Ignore it at your peril

Ignore it at your peril

Our correspondent talks to Israeli-born, pecan-farming Harvard astrophysicist taking on the great beyond

In June, Dr. Loeb joined the crew on the Silver Star. (All photos courtesy Dr. Avi Loeb)
In June, Dr. Loeb joined the crew on the Silver Star. (All photos courtesy Dr. Avi Loeb)

One of the most controversial scientists in the world today started life on his family’s pecan farm on an Israeli moshav.

His name is Avi Loeb, and he is raising the hackles of many fellow astrophysicists by suggesting that (attention “X-File” fans) Mulder and Scully may be right: the truth (and extraterrestrials) are out there.

The theories he’s espoused might ordinarily mark him as a kook, especially since many of his peers disagree. Except you have to consider the source: Loeb is a longtime professor of astrophysics at Harvard University — Harvard! — and even served as department chair for three three-year terms.

He is also the author of bestseller “Extraterrestrial: The First Signs of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and his just-published follow-up, “Interstellar: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future in the Stars.”

The starting point of the controversy occurred on October 19, 2017. That’s when an observatory in Hawaii spotted a large object about the size of a football field in the sky. It seemed to operate differently than the comets that typically pass by. There was widespread agreement that the object — named Oumuamua, Hawaiian for scout — was interstellar — but Dr. Loeb went a step further. “I suggested that it may be artificial in nature,” he said.

Subsequently, he and a researcher discovered an earlier interstellar object, dubbed IM1, that had crashed into the Pacific near Papua, New Guinea, early in 2014.

Some of the expedition team on the Silver Star clean equipment; Dr. Avi Loeb is in the center.

“I said it was worth studying, collecting more evidence about them, because they may represent a technological origin,” Dr. Loeb told me. “You know, we launched five probes into interstellar space over the last five decades: Voyager One, Voyager Two, Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11 and New Horizons. We are sending these things that will become space trash. So it’s possible that civilizations that preceded us did that already.

“To argue that we are the first technological civilization is arrogant.”

Dr. Loeb’s career path was not — you should pardon the expression — written in the stars. It began in Germany. Grandpa Albert saw the antisemitic handwriting on the wall in 1935 and left Waldeck, Germany, for Palestine when his son David, Avi’s father, was 11.

Avi’s mom, Sara, was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria. She emigrated to Israel in 1948. The family celebrated major Jewish holidays but was largely secular. “I am proud of my roots and have special respect for Jewish tradition,” Avi told me in a Zoom interview.

A fan of existential philosophers like Sartre and Camus, he was aiming for a career in academia. Even that might have been a reach for a farm boy who collected chicken eggs every afternoon and rode a tractor in the fields (where oranges and grapefruit were harvested along with pecans).

But mandatory military service intervened. He was selected for the then new Talpiot program, which selected a couple dozen intellectually gifted recruits each year to conduct defense-related research. First, Dr. Loeb and the others underwent intense basic training in various military disciplines — infantry, paratroops, tanks. Then these teenagers were enrolled in appropriate educational courses. Dr. Loeb studied math and physics at the Hebrew University and came up with a unique project — the first to receive funding from the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative — “to use electrical energy rather than chemical energy as a propellant so you can accelerate a projectile” — a bullet, an artillery shell — “to a much higher speed.”

Team members look out at the ocean at sunset.

His work brought him to the United States, where he met with several members of the faculty of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. He ultimately landed a fellowship there — on condition he study astrophysics.

Three years later, when another candidate turned it down because of limited opportunities to receive tenure, Dr. Loeb accepted a position in the Harvard astronomy department. “I accepted, because in the case of not receiving tenure I could always go back to my father’s farm and work there. After all, I had been used to collecting eggs every afternoon growing up as a child.”

He specialized in the era starting at about 100 million years after the Big Bang. He soon “realized that this arranged marriage was my old love dressed up in different clothes. I figured that astronomy addresses questions that previously were in the realm of philosophy, such as: How Did the Universe Start and What is the Origin of Life? So I actually have the privilege of addressing philosophical questions using modern scientific means.”

He’s written literally hundreds of peer-reviewed papers on a variety of topics. He was a founding director of the Black Hole Initiative, a group of scientists and philosophers who gather regularly at a kind of scientific Round Table. They put together what they called the Event Horizon Telescope — actually a collection of telescopes — that captured the first image of a black hole, a monumental achievement.

He’s also heading a project called Star Shot, which is seeking to develop a light sail vessel that will be powered toward the Alpha Centauri system — the planets closest to earth but 100 million times more distant than our moon — pushed by powerful laser beam at speeds that could reach one-fifth the speed of light.

“It’s just like a bullet, and it could reach Proxima Centauri in about 20 years,” compared to current propulsion systems that would take literally centuries. None of what he proposes, he contends, violates basic laws of physics, but do present “technological challenges. We haven’t identified any show-stoppers yet. So we are working on it.”

These are among the objects the expedition collected.

If all that were not enough, he founded the Galileo Project, what he hopes eventually will be a series of telescopes trained throughout our solar system to capture sight of interstellar objects. The first is already operational and others will go online shortly, depending on financing.

The Galileo Program is unlike the Search for Extraterritorial Intelligence (SETI) project, which scans the heavens looking for radio signals from, well, out there. Galileo concentrates closer to home, with telescopes programmed to eliminate regular space travelers — comets, meteors — and concentrate on those that are different.

Until recently, UFOs have been mostly considered science fiction. (For the record, the official terminology now is UAP, short for either Unidentified Aerial Phenomena or Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena.) But the recent spate of sightings of what appear to be UAPs makes some people wonder.

While many remain skeptical, Dr. Loeb continues his research. I asked if he thought diverging from the conventional wisdom could damage his reputation.

“For following the evidence?” he asked. “I’m doing the work of a scientist, following the scientific method, and that’s what will guide me. So I have no fear about my reputation. Anyone who has a problem with that is not following the scientific method.

“It’s those people who have a very strong opinion without seeking evidence who should worry about their reputation.”

Dr. Loeb’s most recent “seek” was last summer; he spent much of it on a boat anchored off Papua, New Guinea, dredging, hoping to recover any remnants of IM1. He and his coworkers found about 700 of what he calls sphericales. He analyzed them and recently announced that they are interstellar in nature. It’s still too early to tell if they were created by intelligent life, he said, but his research continues.

Essentially, Dr. Loeb works on a principle of Occam’s Razor, a philosophy that suggests that you must decide between two competing theories, often the simpler one is the better choice. A common example is whether or not to believe in God. Believing is the obvious choice, because as any Jewish mother will tell you, it can’t hurt.

It’s the same with pursuing alien life. The worst that can happen is you are wrong. But if you ignore the possibility, the results could be devastating.

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