Table of contents:

Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb is confident that an alien object has visited us
Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb is confident that an alien object has visited us

Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb is convinced that the search for aliens is not a waste of money. In addition to an unusual asteroid, a sober calculation in the spirit of Blaise Pascal speaks in favor of spending on the search for alien intelligence. What have we got to lose if this search turns out to be fruitless? A bit of money that would otherwise have gone to something stupid, like a war. But in case of success - can you imagine the prospects?

In an interview, a Harvard University professor talks in detail about his sensational hypothesis. And also that science, in his opinion, is in crisis.


Avi Loeb is no stranger to scientific controversy. This gushing astrophysicist from Harvard University has already carried out pioneering and sensational studies of black holes, gamma-ray bursts, he was studying the history of the early Universe. He also touched upon other topics characteristic of his field of scientific research. However, in addition to this, for more than a decade, Loeb showed interest in a highly controversial and controversial topic - the search for space aliens.

Until recently, Loeb's loudest scientific work in this area was his participation in the Breakthrough Starshot project, which was funded by Silicon Valley billionaire Yuri Milner. This project involves sending high-speed space probes to nearby stars with sails-screens made of thin fabric - the so-called "light sails"; these probes must be accelerated by a laser propulsion system.


However, things began to change in late 2017, when astronomers around the world tried to study the mysterious "interstellar guest" - the first in human history - which was briefly within the reach of our telescopes.

Alien: either a cigar or a pancake

The discoverers of the space object named it "Oumuamua", which is roughly translated from Hawaiian as "scout". When we first met this heavenly messenger, it turned out that he has several properties that are not easy to explain. Outwardly, Oumuamua looks like a cigar or pancake 100 meters long, while it does not look like any of the known asteroids or comets.


The same applies to its brightness: it turned out that the reflectivity of the surface of Oumuamua is at least ten times higher than that characteristic of ordinary asteroids in our solar system - Oumuamua shines like polished metal. The strangest thing was that after Oumuamua flew past the Sun, he began to accelerate, which could only be explained by the gradual weakening of the solar gravity. Ordinary comets are also accelerated due to the fact that ice evaporates at high speed from their surface, heated by the sun, and turns into a gaseous state. But as for Oumuamua, no gas jets are observed around him.

For Loeb, however, the most plausible explanation is as obvious as it is sensational: given Oumuamua's somewhat pancake-like shape and high reflectivity, it must be admitted that Oumuamua's anomalous acceleration can only be explained if it is believed that he is in fact a solar sail driven by the pressure of the solar wind.

Perhaps this is an abandoned ship belonging to some long-extinct galactic civilization.Loeb for several years constantly thought about the day when mankind will finally find, in the depths of space, proof of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. And so, the scientist became more and more convinced that, finally, Oumuamua is the very proof.

In late 2018, Loeb and researcher Shmuel Bialy at Harvard University published an article in The Astrophysical Journal Letters (ApJL). In it, they argued that the meeting with Oumuamua is nothing more than the first contact of humanity with an object that was created by extraterrestrial intelligence.

Extraterrestrial intelligence as promised

The article caused a great resonance among journalists, but did not appeal to most of Loeb's colleagues specializing in astrobiology.

The latter state that, despite all the unusualness of Oumuamua, it still needs (if we take into account its properties) to be attributed to objects of natural origin. To argue the opposite, say Loeb's critics, is at best reckless, and at worst disastrous for their scientific direction, because scientists have been fighting for a long time to save the reputation of research on extraterrestrial civilizations (and this area of ​​science has a right to exist) from discrediting. And their science is discredited most of all by lightweight reports devoted to all sorts of UFOs and alien abductions.

However, Loeb decided to defend his point in front of the general public by releasing a book:


Which tells about the author himself and about the main mysteries associated with Oumuamua. Scientific American asked Avi Loeb about his book, about his controversial hypothesis, and why he believes science is in crisis.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

Lee Billings: Hi Avi. How are you?

Avi Loeb: Not bad! True, I do not get enough sleep, because I have to respond to requests from all the media that have shown interest in the book. For example, I had to do interviews at 1:50 am for Good Morning Britain and at 3 am for Coast to Coast AM. Add in my appearances on American network and cable television.

In the next few weeks, I have about a hundred interviews to do along with podcasts. Long interviews have already been recorded with [vloggers] Lex Friedman and Joe Rogan for their show. I have never seen anything like it, the book aroused a lot of interest. I mean, over the past few weeks, I have been contacted by ten directors and producers from Hollywood! I jokingly told my literary agent that if suddenly someone were to make a film, then I would like to be played by Brad Pitt.

- My daily routine is as follows: I always get up at five in the morning, then jog. There is no one on the street, just me, birds, ducks and rabbits - really beautiful. If we talk about my scientific work, then because of the pandemic, the last ten months have been the most fruitful. You don't need to go to work. The need for a large number of meetings has disappeared. And most importantly, you don't need to constantly analyze other people's opinions!

- The point here is this: I think that communication with the media is an opportunity for me, which allows me to share my thoughts with a wider audience. Otherwise, I would not be able to share my thoughts.

- Yes. I also want to say that at present the scientific community is developing somehow not quite right - I mean, if I may say so, the state of health of this community.

Now for many scientists, the main motivator is their own pride, craving for honors and awards, demonstrating their own mind to colleagues. For them, science is, rather, a monologue about oneself beloved, and not a dialogue with nature. They are used to stewing in their own juice; they want their voices to sound louder and their image more significant. To this end, they use students and their other disciples, who are forced to repeat learned mantras.But that is not the purpose of science.

Science has nothing to do with the self-esteem of scientists, the expansion of their power, or the improvement of their image. Science wants to understand how the world around us works; this is an experience of knowledge, in the course of gaining this experience one has to take risks and even make mistakes. If you work at the forefront of fundamental science, you do not know in advance where is the right and where is the wrong path - everything is learned only thanks to the feedback that is provided through experiments.

The need for an experiment

Another problem of modern science is not only that people now have the wrong motivation, but also that they no longer rely on the evidence base, i.e. on the experiment.

The need for experimental confirmation of the theory put forward forces the scientist to behave more modestly, because in the course of experiments his theory may not be confirmed. And in our time, many famous scientists are engaged in, so to speak, mathematical gymnastics, studying various theories that have not been confirmed by experience - this includes, for example, string theory, the multiverse hypothesis, and even the inflationary model of the universe.

Once on a forum, I asked [physicist] Alan Guth, who put forward the theory of cosmic inflation:

"Is it possible to fundamentally refute the inflationary model of the universe?" (Here Avi Loeb is referring to the criterion of falsifiability (i.e. fundamental refutability) put forward by Karl Popper and which is a criterion for the scientific nature of a theory - approx. Transl.) And he replied that I asked a stupid question, because with the help of an inflationary model you can interpret any cosmological data obtained as a result of the experiment.

It turns out that the theory of cosmic inflation is strong, because it can explain anything! But I think this is a big disadvantage of it, because the "theory of everything" is sometimes a "theory of nothing", and it turns out that there is no difference between them.

A bubble filled with hypotheses

It seems to me that this whole bubble filled with hypotheses resembles drugs: you can get high from it and imagine that you have become richer than Elon Musk, the richest man in the world today. It amuses me very much. Everyone immediately gets in a good mood, you can chat with friends.

And if you are part of a large team of like-minded people, then everyone can support and honor each other, give each other awards - great, right? But, after that, you go to the ATM to cash out the card and spend the money that you think you have in your account. And then you realize that in fact you have nothing on your account. So an experiment in science, similar to going to an ATM, also serves as a test of the correctness of the hypothesis. And in science, such a test is simply very necessary - hypotheses need to be tested, otherwise we will not receive any new knowledge. I don’t think that hypothesis remains a recognized scientific tool at present.

- The difference is that you can put forward hypotheses about aliens and test them experimentally. At the same time, putting forward our hypotheses, we proceed from a conservative point of view.

If 'Oumuamua is one of many objects moving along random trajectories, then, based on the data of its detection using the Pan-STARRS telescope, it will be possible to say as a forecast that very soon we will begin to detect an average of one of these objects per month after the launch of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.


In addition, it is possible to create a system of instruments - possibly satellites - that are capable of not only observing outer space, but also reacting to the appearance of such objects. Then we will have the opportunity to photograph these objects as they approach and not track their movement - and yet their speed is very high.Some of this work can be done on Earth: you can search for meteors of interstellar origin and, if any of them falls on the surface of the Earth, you can explore it in terrestrial conditions.

Aliens versus "multiverse" theory

I am asked why I communicate so closely with the media. The only reason is that my colleagues are not using common sense. Compare at least string theory and multiverse theory with what I and many others argue, namely: based on data from NASA's Kepler space observatory, it can be argued that about half of the entire set of stars in our galaxy, similar to the Sun, there is a planet the size of the Earth nearby.


Moreover, all these planets are located approximately at the same distance as the Earth from the Sun. And if so, then there is a possibility that liquid water is present on the surface of such planets. Consequently, one can expect the appearance of certain forms of life.

So, if we, wanting to measure the likelihood of life in the Milky Way, begin to toss, so to speak, a cube billions of times, then what is the probability that we are alone in the universe? Most likely negligible! So, under similar circumstances, similar results are achieved - this is, in my opinion, the most moderate and conservative statement you can imagine.

So I expect most people to support me, pat me on the shoulder and say, “Great, Avi, you're right. We must look for alien objects, because the likelihood of their appearance is very high. " But instead, I see a backlash that indicates a loss of intellectual flair.

How else to explain the fact that work is underway, for example, on string theory or the theory of the multiverse - that is, on those objects in the existence of which we have not the slightest confidence? Moreover, in science, this is considered the mainstream! And nobody deals with alien life forms. This is madness.

I'll be specific. It is quite obvious that I am not an outsider rebel and do not occupy any leadership positions. I chair the Council of Physics and Astronomy at the National Academies [of Science, Engineering, and Medicine], right? The council is now preparing for release later this year, a survey entitled Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, which will set the top science priorities for NASA and the US National Science Foundation.

In my opinion, astronomers should arm themselves with billions of dollars worth of telescopes; their main task is to find traces of oxygen, and after it - and traces of life in the atmospheres of exoplanets. This is a noble task.

Extraterrestrial life without additional financial investments

But if we look at the evolution of the Earth during the first two billion years, we will see that the oxygen content in the atmosphere at that time was small - and this despite the fact that microbial life forms were very diverse. This is the first question.

The second question is as follows: even if oxygen is suddenly discovered, then its appearance may be associated with completely natural natural phenomena, say, with the disintegration of water molecules. Thus, even if you spend billions of dollars and find oxygen, and with it methane, people will still debate about it forever.

Look at how much controversy there has been about finding traces of phosphine on Venus, and phosphine is a very unusual molecule compared to oxygen. In any case, I believe that with the same tools (no additional financial investment is required here), you can really get convincing evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life, intelligence and technology.

What will be the costs? Just industrial pollution of the atmosphere. You can do, for example, the search for chlorofluorocarbons - these are complex molecules that on Earth are used only in refrigeration plants.If these molecules are found on another planet, then this means that they did not arise as a result of any natural phenomena. This means that we have received convincing evidence that life exists on this planet.

Why not start looking for traces of industrial pollution, because it's worth it? Is there only a certain psychological barrier that prevents some scientists from admitting that they would like the issue of the search for extraterrestrial civilizations to be pushed to the periphery and financed on a leftover basis? But, in my opinion, such studies should become a priority, although they should be treated with caution, because they will give us maximum information about the existence of alien life. But now the situation is just the opposite.

Pascal's wager

- Thank you, I understand your question. In general, science is funded by the state. The public, in turn, is showing great interest in the search for extraterrestrial life. Therefore, I cannot help but ask my question: if the public is on the side of scientists, do they have the right to evade the search for the answer to the riddle - the answer that can be found with the help of the technologies they create?

Of course, there is a huge amount of science fiction stories about aliens and many unconfirmed UFO reports. Now let's imagine that there is some literature about the magical properties of covid-19, which has nothing to do with reality. Does this mean scientists should stop looking for a vaccine to stop this pandemic? No and no again!

Science as a search in dark nooks

I am sure that the search for the technological characteristics of Oumuamua is no different from the study of the nature of dark matter. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the search for weakly interacting massive particles, considered as the main candidate for the most important component of dark matter, but so far unsuccessfully. This does not mean that the money was wasted; searching in dark nooks and crannies is part of the scientific process.

When it comes to risk, in science, cards have to be laid out on the table. We have no right to suppress certain ideas just because we are worried about the consequences of discussing these ideas. Refusal to discuss is also associated with a huge risk.

Probably, Galileo was warned that he was silent about the movement of the Earth around the Sun and put the telescope aside, because it was so dangerous for the science of the late Middle Ages. Why step on the same rake? An open dialogue is needed between scientists when people express different ideas. Which one is correct should be determined only by the facts.

Returning to Oumuamua, I say that the factual evidence we have suggests that this object was artificially created. To check if my statement is correct, it is necessary to find additional examples related to Oumuamua and study them. It's that simple!

How to change the current situation? My answer: it is necessary to tell the public about it, which I am doing.

- While doing without attacks, insults and the like. There may be someone whispering behind my back, which is reasonable given my leadership positions.

No, I really cannot answer this question. I don't shine on social media. Although, I must admit, I think my critics, who most often leave venomous remarks on Twitter and elsewhere, are mediocre "scientists." Most real scientists will not act like that. Instead, they will argue for or against my claims. It's enough.

The venomous remarks are pointless, except that I shouldn't be surprised if in fact many of my critics are intrigued by the possibility of Oumuamua being artificial. But they do not want to admit it and shout the opposite.

Young Scientists Go Behind the Flags

Unfortunately, young scientists, novice doctors of science who participated in my research, are in a completely different situation. Soon they will have to look for work. I am sure that well-wishers have often approached them with the words: “Listen, what are you doing? It is so dangerous for you personally. " As a result, young scientists "went into hibernation" and practically stopped dealing with the problems of extraterrestrial intelligence.

There is nothing surprising. If you have created a hostile intellectual culture where everything SETI is not honored, then young talents will not dare to go out of the box.

If you are standing on the grass, do not complain that it doesn’t grow under the soles of your shoes.

Mediocre scientists stop the brilliant researchers from working on SETI and then say, “Look, nothing has been found. SETI is a complete failure!"

All of the above does not mean that space science should completely switch to SETI. If you look at the world of commerce, you will see that companies like Bell Labs in the past or Google today are encouraging their employees to innovate in fundamental research, allowing them to engage in research that does not yet yield immediate returns in the form of profit. If you look closely at academia, you will see that they are much more conservative than the commercial sector. And there is no excuse for this.

Work atmosphere

“I believe (and I think this is true of all other people) that my imagination is limited by my knowledge. Of course, participation in "Breakthrough Initiatives" could not but influence my position. I was one of those who suggested to Yuri Milner to support the idea of ​​a light sail [it was expressed by the physicist Philip Lubin]. This is a very promising starship concept. It expanded my vocabulary and it’s not surprising that I tried to transfer it to Oumuamua.

You may ask, "Doesn't this indicate your bias?" And my answer is that nothing is new in physics and in SETI. You know that in the context of the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence, as soon as radio was invented, we started listening to the sky looking for radio signals. It was the same with lasers. When you are working on a technology, it is only natural that you imagine it existing and look for a use for it.

I do not deny that the idea of ​​a light sail was born in my head, because I worked on it before. But from the point of view of Yuri's motivation, it doesn't matter. After all, if I have a need to defend my views, I can turn to him directly. Therefore, my work on Oumuamua was not supported or coordinated with the Breakthrough Initiatives. There were no press releases to support me.

Of course, those involved in Breakthrough Initiatives have cause for alarm - they have to take care of their reputation and the like. I did not contact the participants of this program in any way and did not receive any support from their side. I was even surprised that no one used Oumuamua as a political tool in the context of the Breakthrough Initiatives. This has nothing to do with my motives.

“I just stepped down as Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard, so I really have the opportunity to move on to the next stage.

The question is: what could be this stage? Real life does not always correspond to our plans, but another opportunity to take a leadership position would be very tempting, because I could try to create an atmosphere that no one else can do. I would not want to miss this chance.

However, maybe I shouldn't think about leadership. It is possible that they won't even offer me anything - it's all because of my ideas about Oumuamua. Then I will work more on new books, do more research, and continue to jog every morning.

Popular by topic