Upon returning to my Harvard office at the start of the academic year, I noticed on my desk the printed agenda of the last in-person faculty meeting that I led as chair of the Astronomy department in March 2020. The first agenda item was: “What to do about COVID-19?”
Two and a half years later, I entered Phillips auditorium at the Center for Astrophysics of Harvard & Smithsonian to rejuvenate our traditional routine of a weekly colloquium and luncheon in my capacity as director of the Institute for Theory & Computation (ITC).
It was a remarkable experience to meet again many of my old colleagues in three dimensions rather than the two dimensions offered on a computer screen. But even more rewarding was to witness once again the vibrant company of postdocs and students, pursuing exciting research at the frontiers of astrophysics. There is nothing more uplifting than young scientists, free of the burden of self-pride or the scars from past academic injuries that often restricts innovation among senior practitioners. These fledgling scientists described inspiring work, ranging from the small scale of a neutron star with twice the mass of the Sun and the size of Boston (roughly 11 kilometers, double the radius of a black hole with the same mass) and up to the scale of our cosmic horizon (corresponding to a light travel time of about 13 billion years), where the Webb telescope observes the dawn of the first galaxies. Over my first day back to unmasked normalcy, my conversation with young scholars seeded four new research projects in which I am currently engaged.
Life brings us stress tests, the latest and most global of which was the COVID-19 pandemic. It is beneficial to view these challenges as opportunities for getting stronger. As Reb Nachman of Breslov noted two centuries ago: “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the fundamental principle is not to be afraid whatsoever.“ To which the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche added in 1888: “Out of life’s school of war — what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” This is a restatement of Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest.
Speaking about lessons and principles, we should also keep in mind the lesson we learned in 1933 from Fritz Zwicky’s observations of galaxy clusters — that most of the matter in the Universe is invisible and of an unknown nature. This applies metaphorically also to the societal reality in the post-pandemic world. In looking at the nearly hundred bright individuals who attended the ITC luncheon, I could not help but worry about the invisible portion of our community who suffers from long-COVID symptoms, mental health issues, or is unable to engage in social interactions because of compromised immunity.
What could be a source of happiness and fulfillment in the challenging post-pandemic world? Perhaps it is our collective desire to work together in making the world better based on scientific evidence and mutual respect, irrespective of our different genetic making, cultural background, or history. As I often tell my daughters, most of our body mass is water, the same H2O molecules that we share with our habitable planet. Fundamentally, we are mostly composed of hydrogen from the Big Bang and oxygen from the interiors of stars. Let us stay true to our common ancestry and maintain our collective curiosity by seeking our common origins along the third dimension of space or equivalently cosmic time.
In a recent Worlds.Minds forum that I attended, my Harvard colleague Dan Gilbert described his fascinating work in social psychology on the meaning of happiness. The CEO of a major corporation asked him why her employees appear unhappy despite the fact that they get the best financial compensation and health benefits relative to competing corporations. Dan wisely explained that people are most happy when they feel appreciated and respected for their work, the same lesson learned from family life — when raising kids and partnering with a spouse.
During my return to normalcy, I also had interesting chats with students. My undergraduate student, Kaylie Hausknecht, told me that the prerequisite on the syllabus of one of her classes did not list special skills in mathematics or physics but rather: “common sense”. It is not easy to find “common sense” in news reports or social media on the internet, hence making it a prerequisite is appropriate for a class at Harvard. My main lesson this week is that it is much easier to find “common sense” in person than on the internet. The actual reality is far better than any virtual reality (VR).
Hence my advice to Mark Zuckerberg: use common sense when investing in VR glasses. It might be best to keep glasses as low-tech and transparent as they had been traditionally, so that we can focus on the reality in front of us rather than on artificial content. VR is a distraction that we might wish to avoid in our private or public life, as well as in scientific endeavors such as cosmological studies of the multiverse.
Extraterrestrial civilizations on exo-planets who either went extinct by a global catastrophe like a devastating pandemic, or got addicted to VR headsets and hence lost their appetite for space exploration, must have disappeared into oblivion through a mode of quarantine or interstellar lockdown. They are definitely not the fittest students in the competitive interstellar class of surviving explorers.
In the spirit of the new post-pandemic normalcy, let us search for the company of those who, in the words of Reb Nachman of Breslov, survived their passage through the “narrow bridge” of their world.
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.