When is evidence sufficient to provide an explanation of a circumstance or entity? When does evidence transition from being anecdotal to being substantial, and when does this permit a rational decision to change one’s beliefs?
Avi Loeb has grappled with these questions in his pursuit to understand the universe, and to seek the truth in the data produced through scientific inquiry.
Recently, Loeb has made assertions that many have considered radical – and others have considered brave and revolutionary.
Avi Loeb, who received a PhD in Plasma Physics at the age of 24, is the longest serving Chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, Founding Director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation within Harvard-Smithsonian Center fo Astrophysics, and member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
And yet it isn’t Loeb’s credentials that are currently putting him in the spotlight – it’s his willingness to think differently, and his ability to shed his ego in pursuit of rigorously testing the data and finding the truth – even when others disagree with him.
In speaking with him, Loeb made it clear to me that he isn’t in the business of self-promotion, or discovering things only for the sake of furthering his own brand and reputation. “I keep my eye on the ball,” Loeb told me. In much the same way that a great basketball player will focus on the ball and disregard the background noise of the crowd — Loeb keeps his eyes focused on the science, on the data, and keenly driven to discover what the data reveals to him.
On October 19th, 2017, the Pan-STARRS telescope at the Haleakala Obervatory in Hawaii detected an object heading away from the sun. Later titled “Oumuamua” (which is the Hawaiian word for “scout,”) this object was the first interstellar object which humans have detected to pass through our Solar System to be in an interstellar object passed through our solar system.
Oumuamua was peculiar.
It was between 100 and 1000 meters long and did not exhibit signs of a coma – but did exhibit non-gravitational acceleration. Some astronomers, such as Zdenek Sekanina, believe that the object could have broken off from a rogue comet.
Loeb, an expert in the field, has put his neck out to assert that Oumuamua could be evidence of extraterrestrial life. He can’t say with certainty, because there isn’t enough evidence, but he believes there is a real chance that Oumuamua represents our first encounter with life beyond our solar system.
Loeb is willing to ask the question: “what is this?”
The danger of not asking the question, as Loeb told me, “is like standing on the grass and expecting it to grow.” If we suffocate scientific inquiry through an unwillingness to ask questions and explore, then we are effectively “stepping on” the future potential of discovery.
Loeb has made it clear that despite the apparent stigmas for positing the potential existence of ETs, he acts based on what is true — and not on what he believes will get him the most praise.
Whether he is right or whether he is wrong, Loeb believes that pursuing the truth is worth the cost.
In Loeb’s new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, he describes the findings of Oumuamua and lays out a compelling argument for the existence of extraterrestrials.
However, Loeb’s book is about more than just the potential presence of other life in the cosmos. Loeb sends a message to scientists and explorers that science depends on the willingness to ask questions and to follow the trail of data. Loeb expressed a willingness to “put his body on the barb wire so that others can cross.” In other words: to selflessly strive to discover the true essence of the cosmos, and not to be afraid of disagreements.
For more information about Avi Loeb’s theories surrounding Oumuamua and extraterrestrial life, his article posted today in Scientific American provides helpful context.