What should we study?
Rising Above the Rubble
When a new understanding of reality is supported by data, there is no need for it to be popular. Nature shapes our future, irrespective of any incorrect notions held by people.
In a recent forum that I attended with executives, the leader of one of the largest pharmaceutical corporations in the world noted that only 5% of all their research projects are successful and only a small fraction of those make it to the consumer market. As a result, most of their scientists spend years on projects that do not improve public health. This is true also in academia, where most scientific papers do not lead to a new understanding of nature because of invalid assumptions or misleading clues.
But inefficiency is not limited to human activities. It is also common in nature. For example, only a small fraction of the DNA sequence in the human genome is used to make proteins, while the rest are non-coding DNA sequences without a completely explained function, colloquially known as “junk DNA”. Throughout evolution, the non-coding segment of eukaryotic genomes had been expanded by deletions or insertions of DNA sequences, as well as by the genome duplication process.
The inefficiencies inherent in life are often regarded as unavoidable. We focus our attention on longevity. The inevitable end to life motivates us to act before we die, albeit rather inefficiently.
In fact, improving the efficiency of our actions is as important as lengthening our lifespan. The means are simple. First, we must learn from experience and avoid repeating mistakes. Second, we need to embark on a range of options to minimize the risk that any one of them brings. Third, we should practice agility in adapting to changing circumstances.
Efficiency is also the natural outcome of correct strategic decisions. When I became the Astronomy department chair at Harvard University in 2011, I was warned that this job will consume all of my time; instead, it taxed my research during the 9 years of service by a negligible amount because I was careful to take the correct “exits in the highway”. With wrong strategic choices, I would have spent my time retracting from dead ends. There are many more paths for destruction than survival.
This is true also when choosing research topics. To improve the efficiency of our scientific endeavor, we should focus our attention on the most existential issues and avoid questions like: “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin in ten dimensions?”, even if those provide an arena for demonstrating how smart we are through mathematical gymnastics.
One of those most important questions can be phrased simply: “did any technological civilization launch equipment into interstellar space long before us?”
The scientific mainstream prefers not to engage in funding related research until there will be extraordinary evidence to justify it. But the efficiency of finding this extraordinary evidence would be small without investing funds in the search. Hence, it is a circular argument that maintains our ignorance.
Seventy-one years ago, during lunchtime at Los Alamos, the distinguished physicist Enrico Fermi asked: “where is everybody?” Evidently, not hearing a knock on our door does not mean that we have no neighbors. The travel time across the Milky Way galaxy is long, whereas our recorded history spans only a millionth of the age of the Earth. Hence, the “knock on our door” might have been witnesses by microbes a billion years ago.
For a technological civilization like ours, there is a tension between the risk of self-destruction and its ability to escape from the host planet before a catastrophe occur. Did other galactic species spread their eggs beyond their birth planet or were they buried under the rubble of their own making?
Given the prominence of low efficiencies in life, one might guess that most technological civilizations left nothing of value behind. The way to find out whether this is indeed he case is to check the sky for interstellar relics that would violate this pessimistic expectation.
We can increase the efficiency of finding relics from other civilizations by searching for them through new telescopes. This is the rationale behind the recently announced Galileo Project, which aims to look for technological equipment near Earth from extraterrestrial civilizations.
Science attempts to find out the nature of reality. But the truth about reality is not decided by the number of likes on Twitter, just as it was not dictated by popular vote among the philosophers during the days of Galileo Galilei.
When a new understanding of reality is supported by data, there is no need for it to be popular. Nature shapes our future in ways that conform with reality, irrespective of any incorrect notions held by people. The Earth continued to move around the Sun for our present-day space missions, long after philosophers placed Galileo in house arrest following their prejudice. Similarly, the existence of neighbors will not depend on whether we look for them.
We better check if there is any “mail” out there, sent by more intelligent species in our direction. If we ignore the message in that “mail”, we could miss guidelines for a better future and end up buried under rubble. Oscar Wilde anticipated the Galileo Project when he wrote: “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”
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.”