There are many available forms of expression to describe our experiences, ranging from the quantitative to the qualitative. Remarkably, half a dozen of them showed up at my home this weekend.
Just before my morning jog at sunrise, I drafted a new scientific paper in my home office, starting with the paper’s title, continuing with its abstract, introduction, references to previous literature, and concluding with equations and numerical results.
A few hours later, a UK journalist from The Guardian showed up at the front door. He spent a few hours asking me questions about my research and academic career. We covered a broad swath of topics ranging from the Big Bang at the limit of our cosmic horizon to interstellar objects in our backyard of the solar system, from human intelligence to artificial intelligence, from child-like bullying to child-like curiosity. Science is a rigorous human endeavor, propelled by curiosity about the unknown. Communicating its excitement to the public in the form of a detective story with all its twists and turns, is an act of love — akin to removing makeup in the company of your closest friends.
As soon as the interview finished, the brilliant playwright Josh Ravetch arrived at my home for the last two rehearsals of my first one-man show “A Piece of Sky”, which he wrote and now hopes to bring to an off-Broadway theatre in New-York City within a year. Over the ensuing hours, we polished the presentation of the play. The climax involves me holding a vial with material collected in the expedition to the Pacific Ocean site of the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1, and saying: “I am holding in my hands pieces of sky.”
The morning of the show brought seven members of a filming crew that had been documenting my work and life over the past year. They crammed into my home office and filmed me answering questions about my latest scientific findings, followed by filming of the last rehearsal and the play.
Shortly after all of that, three dozen people gathered in the ballroom of my home for the first public presentation of the play. In the script crafted by Josh, I confess that “My mother told me when I was born, at the nursery, all the other infants were looking at things in their cribs, but I was focused on the ceiling. I’ve yet to break that habit entirely. It gets me into trouble.” As I grew up, my mother instilled in me a sense of curiosity and philosophical wonder about the world.
The presentation was followed by a Q&A session with the audience. I was asked about my father and explained that he taught me my work ethic. He would not say much but everything he said was important. He inspired me to be honest by following the scientific method of leaving all possibilities on the table and engaging with evidence to narrow them down. Instead of prejudice or peer pressure, only evidence should guide us honestly towards new scientific knowledge about nature.
In answer to another question, I explained the risk to society from self-made narratives about people we never met. The students, postdocs and faculty who worked with me over the years, know that my values stayed the same and only the research topics shifted. At the current moment, my public voice allows me to promote these values of open-mindedness and raw curiosity. The background noise from nay-sayers refers to an image they created in their mind without knowing me in person.
After the play, many guests came over and asked me to sign copies of my books. I felt pride, akin to a baker presenting fresh cakes to a crowd of customers. When writing a scientific paper, I never receive gratitude from so many readers. Even my most innovative papers were read in detail by only a handful of scientists. Others read the abstract and moved on. A few continued to the first paragraph of the conclusions section and stopped there. After a decade, most scientific works are reproduced by others in better detail, with the original version left behind. Not so with my literary writings, which years after publication still capture the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers.
Finally, my daughters came over to say that they had tears in their eyes from sympathy during the play. I hugged them and my wife with love. Just as in science, honesty saves time in all walks of life. When I married my wife, I told her that she does not need to worry about dishonesty because it takes too much effort at my end to memorize a false narrative. Is there a bigger thrill in life than employing all these forms of expression, from the scientific to the artistic, from the quantitative to the emotional?
As the day ended, I was gratified to receive an email from a young music composer who was inspired by my research:
Dear Professor Loeb,
My name is Jeremy Lamb, and I am a composer and cellist in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
Four years ago, I composed a piece for two cellos and bass called A Ride On ‘Oumuamua. As the title suggests, it’s inspired by ‘Oumuamua’s journey through our solar system in 2017, albeit with a slightly fantastical narrative. Like many other astronomy fans that autumn, I was inspired by its story and by the speculation surrounding it, and I’ve since followed your research on the topic quite closely.
It seems to me that so many works of art have been inspired by science and the natural world (Holst’s The Planets comes to mind, one of my favorite pieces!), and since you’ve clearly been taken with this interstellar object in your own way, I just couldn’t help but feel like you need to hear it. I have no idea what you will think, but I would be honored if you’d take a listen.
I’m attaching a video performance of the piece, performed by myself and two symphony colleagues during the pandemic. Since then, the Charlotte Symphony has commissioned a string orchestra arrangement which they’ll feature on their final Classics concert in May 2024, along with — you guessed it — Holst’s The Planets.
However, the video link here is the original trio version which was written as much out of wonder for ‘Oumuamua as love for my two best friends who are playing in the video with me. I’m also sharing this with you in the hopes that, should an opportunity for a performance arise, you might think of us. It would be a pleasure to bring this work to a live audience anywhere you may see an opportunity for it.
Many thanks for taking the time, and I hope you enjoy the piece!
All these examples over one weekend, project a colorful rainbow of modes of expressions by the prism of the human experience. At midnight, I made a promise to myself that until my last breath I will explore the unknown through the lavish colors of these modes of expressions, all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the ocean of interstellar space.
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”, was published in August 2023.