It Came from Outer Space

Avi Loeb, Extraterrestrial (John Murray, 2021)

The future of humanity if off-planet. This much is clear. But who will we meet when we get up there?

Haim Eshed, former head of Israel’s space programme, announced in 2020 that an intergalactic federation of space peoples has already made contact. They’d like to come and meet us, according to Eshed, but they think they’d blow our minds.

Of course, if we’re talking about alien beings, transdimensionals are surely of far more interest than simple intergalactics… but Eshed had nothing to say on that subject.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, the search for aliens has been the realm of cranks, pseuds and drugged-out hippies for so long that when something does actually turn up – as it might have done back in 2017 – it’s easy to miss it.

Oumuamua – Hawaiian for “Scout” – was a highly unusual object that was measured entering our solar system at vast speed, appearing to tumble, turn, correct itself, and then exit the solar system at a trajectory not believed possible in a natural object.

It was only after the object was out of the system when our observers even noticed it. They scrambled to point everything they could at it, but by then it was too late.

As a result, we know that it was long and thin. 3D artists generated a decidedly fecal-looking chunk of rock in order to represent this.

However, we don’t know if it was actually one object. It could have been a condensed cloud of detritus, or frozen liquid similar to a comet, or something else entirely.

Notably, no other object we have ever perceived has managed to increase its thrust and change direction in the manner Oumuamua did.

Enter Avi Loeb. Loeb is a distinguished scientist. He was the longest serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, the founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, director for the Breakthrough Initiatives space funding programme and current space advisor to the White House.

More than that, he’s an experimentalist: a scientist from the old school. If it can’t be proven experimentally, he argues, then it’s not science.

Huge sums are wasted funding pure theory – supersymmetry, string theory – that (unlike the equally weird quantum dynamics) cannot be proven or disproven except through pure maths. Young PhD students are kept away from experiments, where their findings might prove them wrong, and encouraged down the paths of scholarly angel-counting.

Loeb is a pragmatist, a technologist, high respected in his field, and believed Oumuamua to be evidence of alien civilisations out in space.

If that isn’t enough to send you running to abebooks for a copy of Extraterrestrial then I don’t know what to tell you.

Loeb’s case, laid out thoroughly and at considerable length (perhaps slightly too much length, for this reader), is that Oumuamua’s apparent “long and thin” shape is due to us seeing it from above.

What we are seeing, he argues, is a long, thin, but very wide and flat starsail.

Loeb himself has theorised about starsails as part of the Breakthrough Initiatives programme and argues that, if we could find a supermaterial resilient enough (a synthetic like graphene), it would be possible to send hundreds of thousands of electronic scout units out into the galaxy at a relatively low cost.

Oumuamua could be one of these scout units. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sending information to anywhere – after all, a functional starsail could operate for millennia after getting past operational range. What we might be seeing is space junk from ancient advanced aliens.

Alongside this exciting speculation, Extraterrestrial presents us with an overview of humanity’s attempts to locate otherworlders so far.

The SETI programme, founded in 1984, is underfunded and outdated, according to Loeb, and has become a place where scientist’s careers go to die. They have set all their hopes on locating intergalactic radio broadcasts; a peculiarly mid-twentieth-century methodology that Loeb believes is due for an update.

New astronomical techniques could provide a whole range of alternative methods for spotting intelligent life. We could search the atmospheres of distant planets for evidence of industrial chemicals, the silhouettes of advanced energy sources like Dyson spheres or space elevators could be searched for, and we can attempt to synthesise life in a lab, proving that more than one origin is possible.

What Loeb is essentially presenting here is a hyper-condensed overview of his recent textbook, Life in the Cosmos: from Biosignatures to Technosignatures, co-written with Manasvi Lingam. That, too, came out this year, if you’re in the mood for 1089 pages of in-depth astrophysics.

The book has its weaknesses. Too much repetition towards the end and a lot of “how I came to love space” material that is at first touching but later gets tired. All of this, I’m sure, is there only because publishers are terrified of short books.

For the layman, Extraterrestrial is engagingly written, convincingly argued and light enough in its touch to be informative without being over-technical or over-simple.

The Soul of Man must prepare for space. The stars are falling and revelation is at hand.

  • Demetrios Kanapka

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