Rising Above the Noise

Free book event in Melba’s, New Orleans (August 11, 2022; Image credit: Jane Wolfe).

My latest book event in New Orleans was particularly rewarding, because the audience asked me questions out of raw curiosity. I was surrounded by like-minded people who are excited about exploring the unknown with no strings attaching their ego to what is known. The environment felt like home. At some point, an old man came forward forcefully without his walker and asked: “do you think there is intelligence on Earth?” to which I answered: “the dice was rolled at least decillion (ten to the power of thirty-three) times, the number of Earth-size planets within the minimal cosmic volume in which they could exist, so it makes sense to search for intelligence in outer space.” New Orleans gave me confidence that it exists on Earth.

The audience asked me detailed questions about interstellar outliers near Earth, like CNEOS 2914–01–08 and `Oumuamua, and whether such objects may have originated from an extraterrestrial technological origin. They echoed what the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, said last year at the Ignatius Forum that we both attended at the Washington National Cathedral: “There’s always the question of ‘is there something else that we simply do not understand, that might come extraterrestrially?’ ”

Haines studied theoretical physics at the University of Chicago and her wonder is well reasoned.

Skeptics about Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena (UAP) often state that if there was indeed something extraordinary in our skies, as suggested by the year-old report from Haines to Congress, then this thing would have been picked-up long ago by cell phone cameras. They neglect to recognize that the statistics of UAP reports implies rare occurrences. The chance of a cell-phone imaging a UAP is small given the small fraction of the time and the small fraction of the sky being monitored by cell phones. Given these low statistics, it is more likely that intelligence satellites and military sensors will notice UAP first, because they regularly survey a much larger volume of the atmosphere for national security purposes. Moreover, their cameras are far more sensitive and cover a larger field-of-view than cell phone cameras.

This brings a related point about the quality of data that flags an object as extraordinary in its appearance or behavior. The highest quality data that the government assembles is classified because the sensors that collect it are classified. It is therefore the duty of scientists to collect high-quality data of UAP using unclassified instruments and to release the data openly to the public.

This is indeed the mission of the Galileo Project, which aims to get the signal out of the noise on UAP. The strategic goal of the Project in the coming year is to perfect its new suite of instruments, and then film a continuous movie of the entire sky at a desired location where UAP were reported. The film will record radio, infrared and visible light as well as audio. The data stream will be fed to a special computer system that will identify objects within it. The Project will make its new high-quality data open to the public after publishing the results in peer-reviewed journals.

I am often asked why the Galileo Project aims to collect its own data on UAP rather than rely on numerous images taken by cell phone cameras. The reason is that a lot of data with compromised quality does not add up to the value of a small amount of data of high quality from instruments that are fully calibrated and controlled by professionals. One high-resolution image of a UAP would be worth millions of blurry images of the same UAP. This is for the simple reason that all blurry images will show a fuzzy object whereas one sharp image could reveal its nature. This is also familiar from astronomical data sets, where information is carried only by data in which the signal exceeds the noise.

For the same reason, a lot of chatter on social media does not advance scientific knowledge as much as the limited number of words in Albert Einstein’s papers. The information content is measured by the signal-to-noise-ratio.

At the end of our conversation, the New Orleans audience asked me about the bridge that the Galileo Project builds between spirituality and science. Both of these human pursuits seek to understand the unknown. Spirituality teaches us that it is better to approach the quest for knowledge with a sense of curiosity and awe. As Rabbi Rob Dobrusin said in a sermon to his Congregation for the high holidays a year ago: “ The book solidified my belief that such extraterrestrial intelligence does exist and that we should continue to search for it to the extent possible.” And just to be clear, in referring to “the book”, he did not mean the bible.

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.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial”.