Has Avi Loeb from Harvard discovered evidence of alien existence with his alien hunting skills?
Vi Loeb is a Harvard astrophysicist who has been on a quest to discover extraterrestrial life for many years. He is currently working on a project to observe the entire sky using a network of telescopes from different countries. Recently, he traveled to Papua New Guinea to investigate whether a meteor detected in 2014 could be evidence of an interstellar spacecraft. However, he has faced criticism and negative comments from fellow academics and critics in the media, which has become frustrating for him.
According to Loeb, scientists have expressed skepticism about his decision to explore the Pacific Ocean, calling it a waste of time and energy. However, Loeb defends his actions by stating that he is not using any research funds and is taking on the task himself. He questions why the scientists are being negative about his project as he gives me a tour of his lavish home in Lexington, Massachusetts, a wealthy town in the US. He is currently preparing for a solo performance about his life and work, which will take place in his attic tomorrow. I am apparently the only journalist invited to attend, aside from the film crew recording a documentary.
61-year-old Loeb has completed his daily five-mile run at 5am before starting work. He is small, well-dressed, wears glasses, and has a neat appearance, somewhat resembling Jeffrey Archer in a school uniform. His office is small and quickly shown before we enter his clean and organized living room. He kindly offers me sparkling water and a bowl of chocolates. Despite his slim build, Loeb has a love for chocolate and consumes 800 calories worth of it each day. He admits to being addicted and unable to give it up.
Is he anxious about his performance? “No, not at all,” he replies. “Since I am portraying myself, there is no distinction.” Netflix will be recording the show. In June, a team of documentary-makers joined him on his journey to Papua New Guinea, where he retrieved fragments from a fireball that had fallen into the sea north of Manus Island. “There were more than 50 filmmakers and producers who were interested in documenting my work. They wanted to be on the ship, but I had a contract with only one.”
Loeb, a respected scientist, has authored numerous papers and a popular book titled “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth”. He currently holds the position of Frank B Baird Jr professor of science at Harvard and serves as director of both the Institute for Theory and Computation and the Galileo project at Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics. He gained recognition following the appearance of an oddly shaped object in our solar system in 2017. Astronomers deemed it to be interstellar due to its “extreme dimensions” and it was given the nickname ‘Oumuamua, which is Hawaiian for “scout” or “first distant messenger” and is pronounced similarly to a child startled by a cow: Oh mooer mooer.
‘Oumuamua was shaped like a long and thin pancake. After more examination, scientists discovered additional irregularities. They concluded that the object had experienced an increase in speed before being detected by telescopes as it passed by the sun. This is a normal occurrence for comets, which are made of rocky ice that melts in the sun’s heat and produces gases that act as boosters. This is what creates the familiar tail of a comet, but ‘Oumuamua did not have one. According to Loeb, “No tail, no comet.” In a paper co-authored with Sean Kirkpatrick, the director of the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (which investigates UFOs for the US Department of Defense), Loeb later proposed the idea that ‘Oumuamua could be a solar sail from an interstellar spacecraft, using sunlight to propel itself through space. In other words, it may have been created by aliens.
During 2017, there was a significant increase in interest among UFO enthusiasts. This was also the year when the Pentagon publicly acknowledged their investigation into UFOs. The budget allotted for this endeavor, which amounted to $22 million, was reportedly utilized for exploring reported sightings of UFOs and various unexplained occurrences. As a result of this heightened curiosity, Loeb gained widespread recognition on a global scale.
His fate was not predetermined by the alignment of the stars. Loeb, who had German heritage, was raised on a poultry farm in Israel. His grandfather, Albert Loeb, a veteran of World War I, escaped the persecution of Jews by the Nazis by leaving his home country while serving at Verdun. Despite leaving everything behind, only 56 members of his family followed suit and the rest were ultimately sent to concentration camps. Albert arrived in Palestine and aided the British by providing them with aerial photographs of a significant dam in Frankfurt, which was subsequently targeted by bombing. According to Loeb, this was his grandfather’s way of seeking revenge.
During the period when ‘Oumuamua gained attention, Loeb’s parents passed away. He had a special bond with his mother, who was always supportive and nurturing of his love for learning. “I would often escape on a tractor to the hills and dive into philosophical texts, particularly those related to existentialism. I have always been intrigued by the fundamental inquiries about our existence.”
When we met, Loeb had recently returned from his trip to Papua New Guinea where he gathered spherules – small glassy beads made of metal and rock – debris from the 2014 meteorite. The meteorite was tracked by telescopes from the US Space Command, which are designed to detect enemy missiles. The exact method used to measure the trajectories and positions of objects is confidential, but it was reported to be “99.999%” certain that the fireball came from interstellar origins. Loeb believes that because the meteorite was moving at such high speeds and did not disintegrate in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, it must have been composed of something more durable, perhaps even artificially made. “This object was faster than 95% of the stars near the sun, compared to what is known as the local standard. This is what initially led me to suspect that it may be a spacecraft,” Loeb says, with excitement evident on his face. “It was able to withstand very high levels of stress, leading us to believe it must be tougher than even iron meteorites.”
Loeb and his colleagues have currently retrieved tiny spherical objects from the trajectory of the meteorite. It can be compared to gathering droplets of water that have splashed out from a punctured water balloon. However, they intend to continue their search in the upcoming spring season for larger fragments. This would allow them to easily distinguish between a natural rock and a man-made device. As Loeb explains, a device would have visible screws and buttons.
Did he push those buttons? “I posed the same inquiry to my students. Half of them responded with: ‘No, it’s not a good idea since it will impact all of us.’ The other half said: ‘Yes, we’re interested.’ One of the students then asked me: ‘Professor, what would you personally do?’ I informed them that I would take it to a lab and study it before interacting with it.”
Is it desirable to search for extraterrestrial life? Should we make contact with potential species that may possess similar aggression levels as humans, but also possess more advanced capabilities?
“I have a major concern,” Loeb states. “It’s not the potential danger of curiosity, but rather the prevalence of childish bullying over childish curiosity in academic settings. People seem to make it their goal to crush any emerging ideas or individuals. This negative atmosphere is detrimental as it stifles innovation.”
Some people who disagree with Loeb say that he often makes bold statements without sufficient proof. Prior to his trip to Papua New Guinea, Loeb promoted his journey on a large screen in Times Square. He also shared updates on his findings in the Pacific through a live blog. Critics argue that this method can be misleading and presents an inaccurate representation of how legitimate scientific research is conducted.
They could be correct. Following the gathering of the small spheres, Loeb announced on TV that his finding marked “the initial instance of humans possessing material from a large entity originating outside our solar system.” However, the source of the spherules was not yet determined at the time, and it remains unknown.
Small, round particles are found all over the Earth, but not all of them come from meteorites. Some are created by volcanic activity, while others are a result of human activities during the Industrial Revolution and the Iron Age. After analyzing samples from Harvard, it was discovered that they had unique compositions. However, determining if these samples are connected to the meteorite Loeb is searching for, and if that meteorite was created by beings from another planet, will require further investigation.
Loeb views his critics as narcissistic and envious, with limited perspective and a strong aversion to risk. He strongly believes that sharing his research through blogging enhances the general understanding of the scientific process. According to him, some people have expressed that they have never before seen the inner workings of science, as they are typically only presented with the final results at press conferences. This can create a sense of disconnect between scientists and the public, as the scientists are seen as elite and dictating the truth. In contrast, Loeb sees his blog posts as intriguing detective stories that the public enjoys. He questions, what could possibly be the issue with that?
The issue lies in the fact that scientists tend to remain silent until their colleagues have thoroughly examined their research. When asked about this by the New York Times in August, Loeb responded, “That is another approach, but it is not considered unethical.”
He contends that the underfunding of his field, in comparison to Cern, is criminal. He points out that despite the billions of dollars invested in the Large Hadron Collider in search of supersymmetry, it has not been found. He also expresses disdain for theoretical physicists who spend decades working on concepts such as string theory, extra dimensions, and the multiverse without any concrete evidence. He views their efforts as attempting to advance the frontier of physics.
The following day, I revisit Loeb’s residence to attend his performance alongside his students, friends, colleagues, and family. Loeb aspires to elevate his production from his attic to off-Broadway and has a high likelihood of succeeding. Joshua Ravetch, who co-produced and directed Carrie Fisher’s solo show Wishful Drinking, is leading the production, and the show features a song written by Oscar-winning songwriter Alan Bergman.
The presentation consists of a single speaker talking, interspersed with visual aids and brief clips. Loeb opens with the topic of ’Oumuamua and quickly begins to criticize those who disagree with him. He compares himself to the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story, exposing the truth about ’Oumuamua and its lack of a tail to the astronomical community.
Next, there are multiple theories surrounding the asteroid. One possibility is that it was a nitrogen iceberg, but this is unlikely as we have never observed one and it would not withstand the journey through interstellar space. Another theory is that it was a dark comet, which we have also never seen before. It could possibly be invisible due to its dark nature. The suggestion that it was a comet with an icy core, similar to a water iceberg, has been proposed. However, Loeb jokes that this is nothing new as we have observed these types of comets before, accompanied by the music from Titanic.
He continues to compare the resistance he’s faced to the struggles of Galileo and Marie Curie, and then references the Wright Brothers. In 1900, it was widely believed that human flight was impossible and many prominent figures, such as Thomas Edison and The New York Times, stated that it would never be achieved. These comparisons may not change the minds of those who view him as self-centered.
However, it could be argued that this perspective is not entirely fair. Before concluding our conversation, I inquire with Loeb about the potential benefits of searching for extraterrestrial life. His response is unexpectedly humble. He explains, “In our personal lives, we know that finding a partner brings new purpose and significance. Similarly, if we were to discover another civilization that could teach us and inspire us, it would give our cosmic existence a greater meaning. The universe would no longer be purposeless.”
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