Sporting Science

Avi Loeb
5 min readAug 26, 2023
Image credit: Edward Hill

A major unsolved puzzle in cosmology involves the nature of dark matter, a substance that dominates by a factor of five the mass budget of familiar matter in the Universe. Faced with the unknown, theoretical cosmologists are encouraged to suggest examples of dark matter so that experimentalists will seek ways to test them.

Back in 1950, Enrico Fermi asked: “Where is everybody?” but his mistake was not to follow this theoretical question with an experimental search for techno-signatures, such as anomalous near-Earth objects that do not resemble known asteroids or comets. Without investing 1.1 billion dollars and decades of effort to develop the LIGO facilities, experimentalists would have never detected gravitational waves in 2015. Discoveries do not fall into our lap without our investment of effort to search for them. I reiterated this point in independent NewsNation and CNN interviews over the past day.

When it comes to the possibility that we are not alone in the Universe, the mainstream attitude is very different from the search for dark matter. Theorists are often condemned for raising possibilities about extraterrestrial technologies, and papers suggesting new ways to search for techno-signatures are routinely blocked or at best delayed by a few weeks before being posted on the arXiv preprint server for other scientists to read them. This culture of censorship, which was prominently displayed in my New-York Times Magazine profile, is out of step with the open-mindedness required in searching the unknown and misses the additional virtue that scientifically theorizing about extraterrestrial civilizations can shine light on our own civilization.

As a scientist trained in theoretical cosmology, I decided to break this mold by leading an experimental expedition to the Pacific Ocean to retrieve spherules from the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1 (fittingly pronounced, “I am one”). The meteor was faster than 95% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun relative to the Local Standard of Rest, and was tougher in material strength than all space rocks catalogued by NASA over the past decade. The possibility that it represents a techno-signature similar to a Voyager-like meteor had to be studied experimentally. And since no other senior physicist would sign-up for the task, I chose to lead the experiment. By now, our expedition team recovered more than 700 spherules and our early analysis results will be publicly shared in the coming days.

Clearly, there is room for improvement in the consistency of our scientific curiosity across different research areas. For the sake of bringing our current scientific culture to a better place, let us imagine a more advanced scientific civilization by giving up the arrogant belief that Albert Einstein was the smartest scientist who ever lived since the Big Bang. Our own science has long been embroiled with religion, ego-driven wrestling in ivory-tower academia, and commercial benefits. These roots make science a realm aloof and apart from the general public’s interests.

This is the culture of science in our civilization. But what would be the case for a civilization that viewed science as a sport, something akin to professional soccer? It would have its virtuoso stars, its mercurial teams, who have histories of wins and losses. Yes, it would have management and referees and scandals. But that civilization, rooting and passionately following, would always know the final score. Competitive theoretical work would meet competitive experimental work and the transparency created by a fierce rivalry for truth would establish the most consistently validated results.

In this alien culture, results would eclipse stars, teams, seasons, and become prized banners hung from stadium walls.

Whether that civilization is better or worse than ours and by what metrics, is a fun question to ask. Almost certainly, its average citizen would be more scientifically informed. And its scientists would likely be having more fun — the pleasures of passing the ball and scoring a goal in front of an audience in an open stadium.

These thoughts, triggered by the New-York Time Magazine feature, were echoed by an email I received this morning from a stranger — which read:

“Dear Avi,

I feel compelled to write to express my deepest gratitude to you for the work you are doing and (most importantly) for the approach you adopt whilst doing it.

I have a scientific background (Psychology) but study many different things in the course of my life and leisure. Happily, I have always been unconstrained by belief or ideology but I was not met with such in my degrees and work.

In fact I was saddened to discover the opposite current flowing through my chosen profession and indeed through the whole of modern culture: a kind of bureaucratic, corrosive arrogance that dismisses anomalies as of no interest or as a waste of time.

As a father of a 15 year old boy with an interest in Science, I want to guide him to be open-minded and critical without falling into cynicism or getting carried away by belief. Striking this balance by reference to the way science conducts itself in public today is almost impossible: it is failing to meet its own central criterion of fitness to reality.

So, what an absolute pleasure it has been to encounter your interviews in which you are addressing what is perhaps the strangest and most controversial anomaly of our time. To hear you navigate around the pitfalls of doing so, thinking of practical, empirical approaches to enquiry, organizing research teams, projects and learning for others and doing so with humility and good humor is the epitome of what I want my son to understand.

I’m just one of millions of people between Harvard and a seventh of the world away in North Wales. And it seemed to me it might not be clear to you just how much this could mean. So, I thought I would tell you.

Thank you so much for your work, your optimism and courage. And good luck with your research: I look forward to seeing the data!”

All I could say after reading this email is: “I rest my case.”

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.

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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".