The Side Academy

The Italian Side Academy is a school of excellence, offering courses on animation, visual effects, arts and games, including digital production, computer graphics, and 3D art with scripting and editing. The Side Academy held a special session, following the Italian translation of my book, Extraterrestrial, by the Mondadori Publishing Company. The academy vice director, Stefano Ferrio, asked the following questions with my answers under each:

What constitutes the `Oumuamua sighting as important in the history of Humanity?

`Oumuamua was the first interstellar object from outside the Solar system, reported in October 2017. It exhibited a push away from the Sun with no cometary tail and its reflection of sunlight was best fit by a disk-like shape of the size of a football field. It was initially nearly at rest relative to the average velocity of local stars, a special state that does not reveal its association with any particular star. These anomalies made the object different from solar system asteroids or comets. Three years later, in September 2020, another object was discovered by the same Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, showing a push by sunlight and no cometary tail. This object, named 2020 SO, was identified as a NASA rocket booster made of stainless steel, raising the possibility that `Oumuamua was manufactured by an exo-NASA agency of an extraterrestrial technological civilization.

How much did `Oumuamua constitute a surprise for you?

I did not expect this discovery. A decade earlier I co-authored a paper that forecasted no detection of interstellar rocks by Pan-STARRS, based on what was known about other planetary systems. With more data, `Oumuamua became even more intriguing relative to familiar space rocks from the Solar system. Why would a common interstellar object appear so unusual?

While waiting to encounter a new `Oumuamua in space, you are devoting your studies to a mysterious meteorite that sank in 2014 in the Pacific Ocean. What can you tell us about it?

It turns out that `Oumuamua was not the first but rather the third interstellar object identified by humanity. In January 2014 and March 2017, the US government detected two meter-sized meteors that moved faster than the escape speed from the Solar system. Based on the fireballs they produced in the lower atmosphere, I concluded with my student, Amir Siraj, that these interstellar objects were tougher than all 270 Solar system meteors in the same catalog. This makes them tougher than iron and unlikely at the 99.99% confidence level to have originated from a population of rocks similar to those found in the Solar system. Are they made of an artificial alloy like stainless steel? The Galileo Project team that I lead plans to find this out by scooping the ocean floor near Papua New Guinea, where the first interstellar meteor (IM1) disintegrated. We hope to follow up with a similar expedition to collect the fragments of the second interstellar meteor (IM2) near Portugal.

How different from us humans might other intelligent beings inhabiting other planets be?

These intelligent beings could be very different. If they reside near a common star with a much lower mass than the Sun, they would likely have infrared eyes — like the mantis shrimp on Earth. Moreover, if their civilization benefited from millions of years of science, their bodies would be augmented by technology. Their astronauts are likely to be designed as technological survivors with repair or self-replication mechanisms, as well as machine learning algorithms to adapt to changing circumstances during interstellar travel. Our first encounter with a functional entity will likely be with a sentient artificial intelligence (AI) system. In such a case, psychologists may do better than physicists in interpreting the encounter. Our AI systems might have kinship to their AI systems more than to us. I have no issue with that, being proud of our technological kids irrespective of whether we will understand them. I developed this state of mind after parenting two daughters.

Based on humanity’s current and upcoming technological resources, what can we expect to happen in the coming decades?

I expect three revolutions. One involves the development of sentient AI systems. These systems will first take over routine tasks that are currently assigned to humans. But ultimately, the community of AI systems could develop independently from humans and establish its own communication and societal norms. The second revolution will revolve about extending the human lifespan. Finally, the third revolution will involve an encounter with advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. This will be the most significant of all three, because other civilizations might be billions of years ahead of us in their scientific or technological knowledge, given that most Sun-like stars formed 5 billion years before the Sun. As a result of an encounter with extraterrestrials, we could learn from their vast knowledge, get a jump start to our technologies, but most importantly — we could get a glimpse of what might be possible in our long-term future, as represented by their past.

What contribution can the imagination of creative young people like the students of Side Academy make to Science?

Senior scientists base their status on past knowledge. But it is far more exciting to think about new scientific knowledge, motivated by our imagination. Old seashells on the beach often lose their original colors by rubbing against each other over time. These are the adults in the rooms of academia. Young people should try to avoid this fate by remaining true to their childhood curiosity and exploring new frontiers that they imagine. The challenge is to overcome unimaginative people who tend to step on flowers that rise above the grass level out of jealousy. They play a zero-sum game, whereas creativity is an infinite-sum game in which everyone wins. A good side academy is one in which the creative students do better than their teachers. For that reason, I will always remain a student.

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 June 2023.

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Avi Loeb

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