The search for life beyond Earth has long inspired all and some — and eyerolls in others. But in recent years, new reporting has made it clear that there really have been hard-to-explain encounters between humans and something that may be operating technology that seems straight out of science fiction.
One scientist who’s taking the search seriously is Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who joined GBH’s All Things Considered Friday.
He’s the leader of the new Galileo Project, which will be looking into space for possible evidence of extraterrestrial civilization. What follows is a lightly edited transcript. Full interview you can listen here.
Arun Rath: So, tell us, what inspired you to launch the Galileo Project?
Avi Loeb: Two things. In 2017, there was an object — the first one that was identified from outside the solar system that arrived close to Earth — and it didn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. It didn’t look like a comet, it didn’t behave like an asteroid.
Rath: The subject of our last conversation [Rath and Loeb previously talked about the Oumuamua asteroid].
Loeb: Yes. And I thought maybe it’s artificial in origin. And, in fact, I wrote a book about it, Extraterrestrial, that was published six months ago. And then a month ago, there was a report delivered to Congress saying: there are things in the sky above the U.S. whose nature is not identified.
And you would think that’s a serious matter, because the intelligence agencies are admitting that they are not doing their job. Their job is to protect us from adversaries, to identify anything that flies in our sky.
And here they come to Congress and say, ‘There are some objects that we believe are real, but we don’t understand their nature. They do not behave in ways consistent with the technologies that humans develop.’
And so here I come and say, ‘Great, well, that’s a fascinating subject, very intriguing. Let’s try and figure it out as scientists.’ And in fact, the NASA administrator, Bill Nelson, said the same thing around that time.
So I approached people under him, and I said, ‘Here I am to serve and make your boss happy.’ Nobody got back to me. And then a week later, I was approached by a few wealthy individuals that I’ve never met before who said, ‘Here is, in total, 1.75 million dollars, no strings attached. Go ahead and do what you think is right.’
And I said, OK, well, that’s a great opportunity to assemble a team of exceptional scientists that will try to collect new data.
So in a way, I’m behaving like a kid, because when you come to a kid and say: ‘This is the truth,’ the kid says, ‘I don’t believe you, I will go out and check it out.’ And that’s pretty much the nature of scientific inquiry.
We maintain our childhood curiosity. We will build our own telescopes, monitor the sky — the sky’s not classified — and we will try to uncover the nature of these weird objects.
Rath: I would think, given the way you describe that, with the release of this report that we’re talking about, I would think scientists universally would be very excited — because isn’t there a love for mystery in terms of being able to explain extraordinary data?
What was the reaction of it in general of the scientific community, or was there much of a reaction to it, beyond you?
Loeb: Well, it was exactly the opposite of what you or I would expect. And the only reason the two of us are speaking is because for some reason, other people are not using common sense. I don’t understand it, frankly.
You know, I’m pretty much curious about the world — I don’t care how many likes I have on Twitter — and I keep my eyes on the ball, not on the audience. But there are lots of people that care how many likes they have on Twitter that try to look smart, to pretend that they know more than they actually know and shy away from topics that might be viewed as controversial.
There is a stigma on this subject, but I think it’s not warranted because the public cares a lot about this and the public funds science. And by engaging in this with scientific instruments, you know, we can attract more funds to support science, we can attract a lot of young people that will get engaged in science.
And this is not just a theory. I proved it over the past week. I got funding that they didn’t ask for, and I got thousands of emails since the program was announced of people interested in getting engaged and helping — scientifically — the project. So, I rest my case.
Rath: So, this information’s been released by the the government now. Is there enough data in there to get to get you started? Where do you go from here?
Loeb: Yeah, so I don’t want to look at classified data because that would limit my freedom. I want to get new data that will be open to the public and will be analyzed in a transparent way.
And that’s what we plan to do. We plan to purchase off-the-shelf telescopes, small telescopes — a network of tens to hundreds of telescopes, depending on how much money we have currently. We have 1.75 million dollars.
If we get 10 times more, then we can pretty much get a very exhaustive study of the sky accomplished. And basically we will deploy these telescopes in many locations around Earth.
They will be connected to cameras that will feed the data to computers, that will analyze it and identify objects of interest. And then the telescopes will track these objects. And of course, key to all of that is to have computer systems that filter out the data and, in real time, identify objects of interest.
Rath: And you talked about how there seems to be a stigma attached to even talking about this among scientists. Is there any sense that that is changing? I mean, you have received a lot of interest in your book and, now, this project.
Loeb: You know, in the thousand plus interviews that I’ve had over the past six months, I had an opportunity to speak with many young people. And the conclusion is simple. Let’s just do it. Let’s forget what the audience is saying.
Let’s just keep our eyes on the ball and do it. And eventually people would join. The way we make progress in science is by being curious, willing to take risks and regarding it as a learning experience. You know, it’s completely allowed for us to be wrong. So if we examine new data on the sky and find a mundane explanation to all these UAP — unidentified aerial phenomena — so be it. We learn something new.
There must be some exotic phenomena taking place in our atmosphere. The only way we don’t learn something new is if we say: business as usual, let’s ignore it and we ridicule anyone that tries to suggest that we should get more evidence.
Rath: The report that the government released on these unidentified aerial phenomena, they didn’t entertain the idea that this could be because of extraterrestrial intelligence, but they also didn’t give an explanation for what on Earth was going on.
It certainly makes a certain kind of common sense that like that unexplainable technology, things flying in the air, you could imagine that being an extraterrestrial civilization, but are there are there other explanations that make sense, or do your scientific colleagues or anyone else offer something that that’s plausible — other than alien activity?
Loeb: Well, unfortunately, the data that was released to the public is not of high-enough quality. You know, it was obtained in a jittery camera that was in the cockpit of a fighter jet.
And that’s not the kind of data you can use for a scientific investigation because you don’t have full control over your experimental setup. And in science, you cannot rely on eyewitness testimonies. Of course, in the courtroom, if there is corroborating evidence through eyewitness testimonies, that’s enough to put the person in jail. But you cannot write a scientific paper based on what people tell you. That’s not good enough.
What you need is instruments that the record quantitative data that you analyze, and that’s what we plan to get. Rather than rely on past testimonies or past reports that do not stand up to the scrutiny of modern science, let’s just get the data and figure it out.
Again, like kids, I was asked by the Harvard Gazette — the Pravda of Harvard University — what is the one thing that I would like to change about my colleagues? And I answered, I would like them to behave more like kids.
Rath: Professor Loeb, it’s, again, great speaking with you, and let’s check in once you get some data to to talk about.
Loeb: Yeah, you would be the first to know if you find the evidence for A.I. systems from another civilization.