"Imagine if cavemen had been shown the smartphone you’re using to record me. What would they have thought about this special rock? Now imagine that Oumuamua is the iPhone, and we are the cavemen"–Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb is worth hearing out https://t.co/hKJoL5mYu8
— Gady Epstein (@gadyepstein) January 11, 2019
It’s not the space rock, it’s the stories we tell each other about the space rock. As someone who’s been both an avid sf reader and a Cynic for pushing 60 years now, I found Professor Loeb’s whole argument charming:
“I don’t care what people say,” asserts Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department and author of one of the most controversial articles in the realm of science last year (and also one of the most popular in the general media). “It doesn’t matter to me,” he continues. “I say what I think, and if the broad public takes an interest in what I say, that’s a welcome result as far as I’m concerned, but an indirect result. Science isn’t like politics: It is not based on popularity polls.”
Prof. Abraham Loeb, 56, was born in Beit Hanan, a moshav in central Israel, and studied physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as part of the Israel Defense Forces’ Talpiot program for recruits who demonstrate outstanding academic ability. Freeman Dyson, the theoretical physicist, and the late astrophysicist John Bahcall admitted Loeb to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, whose past faculty members included Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 2012, Time magazine named Loeb one of the 25 most influential people in the field of space. He has won prizes, written books and published 700 articles in the world’s leading scientific journals. Last October, Loeb and his postdoctoral student Shmuel Bialy, also an Israeli, published an article in the scientific outlet “The Astrophysical Journal Letters,” which seriously raised the possibility that an intelligent species of aliens had sent a spaceship to Earth.
The “spaceship” in question is called Oumuamua. For those who don’t keep up with space news, Oumuamua is the first object in history to pass through the solar system and be identified as definitely originating outside of it. The first interstellar guest came to us from the direction of Vega, the brightest star in the Lyra constellation, which is 26 light-years from us. In the 1997 film “Contact,” it’s the star from which the radio signal is sent to Jodie Foster.
Oumuamua was actually discovered by a Canadian astronomer, Robert Weryk, using the Pan-STARRS telescope at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii. “Oumuamua” is Hawaiian for “first distant messenger” – in a word, “scout.” It was discovered on October 19, 2017, suspiciously close to Earth (relatively speaking, of course: Oumuamua was 33 million kilometers away from us when it was sighted – 85 times farther than the moon is from Earth)…
What does it feel like to sit next to colleagues in a university lunchroom a day after publishing an article arguing that Oumuamua may actually be a reconnaissance spaceship?
Loeb: “The article I published was written, in part, on the basis of conversations I had with colleagues whom I respect scientifically. Scientists of senior status said themselves that this object was peculiar but were apprehensive about making their thoughts public. I don’t understand that. After all, academic tenure is intended to give scientists the freedom to take risks without having to worry about their jobs. Unfortunately, most scientists achieve tenure – and go on tending to their image. As children we ask ourselves about the world, we allow ourselves to err. Ego doesn’t play a part. We learn about the world with innocence and honesty. As a scientist, you’re supposed to enjoy the privilege of being able to continue your childhood. Not to worry about the ego, but about uncovering the truth. Especially after you get tenure.”
Without tenure you wouldn’t have published the article?
“I suppose not. It’s not just the tenure. I’m head of the astronomy department, and founding director of the Black Hole Initiative [an interdisciplinary center at Harvard dedicated to the study of black holes]. In addition, I’m director of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. So it could be that I’m committing image suicide, if this turns out to be incorrect. On the other hand, if it turns out to be correct, it’s one of the greatest discoveries in human history. For us to make progress in understanding the universe, we need to be credible, and the only way to be credible is to follow what you see, not yourself. Besides, what’s the worst thing that can happen to me? I’ll be relieved of my administrative duties? This will bring the benefit that I’ll have more time for science.”…
Was ‘Oumuamua a spaceship? Almost certainly not! Are we, this generation, the readers of this blog, ever likely to know whether ‘Oumuamua was a spaceship? Again — signs point to ‘No’. But the theory is enough, perhaps, to change how (if, when) we spot the next extrastellar object.
Tom Scocca puts it nicely (in the original sense of that word):
… No one will ever track down ‘Oumuamua to settle the question, but the purpose of Loeb’s argument was to be unsettling—to demonstrate that being the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department no longer means rejecting the possibility of alien technology, that when ‘Oumuamua departed, it carried away with it a whole set of presumptions that had been operating under the guise of conclusions…
The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. ‘Oumuamua entered our solar system from a direction nothing else had entered it from, at a speed nothing else had arrived at, with a shape nothing else had ever had. It accelerated, by some means no one had ever previously observed, and went away. Whether it came from a technosphere built by aliens was almost beside the point, or too narrow a question: what is certain is that there is at least one thing of its kind in the universe, which is infinitely more things of that kind that we knew existed in the universe two years ago.
Who knows? Perhaps ‘Oumuamua is the extrastellar equivalent of a mousetrap set by careful householders around the perimeter of an as-yet-mouseless home. Have we triggered that trap? If so, are the original trap-setters even around to care? It’s the speculation that’s the fun part!
oumuamua came to the solar system looking for intelligent life and that’s why it left so fast
— chris hooks (@cd_hooks) January 14, 2019