Harvard’s Avi Loeb thinks we should study UFOs – and he’s not wrong
Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysicist who doesn’t hesitate to swim in the shark infested waters of controversy, proposes a major effort to find aliens in our solar system, possibly even in our airspace. He has raised $ 1.7 million in private funding to launch what he calls the Galileo Project, an initiative to bring rigor from experimental science to ufology.
Loeb’s plan is to use a telescope currently under construction, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, to study interstellar objects entering our solar system. In addition, the project plans to build an array of small telescopes, in groups of two, that can photograph and determine the distance of anything they see in our atmosphere.
Is this project something to be congratulated or laughed at? While academia may dismiss Project Galileo as nothing more than to bow to a gullible public, such prejudice is unnecessary and short-sighted.
Even critics agree that Loeb has credentials and talent. Nonetheless, he is considered by some in the astronomical community to be a knight errant, leaning over windmills. This is largely because of his unorthodox views on the ‘Oumuamua object. About the size of a mall, ‘Oumuamua was first seen as a dot on a telescope image four years ago. Its orbit tells us that it does not come from the confines of our own solar system, but from elsewhere in the galaxy. While many astronomers say that Oumuamua is either a comet or an asteroid, eroded and encrusted from its long journey through space, Loeb has suggested that it could be a piece of alien material, may -be a solar sail.
Clearly, this is a radical assumption. It’s also Occam’s razor-sharp rebuff. The latter would warn against invoking alien engineering when more conventional explanations suffice to understand ‘Oumuamua.
But Loeb maintains his suggestion, and he recently weighed in on another conundrum, that produced by the recently released report to Congress on UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). This study was the result of a bill passed last December ordering government intelligence agencies to put on the table everything they know about UAPs (also known as UFOs). In particular, the report was to address the experiences of some Navy pilots who saw and photographed mysterious objects in the sky. This report, delivered at the end of June, said nothing about extraterrestrial spacecraft (at least not in the version made public), but admitted that out of 144 intriguing incidents, intelligence agencies could only explain one.
Thus, the Galileo project intervenes to say “Enough already”. Let’s try to identify these alluring phenomena with a legitimate science.
The audience was blown away by these stories. For seven decades, UFO supporters have been belittled by serious scientists for making extraordinary claims without offering any extraordinary evidence. Now an accredited researcher seems ready to step in to help.
This will make some people roll their eyes and conclude that Loeb has gone to the dark side. But it’s too easy. The subject is obviously important, and it should be approached without notions or preconceived opinions based on the poor UFO evidence of the past.
But while it may be difficult for Loeb to find the support of his peers, these are the same people who should be grateful for his efforts. The SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) community has so far failed to find any radio or light signal from other star systems. Yes, this type of SETI experiment is getting faster and faster, and its practitioners (myself included) are hopeful that when a considerably larger number of targets have been examined, an unmistakable alien signal will be found.
But another SETI strategy is to look for artifacts that very advanced companies have been able to build. It is certainly a legitimate approach to discovering aliens, and one that does not rely on a signal reaching us when we are looking for it. He also takes note of the fact that the universe is three times the age of Earth. Therefore, there should be intelligence in the galaxy at a level higher than millions or billions of years beyond our own. Maybe this intelligence has a real interest in sending material to other star systems.
So it is at least possible that we will be visited, and the Galileo project says that it will carry out observations to verify that.
However, the project is long-term, motivated by phenomena that only a few scientists think worthy of study. The feeling among most astronomers is that ‘Oumuamua is simply a rock that has traveled a lot. The three enticing videos released by the Navy can be understood by summoning planes and balloons. And as for this network of telescopes set up to record extraterrestrial material navigating in our crowded skies …
In other words, none of the phenomena that spurred Project Galileo are likely to be the work of extraterrestrials.
But is that reason enough to reject Loeb’s exercise? In his defense, we must admit that the road less traveled sometimes leads to something interesting.
Loeb has obtained private funding and has the intellectual assets to ensure the scientific rigor of the project. Anyone with less credentials would have a hard time getting it started.
Free from the mundane consideration of tenure, and with a willingness to ignore the eyes of his peers, Avi Loeb is able to bet on a dark horse. As a SETI scientist, I am grateful that he has the freedom and the courage to sidestep the barrier of conventional wisdom and boldly go where few would dare to go.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author (s) are not necessarily those of American scientist.