Episode 1: Avi Loeb, Harvard astronomer and alien hunter

In the debut episode of 'Our Friend from Israel,' we chat with Dr. Avi Loeb about why he's searching for aliens and a new Earth for humans.

The guest: Dr. Avi Loeb is the chair of Harvard's Astronomy Department. The Israeli-born theoretical physicist is a graduate of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, a school that was founded by one of his heroes, Albert Einstein. Indeed, he followed Einstein's path to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Loeb has published more than 500 scientific papers. Time magazine selected Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space, which is a good thing because...

The gist: Loeb is the chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. That's a $100 million project to find a new Earth for humans. Yep, you read that right. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is an advisor as was physicist Stephen Hawking, before he passed away in March of this year. The heavily funded group is actively searching for alien life with the hopes of asking the aliens if we could move to their planet in the event that something happens to ours. Crazy stuff, we know.

Further reading:

"Our Friend from Israel" is hosted by Benyamin Cohen. Follow our podcast on Facebook for behind-the-scenes access to the show. Our theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. Special thanks to Scott Jones for his help with this debut episode.

Host Benyamin Cohen (left) interviews Dr. Avi Loeb (right) in his Harvard office. Host Benyamin Cohen (left) interviews Dr. Avi Loeb (right) in his Harvard office. (Photo: From The Grapevine)


Benyamin: On this episode of "Our Friend From Israel": There was an asteroid flying by the earth and scientists were listening. What's the name of that asteroid?

Avi: Oumuamua.

Benyamin: Can you say that again?

Avi: Oumuamua. It was discovered in Hawaii, and therefore they gave it a name that signifies a visitor from far away.

Benyamin: Welcome to "Our Friend From Israel," a new podcast brought to you by FromTheGrapevine.com. I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen. Each week, we'll have a conversation with a different Israeli. They'll come from all walks of life, actors, artists, athletes, archeologists, you name it. For today's episode, we traveled to the campus of Harvard University to meet up with Dr. Avi Loeb, the Chair of Harvard's Astronomy Department.

What caught our attention about Dr. Loeb is a bizarre project he's working on called the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. It's being funded by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to the tune of $100 million. Their goal, finding an alien planet for humans to move to.

Avi: A couple of years ago, Yuri Milner, an entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, came to my office and asked whether I'm wiling to lead a study about the possibility of probing another planet through a spacecraft.

Benyamin: It's just a typical Monday in your office.

Avi: No, that was quite unusual. Of course, I didn't hesitate. I knew that I'll be interested in that. The next six months were dedicated to studying which technology would allow us, if at all, to do that. I was actually in Israel when I got a phone call from Pete Worden, who is working with Yuri Milner, who asked me to present our findings to Yuri a couple of weeks later, back at the beginning of 2016.

At the time, I was in Tel Aviv. I was at the hotel room receiving this call, and was about to go for a weekend to the Negev, to a goat farm where my wife wanted us to relax a bit from the Boston winter. I said, "Okay, I'll work on the presentation." We got to the goat farm and there was no Internet connectivity, except at the office, so I sat at 6:00 a.m. in the morning, looking at the newly born goats in front of me, and typing into my laptop the presentation recommending the first interstellar mission, and the technology that can be used for that.

I thought to myself, the owner of this goat farm never imagined that this particular project will be contemplated on the goat farm. I actually have a picture of one of the goats that was born just the night before, that was just in front of me as I was typing in the presentation.

Benyamin: You're trying to, you're working on a plan to find another planet for human beings to live on, and you're dealing with the issues that we all deal with. We can't find a WiFi signal. You're at a goat farm working. You'd think you'd be in this high-tech laboratory or something that you'd see in movie, but you're in a goat farm looking at baby goats, coming up with this presentation.

Avi: That's right. Of course, two weeks later, I was in Palo Alto presenting it with technology all around me, and so it was just temporary.

Benyamin: Okay.

Avi: You can have ideas. I mean, I usually get my ideas in the shower, when I shower, because nobody interferes, nobody interrupts. Often, my day job has a lot of interruptions, so every 10 seconds I get an email or something. I get my best ideas when I'm in the shower and thinking in a relaxed way on everything that happened before. Coming up with the right ideas does not require people around me. Because I grew up in a farm, I'm much more comfortable with no people around me at all.

Benyamin: Just animals.

Avi: That would be the ideal situation. Me embedded in nature, thinking, but unfortunately, I have to make a living, and so I deal with people all the time.

Benyamin: When we return, Dr. Loeb tells us about why he's looking for a new Earth and what will happen when we meet aliens.

Avi: My young daughter, who is 12 years old, asked me to bring the alien home if we ever find it.

Benyamin: Like E.T.

Avi: My wife, on the other hand, said that if they ever offer me a ride on their spacecraft, I should make sure that they leave the car keys with her, and that they don't ruin the lawn in the backyard when they lift off.

Benyamin: That's what she's concerned about.

This new podcast, "Our Friend From Israel," is brought to you by FromTheGrapevine.com, a website that covers all sorts of stories from Israel, whether it's health breakthroughs or tech advancements or stories about actress Gal Gadot or dating apps for dogs. Check us out at FromTheGrapevine.com.

You were telling me once that it's almost a sign of humility or modesty for us as humans to realize that we are not alone, and we are not the only beings.

Avi: In the history of science, you find examples where humans thought that they are at the center of the universe. It's a natural mistake to make, early, because when I look at my daughters when they were young, when they were infants, they thought the world centers on them. As they matured, they realized that it's not. Their development mimics the history of our civilization, and for us to become a tourist to find evidence for others like us. That's one reason to search, because it will change our perspective about our place in the universe.

Right now, before we found evidence, my principle, my guiding principle is cosmic modesty. I don't think we're special, and out of that principle I believe that if we find ourself here on this planet, and we know that there are many other planets with similar conditions, that the same form of life may exist in all these other planets.

Now, there are tens of billions of them within the Milky Way Galaxy, and then there are hundreds of billions galaxies like the Milky Way within the observable volume of the universe, so even if the conditions are unusual, still there are so many times you throw the dice that it's very likely that you will be successful more than once.

Benyamin: Right. Before we go too far down this rabbit hole, worm hole, I want to step back. You mentioned your guiding principle of cosmic modesty. Let's just step back a little bit. I'm always curious to hear people's origins and how they got to where they are now. If you could tell us a little bit. I know you grew up in Israel, so if you could tell us a little bit about that.

Avi: I grew up on a farm, and always had the option of B of staying in the farm rather than being in academia. As a young kid, I used to collect eggs every afternoon and drive on weekends on the tractor that my family owned through the hills and read philosophy books. I was mostly interested in the big picture. I was also down to earth. I was good in sports and a very practical person. I always told myself, "I'm doing astronomy. This is not really my first love. I love philosophy, so I can always to back to that. Besides, I have my parents' farm. I can always go and work there," so I never felt stress.

Growing up on a farm allowed me to witness things differently than most people around here at Harvard. I'm very different than the typical astronomer, so I think independently. I don't really care about what other people think. The surprising thing is that despite the difference in my upbringing, I was able to rise to become Department Chair here and Director of two centers at Harvard, but that doesn't change my nature.

I enjoy speaking to laypersons. When someone comes to fix the plumbing at our home, I often speak with that person for hours. I enjoy discussing things at a simple, understandable level more than discussing things with my professional colleagues, because they are often driven by their egos and promoting their image and so forth, and that's less interesting to me.

Benyamin: Okay, so let's set the stage here. You're of the opinion that Earth will not be around forever, whether it's because of climate change or an asteroid hitting our planet, it behooves us as a species to look for a new planet to call home. You, as a philosopher, slash, astronomer, are actively looking for a new planet for us to move to. That's a pretty audacious goal. What would you say to someone who says that that's just a pretty far out idea?

Avi: Well, the point is that we will eventually get to that bridge and we will have to cross it. I'm just saying that this bridge exists. People may prefer to ignore it. You could ignore any danger in the future, but eventually it will come to haunt you because nature does not care about what we think and what we ignore. The reality will come to haunt us. There will be an asteroid that will impact the Earth, potentially. If we don't deflect it, there will be a major solar storm that could affect conditions dramatically. There could be a nuclear war, there could be a climate change.

Eventually, we'll start contemplating how to move away from the Earth. It's without a doubt that this will happen, the question is on what time scale? Whether it will be a hundred years, a thousand years, a million years or a billion years. For the billion years time scale, it's a definite future that we will have to move away from the Earth, because all the oceans will be evaporated by the Sun warming up. Now, what can we do about it? We need to develop the technology to move away from the Earth. The first step would be to send a probe ...

Benyamin: To see what's out there.

Avi: To see what's out there, and also to demonstrate that we can reach those distances, which we haven't done before. So far, all the missions were to objects within the solar system.

Benyamin: You're saying to a planet that's not a planet like the planets that we know of. Not Mars, not Jupiter, you're saying something beyond those planets.

Avi: Yeah. The nearest star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, four light years away. A year and a half ago, it was found to have a planet just at the right distance to have liquid water on its surface. It's called Proxima B. This planet would be an excellent target to visit.

We would like to know whether it has vegetation on its surface, whether its green or perhaps has oceans on its surface. Maybe it's blue. Or perhaps it has deserts on its surface, there is no atmosphere so it's not necessarily a good place to go to. Although one can always imagine terraforming a planet, a planet that is currently not hospitable for life, but changing the physical conditions on it such that it will be.

Benyamin: Right, if it has the potential. It could be that there's a species already living on that planet.

Avi: It could be. We haven't received a signal so far. If we want to move to a place that-

Benyamin: That's a good neighborhood to move to.

Avi: That's a good neighborhood. In fact, I'm trying to convince my wealthy friends to invest in real estate on the planet that was found in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri. Actually as it turns out, this planet is locked to the star such that it always shows the same side, the same face to the star. Sort of like the moon is locked, tidally locked to the Earth. That means that is has a permanent day side and a permanent night side, and real estate may be most valuable in-between. You have a permanent sunset.

My daughter said that if she were to go there, she would like to have a house in the permanent night side where she sleeps, and another house in the permanent day side where she works. I think the highest value for real estate would be actually on this strip that separates the two, because you can witness, through your windows, a permanent sunset.

[Commercial break]

Benyamin: What would happen if we encountered an alien species? How do we know they'd be nice to us? How would we communicate with them?

Avi: Well, these are good questions. In fact, detecting such a signal from another civilization will open up new frontiers on the interface between astronomy and other disciplines. For example, the communication issue could become a whole field called astrolinguistics. There was a recent movie called "Arrival."

Benyamin: Right. With Amy Adams.

Avi: It's not trivial to communicate with a completely different mindset. In fact, the best experts for intelligence could advise us, because they are trying to extract information from noisy data. In principle, they could help us decode the language of the other species we are trying to communicate with them.

Benyamin: What would we say to them? We say, "We come in peace"? I mean, what would be the first thing?

Avi: The most, the wisest thing to do is first to listen without saying anything. The problem is, we already broadcasted for over 100 years, so right now there is a bubble of radiation propagating out at the speed of light, away from Earth, signaling our existence. If there are any advanced civilizations out there, they already know about us. It will take them time to respond. It may take decades depending on whether they developed spacecrafts that travel very fast, but we already made ourself known to our immediate vicinity. It's still a small fraction of the entire galaxy.

There is a fundamental question that Enrico Fermi, a famous physicist, asked about 100 years ago, which is, "Are we ... Where is everybody? Are we alone? If we are not alone, where is everybody?" We haven't seen them, and the question is, "Why?"

There are many possible answers. One of which is that there's so many other planets similar to ours that we are not particularly interesting. Or that we are not sophisticated enough to draw attention. Or that the window of opportunity for communication is quite short, because civilizations like ours destroy themselves shortly after they develop the technology to communicate, and so for us to find them would be quite difficult.

Benyamin: Did you ever see "Men in Black"? I don't know if you remember the last scene in "Men in Black" when they just pan out and like you see Earth, and you basically get to the point where Earth was just like a little marble that some alien kid is playing with.

Avi: Well, another reason to be modest.

Benyamin: Yeah.

Avi: Yes.

Benyamin: I actually was reading, recently there was a study that came out that says, "Researchers say the discovery of alien life is more likely to be welcomed with open arms than panic." What are your thoughts about that?

Avi: I think given the interest of the public in the possibility of alien life, that such a discovery will have great benefits. First of all, it will promote science to a higher level within the society because everyone would like to know more about those aliens, so we need to develop the technologies that allow us to collect better data.

There will be ethical and philosophical questions that will have to be addressed. How to communicate with them, what to say, how to figure out what they are all about. All together, it will bring our civilization to a new level of interest in our environment. People usually tend to think of the environment as whatever we find on the surface of this planet, so we often look down, but if we look up, we realize that there is much more out there than meets the eye here on Earth.

Benyamin: What does success look like to you, as far as this mission of finding a new planet for us?

Avi: Success means we figure out whether other planets have life on them or are habitable, and we figure out the technology that allows us to go there or to send physical objects there. We realize how rare we are relative to our cosmic environment. Another interesting question is trying to figure out how early, if life exists around us, how early did it start? If we find intelligent civilizations that are much older than ours, we can ask them questions to which we don't have the answers.

It would be sort of like you're cheating an exam where you're supposed to find the answer but you ask your neighbor for the answer. At the same time, if they had a billion years more time to think about some of the problems, and they came up with novel solutions, it will allow us to make a shortcut into the future. Instead of waiting a billion years before we come up with the solutions, we could use the technologies, the magic that they can offer us.

Benyamin: Right, right. Do you think this will happen in your lifetime?

Avi: That's hard to tell because we don't know how likely it is that we are not alone.

Benyamin: This, no pun intended, but this seems like a very big, pie in the sky idea. Like it's a big concept to find a new planet. What would you say to someone who says, "Why is he focusing on such a crazy idea? Why isn't he curing cancer? Why isn't he doing some things that might be applicable to someone five years from now or finding a cure for a disease or something?"

Avi: Well, it's always beneficial to have a long-term goal that inspires people, because then you get more than the sum of the parts. When people are excited, and after announcing Breakthrough Starshot, we got thousands of emails from people that are extremely excited about it. It's all, the next vision for space after the Apollo mission, so first when you have people inspired, you often get innovation out of that, and many practical applications along the way to developing the technology that you want.

In addition, if you look at basic science, Einstein, for example, came up with his general theory of relativity about space, time in order to explain the way the universe behaves, in order to explain gravity. It was all in the spirit of trying to understand things better. Nowadays, navigation devices, GPS systems require the corrections due to Einstein's theory of gravity in order to achieve the precision that is needed. Without this understanding that Einstein provided, we would never get to that point.

Same is true about Newton, who discovered the laws of gravity and motion by looking at planets moving around the Sun. Again, looking at the sky allowed him to figure out the fundamental laws of physics that are necessary to build bridges these days.

The answer is that it's always important to aspire for something bigger than your present day problems, because in the process of uncovering that, you find solutions to practical problems. It's not as if we would never encounter the issue of how to move away from Earth, it's inevitable. We will definitely have to, in the long-term future, but we better start thinking about it now because we never know how quickly that future will come.

Benyamin: Is there any question I didn't ask you that I should have asked you?

Avi: We could have spoken for hours as far as I'm concerned. There are many other things we can talk about.

Benyamin: Sure, sure. Maybe we'll do a second episode. Okay, well thank you Dr. Avi Loeb for joining us today. It's been an honor, a real pleasure. Like you said, it's a real, it's intellectual gymnastics to just sit here and listen to you talk, and like you said, we could sit here for hours. I really appreciate your time today.

Avi: Thank you.

Benyamin: "Our Friend From Israel" is a production of FromTheGrapevine.com. Our show is produced by Paul Kasko. Editorial help from Jaime Bender and Ilana Strauss. Our Head Engineer is Everett Adams. Special thanks this week to Scott Jones. Our theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel.

You can visit our website at FromTheGrapevine.com to find more episodes of the show. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app. Feel free to leave us a review there. When you do, it helps others discover "Our Friend From Israel." I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and until next time, we hope you have a great week.


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Related Topics: Space

Episode 1: Avi Loeb, Harvard astronomer and alien hunter
In the debut episode of 'Our Friend from Israel,' we chat with Dr. Avi Loeb about why he's searching for aliens and a new Earth for humans.