The hunt for life beyond Earth has always piqued the interest of many — and elicited scoffs from others. However, fresh research in recent years has revealed that there have been difficult-to-explain interactions between people and something that appears to be running equipment right out of science fiction.
Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who joined GBH’s All Things Considered Friday, is one scientist who is taking the hunt seriously.
He’s the man in charge of the new Galileo Project, which will scour space for signs of an extraterrestrial civilization. The transcript that follows has been minimally modified. You can listen to the entire interview here.
Arun Rath (Arun Rath): So, what motivated you to start the Galileo Project?
Avi Loeb: I’d want to say two things. In 2017, an object — the first from beyond the solar system to come near to Earth — appeared, and it didn’t seem like anything we’d ever seen before. It didn’t have the appearance of a comet and didn’t behave like an asteroid.
Rath: The topic of our last chat [Rath and Loeb previously discussed the asteroid Oumuamua].
Yes, Loeb. And I wondered if it was of man-made origin. I even wrote a book about it, Extraterrestrial, which came out six months ago. Then, a month ago, a report was given to Congress stating that there are creatures in the sky over the United States whose nature is unknown.
And you’d think that’s a significant issue, given that intelligence organizations confess they aren’t performing their jobs. Their goal is to keep us safe from intruders and to identify everything that travels through our skies.
‘There are certain items that we feel are genuine, but we don’t comprehend their nature,’ they declare before Congress. They don’t act in ways that are compatible with the technology that people create.’
So here I am, saying, ‘Wow, that’s a fantastic subject, very exciting.’ Let’s see what we can do as scientists to figure it out.’ Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, stated the same thing about the same time.
So I went around to his subordinates and said, ‘Here I am to serve and make your boss happy.’ Nobody responded to my email. Then, a week later, I was approached by a group of affluent people I’d never seen before who said, ‘Here’s 1.75 million dollars, no strings attached.’ Don’t be afraid to do what you believe is right.’
And I replied, “OK, well, that’s a fantastic chance to put together a team of outstanding scientists who will try to acquire new data.”
So, in some ways, I’m acting like a child, because when you tell a child, ‘This is the truth,’ the child responds, ‘I don’t trust you, I’ll go out and check it out.’ That is, after all, the nature of the scientific investigation.
We haven’t lost our sense of wonder from infancy. We’ll make our own telescopes, keep an eye on the sky (which isn’t classified), and try to figure out what these strange things are made of.
Rath: Given the way you describe it, I’d imagine that with the publication of this study that we’re discussing, scientists everywhere would be ecstatic — after all, isn’t there a passion for mystery in terms of being able to explain remarkable data?
What was the reaction of the scientific community as a whole, or was there much of a reaction outside of you?
Loeb: Well, that was the polar opposite of what you and I expected. And the only reason the two of us are communicating is since other people are not employing common sense for some reason. To be honest, I don’t get it.
I’m really inquisitive about the world — it doesn’t matter how many Twitter likes I have — and I keep my gaze on the ball rather than the audience. However, there are many individuals who worry about how many Twitter likes they have and who attempt to appear intelligent by pretending to know more than they actually do and avoiding sensitive issues.
There is a stigma attached to this issue, but I believe it is unjustified because the public cares about it and finances science. And by doing so using scientific tools, we can attract additional finances to support science, as well as a large number of young people who will become interested in science.
This isn’t simply a hypothesis. Over the last week, I’ve been able to demonstrate this. I received funds that they did not request, and I’ve had hundreds of letters from individuals who want to be involved and support the project scientifically since it was publicized. So that concludes my argument.
Rath: As a result, the government has now made this information public. Is there sufficient information to get you started? What are your options now?
Loeb: Yeah, I’m not interested in looking at sensitive information since it would limit my freedom. I’d want to obtain fresh data that will be accessible to the general public and assessed in a transparent manner.
That is exactly what we intend to accomplish. Depending on how much money we have now, we aim to buy off-the-shelf telescopes, tiny telescopes — a network of tens to hundreds of telescopes. We have $1.75 million in our bank account.
We can pretty nearly complete a very thorough study of the sky if we obtain ten times more. And, in general, we plan to place these telescopes in a variety of sites across the globe.
They’ll be linked to cameras that transmit data to computers, which will analyze it and identify potential targets. The telescopes will then follow these objects. Of course, having computer systems that filter out the data and identify things of interest in real-time is critical to all of this.
Rath: And you said how there seemed to be a stigma associated with even discussing this among scientists. Is there any indication that this is about to change? I mean, your book and now this endeavor have sparked a lot of attention.
Loeb: I got the opportunity to talk with many young people throughout the thousands of interviews I conducted over the last six months. And the conclusion is straightforward. Let’s just get started. Let’s ignore what the audience is saying for a moment.
Let’s simply focus on the task at hand and get it done. People would ultimately join. Science progresses because we are interested, prepared to take chances, and approach it as a learning process. It’s quite OK for us to be mistaken. So what if we look at fresh data from the skies and come up with a simple explanation for all these UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena)? We get new knowledge.
There must be some strange occurrences going on in our environment. The only way we don’t learn something new is if we say things like “business as usual,” “let’s ignore it,” and “scoff at everyone who suggests we gather further proof.”
Rath: The government’s study on these inexplicable aerial occurrences didn’t rule out the possibility that they were caused by an alien intelligence, but it also didn’t offer an explanation for what was occurring on Earth.
It certainly makes sense that unexplained technology, such as things flying through the air, could point to an extraterrestrial civilization, but are there any other explanations that make sense, or do your scientific colleagues or anyone else offer something that’s plausible — aside from alien activity?
Loeb: Unfortunately, the data that has been made available is not of sufficient quality. It was captured on a shaky camera in the cockpit of a fighter plane, as you may know.
And because you don’t have complete control over your experimental setup, that’s not the type of data you can use for scientific research. And you can’t depend on eyewitness testimony in science. Of course, in a courtroom, supporting evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony is enough to put someone in jail. You can’t, however, produce a scientific report solely on what other people say. That’s insufficient.
You’ll need tools to capture quantifiable data that you can evaluate, and that’s exactly what we’ll obtain. Let’s collect the facts and sort it out instead of relying on old testimony or reports that don’t hold up to current scientific analysis.
Again, like a youngster, I was asked by the Harvard Gazette – Harvard University’s Pravda — what is the one thing about my colleagues that I would change? And I replied that I’d like them to act more like children.
Rath: Professor Loeb, it’s fantastic to chat with you again, and let’s check-in once you have some data to discuss.
Loeb: If you uncover proof for A.I. systems from another culture, you’ll be the first to know.