During the pandemic, I developed a spiritual ritual of jogging every morning at sunrise for three miles near my home, in the company of colorful flowers, butterflies, birds, wild turkeys, rabbits and ducks. The sunrise looks different each time, depending on cloudiness, rain or snow. As a scientist, I find nature more imaginative and inspiring than people. During my thirty-minute run, I digest the events of the past day and contemplate exciting ideas for creative work in the new day which was just born.
The pandemic illustrated how vulnerable I am to the invisible, but had also been the most creative period in my career. It removed distractions from unexpected visits to my office or time wasted on commute to work and travel to public events, and improved my efficiency at work by enabling multi-tasking during online meetings or lectures. As a result, I was fortunate over the past 30 months to write about 100 scientific papers, 160 commentaries and 3 books.
The fountain of ideas for creative writing is a surprise to me. Even though I go through life attached to my body, my brain and my heart are hidden “under the hood” and so I cannot take pride in the way they operate. This constitutes a truism for all of us; we receive our body as a package delivered by our parents, like a new car from a dealer. Given that it was handed to us by external handlers, it is rather surprising that we get attached to this package and derive pride from its accomplishments. The most we can aspire for is the role of a passenger and on occasion — the role of a driver.
But even as we drive, the destination is often out of our control. In particular, the content of my creative writings surprises me and I interpret its subconscious meanings in the same way as I would interpret content that originated from a stranger. It is fun to watch what comes out as a blank page gets filled up with my words. This applies both to my literary writings and my scientific papers. Whereas the former is the way a passenger reflects on the landscape visible from the window of a driving car, the latter is an attempt to make sense of how the car works under its hood or how the landscape was shaped.
Science is our best hope for figuring out the reality we are born into, allowing us to better adapt to it. Much of what we find around us is circumstantial even though we tend to regard it as privileged upon first encounter. As beautiful as it is, the transient sunrise I see every morning is simply the result of the rotation of the Earth around its axis. The habitable planets hosted by the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, are likely tidally locked — showing the same face to their star at all times. If I were to jog along the circumference bordering the permanent nightside of these planets, I would see the sunrise forever.
Given this cosmic perspective on circumstances, is there any particular significance to our intelligent actions on this rock we call our Earth, leftover from the formation of the nearest star, we call our Sun? We now know that there are more stars like the Sun and planets like the Earth in the observable volume of the Universe than there are grains of sand on all beaches on Earth. But what about intelligence?
We derive value from rarity. Gold is precious because it is a rare metal on Earth. But it might not be so valuable on a planet which formed near the site of a neutron star merger, where it was generously enriched because such mergers are the most abundant sources of gold. Similarly, the intelligence of humans on Earth would not be as precious as we think, if it is abundant in habitable exo-planets throughout the Milky Way. To find out, we need to search.
The chance of finding a civilization at exactly our phase of intellectual development is small. Most civilizations are either inferior or superior to us. To find the former class, we will need to visit the jungles of exo-planets, the natural environments similar to those occupied by primitive human cultures throughout most of the past million years. This task would require a huge amount of effort and time given our current propulsion technologies. Chemical rockets take at least forty thousand years to reach Proxima Centauri.
But if the most advanced civilizations started their scientific endeavor long ago since their host stars formed billions of years before the Sun, then we might not need to go anywhere since their equipment may have already arrived to our cosmic neighborhood in the form of interstellar objects or meteors. In that case, all we need to do is become curious observers, like members of the Galileo Project, who are currently assembling the Project’s first telescope system on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory.
The first three interstellar objects were discovered only over the past decade. At the time of this writing, they include:
1. The first interstellar meteor CNEOS 2014–01–08, detected on January 8, 2014 by US Government sensors near Papua New Guinea. It was half a meter in size and exhibited material strength tougher than iron. It was an outlier both in terms of its speed outside the Solar system (representing the fastest five percent in the velocity distribution of all stars in the vicinity of the sun) and its material strength (representing less than five percent of all previous space rocks). The Galileo Project plans an expedition to retrieve the fragments of this meteor from the ocean floor, in an attempt to determine the composition and structure of this unusual object and find out whether it was natural or artificial in origin.
2. The unusual interstellar object, `Oumuamua (1I/2017 U1), discovered by the Pan STARRS telescope in Hawaii on October 19, 2017, which was pushed away from the Sun by an excess force that declined inversely with distance squared but showed no cometary tail indicative of the rocket effect. Another object 2020 SO exhibiting an excess push with no cometary tail, was discovered by the same telescope in September 2020. It was later identified as a rocket booster launched by NASA in 1966, being pushed by reflecting sunlight from its thin walls. The Galileo Project aims to design a space mission that will rendezvous with the next `Oumuamua and get high quality data that will allow us to infer its nature. The Project will rely on software that will identify targets of interest out of the data pipeline Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) of the Vera Rubin Observatory.
3. The comet 2I/Borisov, discovered on August 29, 2019 by the amateur astronomer, Gannadiy V. Borisov. This object resembled other comets found within the Solar system and was definitely natural in origin.
It is surprising that two out of the first three interstellar objects appear to be outliers based on our Solar system experience. Moreover, there is intriguing evidence from government reports on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP).
Our Sun, our Earth and our intelligence, are gifts of nature to which we should be thankful, irrespective of how rare they are, because they represent all we have for now. I express my personal gratitude through my jog at sunrise, when all three come together to celebrate a fresh beginning.
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.