Thank God for Fact Checking!

Avi Loeb
6 min readMar 28, 2024
A real image of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster as space trash, with Earth in the background (Credit: SpaceX)

Thank God for a Business Insider journalist who showed the integrity to fact check a forthcoming story with me. This thought bubbled up in my head between a lengthy interview that was conducted at my home by a filming crew of a science documentary for NOVA-PBS and an online meeting with a theater director concerning the production of a new play about my research. The trigger for this thought was an email message from the journalist, saturated with toxic comments from critics that were collated and amplified for another clickbait profile article. The journalist gave me a deadline to respond, so I immediately bailed out of a preparatory session for my forthcoming presentation at the annual TED Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and composed the following reply:

“Thank you so much for fact checking with me. I truly appreciate your journalistic integrity.

Some of the comments you quoted are not based on facts. I highly recommend that you avoid them or at the very least state the facts listed below:

1. There is no comment about the technological origin of the “BeLaU”-Type spherules in the final version of our expedition papers. You are referring to an early version (posted here) which included the following concluding paragraph (one paragraph on possible interpretations, mostly natural but also artificial) embedded within 44 pages of data analysis. Here is the paragraph in that early version from August 2023:

“… The “BeLaU” abundance pattern suggests that IM1 may have originated from a highly differentiated crust of a planet with an iron core outside the solar system. In that case, IM1’s high speed of about 60 kilometers per second in the Local Standard of Rest of the Milky-Way galaxy (Siraj and Loeb, 2022a) and the extremely large number of similar objects per star, of order 10 to the power of 23, inferred statistically for the population of natural interstellar objects it represents (see Figure 3 in Siraj and Loeb (2022b)), are challenging to explain by common dynamical processes. The “BeLaU” overabundance of heavy elements could perhaps have instead originated from r-process enrichment and fragmentation of ejecta from core-collapse supernovae or neutron star mergers (Radice et al., 2018; Johnson, 2019; Siegel, 2022; Fujibayashi et al., 2023). However, the “BeLaU” pattern also displays s-process enrichment which must have a separate origin, such as Asymptotic Giant Branch stars (Busso et al., 1999; Bisterzo et al., 2011; Karakas et al., 2012). Another possibility is that this unfamiliar abundance pattern may reflect an extraterrestrial technological origin. These interpretations will be considered critically along with additional results from spherule analysis in future publications.

In the final version of the paper, we removed all interpretative comments; see: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2401/2401.09882.pdf

2. Instead of these interpretative comments in the early version of the data paper, I chose to write a full paper on the interpretation. My paper with my postdoc, Morgan MacLeod, about the interpretation of the expedition findings was peer reviewed and accepted for publication last month in the prestigious journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. You can find the paper at the link: https://arxiv.org/pdf/2310.09399.pdf

We even had a press release about this interpretation paper at the following link: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/galileo/news/interstellar-meteors-may-have-formed-extreme-tidal-disruption-events

I would be grateful if instead of making toxic statements about the technological origin, all related to a single sentence in a 44-page long paper, you would mention a full peer-reviewed paper about a natural origin for the “BeLaU”-Type spherules, found at the site of the first identified interstellar meteor, IM1.

3. Regarding the toxic culture in academia, I ask that you read the following short essays that I wrote recently and quote anything you want from there:

https://avi-loeb.medium.com/why-is-childlike-bullying-more-prevalent-than-childlike-curiosity-556c072f1d9b

https://avi-loeb.medium.com/being-curious-and-humble-is-key-for-learning-2d863fd08f78

You can find additional relevant comments in other essays that I wrote over the past week by scrolling down the website: https://avi-loeb.medium.com/

4. Regarding the localization of the meteor, we followed primarily the data from sensors aboard U.S. Government satellites and not the seismometer data to which some critics are referring. This was explained in a scientific paper that I posted last week at:

https://arxiv.org/pdf/2403.07696.pdf

Please refer to this explanation if you plan to mention the claim that the meteor was a truck.

5. Regarding `Oumuamua, I summarized the scientific arguments in the following paper (with relevant links to the scientific literature), which was peer-reviewed and published in the journal Astrobiology:

https://arxiv.org/vc/arxiv/papers/2110/2110.15213v1.pdf

In the following papers, I showed with my collaborators in peer-reviewed publications, that `Oumuamua could not have been a comet with an invisible tail for a variety of reasons:

- A hydrogen iceberg would have evaporated during its interstellar trip:

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/abab0c/pdf

- There is not enough solid nitrogen in Pluto-like planets to make the population of interstellar objects like `Oumuamua:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1384107621001445?via%3Dihub

- A water-iceberg could not have provided the measured non-gravitational acceleration of `Oumuamua without showing a visible cometary tail:

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/acdf57/pdf

The situation is similar to Hans-Christian Andersen’s tale in which the child (me) says that the emperor (`Oumuamua) has no clothes (cometary tail) and the adults insist that the clothes exist but are invisible.

6. Regarding the toxic statements you mentioned, I would say two things:

- I prefer not to mud-wrestle because it gets you dirty.

- I adopt the approach of the eagle, which often has a crow pecking at its neck. Rather than fight the crow off, the eagle rises to greater heights where the oxygen level is too low for the crow, and so the crow drops voluntarily off the eagle’s back. Similarly, I strive to rise to the greatest heights of data collection and scientific analysis where my critics will not have enough oxygen to survive.

7. The claim that the spherules are “coal ash” was proven to be invalid by detailed analysis of 55 elements from the periodic table, as reported in the publication:

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2515-5172/ad2370

The claim was based on a few elements and we analyzed 55 elements and showed that many of them have a different concentration than found in coal ash by factors of 10–100. Referring to this claim as potentially valid is misinformation.

Instead of saying that I vehemently disagree with the statements you quoted, I ask you to link the papers which show that they are wrong. In difference from politics, science is not a matter of opinion but rather should be based on what the evidence shows us.

Thank you so much for listening and for showing integrity in all our exchanges.

With warm regards,

Avi Loeb”

The key question that remains is whether these facts will be mentioned by the journalist. My wonderful literary agent, Leslie Meredith, noted that when she worked with Stephen Jay Gould, “he was constantly asked to present the facts of evolution again after some fool said he didn’t “believe” in evolution and wanted to ban its teaching from science curricula. Steve said it was tiresome and took away valuable time from actual work that he wanted and needed to do, but it was necessary to calmly and clearly restate the facts over and over again.”

The Myth of Sisyphus suggests that I am destined to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. In his book on this topic, Albert Camus argued that we must accept the absurdity of this persistent struggle and gain the definition of our identity from the act of rolling the boulder up the hill. The struggle, as exhausting as it is, could give our life a meaning. While I accept Camus’ optimism about life, I am hoping to use the boulder in the future to build a new scientific construction at the hilltop.

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 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".