When a plumber arrived today to solve a gutter problem in my backyard, he looked at me and said: “I saw you in the news. Your job is to look at the stars!” This reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s insight: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Fifteen years ago, I visited Tasmania where the sky is dark with no city lights. The stars looked to me like lights from the cabins of a giant ship, the Milky Way galaxy, sailing through the ocean of space. I wondered whether there are other passengers next to these lights.
This is a common thought. Even though I get paid to think about the sky, I do not regard myself different from the general public. I was born on a farm in an unprivileged background. The most frustrating experience for me as a child was asking difficult questions at the dinner table. The adults in the room avoided or pretended to know — but did not actually know — the answers to these questions. By becoming a scientist, I hoped to find the answers myself, guided by evidence and not opinions. But ironically, I now find myself surrounded by colleagues who wish to be the adults in the rooms of academia. They have strong opinions and are not seeking evidence. Not much had changed from my childhood. I remained a curious boy, frustrated by the “adults in the room”.
Currently, space exploration is motivated by commercial interests or national security benefits. A more inspiring motivation would be childlike curiosity of exploring the unknown. For example, Gil Levin wrote an essay in 2019 in which he expressed the view that he is convinced that the Labeled Release experiment on the Viking mission, for which he served as a principal investigator, found evidence for life on Mars. Despite the controversy around this finding from half a century ago, NASA never repeated the experiment to clarify the situation. Instead of following childlike curiosity on one of the most important questions in science, the scientific community adopted a risk-averse strategy to avoid this question altogether.
Scientific innovation should be encouraged by funding individuals with a proven track record, rather than allowing committees to dictate what others are supposed to discover. Such committees converge to a risk-averse common-denominator. Asking innovators to dance to the tunes of grant allocation committees suppresses deviations from the beaten path. New knowledge is much more likely to originate from a path not taken, because such a path may contain low-hanging fruits that were never picked up.
Despite all odds, the expedition I led to the Pacific Ocean retrieved spherules with a composition never found before in the solar system. This finding confirmed an interstellar origin of the meteor they came from, independently of the high interstellar speed measured for it by US government satellites.
Interstellar meteors like this one must be studied to find out whether any of them might be technological in origin. Encountering an interstellar technological object would resemble the experience of finding a package in our backyard that came from a neighbor. Reading off the postal address might inspire us to reply with our own package. Here’s hoping that a future encounter could serve as a wake-up call and shift humanity’s priorities from conflicts on our small terrestrial rock to exploration of interstellar space which offers much more real estate.
The Playwright Josh Ravetch wrote to me this week: “When you toss a message-in-a-bottle into the ocean, the message means little when the senders forget why it was sent in the first place. We are all of us full of curiosity, but life forces us more and more to focus on Oscar Wilde’s gutter and sometimes, a simple reminder to look up, is all it takes to remind us of the stars and lift us from the demands of gutter-esque life. This is where you and Stella Adler converge. She would say, “Life beats down your soul and Art reminds you that you have one.”
The songwriter Alan Bergman wrote the following song for Josh Ravetch’s play about my current research, titled “A Piece of Sky”:
THE SKY’S A BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE.
THE WIND WRITES ON ITS WAY.
THE STARS HAVE ALL THE STORIES -
THEY’VE SO MUCH TO SAY.
THE UNIVERSE IS OPEN,
THE SOLAR SYSTEM, TOO,
TO SHARE WITH US THEIR SECRETS
OLD AND NEW.
THE PLANETARY KINGDOM,
THE MILKY WAY AND MORE.
IN FAR DUST OF THE STARDUST
BEYOND SOME DISTANT SHORE.
WE KNOW WE’LL FIND THE ANSWERS
OUT THERE IN OUTER SPACE,
AS GALAXIES WILL MEET US
FACE TO FACE.
FROM GALILEO AND DOWN THRU THE AGES,
WE HAVE LEARNED FROM HIS’TRY’S PAGES,
THE WORLD HAS BEEN CHANGED BY THOSE
WHO SAY, (spoken) “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES.”
THE MORE THAT WE DISCOVER
EXPLORING THE UNKNOWN,
WE COULD HAVE ASTRAL NEIGHBORS,
MAY NOT BE
In closing, here is another email that I received in the mail this week, which reiterates the same points:
“Hello Professor Loeb,
We’ve never met. And apart from my gratitude, I have little to offer. But I want to be a voice of encouragement amidst the ocean of naysayers.
Thank you for standing up for science when faced with such discouragement from your peers. It is your brand of steadfastness that humanity needs right now. More than ever before in recent history, we need people like you to carry us forward.
I am a millennial. I have an 8-month-old daughter. And to be honest, I find it exceedingly difficult to be optimistic about the future. I don’t need to list the reasons why. They are myriad.
But you see the big picture, and it gives me hope that others do, too. I’ve read your books and listen to every interview with you I can find. I support your mission and your pursuits 100%.
Anyway, keep fighting the good fight. If there is any way I can help you or your students or colleagues, even if it is outside the purview of my expertise (and let’s face it, it’d have to be…) please let me know!
I’d love to help you make history.
All I can add is what I told my team members during the expedition: we are all in the same boat. Let us work together for the success of our mission to understand the cosmic neighborhood that we all share.
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”, was published in August 2023.