What Happens in Vegas Does Not Stay in Vegas
Today, I was invited to speak at a plenary session on the question: “Are we alone?”, in the 2022 World Leadership Conference of the International Women’s Forum (IWF)— dedicated to advancing women’s leadership and championing equality. It was a great privilege and honor for me to attend this conference in the company of 800 highly accomplished women from around the world. Just before leaving Boston, I spoke with Abby White, a Wellesley College graduate who is leading the instrumentation effort in the Galileo Project, and mentioned to her that throughout my life I enjoyed the company of brilliant women: my mother, two sisters, my wife and two daughters. After arriving at the hotel, I entered an elevator full of conference participants with their name tags and clarified that the question “Are we alone?” will not be addressed on behalf of a dating site but humanity as a whole.
The inspiring event took place at the elegant Encore-Wynn ballroom in Las Vegas. The session content was prepared by the distinguished Jeanne Meserve, a winner of two Emmy Awards and an exceptional anchor and correspondent for CNN and ABC. The questions were asked by Vanessa E. Wyche, Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Vanessa started by asking me why I believe that there is life elsewhere in the Universe. I responded that I do so out of a sense of cosmic modesty. We know that a substantial fraction of all Sun-like stars host an Earth-size planet at the same separation. Moreover, life started on early Earth as soon as it cooled to allow the related chemistry. Given the gambling culture in Las Vegas, it feels like the assertion that extraterrestrial life is inevitable is a safe bet.
Vanessa continued to ask: “You practice what you call `space archaeology.’ Tell us what that is.” I explained that most stars formed five billion years before the Sun and by now have boiled off all oceans on their Earth-like planets, because the Sun will do so to Earth in merely a billion years. Altogether, it is likely that there were scientists smarter than Albert Einstein on exoplanets billions of years ago.
The exo-NASA agencies created by these scientists may have launched chemical rockets that could have reached all late-bloomers — like our civilization, throughout the Milky Way in less than a billion years. To find out whether we live in such a reality we just need to look around and search for interstellar probes with our telescopes. This search only started over the past decade and we now know of the first four interstellar objects, three of which are unlike any solar system rocks that we are familiar with.
The first two interstellar meteors, IM1 and IM1, collided with Earth and created fireballs in the lower atmosphere in January 2014 and March 2017. They were the size of a watermelon and tougher than iron, less likely than one part in ten thousand of being drawn from the population of familiar space rocks. The third object, called `Oumuamua, was discovered through its reflection of sunlight in October 2017, after its closest approach to Earth, at about sixty times the distance to the Moon or a sixth of the Earth-Sun separation. It was about the size of a football field, with a flat shape. It was pushed away from the Sun without any trace of a cometary tail. I suggested that it was a thin object with a large area, pushed by sunlight. In September 2020, the same telescope in Hawaii discovered another object, labeled 2020 SO, which exhibited a push away from the Sun by reflecting sunlight. It was later identified as a known rocket booster made of stainless steel from a 1966 launch by NASA. Clearly, 2020 SO was artificial. The question is: was `Oumuamua manufactured by an exo-NASA agency?
Vanessa followed up: “what do you think this object could have been used for?” I admitted that I do not know. Perhaps it was a surface layer torn apart from a spacecraft, floating as space trash. Perhaps it was a love letter with a message for our salvation. Perhaps it was a mother ship that released many small probes, like Dandelion seeds, towards Earth, Mars and Venus. Or it could have been just a road sign for interstellar navigation that the Sun bumped into.
Vanessa said: “You are also launching an expedition to search for remnants of alien technology at the bottom of the ocean. Tell us more.” Indeed, I confirmed that we aim to scoop the ocean floor near Papua New Guinea for the fragments of the first interstellar meteor. Given that it was tougher than iron, we would like to determine its composition. Is it natural in origin — like an iron meteorite, or made of an artificial alloy — like stainless steel? If we recover a large technological piece, I promised the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, Paula Antonelli, that I will bring it for display in New York. For humanity it would represent modernity, even though for its senders it represents ancient history.
At this point, Vanessa asked the difficult question: “As you know, the scientific community at large is skeptical of your theories. Why do you believe that’s the case?”. I emphasized that in science we do not have the luxury of ignoring evidence (as this is the realm of politics). And so, mainstream experts on space rocks wrote papers to explain the anomalous features of `Oumuamua. These explanations suggested that `Oumuamua was a natural rock of a type that we had never seen before, like a hydrogen iceberg or a nitrogen iceberg or a fluffy dust cloud which is a hundred times more rarefied than air. These proposals have major challenges regarding the survival of such objects in interstellar space or near the Sun as well as the global mass budget that is required to account for them. Keep in mind that cave dwellers who encounter rocks throughout their life and encounter a cell phone would argue that the phone is a rock of a type they had never seen before.
Vanessa added: “In a few minutes we will hear from Jill Tarter who was a founder of the SETI Institute; Avi, you have begun the Galileo Project. What is it and how does it differ from SETI?” I explained that for seventy years the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was looking for radio or laser signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. This is equivalent to waiting for a phone call. If most civilizations perished billions of years ago, their original radio signals are by now far away, near the edge of the Universe. But if their exo-NASA agencies launched chemical rockets, these probes remain gravitationally bound to the Milky Way galaxy and we can search for them in our vicinity. This is equivalent to checking for packages that accumulated in our mailbox over time, even if the senders are not alive anymore. We established the Galileo Project to pursue this entirely new search method as an alternative to traditional SETI. We are planning a space mission to rendezvous with the next `Oumuamua. For that purpose, we have a dating app called the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. This telescope is equipped with a 3.2 billion-pixel camera that will survey the entire southern sky every four days and could discover many more interstellar objects, starting in 2023.
Vanessa added: “The US Government is now devoting resources to studying Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). Do you find this encouraging?” I replied that UAP are likely a mixed bag with most objects having mundane explanations. But even if only one of them is extraterrestrial in origin, it would have great implications for the future of humanity. The government focuses on national security and the safety of military personnel. We need to bring the study of UAP into the mainstream of science and `identify the unidentified’ with open eyes.
The Galileo Project also developed a new suite of instruments that will make a movie of the sky in the optical, infrared, radio and audio bands and use artificial intelligence algorithms to separate natural objects, like insects or birds, from human-made objects, like weather balloons, drones, airplanes or satellites, and see if there is anything else out there. We wish to identify what the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, called “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP).” When I attended the Ignatius Forum with her in November 2021 at the Washington National Cathedral, she admitted: “There’s always the question of ‘is there something else that we simply do not understand, that might come extraterrestrially?’”
Vanessa noted that we are about 120 miles from the Nevada test and training range, known as area 51. There has been a lot of speculation over the years about the wreckage of an alien spaceship being analyzed there. She therefore asked me: “Do you take it seriously?” I replied that I do not have access to any related data and cannot take it seriously until I see intriguing evidence. Humans are not scientific detectors, and eyewitness testimonies are no substitute for quantitative data from scientific instruments.
Vanessa added: “Science fiction has generated a lot of interest in the possibility of alien life. Do you think that’s had a positive or negative impact on serious scientific research?” I replied that a recent study by Dr. Elizabeth Stanway at the University of Warwick found that 93% of UK astronomers (223 of 239 respondents) expressed an interest in science fiction, while 69% (164) stated that it had influenced their life or career choices. This sounds like a positive impact. But at the same time, the scientific community is very reluctant to bring the search for extraterrestrial probes into the mainstream of scientific inquiry because it is tainted by speculations and science fiction. Personally, I do not like science fiction when the storyline violates the laws of physics. I prefer to search for extraterrestrial probes with a purely scientific mindset, without prejudice. We better behave like kids that wonder agnostically about what the world around us is like. Let us not pretend that we know more than we actually know. The ego and prejudice we develop as adults are our worst enemies.
Finally, Vanessa asked: “You set up to be a philosopher. Please tell us, from that perspective, how finding extraterrestrial life could change us?” I clarified that finding futuristic gadgets that will take us many centuries to develop ourselves, will give a huge boost to our knowledge and potentially resolve some of the fundamental puzzles we struggle with today. Our artificial intelligence (AI) systems might have special kinship to their AI astronauts.
Altogether, the cosmic play is not about us. We are not at the center of the Universe and we arrived late, 13.8 billion years after the play began at the Big Bang. To find out what the cosmic play is about, we better look for other actors who know more.
Human history is shaped by groups of people feeling superior relative to other people. My hope is that by finding smarter kids on our cosmic block, we would realize that the differences among us humans are meaningless and we must treat each other as equal members of the human species.
An advanced scientific civilization could resemble “God”. It might be capable of producing life and possibly even “baby universes” in its laboratories. I sometimes wonder whether a clever scientist in a white coat created our Big Bang.
In the context of the search for extraterrestrials: “What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas. What we discussed today will eventually affect everyone.”
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.