It is crazy to ignore the presence of extraterrestrial life and simply assume that we are the only intelligent beings in the entire universe. In the vastness of outer space, aliens may just be lurking somewhere, just waiting for the right time to make contact with us. Doctor Awesome explores the future of extraterrestrial life with Harvard professor and astrophysicist Avi Loeb. Together, they discuss the importance of keeping an eye on foreign objects circling near the Earth that could be coming from our potential space neighbors. They also discuss how to dispel jealousy and ego around academic communities, the possibility of humanity becoming a space-faring species, and the advantage of sending AI-powered robots for interstellar missions.

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The Future Of Extraterrestrial Life – A Conversation With Avi Loeb

We have a special guest. His name is Dr. Avi Loeb, who is very familiar to me and also probably very familiar to do. As always, we’re going to be talking in the present, but talking about the future. Dr. Loeb is an esteemed Professor at Harvard University. He’s actually the Frank Baird professor at Harvard University. He’s also the Director of the Institute for Theory and Computational Learning, and the Head of the Galileo Project, which I’m excited to talk about.

I wanted to start out and zoom out. You’re an Astrophysicist. You’re a Physicist. You look at the stars and you’re seeing the future happen because a lot of the stuff that is in the news now is about space. It’s about the stars, it’s about interstellar life and extra things that we probably didn’t think about maybe 20, 30 years ago. It’s an exciting time to be in your field.

Tell me, in a nutshell, right now, what you’re doing with the interstellar component of it because there’s so much to talk about. I want to talk about the space component and humans going into the stars. The interstellar component is when I first met you. In 2017, we saw what some people are calling an asteroid. You have different thoughts about this asteroid that came into the solar system called Oumuamua. It was an exciting time to be in science because it was unlike anything that we had ever seen before. Let’s focus on the interstellar component for a second because I think that’s the most interesting thing about what you’re doing right now, even though you’re doing a ton of interesting stuff.

The interstellar component, Oumuamua, is something that I wanted you to briefly comment on. Eventually, we’re going to get into your current research, which is some of the stuff that you found in the ocean, which is interesting. Let’s start with Oumuamua. It was this totally different thing that had come into our solar system, and everyone else was saying that it was an asteroid. It has all of these other things that it could be, all these other characteristics that it could be, but you thought differently. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Yes. What I find is that common sense is not common. Let me start with the big picture first. The human species came to Earth a few million years ago, and that’s 1 part in 10,000 of the age of the universe, 13.8 billion years. We also know that we are not at the center, the physical center of the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus figured it out. In fact, I visited his hometown, the place where he was born. I was invited by the Polish government to celebrate 550 years to his birth. I gave the keynote speech about the next Copernican revolution, which is about whether we are at the intellectual center of the universe. A lot of people still think that we are the only intelligent species that ever appeared in the universe. I don’t think so.

If you look at the sky at night, there are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milk Way galaxy alone. It’s very arrogant to think that we are unique and special because we know that a substantial fraction of them have a planet like the Earth, roughly the same separation as the Earth is from the sun. We need to look instead of having an opinion. If I look out, I see neighbors next to me. If I were to stand at home and say, “Where is everybody?” like Enrico Fermi said many years ago, I would not find a partner this way. We all know that not only do you need to look out, but you also need to go to dating sites to find partners.

The other thing is that besides the fact that we are not at the center of the stage, we arrived late to the cosmic play, the simple conclusion is that the play is not about us. If you arrive at the end of the play and you’re not at the center of the stage, that’s an obvious conclusion. My point is, in the past, we were waiting for electromagnetic signals, signals of light, and the problem with them is they propagated the speed of light.

It’s like waiting for a phone call at home. If you’re not at the right time listening, you might not hear any ringing. Those signals that were transmitted a million years ago are now a million light-years away. There is a better way, and that is to search for objects that may have arrived in our backyard from our neighbors. If you look around at your backyard, you might find a tennis ball that was thrown by a neighbor, and you might decide, “Now, I not only know that I have a neighbor, but the neighbor also plays tennis.” That’s an important realization. I’m sure that if we do find the equivalent of that, there will be conferences attended by scientists who will write plenty of papers about whether the neighbor plays tennis or not.

That is my goal, to look around for objects because objects that we launched into space or the spacecraft that we launched are moving ten times lower than the escape speed from the Milky Way galaxy. They are still around. They accumulate over time, over billions of years, like plastics in the ocean. For example, Elon Musk needed a dummy payload for the Falcon heavy launch of 2018, and he launched his car, the Tesla Roadster. It’s now in elliptic orbit around the sun. I don’t believe that Elon Musk is the most successful space entrepreneur over the past 13.8 billion years. There could be a lot of space trash out there. We just need to look.

If astronomers were to search for the Tesla Roadster, they would not find it because we can only see with our best telescope right now, objects that are bigger than a football field. We looked out for the first time in history with the telescope in Hawaii, monitoring objects bigger than a football field, bigger than 140 meters, to protect Earth. The idea was they posed a risk. Any near-Earth object should be tagged.

They found a near-Earth object and realized, back in October 2017, that is moving very fast. In fact, it’s not bound by gravity to the sun. It was given the name Oumuamua because it was the first interstellar object that came from outside the solar system. We know it because it was moving too fast relative to objects that are bound by gravity to the sun. It was anomalous as it was tumbling. Every eight hours, the amount of sunlight reflected from it changed by a factor of ten. That meant that it had an extreme geometry, most likely flat, based on the variation of light.

Most asteroids are not flat like this.

They’re not by the factor of ten change in the reflection as they tumble. They are usually up to a factor of three. Moreover, they’re not flat usually. This object showed a push away from the sun by some mysterious force without any evaporation. There was no rocket effect from gas or dust coming off it because we didn’t see any commentary. In fact, the Spitzer Space Telescope looked very deeply and couldn’t find anything.

The question was what’s pushing it. I simply made the conjecture that this is a thin membrane, perhaps a surface layer of a bigger object that was torn apart. Nature doesn’t make very thin membranes less than a millimeter in thickness. I said maybe it’s technological in origin, and that by itself drew a lot of attention from the public, from my colleagues.

The paper was accepted for publication within three days. That drew me to the possibility that we should search our backyard for other objects. We discovered with my student, Amir Siraj, about a year later, a meteor, basically an object that collided with Earth, roughly the size of a watermelon. It was discovered as a result of the light that it produced, the fireball that it generated as a result of its friction on air. It was discovered on January 8th, 2014, so almost four years before Oumuamua, by US government satellites that are monitoring Earth for ballistic missiles and any national security threats. They saw this fireball and measured the speed of the object, and we calculated that it must have arrived from outside the solar system, and more often it was moving faster than 95% of the stars near the sun. It exploded in the lower atmosphere of the Earth about twenty kilometers over the Pacific Ocean.

The speed was atypical for asteroids, or was it pretty consistent with other asteroids?

I think it was the upper envelope but that was the speed relative to Earth. It came from behind the Earth as the Earth was orbiting the sun. In fact, relative to the sun, it was the fastest. It was way above the speed necessary to escape from the gravitation pool of the sun. Outside the solar system, it was moving at 60 kilometers per second, faster than 95% of the stars. That’s a speed that is thousands of times higher than the speed limit on the highway.

Moreover, the object exploded only in the lower atmosphere. That meant that it had material strength tougher than all other meteors recorded by NASA, 272 of them over the past decade. To me, it raised the possibility that it was a voyager-like meteor. Imagine our own spacecraft voyager colliding with a planet like the Earth in the future, and it’ll appear it’s a meteor of unusual material strength and speed. That’s what led me to suggest that we go there to the Pacific Ocean and collect materials from this meteor because we could figure out at the cost of $1.5 million what this object was made of. To do that in space with Oumuamua or any future object looking like it would cost billions of dollars.

Space Anomalies

A couple of different things that I want to ask you about as someone who’s not an astrophysicist. I think that the majority of the general public sees the rapid amount of new information that’s coming that gives credence to we’re not alone in the universe. It’s not only Oumuamua. It’s not only the stuff that you found from this asteroid but also the governmental inquiries, the unidentified aerial phenomenon, the UAPs or ufos that used to be called.

I guess that I have two parts to this question. Number one, is it because we haven’t been looking the same way? Now that we have access to all of this new information, we realize that there’s a lot more anomalous stuff that’s out there than we ever realized before. Number two, is it that now there’s like a consensus that you don’t necessarily have to be on the fringes of the scientific community to go into this kind of research?

Both of these aspects come to fruition right now because we couldn’t detect objects like Oumuamua more than a decade ago. There wasn’t a survey telescope that allowed us to do that. The telescope in Hawaii was constructed because the US Congress tasked NASA to find all objects bigger than 140 meters that come close to Earth. They pose a risk. This was the reason that such a telescope was constructed.

The US government didn’t employ a network of satellites of the quality that it has over the past decades. We couldn’t find objects like that before. That is, of course, one part of the motivation to study interstellar objects. The second is that we know that a significant fraction of the stars, maybe a quarter, have a planet the size of the Earth roughly at the correct separation per those planets to have liquid water on their surface if they have an atmosphere. The chemistry of life as we know it could take place there.

I think it’s only reasonable to be curious and we should not have an opinion. A lot of people have a strong opinion but that’s not the way science is done. No knowledge does not fall into our lap. We have to invest in the research both in funds and time and effort. That’s what I’m committed to. My day job is to figure out what’s beyond the solar system.

It is only reasonable to be curious about science without having strong opinions about it.

The day job of government is national security and the fact that they provide some assistance in identifying meteors or talking about unidentified anomalous phenomena, the way that the Director of National Intelligence did in three reports to the US Congress, helps science because it raises our wonder, our curiosity. For those people who are fundamentally curious. For those that have a strong opinion, it bothers them.

With respect to the UAPs, the unidentified objects the government talks about, I decided to establish the Galileo Project at Harvard University. We have an observatory that we assembled and it’s now functioning, collecting data all the time from the entire sky. We have hundreds of thousands of objects that we monitor, and we’re using machine learning software to figure out if they are birds, airplanes, balloons, drones or things that are familiar.

From a scientific perspective, even if one in a million came from outside of this Earth, that will be big news that will change the future of humanity. I hope for the better. Just like finding a letter or a package in your mailbox, you realize someone sent it. From the point of view of the government, maybe it’s sufficient. They established a new office called the Old Domain Anomaly Resolution Office. That office announced that they identified 97% of the objects that were reported by military personnel. Maybe for them, it’s satisfactory to have 97% figured out. As I said, from a scientific point of view, we are interested in the few percent that they cannot figure out. We want to know if any of them is from outside of the solar system.

I think that everybody wants to know that. At least from the younger generations that I talk to, it’s one of the first things that they think about when they’re thinking about future technology rather than artificial intelligence or some of these other consumer items that might make their lives better. Everybody has this sense of wonder and excitement when it comes to this stuff.

I gave a public talk at Sanibel Island in Florida. Not only that the room was full of people, but half of the people were young. It was the first event where so many young people showed up according to the organizers. There was a book signing event afterwards, and I asked the young people, “Why did you come here?” They said, “We’ve been following you since Oumuamua.” Apparently, I have a large fan base.

The other thing that happened to me, I was invited to the Munich Security Conference, and it was the first time that the organizers decided to invite the scientists for a major Q&A forum. I spoke for 45 minutes. Before that, we went to the roof to have a drink. On the roof, there were snipers with black head masks. Apparently, they were there to protect Kamala Harris, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other heads of state that were in the building.

Also, you.

No. That’s the main point that I wanted to bring up. They were not there to protect me. What I figured out from this is that talking about extraterrestrial life is less controversial than being a politician because nobody wants to kill me.

Public Attention

I think it depends because controversy comes in different forms. Some of the controversy that has come up relatively recently and the research that you’re publishing is the different potential outcomes that your research could come from other than something that’s interstellar. I do want to touch on that because with some of the things that I’ve noticed, and again, I’m not an astrophysicist, I’m a lay person when it comes to this stuff, and correct me if I’m wrong, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but I feel like they’re grasping for things that are much more intangible than accepting the data as it is.

I get a lot of pushback from within academia and the reason is simple. It has nothing to do with the subjects that I’m talking about. It has to do with the public attention. The reason I say that is because at first, when I started considering the extraterrestrial origin of Oumuamua and so forth, there were a lot of people supporting it within academia. The paper was accepted within a few days. I got a lot of females supporting it. The referee said, “In fact, it looks like the object is flat, so your conjecture makes sense.” The hate messages started coming in when the public became fascinated. It got to a point where had a number of high-level profiles in major magazines and newspapers. That led some people to make nasty remarks, just because the public cared about what I was doing.

To me, it makes zero sense. To my daughter, it does make sense because she says that whenever singers get to a certain level of fame, they always have haters. I’m not familiar with that because I was always doing science, and I did it the same way throughout. It’s that this subject gets a lot of attention. That bothers some of the critics that I had.

Two things on that. One, I developed the approach of the eagle. The eagle very often has crows riding on its back, pecking at its neck. Instead of fighting them off, the eagle rises to greater heights where the oxygen level is too low for the crows to survive, so they drop off. For me, that’s equivalent to rising to the greatest heights of scientific inquiry, analyzing materials, getting the results out and doing the scientific work to the best of my ability. My hope is that there will be very low levels of oxygen from my critics at that point and they will drop off. I don’t want to mud wrestle because it gets me dirty if I do that.

Scientific Controversies

Can we talk about some of the scientific controversy for a second? I know that the meteor that came in 2014, at least the impact has been potentially been criticized, has the sound that you would hear from a truck. That’s something that I think a seismologist came out with. For the people who are not familiar, Dr. Loeb found these little spherules which I’d love for you to talk more about. I guess there’s some controversy about that. Let’s talk about the meteor itself and then this idea that it was coming from a truck or something like that.

This was reported very widely but it has no substance. Let me explain. We based the localization of this meteor on what NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab put in the official catalog on a website for this meteor. There was a localization within an eleven-kilometer box. It corresponds to about a tenth of a degree in longitude and latitude. The peak brightness of this fireball was localized there.

Why is the peak brightness the most important point? It’s because that’s where the explosion was the biggest. That’s where you expect to find the debris. If you are searching the debris, you want to use the peak brightness of the meteor fireball as the location where you will start the search. That’s the box that we used to design the expedition to survey the ocean floor for the debris from this meteor.

It was based on light detected from the explosion by sensors aboard a US government satellite. Before we went on the expedition to the box that we wanted to survey, we checked the data from a seismometer on Manous Island about 85 kilometers away from the explosion site to see if there was any signal that appeared in that seismometer data from 2014. At the right time with the time delay associated with the speed of sound, we all know about thunder appearing after the lightning because the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light. We found a blip in that seismometer, and we said that it was perfectly in agreement with the localization that the US government provided. Also, the altitude because the altitude gives you additional delay. We found it to be fully consistent.

We said, “Great. Now we have an independent confirmation of the government data,” but we did not choose the location based on the seismometer, because the single station only gives you a distance, and that means you don’t know which direction to go. It’s a circle around the station. You could search at a circle, but that’s a huge region. We did not base our survey on that moment. We based it on the government sensor source that detected the light.

Now comes a group from Johns Hopkins led by a scientist named Ben Fernando, who writes a preprint that was not referred yet, just submitted for publication and makes immediately a press release about it saying, “We found that this seismometer signal. It could have been.” He doesn’t know, but it could have been a truck on a nearby road.

He says, “They went to the wrong place. Why?” It’s because if we use additional seismometers from other places and other sensors for infrasound, we actually get a very large ellipse of uncertainty. Of course, I knew about it and that’s why we didn’t use all that data to localize. They get an ellipse, which is hundreds of kilometers in size, and they say, “It could have been anywhere in that ellipse if we ignore the Department of Defense data.” Why would you ignore the data that discovered this meteor? They ignored it. They say the seismometer gives a huge region, therefore the expedition went perhaps to the wrong place. Perhaps this seismic signal was actually a track, perhaps both of them. By the way, this larger ellipse of uncertainty offers the Department of Defense uncertainty. It’s a much smaller box.

Any scientist knows that if you use a set of instruments to measure something and then you have much poorer data with a bigger ellipse that includes the previous data, they are not in conflict. You take the better data. However, these people say, “No, we don’t believe the better data because it’s the US government. It’s the US space command. It’s the US Department of Defense who used satellites, and they might be wrong. We use only the data publicly available from seismometers. Therefore, the expedition could have been in the wrong place.”

If you use a set of instruments to measure something and gather data with bigger lapses compared to the previous data, you always take the better data.

They go to the New York Times, they go to places and say, “They were misguided. It was a truck. It was not a meteor.” First of all, the existence of the meteor is known to all of us because of the US government sensors. How can you on the one hand talk about the meteor and say, “It could have been anywhere, but I don’t want to use the best data I have to localize it.” That’s basically the foundation for their statement, which makes zero sense. I thought nobody would pay attention to this.

Since all these newspapers reported about it, I wrote a short research note where I explained what they did wrong in the sense that, for example, there was a flash when the meteor entered the atmosphere. There was a flash of the entry into the atmosphere. That was one location that the government reported. There was a second location, which is the peak brightness of the meteor. They thought it should have been the same. Therefore, they claim the government doesn’t know what they’re talking about because they changed their location.

This kind of statement that the government doesn’t know what they’re talking about because the entry spot is different from the peak brightness spot is not professional. For them to come out with a press release without checking actually is irresponsible, I would argue. Nevertheless, a lot of people who want to argue that we went to the wrong place jumped up and down.

There was also a statement from a different group all related to each other because these are scientists who want to bring it down. They see a flower rising above the grass level. They want to step on it. The second thing that was done was when we were analyzing the materials that we collected, those molten droplets from meteors. While we were doing the analysis, there were people stating, “They just found coal ash.”

Industrial pollution.

They didn’t have access to the materials. We were analyzing the materials, yet they had to make a statement before we came out with the full analysis. At the time that they came up with this statement, we looked at about a few percent of the molten droplets that we found. That was very preliminary for us to start with the analysis. They immediately made a state, “It’s just coal.” We went to the literature, looked at the elemental composition of coal ash and compared it to our materials, 55 elements from the periodic table showed very different abundances by all this of magnitude relative to coal ash. It’s not coal ash. The fundamental question is, why would scientists have the urge to make negative statements about an ongoing research project before the analysis is finished?

Now that we have the full analysis out, they changed course and argued that we went to the wrong place. It shows you that there is a hidden motivation behind all of this. The thing that bothers me a lot is why is childlike bullying more prevalent than childlike curiosity. That is very clear on social media on which I have no footprint, but I would expect in the scientific community for people to be motivated by curiosity. We are all trying to figure out the truth. I wrote a paper and you don’t hear about it. I wrote a paper explaining the results from the analysis of those molten droplets that we found. It’s about this explanation.

Sadly, child-like bullying is more prevalent than child-like curiosity, which is very clear on social media. 

They want to argue that we didn’t go to the right place. We didn’t find the right thing. Before we went there, they said, “You will not find anything.” That also was a theme because we don’t believe the US government and this organization, the US Space Command, issued a formal letter certifying at 99.99%, that the velocity measurement of this meteor indicates that it’s interstellar in origin. That was certified in March 2022.

It took them three years. They took time from their day job at the US space Command. That’s the organization that gets $30 billion in funding, more than NASA, to allow the US president about any incoming threat, ballistic missiles. These astronomers are claiming that the US Space Command who issued this letter does not know what they’re talking about. In fact, the velocity was three times lower and this object came from the solar system.

That was done a year after the letter was issued. I say to myself, “Why do they sleep well at night knowing that there is an organization getting funded at $30 billion, that issues official documents to NASA and when their taxpayer’s money is being wasted, according to them, and we are not protected from ballistic missiles?” If they are wrong by a factor of three in speed measurement, they would alert Mexico for a missile heading towards Washington, DC.

All of these are scientists motivated by something else. The biggest force in academia is not electromagnetism, it’s not the weak interaction. It’s not gravity. It’s not a strong interaction. It’s jealousy. It’s all about ego. Many people use academia as a sandbox to demonstrate their superiority intellectually relative to other people or relative to the public.

The biggest force in academia is not electromagnetism, gravity, or people interaction. It is jealousy and ego.

That’s the other thing I don’t like. I was born on a farm. I feel that I’m not superior to anyone else in the public. I communicate with the public and I listen to the public. If the public cares about this subject, I will put my time and energy into resolving it. However, it became fashionable in academia to distance yourself from the public. That’s a self-inflicted wound. That’s why there is such a big separation between what’s done in academia and what matters to people in society.

My view is that we need the course correction. It’s like for GPS systems, we need to recalculate academia. It caused some turmoil at Harvard University. The way I see it, there was a bubble created within Harvard University and it burst because of friction with the outside society. That is an indication that academia needs to be recalculated.

Dealing With Counter-Narratives

I have one foot in academia myself, and I wouldn’t say it’s jealousy. I feel like it’s careerism and making a name for yourself. I like to think that people are good people at the end of the day, and they’re looking out for their own best interests, their family’s interests and stuff like that. I think what you touched on is this idea that there is this counter-narrative to what it is that you’re proposing. I’m trying not to be a conspiracy theorist because I want you to be. I know enough about my own biases that I’m trying to distance myself from them because I want to be in an organization of planets where I can meet an alien and we can have a meal together and learn.

As long as they don’t eat people. If you go to a restaurant right now, we are eating animals that we regard as less intelligent than we are. We must leave a very good impression in our first encounter with aliens because if they feel that we are not very intelligent, they will eat us.

That is another thing I would love to talk about, first impression, because I feel like you’re going to be on the short list for the people that are going to be able to talk to them. I’d love to talk to you about how that’s going to go down. My point is I think that there’s this counter-narrative. Every time you have, I wouldn’t say incontrovertible evidence because there has been no smoking gun that I has appeared yet. It’s all evidence that is based on science that it’s not definitive. We haven’t had an alien come in and shake our hands yet.

No. If we don’t search, we will not find anything.

My point is that do you think that this counter-narrative is something that is more than the collection of the self-interest of the press to promote controversy, the self-interest of these professors to get their name out there instead of your name out there?

I do think so. I think it’s human psychology. I think in this case, you find it problematic because this is the most important scientific question that we can answer because if we are not alone, if there is a higher intelligence out there, we can learn from it. Looking out at my neighbors, I learn from them when I look at what they’re doing. If I were to converse with them, then I would learn something new. It’s an opportunity for us to change our priorities. Right now, we are engaged in zero-sum games in wars and conflicts killing other people, which makes zero sense. That’s the least intelligent thing that you can do. We live for such a short time, so why not cooperate and work together for the prosperity of everyone? Perhaps seeing a neighbor who did better than us will inspire us to do better and work together.

At the very least, it’ll convince us that we are all part of the same team because there is someone else out there. I think it’ll be revolutionary. It would be more important than the first Copernican revolution for us to find that there is someone else. It doesn’t need to be someone that is in existence right now. That may have been another culture that existed a billion years ago. We can learn from it because their technologies are likely to be far more superior than ours. They reached our doorstep before we reached their doorstep. That’s why it matters to me. If the US government has some materials or information that they found, I would love to know about it because it would save me decades of research of my own time.

I’m not waiting for the government to tell me what’s out in the sky because the sky is not classified. The oceans are not classified. We can search ourselves. Most people have an opinion and they say, “We didn’t see anyone. We didn’t encounter anything.” The same is true about the Higgs boson. If you were to say, “I haven’t seen the Higgs boson,” and be done with it, that would not be satisfactory, scientifically speaking. You have to invest $10 billion in the large hadron collider or that machine to discover the Higgs boson. Space is huge. Time is huge relative to the scales that we are familiar with. We should invest in the search before saying anything. We only see the reflection of sunlight from objects bigger than a football field. We don’t know how many smaller objects are floating near Earth.

We should stay humble and curious and do the search. Instead, what I see is that even as they do the search, people who are not doing the search are ridiculing it. Why that be the case? Let’s all be curious. We went to the Pacific Ocean, to the site of this meteor. We found that with a magnetic sled that collected magnetic particles from the ocean floor that was two kilometers deep across the region that was 10 to 20 kilometers in size around the Department of Defense error box.

We retrieved 850 spherules, molten droplets less than a millimeter in size. By now, we analyzed all of them. We found that about 10% of them, a 10th of them, are of a type that was never reported in the scientific literature before. They have a composition of elements from the periodic table that is very different from the material that made the solar system elements like iridium, latinum, and uranium are up to 1,000 times more abundant than in those materials that came to make the sun and the planets in the solar system.

The question is where did they come from? It’s possible that it was a rock that was made from the crust of a planet very different than the Earth, the moon, Mars and other moons and planets in the solar system because the most common star in the Milky Way galaxy is ten times less en masse than the sun. The sun is not a typical star. Most stars are dwarf stars. The nearest one is Proximus Centauri. It’s the nearest star and the most common star, about 12% the mass of the sun. I figured out in a recent paper that was accepted for publication in work that I did with my postdoc that, in fact, if you bring a planet like the Earth close to the most common star, it would rip it apart.

It will make a stream of rocks, half of which will be ejected to interstellar space at the speeds that resemble this meteor. The rock on the surface of the planet will be molten because of its proximity to the star. You will differentiate some elements from others. The elements that you would find most abundant would be those that we found. Here is a potential explanation for this material that I published, but even though it gives clarity to how such an object can arise naturally, it didn’t get much press. We put a press release. No reporter wanted to report about it because it’s astrophysics.

Even in the astrophysics community, you have people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, that you’re on the opposite side of this argument. Do you feel like it’s still a third rail in that this type of research, is not as valued as other research?

First, let me say that Neil is not a practicing astrophysicist. He didn’t publish a single scientific paper over the past decade. There is a difference between people who are popularizing science and those who are actually in the trenches. It’s the difference between a spectator looking at a soccer match and the players on the field. The spectator is not supposed to tell the players how to pass the ball. Although, very often, they do.

I’m one of the players. I’m still playing. I think I’m trying to do the science the way it should be done by going to the site of the meteor collecting materials, bringing them back, and using the best instruments in the world in collaboration with two laboratories. One at Harvard University led by Stein Jacobsen, a world-renowned geochemist. The other one led by Roald Tagle at the Bruker Corporation in Berlin, Germany. We are coming to conclusions based on the analysis and trying to interpret those.

That’s the way I do my science. This is the way science is done. If you look at all the other questions that we are trying to address, for those people who are bothered by that, for those people who say we should not believe data that gives us trouble, because we think about stones in the solar system, and this object must have been like a stone from the solar system, I call that the stone age of science. They’re lacking curiosity. They live in those echo chambers where they basically rely on past knowledge.

The way to gain new knowledge is to listen to nature. Let’s see what this object is. Let’s believe the US government who went back to check the data and verified it. That was a full research team within the US Space Command. Why dispute it just because you want to promote the narrative that it was a stone from the solar system? This to me is anti-science. These people are actually trying to argue that they’re defending science, they’re ridiculing anything that goes against the models they have but in fact, this is an anti-science approach, not to follow the routine of listening to nature rather than to listen to yourself.

It is an anti-science approach not to follow the routine of listening to nature and prefer to listen to yourself.

I think that’s the big narrative that I see in academia. It’s more the echo chamber narrative and the ivory tower narrative, the jealousy narrative or things like that.

By the way, I should say kids are curious. I met with students in the elementary school where I went as a kid. I was visiting there. I told the students as I entered, I said, “I’m just like you. I wonder about the universe, about the world. I tried to figure it out.” One of the kids raised his hand and said, “Professor Loeb, we read about you. You are 61 years old. How can you be like us? We are much younger.” I said, “It’s not a matter of biological age.” My biggest advice to those young kids is never to pretend to be the adult in the room because that’s what politics is about. Very often, you pretend to know more than you actually know. We see the fallout from that. Very often, even the intelligence agencies provide the government with the wrong advice.

Sometimes, data is incomplete. The knowledge is incomplete. If you are arrogant to show off, you would dismiss any uncertainty. You would follow what the echo chamber is saying. If you’re a kid, you would say, “I’m not sure about that. Let me check it out.” The other thing is not to be afraid of making mistakes. I spoke with the chief editor of Nature magazine, Magdalena Skipper, and she basically said that one of the big problems right now in science is that whoever deviates from the beaten path is put at the town square and stoned.

It shouldn’t be like that because very often, if you have incomplete data or incomplete knowledge, you might be making the wrong conclusion. Therefore, science is about iterating, responding to the knowledge that we have and correcting ourselves. If you always want to be right, you would either pretend to know more than you actually know or dismiss data that violates your prejudice because otherwise, you would be proven wrong. Or you would never take risks.

That’s the worst that can happen in science. If you’re curious and you say, “Previously I thought this, but now I have data that shows me that.” For example, in the case of the meteor. I was thinking maybe it’s a voyager-like meteor. I realized, actually, what we found can be explained in a natural process. Maybe it’s rocks from the planet different than the ones we find in the solar system, so I wrote a paper about it.

There is nothing wrong with that because you’re responding to what you know. That’s the process of learning in science. You learn from nature. You’re not supposed to learn just from your colleagues because they have an opinion that is not always supported by data and there is a problem because science does not progress at the rate that it could progress if people were willing to take risks and make mistakes.

That’s something that I’ve noticed myself. I feel like because everything is so permanent these days. You have kids. I have kids. They live in a world where it’s something that they said years ago could be used against them, like however many years. I feel like we need to have a cultural mind shift where people are willing to make mistakes and we’re forgiving for those mistakes later on.

That’s exactly the message from the chief editor of Nature.

Shift Of Interest

Coming back to this idea of this type of research, it was certainly less popular in the past. I think if you were going in the vein of interstellar life you might have been on the fringes of the scientific community. Now someone like you who’s very much, like you said, a player in this whole thing is able to take on these tasks and do this research. My initial question was, do you feel like that consensus is changing, that it’s much more acceptable now for these young postdocs like that you’re training with to take on the research?

In the Galileo Project, I currently employ three postdocs from contributions made by foundations. We got a very big grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. We are getting support from very prestigious foundations and also from private donors. Two of the three postdocs told me that when I made them the offer that it was a lifelong dream to work on something like the Galileo Project but there was nothing out there. They cherish this opportunity and they’re happy doing that, and they want to continue it in the future. That’s one part of it. There is the public discussing this subject. I can tell you, I go places and there is a huge interest among people and many of whom tell me that they follow the research because it excites them. It inspires them.

When I went on the expedition, I wrote 43 diary reports, put them on That’s where I put my essays every day or two. There were millions of people around the world who followed my diary reports. I got an email from Denmark from a person who said, “I had a stroke and reading your diary reports gave me strength to live.”

What did he mean? He meant that I was willing to put the time and effort and money to search for the materials of an object that the US government reported about. It looks as if it’s the first big object that came, that we identified that came from outside the solar system that we can actually put our hands on. That is the way science should be done, driven by curiosity. He found it amazing. I find it common sense. There is nothing special in everything I say. It’s just that I get attention because most people don’t say that and makes science exciting.

There’s definitely a lot of bravery that goes into it. I would say I think that you’re being very humble. I think that there’s a long history of people who may have been interested in this stuff and have been labeled as conspiracy theorists or kooks or things like that. You have the virtue of tenure. You have the virtue of the prestige of Harvard University. You’ve obviously done the hard work. You’ve talked about the origins of stars and black holes and all this other stuff. I think to have someone like you with the bona fides that you do and the gravitas that you have is inspiring to me.

That’s something that I think would be such a huge event for humanity. Just like that gentleman who has had a stroke, it gives us all hope. I only see the upside. I know that there are a lot of people who think that first contact would be a negative experience, but I know you’ve talked in the past about how you think it’s going to be a positive experience. How would you talk to those people who might be a little bit hesitant or pessimistic about first contact?

I should say that my career gave me the tenure that I have to come out. The most important part of my past is actually that I grew up on a farm and connected with nature more than with people. That is the narrative that I follow. Pay attention. Keep your eyes on the ball, not on the audience. Which is sounds straightforward, but in the age of social media, you basically pay attention to the audience all the time.

It’s like seashells on the beach. Each of them usually, when they’re born, has unique colors, but after there for a long time and the ocean waves rub them against each other, they break up and become indistinguishable grains of sand. They lose their unique colors. I say rubbing against other people all the time, that’s what takes away your unique colors. You have to maintain some independence. That’s what I’m trying to pursue. We live for such a short time. Let’s make the most of it. I’m not obviously losing opportunities for honors awards grants that I would get if I were to follow the beaten path, but that’s not my goal.

Rubbing against other people will take away your unique colors. Maintain some of your independence and make the most of your life.

I don’t know. If it pays off, that’s a huge deal.

For that, it’s a lot of work. That’s what I’m hoping for, but it’s more about humanity and bringing us to a better place.

First Contact Expectations

Coming back to the first contact thing, I know you’ve talked in the past about how optimistic you are. I do feel like there’s a lot of pessimism around this idea that once we make contact with an alien species, we’re going to be lower on the food chain and then potentially on the table.

I don’t see it that way. Stephen Hawking said it, that we should be quiet we should not transmit radio signals because they might come to hunt us. Eventually, there might be predators out there. First, I should say, that people shouldn’t lose sleep on that because the radio signals we sent out for over the past century only reached the hundreds of stars by now. The chance of them having a civilization that monitors the sky on the radio the way we do, and for them actually to travel to us will take many millions of years. Don’t worry about it.

More broadly, I think going out to the street, I’m an optimist because life is very often a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t search, you’ll not find anything. If you don’t believe that you will find something good, then nothing good will happen to you. I believe that we can actually benefit from the encounter rather than lose. We can learn from them both in terms of technology and science.

On the first encounter, I have two questions that I would like to ask. The first one is, what happened before the Big Bang? We know the universe started at some point in time because we see it expanding. Einstein’s Theory of Gravity cannot forecast what happened before then because it breaks down. It doesn’t have another pillar of modern physics, quantum mechanics, embedded in it to tell us what happened before that singularity.

If the aliens would answer this question, it’ll guide us on how to unify quantum mechanics and gravity. That’s one thing. Also, it’ll deal with our cosmic roots because there is a possibility that our universe, our baby universe, was created in the laboratory by some scientists who understood quantum gravity and could engineer a baby universe in the lab.

I would like to find out what was our cosmic origin. It’s possible that in our universe, once we figure out quantum gravity, we will create baby universes. It’s babies inside babies like for humans. That would solve the question of where the universe comes from. The second question I would like to ask is, where is the nearest hub where extraterrestrials come together so we can meet some and socialize with them?

That would be the most exciting feature for me. I think that when I think about it, it’s probably going to be a mundane experience like we might find bacteria on other life-like planets.

Actually, a kid asked me that in Florida, and I agree that the microbes might be far more abundant. They are not as much as interesting to me. Also, you might say, “We should invest tens of billions of dollars to search for molecules in the atmospheres of exoplanets around other stars that would indicate microbial life,” because that’s probably the most abundant form of life. That’s exactly the mainstream view within astronomy right now. That assumes that it’s easier to find those molecular fingerprints of the microbes in the form of oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide and other molecules. To me, it’s not clear that these would be the easiest signatures of life.

For example, if there is a planet with a lot of industrial pollution we could identify those molecules. If there are city lights, very bright city lights on the dark side of the planet, that would tell us that something unusual is going on there. If we find a voyager-like meteor at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, it could have buttons on it. Of course, the question would come up as we retrieve the gadget whether to press a button.

I asked my students what to do. Half of the class said, “Please don’t. It’ll affect all of us. Don’t press any button.” The other half said, “Please do, because maybe it’s shut GPT100. We want to see what will happen.” A student raised his hand and said, “Professor Loeb, what would you actually do?” Given the split vote, I said, “No worries. I’ll take it to a laboratory and examine it before engaging with it.”

These examples of a gadget in the ocean, or city lights or industrial pollution, or even radio signals, would not only potentially be far easier to detect microbial fingerprints, but we might find them first. Investing all our funds the way that the mainstream in astronomy does right now in the search for the molecular fingerprints of microbes, I think is the wrong approach. We should split our chances between technological and biological signatures. I actually wrote a book about life in the cosmos and described both signatures, and I think we should hedge our bets. It also relates to my advice to young scientists.

There was a special celebration of my birthday and one of the students asked, “What’s your advice to students and postdocs at the beginning of their career?” I said, “I have two advices. First, you want to diversify your portfolio. You want to explore risky ideas together with mainstream, highly popularities.” The way to split it is I suggested somewhere between 20% and 30% on risky ideas like in financial investments. Later in your career, when you have tenure, you can change the balance and make, allocate more resources to the risky part.”

That resembles what Pablo Picasso, as an artist, did because he initially painted very realistically. When he was asked why did he start his career painting realistically, he said he wanted to master that craft the way people practiced it before him. When he demonstrated that, he ventured into cubism, the abstract art that he pioneered. I think doing science can be similar. First, you want to demonstrate to your colleagues that you’re able to reproduce the scientific work the way it’s done and then invent or venture into some new territories that are more risky but are more creative and more fascinating. That’s what I’m doing right now.

Multi-Planetary Species

That’s salient advice, something that I could even say would be the same in medicine like myself. I want to change gears here for a second because I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about us becoming a multi-planetary species because I know that your basis, is so much more broad than this one particular facet of astrophysics. I’m hopeful for the new lunar mission. I’m hopeful that we might eventually go to Mars. What do you think the future looks like for humanity as a space-faring species?

First, I should say, we should be careful about going to the surface of Mars because it’s bombarded by energetic particles. Within a few years, a human unprotected on the surface of Mars would not survive because a significant fraction of the brain cells would be damaged by these cosmic rays. There is a simple solution. It’s either to build infrastructure or to actually go into caves. We started from prehistoric caves on Earth and we might end up in caves in tubes on Mars. That’s perfectly fine because the rock can protect you from the energetic particles. It also protects you from the large variations in temperatures between day and night, which are hundreds of degrees on the equator of Mars.

If you go down, these are moderated by the layer of rock above you. I would actually want to explore some of these caves because maybe there are prehistoric paintings on the walls of these caves on Mars because Mars lost its atmosphere a couple of billion years ago in the middle of its lifestyle. Before that, it had liquid water on the surface. We know that because we see evidence for rivers, oceans and lakes. There could have been intelligent life if it progressed twice as fast as on Earth. It’s a factor of two faster.

I want to find out if anything was left on the walls of those caves. We’ve never searched them, but altogether I think it’s very challenging for humans or any biological creatures from Earth to survive the long journey that it takes to reach other stars. To me, it makes much more sense now that we have artificial intelligence, to send gadgets that have a brain.

We’ve never done that in space. We sent robots like Perseverance to the surface of Mars but it’s operated. This robot is operated by engineers in the Jet Propulsion lab in Pasadena. We sent a helicopter to Mars but it’s also operated by those engineers. I call that helicopter parenting where we are monitoring what happens to our gadgets and making sure that they do the right thing. Just like with kids, you don’t want to helicopter parent. You want to let the kids explore on their own. Especially if they go large distances, they cannot report back and ask for advice. You want them to have their own brain. That means giving them autonomy. They don’t need to report back. They don’t need to ask for advice just as with kids. That means AI in space. We have never done that before, but we now have the technology and we could potentially equip spacecraft with a brain.

My guess is when we encounter functioning devices from other civilizations, it’ll probably not be biological the way we imagine it in science fiction. It’ll probably be with an AI brain. The question would arise when we find the visitor in our backyard that is functional, it’s urgent to figure out what the visitor is seeking and what its intent is. We cannot establish a committee ahead of time to decide about rules because it depends on the visitor.

One time, I saw a person on the street right where we were looking at my home and my wife said, “Go ahead, speak with him. He has been looking for half an hour. Maybe it’s one of your groupies.” I went there and I said, “Why are you looking at our home? What’s going on?” He said, “I was born in this house I lived there until 50 years ago.” I said, “Great. If you want, then have a look at our backyard.” He said, “We buried a cat in the backyard named Tiger.” I said, “That name sounds familiar,” because I saw a tombstone with the name Tiger on it, and I was worried that a tiger was buried in my backyard. He explained to me that it was a cat.

What I learned from that is that you need to be kind to visitors because they might teach you about ancient history before the time that you came to your home because that territory used to be occupied by others before. If we meet an alien or a gadget that is intelligent enough to tell us what was here before us, we will learn a lot. I see this as an opportunity to expand our perspective from now and here to the universe at large and a long time ago.

UFOs and UAPs

Even the technological innovation that would come from seeing their technology, I feel like would be so beneficial for humanity, which is one thing that I did want to ask you about. I’m sure you’ve seen the Congressional hearings about all these different UFOs and UAPs, whatever you want to call these days. The one that’s most striking to me is the tic-tac video, the one that has multiple eyewitnesses of great credentials like yourself, that can corroborate this information both from a technical perspective and a visual perspective. That thing moves, unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before. I’m sure it probably made a lot of curiosity go off in your own brain. I’m not an astrophysicist. How would you explain something that moves like that?

We have very limited data because the data was deleted or the government took possession and we don’t have access and we cannot measure things there because it happened in the past. I’m not clear about the origin of it. The only things I can think of are two things. One, perhaps drones that were tested at the time. There were new technologies that those people who saw them could not associate with something familiar. That’s one thing.

The other possibility is that there were light beams, like a spot of a laser that a cat would chase around. That is not a real object, but it’s actually you produce something that the sensors detect but is not real. Of course, there are two things that I don’t have access to. One is the distance of these objects. When you see objects moving fast, it may be that they’re close. Those of them you think. For that to measure distance, you need triangulation. You need multiple sensors looking at the same object.

Imagine going on a highway, and seeing a black car behind you in your rearview mirror. A few seconds later, you see the car in front of you, the black car, and you say, “It must have moved fast.” In fact, it’s a different black car. If objects come into view and out of you and there is a swarm of them, you might think they’re moving fast, but they’re not the same object.

I would much rather prefer to have my own instruments with full data access, and figure out what it is. It definitely raises my curiosity enough for us within the Galileo Project to look at the sky. We have one observatory functioning at Harvard. We are building a new copy of it in Colorado, and we got funded by the Mellon Foundation to build a third observatory. Ultimately, we’ll have three observatories looking at the entire sky in three locations all the time.

Harvard, Colorado, and where is the third one going to be?

It’ll be in Pennsylvania. We will get possibly millions of objects that we monitor over a period of a few months. We can check if any of them is anomalous rather than people who report about an object because they happen to be at the right place at the right time. If you hear such reports, you don’t know how frequent are such things. When you observe the sky all the time, you have the background. That’s extremely important, going away from anecdotal reports to statistical inferences.

The other thing is I was visiting CERN to give a public lecture. There was a special dinner hosted by the organizers of the event. Very distinguished people were there, including very wealthy people. Two of them approached me and said, “About two decades ago I witnessed something extremely unusual. There was this huge object and it moved fast. There were some fighter jets chasing it and it moved much faster than they could move or things like that.”

I heard it from a number of people. These were serious people. You wonder if there is something out there that is behaving very differently than familiar objects. Perhaps it is military, perhaps technology is being tested, but why don’t we watch the sky and figure it out ourselves? That’s what we are doing with the three observatories.

That’s a very scientific way of looking at it. I appreciate that because that’s who you are at your core.

My wife says that I’m scientific also when I think about people and she laughs at that. One time, I made salad in the morning and I was using a knife to cut the tomato. I thought to myself, “Why is the knife cutting the tomato?” I realized I put some force on the handle of the knife, and because it’s a rigid body, it transmits the force to a very small area right at the edge of the knife. The force per area exceeds the material strength of the skin of the tomato. That breaks the skin and it goes through.

Obviously, in medicine, you’re familiar with the poet who said that in life we have a lot of questions. You can’t find answers to those questions most of the time. Therefore, you can hope to find questions eventually that have an answer. Otherwise, you should leave your questions. That sounds very romantic. A lot of people leave their questions. Go through life with the questions unsolved. I completely disagree with him.

As a scientist, I completely disagree. I say we need to try and answer the questions for which we have no answers. Obviously, what we know is an island in an ocean of ignorance. Let’s do our best. There is a question that bothers you. Some people talk about objects in the sky, they don’t understand. Let’s figure it out.

Let us always try and answer questions for which we currently have no answers.

Propulsion System And Dark Matter

I appreciate that. I also know enough about you that you had a background in philosophy. If we were to philosophize and conjecturize, how is an object able to move without any propulsion?

Let me give an example of something exotic. The most exotic I can think about. About 70 years ago, a physicist, Herman Bondi, a very distinguished physicist from the University of Cambridge, wrote a paper about the possibility of a negative mass in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. The idea is that in electromagnetism, we have positive charges in negative charges in the context of gravity. We’re only familiar with positive masses. That’s why gravity is attractive. Imagine the possibility that there was a negative mass, it’ll be repulsive so it’ll generate repulsive gravity. He said, “That’s not in conflict. It’s just that we don’t see any of that.” Now imagine placing near Earth another planet like the Earth but with a negative mass. It’ll exert this negative mass. It will push the Earth with 1G, the same gravitational acceleration we feel on the surface of Earth.

It’ll push it if it’s close to it, and the Earth would attract this negative mass with 1G. Actually, they would move together and they will keep accelerating at 1G because the negative mass keeps pushing the Earth and the Earth keeps pulling it at exactly the same force. What you will get is a system that accelerates indefinitely up to the speed of light and beyond as close as possible to the speed of light. We can’t go beyond the speed of light because that’s the ultimate limit. If you accelerate at 1G for 25 years or so, you’ll get so close to the speed of light that time will propagate so slowly in your spaceship, on this planet that, in fact, you will age by 25 years, but you will cross the entire universe billions of light years during that time.

If you come back to Earth during this journey, after a billion years, you’ll see the Earth the way it looks a billion years from now even though you aged maybe by ten years at that time. That’s an example of a propulsion system that needs no fuel. There is no exhaust, no rocket. It’s just gravity that does it if we only find the secret of how to make an object with a negative mass. I’m working on such a paper because we know that, for example, the universe as a whole is accelerating its expansion. There is an example of repulsive gravity in reality, except that it’s the vacuum that does it. The vacuum is uniform. It’s everywhere. This negative gravity is applied to everything in the universe. That’s why we are accelerating relative to other galaxies.

If we could bottle that vacuum energy in a confined vessel, then we might be able to get negative mass. This is to give an example of how our imagination is limited in the context of gravity with attractive gravity. It could be that if you bottle the dark energy that makes the universe accelerate, perhaps you can create a propulsion system that needs no fuel. There are other possibilities. If you have enough antimatter, you can use it as a very efficient fuel. When you combine matter with antimatter, you get the entire energy out from the rest mass of the fuel that you have. That’s the highest efficiency fuel that you can imagine.

I feel like as someone who’s in the field, a player like you said, do you have access to all of the different hypotheses and opinions that I don’t have? I don’t know what the cutting edge of astrophysics is. Is there any possibility of this coming from what we know right now?

Just to give you another example, most of the matter in the universe is called dark matter. It’s invisible. It contains 83% of the matter content of the universe. We don’t know what it is. We’ve never seen it in the solar system. It’s a substance that is not familiar to us. There are billions of dollars invested in laboratories to search for the dark matter. In fact, the large hadron collider smashed particles at very high energies to see if the dark matter particles were produced. It didn’t find the dark matter. It didn’t find a symmetry of nature that was hoping to find super symmetry. We still don’t know what the dark matter is. It was discovered about 90 years ago.

In principle, for example, if the dark matter can be engineered, suppose we figured it out and we were using it as fuel, just imagine that it’s useful then because it’s invisible, we will notice it as a rocket exhaust gas coming out of a vehicle. This is an example. I don’t know what the dark matter is. Maybe it can be used for engineering purposes for travel. The same about dark energies we talked about. If it could be bottled up, that substance that causes the universe to accelerate, maybe you can use it for propulsion. These are two examples of things we know about that we don’t understand.

That’s what I think is more important to me. It’s the fact that there’s no understanding of it right now from the terrestrial perspective. I think one of the reasons why I’m asking you this is because there’s conjecture that it might be terrestrial technology from another country or some other state actor that we probably don’t know of. I think that I find it, as a lay person, a huge technological leap that we don’t have an understanding of. Is that consistent with the cutting edge that is available to you? There’s no way that with our current basis of technology, even in the circles that you run with, we could develop something like this.

Now, no. The point is that we have only one century of science and technology. We are pretty early in the game and we already see technologies that are growing exponentially. That includes artificial intelligence because it started with more slow, that was exponential. The capabilities of chips in computers growing exponentially led to the internet and now to artificial intelligence. All of these exponentials will eventually reach some saturation point where there’s something that limits their growth. We haven’t reached that yet. We are still in the first century of those technologies.

That tells you that if you wait for another century, these technologies will saturate at the level that we cannot imagine that they will transform our society. Artificial intelligence might become smarter than us. The reason I say that is because ChatGPT, for example, as a result of its interaction with people, it became dumber. Some people said, “It used to be much smarter.” To me, it’s an indication that it’s getting there. It’s getting to be smarter than us.

Definitely, if we wait a decade, it’ll be smarter than us. That will lead to some people viewing it as an oracle, as a genius, because you can ask questions that humans cannot resolve, and then this AI system will solve those questions. That will demonstrate to us that we are not the pinnacle of creation the way we are often insisting that we are now the smartest on Earth. In fact, that may not be true with our technological kids. I have no problem with that because I have two daughters and when they do better than me, I’m actually happy. I can’t see that as a competition.

Moreover, it’ll show us that if on Earth we are not the smartest, somewhere else there might be someone even better than our AI systems. Our AI systems will benefit from an interaction with an extraterrestrial AI system because they would try to imitate that AI system the way that the imitation game was thought about many years ago by Alan Turing. Altogether, it’s a way for us to grow by having those technologies. If we can only admit that we are not at the center of the universe, both in terms we already admitted that the church and the Vatican admitted that Galileo was right. It took them a while. Humans already landed on the moon by then. The other revolution that is awaiting us is that we are not the smartest.

That’s actually to our benefit because we can become smarter by interacting with things that are smarter than us like the AI that we created and like extraterrestrials that have nothing to do with us. I am looking forward to that because when reading the newspapers every day, I get depressed. Frankly, we’re investing $4 trillion a year on military budgets and we better use those resources to work together. Instead of killing each other. To actually explore space, I calculated that we could send a CubeSat towards every star in the Milky Way galaxy within one century if we were to allocate $4 trillion a year.

Honestly, I think that there is a lot of negative media attention because that is the business of media. It is the outrage machine. It’s nice to hear things like that, which is giving a sense of optimism and hope. The fact we’d be able to do something like that is truly fascinating because $4 trillion, to me, seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the world GDP. It’s not something that’s unattainable.

Religious And Social Aspects

We are spending it and killing each other, which is the wrong thing. There is an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn that believes that the Messiah will come from within Brooklyn. My view is that it’s more likely to come from outer space, from another star. The reason I say that is because perhaps peace will come to Earth, which is the Messianic message. When we interact with a more intelligent species with either the AI of the future that we develop or an extraterrestrial AI, there will be a sense of hope, which is like a religious feeling. We would witness a miracle, something that you’ve never seen before.

It expands your concept of what is possible.

If you think about the religious experience of Moses in the Old Testament, Moses saw a burning bush that was never consumed. That experience convinced Moses that God exists. Nowadays, you could fool a person like Moses easily by buying something off Amazon that looks like a burning bush and is never consumed. If I was next to Moses, I could use the infrared cameras we have in the Galileo Project to tell Moses the surface temperature of this burning bush and the composition and amount of power emitted by it.

I will advise Moses whether this object is indeed artificial and was manufactured by a superhuman intelligence. That’s something we can do with the help of science. We might use the same tools to figure out superhuman intelligence, but it would be real. It’ll not be a religious belief system. It’ll be based on scientific evidence, but the sense of hope would resemble religion. To me, it brings an opportunity to unify religion with science.

I have to put a caveat on that. I don’t know if the algorithm was giving me a ton of information about you because I was interviewing you, but there was a recent article that said, “Dr. Avi Loeb lot thinks the Messiah will come from outer space.” It was almost like attempting to discredit you, which I want to reiterate the fact that I know that you’re being tongue in cheek about this. I know that you’re hoping for the best for humanity. You hope that it will come from outside.

I don’t see humanity correcting corps. The war in Ukraine is not very different than the wars that used to happen in the last century. The question is, when will we learn that we should come together and work together? To me, the site of a neighbor defines your family. When you live in a house and you’re not aware of anyone living outside the house, you get into fights within the family. That’s a natural tendency. Once someone knocks on your door and you realize that you have neighbors, you change your behavior. This is my hope. To me, it sounds very reasonable. If we search, we might find something. Now obviously, if you have a strong opinion and you want to believe that we are unique and special, there is nothing like us, and therefore we don’t have neighbors you will not find them.

Once you become aware of your neighbors or someone starts knocking on your door, you change your behavior.

My true love is science fiction. A lot of science fiction talks about this. As soon as we find out that we’re not the biggest predator in the pyramid, then all of a sudden, everybody is very happy with each other and all the wars stop. I truly believe that that’s something that’s going to happen. I think that for whatever reason, having a commonality of our species versus another species, whether it’s right or wrong, is something that’s going to be a benefit for humanity.

Every day, I have this routine. I go to the mailbox that is next to us and check if I have anything there. Why shouldn’t we do the same in the context of the solar system? Check if we have anything in our backyard that is different from rocks and that would inform us about something more advanced than we are that we can learn from and that we can aspire to be. That’s more than becoming a multi-planet species.

The planets are not necessarily the best habitats. You might be able to create an even better habitat on a spaceship if you equip it with a nuclear reactor and other things. We are enjoying life near the sun because it’s a nuclear reactor that gives us the energy we need for life if we are not too close to it to be burned up or too far from it to freeze.

In principle, this is what nature gave us by chance, but we can design a habitat that will be better for us. We already are doing that with technology. I’m sure the brain of Gen Z is quite differently wired than the brain of previous generations because they were exposed to cell phones throughout their life. If you interact with an electronic display, your brain gets rewired. Differently. The interaction with technology will not only change our environment. It will change us. The way I see it in the distant future is that we will leave this rock. If a spaceship lands in my backyard and they give me an opportunity to ride with them, even if it’s just a one-way trip, I would take it because I’m curious to find out.

How does your wife feel about that, though?

Years ago, she said, “Please go ahead and just make sure that you leave the car keys with me. Please ask them not to ruin the lawn when they take off.” Actually, I asked her again because my statement appeared in the Boston Globe about this. I asked her, “What’s your take right now?” She said, “I would actually join you.” It shows two things. One, that we have a good marriage. Second, it shows that world affairs are frustrating her. She’s not happy with how things are going here on Earth. For me, it would be great to have her as a company. I asked my students again. I said, “If you had the opportunity to take a ride, would you do it?” They said, “As long as we can still use social media and especially Instagram to transmit photos back to our friends.” I said, “Why would you have that need? Can’t you just enjoy the trip?”

Galileo Project

They’re rewired differently. Last question before I get into the three questions that I ask all my guests. We are getting close to the time, and I want to be respectful of your time as well. The Galileo Project has been going on for a little bit of time now. Is there anything that’s coming down the pipeline that gives you some hope or optimism that might be revolutionary for us?

Yeah, two things. One, we will soon have more than one observatory. Hopefully, we will have three of them and that will give us much more data. We’ll have better machine learning software analyzing it. If there is something in the sky that is from outside of this Earth, we hope to find it. It’ll not be a hypothetical question anymore. It’ll be a question of data analysis. We will, of course, let the public know if we find something.

The second thing I hope to accomplish is to plan the next expedition to retrieve bigger pieces of the meteor that we discussed because if you find a bigger piece, you can actually tell whether it’s a rock or a gadget. You can also find elements that were vaporized by the explosion. If you have the tiny droplets that we found, less than a millimeter in size, many of these volatile elements were lost in the explosion. If we find bigger pieces, they will still be there, so we will know the composition better.

Even more importantly, we could then have large enough samples. We can actually analyze isotopes of radioactive elements that act as cloaks because they disappear after some time. If we can analyze those cloaks of radioactive decay, we will be able to tell the age of the material that made the object. That could inform us about the duration of the trip, the journey that it made, and the distance that it traveled. Because we know the velocity.

You could triangulate where it’s coming from.

Potentially. This is all for the future. If we find bigger pieces and we are now planning the expedition, it’ll cost about $5 million because we need better equipment to find the bigger pieces, including a remotely operated vehicle and the video feed from the ocean floor. The first thing is a funder. We will be happy if the funder joins us on this trip. We have several options for a ship, and we’re starting to design the equipment. Hopefully, that will take place and stay tuned because it’ll be more exciting than the previous expedition.

Avi’s Inspiration

That’s pretty interesting. I hope that somebody that’s out there reading this will see what Dr. Loeb has and planned, and will give you the funding that you need to answer those important questions. Thank you so much for doing this. I always end my conversations with three general questions to see what people are thinking about in general terms when it comes to the future.

I take a different tack than you. I know that humanity looks a little bit bleak right now, but I see people like you that are doing these amazing things and I’m hopefully optimistic about the future. I look forward to a time when I have a robot butler that can mow my lawn for me, can do my laundry for me. The artificial intelligence that I’m able to talk to and set up all my podcast gear without having to do it myself.

I think most importantly is that I see people like you who are being brave and doing things that are interesting and trying to push humanity forward. What do you gain inspiration from? I know that that’s something that you’ve talked a little bit about in this talk, which is the hope that you have for the future. Where do you find your inspiration?

My inspiration is from young people. I am fascinated by youth because it brings two things. One, a sense of curiosity. The young people are like those colorful seashells that you find on the beach. They’re not eroded yet by the difficulties of life. They’re interesting. They are inventive. They’re not sabotaged as much by tradition. That’s one aspect of young people. The second is, of course, their sense of curiosity and the fact that they’re not so attached yet to their ego. I was always fascinated by young people. I still try to maintain my childlike curiosity, and that gives me inspiration the most. Anything to do with creativity like music or art. For example, in terms of music, I always enjoy the music of the day. I don’t reminisce about the Beatles.

Young people are interesting and inventive. They are not sabotaged as much by tradition as older people. They have a deep sense of curiosity and are not so attached to their ego.

What are you listening to right now?

For example, I loved the song of Billie Eilish, What Was I Made For? It resonated with the question that you asked. My answer to this question, what was I made for, is to find a partner in interstellar space, because we know from our personal lives that finding a partner changes your life. It changes your objectives, the way you think and the way you act. I see it from a romantic perspective, as a life-transforming encounter. I’m seeking that partner. If I find it, that’s what I was made for.

What’s Next

Kudos to you for being up on Billie Eilish. I can’t say that I’m as up as you are, so that’s pretty awesome. The next question that I ask all my guests is, where do you see us in ten years? We have a lot of great things, especially from the astrophysics and space perspective. We have the moon landing coming up, hopefully. We have a lot of new countries that are getting into space. We have all of these new breakthroughs that are happening from the Galileo Project and things like that. Where do you see us in ten years?

On that note, I should mention that we established, together with Frank Laukien, a colleague of mine, a new corporation that aims to send swarms of small probes to Mars, the moon. The goal is to search for life on Mars, for example. It’s a different approach where small gadgets, a lot of them, could do a much better job than the traditional approach of sending one big spacecraft. I see that as the wave of the future because it offers the advantage of visiting many sites at the same time and diversifying your chances of finding something exciting. One thing I’m hopeful about is that one of these probes will be a drone that would get into caves, lava tubes on Mars and check for any prehistoric paintings on the walls.

I hope that we have that experience of finding something else that makes our whole frameshift. I think that would be a huge event for humanity. Honestly, if the past few years have been any indication, we’re increasing exponentially in both, our understanding and, honestly, tolerance of this research. I hope that that happens within the next ten years. I think it will be awesome for humanity.

Artificial Intelligence

Last question. We talked a little bit about all sorts of different technology. Aside from astrophysics, what is on the cutting edge when you’re reading the paper, you can’t get enough of? What interests you about the technological breakthroughs that are happening? We have advancements in longevity, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and robots. What are you excited about?

Artificial intelligence, because I think it’ll transform humanity. It’ll make us smarter, but we need to adapt to it. For example, in philosophy departments, they often teach ancient Greek philosophy. This is what the ancient Greeks thought about but they didn’t have computers. They didn’t have AI. As much as we can learn from their wise thoughts, I think philosophy departments or the humanities more broadly should engage in the future rather than the past. Right now, they are suffering from a low level of interest from incoming students compared to technology. If they engage with how to adapt to the new technologies that come along, absolutely, they will be the humanities of the future. For example, there are ethical issues related to AI, first, how to protect privacy, but also how to avoid AI systems from getting out of line with the legal system that we have and how to change the education system.

The education system had to respond to the invention of the calculators, but those large language models are much more transformative. Right now, students are composing their essays using ChatGPT, for example. We need to adapt to that. There is A lot of work to be done both on the legislative front in Washington, DC. For example, if an AI system causes damage, who should be blamed for it? Is it the manufacturer? If the AI system evolved by itself, do we regard it as independent of the manufacturer just the way we regard kids that left their homes? Is it liable for legal suit because they become adults right after a while? There are all kinds of questions like that, that need to be addressed. There is room for both psychologists and philosophers to resolve the challenges.

By the way, if we ever discover an extraterrestrial AI system in our backyard, I would not call a physicist as to how to respond because physicists are dealing with atoms, light, and elementary particles that follow deterministic rules and are not thinking. Whereas psychologists focus on intelligence systems, humans, and they would be better equipped to deal with intelligence systems coming from extraterrestrial origins?

Intelligence requires you not to give up on your sense of control. People say, “We are very afraid of the future with AI. We should stop research for six months,” that suggestion was made. The only thing that came to my mind when I heard about it is that these people who advocate that are probably not good parents, because as a parent, you get used to the fact that you cannot control intelligent beings.

You have to influence them. You have to educate them in the sense that AI systems should be trained on data sets that would bring them to the place where we want them to be. You don’t take your child to a dark corner in the street so that they see all the crimes made there. You want to monitor what they absorb from the environment. That’s called education. The same is true about training AI systems.

Therefore, instead of being fearful of AI systems causing damage, you should basically try to make them accept your guiding principles. This is exactly what you do with kids at a young age. If you were to adopt this approach and say, “We should have no children because they are not under our control. They’re intelligent beings that operate independently of us,” that would be devastating. I think for the future, we should definitely encourage new technologies that will create a new world, but we should adapt to them in an intelligent way, the way we adapt to other people, the way we adapt to our kids, the way we adapt to any other risk in the future. We should try to make the best of it rather than worry and suppress advances in that direction.

Instead of being fearful of AI systems causing damage, we should try to make them accept your guiding principles.

I agree with a lot of what you said. I think that technology in general is like a tool and it can be used for either good or bad, except we have to be humble enough to know that it’s not always necessarily in our control and provide the best avenue and best environment for it to be of benefit to humanity. That’s not going to happen without the humanities. I think that we’re seeing a lot of the results of that, the overwhelming progress without any direction from humanities, whether it’s the negative effects of social media or what have you. I hope that we have a lot more influence from people that have an ethical and moral basis to guide humanity into the future. I honestly think that that’s going to happen. I think now it’s we’re catching up. There was so much progress.

It’s because of these exponentials. We are used to slow progress, which is true of an exponential early on that it doesn’t get to a threatening level, but towards the saturation point of the exponential, things get hairy and you need to respond to them fast. We’re catching up, as you say.

Closing Words

The only thing that I disagree with is I do want a physicist, the one that’s sitting across from me, to be the one that talks to aliens first because I think that I’ve learned A lot from this talk, everything from the interstellar stuff all the way to humanity’s role in space and being a good parent, being a good husband. I appreciate our talk. I do hope that you’re the guy that we are first having first contact with.

Thank you so much for having us. I appreciate also our audience for experiencing this conversation with Dr. Loeb. Please help him out as best you can. I think he’s doing important work, especially if there’s somebody that’s out there that’s going to fund him. I think that would be helpful. Please also like and subscribe to the show if you like optimistic views about the future so that we can all build a better future together. Thanks again to you, Dr. Loeb. Thanks again to our audience and to everybody who sees us on a regular basis. I will see you again in the future. Thanks, everybody.


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About Avi Loeb

Abraham (Avi) Loeb is the Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University and a bestselling author (in lists of the New York Times,Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, L’Express and more). He received a PhD in Physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel at age 24 (1980-1986), led the first international project supported by the Strategic Defense Initiative (1983-1988), and was subsequently a long-term member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (1988-1993).

Loeb has written 8 books, including most recently, Extraterrestrial (HarperCollins, 2022) and Interstellar (HarperCollins, 2023) and nearly a thousand papers (with h-index of 124 and i10-index of 582) on a wide range of topics, including black holes, the first stars, the search for extraterrestrial life and the future of the Universe.


By: The Futurist Society