During battle victory celebrations in ancient Rome, a privileged slave labeled Auriga would hold a laurel crown over the head of the triumphant leader and whisper: “Memento Mori”, meaning “Remember You are Mortal” — to make sure that the leader keeps a sense of modesty despite the excesses of the celebration.
In the 21st century, we do not need humans whispering a sense of modesty in our ears because the Universe delivers this message very loudly through our telescopes. The deep images obtained by the Webb space telescope show that the oldest stars are three times older than the Sun, since we see them at a look back time of 9 billion years or a redshift of 17. Recorded human history represents the last millionth of this cosmic history and the triumphant leaders on record existed personally for a percent of that millionth, shorter than a century. Given the vastness of cosmic space and time, who really cares about celebrations of territorial conquers on the surface of a tiny rock called Earth, left over from a debris disk during the formation process of the Sun, one out of sextillion (10 to the power 21) stars in the observable volume of the Universe — with similar stars extending out to an unobservable volume bigger by at least a factor of 4,000 cubed.
Nevertheless, in order not to feel subdued — humans tend to look down on Earth rather than up toward interstellar space, and organize celebrations in local triumphs over temporary disputes that make them forget the cosmic Auriga message. Let me mention a few personal examples from the past week.
As absurd as it may sound, a few days ago I received an email from a highly accomplished playwright, suggesting a creation of a show on Broadway — celebrating my life experiences and research. Given the title of his message “Avi Loeb on Broadway”, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke arriving a few days early. But the playwright included photographs of himself with Dick Van Dyke and Barbra Streisand, which looked authentic as they were labeled by the serial numbers assigned to them by his cell phone.
What made this message plausible is that in the few days preceding it, I received two dozen messages from documentary filmmakers and producers around the world who expressed keen interest in documenting my research. I declined all of them.
But the Auriga moment is always lurking in the background. A week ago, I posted a detailed paper with my Korean colleague, Thiem Hoang, demonstrating that a thermal model published in Nature and describing `Oumuamua potentially as a water-hydrogen iceberg, ignored a term in the energy conservation equation which is a million times larger than the other terms at the surface temperature derived by the authors. Nevertheless, science journalists ignored the mistake in their reports, arguing that it “would confuse their readers” and referring to the authors of the paper who made vague diplomatic statements without addressing the criticism quantitatively. It felt as if wishful thinking determines the narrative even when it is shown to be quantitatively wrong. If we are concerned about politicians not being true to rational thinking and evidence, we should also alert scientists or journalists if they are doing the same. Otherwise, we will be dominated by unsubstantiated narratives as forecasted by George Orwell’s novel 1984, where the Party’s slogan was “Ignorance is strength.” The path to new knowledge is paved with curiosity in exploring anomalies and adhering to energy conservation.
Perhaps this tailored narrative for pretending that `Oumuamua is a familiar comet despite the paper published by Roman Rafikov in 2018 that it did not change its spin period as evaporating comets do, is not surprising since social media posts regularly push back in many varieties against the scientific search for extraterrestrial technological relics near Earth that I lead within the Galileo Project.
Gladly, there are other voices. An example is the email I received this morning, stating: “Dear Dr. Loeb, I have seen a couple of your videos and I am truly impressed. I write this email to encourage you in your quest to find proof of extraterrestrial intelligent life. I am not a physicist … just a retired physician who follows advances in physics, as an ignorant amateur…. and I think I speak for many when I say that you are the Galileo of today. Many of us will follow your progress. Good luck and best wishes.”
Also, early this morning I received at my front door a pair of exceptional sneakers from the CEO of one of the most successful sports companies worldwide, who is inspired by the Galileo Project research. As I was jogging at sunrise wearing these sneakers, they propelled me faster but I encountered a powerful frontal wind which slowed me down. On my way back home, however, the same wind was boosting me forward.
The lesson from all these “up and down” experiences is that we should average out the ups and down as they show up simultaneously in our life and do what common sense demands without paying special attention to popular “societal winds.” We owe gratitude to the Auriga moments since they keep us motivated to lift the “boulder” up the hill, as Sisyphus did, knowing that it might roll back down as we would attempt to lift it up again.
Perhaps the turbulence surrounding my research on interstellar objects does offer a good backdrop for a Broadway show, demonstrating the challenges of terrestrial life as we know it. My upcoming book, Interstellar, explains how the scientific search for an extraterrestrial partner could transform humanity and promise all of us a better future. For example, encounters with a superior technology would allow us to import it to Earth, enhance our scientific knowledge and improve our aspirations for venturing into space.
Before going out on a date, singles tend to imagine the dating partner by reflecting on their past experiences. However, the thrill of going out on a date is that it offers an opportunity to discover new perspectives about the partner and yourself. If we keep staying at home and arguing that we are the smartest beings to have ever existed since the Big Bang and we never bother check through our telescopes whether there is anyone else on our cosmic street because we regard this possibility through the lens of: “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence” without seeking the evidence, then we will stay single forever and miss an opportunity to expand our perspective.
The limits imposed by our short lifespan can be overcome by launching autonomous spacecraft with artificial intelligence that will promote our goals in interstellar space. Our longer-lived technological kids could be far better equipped than we are at achieving these goals by avoiding our “down” moments.
The reason I am seeking a higher intelligence in space is the hope that it would inspire us to pursue a better future all the way up in space than the up-and-down reality that we are used to, bound by gravity to the surface of Earth.
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.