How a Harvard professor became the world's leading alien hunter (2023)

How a Harvard professor became the world's leading alien hunter (1)

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Avi Loeb's single-minded pursuit of extraterrestrial life has made him America's best-known practicing astronomer—and probably the most controversial.

Avi Loeb at his home in Massachusetts.Credit...Michael Marcel za The New York Times

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On October 19, 2017, the Maui telescope detected something entering our solar system from elsewhere in the Milky Way. Astronomers named it 'Oumuamua (Hawaiian for "scout" or "messenger") because it was the first interstellar object they imaged and the only one known to lie between another star system and our own. Travelers of great distances between their own star systems. Where he came from is only part of the mystery. 'Oumuamua does not fit into any of the well-known astronomical categories. If it's a rock -- an asteroid -- it's an extremely strange rock. Researchers estimate that the debt is at least the size of a football field; its shape is hard to tell, but it seems long and thin, like a cigar. "No known object in the solar system has such a large size,"wrote the team of astronomers who discovered the object.

The more scientists study 'Oumuamu, the weirder it looks. Analysis of its trajectory shows that 'Oumuamua accelerated as it approached the Sun in the weeks leading up to the discovery, and that its acceleration cannot be explained by the Sun's gravity alone. Extra impact is normal for comets. Comets are rocky snowballs, and when they get close to the sun, the ice inside them turns into steam, releasing gases and giving them a boost. But 'Oumuamua does not have the characteristic tail of a comet, and none of the telescopes observing it have detected obvious signs of water vapor, carbon monoxide or other sublimation ice. Scientists began to come up with crazy ideas to explain the features observed by 'Oumuamu, such as hydrogen icebergs and giant dust particles that are less dense than air. They're almost there.

Avi Loeb, a theoretical astrophysicist at Harvard University, has been following news about Oumuamu for months. One morning in the fall of 2018, an idea dawned on him. In order for 'Oumuamu to accelerate, something has to push him. What if that thing is sunlight? For years, scientists thought that properly captured sunlight in the vacuum of space could generate enough force to propel objects to incredible speeds. Nature doesn't make things that make good use of light, but Loeb thinks she may have an answer. "One possibility," he and the postdoctoral fellow wrote in the paper,"Oumuamua is a light sail."Light sails have long been considered a method of space travel, although until now they have been largely hypothetical. (The Japanese space agency successfully conducted a test in 2010.) The idea is that ultra-thin sheets of metal can catch sunlight like a sail catches wind, propelling the craft through space. Loeb's hypothesis could explain some of 'Oumuamu's strange behaviors, but if he is right, it means the object is not a natural phenomenon. It's an alien artifact.

Loeb is known in the scientific community for his openness to unconventional ideas, but he is an authority who has published hundreds of papers on traditional astronomical topics over three decades. He gained a reputation for finding creative ways to subject difficult-to-study phenomena to the rigorous scientific method. "Avi is very good at choosing problems to solve that have verifiable outcomes,"Nobel laureate in physics Robert Wilson told The TimesBy the time Loeb published his 'Oumuamua hypothesis in 2014, he had amassed an impressive collection of titles at Harvard: chair of the astronomy department, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, and director of the Black Hole Initiative. Loeb couldn't be more popular or authoritative, but he's still here to say that an alien spaceship may have arrived. Just a few days later, a camera crew showed up at his home.

Since then, Loeb has made extraterrestrial life the primary focus of his research. In thousands of newspaper appearances and almost daily online articles, he urged scientists to seriously consider the possibility that extraterrestrials or hardware created by them had visited our planet. He said scientists have a duty to investigate astronomical oddities like 'Oumuamu, as well as reports of UFO sightings, recently renamed U.A.P. due to unidentified anomalies. "Two-thirds of the American public believe in extraterrestrial life, more than the 56 percent who believe in the God of the Bible," Loeb told me. He doesn't think it's a good idea to think their problems aren't worth considering, instead of regaining the trust of an American public that is skeptical of science and scientists.


How a Harvard professor became the world's leading alien hunter (2)

In 2021, with funding from private donors, Loeb is a co-founderprogram Galileo,A research program at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial technology near and on Earth. His goal is to introduce the scientific method into the realm of eyewitness accounts, grainy Polaroids, and dark ex-soldiers who end every discussion with the words "it's confidential."

Loeb is not alone in arguing that the universe could be filled with life. Astronomers now estimate that the Milky Way has 100 billion planets, billions of which are similar to ours. It is not particularly controversial to assume that some of these planets could be home to civilizations smarter than ours. Since microbial life arose not long after the Earth cooled, and most star systems predate our sun by billions of years, it is reasonable to imagine that life in other star systems could have formed here in the first protozoa. It has already started to evolve. What separates Loeb from almost all his colleagues is that he believes aliens from other planets may have come to us.

Loeb insists that the search for extraterrestrial craft is not as speculative as mainstream science. Its main goal is fundamental physics. Since the discovery of the Higgs boson more than a decade ago, the billion-dollar particle colliders built by physicists to search for hypothetical forces and fields have mostly come up empty, and Loeb says scientists still have a quasi-religious belief that if they just built bigger colliders, their theory would be redeemed. He reserves most of his disdain for string theorists, who, after building theories of nature based on tiny hypothetical entities, have spent decades postulating extra dimensions and parallel universes in an attempt to make the math work. These people, Loeb argues, refuse to consider anomalies such as unexplained interstellar objects. Out of fear or intellectual rigidity, these scientists retreated into their heads, ignoring the unusual phenomena of the real world.

Loeb's outspokenness about extraterrestrial life made him America's best-known practicing astronomer. His 2021 book on 'Oumuamua, "Aliens," debuted on the Times nonfiction bestseller list; a new book, "Interstellar," out this month, sees contact with aliens as the next step on the ladder of human evolution. He became a kind of academic star invited to exclusive gatherings on the private island of Richard Branson and other rich and powerful patrons interested in heretical ideas. He is accompanied by a Netflix documentary crew.

However, many in Loeb's field view Loeb as a pariah. Its milder critics say it distracts astronomers from the sweeping discoveries made with new instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope. More open-minded people accused Loeb of abandoning the scientific method and misleading the public in pursuit of fame. Loeb said he was attacked from both sides: mainstream colleagues and the U.A.P. They were horrified when he disproved their most ridiculous theories with the laws of physics. Sometimes he called himself a martyr. “I put my body on barbed wire,” he told me.

one morning atIn January, I visited Loeb to tour his three-story clapboard house in the historic, affluent suburb of Lexington, Massachusetts. He works from home, but like most of the time he wears a tailored suit. The 61-year-old is full of energy and fit, thanks to a low-carb diet and morning runs he often mentions in emails and articles — a pre-dawn ritual followed by the thoughts of the day. He offered me a bowl of blueberries and a large cup of coffee, which he said he didn't drink because it would speed up his already manic speech. After chatting for a few hours in the tidy front living room, he drove us to see the installation that had been built to achieve one of the main goals of the Galileo project: to obtain high-resolution images of the U.A.P.

Students and volunteers assembled Project Galileo's first "observatory" on the roof of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, but recently moved it to university-owned land in suburban Boston. He asked me not to reveal the exact location because he was concerned that "hackers" might damage or steal the equipment. After a while we pulled into a wooded area, parked next to a field of conifers, and walked across snowy lawns to what looked like a high-tech scout weather station. The metal antenna stands on a tripod. Built into a synthetic dome the size of a charcoal grill, eight infrared cameras look skyward. There are visible light cameras, ultra-sensitive microphones, spectrum analyzers and other sensors, including Geiger counters, all connected to the cloud, where machine learning algorithms scan the data for any anomalies. In a sense, it's a wildlife camera made by aliens.

Since 1960, astronomers have been conducting the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life (SETI), using telescopes to observe signals from space. NASA scientists are developing plans to search for primitive life on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Astrobiologists talk about looking for artificial light or industrial pollution on planets orbiting other stars. None of these attempts bring stigma, because they believe that if life exists, then it is overThere. The borderline between mainstream astrobiology and fringe biology is the idea that extraterrestrials have traveled across the abyss of space to meet us—and that world governments are somehow keeping the evidence under wraps. But the government keeps secrets, and that secrecy has long fueled conspiracy theories about aliens and the U.A.P. Leaked footage of unidentified objects captured by fighter jet cameras is difficult to understand, in part because the cameras are classified. The idea behind the Loeb Observatory was to start building an unclassified database that scientists could use to study the U.A.P.

Loeb told me he always had a speculative streak. As a child growing up on an Israeli farm, his brain was disturbingly hyperactive. "It was like a fly buzzing in a metal box and hitting a wall," he said. He wanted to be a philosopher or a writer, but military service directed him towards science. In the IDF's elite Talpiot program for academically promising recruits, Loeb studied physics and mathematics while learning to drive a tank and skydive. In his graduate studies, he studied electromagnetic fields and plasma weapons before moving to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA, for a postdoctoral position in astrophysics. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1990s, he published extensive papers on topics such as baby black holes, the grand structure of the universe, and the universe's first stars.

In 2015, Silicon Valley billionaire investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner showed up at Harvard University, hoping Loeb would figure out how to send a probe to another star in his lifetime. Loeb was more than willing to try. A year later, standing on the top floor of One World Trade Center alongside Milner and Stephen Hawking, he announcedBreakthrough Starshot,One plan attaches tiny probes to micron-sized reflective materials (light sails) and fires them with Earth-based lasers, propelling them toward Alpha Centauri within decades. Breakthrough Starshot, still in the early stages of research, was what made Loeb think hard about the mechanics of interstellar travel.

At the same time that 'Oumuamua appeared in the sky, which was a cosmic coincidence, the U.S. government began to speak openly about the U.A.P.s. The story begins on December 16, 2017, when a New York Times report revealed the existence of a mysterious armyThe U.A.P.'s research program is called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.In accompanying article twoNavy pilot describes mysterious encounter with flying object in 2004Off the coast of San Diego: An oval-shaped spaceship appears to hover 50 feet above the foaming sea before disappearing from view. Reports of multiple sightings of the unknown phenomenon were soon published. In a 2019 Times article.Navy pilot Lt. Ryan Graves describes multiple encounters with unexplained aircraftLocated along the east coast of the United States. "These things will be there all day," he said. Marco Rubio added text to the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2021 requiring the Director of National Intelligence to report to Congress on the subject.

During the early years of the U.A.P.'s boom, everyone watched with skeptical curiosity out of interest, according to Edwin Turner, Loeb's close friend and astrophysicist at Princeton University. "Our conversation about the U.A.P. was basically, who knows, it's not obvious," he said. "Alien visits to Earth do not seem likely." Turner believes that the U.A.P. worth studying becauseOffice of the Director of National Intelligence Report to Congress June 2021The nine-page document describes "threats posed by unidentified aerial phenomena," including a "small number" of U.A.P. Obvious drives." Loeb came across an interview in which NASA administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, said he saw something while in Congress that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. classified material. "I don't know how much often makes the hairs on Bill Nelson's neck stand up," Loeb told me. "But it's fun for me."

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If Loeb's mother had been there, he said, she would have tried to talk him out of turning to alien hunting later in his career. "She would say, 'Why are you giving up everything you've accomplished?'" Loeb described his mother, Sarah, as an "excluded intellectual" whose family withdrew her from university in Bulgaria to Israel after the founding of Israel. When he and his two sisters were old enough, she continued her studies, taking Loeb to college philosophy classes when he was a teenager. They are very close. They spoke on the phone almost every day until her death in 2019. "On a personal level, I realized that until then I was trying to make everyone happy," he said. "After my parents died, I said, 'Whatever, I'm going to focus on the bottom line. I don't care how much people like me or don't like me, I'm just going to do what I think is right.'" Criticism from other astronomers Just to get stronger your commitment. "The more resistance I get," he said, "the more I feel it fits me."

mainstream scientists canKeeping aloof, Loeb discovers a different world of allies, admirers and patrons. The government's newfound interest in the U.A.P. makes the rich wonder how to invest in the search for extraterrestrial life. This naturally led them to Loeb. "I started making money without asking," he told me. In May 2021, Harvard astronomy administrators told Loeb that an anonymous donor had given him $200,000 to fund research. Within days, they determined that it came from a wealthy software engineer named Eugene Jhong. Loeb arranged a Zoom call with Jhong and received another million dollars. Around the same time, Frank Laukien, CEO of scientific instrument maker Bruker, appeared on his Lexington porch after reading Loeb's "Alien." Together they decided to create the Galileo project.

The observatory near Boston has been up and running for several months, and they're still training machine learning algorithms to recognize birds, airplanes and other common aerial objects. The goal is to build as many as 100 such observatories worldwide; so far, Loeb has secured funding to set up five more stations in the United States. While his dream is to get the first megapixel-quality photo of the anomaly, he said he expects almost anything the instruments detect will be daily. "The Galileo project was completely agnostic, without any expectations," he told me. I asked him how such an experiment could produce convincingly negative results. Failure to photograph the U.A.P. will never convince believers that there are no alien craft in the sky, only that the aliens are smart enough to avoid Loeb's camera traps. "If we searched the sky for five years, 24/7, and saw nothing out of the ordinary except for birds, drones and aircraft, and we did it in dozens of different locations, maybe 100 searches," he said, "and then we go further."

A week after Loeb took me on a tour of the observatory, I attended a planning meeting for another Galileo initiative—one that seeks to retrieve an unusual meteorite that has fallen to Earth. A few years ago, Amir Siraj, a Harvard student working with Loeb, found a strange entry in the government's meteor database: On January 8, 2014, an object passed near Papua New Guinea. Its orbit suggests its origin lies outside our solar system, although it's impossible to say for sure because the government satellite that discovered it is secret. In 2022, at Loeb's repeated urging, the US Space Command issued a letter with "99.999% confidence" that the Papua New Guinea fireball was an interstellar fireball. The government also publishes a meteor's light curve, a graph showing how its brightness changes over time. From this, Loeb concluded that it had exploded so close to the Earth's surface that it must have been made of something much harder than an ordinary meteor, perhaps even an artificial alloy like stainless steel. This made him wonder: What if this is an alien probe? Can she find his remains?

If anything is left of this meteor or alien probe, it litters the ocean floor in northern Papua New Guinea. As the meteor burns up in the atmosphere, the molten debris condenses into sand-sized spheres, called globules, which fall to Earth like lightning bolts. The logistics of finding these pellets thousands of feet underwater are daunting, but there's reason to believe it's possible. In 2018, scientists used a remote-controlled vehicle and a "magnetic rake" to search for chondrules in a meteor that fell off the coast of Washington. Encouraged by the project, Loeb and Siraj began to think about finding the Papua New Guinea meteorite. Charles Hoskinson, a mathematician who made his fortune in cryptocurrencies, heard Loeb talk about meteors on a podcast and pledged $1.5 million to their search. For logistics, they hired EYOS Expeditions, the same company that helped director James Cameron dive into the 36,000-meter-deep Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. They plan to go to the sea later in the spring.

Loeb held the planning meeting via Zoom from his home office. He began by recounting a conversation he had just had with Hoskinson, whose $1.5 million donation had been an unfulfilled promise until that week. Loeb met with him two days ago to make his final commitment. "It's very nerve-wracking," Loeb said. Hoskinson asked tough questions about their prospects for success. The plan is to drag a sled with magnets on the ocean floor to collect the pellets. But what if the remains were not magnetic? Loeb explained that they will attach nets to the sleds to catch particles that the magnets miss. Hoskinson was not relieved. Can I do better than the net? Can they be dug or use some kind of drainage? To appease Hoskinson, Loeb agreed with the magnetic sled engineers to design an auxiliary dam. Loeb was granted; he told the group that the money would soon be transferred to the expedition's bank account. Still, Loeb seemed a little taken aback by the difficulty of closing the deal. "Anyone who knows me knows I'm a task-oriented person, not a commitment-oriented person," he said. It's as if he hadn't internalized the idea of ​​private donors expecting a return on their investment. "The nightmare scenario is that we go there and all we find is dirt."

The first step in avoiding a nightmare scenario is finding the right area, and that's hard enough. The data they have about the meteor's position comes from military satellites that track incoming nuclear missiles. Every measurement with every instrument has a margin of error, which is why a lot of scientific work involves calibrating instruments and working with uncertainties. But the margin of error for missile detection satellites is classified. If they relied on government data alone, they would have to use magnetic sleds smaller than a golf cart to search an area of ​​50 square miles. Loeb told the team that he and Siraj think they've figured out a way to use seismometer readings and a lot of math to narrow down the search area. Even so, Rob McCallum, the New Zealander who runs EYOS, later admitted to me that the hunt would be challenging. "The complication is that nobody knows what we're looking for," he said. "We're guessing it's a few shovelfuls of little black balls, spaced out a mile, two, ten miles." The expedition was mostly a result of luck.


Loeb's theory'Oumuamua — the enigmatic interstellar object that turned him into an alien hunter later in his career — was controversial among his colleagues, and not just because of its reference to extraterrestrial technology. Karen Meech, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii and lead author of the study on Oumuamu's discovery, has a long list of complaints about Loeb's work. The first is his rhetoric. "I could accept at the end of the first paper they said, 'This is puzzling, we don't have a good explanation. Let's speculate about what it would take to provide enough evidence to put us on the path to aliens.' " Instead, she said, Loeb's case involves "Just putting it out there without any evidence." She noted that 'Oumuamu's light curve suggests it was bobbing like a top." "I'm not a sailor, but you have to keep the sail pointed in the right direction," she said.

In addition, Loeb's critics say his proposal is physically impractical. Although 'Oumuamua is made of the least dense man-made solid known to man, it's still about 10 times denser than its math requires, and ridiculously slow for a starship. "You don't jump on the 'this is alien technology' until you've exhausted everything," Mitch said. His thoughts." Others didn't.' She continued: 'That's what we don't try to teach young students, because it's not science.'"

At the end of March, while Loeb was preparing to leave for the South Pacific, two American scientists published a paper in the journal Nature suggestingA new, natural interpretation of 'Oumuamu.The study describes how a small comet that drifted through the star for eons became something like 'Oumuamu, and how astronomers couldn't figure it out in the limited time they had to study it. Its authors are UC Berkeley astrochemist Jennifer Bergner and Cornell astrophysics postdoctoral fellow Daryl Seligman. Together, they concluded that in the unimaginably cold interstellar space, the ice in comets takes on a fluffy, amorphous form. When this porous ice is cooked by radiation, which continuously appears in the cold furnaces between the stars, bubbles of hydrogen are formed inside. As 'Oumuamua approached the sun, the heat rearranged the molecules in the ice, releasing some of the trapped hydrogen. The escaping gas pushed 'Oumuamu, causing an inexplicable acceleration.

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headlines around the worldAnnounced the answer 'Oumuamua Everything worked."We have all these crazy ideas like hydrogen icebergs and other crazy things," Seligman said in a UC Berkeley news release.This is just the most general explanation.

As is the norm of decent academic discourse, if Loeb disagrees with Bergner and Seligman, he welcomes their contributions and promises to explain his disagreement in a peer-reviewed journal article in due course. Instead, Loeb went on the offensive. The day after the paper was published, he sent me an e-mail saying that he had found an error in their paper. Loeb accused Bergner and Seligman of neglecting the cooling effect of hydrogen evaporation in their model, which he said was a serious error that dominated the rest of their calculations and made their proposal untenable. He asked Nature to correct the original paper; they refused it. He wrote to The Times, The Daily Beast, The Times of London and other media asking them to correct their reporting of the study. When the Times of London agreed to investigate Loeb's objections, it forwarded the conversation to me, adding: "The British have integrity!"

Bergner and Seligman refused to publicly respond to Loeb's criticisms of their work, and Loeb continues to frequently criticize their work. It even appears on page three of his new book. Today, few American astronomers are willing to engage in public debate with Loeb, especially if they have not earned tenure. So I asked Aurélie Guilbert-Lepoutre, a comet expert at the French National Center for Scientific Research, to guide me on this question. Given the lack of laboratory data on hydrogen ice, it was reasonable for Bergner and Seligman to choose to leave out the variable for vaporized hydrogen, she said. You can argue about that, she told me, but she probably did too. Mathematical models of celestial bodies are never perfect: "You have to make assumptions." Then Guilbert-Lepoutre led me to find the equationLoeb's response document,Loeb was wrong, she said. When Loeb and his co-authors added hydrogen, a vanishing species, to their calculations, they needed to record the variable over time. But they remain the same, which is wrong.

When I directed the criticism to Gilbert-Lept Loeb, he dismissed it as irrelevant, but she insisted that the error mathematically forces Loeb's model to produce the same paradoxically low temperature as Bergner and Seligman. Gilbert-Lept told me she spends a lot of time reviewing Bergner and Seligman's research and related data and scientific literature. "Then I went to Ava's paper and thought, 'Oh my God, I just lost two hours because that was so stupid,'" she said. "It was a stupid mistake."

what should be doneIs there anyone like Avi Loeb in astronomy? David Spergel, an astrophysicist who leads NASA's U.A.P.s research team, told me that Loeb jumped to exciting conclusions and wishes he had been more careful in his statements to the media, but he sees the value of his work. "There are a lot of elements in Project Galileo that look like a good approach, and I think it's high-risk, high-reward science," he said. Loeb is known to be friendly and kind to his students and postdocs, but the number of scientists who refuse to talk about him to the media speaks volumes. "Many of my colleagues would rather ignore him until he makes a fool of himself and goes away," Steve Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, told me. "But he has a high shame scale."

The more Loeb spent on the fringes of science, the more speculative his thinking became. One day, while we were talking in his office, he began to consider the possibility that an ancient Martian civilization had terraformed Earth a billion years ago. We will never see the evidence on Earth because meteorite bombardment and plate tectonics would destroy everything, but there may still be archaeological remains on Mars and we can always look for them, he said. In March, he and Sean Kirkpatrick, the Pentagon's new chief of staff who is coordinating a "whole of government" approach to demystifying reports of unidentified objects, wrote a document arguingAlien 'motherships' may be lurking in our solar systemAnd send the "dandelion seed" probe to explore the Earth.

Loeb's quote is an inversion of Carl Sagan's famous maxim: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Loeb believes that the discovery of extraterrestrial life is so important that even if the probability of success is low, it is worth investing in research. Make a huge investment. "Avey says that extraordinary evidence" — such as widespread reports of unexplained flying objects — "requires extraordinary means," Turner, the Princeton University astrophysicist, told me. Turner was an active member of Project Galileo, despite his reputation as a House skeptic. "We don't do scientific research on ghost stories, do we?" Turner said. "When you say 'this is so weird it's not worth our time to investigate,' there has to be a certain level of skepticism."

Loeb often speaks with disdain of nameless "administrators" or "colleagues" who refuse to see Starlight. He often spontaneously feels belittled, neglected or neglected. If you let him talk for more than an hour, his mood always turns sour, his eyes water and he starts listing his angers and perceived hurts. Sometimes he described the Galileo project as a direct response to insults. "The Galileo project was kind of a stand-in for NASA and it didn't work according to my white paper," he told me. In 2021, Loeb sent a document to NASA Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen proposing a task force to study the U.A.P. He said he was never heard from again. The following year, Loeb was celebrating his 60th birthday on Martha's Vineyard with some former students and postdocs when someone emailed him that NASA had assembled a research group led by U.A.P. Spergel. He was not invited. "I wrote an email to Thomas Zurbuchen and basically said, 'This is really amazing, you basically ruined my week,'" he said. “I had a celebration here and now I know that you have decided to conduct this research.”

Some of Loeb's complaints go back decades, long before the search for aliens began. At our first meeting, he proposed a mysterious mathematical connection between the mass of a supermassive black hole and the velocity of stars in its host galaxy—the kind of coincidence that astronomers discovered in their data and then reduced to a formula. He mentioned this possible cosmic relationship at a conference in 2000, "but it was immediately dismissed by the experts in the audience," he said. Soon after, two young scientists, Laura Ferrarese ) and Karl Gebhardt came to Harvard for job interviews. All have studied galaxies with data from the Hubble Space Telescope. In these interviews, Loeb encouraged them to search the data for evidence of a connection between black holes and stars. They are. It is being checked. Both published landmark studies on the M-sigma relations of black holes—a major breakthrough. With Loeb's permission, they included him in the list of acknowledgments. Now, 23 years later, Loeb tells me sadly, "Look, I brought it up at that meeting and I could have written it myself, but the people at the meeting completely stopped me from continuing it. Then I presented it to these young people and people suggested and just said, 'Listen, you can check this out and tell me we're going to write this paper together.' And then it ends differently." In a link to his Center for Astrophysics website in this paper, the M-sigma ratio of black holes ranks 11th on the list.Loeb's "20 proven predictions".

I got to Ferrares and Gebhardt. They were both surprised that I was asking about something that happened over 20 years ago. At the time, Ferrares said, it was obvious to compare the mass of the galaxy's black hole to the speed of the surrounding stars. "I wouldn't even call it an idea," she said. Likewise, Gebhardt said he would have done the measurement anyway to confirm the M-sigma, but Loeb's enthusiasm made him push harder, and he acknowledged him in the paper. Gebhardt seemed taken aback when I told him that Loeb felt left out of the discovery. He quickly cycled between surprise and disappointment ("I think we had a very positive exchange with him") before it became clear. "Honestly, I'd say the same to him, if he thinks he has an M-sigma relationship, that's actually nonsense."

on SundayIn early June, Loeb boarded Charles Hoskinson's private jet at a small airport outside Boston and flew to Papua New Guinea. When I spoke to him two days ago, he sounded paranoid. A whistleblower named David Grusch has just gone to Congress claiming that the government has a secret, decades-long program to study downed alien spacecraft. The news made Loeb worried that the US Navy might be ahead of them to the location of the object they named IM1. Loeb told me that if the government decides to search the site, they will look for large, intact fragments of the space probe, possibly using remotely operated vehicles. On a flight between Australia and Papua New Guinea, they detoured to do a quick aerial survey of the area to be trawled. They see no competition.

After another short flight, they landed near the port town of Lorengaard, where expedition leader Rob McCallum was waiting in the aluminum Silver Star catamaran. About 60 miles north of the launch point, they lowered the magnetic sled from a winch on the ship's deck and began tracing the likely trajectory of the meteorite for landing. Over the next six days, they hauled in manganese-platinum wire, a bucket of paint, a few nails, shards of anti-seismic steel, and a large amount of volcanic ash. Loeb began to worry. They're preparing to use the lock sled later this week in case the particles they're looking for aren't magnetic at all. Eventually, a member of the expedition filtered some of the ash through a sieve, put the rest under a microscope and saw a tiny metallic pearl: the first pellet.

As they search, their collection of pellets expands. When they reached the 50-ball milestone, they opened a case of Moët & Chandon in the cooler. Using the ship's Starlink connection, Loeb conducted interviews with podcasters and journalists to declare victory. His announcements in the media became passionate and sometimes ironic. Article entitled"What a wonderful world"Blaming the "so-called 'Harvard astrophysicist,'" he told The Harvard Crimson in 2022 that he didn't think Loeb's efforts would "produce much scientifically."


Returning home a few weeks later, Loeb made a bold claim about their discovery in an interview with NBC. While it's unclear whether the orbs came from any meteor, let alone the first interstellar meteor or extraterrestrial probe -- the planet is covered in orbs created by processes ranging from volcanism to iron production -- he told an NBC reporter that this " for the first time humans have material from a large object outside our solar system." In a recap of the expedition posted on Medium, he mentions returning to Papua New Guinea and using new equipment to look for location possibilities. Loeb thought that if IM1 was alien technology, the globules could be formed by melting its outer layers; if so, they could trace the path of the intact remains.

On Zoom in late July, the day before a conference in Cambridge celebrating the second anniversary of the Galileo program, Loeb was more moderate. oneArticles about expeditions in Papua New GuineaPublished earlier that week in The Times, it quoted meteor experts who were highly skeptical of Loeb's claims. He was still thinking about it. "It's so unfair," he told me. "I go to the Pacific Ocean as much as I can, investing a lot of time and energy to collect the material, I just follow the scientific method and then analyze it with the best instruments. All they do is sit in a chair and say bad things about me. It's not fair. They say that I'm distorting the way science is done. I'm just strictly following the scientific method, collecting and analyzing."

He shared his screen and showed me some analysis in progress. The first is a map of where IM1 is suspected to have crashed, overlaid with a grid of color-coded cells showing the distribution of the spheres. "The number of pellets per unit mass appears to be correlated with the trajectory of the meteor," he said. "It's interesting because it shows that we're not just picking up trash." He then pulled out some new electron microscope images of the spheroids, zoomed in close to the atomic level. Whether they're from interstellar space or a volcano, they're beautiful. To find out where they come from, Galileo-related laboratories around the world measure their elemental and isotopic content. Loeb said the analysis should first determine whether the globules formed in space, and if so, whether they came from our solar system or elsewhere. He said the lab is working on a few pellets a day, but the pace should pick up soon, and he hopes to have results in a few weeks.

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But he soon returned to criticism in an article in the Times, which he could not shake. He told me that it's strange that people who don't have access to balls have such strong opinions about them. "I mean, I'm talking about scientists who claim to be scientists but aren't willing to wait for the evidence to come out," he said. I asked his critics if they would mind him disclosing such preliminary findings directly to the media. "Well, just to explain," he said. "I didn't go directly to the media. I wrote my dissertation. I just wrote a journal about the expedition because it was an unusual opportunity to educate the public about how science works. I just used the scientific method." I suggest that the scientific method might be to remain silent until the results are peer-reviewed and published. "It's another approach," he said. "But it's not a crime. I didn't commit a crime."

Loeb says he doesn't care what the critics say, but he spends so much time complaining about them that it's not entirely true. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was betting that, if he was right, any violation of scientific norms and protocols would be forgiven. I have heard this sentiment in all forms, even from some of Loeb's harshest critics. They're tired of Loeb's antics, his bullying, his delusions, but it's hard not to think... what if? A good scientist can never completely rule out non-zero possibilities. When I spoke with Karl Gebhardt, one of the astrophysicists who discovered the M-sigma relationship, he told me wearily that he hoped the media would stop obsessing over Loeb's excesses and let the field get back to scientific research. Then Gebhard stopped. "That being said, if he found something, it would change his life," he said. "This is going to change everything."

Seth FletcherHe is the editor-in-chief of Scientific American.He recently wrote for a magazine about the astronomers who took the first picture of a black hole. michael marcelis a photographer from New York whose work blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. His forthcoming second book, entitled The End of Life, focuses on American wonder and oblivion.

correction made

August 24, 2023


An earlier version of this article incorrectly described how many Earth-like planets astronomers have found around Sun-like stars. Although astronomers' ongoing inventory of planets shows that potentially habitable worlds are common, they have so far found no Earth-like planets.

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