Rolling the Dice

Choosing Risks and Looking for ET

Science invests billions of dollars in searches for the unknown. Which unknowns are worth the money?

Photo by Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash

The Large Hadron Collider required about ten billion dollars to search for supersymmetry. After smashing hadrons at unprecedented energies that should have revealed the existence of new supersymmetric particles, none was discovered.

Risk is an inevitable component of innovative research at the frontiers of science. But how should we decide whether it is worthwhile to take a particular risk and what level of risk should scientists tolerate for a given price tag?

The existing funding system is based on committees led by mainstream scientists who are trained and rewarded for a conservative mindset guided by consensus within academia. But there are alternative measures of the worthiness for taking risks in science:

  1. Interest by the public which funds science;
  2. Potential impact on society;
  3. Magnitude of improvement in our scientific knowledge of reality.

By these additional measures, the search for extraterrestrial equipment near Earth should gain priority relative to the search for supersymmetry. Yes, at this time, the Galileo Project, which constitutes the first scientific search for such objects, is funded at two parts in ten thousand of the budget allocated to the search for supersymmetry. How did we get there?

There are three major arguments used by the scientific mainstream to favor the investment of funds in the search for supersymmetry over extraterrestrial equipment in space.

One argument follows Carl Sagan’s standard: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The problem with this argument is that it constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as with supersymmetry, it is difficult to collect extraordinary evidence for extraterrestrial equipment without investing extraordinary funds in the quest for it.

The second argument dates back to Enrico Fermi’s conversation over lunch at Los Alamos in the summer of 1950, when he asked the question: “where is everybody?”. Obviously, it would be meaningless for us to ask the question: “where is supersymmetry?” without investing billions of dollars in a new collider that could find it, because supersymmetric particles were never observed before such an expensive accelerator was built. Similarly, it only makes sense to ask “where is everybody?” after investing billions of dollars in the search for extraterrestrial artefacts in space, as envisioned by the Galileo Project.

Finally, there is the assessment that we are likely to be the smartest kid on the cosmic block. This was the notion that my daughters adopted at home before they went to the kindergarten. It helps our ego to promote this arrogant premise as our starting point. But the message we keep getting back from exploring the universe is exactly the opposite: we are not situated at the center of any astrophysical system; we arrived late in cosmic history — 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang; and the Earth-Sun system is common.

Given that most Earth-Sun systems formed billions of years before the Solar system, our starting point should be that a technological civilization like ours probably predated us by billions of years. And since we had been launching probes into interstellar space, others may have done so before us. And even if the senders perished by now, their packages may still be in our mailbox. The only way to find out if we have mail is to search for unusual interstellar objects in the Solar system.

Seven decades ago, when Enrico Fermi asked his question, we did not the capability to notice interstellar equipment of reasonable size within the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. In other words, our fishing net had huge holes and could not catch any fish. For the first time in human history, the installation of the survey telescope Pan STARRS allowed us to detect the reflected sunlight from an interstellar object of the size of a football field.

The Pan-STARRS observatory at the summit of Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii

In October 2017, Pan STARRS discovered the first interstellar object, `Oumuamua. Remarkably, this object appeared and behaved differently from known asteroids or comets. It possessed an extreme — most likely flat — shape, and was pushed away from the Sun without showing any sign of outgassing. In September 2020, Pan STARRS discovered another strange object, 2020 SO, which also exhibited a push away from the Sun without a cometary tail, just as `Oumuamua did. This object turned out to be artificial for sure, a rocket booster launched by NASA in 1966 and pushed by the reflection of sunlight from its thin walls.

The discovery of `Oumuamua is sufficiently intriguing to bring the search for extraterrestrial equipment to a higher priority level in our scientific mainstream agenda than the search for supersymmetry, for which we still do not have experimental indications.

Here’s hoping that federal funding agencies, as well as private donors, would recognize the opportunity to harvest low hanging fruits along this road of exploration that was not taken before. Choosing the road not taken is a worthwhile risk supported by the public and advocated by Robert Frost, a road which the Galileo Project just embarked on.

Ted Williams (1918–2002)

Recently, I attended a discussion forum with General Stanley McChrystal, concerning his new book: “Risk: A User’s Guide”, and asked him the following question: “The scientific program of the Galileo Project is considered risky by the academic community. A century ago, the most important breakthroughs in science were made by individuals who took risks. Today, the scientific culture is plagued by groupthink, cultivated by large collaborations, social-media pressure, and conservative selection committees for funding, appointments and awards. How should we encourage individuals to take risks for the benefit of knowing the unknown?”

In reply, General McChrystal gave examples from his military career and concluded: “Many innovators today are worried about failing because of the scrutiny from their peers and social media and thus do not take the risks that are a prerequisite for future breakthroughs. The baseball player Ted Williams, even in his best season, failed multiple times by taking risks. Organizations must reward risk-takers who may become our next Ted Williams.”

Trail of the Saucers is edited by writer/producer Bryce Zabel and published by Stellar Productions. Zabel co-hosts the popular new podcast Need to Know with Coulthart and Zabel that can be found on all major platforms.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb

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Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial”.