Do We Care If We Are Alone?

Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial

Is it worthwhile to speculate about extraterrestrial civilizations? Avi Loeb, in his best-selling book, Extraterrestrial, challenges us to do just that.

In October 2017, an object sped through the orbital planes of the near planets. It was observed widely by astronomers, for ten days. They photographed it, extrapolated its trajectory, and determined that it indeed came from outside the solar system. Then it left. Comets come from interstellar space – but they all have tails. This object had none. It was oddly shaped, not large (about 100 yards long, either cigar-shaped or a disk), and had unusually high luminosity for its size. Most of the astronomy community concluded that the object, though strange, was probably an asteroid, a chunk of rock sheared off a Pluto-like planet on the outer edge of some other star system. Unusual, yes, but easily explainable by the accepted academic rubric of our times. Its luminosity most likely due to chemical composition (possibly nitrogen, like Pluto).

Discovered by the Hawaiian Pan-STARRS telescope array, it was given a Hawaiian name, ‘Oumuamua (“scout”). Loeb, the chair of the astronomy department at Harvard, wants us to think that ‘Oumuamua was an artifact of a long-dead civilization, a manufactured object.

Next question: does it matter?

Twenty-three years ago, Robin Hanson outlined his idea of “The Great Filter”:  that we have failed to discover any extraterrestrial civilization, despite odds strongly in favor of their existence, because they simply don’t advance to the point of being discovered! They die before they can explore. This explains the “Fermi Paradox,” first noted by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, when he scratched his head and asked, “if they’re so common, where are they?” The disturbing implication of the Great Filter is that, if the filter is strongest higher up the evolutionary ladder, wouldn’t our fate, too, be never to reach that discovery point? Is space exploration in general, including the tireless efforts of the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), merely our valiant effort to disprove the theory? Avi Loeb thinks so, and he implores us to continue the search for reasons that border on the spiritual.

Utilitarian ethics, on the other hand, maintains that public resources must be expended only for good material or aesthetic results – greater happiness for the many. Does “greater understanding” of our own origins count? Loeb would say yes. Others are not so sure.

Yet, we persist. NASA, Elon Musk, Russians, Chinese, Indians – all have fascinating, and increasingly ambitious, projects involving space exploration. Sometimes marketed to the public as seeking solutions to environmental, biological, or economic problems here on Earth. Sometimes justified on “national defense” grounds – or even planetary defense against errant asteroids. Avi Loeb, himself, has backed a proposal to invent a “light sail,” employing nanotechnology, to travel to the Alpha Centauri system 4.2 light years away, at approximately 20% of the speed of light — a twenty-year journey, with a “craft” not weighing more than a few grams. His only excuse: there is at least one planet in the “habitable zone” of Proxima Centauri. Yet, the project could yield advances in nanotechnology with beneficial consequences for Earth. Even more important, as with most of our endeavors in space, is that we really, really don’t want to die alone! We yearn for a great reveal.

That spiritual dimension Loeb pursues is limited mostly to the young, the dreamers. Recently, Ezra Klein, writing an opinion piece in the New York Times, confirmed that he, too, along with former Senator Harry Reid, are avid believers in UFOs – yes, created by extraterrestrial intelligence. They are exceptions. Usually, those dreams fade with age and disillusionment. Yet when something comes up like ‘Oumuamua, it’s not hard to rediscover that excitement we once felt. In the spirit of Carl Sagan and his Cosmos TV series, or his successor Neil DeGrasse Tyson, we can easily slip back into the mysteries of discoveries awaiting us.

Remember, astrophysics gives us only about 600 million years to find out, best estimate. The sun then implodes into a dwarf star, rendering life in our own solar system extinct!

Avi Loeb, extraterrestrial, The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, 2021.

— William Sundwick

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