What Constitutes a Miracle?

The Galileo Project Observatory at Harvard University, featuring a passive radar (top left), a radio spectrum analyzer (bottom left), audio sensors (top second left), weather sensors and magnetometer (bottom second left), assembly of 8 infrared cameras covering the entire sky (half a sphere, resembling R2-D2), fisheye lens observing the entire sky in the optical band (cylinder to the right of the table), a view of the entire system (top right) and a pan-tilt-zoom camera (bottom right). The data is processed through an edge computer and transmitted to the cloud through satellite and fiber-optic connections, where it is analyzed by AI algorithms.

Albert Einstein said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

But actually, there is a middle ground. And as in political choices, taking the middle of the road is sometimes the most sensible thing to do even when polarization to the extremes is far more popular.

Scientists attempt to explain everything that appears familiar and classify the rest as unidentified phenomena. There is no need to pretend that we know everything while facing outliers, nor to ignore unexplained phenomena in order to protect our professional pride. When a colleague of mine said that he wrote an extensive review article about the comet `Oumuamua, I asked “why would you call `Oumuamua a comet when we both know that the Spitzer Space Telescope did not detect any trace of carbon-based molecules or dust around it?” This inappropriate naming is like labeling the rare Amur leopard as a large domesticated cat, just because the latter is common and familiar.

The mature and honest approach to science is represented by a child willing to admit that “the emperor has no clothes”, or similarly that `Oumuamua has no cometary tail. The childish approach is that of a specialist on space rocks pretending that an anomalous object with no cometary tail is a comet, just for the sake of pretending that it is familiar.

There are two ways to live your life as a scientist. One is to pretend that you know the unfamiliar by labeling it as familiar. The other is to learn something new from it.

The latter approach underlines the scientific mission of the Galileo Project which aims to study Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), namely objects that are unfamiliar to the US intelligence agencies based on their reports to Congress in 2021 and 2022.

To help the US government identify the unidentified, the Galileo Project constructed a new observatory that is collecting high-quality data of the sky with state-of-the-art instruments that are fully calibrated and under control. The original assembly of infrared, optical, radio, audio, magnetic, energetic particles and weather sensors is uploading to the cloud new data which is analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The research team plans to make a few copies of the first observatory within the coming months. During that period, the AI classification scheme will be trained to identify familiar objects under different sky backgrounds, illuminations, orientations and distances.

Alex Delacroix (right), the mechanical engineer who moved from Caltech’s Palomar Observatory to Harvard and designed the architecture of the Galileo Project Observatory, standing next to Avi Loeb on January 24, 2023.

In the spirit of open scientific research, the Galileo Project is agnostic as to the nature of the findings. UAP could be natural objects — like bugs, birds, meteors, or human-made objects — like weather balloons, drones, airplanes, and satellites. If there is nothing else, so be it.

But if one object maneuvers in ways that cannot be replicated by terrestrial nature or humans, the Galileo research team would regard it as an outlier worth further study. For example, the Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera will automatically zoom on objects whose nature is unclear in our all-sky videos. If additional data would imply beyond any reasonable doubt that an outlier represents a technological miracle that cannot be replicated by human-made devices, then we will explore the possibility that it may be of extraterrestrial origin.

In other words, an extraterrestrial technological miracle can be identified through the scientific method. This offers the middle ground to Einstein’s dictum, allowing humanity to learn something new from a more advanced species in our cosmic neighborhood that sent a technological package to our mailbox. UAP are likely a mixed bag. Most of them will likely be familiar but one might appear to be unfamiliar through the Galileo Project cameras.

The task is clear. Let’s look up and check without prejudice. If we find nothing new, we will move on. Just like the particle physics community reacted to not finding the lightest supersymmetric particle in the ATLAS detector of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But if we find something new, we have our work cut out for us …

For now, we can glance at the amazing new image from the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey 2, featuring 3.32 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy from where a package could have been sent in our direction billions of years ago. To appreciate how vast our cosmic neighborhood is, click here.

A tiny portion from a new survey of the Milky Way, featuring 3.32 billion stars, taken with the DOE-fabricated Dark Energy Camera at the NSF’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, a Program of NOIRLab.

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.

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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”.