When I was a long-term fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, it struck me that mathematicians, physicists, historians and sociologists all share the same dining hall, consume the same food, but produce completely different papers. The intellectual products of these scholars were not defined by their similar food intake, in the same way that the performance of different computers is not dictated by the electric power they consume.
The input is clearly not sufficient to explain the output for products of intelligence. The symphony of a composer materializes through a sequence of musical notes, but the same musical notes could have been combined in different order and repetitions to create an infinite collection of possible symphonies.
The magnificent aspect of intellectual creativity is that it uses meaningless building blocks to construct meaning, in the same way that a language creates meaningful sentences out of letters. To be appreciated, the meaning conveyed by any creative product must be pursued by the recipient. Meaning cannot be revealed by breaking it down to the physical building blocks that carry it, because it exists in a different dimension. A hard-nosed physicist who regards music as a series of sound waves would not notice its meaning.
Our interpretation of cosmological data followed this hard-nosed approach so far, focusing on dead building blocks, such as galaxies made of stars, gas and dark matter. Cosmology textbooks interpret signals that do not convey any meaning beyond their physical ingredients. Could it be that we are missing meaning in some of the signals that had already been detected?
The theoretical physicist and cosmologist Steven Weinberg lowered expectations by stating: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Given this traditional approach to the physical universe, a new generation of space telescopes is designed to search for the molecular building blocks of life in exoplanet atmospheres. However, from our limited experience on Earth, the meaning conveyed by all forms of language are the trademark of living organisms. Therefore, astrobiology should not be restricted to the search for molecules such as oxygen, methane and water in the atmospheres of habitable exoplanets. This view is limited to the food being served in the IAS dining hall. It misses the whole fun associated with the meaningful signals that result from the consumption of this food. Of course, understanding the meaning would be a great challenge for those who do not know the language, but it is a solvable puzzle like breaking the Enigma Code by Alan Turing during World War II. But if we always restrict our pursuit to the physical properties of sound waves, we might miss the meaning conveyed by a symphony.
Searching for meaning conveyed by technological interstellar objects or fast radio bursts, could be far less expensive than investing in telescopes that look for biomarkers in exoplanet atmospheres. Identifying meaning is a qualitatively new dimension beyond building blocks. For a distant observer, the city lights on the night side of Earth or the rockets being launched from Earth into space are not a trivial consequence of the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The mainstream of Astronomy offers a limited view of reality that would be missing most of the fun here on Earth. Steven Weinberg’s statement is a self-fulfilling prophecy; the Universe appears pointless to those who are not seeking meaningful signals from extraterrestrial intelligence.
Why is this limiting approach being adopted as mainstream? Because the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is considered an extraordinary claim, much more so than the existence of the lightest supersymmetric particle as the dark matter. Is it common sense to invest billions of dollars in the search for the latter while considering the former as a fringe item that should not receive federal funding? After all, the one place where life was found so far gave birth to language and meaning through intelligence. Moreover, taxpayers care much more about the question “are we alone?” than about the nature of dark matter. On this issue, academia chose a path that is divorced from the wide public interest. One way to interpret this state-of-affairs is that academia prefers to distance itself from making any statements on this topic just because the implications of making a mistake would be huge and also because there is a lot of nonsense being said on this topic without scientific substantiation.
Physical building blocks and intelligence are qualitatively different dimensions of our existence on Earth. Restricting our view to one will not reveal the other. The mainstream approach of astronomers is equivalent to taking high resolution images of the food items in the IAS dining hall while ignoring the papers of IAS scholars, regarding their existence as an extraordinary claim that is not worth pursuing.
The devastating reality of life forms is their vulnerability to the physical environment that nurtures them. They can easily be shut down by a parasite which reduces their existence to a less meaningful endeavor. After getting the flu in a family gathering last week, I was wiped out and lost my creative power for a few days. The game plan of the influenza virus was to multiply inside my body and infect others who come in contact with me. It had no respect to my intellectual dimension. Ultimately, death underscores this disrespect and brings it to a permanent conclusion. As noted in Ecclesiastes 3:20 — “all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Before the beginning and after the end of life, the physical building blocks are everything. But in between lies the magic of meaning. It will be a pity if astronomers miss this meaning because they insist that the Universe is pointless.
To focus only on the composition of exoplanet atmospheres as the next frontier of astrobiology is to give up in advance on a whole separate dimension of reality. The Galileo Project is a search for technological relics of extraterrestrial civilizations. If we find any writings on the walls of interstellar gadgets, the follow-up challenge will be to interpret what they mean.
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.