Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests
The ancient Greeks recognized the value of guests. Similarly, we should cherish the information we might garner from extraterrestrial visitors.
The twists and turns that life takes are often improbable and unique. But our unpredictable path through the world is not more unusual than the shape of a seashell on the beach, which was shaved unpredictably by its random rub against other seashells and its erosion by waves and wind.
We should not assign special significance to our somewhat arbitrary circumstances. Instead, we better navigate through them and seek a meaning for our life.
What would give us a sense of meaning? The greatest pleasure of intelligent beings is to learn the unknown. And there is no better way to accomplish that than meeting a messenger from far away. In the Hawaiian language, the first such encounter is termed `Oumuamua.
Indeed, the ancient Greek culture during the time of Homer, the reputed author of the Iliad and Odyssey, valued hospitality of new guests. So much so, that the Greek god Zeus was also called Zeus Xenios in his role as a protector of strangers. The elevated concept of Xenia reflected the kindness of hospitality.
The ritualized friendship to guests by the ancient Greeks was beneficial as it enabled them to access new information from visitors who arrived from distant territories. Today, one might regard this motivation outdated because of the easy flow of information across the Earth through the internet, global trade and air travel.
However, the flow of information between intelligent species from separate stars is currently lacking — at least for us. In that interstellar context, we should follow the ancient Greeks and embrace Xenia with a modern twist.
Interstellar Xenia implies that we should welcome autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence, which arrive to our vicinity from far away. Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters. After all, we share the same neighborhood as they do.
On a recent breezy evening, I noticed an unfamiliar visitor standing in front of my home and asked for his identity. He explained that he used to live in my home half a century ago. I welcomed him to our back yard where he noted that his father buried their cat and placed a tombstone engraved with its name. We went there and found the tombstone.
Our Galactic neighborhood could have been visited many times by passing visitors over the past ten billion years. To find them, we need to monitor the sky and search for unfamiliar objects near our home planet. This is precisely the rationale behind the recently announced Galileo Project which aims to identify the nature of unusual interstellar objects in the vicinity of Earth.
If we find visitors, they might provide us with a new perspective about the history of our back yard. In so doing, they would bring a deeper meaning to our life within the keen historic friendship that we owe them in our shared space.
Interstellar Xenia might be the key to the prosperity of our culture, just as it led to the intellectual richness of the ancient Greek philosophy and literature.
Avi Loeb is the founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos.”