Loving Reality Without Makeup
At the end of a two-hour podcast at my home yesterday, the YouTuber Fidias Panagiotou asked for my thoughts on the importance of love. I told him that love is the key to our long-term survival through partnership and adaptation. After the first date with my wife, I asked her not to put any makeup on because I love her the way she is. “And how did she respond to that?”, asked Fidias. “She found it romantic”, I replied.
This approach is also handy in pursuing science. As an astronomer, I love the Universe the way it shows up through our telescopes without makeup. When we observe a cosmological constant that is 123 orders of magnitude smaller than expected, we need to adapt to this value and explain it instead of using the fancy mathematics of string theory to argue that it was selected by our existence out of numerous possibilities in the hypothetical landscape of the multiverse. In a new paper I wrote with Mark Hertzberg, we explain the cosmological constant in terms of the electron mass and charge, Planck’s constant, the speed of light and Newton’s constant, under plausible assumptions concerning quantum gravity. This is what I mean by adaptation to the pimples of reality without makeup. Nature is under no obligation to make us happy and therefore truth is not synonymous with beauty or elegant mathematics. Accepting reality fosters a path for loving it, allowing humanity to adapt to it. When Galileo Galilei accepted the not-so-beautiful reality that the Earth is not at the center of the Universe, he was put in house arrest — the equivalent of being canceled on social media today.
Indeed, this approach to love is not always easy. According to Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of wisdom and knew good and evil, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. When faced with evil, we can wrestle with those who inflict it upon us but this could bring us down and get us dirty. Instead, we can maintain our dignity and never lose sight of what is good.
In elementary school, I was taught a Hasidic story about a young Jew who was warned that a pogrom was coming to his village. Instead of running away or gathering weapons to fight a doomed battle, he adapted to this evil reality by eating as fast as he could and gaining weight. When asked why, he explained that when the Cossacks will arrive and burn up the village with its inhabitants, he wants his body to generate a giant fireball as his last rebellious act. He will gain as much weight as possible to enhance this fiery protest.
Although I was deeply moved by this story, I am currently on a low-carb diet. In fact, I lost so much weight that my wife says I should have no fear of being eaten by a wild animal during a forthcoming Galileo Project expedition to Papua New Guinea because my body is all bones. Following Darwin’s principle of “survival of the fittest,” I learned my lesson from dwarf stars. These abundant stars possess down to 7% of the mass of the Sun but their nuclear fire lasts up to ten trillion years, a thousand times longer than the Sun.
The Hasidic story highlights the challenge of being different — as the Jews appeared to the Cossacks, since this quality alone triggers bullying. That crowds get pleasure from torture was evident to the ancient Romans who confronted victims with wild animals in the arena of the Roman Colosseum.
The public arenas of today are social media and their crowds of subscribers enjoy torturing those who appear different. This includes thinkers who took an intellectual journey away from the beaten path. Recently, I declined an invitation to an online Q&A forum which served as a trap for lighting up a fire on social media regarding the Galileo Project at Harvard University.
Just as in the Hasidic story, the social media fires are meant to scare young people away from intellectual villages that are out of the mainstream. However, we must suppress crowds of academic Cossacks because they violate the foundation of academic inquiry and open-mindedness. In a message sent this week, MIT’s President, Sally Kornbluth, stated: “The world counts on MIT for path breaking intellectual inquiry and problem-solving — and we just can’t live up to that standard unless we not only permit but encourage open, honest disagreement, debate and dissent.”
The better path forward is clear: “let many flowers bloom.” This is a much-needed antidote to the academic tendency of stepping down on rare flowers that rise above the grass level. Those who cannot create prefer to destroy what others create, out of jealousy. The worst in human traits is triggered by the most noble quality that propels humanity forward: imagining the unknown.
I count my blessings for not having any account on social media, since they are filled with “haters” who wish to get attention by burning whatever appears different from their familiar culture. Indeed, traditional pogroms gave a sense of purpose to the otherwise dull life of the Cossacks.
But as I told Fidias, our knowledge advances by observing nature and not through popularity contests. In this vein, the Galileo Project’s expedition aims at gathering evidence that would shed light on the nature of the first interstellar meteor, whose fireball indicated that it was tougher than all 272 other space rocks in the CNEOS catalog and could therefore represent a messenger from an extraterrestrial technological civilization.
In a second podcast recording on the same day, this one for “Space Midrash”, I was asked what I would like to accomplish in interstellar space if offered to go there. Since love is rare under the harsh conditions of interstellar travel, I replied that my hope is to have my body, wrapped-up in an astronaut suit, light up as an interstellar meteor in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. In preparation for that trip, I will follow the Hasidic tale and gain as much weight as possible so that the resulting fireball will last for a long time. This will be my fiery protest regarding our short lifespan, cosmologically-speaking.
The question of whether our civilization will have a long lifespan depends on whether future generations will embrace love and resist the urge for destruction.
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.