The discovery of ‘Oumuamua continues to prove itself one of the most fascinating and mysterious astronomy stories of our time. It all began in October 2017 when astronomers using the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii spotted a strange object passing through our Solar System at a high velocity. The object defied classification and still does, and its origin remains unknown. What is known is that it originated from somewhere outside of our Solar System, making it the first known interstellar object to visit our neck of the cosmic woods.
Almost immediately after its discovery, ‘Oumuamua’s odd behavior and characteristics caused many to speculate that it could be an alien craft or probe sent to explore our Solar System. That speculation grew stronger in November 2018 when astronomers Shmuel Bialy and Avi Loeb of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics published a study arguing that ‘Oumuamua’s anomalous acceleration and direction could mean the object isn’t a comet or asteroid, but instead an artificial craft or probe propelled by a “light-sail,” meaning it uses the ‘winds’ of solar radiation to propel it through space.
Of course, those claims attracted controversy, criticism, and outright jeers in some cases. How could two of the most respected astrophysicists in the country claim any possibility that an anomalous object in space could be artificial? How dare they! Don’t they know that science is supposed to suppress the imagination as opposed to ignite it? In response to the controversy, one of the paper’s authors sat down for an interview with Israeli news outlet Haaretz to discuss ‘Oumuamua and the resistance to acknowledge any possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be from an extraterrestrial civilization.
I don’t care what people say. It doesn’t matter to me. I say what I think, and if the broad public takes an interest in what I say, that’s a welcome result as far as I’m concerned, but an indirect result. Science isn’t like politics: It is not based on popularity polls.
That’s what professor Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, sat down with Oded Carmeli at Haaretz to share his perspective on the ‘Oumuamua controversy. According to Loeb, he only went public with claims that ‘Oumuamua just might be artificial after lengthy discussions with colleagues. “Scientists of senior status said themselves that this object was peculiar but were apprehensive about making their thoughts public,” Loeb says. “it could be that I’m committing image suicide, if this turns out to be incorrect. On the other hand, if it turns out to be correct, it’s one of the greatest discoveries in human history.”
Loeb adds that as a scientist with tenure, he doesn’t understand why so many other stodgy academics in ivory towers are afraid to take risks and imagine possibilities which may at first seem outlandish:
If you’re not ready to find exceptional things, you won’t discover them. Of course, every argument needs to be based on evidence, but if the evidence points to an anomaly, we need to talk about an anomaly. Who cares if this anomaly appeared or did not appear in science-fiction books?
The whole interview is worth a read for anyone interested in astronomy or the search for alien life. In it, Loeb lays out his entire argument for why we must be open to the possibility that ‘Oumuamua is a spacecraft or probe. It’s important to note that Loeb never comes out saying definitively that ‘Oumuamua is an alien craft, only that we must be open to the possibility that it could be based on the available evidence. Still, science has a long history of persecuting those who go against the paradigm or challenge popular opinions. Will Loeb be remembered in the future as a rebellious hero like Galileo, or a crank suffering from wishful thinking?