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Princes of Infinite Space

Astrophysicist Avi Loeb joins a new generation of scientist blowhards

In the spring of 2016, with most of the United States suffering through a protracted nervous breakdown brought on by that year’s presidential primaries, the billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner called a press conference near the top of One World Trade Center in hopes of turning the nation’s attention skyward. “It is time to launch the next great leap in human history,” Milner proclaimed from behind a podium branded with the name of his new initiative, Breakthrough Starshot. While covering the over twenty-five trillion miles that separate the Earth from Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own, would take over a hundred thousand years with existing technology, Milner explained, a microchip attached to a light sail could theoretically be propelled across that distance in just two decades with a sufficiently powerful laser. This, Milner boasted, was the “Silicon Valley approach to spaceflight.”

To back up his harebrained scheme to laser a kite through interstellar space, Milner assembled an attention-grabbing collection of scholars in front of his PowerPoint. Stephen Hawking was the headliner, and he was joined on the dais by two former NASA bigwigs, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, and Ann Druyen, a writer best known as the collaborator and wife of Carl Sagan, America’s original celebrity scientist. Rounding out the group was Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysicist known for his research on black holes who harbored his own quiet aspirations of joining the ranks of Sagan’s contemporary imitators.

After the panel received a credulous question about whether there was any precedent for a device the size of Milner’s so-called StarChip traveling at the speeds Breakthrough Starshot called for, Loeb piped up with a little provocative speculation about intelligent life projecting itself across the universe using similar technology. “You might wonder whether there is a possibility that such things are flying near us from other civilizations,” he answered, unable to stifle an excited grin.

Two years later, Loeb was arguing that evidence had been found that a probe from an alien civilization had indeed made it to our solar system, and that the device in question just so happened to use the same light sail technology planned for Breakthrough Starshot.

The interstellar object was discovered by an observatory on Maui and dubbed ‘Oumuamua, meaning “messenger from far away who arrives first” in Hawaiian, in recognition of it being the first interstellar object confirmed to have entered the solar system. After it was first sighted in the fall of 2017, astronomers around the world turned as many instruments as they could to the object, recording all manner of physical attributes that added up to a puzzling picture. ‘Oumuamua behaved like a comet, though it did not appear to be expelling hydrogen gas. It was about ten times as long as it was wide, an extreme dimensional ratio. The object was also extraordinarily reflective and, strangely, sped up as it exited our solar system.

While his scientific peers offered various hypotheses for how a naturally occurring object could behave in this way, Loeb argued that the field of astronomy was too disdainful of the search for alien life to accept the simplest explanation: ‘Oumuamua was not naturally occurring at all.

Last year, Loeb spelled out his theory at length in a new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. In a chapter running through and then dismissing the various conventional explanations for ‘Oumuamua’s behavior, he argues that the idea that the object took the form of a large, incredibly thin pancake seemed more persuasive than an earlier suggestion that it was shaped like a cigar, even as a piece of space rock being so thin yet so wide seemed implausible. “Is there a simpler way to achieve the required surface-to-volume ratio for a pancake-shaped object?” Loeb writes. “Yes, there is. You could build a thin, sturdy piece of equipment capable of deviating due to the effects of solar-radiation pressure to exactly such specifications.” If ‘Oumuamua was indeed a messenger, it could only have been dispatched by aliens.

Exo Exo Gossip Planet

If the astrophysicists are to be believed, there are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. Of these, some 4.1 billion are said to have the same qualities as the Sun. Based on the 4,575 potentially habitable exoplanets that have already been discovered and confirmed by NASA—those rocky worlds whose atmosphere and temperature suggest conditions similar to what’s found on Earth—it is now estimated that there are anywhere between 300 million and 3.6 billion solar systems in our corner of the universe that include a planet that could potentially harbor life. Bearing all this in mind, it’s reasonable to suggest that humans are very, very unlikely to be the only technologically sophisticated lifeform in the galaxy.

What’s really surprising is when this sort of conjecture is embraced by no less an eminence than the then-chair of the Harvard department of astronomy.

None of which is the same as saying that we can be certain that there is intelligent life out there, or that it in any way resembles what’s found on Earth. To argue otherwise is to make an unscientific about-face from an estimate formed through dutiful calculation to pure conjecture. Taking that step is a lot more exciting than actual science tends to be, and it’s a move we’re often nudged to make when science gets filtered through the Discovery+ infotainment complex. What’s really surprising, though, is when this sort of conjecture is embraced not by a layman who hasn’t picked up a graphing calculator since high school, but by no less an eminence than the then-chair of the Harvard Department of Astronomy.

That Loeb should wager all the credibility his high-flying position affords him on as dubious a proposition as ‘Oumuamua being proof of concept for Breakthrough Starshot is a striking example of the deep allure that fame has to the scientist who has accomplished all he can in the academic realm but finds himself gazing out across the quad and wanting more. Since he first arrived at Harvard in the early 1990s, Loeb has described the early formation of the universe after the Big Bang, predicted the behavior of black holes, and developed a technique for identifying exoplanets. These discoveries led to a short profile in the New York Times and numerous mentions in Smithsonian and Time but weren’t enough for him to become a true scientific celebrity in an age that seems to be minting a new one every few months.

For cognitive science, there’s David Eagleman and Steven Pinker; for evolutionary history, Yuval Noah Harari and Richard Dawkins. Physics is the most crowded field of all: there are the string theory hustlers Brian Greene and Leonard Susskind, the futurist Michio Kaku, and the grand poohbah of the whole bunch, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has spent the past twenty years carefully patterning his career off Carl Sagan’s.

None of these princes of the sciences has made nearly as great a contribution to their field as they have to the public awareness of it. They are less researchers than ambassadors, but ambassadors who position themselves as the focus of attention by operating as translators between the unimaginable sophistication of academic discourse and the simple ways of the average American. Even the most basic scientific facts are treated as revolutionary by the scientific nobility, particularly if those facts bolster the sense of the audience as having a blinkered understanding of reality that needs expanding by the genius in their midst.

In the opening pages of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind—16 million copies sold and counting—Yuval Noah Harari puts on a masterclass in intellectual negging. He describes the fact that Homo sapiens belong to a biological family that includes chimpanzees and gorillas as “one of history’s most closely guarded secrets,” never mind that the basics of Linnaean taxonomy are taught in middle school, if not before. The conspiratorial turn has only just begun. “Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret,” he continues. “Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilized cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well.”

Believe it or not, folks, there used to be other members of the genus homo. That one of these species, Neanderthals, was first described in 1864 and has so thoroughly permeated pop culture that Ben Stiller once sprayed a group of them with a fire extinguisher goes unmentioned. Such an acknowledgment might undercut Harari’s attempt to style himself as not only a scientific expert but the sort of bold truth-teller who demands a committed following.

There’s a Buzz in Your Vest

As Extraterrestrial makes clear, Avi Loeb has carefully studied the playbook for promoting oneself as a sage in possession of rare knowledge. “Only a thin line separates philosophy, theology, and science,” he writes, reframing science as an esoteric intellectual and spiritual pursuit rather than a fundamental component of general knowledge. Given that the reader is surely confounded by the strange ways of the astronomist, Loeb generously offers to demystify the field. That is, so long as the reader makes peace with their own stupidity. “When we struggle to make sense of the universe,” Loeb writes, “the fault is in our comprehension, not in the facts or the laws of nature.”

In 2015, David Eagleman, a Stanford neuroscientist known for his bestselling book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and for hosting a PBS miniseries on cognition took the stage at a TED conference and launched into his own version of the same hustle. “We are built out of very small stuff, and we are embedded in a very large cosmos,” he says in a video of the event, keeping things nice and dumbed down. “We are not very good at understanding reality at either of those scales, and that’s because our brains haven’t evolved to understand the world at that scale. Instead, we’re trapped on this very thin slice of perception right in the middle.”

Both Eagleman and Loeb tell their audience that they don’t know anything, but do so in a way that makes that lack of knowledge palatable, even normal. Their pronouncements on humanity’s ignorance fall into a grand tradition in popular science, one that harkens back to Cosmos, the landmark 1980 documentary series that turned Carl Sagan into a household name. In the opening moments of the first episode, the camera fades from deep space into crashing waves and then to a wide shot of the cliffs above, before zooming in on Sagan as he intones, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Once Sagan’s face and signature tousled hair are finally filling the frame, he continues, “The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding; lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth.” Once the audience has been placed into a subordinate role, they are primed to bear witness to a great man’s knowledge.

“As a neuroscientist,” Eagleman says in his TED Talk, “I’m interested in the way that technology might expand our umwelt, and how that’s going to change the experience of being human.” It turns out that telling the audience all the ways in which they were deficient was not done in service of granting them new understanding, but rather to debut a product: a vest that Eagleman says has shown some promise in bolstering the perception of the deaf by converting sounds into pulses that can be felt on the skin. Midway through his presentation, Eagleman strips off his shirt to reveal the vest—as well as his perfectly toned arms. “As I’m speaking, the sound is getting translated into dynamic patterns of vibration,” he says, turning around for the audience to see the vest light up with LEDs, prompting applause.

Six years later, the product has shrunk from a vest to the Buzz, a Fitbit-like wristband that is marketed not to people who are hard of hearing, but anyone who merely wants to feel sound for the low, low price of $799. Eagleman has completed the leap from famous brain scientist to a man making bank off brain science, all thanks to a little venture capital from his friends.

The DeGrasse High

Avarice is hardly the only temptation that lures members of the scientific priesthood away from their stated values. Celebrity in its own right is more often the motivating factor, as is evident in the career of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, whose accomplishments as an astrophysicist have always been overshadowed by his skills as a showman.

Tyson established himself as a public figure soon after his 1996 appointment to lead the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History by persuading monied Manhattanites to fork over $210 million for the facility’s reconstruction. From there, Tyson went national, serving on a presidential commission, authoring a memoir, and then hosting a PBS miniseries. By the late aughts, he was appearing on the Colbert Report and interviewing Joan Rivers on his podcast. All of this culminated in the big budget 2014 revival of Cosmos on Fox, its debut episode featuring Tyson standing on the very same cliff that Sagan had surmounted a generation before. By this point, five years had passed since the last time Tyson had been published in a scientific journal, but no matter—the man who had once merely theorized starstuff was now shimmering with it.

It’s telling that the most famous scientist in America would also turn out to be the sort of man who wielded the power of his station in a way akin to a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer.

The elaborate edifice of Tyson’s fame came crashing down in 2018 when one woman accused him of rape and several others said he had made inappropriate sexual advances, including a production assistant on Cosmos. Tyson dismissed the claims in a rambling Facebook post, writing, “I see myself as a loving husband and as a public servant—a scientist and educator who serves at the will of the public.”

It’s telling that the most famous scientist in America would also turn out to be the sort of man who wielded the power of his station in a way akin to a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer. Fame does not necessarily turn someone into a monster, but it may just be that you need to start out monstrous to hunger so ravenously for celebrity. It should also be no surprise that, even as his public profile has lessened since the accusations, Tyson has hardly been canceled into anonymity. He retained the top job at the Hayden Planetarium and has published three more books, with another on the way.

It’s impossible to imagine Tyson’s station in life proving so durable if he didn’t enjoy such a robust Q Score. While none of his fellows in the scientific aristocracy are necessarily looking to behave as Tyson did once he became a celebrity, it’s hard to believe his career represents much of a cautionary tale, either—especially after his fall from grace created a cold, starless vacuum for the role of America’s most famous scientist.

Frontal Loeb

Whether or not Loeb theorizing that ‘Oumuamua was a piece of alien technology represented a calculated attempt to become famous, it certainly had that effect. In Extraterrestrial, Loeb writes that, mere hours after his first paper on ‘Oumuamua was picked up by the press, four television crews were vying for space in his office in Cambridge: “I tried to field their questions while simultaneously responding to a steady stream of phone calls and e-mails from newspaper reporters.”

Self-aggrandizement is a typical mode for the celebrity scientist.

While much of that attention came from journalists merely chasing an undeniably buzzy story—what editor would resist the opportunity to put “Harvard” and “alien probe” together in a single headline?—there were also plenty of reporters who quickly picked up on the fact that Loeb was basically saying that ‘Oumuamua used the same technology he was in the process of developing with Milner. In his book, Loeb recounts one German journalist saying to him, “According to the proverb, whoever has only a hammer will see nothing but nails.” While he acknowledges that his ideas were certainly influenced by his work on Breakthrough Starshot, Loeb sniffs at the suggestion that the faculties of a scientist of his stature could be compromised in this way, writing that “the problem with the proverb was that it focused attention on the hammer rather than the person wielding it. Not only do skilled carpenters most definitely not see nails everywhere, but they are trained to differentiate among those they do observe.”

Self-aggrandizement is a typical mode for the celebrity scientist (Tyson, for example, quotes himself in the epigraph to his book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry), and it is one Loeb has embraced as his public profile has risen in tandem with his vociferous arguments about ‘Oumuamua. He implicitly compares himself to Galileo in the book, equating the scientific consensus that ‘Oumuamua was naturally occurring to the Catholic Church’s refusal to accept heliocentrism. “Unfortunately, the humility accompanying our never-ending learning experience is, as in the case of ‘Oumuamua, sometimes forgotten out of hubris,” Loeb writes, “whether exercised by ecclesiastical authorities, secular authorities, or, sometimes, scientists who declare victory prematurely and assume a line of inquiry has reached its end.”

A little over a month after Extraterrestrial made the New York Times bestseller list, the broader scientific inquiry into ‘Oumuamua was indeed taking a turn for the end credits, thanks to the release of a study by two astronomers at Arizona State University arguing that much of the object’s strange behavior would make sense if it was a piece of a Pluto-like rock that had been sent spiraling into space by an asteroid impact. Briefly, ‘Oumuamua’s shape could be explained by the effect of cosmic rays on a round object over the course of a half billion years of interstellar travel, its shininess by the presence of nitrogen ice (naturally occurring on Pluto and one of Neptune’s moons), and its acceleration around the sun by the evaporation of that nitrogen ice, which would cause a rocket effect.

Humility be damned, Loeb has only redoubled his efforts since then. Though he claims in Extraterrestrial that he “neither sought the limelight nor particularly enjoyed it,” in the year since the book’s publication Loeb has received numerous magazine profiles and appeared on every American cable news channel, as well as Britain’s Channel 4 and ILTV in his native Israel. The public push seems to be having the desired effect, with Loeb now becoming well-known enough that he can feature as part of a clue on Jeopardy!

All of this led up to the launch of a new initiative at Harvard in July, the Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts. The Galileo Project’s goal is to move the search for extraterrestrial life “from accidental or anecdotal observations and legends to the mainstream of transparent, validated, and systematic scientific research.” Though Yuri Milner remains focused on his own space-based vanity project, Loeb has secured financial support for the new scheme from a different billionaire patron, Frank Laukien. Even better, Loeb told Scientific American that Laukien’s money comes with “no strings attached.”

So what if the core reasoning that animates Loeb’s neo-SETI start-up has been utterly disproven by the very scientific method the astrophysicist pledges fealty to throughout Extraterrestrial? Being the alien guy has gotten him this far, there’s no reason to stop now. The Galileo Project, like Breakthrough Starshot, is unlikely to produce much of anything beyond a warm sense of innovation in the hearts of all its board members. Who cares? Getting to the point in your career where you can rustle up enough money from rich doofuses to establish a program as blatantly self-serving as the Galileo Project is as good as it gets for an academic lusting after fame. One small step for Avi Loeb, one giant leap for celebrity scientists everywhere.