Here’s why this Harvard astrophysicist keeps looking for aliens
Professor Avi Loeb thinks extraterrestrial life could teach us about ourselves and our world.
Dr. Avi Loeb is the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, and Time magazine once called him one of the 25 most influential people in space. The Israeli scientist, a graduate of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has co-authored nearly 600 papers about everything from the origins of the universe to black holes. But he gets a lot of attention for one topic in particular: aliens.
He’s written papers on things like how aliens might be sailing star-powered spaceships and how aliens could survive apocalypses. He’s currently part of project looking for extraterrestrial life. That's surprising, since most scientists – particularly Ivy League astronomy department chairs – would shy away from even talking about something that sounds so sci-fi.
I talked to Loeb to find out why he writes about aliens and what his colleagues think about him.
Q: It seems like aliens are a theme for you. Something new happens, and you’re the guy who’s like, “But wait, what if it’s aliens.” Why is that?
A: I’m not afraid to consider possibilities, to be open-minded. Most scientists, especially people at my stature, are worried about their reputation. They are worried about their image, and they prefer to maintain a conservative approach. Throughout their career, most of the time, they just repeat things that are accepted by others and are considered mainstream.
My approach is quite different. I’m really interested in the truth. In seeking the truth, you explore all possibilities, and you rule out some.
To me, it’s clear that it’s possible – it’s quite likely – that primitive life exists out there, and I would say intelligent as well. For me, it sounds completely legitimate for scientists to explore the options, and, whenever there is something really strange, to consider the possibility that it might be a signal.
To innovate and discover new things, you have to take some risks.
So why are you not afraid? I can see why a lot of scientists wouldn’t want to rock the boat. Why are you the exception?
I entered astrophysics by chance. I was mostly interested in philosophy. When I grew up on the farm, I used to go to the hills and read philosophy books. I’m not a typical astrophysicist. I’m mostly curious about the philosophical aspects, the big picture. I’m not in a club of scientists that believe in the same thing. I never belonged to the club. I was always an outsider. I’m still an outsider.
In doing my science, I believe in what drives my curiosity. And I don’t care if it doesn’t serve the appetite of other people. I don’t care if I’m saying something that other people feel is too speculative. That doesn’t bother me. If I were to always camouflage myself and try to hide my true principles, then it would be a challenge to refuse some clubs. But the way it is, it’s great. They don’t ask me, and I don’t feel like I miss anything.
I’m a very straightforward person. I told my wife, when we first met, “You shouldn’t worry about me having an affair, because I would not be able to hide such a thing.”
What kinds of reactions do you get from other scientists who prefer to be more conservative?
I agreed to be a co-author on a Scientific American article where we laid out some weaknesses of a very popular theory called “cosmic inflation." For example, it’s not as predictive as you want it to be. It allows for everything.
Immediately, a group of 33 prominent scientists wrote a letter to the editor of Scientific American defending cosmic inflation. Why do you need 33 signatories to testify that a theory must be valid? To me, it sounds like imposing authority. They’re saying, “Oh look at us. A few of us are Nobel laureates; a few of us are extremely distinguished. And we’re telling you that this is the truth.” My reply to that is, “If this is the truth, then one of you is sufficient.”
To me, it’s a very dangerous development, to think that authority establishes the truth. There is a truth out there, and the number of people that believe in it is irrelevant.
Many times, life is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. You tell yourself, "No, I don’t want to pursue that because chances are small that it will be a successful path." But then, obviously, if you don’t follow that path, it’ll never be successful. In many of those instances, you put up barriers, and you never break out of the path that everyone else takes. But if you allow yourself to take some side paths, then you might discover new things every now and then. And that’s the fun.
Getting into the clubs, or getting prizes, or being recognized by others … It’s nice to have those things, but I feel that it doesn’t have the substance of actually discovering something new, something nobody else thought of. And that’s what drives me.
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