Diary of an Interstellar Voyage, Report 28
(June 25, 2023)
Every spring I love watching flowers blossom in my backyard. Their diverse colors on the backdrop of trimmed grass delivers a hopeful message that the most beautiful things in life are different from the background.
The Interstellar Expedition to retrieve spherules, melted by the fireball of the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1, serves an important educational mission.
First, it demonstrates that science can be exciting. Every day over the past week, about 30,000 people read my expedition diary reports. One of the readers explained that this is the first time he witnessed how science is actually done as an iterative learning process guided by evidence.
For example, when we first noticed white paint on the front of the sled, we thought that the sled may have bumped into human-made paint thrown off the deck of a ship. This idea was ruled out as soon as we checked the composition of the paint. The test implied that the paint is biological in origin. Our conjecture was wrong and by testing it we learned something new.
Most of the time, science is a learning process of eliminating wrong conjectures based on evidence. This process could be painful to our ego if it demonstrates that our conjectures are incorrect. But correcting them is at the heart of gaining new knowledge and adapting to reality the way it is. Most importantly, extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary funding.
In the case of IM1, the Interstellar Expedition received funding at 1.5 million dollars and delivered the evidence we were seeking. In the case of supersymmetry, the Large Hadron Collider was funded at ten billion dollars and did not find the evidence it was seeking.
In addition to educating the public, the expedition educates scientists that taking risks by pursuing innovation can pay off on ideas outside the beaten path of the mainstream. For every large collider, it is possible to fund tens of thousands of projects on the scale of the Interstellar Expedition.
Innovation stems from young minds that do not worry about career risks when deviating from the mainstream. Senior scientists should let many flowers bloom and enjoy the view.
This morning I have received an email from Italy, stating:
“Dear Professor Loeb,
I want to express my heartfelt gratitude for your remarkable efforts. Your extraordinary journey on the Silver Star is truly incredible. I read your diary every day, and I sincerely hope that you will find what you are searching for.
It is unfortunate that the mainstream in Italy doesn’t speak about your mission. You are akin to the first astronaut on the moon, writing history with your endeavors. I believe that all of humanity should express their gratitude and draw inspiration from your work.
Once again, thank you for being such an inspiration, Captain Loeb.
Hang on and may the force be with you!
It is unclear to me why scientists present their findings as established truths in press conferences, even though the process of learning is full of path corrections by trial and error. Avoiding the risk of being wrong is unrealistic. Similar to GPS navigation systems, progress in science is all about “recalculating” when circumstances are unfamiliar.
The anomalous properties of our spherules may trigger a recalculation. For example, a lack of nickel may flag other meteorites as potentially interstellar.
We are now planning the next expedition to search with a 30-kilohertz sonar for any large relics of IM1 in the region where friction brought them down to the ocean floor. At the conclusion of a meeting with the expedition leadership, I stated: “the good news is that we are planning our next steps together because we like working with each other.” The following morning Art Wright looked over my shoulder as I was typing a new essay. He wanted to verify that I do not have a ghostwriter. I said: “Art, there is nothing for you to verify. I am an ordinary person. What you see is what you get.” He replied: “You are not an ordinary person. That fact I know for sure.” Let me confess: I think the same about Art, as well as about key members of our exceptional expedition team. We will keep on searching together for the relics of interstellar meteors, as long as we can. This will open up a new window into astronomy by looking through microscopes instead of telescopes.
Progress is not about showing off but about taking risks. The success of showing off stems from interaction with people whereas risk-taking is gauged by interaction with nature from a humble standpoint akin to a beginner’s mind.
By now we have 30 spherules. I just calculated the total mass in them and it adds up to 3.2 milligrams.
The success of the Interstellar Expedition implies that rather than have an opinion about interstellar objects based on solar system objects, we should seek the answers at the bottom of the ocean. Put differently, milligram-mass spherules teach us cosmic modesty.
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.