Harvard Astrophysicist Explains Why Scientific Groupthink and Elitism Kneecapped Alien Research

Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking, and Avi Loeb of the Starshot Initiative. Photo courtesy of Avi Loeb.

Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb believes aliens exist, and says billionaires are more interested in helping him research extraterrestrial life than other scientists.

When Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner wanted to send a probe to a nearby planet at the speed of the light, he turned to Loeb. Having researched how to recognize extraterrestrial signals at Harvard, Loeb’s work was ambitious enough to attract the attention of Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives, along with its board members Mark Zuckerberg and the late scientific genius Stephen Hawking.

The Starshot Initiative (and its mission of scanning for life on a planet five lightyears away), never came to fruition. But the experience laid the groundwork for Loeb’s hypothesis involving the mysterious interstellar artifact ‘Oumuamua’ that visited our solar system in 2017; discovered by scientists at the Haleakalā Observatory in Hawaii. Rather than accept consensus in the scientific community that this object barreling toward earth was a hydrogen comet or a thin rock, Loeb instead theorized it could be an alien light sail (similar to the one he conceptualized alongside Breakthrough Initiatives), and possibly a relic of the past.

Loeb stands by his theory despite criticism from his peers, and lays out the case for extraterrestrial life in his new book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. Even with credentials as the longest serving Chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, Loeb believes scientists at elite institutions shun unpopular opinions, placing awards and accolades above integrity.

Paradox spoke with the controversial astrophysicist about tangoing with billionaires, groupthink in the scientific community, and why aliens have likely visited Earth.

Can you describe the Starshot initiative? 

Yuri Milner as a young kid read a book by Karl Sagan and Iosif Shklovsky called “Intelligent Life in the Universe.” At a young age, he was fascinated by this question. After he made money by investing in companies like Facebook, he decided to use some of his capital to promote this cause. He established several initiatives including Starshot and Radio Listen. The overall objective was the search for life. Mark Zuckerberg is on the board. He knows Zuckerberg quite well. Stephen Hawking was involved, he had been in my house for Passover dinner and gave a speech. Stephen Hawking started the Black Hole initiative. This is the only center worldwide that studies black holes.

For us, the mistake in the past was looking for forward signals. We cannot have a phone conversation with the Mayans because they do not exist anymore. But we can find their relics in archeological sites. Searching for relics in space, just like we search in the ground, that should be mainstream. Space archeology should be mainstream.

What is your approach to space archeology?

The naïve nonsensical view would be to say we are like ants on a sidewalk. There were plenty of civilizations before us millions of years ago, so why should we believe we are special? We have all the instruments today to research them; the telescopes that could help us pursue this.

Although some of these civilizations are likely gone by now, we can find the relics in archeological science. We can look for a radio signal that comes from another civilization, but that requires a culture to be alive. Searching for relics in space is just like how we search for fossils in the ground, and should be mainstream just like how archeology is mainstream wherein every university has a department for it.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to search for dark matter and we haven’t found anything and still don’t know what it is, so why are archeological relics too speculative? The scientific community is ridiculing and bullying it. It is in the exact opposite place it is supposed to be. It makes me really surprised, in a way Oumuamua was a wake-up call when I started working on this.

Is the ridicule and bullying political?

No, I think it’s groupthink. And it’s social media. When you keep saying the same things other people are saying, you get insulated in an echo chamber. But the main thing that’s wrong with science is that people are motivated by the wrong thing. What we’re supposed to do in physics is understand nature and what nature is; to do that requires getting evidence and results. Right now, the culture is driven by demonstrating you’re smart, like through mathematical equations like string theory, or multiverse, things that have no connection to reality. It’s about showing that you’re smart so you get a job and recognition and awards, and people feel very proud of themselves that they can do these things and that they’re put on a pedestal. But the fact remains that scientists are supposed to describe what nature is, and these theories may be throwing us off. Who knows if string theory is right, or if we have multiverses? But instead they’re mainstream, while research into archeological relics is ridiculed.

And why is it ridiculed? Because it’s a matter of public interest, it’s a matter of sophistication. It doesn’t involve fancy math to say, ‘This is not a rock but an artifact.’ It’s not sophisticated to claim one thing is something else than it may appear to be. Of course, this doesn’t benefit me, and whoever benefits from the culture expresses hostility, like Marie Antoinette. She was benefitting from the existing system, so obviously she would not give up her place within that order.

What is the role billionaires play in funding scientific research?

If the culture of science doesn’t promote innovation, then one way is to have wealthy investors promote innovators. One thing we talked about is having wealthy individuals fund these excursions because they care about these subjects. And one thing we considered is something I want to promote. What I hope to promote is to distribute cameras within the orbit of the Earth around the sun, when the next interstellar comes along, then if they pass close to a camera, they will be captured. It’s very expensive, but from this photograph we could tell if it’s a natural object like a rock or an artificial object, and beyond that we could tell what its purpose is. They say a picture is worth 1000 words, in my case it’s worth 66,000 words.

You say extraterrestrial life is possible, but is there a possibility that different physics or different biology would affect extraterrestrial life? How confident are we that physics and biology is the same in unexplored parts of the universe?

The physics we know are universal. We have a lot of tests and we observe the phenomenon in many places and a lot of physics from other places are identical to what we find on Earth. Biology is a different matter: You should think about it like making a cake. You can start with some ingredients, which in the cake of life, are in a soup of chemicals that exist in early Earth. You can mix them and make some cake you know just like in a recipe book, but if you mix the same ingredients differently and apply heat differently along the way, you can get different cake. I can imagine different planets testing different forms of life with different heat, and different recipes and so forth.  And ending up with different forms of life.

On Proxima B, the closest inhabitable planet to Earth, any animals on it should have infrared eyes. They’d need to have infrared eyes given the heat and the conditions of the planet. We have our eyes that detect visible light because it helps our survival to detect that light. Their eyes would adapt and evolve to suit their planet. If we were to learn Proxima B had interstellar tourist agencies, they’d never advertise the earth as a destination site because the light from our earth would hurt their eyes.

What was peculiar about Oumuamua?

We did not expect an object like Oumuamua. Its path diverged from what we expected. I suggested the push is the result of reflecting sunlight, in order for that it needs a large area for its weight; it needs to be very thin like a sail. This is called the light sail, which we are constructing for space travel because it doesn’t need any  fuel, it could be just a layer of material that is very thin. There was another object discovered in 2020 and it also exhibited an extra push by reflecting sunlight and it turns out the astronomers discovered it was a rocket booster launched into space in 1966. We produced it, and it was very hollow with thin walls.

Do you believe in other theories like use being a part of some greater living being?

The universe gives us a sense of modesty, I think we are pretty common like ants on a sidewalk. I think the universe contains many situations that are similar to ours. The universe is vast, more numbers of earth than grains of sand.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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