Episode 112: Avi & The Extraterrestrials
“Space the final frontier” words spoken by the narrator of that very old and well-loved (by many people), TV series Star Trek. A show that spawned countless spin-off shows and movies. Words that have inspired generations of souls to want to study and explore the vast regions of our known solar system and universe. That perhaps have inspired countless others to question our reality as we currently know it, and most certainly have brought man’s age-old question of are we alone in this universe? to the forefront of the past few generations who grew up watching these shows. But, are we alone in the known universe? Or the multi-verses? If we are not, then what does life look like off of this planet, and our current reality? Is life out there as diverse and interesting as the Star Trek and other Sci-Fi spin-offs would have us believe? If there is, is this life as intelligent as man arguably is? Or vastly more intelligent? Do they look like us, humanoid in appearance? Are they carbon-based life forms? So many, many questions. . .
Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of our Walking the Shadowlands podcast. If this is your first time listening, a special welcome. The past few episodes in this season seem to have followed a theme, that actually was quite unintended. From our interview with Producer James Fox about his amazing documentary ‘The Phenomenon’ two episodes ago, followed the last episode with singer/songwriter Ed Roman talking about his experiences and his family’s sightings of UFO’s. And finally, in this trio of UFO-related episodes, I have a very special guest. His perspective comes entirely from the scientific community and is one that is very refreshing and honestly incredibly brave of him. Especially coming from a community that tends to stick rigidly to the status quo, and they don’t often like to look outside of the box to consider other alternatives. And moreover, a community that is not known for celebrating or supporting its members who dare to step outside of their paradigms of conventional knowledge. However, are you willing to walk with me into this part of the shadowlands and see what awaits us there? Then let’s begin!
My guest today Abraham (Avi) Loeb comes with very impressive scientific and scholarly credentials. Avi is the Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University. He has published 4 books and over 650 papers (with an h-index of 97) on a wide range of topics, including black holes, the first stars, the search for extra-terrestrial life and the future of the Universe. He serves as Chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, Founding Director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He also chairs the Advisory Committee for the Breakthrough Star-shot Initiative and serves as the Science Theory Director for all Initiatives of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. Arvi serves as Chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies, which is the Academies’ principal forum overseeing the decadal surveys in physics and astronomy. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the International Academy of Astronautics. In 2012, TIME magazine selected Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space. My guest Avi Loeb.
Avi & The Extraterrestrials
Do I call you Avi or Professor?
Yeah, you can call me Avi. You know, I’m just the same kid that grew up on a farm that you write about that I don’t need the titles don’t worry about them.
Oh awesome. Avi, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me and my listeners today. I read your book on Oumumua and it’s absolutely a great book and it raised a lot of questions for me that I’ll bring up as we continue in our conversations. But perhaps first for my listeners, you could give us a little bit about your background, your professional background. So it lays a foundation for your conclusions.
Well, thank you for having me. It’s a great pleasure. And then, before arriving to writing this book, Extraterrestrial, that just appeared a few days ago, of course, I had a career in astrophysics, but going back all the way to where I started, I grew up on a farm. So I’m a farm boy fundamentally. And I still maintain that approach to everything I do, I was very connected to nature when I grew up. I used to collect eggs every afternoon, we had chickens and I used to drive the tractor to the hills.
But my main passion was with philosophical questions, trying to understand the big picture and ask the deepest questions we can ask. And then circumstances led me to physics. In Israel, I had to serve in the military at age 18 and I preferred to do something more intellectual than running in the field with, with a gun. And so I studied physics, finished my PhD at age twenty four, and then ended up with a PhD in physics that allowed me to get a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton, under the condition that I switched to astrophysics. And I had to study the vocabulary of astronomy, didn’t know much. I didn’t know how the sun shines. And that allowed me to sort of reconstruct myself without the guidance of a mentor and independently. And then until today, I basically craft my own path in the field and I follow the questions that are most interesting to me.
And even though I arrived at this marriage to astrophysics as a result of circumstances, I realized later, after getting tenure at Harvard that I’m actually married to my true love, because, astrophysics offers us to the opportunity to explore fundamental questions that used to be in the realm of philosophy, but using scientific tools. For example, we can ask, how did the universe start? How did life come to exist and whether we are alone?
Some of these questions are discussed the first chapter of the Old Testament, the Bible. They are so fundamental that humans wondered about them for thousands of years. But we now have the privilege of using modern science, using the scientific methodology and the instruments and telescopes that we have that allow us to answer these questions. And I find it fascinating. And frankly, even if I wasn’t paid at all, I would still be excited about pursuing these questions. So it’s a great privilege to be a scientist as far as I’m concerned, because you have the luxury of following your childhood curiosity. You don’t need to pretend that you know everything you can based on the evidence that you see. You can try and figure out what the world is about. And, you know, you do it by trial and error. Sometimes you’re wrong. You can allow yourself to make mistakes. And it’s a learning experience. And that’s what I find the most fun about doing science that you don’t need to pretend you can just follow the evidence.
Right. For my listeners who may not know, can you please explain what an astrophysicist is and what you do?
So what I do for a living is think about the sky, what we see in the sky. Now, you might say, oh, the sky is just relatively, has, is relatively superficial importance for our daily life. But that’s not true because first of all, we, we are on this earth as a result of what happened out there. So the earth is one of many planets surrounding the Sun. If you go back to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, he argued that the earth is at the center of the universe, that we are the centre of the universe. And for a thousand years, people believed his, his idea because it’s flattering. It’s flattering to our ego to be an important part of the universe. Everything is centred on us.
But then Copernicus and Galileo realized that the earth is moving around the sun. And at first, philosophers refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. He was looking at the sky again, the sky that appears to be completely secondary to everything that happens to us. And he realized that the earth moves around the sun. We are not at the center of the universe, so that the entire world view changed as a result of that. And at first, philosophers just didn’t want to look through telescope that maintain their ignorance, didn’t change reality. And now we know that the earth moves around the sun and the sun moves around the center of the Milky Way galaxy. So this entire setup of the scenery where we are situated, changed and we realize that we are not at the center of the universe. So that changes our perspective about reality. We are not central to the physical universe. We are one out of billions of planets around billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and we are not special at all.
And that Milky Way galaxy is one out of trillions of galaxies that we can see throughout the universe. So the number of planets similar to Earth orbiting a star similar to the Sun, roughly the same separation is more than the number of grains of sand on all beaches on Earth. And how can anyone be arrogant in his or her daily life? It makes no sense whatsoever. Even if you are an emperor, or a king that conquered the piece of land on earth, it’s just like an ant hugging a single grain of sand on this landscape of a huge beach. You cannot be arrogant, so it immediately brings implications of being modest in your daily life.
And we live for such a short time, it turns out, relative to the age of the universe at large, that we can figure out by observing the sky. So altogether, the message we get from the sky is stay humble, stay modest. That’s an extremely important message because if you are arrogant, you do things that could damage our future. And if you are modest and you act accordingly, you use science to collaborate with other people and build a better future. You know? So that already tells you something that astrophysics is important.
And then beyond that, beyond that, there is the fundamental question, are we alone or are there other creatures or civilizations out there? And then, you know, are we the smartest kid on the block? If they are wrong? It’s just like with my daughters, you know, when they were infants, my daughters tended to think that they are the center of the world and that they have special qualities that nobody else has. But then they went to the kindergarten and they met other kids and they got a better perspective about themselves.
And a lot of people in the scientific community action, not just in the general public, prefer to put blinders and say, let’s not discuss, let’s put it the and discussing the possibility that there are technological civilizations out there. Let’s not even consider that or discuss it or fund the research on it or encourage young people to work on it. Let’s just forget about it. Because they, you know, it’s linked to their ego, they want to feel special, unique.
Right, I really…. You made – Are we alone? You raise some good questions. You say that,
“Perhaps a more precise framing of the question would be this, throughout the expanse of space and over the long term of the universe, are they now or have they ever been other sentient civilizations that, like ours, explore the stars and live evidence of the effects?”
I thought that was really profound.
Yeah, I do think that what we imagine in particular is what we see in the mirror. You know, that’s true. When we go on a blind date, our imagination is limited to our experience and that is a pretty good approximation to what we might find on a blind date with other people because we share a common heritage to our genetic material with other people. But if you think about life that formed and on a completely separate planet that had no contact with our planet, it could be completely different. It would shock us right, to meet that form of life. That’s another reason that people might be frightened.
They might say, we don’t want to see something like that. You know, just to give you an example, in the dark – in the Middle Ages, you know that there was this story of Giordano Bruno. He argued that other stars are just like the sun. And they have, they could have a planet like the earth around them and there could be life on that planet. And then the church burned him on the stake because if there is life, they found it offensive, if there is life on another planet. Then that life may have sinned. And therefore, it should have been saved by Christ, so you need duplicates of Christ’s. Visiting all these different planets, you know, billions of them in the Milky Way galaxy. And that’s unacceptable. So they burned the guy, so it just shows you that this concept of having others like us. Makes people concerned and takes them out of their comfort zone.
But my point is rather simple, that by ignoring reality, you don’t change reality. You just maintain your ignorance. And we learn something from those philosophers that didn’t listen to Galileo. I mean, they put him in house arrest, maintain their ignorance and the earth continued to move around the sun.
Right, absolutely, yeah, I think also part of the thing is people like to think that they’re important, and when you realize that we’re not the only sentient beings, it is. – You’re right. It’s ego, isn’t it? It’s all about ego and wanting to be the center
Yeah, Humanity is in for a big wake up. I feel some of humanity, not all of humanity, because there are definitely a few awake people.
But, that’s one of the important messages in my book. Well, there is one message of has with this particular object of more and more, but the second has to do with the implications of finding evidence for a technological civilization out there and the fact that we should be modest in allowing for that. And, you know, it’s very unfortunate that right now the scientific culture tries to maintain what we learned in the past and feels that anything along these lines that takes it out of its comfort zone and prefers not to discuss it. I mean, I can give you an anecdote that there was a this object Oumuamua was very strange and we will get to discuss it. But I attended the seminar about this subject at Harvard University. And when we left the seminar room after the talk ended, one of my colleagues that worked for many decades on objects within the solar system commented; “You know, this object, Oumuamua is so weird. I wish it never existed. And this kind of a statement should never be made by a scientist, if there is evidence for something that doesn’t quite line up with what you expected, you should be happy. Not sad, because it’s nature’s way of telling you that you need to revise your ideas. It’s nature’s way of telling you that you are learning something new. And by refusing to look at it, you are just maintaining your ignorance.
That’s really interesting. Perhaps speaking about science for the moment, perhaps you could explain to my listeners who may not understand what the scientific method is?
Right, so science is based. I would say on one main principle, and that’s that follows Galileo Galilei, that that pioneered this method, but there is also a second aspect to it. So the first is experiments, experimental verification. And here I’m talking about physics in particular, that you can have ideas about how to explain things that we know. But then in principle, you should think about how to test those ideas and you can do experiments that would shed more light on whether these ideas are correct or not. In particular, on many occasions, you might have the wrong ideas about explaining a phenomenon. For example, let me give an example of the Mayan culture.
The Mayan culture had the astronomers in the highest societal status. They were given the highest privileges. They were called the astronomer priests, that they were really at very high regard. And the reason for that is because the politicians of the Mayan cultures, culture thought that astronomy is useful to predicting the forecast of wars, for example. Because the orientation of the planets or the stars. They assumed is somehow correlated with what happens here on Earth, and so they wanted the astronomers to forecast in advance where the planets would be in the future based on past data so that they can plan the timing of getting out to war, for example. Nowadays, we call it astrology, thinking that events that occur on the sky are somehow related to what happens to us. Horoscopes are based on that.
OK, but there is no scientific value to such a link. We know the planets or stars move in the sky in a way that has nothing to do with what happens here on Earth. They have no influence in what happens. So going to war has nothing to do with the motion of a star or planet. They move by mainly being affected by the force of gravity. OK, anyway, but the Mayans had the wrong idea. And, you know, for many, many centuries, they looked at the sky, collected data, having the wrong idea about how to use that data.
So the scientific method. Changed that notion of having a prejudice and then collecting the data on the premise that this prejudice must be true. The scientific method says you need to test your ideas. So, for example, you can go to war when you think that the planets are not aligned the way they should. And you can go to war when they are aligned and you can do it multiple times and see if indeed there is any correlation and you will find that there is no such correlation. So the scientific method is about doing experiments that will test your idea.
And that’s what Galileo pioneered. And, you know, sometimes nature is more imaginative than we are and it’s sometimes it’s subtle and we just don’t figure out the correct way of understanding it. And so by having experiments, give us data, we can figure it out. It’s a learning experience. Now, the other thing about science is that results need to be reproducible so you can’t have a miracle, a one-time event that you will never be able to test because then you can’t tell if it’s real or not.
OK, so just to give you an example, there is in the Old Testament, there is this story that Abraham heard, the voice of God that told him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Now, if Abraham had a cell phone with a voice memo up, he could have pressed the button and recorded the voice of God and then that is the scientific experiment. And then he could use that recording to convince everybody that God spoke to him, but instead he didn’t have a cell phone. So we have the biblical story and we have to decide whether to believe it or not, because it was a one-time event. So science is about measuring things and being able to reproduce them. And that is an important constituent of science that makes it different from our daily life experiences, which sometimes are unique and special, and you can’t really reproduce the conditions. And so we learn about nature by doing experiments and reconstructing the experiments and doing them again and again and getting the same results.
Right. So it’s consistency. Thank you. That’s a really good explanation. I really like the analogies you used as well, that made it quite clear. So. . .
I just add one more thing that the amazing thing about the universe, it’s quite amazing. And I find it remarkable. Most people take it for granted. Is that what we uncover by experiments here on Earth? The laws of physics seem to be to apply all the way throughout the entire universe and our observable universe, the same laws of physics. So some people take it for granted and say, OK, well, we discovered these laws here. Why wouldn’t they apply everywhere? Well, just look at the societal laws that we invent. A lot of people do not obey them. Yeah, when I go in the morning to look at my daughter’s rooms, they are a mess. You know, there is chaos. So the fact that the universe is so organized and follows the same laws everywhere should not be taken for granted. Right.
I really like the quote that you say about physics in your book.
“Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the law of physics seems to apply only to places singularities in Hollywood.”
I think it’s really funny that really tickled me, I had to look at what a singularity was.
But let me explain. I can I can explain in a very simple way. Basically, Einstein, Albert Einstein came up with the theory of gravity that we currently use. It’s called General Theory of relativity. And it turns out that some of the solutions to his equations admit regions in space and time were the theory breaks down. So the theory, in a way, for us where its limitation is. So there are some circumstances. For example, if matter collapses to a point that’s called the black hole at the center of that region, there is a point where the curvature of space and time diverges and Einstein’s theory breaks down. That’s called the singularity. The same is true about the Big Bang. We know the universe is expanding. If we go back in time, there was the so-called Big Bang, a point in time where the density – when the density of matter was infinite everywhere. And at that point, we can’t really tell what happened before because Einstein’s theory breaks down. Now, what does it mean? It means that Einstein’s theory is incomplete.
There is something missing from it, because if we had a complete theory of nature, then we would be we would have no singularity, would be able to figure out what’s going on before the Big Bang, for example. And we know exactly what’s missing. There is another pillar of modern physics called quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics is not unified with Einstein’s theory of gravity. And so because of that, Einstein’s theory fails. And we hope that if we in the future, once we figure out how to unify the theory of gravity with quantum mechanics, so-called quantum gravity, once we figure this out, we will avoid the singularity.
Gotcha. I actually find quantum mechanics really, really interesting. I did an episode in my first season on my podcast on the theory that some theoretical physicists have that this universe is a holographic reality. And I just actually found that absolutely fascinating, you know, the experiments that they did. But I’m digressing. So let’s get on to Oumuamua, because, this is absolutely fascinating. I , have I pronounced it properly?
Yeah, you did it right. And I should say that the word Oumuamua means a scout, or a messenger from far away, in the Hawaiian language. And the reason it was chosen is because the observatory that discovered this object is situated in Maui. In Hawaii.
Right. And I understand that it was let me see that it was…. Let me see – the Pans STARR. . . ?
Pans STARRS. Yes, exactly. This is a survey of the sky done by a telescope on Mount Haleakala in Maui, that I actually visited with my family in July 2017 when we were on vacation in Hawaii. And it’s a beautiful location. It’s sort of above the clouds. Quite amazing. And the purpose of this telescope was to find. Near Earth objects, objects that could approach close to Earth because they endanger us, we know that the dinosaurs were extinct, went extinct by a big rock that approached the Earth, a rock roughly of the length of Manhattan island. And it must have been a beautiful sight to see it approaching.
But the fun stopped when it hit the ground and basically killed not only the dinosaurs, but three quarters of all life forms on Earth. And there was a complete change in the climate and then the dinosaurs, even though they had the big body, they didn’t have a large brain like we do. So we have our brain apparently is better for survival because we can have astronomers using telescopes and informing us of objects that may come close to Earth. And then, you know, if we see one of them that is as big as the one that killed the dinosaurs, we can design devise a plan on how to deflect it before it approaches the Earth.
So that’s why the Pan STARRS Observatory was constructed. There was a task from Congress in the United States to NASA, to find to identify 90 percent of all the near earth objects bigger than one hundred and forty meters. And then, the Pan STARRS telescope started this process of identifying them. And within three years, there would be a follow up telescope that is much more capable called the Vera Rubin Observatory. And it would identify about 60 percent of all these objects. So it would go two thirds of the way towards the task, towards fulfilling the task of Congress. But then, upon starting the process of surveying the sky, found after a few years this object that was the first one to originate from outside the solar system, that was spotted near Earth.
So it’s called the first interstellar object that was identified in the vicinity of the earth, and it was called Oumuamua. And at first astronomers thought, oh, it must be just like the rocks that we have seen before from within the solar system. So it could be a rock that was ejected from the neighbourhood of another star. And then turned out that it doesn’t look like anything we have seen before.
Right, and the – I remember when it was all over the news, of course, it was very interesting. And it caught my attention when it was on the news. So you guys pretty much only spotted it as it was like leaving our system. Is that correct?
Yeah. So it was discovered on October 19, 2017, on its way out, sort of like having a guest for dinner and realizing that the guest is interesting when the guest leaves out of the front door into the dark street and it’s too late. And this object was moving away from us faster than any rockets and that we can launch and we couldn’t really chase it. And by now, it’s actually a million times fainter than it was when it was passing near us. So we can’t even see it. But during a few months where he passed the Earth, we collected some data that indicated that it’s extremely weird. It didn’t have a cometary tail, a trail of gas behind it, the way you get from a rock that is covered with ice. That’s most of the objects in the solar system are like that. When they pass close to the sun, they evaporate and you get this tail of dust and gas behind them, and we can easily see that. But in this case, we didn’t see anything like it.
So then astronomers said, OK, maybe it’s just the rock. And the problem with that is the object exhibited an extra push away from the sun. And usually such a push is obtained from the rocket effect of evaporated gases that push it, but there was there was no gas. The Spitzer space telescope, looked very deeply around this subject and couldn’t see anything. No carbon based molecules, no dust. To a very tight constraint on how much could evaporate from that object. And in order to get the push that it exhibited, you really needed about 10 percent, a tenth of the mass of the object to get evaporated. That’s a lot! Was an object the size of a football field. And we would have seen it easily if there was a standard cometary tail that takes away a tenth of the mass of this object. We haven’t seen that. So and as it was tumbling every eight hours, the brightness of the object changed by a factor of 10. And that implies because it’s simply reflecting sunlight, it implied that the object projected on the sky was at least 10 times longer than it is wide. Imagine a piece of paper tumbling on the sky.
You have a very small likelihood of seeing it exactly edge on and you see 10 times longer than it is. Why? It means that indeed it has a very extreme geometry. And from the reflected light, it was figured that at the 90 percent confidence level, it’s most likely flat, disk like, or if you want pancake like. Not cigar shape the way it was depicted in one of the cartoons, the popular cartoon. So it must have been the flat thing. Then the question was, how do you get such a thing from a natural origin and in fact what gives it the extra push? And I wrote a paper with the postdoc of mine, Shmuel Bialy, where we suggested that it may be a sail, it may be a thin object. The only thing that I could think of that gives it this push, is the reflection of sunlight. And in order for that to be effective, the object needed to be thin, sort of like a sail on a boat that is being pushed by wind, except here it’s being pushed by reflecting sunlight. And this is called the light sail. And we are currently developing this technology for space exploration. That the key advantage of it, is that the spacecraft doesn’t need to carry the fuel with it
So it’s kind of like – acts like a sail on a sail boat in the sea, except for it, it’s the sun that propels it rather than wind?
Exactly. It’s the reflection of light instead of the reflection of air molecules that pushes it forward.
Oh fascinating! So how does that, how does that actually work?
Oh, so we are currently developing this technology and you can either use natural light produced by the sun to push on a sail. Basically, the area of the sail relative to its weight is very large. And so you can get a significant push. If you have a rock, it doesn’t get pushed much because the area of the rock relative to its weight is very small and but in a sail, the area is far greater. And you can either use the sun like light, or you can in the context of a project that I’m working on. You can produce, for example, a laser beam that is focused and pushes on a sail. And that’s a much more, much stronger force that could act on a sail this way. And we are developing this technology in order to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, on a relatively reasonable timescale. If you want to get there within two decades. During our lifetime, the sale needs to move at the fifth of the speed of light, because, the distance to the nearest star is four light years. So it takes light four years. And if you want to get there in 20 years, then you need to push the sale to a fifth of the speed of light. And, and that’s possible if you focus a very powerful laser beam on the light sail.
So Oumuamua, you say it was tumbling as it, as it went through the sky. So was that tumbling effect because of the light sail?
No. It was tumbling because it was tumbling from the start. You know, things in space, they preserve their motion. Actually, if it was spinning, probably it was spinning because there were some forces acting on it along its history. You know so, it must have a long history because it entered the solar system, given its speed. You know, it entered more than ten thousand years ago and it spent probably millions of years or even billions of years in interstellar space. That’s why I think it’s probably not a functional device, because imagine Voyager one, Voyager two, or know New Horizons, those probes that we sent out into space that will exit the solar system. After a billion years, they will be completely dysfunctional. They would be just space junk. And it’s just like walking on the beach, you know, when you see mostly rocks and seashells that were naturally produced. But every now and then you stumble on a plastic bottle that implies that there is a civilization out there, but the plastic bottle is not functional any more. You’re not – you know, it’s not being used for anything.
Right. Right. I remember reading in your book that you suggest that, that was – let me just check my notes here. That it was a space junk, or debris.
Right! Could have been waste – ah, space trash so to speak.
Yeah. And that, I guess it’s a valid point. But regardless of whether it’s trash or not, it’s still evidence, isn’t it?
Yes. It’s just like a plastic bottle is evidence that it was not there, that there is something beyond nature, that there is a civilization that made it. Because, nature doesn’t make plastic.
Right. And the other thing that you mentioned in your book, excuse me, was the reflectivity of like it reflected like a metal rather than a rock.
Well, yeah, it was on the high reflectance end of all the objects we see. I mean, we do see other objects that have that reflectance, but it was at the high end of the distribution of objects that we see. And then it also came from the very special frame of reference, which is called the local standard of rest. And that is the frame of reference where that you get to when you average over the random motions of all the stars in the vicinity of the sun.
So stars have relative motion and you get – if you average over them, you get to this so-called – you can think of it as a public parking lot of the galaxy locally ,where if you find a car parked there, you would never know which house it came from? And so this object happened to be addressed in the local standard of rest. And sort of like a bouy sitting on the surface of an ocean., and the solar system was just like a giant ship that bumped into it. And only one in five hundred stars are so much at rest in that frame. So the question is, why was it in that frame? Does it mean anything?
And, you know, if I have to think about it, I would say, you know, one thing that it could mean is you have a grid of such objects. The population of them filling up interstellar space, and they are used for navigation. So if you have if you are navigating through interstellar space, perhaps they give you your coordinates in some way. But, we don’t really know the nature of this object and we need more evidence. And the way to make progress on this is to find more of the same. So if we wait a few years, we might find another one and another one. And then if we find one that approaches us, we can send a spacecraft with a camera that will take a close up photo. And, you know, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, if we see something that doesn’t look like a rock, we will know that it’s a message in a bottle. We will know whether we are alone or not. And to me, the biggest question is, are we the smartest kid on the block? Are we the sharpest cookie in the jar? My guess is probably not.
Yeah, absolutely. I did read something the other day about another interstellar object. Is it 2I Borisov?
Yes, that was the second interstellar object discovered and it looked just like a comet. So, this one looked exactly as we expected based on what we see in the solar system….
Oh that’s interesting. Sorry Avi, I didn’t mean to erupt. And so that’s quite interesting. So you have a comparison then? You can compare Oumuamua to Borisov.
Yes. And people asked me, does it mean – don’t you think – doesn’t it convince you that if Borisov appears to be natural, just like the comets we have seen in the solar system, doesn’t it convince you that Oumuamua was also natural? And I said, you know, when I dated my wife on the first date, I thought that she’s special and unique. The fact that I met many other women over the years didn’t change my opinion about my wife. So finding Borisov doesn’t say anything about Oumuamua. Just like finding rocks on the beach does not say anything about the plastic bottle that you identify.
Oh, it’s an interesting way of looking at it. So, what sort of conclusions have you come? Have you garnered from this? Or what, where? I’m trying to frame my question. Where do you go from here, so far as that, that particular object goes? There’s not, I guess, a lot more you can do about it, because, it’s only a limited time that it was available.
Right. So we have all the data that we can have. We cannot get more data on Oumuamua. But what we can do is look for more of the same. Objects that appear weird, could share similar properties to Oumuamua And then when one of them arrives close to us, we should take a photograph. Or, we should get as much data as possible about this object so that we can understand its nature. And I think that would shed light on Oumuamua, if we identify a class of objects that share similar properties.
And, you know, when I go to the kitchen and I find an ant over there, I get alarmed. Because, I know that there must be many more ants in the kitchen. There is a very small chance that just by looking at a small part of the kitchen, I found the only ant around. And so the same applies to space. We found Oumuamua after a few years Pan STARRS, and we will find many more in the future. And therefore, we can study this subject experimentally and figure out what the nature of these objects is. My main message to my fellow scientist is to keep an open mind and search for possible messages in a bottle. It’s a completely different method for finding evidence for other civilizations.
In the past, we primarily looked for radio signals, but the disadvantage of a radio signal is that it’s just like speaking on the phone that you need the person on the other side to be alive in order to speak on the phone. However, if you get a letter in the mail, that letter can come from someone that is not alive anymore. So if you find an object that is a relic. From another civilization, that civilization could be dead by now, it’s sort of like doing archaeology, you know, speaking about the Mayan culture that they mentioned before, it doesn’t exist anymore, but we know about it from the relics that it left behind.
So searching for physical objects in space, which I call space archaeology. Serves the purpose of finding things from the past that may not be around anymore. It’s a much more powerful way of learning what may have existed. Rather than looking for radio signals of what may exist right now. And I think that opens a completely new window into the search for technological signatures in space.
Oh, absolutely. And just for the listeners, because you broke up when you were saying the word. The word that Avi used was space archaeology. Was that?
Yes. I call it space archaeology, which is similar to what we do here on Earth in an attempt to find cultures that are not around anymore. Like the Mayan culture, by digging into the ground and finding relics that they left behind. We can also dig into space and search for relics from civilizations that are not around anymore.
So, Avi, on a personal level, on a professional level – actually I’ll get back to that. The search for other objects, the issue is that we could have had other objects already come and go, but we probably won’t know. Because, the telescopes can only cover a certain area of the sky at a time. So what percentage of the sky can they cover at any one time?
So the reason that Pan STARRS discovered the first interstellar object is because, it surveyed the large fraction of the sky and kept looking at the sky over a long period of time. Previously, telescopes, were looking at small portions of the top of the sky and had the small chance of identifying such objects. And then the Vera Rubin Observatory will be even more effective than Pan STARRS was at finding new objects. And it basically depends on the size of the telescope as to how faint of an object you can find in and Pan STARRS will have a telescope much larger than…. sorry, and the Vera Rubin Observatory will have a telescope much larger than that of Pan STARRS and therefore will be more sensitive to fainter objects.
Faint means the object could be smaller, or at a greater distance from the sun. And so that will open up a bigger survey volume because the Vera Rubin Observatory can look farther out. But, it could also allow us to discover smaller objects that reflect less sunlight, even if they are close to us. And there might be many more of them. We don’t know how many. And so in the future, the hope is that we will find many more interstellar objects and therefore we identify those that look unusual, those that look anomalous, and then study them very carefully and try to figure out if they are natural or artificial.
Very interesting. So when does this new observatory come online?
The Vera Rubin observatory was planned to come online in a couple of years, but because of the covid pandemic, it was delayed. And it will start its operations in three years from now.
Wow, that’s going to be pretty exciting for you all. For everybody, really. “Cause it’s gonna. . .
Very exciting for people that are interested in the evidence, not in their prejudice.
Absolutely. Absolutely. And that brings us to the personal, the personal level. I consider the fact that you’ve spoken out, is actually a very, very brave thing to do. Because I know that your views –is very hard to get past old boy, old school mentality. And for you to speak out like this with your observations and your hypothesis is, is, a bit like Galileo really.
Thank you. Well, the way I view it is as a service to the younger generation of tomorrow. I want them to be able to speak freely on this subject. And I do think that the public is extremely interested in the subject, and the public funds science. So science, scientists have an obligation to address this question. And it’s important also for humanity at large to get the correct perspective about our place in the universe and in our aspirations for space. All of this will affect our future. Imagine that we find evidence for another civilisation. We will feel as if we are part of the same team as the human species, rather than be separated into nations that fight each other all the time. So I think it will have a huge effect, a huge impact on human history. It’s the most important question that we should answer.
And I don’t really care how many likes I have on Twitter and whether my colleagues agree with me or not. In fact, I don’t even have any social media presence. I just try to keep my eyes on the ball. You know there is this saying of basketball coaches, keep your eyes on the ball and not on the audience. And that’s what I’m trying to do now. Obviously, I get a lot of pushback because it goes against the tendency of people to maintain the past and not to revise their notions based on anomalous subjects like Oumuamua. And I’m willing to suffer in that process, you know, because when I was young, at age 18, I was drafted to the military and I went through the paratroopers training. And I remember saying that the soldiers sometimes during the battle that has to put his body on the barbed wire so that others can pass through.
And I’m willing to do that so that the younger generation of tomorrow will, will be able to speak freely on this subject and not worry about their job prospects. And I really think that they should be centre stage in the pursuit of astronomy. I don’t see why it’s regarded as speculative when a lot of astronomers are working on, for example, the dark matter. We don’t know what it is. And there are suggestions that maybe it’s one form or another of matter that quickly interacting massive particles, axions. And hundreds of millions are being spent in trying to search for those particles without any success. And why is that less speculative than investing hundreds of millions of dollars for searching for technological civilizations out there? I don’t see any rationale behind it. I think in both cases you’re searching in the dark. In the case of dark matter, it’s really dark.
Yeah, it is really dark. One of the things that stood out for me in your book, talking about that. Was how you do encourage the younger generations. And let me see, the questions you – where is it? I’m just trying to find it. Oh, yes. The thought experiment you use with your undergrad students. Perhaps before we, we close, you could talk about that a little bit? Because, I think that’s really great!
So I asked the students in my class if a spaceship would land and you would be asked to enter and go out farther, would you do it? And they said yes. But to my surprise, they conditioned it. They said that they would do it under the condition that they will be able to share their experience on social media. And I couldn’t really understand that because I would do it just for the thrill of it, just for the experience. And I don’t really care if anyone shares my experience. I just want to figure out what these aliens are like, what they do. And then, so I come from a different perspective, I guess, than the younger generation that wants to share everything. But that’s OK. As long as they board the ship, they might find out what’s going on. So, um, yeah.
So the question you give them was, if you, if you, if the aliens landed and they were friendly and, you know, they proved hospitable, would you go with them if you knew it was a one way trip? And you said as long as they could share. And then you said if they go near a black hole, is that right? And they couldn’t send data out then?
No. They would not do it ,because it risks their lives. And also, you can’t really share your experience once you enter into the horizon of a black hole. You are doomed to be crashed or actually spaghetti-fied, by the tidal forces near the singularity of the black hole. And by the way, my wife said that if a spaceship ever lands in our backyard, she wants me to do two things. First, to leave the car keys with her. And second, to make sure that they don’t ruin the lawn when they take off.
Oh I love her attitude! That’s really great because she knows you’d obviously go for a ride with them.
Oh, I would definitely go.
Good for you. So now for our listeners, can you please tell us about where people can get your book to read, to purchase just for themselves? It’s a really great book!
So the book is called Extraterrestrial and it’s available on Amazon and any other bookstore.
So there you go, guys. And honestly, it’s a really great read. Normally, as I was saying before we started, I can read a book in two or three hours. But your book, it’s taken me a while simply because I had to stop and think about what you were saying, and then I had to go and research what you said. It was a bit like writing a thesis, really. That’s why it’s taken me so long.
And I’ve go,t you can’t see it, but I’ve got pages and pages of notes that I’ve taken as I read your book. Just really interesting stuff that you wrote like Oumuamua came from the direction of Vega, moving at about fifty eight thousand, nine hundred miles an hour and over 20 million miles from the earth. And just like different things like the Pan STARRS, I looked that up. So it’s really interesting, really educational. And some of your quotes, like:
“The odds of being a naturally occurring comet composed of 100 percent hydrogen ice, that outcasts from one location, producing a smooth acceleration, about the same as the odds of natural geological processes producing a space shuttle.”
That’s right. Yeah. And, you know, I think about this subject or any other subject in science as if I were a kid, you know, all the labels that they have, all the leadership positions that they have. Are, not as much fun. In fact, they are a burden. The joy of trying to figure out what nature is, is really what drives me. And I don’t see myself any different than a farm boy some 50 years ago.
With that curiosity. I can see that and I can see your passion for this. Avi, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve absolutely enjoyed listening to you. I have been so looking forward to this conversation. And honestly, when I first emailed you, I didn’t expect your response. I didn’t expect a response, you know?
Well, I speak with everyone, you know, when a plumber comes to my home, we can spend hours talking about his private life. And, you know, I don’t. Science is not on a pedestal. Science is a way of life. And I just think that it should be accessible to anyone.
That’s awesome. Avi, thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you with us today. And I appreciate it immensely.
Thank you for having me. Thank you Marianne.
I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Avi, a conversation I really enjoyed. His book Extraterrestrial is a really good read, but not one that you can read in one sitting. It’s a book that you need to read, and then think about what he’s said, do some research and read some more – at least for me, that’s how it was. A great book, I thoroughly recommend it. Available from all leading book stores.
On a more personal note, I have never made any secret of my knowing of extra-terrestrial life. In fact of intelligent, extra-terrestrial beings. Of my life long, and face to face interaction with such beings. So I have to say, that for me it was a really interesting perspective to have a scientist talking to me about his belief in an extra-terrestrial object, therefore extra-terrestrial life.
It’s a very rare scientist in the field of Astronomy will speak out about accepting such things as life existing elsewhere, although many will suggest it might be the case, few will actually believe it, even when evidence such as Oumuamua might appear. But as Avi said earlier in the episode:
“We are not central to the physical universe. We are one out of billions of planets around billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and we are not special at all. And that Milky Way galaxy is one out of trillions of galaxies that we can see throughout the universe. So the number of planets similar to Earth orbiting a star similar to the Sun, roughly the same separation is more than the number of grains of sand on all beaches on Earth.”
“. . . so it just shows you that this concept of having others like us. Makes people concerned and takes them out of their comfort zone. But my point is rather simple, that by ignoring reality, you don’t change reality. You just maintain your ignorance. And we learn something from those philosophers that didn’t listen to Galileo. I mean, they put him in house arrest, maintain their ignorance and the earth continued to move around the sun.“
We are living in very, very interesting times and I feel that the next few years are going to be most interesting for humanity and our being a part of a greater, intergalactic community. But the question is, what do you think?
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