This week: a conversation with the astronomer Avi Loeb about UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
UFOs are back in the news, now called UAPs, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. But it’s not clear whether the recent reports of sightings get us any closer to finding alien intelligence. In an interstellar object called ‘Oumuamua, however, the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb believes humanity may have already found a spacecraft designed by extraterrestrials (his book on the subject is Extraterrestrial). Here’s his case for that, on this week’s show:
At first astronomers thought: oh, it must be a rock of the type that we have seen before within the solar system, except it came from another star. But as we started to collect data about it, it looked weird.
First of all, it didn’t have any cometary tail. Visually, there was no gas around it that reflected sunlight. And moreover, the Spitzer Space Telescope looked very deeply around it and couldn’t find any trace of carbon-based molecules. And so that implied that it’s definitely not a comet. A comet usually shows gas or dust around it as it evaporates by sunlight. And then as the object was tumbling every eight hours, the amount of sunlight reflected from it changed by a factor of 10. And that implied a very extreme shape, most likely pancake-like, a flat shape, based on the modeling of the reflected light as it was spinning around. It also exhibited an excess push away from the sun, in addition to the force of gravity that acted on it. And this push declined inversely with distance squared. And since there was no gas evaporating from it, there was no rocket effect, the only explanation that came to my mind was that it’s the sunlight reflected off the surface of this object that is giving it the push. And for that to be effective, you needed the object to be very thin, sort of like a sail, except not being pushed by the wind as you find in sailboats, but here being pushed by reflecting sunlight. Nature doesn’t make light sails. We are producing them artificially for space exploration.
This is not to say that the ship could necessarily lead us to a vital alien civilization:
It’s quite likely that technological civilizations are short-lived, because if you look at world politics today, we are not taking good care of our planet. We might not survive for more than a few centuries from now. And that’s a small window of time relative to the age of the earth. So if civilizations like ours maintain communication just for such a short window of time, then that would explain why we don’t see many of them when we search for radio signals. But my point is that if we search for relics that they left behind, that’s similar to archeology. And there you are not limited to requiring that the civilization is alive when you are searching for it, you can find the relics that it left behind in the form of equipment floating in space.
In Loeb’s telling, the search for extraterrestrial life is just as much a search for extraterrestrial death:
Creatures, you know, biological entities have a difficult time traveling through space, through the huge distances, because it takes a long time for the journey. And I think pieces of equipment can survive easily the trip. So most likely we will find evidence for technological equipment. Now, it could be in the form of relics like ‘Oumuamua, objects that fly by. It could be in the form of industrial pollution on the atmosphere of other planets, or it could be in the form of some debris that we find on the moon or in the form of a meteor that we discover on Earth. But it would be something like that. And of course, you know, at the same time, we can search for signatures of microbes, for example, on Mars or in the gases that make up the atmospheres of other planets. But I’m less excited about that. I don’t really care about microbes. I really care about learning something new from an intelligent species out there. And the very least you can learn is if, for example, it’s something left behind by a dead civilization that killed itself as the result of misbehaving or climate change or fighting a war, then we can get a historical lesson and get our act together and perhaps avoid a similar fate.
Read: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”
Running through this week’s show are allusions to and hints of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story of an alien encounter, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” There, the main character considers suicide but has a vision of interstellar travel, bringing him to a planet like Earth yet characterized by love.
Watch: Event Horizon
A scifi/horror classic starring Lawrence Fishburne and Sam Neill, Event Horizon posits that, rather than showing us the way to utopian love, interstellar travel might lead into hell.
Read: Iain Banks
Science fiction has led thinking about extraterrestrial life. An intricate epic on the subject is Iain Banks’s Culture series, which almost matches Loeb’s ideas about intelligently designed spacecraft. In Banks’s Culture books, intelligent spaceships are main characters. Here’s a summary by Lincoln Michel at LitHub:
Iain Banks’s space operas revolve around a future humanoid civilization called the Culture . . . The Culture is a quasi-anarchist post-scarcity society controlled by impossibly advanced supercomputers called “Minds.” The Culture largely exists in giant spaceships, the better to avoid the hierarchical struggles that arise from planetary resource-scarcity. Advanced technology has freed humanity — and some alien races in the Culture — from the capitalist grind, and most humans are free to just do whatever they want . . . Even death has been overcome, and Culture citizens can, if they’d like, make backups and be revived after death in either flesh or digital form.
Listen: Space is the Place
Space is possibly Ra’s most-accessible outing, a fine entry point to his world(s). It’s centred around a 21-minute opening title-track, an incantatory paean to the cosmos which opens like a bristling big-band swing number: Gilmore, June Tyson and the miscellaneous voices of the Arkestra gospelise to the galaxies, as horns and organs grow ever more cacophonic. But there’s little fury here; as loud and wild as Space Is the Place grows, the mood is always spiritual, ecstatic, transcendent, some glorious fusion between the strange and the profound.
Watch: Arab Labor
Our show next week on the end of the Netanyahu era will feature Sayed Kashua, creator of the hit show Arab Labor. The comedy series is about a character that closely resembles Kashua: Amjad, is a Palestinian journalist and Israeli citizen in search of his identity. Here’s a New Yorker profile of Kashua by Ruth Margolit from a few years ago.
This week’s ephemeral library:
The drug that could break American healthcare. The photographer at the birth of hip hop. The Lab Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover Covid-19’s Origins. Andrew Bacevich on lessons learned from the Pentagon Papers.
That’s all for this week, folks. Summah’s here!
The OS UFOlogists