Searching the Mailbox

The ‘Adults in the Room’ Could Be Scientists

The Galileo Project provides closure to those frustrating conversations in my youth, where the adults in the room pretended to know much more than they actually did.

Hip, Hip, Hurrah! (1888) a painting by Peder Severin Krøyer

The most vivid experience from my childhood is long dinner conversations during which I would ask a question and the “adults in the room” would pretend that they know more than they actually do in answering it. This was actually the better experience. In other circumstances — when my question was too challenging, the adults would dismiss it and return to their comfort zone. “The inevitable friction in the tumultuous life of an adult must generate a lot of friction which tends to erode the sharp edges of our inquisitive mind, but we should never give up wondering,” I reasoned as a child.

As I grew up, this bruising experience guided me to a tenured appointment in science, which promised the privilege of maintaining my childhood curiosity. But to my surprise, many of the adults in the halls of academia behave no differently than those I remember from my childhood. They pretend to know more than they do and when they have no satisfactory answer, they dismiss the question and move on, carried by a wave of “likes” on Twitter.

But the people in my room changed recently. At long last, I was fortunate to assemble a team of 70 exceptional, like-minded scientists, in a Zoom meeting room and demonstrate that even adults can wonder about the world without worrying about their image.

The string that ties this “bouquet of flowers” is simple. We know that our technological civilization sends equipment into space. The statistics of habitable planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope enlightened us that the conditions on Earth are not rare and could have been replicated tens of billions of times in the past history of Sun-like stars within the Milky Way galaxy. If one of the Earth-like planets produced an extraterrestrial technological civilization (ETC) like ours a billion years ago, its equipment could have reached the Solar system by now — even at the speed of chemical rockets, which is ten thousand times slower than the speed of light for both Sputnik and New Horizons. We should therefore examine the solar system as if it was a mailbox — collecting packages that were sent long ago, even if the senders perished by now. This ETC mail could appear in the form of weird interstellar objects like `Oumuamua, interstellar meteors, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena near Earth. My childhood question is: “shouldn’t we check whether our mailbox is really empty as we naively think?”

Most adults in the halls of academia ask for extraordinary evidence before willing to engage in the search through our “mailbox” for ETC “packages”. But such evidence will never appear without searching the mailbox in the first place. The recently announced Galileo Project that I lead, breaks the circularity of this argument by seeking new data without prejudice. If we find no evidence for ETC equipment through new telescopes in the coming decades, we will, in this worst-case scenario, merely match the poor record of the search for the nature of “dark matter”, which lasted almost half a century so far and consumed hundreds of millions of dollars without success.

The experience of receiving a delayed package that has passed its moment of relevance would resemble the discovery of old love letters in a closet. But the significance of a lost opportunity might be amplified if it involves a prescription for the salvation of the human species. In that case, our fate will depend on whether we search our “mailbox”. It would be unfortunate if the mail remains there, unopened, even unsought, long after it would have done literally a world of good. If we are not intelligent enough to search for it, perhaps we do not merit to survive by Darwinian selection on the cosmic scale.

The traditional SETI quest for radio signals is equivalent to attempting a phone conversation, which requires an active counterpart. The chance of success in finding a radio-transmitting ETC that responds to our signals might be compromised by the short window of time during which we communicated in the radio band since Guglielmo Marconi’s transmission in 1895, which is thirty-six million times shorter than the age of Earth.

As apparent from our political landscape, adults are not always guided by scientific evidence. This applies to public health policies regarding COVID-19 as well as to overarching notions of the world. For example, there are self-sustained communities of “adults” in both the public and academic spheres, promoting unfalsifiable world views regarding objects near Earth as well as regions of spacetime to which we have no access.

Even though I specialized in theoretical astrophysics throughout my career, I accept the superiority of data from telescopes in educating us about our cosmic neighborhood. After all, Edwin Hubble’s data was needed to convince Albert Einstein that the universe is not static, even though a static universe is more philosophically appealing since it has no beginning. The discovery of an expanding universe eventually made sense to everyone because the entropy of a static universe that existed forever would have been infinite. Similarly, if we find ETC equipment, its meaning will ultimately appear obvious to all the “adults in the room”.

But for now, my participation in the Galileo Project along with like-minded scientists provides the closure I needed for those frustrating dinner conversations in my youth. The benefits are simple: I am not alone; they are not alone; we are not alone. Pun intended.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. 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.”

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb

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