Liberal Arts Blog — Oumuamua — The Aliens Are Coming! (Avi Loeb, Harvard University)
Liberal Arts Blog — Wednesday is the Joy of Science, Engineering, and Technology Day
Today’s Topic: Oumuamua — the Aliens are Coming! (Avi Loeb, Harvard University)
Humanity better get its act together. Sooner rather than later. Because the aliens are coming. In fact, the unidentified flying object called Oumuamua may be a space probe from an alien civilization. That is according to Avi Loeb, professor of astronomy at Harvard, where he was the longest-serving chair of the astronomy department between 2011 and 2020. Loeb has just published “Extraterrestrial: the First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” in which he makes the case that humanity should take this possibility seriously. Most scientists are skeptical. My instincts are too. But I can’t remember a time when a scientist with such impeccable credentials made so bold a claim. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.
IN A NUTSHELL — why Oumuamua was the product of intelligent design (according to Loeb)
1. “The only way to make sense of ‘Oumuamua’s strange acceleration, without resorting to some sort of undetectable outgassing, is to assume that the object was propelled by solar radiation — essentially, photons bouncing off its surface.”
2. “And the only way the object could be propelled by solar radiation is if it were extremely thin — no thicker than a millimetre — with a very low density and a comparatively large surface area. Such an object would function as a sail — one powered by light, rather than by wind.”
3. “The natural world doesn’t produce sails; people do. … ‘Oumuamua must have been designed, built, and launched by an extraterrestrial intelligence.”
NB: The implications: “It changes your perception on reality, just knowing that we’re not alone. We are fighting on borders, on resources. . . . It would make us feel part of planet Earth as a civilization rather than individual countries voting on Brexit.”
CRITICAL RESPONSES — think Erich von Danikin (“Chariots of the Gods”) not Galileo (“The Starry Messenger”)
1. “(Loeb) fails to close the case that the object must be artificial … Just because something can’t be immediately explained by natural phenomena doesn’t mean it’s not natural…Perhaps ʻOumuamua will turn out to be the first of many in a new class of interstellar objects with an unusual, but natural, origin. Or, maybe, it will be like the “Wow! Signal” which was never seen again and its source never identified; mysterious, but not necessarily alien” (Jeff Foust, editor of the Space Review).
2. New York Times: “part graceful memoir and part plea for keeping an open mind about the possibilities of what is out there in the universe — in particular, life. Otherwise, he says, we might miss something amazing, like the church officials in the 17th century who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope.”
3. New Yorker: “It seems a good deal more likely that [the book] will be ranked with von Danikin’s work than with Galileo’s (but) it’s thrilling to imagine the possibilities.” (Elizabeth Kolbert)
NB: Von Danikin is the author of the 1968 best seller, “Chariots of the Gods?” which posited that many ancient civilizations originated with extraterrestrial visitors. The book has been dismissed as “pseudoarchaeology, pseudohistory, and pseudoscience.” But it was made into the ninth highest grossing film of 1970. In 2003, Danikin opened a theme park in Switzerland based on seven ancient mysteries, but it closed in 2007 due to “financial difficulties.”
“COSMIC MODESTY” — or egomania?
1. “Before he started the whole alien spaceship thing last year, the chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department was known for public lectures on modesty.” (see second link below, from The Washington Post)
2. “Personal modesty, which Avi Loeb said he learned growing up on a farm. And what Loeb calls “cosmic modesty” — the idea that it’s arrogant to assume we are alone in the universe, or even a particularly special species.” (ditto)
3. For others, Loeb is an egomaniacal publicity hound. “Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it,” Paul Sutter, astrophysicist at Ohio State University.
NB: “A shocking example of sensationalist, ill-motivated science.” (Ethan Siegel, astrophysicist)
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