My Unrehearsed TED Talk

Avi Loeb
8 min readApr 17, 2024
Avi Loeb giving an unrehearsed TED talk in Vancouver on April 17, 2024 (Image credit: Guy Spier)

On the TED2024 stage in Vancouver, Canada, the artist Guo-Qiang Cai described in the Mandarin language his gunpowder fireworks that lit the sky in the pattern of giant footsteps of extraterrestrials towards the heavens, viewed by 1.5 billion people during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He referred several times to aliens in a talk that was simultaneously translated to English in his own voice by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system. This gave me hope that if aliens will ever visit us, the same AI agent might help us understand their language.

Footsteps of extraterrestrials in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. (Credit: Guo-Qiang Cai)

Guo-Qiang’s presentation was a prelude to my TED talk the following morning. While waiting in the green room, I heard a voice behind my back: “I cannot believe that I am in the same room with Avi Loeb!” It was the brave and brilliant founder of The Free Press, Bari Weiss, whom I never met before. The political reformer, Andrew Yang, and his wife Evelyn, also came to say hello. To my surprise they knew all about my research. Our session was labeled “Provocateurs”, but all three of us are honestly doing our best to tell the truth. It is not our fault that truth deniers are provoked by what we say. We are left to wish that common sense was more common. No bridge can connect truth tellers to muddy critics because any bridge needs two solid foundations.

I treated my talk as a jazz concert without prior practice, despite the barrage of reminders from the TED2024 organizers suggesting otherwise. My talk was not a public relations act. It described my passion to promote a better future for humanity. As such, it does not need to be rehearsed, only to be expressed with honesty. Below are some of the things I said.

When I look up at the night sky, the Milky-Way stars appear as a collection of a hundred billion lights from the cabins of a giant spaceship, our galaxy, sailing through space. I wonder whether there are other passengers in the cabins represented by these lights. It would be arrogant to think that nobody is out there. The number of Galactic stars is comparable to the total number of people who ever lived on Earth.

I am just a curious farm boy, trying to figure out the world. We should never pretend to be the adults in the room that know the answers in advance. Evidence-based science can guide us better than prejudice or the politics of trying to impress each other through “likes” on social media. I do not have any footprint on social media.

It is often argued that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But the truth is that extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary funding. Not seeking the evidence is a circular argument that maintains our ignorance.

New knowledge does not fall into our lap. We had to invest ten billion dollars in the Large Hadron Collider to find the Higgs boson and ten billion dollars in the Webb telescope to find the first generation of galaxies.

For seventy years, we had been searching for radio signals from extraterrestrials. But this resembles waiting for a phone call. You could wait forever if nobody cares that you are lonely. Or if others are addicted to digital screens and live in a virtual world. This is what is happening to us right now.

But there is a way out: we can search for space trash from extraterrestrials. Their trash is our treasure. The Tesla Roadster car, launched as a dummy payload on the Falcon Heavy test in 2018, may collide with Earth in tens of millions of years and appear as an artificial meteor in our sky, a “rock” of a type we had never seen before. Extraterrestrials may have spread technological debris in interstellar space. Finding it would constitute the next Copernican Revolution, stating that we are not at the intellectual center of the Universe. We arrived late to the cosmic play and we are not at the center of stage, and so the play is not about us.

Finding a partner could give a new meaning to our life. Enrico Fermi’s question: “Where is everybody?” is the question that every single person asks. To find a partner we have to go to dating sites or at least look out through our windows for visitors from our cosmic street.

Over the past decade we discovered the first large objects from outside the solar system and two out of the first three looked weird. The interstellar meteor, IM1, discovered in 2014, had an unusual speed, material strength and chemical composition. `Oumuamua, discovered in 2017, had an extreme shape, most likely flat, and was pushed away from the sun without showing a cometary tail. I felt like the kid in Hans-Christian Andersen’s story who argued that the emperor (`Oumuamua) has no clothes (cometary tail) while the adults in the room insist that the clothes are invisible. Some argued that the third interstellar object from 2019, Borisov, looked like a familiar comet implies that IM1 and `Oumuamua are natural as well. But seeing weird people in the street followed by a normal person, does not make the weird-people normal.

Often, we learn more from watching anomalies, like those reported by Avril Haines, the director of National Intelligence, to the US Congress over the past three years. The government’s day job is national security. My day job is to find what lies beyond Earth. Fortunately, the sky is not classified so we do not need to wait for the government to tell us what the Universe has in stock. The Galileo Project observatories are monitoring the entire sky and using machine learning software to search for new objects beyond birds, balloons, drones, airplanes and satellites from this Earth.

During the TED2024 conference, I have met potential investors in our next expedition in search for large pieces of IM1 in the Pacific Ocean site where the U.S. Government satellites localized its fireball. If we find the core of the IM1 and it has buttons, the question will be whether we should press a button.

Every morning, I jog at sunrise. This ritual signifies my habit of running away from colleagues who have a strong opinion without seeking evidence. But I am also running towards a higher intelligence in interstellar space.

AI is a digital mirror that we placed in front of us. It shows us our own faults. But it is not a new digital species as was suggested by Mustafa Suleyman, CEO of Microsoft AI, in his TED talk the previous day. A visitor from another star could be a whole new ballgame because it has nothing to do with humans. We must look out for new interstellar objects to learn what lies beyond our imagination.

In 2025, the Rubin Observatory in Chile will survey the southern sky every 4 days with a 3.2-billion-pixel camera, the size of a person. It is likely to find new interstellar objects. Will any of them look like a technological gadget?

This is a scientific question. We know that 84 percent of the matter in the universe is of an unknown substance, called dark matter. And we are spending billions of dollars in the search for its nature. Science has an obligation to society to invest billions of dollars in the search for a cosmic partner. The implication of such a discovery would be huge. Since I met the president of the John Templeton Foundation, Heather Templeton Dill, the day before, I chose to explain this point with a biblical reference.

Moses was filled with religious awe and believed in a superhuman entity, God, when he witnessed the burning bush that was never consumed. Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement in 1882: “God is dead!” started the era of modern science and brought about a sense of hubris and loneliness, resulting in Enrico Fermi’s question: “Where is Everybody?” and Elon Musk’s statement: “I had not seen aliens!”

We are in desperate need of humility. The message that we are not at the top of the cosmic food chain could come from discovering a superhuman extraterrestrial intelligence. A technological gadget, manufactured by a more advanced cosmic neighbor, could deliver back the sense of awe and modesty that characterized Moses.

If I ever find such a gadget, I will be tempted to press a button on it. And if I am offered a one-way trip to interstellar space, I would take it with the same sense of wonder that led Henry Thoreau to Walden Pond.

The Messianic message of peace could be delivered from interstellar space. Finding a package in our mailbox could change our priorities away from investing 4 trillion dollars a year in military budgets. There is much more real estate to occupy beyond this terrestrial rock that we were born on. With 4 trillion dollars to spare every year, we could send a CubeSat towards every star in the Milky Way galaxy within a century. A neighbor may have done so already.

Our neighbors could be better role models than our politicians. We could ask them: “What happened before the Big Bang?” Perhaps, they know the answer. And better yet, perhaps their quantum-gravity engineers know how to make a baby universe. The job of making a universe can be perfected. There is a lot of room for improvement in the world that we inhabit right now.

In parallel to my talk, Harvard Magazine published a video interview with me at

After my talk, I had a book signing event with many attendees. Former Vice President, Al Gore, told me that he loved my talk. Gladly, someone was listening.


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".