The Art of Being Right in Finding a Message in a Bottle

Avi Loeb
9 min readApr 19, 2024
Art Wright (left) and Avi Loeb (right) looking at the sunset on the last day of the first Pacific Ocean expedition to retrieve fragments from the interstellar meteor, IM1 (June 27, 2023).

On my way back from TED2024, I passed through the Seattle airport. There, I met Art Wright (short for Arthur St. Claire Wright), who received clearance from airport security to meet me at the gate. “Let’s have a seat”, he said and entered a small, crowded, cheap coffee shop. I ordered him black coffee in a modest paper cup and we sat at a central table with customers buzzing all around us.

Art is in his late eighties. “When you get that old, some parts stop functioning,” he said in reference to his body, as if it was an old ship that is not fully at his command. “This statement is valid also for old interstellar artifacts,” I thought to myself. Most of them became space trash over the millions to billions of years that their journeys took. We can search for them among the natural rocks that we usually find in the Solar system. Perhaps we will find a message in a bottle floating through interstellar space.

Art was a commander of a destroyer warship during the Vietnam War. In 1987, he became Vice President of Operations at Williamson & Associates in Seattle, and a few years ago — the founder of Marine Induced Polarization Associates. His expertise involves basic research in underwater acoustics, seafloor engineering. and management of field operations. He was an Unlimited Ocean Master in the US Coast Guard, and sailed as Chief Mate in the SL-7 M/V Capella during the Gulf War in 1991. Art retired as Captain in the United States Navy. During his last tour, he was commander of the Pacific Fleet mine forces. Earlier assignments included commanding three ships and serving on a variety of staffs in Vietnam and as a mine warfare specialist. Art received a B.Sc. in Naval Science from United States Naval Academy and an M.Sc. in Engineering Acoustics from United States Naval Postgraduate School. He is a certified American Congress of Surveying and Mapping Hydrographer.

Art Wright (right) and Avi Loeb on the deck of “Silver Star” during the first day of the Pacific Ocean expedition to retrieve interstellar materials (June 14, 2023).

Resonating with my passion to search for space trash from extraterrestrial technological civilizations, Art served as the Party Chief on the ship “Silver Star”, during our first expedition to retrieve fragments of the interstellar meteor, IM1. We developed a keen friendship during the expedition.

Art reminds me of my father in his integrity, honesty and work ethic, and I admire these qualities. Like my father, he does not say much, but everything he says is true and insightful. His expeditions were without exception successful. In short, Art Wright masters the “art of being right.”

We sat at the coffee shop for more than an hour, planning our next ocean expedition to retrieve large pieces of IM1. We converged on many important details regarding the engineering and management of the next expedition, encouraged by the standing ovations (both in the auditorium and in simulcast) that I witnessed after giving my talk at TED2024.

As we finished our conversation, Art insisted on giving $10 to our server, a tip of that was four times the cost of the coffee I ordered for him. “She deserves it for allowing us to speak that long, as other customers could have used our space,” he noted quietly. “And we had our time well spent,” he concluded. By the size of the server’s smile, it was evident that Art made her day.

With this generous gesture, Art paid forward. A lesson for all of us as we deliberate life. A month ago, Art sent an email to the New York Times editors, criticizing their unprofessional journalism in giving voice to unsubstantiated critics of our research who argued that the interstellar meteor was a truck and that `Oumuamua was a nitrogen iceberg or a dust bunny. That email did not receive a reply from these editors. Most of the people I know are inspired by the honesty displayed by Art and the airport coffee server, much more so than the toxicity spread by critics and editors. Everyone knows that it is far easier to criticize than to actually do something meaningful. This recognition was highlighted seven hours later.

As I landed in Boston, I received an email from the brilliant playwright, Josh Ravetch, who commented on my latest essay about “My Unrehearsed TED talk.” Josh wrote:

“Dear Avi:

That magic that randomly played across my TV in an interview with you a year ago, the magic that instantly propelled me to write you, leaped again from my computer as I read your Medium-post yesterday. And suddenly, I became aware of something so simple. Dots connected and the obvious, became, well, suddenly obvious.

The absolute importance of going to take a look blossomed as I listened to your TV interview a year ago. No other scientist had ever, in my experience, summed it all up in such a simple and perfect way. Shakespeare got all of it right. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” But brevity is also the soul of truth. No matter how big or small or egotistical or vindictive any criticism of your work can or will ever be by anyone, the elegant simplicity of the truth of your statement “Let’s go take a look, shall we?” ends debate.

Dust-bunnies here, nitrogen-icebergs there, seismographs and trucks, all of it, (to rewrite Shakespeare a bit) are slings and arrows of outrageous blather — and the way to oppose them, to end them, to take arms against a sea of trouble-makers, is to say: “…well, let’s have a look, shall we?”

But that wasn’t the insight that flared in my brain yesterday. The new insight began as I thought about my first email to you a year ago. That first email message, a message-in-a-bottle, tossed into the internet-ocean and the utter joy when it resulted in your return message.

Like both Voyagers and Arecibo in 1974, and my email to you, all bottled messages, the senders hoping they’ll be found. I thought to myself that it wasn’t the first message in a bottle for me.

As a child I would gather the wine bottles I had collected from my parents before trash day; not to recycle, but to place self-addressed stamped envelopes within, and a simple note stating where the bottle started its journey, the date and a short message

and a request. “If you find this, please mail it back to me and answer the following few questions: Where did you find this bottle? What was the date? Tell me something about your life that you’d like to share.”

When it would rain hard in Los Angeles, I’d write the date on the message, re-cork each bottle as tightly as possible and set out on my bike to a footbridge over the so-called L.A. River which was dry most of the year. But when it would rain, it would roar with a massive amount of water. My parents weren’t big drinkers, so the average trip to the footbridge had maybe ten bottles in canvas bags looped over the handlebars. If it was more, I’d make several trips. The bridge was only a ten-minute bike ride.

The L.A. River is a cement river paved before I was born by the Army-Corps-of-Engineers, and had a serious current at fifty miles an hour. From where I tossed the bottles, the river wound its way forty miles through Hollywood, Downtown Los Angeles and South to Long Beach. The waters would enter San Pedro Bay near there RMS Queen Mary — now a floating museum, and head out into Santa Monica Bay. I once looked up the Pacific currents

and they would travel due north all the way to Alaska and parallel the curve with the Aleutian Islands and beyond.

I raced to the mailbox almost every day, but never found one of those letters. My heart sank a bit each time, and the day we moved away from my childhood home, as the new owners began to move in, I checked one last time. Nothing. I was seventeen.

In my thirties, I was near that neighborhood and decided to swing by the house I grew up in to see what had been done to it. It was built in 1960. Was it still there? Were the trees my father planted taller? Maybe to see if there were memories that lived in the place they happened and not in my head. I parked, got out, marveled at the cypress trees that had grown impossibly tall. Not much had changed. Not really. Across the street, as if time had never moved forward, sitting on her porch reading a book was Evelyn Conje. Same blue shirt, her hair less of a wild mop and less red. Her husband worked for Rocketdyne which was a major employer in the San Fernando Valley. Rocket scientists were on every block and my dad, a college professor, was then a college president. I think that’s what a privileged childhood looks like exactly. I called out Evelyn’s name. She was startled, even a little wary. She stood up. Then I called out my own name. It had been fifteen years or so. And that’s when she said: “Christ, don’t you go anywhere! I have something for you.” And there, in the palm of her hand was one of the tattered envelopes from one of those bottles so many years ago. She couldn’t contain herself. “It got to Hawaii. Fucking Hawaii!”

She was a kid in Hawaii with her mom investigating tidal pools. She apologized for opening it, and even though she knew where my dad worked, she didn’t get around to phoning him. The date was 1982, so it took about ten years to make the journey — somehow. The owners of our home asked Evelyn if she knew where they should forward mail addressed to my family. We had the post office do that originally and we’d send people our new address, but the post office doesn’t do that forever and this slipped through. The owners in the home now bought the home from someone who bought the home from us, so it changed hands several times. Evelyn told them to give it to her, that she was sure we’d come by to say, “Hello.”

That was a moment!

This is a long story, but here is what suddenly became obvious to me in a way it never had before…

The message in the bottle is applauded by everyone. Voyager and Arecibo and little boys and rivers. It’s poetic and romantic and whimsical. But here’s the rub: if a bottle cruises through our solar system, even if we aren’t quite sure it’s a bottle, we have an obligation

not just to our own grown-up child-like curiosity, but we have an enormous obligation to the sender! “Really, gang? ‘Oumuamua and IM1 made it all this way and it’s not only that it’s too much trouble for you to go look for the benefit of your own species and our place in the universe, but someone took the time and energy and romantic whimsy to cast it into the ocean and, what? We can’t be bothered? “

All the years of no return on my bottles-letters, gave me a small, but genuine sense of dread. Nothing serious, but something. I loved watching the bottles float away, but it was not a moot exercise on my part to pass the time. I wanted to see where they went. As I read My Unrehearsed TED Talk, I became angry in a slightly different way than I ever had before. I knew what it was to be the sender, and if that girl and her mom had not taken the time and effort and imagination to respond, I would have lived with a small, but real sense of futility.

That nuance, before today, had not once crossed my mind, for the search is not only for us, but what about the guy who put the message inthe bottle in the first place…

With love,

- Josh”

I replied: “Indeed, we owe our search to the senders, especially if they died by now. This is the dignified way of commemorating their temporary existence. The receiver is as transient as the sender, except for a time lag between the acts of sending and receiving.” The cosmic perspective demands respect from us to them. Think of it as paying it forward by practicing the art of being right that they are out there.


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.



Avi Loeb

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