The Bliss of an Academic Family
“You look younger than we remember you”, commented one of my former graduate students as I entered the reception for the conference in celebration of my 60th birthday at the Winnetu resort in Martha’s Vineyard. “The pandemic had a positive impact on my health”, I replied, “I jog every early morning for 3 miles and the isolation protected me from nonsense… I focus on creative writing and research and have no footprint on social media… The past two years have been the most productive period in my career with a few hundred new essays and papers, a few thousand interviews, three new books, two new research initiatives that involve dozens of collaborators, a documentary and a planned expedition… what could be better?” The answer was in the air: a gathering of my academic family.
The sixty gathered scientists all share my academic DNA of pursuing curiosity-driven research on a wide range of topics, thinking outside the box, taking risks on new frontiers of research, testing theoretical ideas experimentally, and approaching the world with an underlying sense of modesty and willingness to learn. The biggest revelation for me was that I made a difference in their life, by supporting them at an early vulnerable phase of their career, by guiding them to exciting research directions, and by providing them with these guiding principles. I did my best but never knew whether I succeeded. It was surprising when many of them approached me to say: “I never told you that, but you had an enormous impact on my life”. When Smadar Naoz said it publicly at the banquet while describing a personal example, she brought tears to my eyes. Some participants gave me physical gifts, including an amazing three-dimensional print of a star-forming region by the artist-astronomer Nia Imara. I asked Nia whether she can imagine nature being more beautiful than it actually is? … but deep down I felt that I created a star forming region around me.
The beautiful natural scenery reminded me of the past. We arrived at the conference site from the sunlit, seagull-flooded, ferry dock at Oak Bluff, which had been home to the Wampanoag people for about ten thousand years, a millionth of the age of the Universe. As the road crossed the bridge where “Jaws” was filmed, it was hugged between the open ocean and compact lakes, a metaphor for my experiences after the book “Extraterrestrial” was published a year ago. These were also echoed in the trivia contest that followed the banquet dinner, and was won by a reporter who knew me best as a result of a lengthy interview when my book came out. On my morning jogs between the ocean and the lakes, I routinely encountered ducks who flew away to great distances, just like my mentees.
While witnessing my academic family, it became apparent to me that if I disappear one day, for example as a result of the risky expedition to retrieve the first interstellar meteor near Papua New Guinea, my guiding principles will still survive. Nothing short of a global catastrophe could quell the flame of curiosity burning in this vibrant community of scholars.
We also played soccer. The faculty won 2:0 against the postdocs, but the good news is that the postdocs will soon become faculty. The winners received a “Galactic Cup”, and are eager to move on to a larger-scale cosmic competition.
Team play is essential for winning soccer matches, but throughout my career I preferred to publish papers in small collaborations, mostly involving a single co-author. The reason is simple. By the central-limit theorem, large collaborations promote regression to the mean and suppress innovation. Unlike the military, where high-ranking appointments bring separation from the risks of the battlefield, the fun of being a scientist is staying in the trenches and taking risks while studying nature. I often tell interviewers that they could have saved a lot of time by introducing me as “a curious farm boy”. All the leadership titles that I acquired over the years mean less to me than pursuing new knowledge through the scientific method of subjecting new ideas to the guillotine of experiments.
Before my tenure at Harvard was secure, I considered the option of going back to the farm. There are many benefits to being closer to nature than to the ego-driven social dynamics in academia. Some of my former mentees asked for my advice on whether to stay in academia or move on to a better environment. I encouraged them to stay and make sure that the guiding principles characterizing our academic family will prevail.
The brilliant stars who gathered in Martha’s Vineyard will shine for many years to come. It has been a great pleasure and privilege for me to work with them. Here’s hoping that these lampposts will allow us to find many lost keys.
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.