, I follow the principle of the international football association FIFA: “Listen to eyewitness testimonies but use video cameras to make up your mind.” This is what the Galileo Project is doing right now, and it was also the focus of my lecture at CERN. Our first observatory at Harvard University had been collecting data for over a month, with tens of thousands of objects captured in its images. In difference from anecdotal reports, this systematic collection of data allows our research team to separate common background objects from rare anomalous objects. The Galileo Project is the first scientific attempt to collect large volumes of data systematically and analyze the information with state-of-the-art machine learning software.

Applying the scientific method to UAP research is greatly appreciated by the general public. A week before my lecture at CERN, I attended a conference at Stanford University. As I came up the stairs towards the auditorium, a policewoman greeted me: “Welcome Professor Loeb. I routinely follow your writings and the Galileo Project and love what you are doing. Your curiosity and joy in pursuing science are an inspiration!”

The curiosity about the nature of UAPs unifies people and is more powerful than any political divide. This week, a related report in The Guardian was the most read article that day, exceeding the interest in daily politics.

In parallel to monitoring UAPs, the Galileo Project’s research team is analyzing the composition of spherules collected from the explosion site of the interstellar meteor, IM1. Despite IM1's high speed, this meteor survived down to the lower atmosphere, less than 20 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean, suggesting an anomalous material strength. A graduate student with expertise in material studies approached me after my lecture about IM1 at the Stanford University conference and asked how he can help with the analysis. I suggested that he calculate the melting point and material strength of the unique spherules from IM1’s path, compared to known solar-system spherules. In our follow-up Zoom call today, he noted that this collaboration had been a long-standing dream for him. I heard this sentiment before from two postdocs of the Galileo Project: Richard Cloete — who arrived at Harvard from Cambridge University, and Laura Domine — who joined us after finishing her PhD at Stanford University. I get a kick out of mentoring young scientists who are not trapped in popular trends. They might discover low-hanging fruit because their research path was not taken before.

Let the social-media zealots who wish to argue that I corrupt the youth know that this label was also assigned to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Whereas Socrates is still being taught in universities 2424 years after his death, those who forced him to drink poison are long forgotten. The long game is won by those who look up.

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 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.

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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".