Science and Politics

Avi Loeb
5 min readFeb 15, 2024

Politics can be divisive whereas science is internationally unifying. In my modest attempt to make the world better, I focus on promoting science.

The research team of the “Interstellar Expedition” has just shared an extensive paper, summarizing analysis results from the past eight months in the laboratories of Professor Stein Jacobsen at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Dr. Roald Tagle at the Bruker Corporation in Berlin, Germany. The analyzed materials were collected from the Pacific Ocean on June 14–28, 2023, during an expedition that was coordinated by Rob McCallum and generously funded by Charles Hoskinson with 28 team members on the ship “Silver Star”.

In our weekly zoom call last night, I thanked the research and expedition teams for their heroic efforts over the past year. It is a great pleasure and privilege to work with all of them. The mission felt like playing soccer with a team of professionals, not bothered by status games like many academics are, but focused on getting the ball over the goal line. They kept their eyes on the ball, not on the audience.

The stars were aligned: the expedition engineers constructed a magnetic sled that worked perfectly, the navigators kept the sled on the ocean floor at a depth of 2 kilometers and scanned a 10-kilometer region 26 times to retrieve 850 spherules and shards. Following analysis with world-class instruments, such as a micro X-ray fluorescence analyzer, an electron microprobe and a mass spectrometer, a tenth of the retrieved spherules showed a unique chemical composition never reported before for samples of solar system meteors.

But as thrilling as this discovery is for a curious farm boy like myself, one must recognize that the world is dominated by politics. This Friday, February 16, 2024, at 10:30–11:15 AM US Eastern Time, I will participate in a public forum at the prestigious 2024 Munich Security Conference in Germany, which often hosts heads of state and other prominent politicians. The session is titled: “Conversation on Space”, and includes a Q&A fireside chat with the brilliant Rolf Dobelli, founder of WORLD.MINDS.

The discussion in this distinguished political backdrop will focus on the search for interstellar objects near Earth that may have originated from extraterrestrial technological civilizations. The connection to national security was conveyed in three reports from the Director of National Intelligence to the US Congress, submitted between 2021 and 2023 about Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs). The Galileo Project is operating new observatories to figure out the nature of UAPs, and is conducting expeditions to crash sites of interstellar meteors that were discovered by US Government satellites. I will describe our latest findings. The Munich Security Conference will be streamed live here and here.

Remarkably, the unique material composition and exceptional speed of the Pacific Ocean meteor, were explained in a new exciting paper that I wrote with my postdoc, Morgan MacLeod. The paper was just accepted this week for publication in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

A day after the Munich session, I will be heading to Torun, Poland, to give the keynote lecture in an official celebration of 550 years to the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus, who argued that we are not at the physical center of the Universe. The title of my lecture is: “The Next Copernican Revolution.” I will suggest that we might not be at the intellectual center of the Universe. The event is organized by the Polish government. Apparently, some politicians appreciate the broad value of science for humanity.

In a recent interview, I was asked what I hope to accomplish in the remainder of my scientific career. My wish is to figure out the nature of objects from the backyards of other stars. Our existing rockets would take tens of thousands of years to reach the nearest stars, but surely some objects — natural or artificial — completed that trip in reverse and can save us the trip. One can learn about faraway destinations by monitoring the output of incoming trains as a substitute to traveling there. This offers the opportunity of finding things we had never seen before.

When embarking on a blind date with a human, we feel secure in imagining the counterpart as a member of our species who shares our basic qualities. But when encountering objects from another star, we might be surprised to find things we never imagined. Technological space trash could resemble the rocket booster 2020 SO which exhibited an `Oumuamua-like push by reflecting sunlight, or a Voyager-like meteor of unusual material composition, or a strange-looking debris resembling Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, or a flat piece of a broken Dyson sphere. The extraterrestrial polluters of interstellar space will make my day!

As an astronomer, I became fascinated with `Oumuamua because I did not expect its anomalies, in the way that a fisherman might not expect a plastic bag on its fishing hook. The life of a scientist is worth living because it offers the opportunity to discover what we cannot imagine. Scientific exploration is sometimes the art of the impossible because it involves learning something new. In contrast, the practical life of a politician is all about creating a reality based on what we already know. As Otto von Bismark noted: “politics is the art of the possible.”

Given the geopolitical state of the world, I feel fortunate that politicians are willing to listen to what I have to say about the sky. At the Munich Security Conference, I will be surrounded by people who are down to Earth. I will do my best to educate them about the art of searching for what we cannot imagine. Science is driven by a childlike curiosity with no alternative but to admit what we do not know. It aims to increase the landmass of our island of knowledge in the vast ocean of ignorance that surrounds it. The learning process is sometimes slow. Ninety years after Fritz Zwicky’s discovery of dark matter, we still do not know what five sixths of the matter in the Universe is. Dark matter is an unidentified anomalous phenomenon.

Politicians maintain the posture of the “adults in the room”, pretending to cover up ignorance because it might be interpreted as weakness. Some scientists are politicians but very few politicians are scientists.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 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”, was published in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

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