As a science fiction writer that’s penned 17 novels about First Contact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence than me, but I’ll tell you ʻOumuamua is not alien.
In October 2017, Robert Weryk used the Pan-STARRS telescope at Haleakalā Observatory, Hawaii to observe the first indisputable extra-solar object to enter our solar system. He called it 1I/2017 U1 ʻOumuamua, which is Hawaiian for ‘scout,’ meaning ‘reaching out in advance.’
This is what he saw.
Yep. That’s it. That’s ʻOumuamua. Every other image you’ve seen is an artist’s rendition.
Oh, now that NASA’s had time to properly analyze the data, they’ve revised the dark cigar in favor of this next image, although the pancake is probably not going to be as popular as the cigar, and herein lies the problem—science isn’t a popularity contest.
Science is very good at teasing out an astonishing amount of information from the slimmest of leads, but it takes painstaking patience and diligence to ensure accuracy. When it came to ʻOumuamua, NASA was able to track its path through the solar system.
Seeing something from outside our solar system inevitably raises the question of aliens. Was this an extraterrestrial spacecraft? Prominent astrophysicist Abi Loeb thinks so, but he’s missing a teeny tiny thing called evidence. Loeb wrote a best-selling book called Extraterrestrial, which has a rating of 4.4 stars over almost a thousand reviews! Unfortunately for Loeb, science isn’t interested in a book’s rating.
I too want to believe, but based on good science using on empirical evidence, not warm fuzzy feelings.
Let’s look at a few quotes from Loeb’s book.
“The search for extraterrestrial life has never been more than an oddity to the vast majority of scientists. To them, it is a subject worthy of, at best, glancing interest and at worst, outright derision… The scientific community’s prejudice or closed-mindedness — however you want to describe it — is particularly pervasive and powerful when it comes to the search for alien life, especially intelligent life.”Extraterrestrial, Avi Loeb
Personally, I hate it when someone tells me what I think. If this contention is true, provide quotes from these scientists, otherwise don’t guess at their motivation. This kind of projection is typical of a straw-man argument as it unfairly misrepresents an opponent’s position.
Is he right? I don’t think so.
There is literally an independent scientific institution called SETI comprised of hundreds of scientists dedicated to finding evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI has established a number of subsidiary organizations and research centers to help pursue every possible lead. In addition to this, NASA has established research areas for astrobiology and cosmic origins. The Breakthrough Listen Project is using AI to monitor over a million stars looking for signs of intelligent life. To call the search for extraterrestrial life a ‘glancing interest‘ is absurd. To suggest there’s ‘outright derision‘ is laughable when Breakthrough Listen (alone) is spending a hundred million dollars on this over the next decade.
The simplest explanation for these peculiarities [ʻOumuamua’s shape, trajectory and apparent acceleration] is that the object was created by an intelligent civilization not of this Earth.Extraterrestrial, Avi Loeb
That’s not a simple explanation at all, let alone the simplest.
As ʻOumuamua left our solar system it underwent “sudden acceleration” according to Loeb. NASA described it as “a little kick in speed.” Who’s right? Well, according to those with a ‘glancing interest‘ that spent considerable time calculating all the possible effects on ʻOumuamua, it was 5 micrometers / s².
To put this in context, a comet will experience an acceleration of anywhere from 0.5 to 20 micrometers / s² based on out-gassing, so ʻOumuamua is hardly the ‘flip and burn‘ you see on The Expanse. It’s right in the region we’d expect for a comet.
Given that ʻOumuamua was traveling at 196,000 mph, or 54 miles per second (87.3 kilometers per second), the real surprise here is that we could measure such a tiny acceleration by comparison. The reason is, we know very well how much gravitational attraction is exerted by the Sun so we were able to calculate the drag on ʻOumuamua. When it didn’t match exactly, we went hunting to find out why.
This is strange behavior for a bunch of astronomers with only a glancing interest, huh? It really makes you wonder just who is being closed-minded (to use Avi Loeb’s term).
As for “the simplest explanation” advanced by Loeb, I’m wondering if a fragment of nitrogen ice might be simpler than aliens?
Recall the clerics who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope… Many researchers refuse to even consider the possibility that a bizarre object or phenomenon might be evidence of an advanced civilizationAvi Loeb, Extraterrestrial
That Loeb puts himself on par with Galileo is comical.
When Loeb says, “Many researchers refuse to even consider the possibility” he’s taking a “god of the gaps” position. This is something used by creationists. Basically, if science can’t explain it, then God did it. In Loeb’s case, if science can’t immediately explain it, then it’s aliens. Given time, science has explained ʻOumuamua with extraordinary precision.
When I was growing up, Chariot of the Gods was the most popular explanation for Fermi’s Paradox. Essentially, it said that aliens visited us in the past. Although their absence now wasn’t explained, lots of historical artifacts were supposedly the result of alien interactions with humans. Just like Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial, the book Chariot of the Gods relied on sensationalism, half-truths, and straw-man arguments. Oh, and it has a rating of 4.7 stars over 5000 reviews, yet again demonstrating that science is not a popularity contest—that’s the role of fiction.
In Chariot of the Gods, Australian Aborigine cave art, like the one below of Wandjina from the Kimberly Region, were depicted as aliens wearing spacesuits and helmets. Really? That’s absurd.
Oh, and when it comes to scientists being “conservative” or “[refusing] to even consider” alternatives, I call bull. Science has a long and rich history of challenging its own assumptions and changing its theories as evidence mounts. Perhaps the best recent example of this is dark energy, which only emerged as an idea in 1998. I don’t know of a single astrophysicist that likes the concept. They’d all rather have some other explanation, but dark energy is the best way of describing the evidence. If/when a better theory comes along, or if/when additional evidence refutes the idea, scientists will embrace that. For now, dark energy is the best placeholder we have to explain the expansion of the universe.
Scientists are literally always considering alternatives. It’s in the job description. That doesn’t mean they should accept the alternatives.
The point is… science is not about what someone likes or wants. It’s about gathering evidence and looking for the most consistent explanation of that evidence. When it comes to ʻOumuamua, that explanation doesn’t involve aliens. I’m happy to be convinced otherwise if there’s legitimate evidence to the contrary.
Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial is this generation’s Chariot of the Gods. For now, aliens remain in the realm of science fiction.
Speaking of science fiction…
If you’re looking for some great science fiction, check out Deja Vu.