Tag: Oumuamua

The Pitfalls of Searching for Alien Life

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by Diane Peters                     July 3, 2019                        (thewire.in)

• In October 2017, a telescope at the University of Hawaii picked up a cigar-shaped object which had sling-shotted past the sun at 196,000 miles per hour. Scientists at the university dubbed it ‘Oumuamua’, Hawaiian for scout (depicted above). At first it was labeled an asteroid, and then a comet, but it certainly came from another solar system.

• Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department, and Shmuel Bialy, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters theorizing that the object could be “light sail”, floating in interstellar space as debris from advanced technological equipment. “Alternatively,” they wrote, “a more exotic scenario is that Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

• While scientists theorizing about alien life may find a rapt public audience, they can also draw cynical, even hostile reactions from their fellow scientists. Paul Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, tweeted: “No, ‘Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it.” Or they may draw sarcasm, as Neil deGrasse Tyson once quipped to CNN: “Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien.”

• The threat of being written off as a kook looms large for researchers. Many academics “won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole,” said Don Donderi, a retired associate professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal who now teaches a non-credit course called “UFOs: History and Reality” in the school’s continuing education department. No one at McGill seemed to mind when Donderi began writing about the paranormal in the 1970’s. But when he applied for a grant to investigate UFO sightings he was rejected. At his retirement, Donderi offered to give a free seminar on his UFO and alien abduction research, and was again turned down.

• Donderi notes that people who speak at UFO conferences “aren’t all equally good enough.” Meanwhile, those engaged in the search through bona fide organizations have come up with minimal results. Astronomers have been trying to communicate with alien life using radio waves since 1959, work that has continued by the SETI Institute to the present, but have found nothing. As a psychologist, Donderi believes that cognitive dissonance keeps the search for ET intelligence in limbo. “[A]cademics will bristle at conclusions that point to aliens,” says Donderi.

• Physicist Richard Bower of Durham University in England studies parallel universes. “We used to say that life is incredibly rare and we’re lucky to live on a habitable planet,’’ Bower said. “But we’ve now observed so many planets that are plausible habitats. It seems, based on scientific evidence, there’s no reason to think that planets like the Earth are rare.” Still, Bower is “less comfortable” with excessive speculation. Simply looking for alien life is too binary: if you don’t find it, you’ve got nothing. It is better to focus on questions that we may soon have the evidence to answer.

• We may be finding nothing because we’re doing it wrong. NASA physicist Silvano Colombano maintains that long-held assumptions have limited the earnest search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and that the “general avoidance of the subject by the scientific community” means no one questions them. Colombano suggests the search for alien intelligence is based on “cherished assumptions” that are holding it back, e.g.: that interstellar travel is unlikely, that alien civilizations use radio waves, that other life must be carbon-based, and that UFOs have never visited earth. Colombano makes a case for discarding these dusty beliefs, and instead imagine how alien societies’ technology might have evolved.

• Donderi concludes that the evidence is rising and feels that cognitive dissonance is at the moment collapsing. “[W]e’re at the beginning of the change,” he stated. Researchers expect more data about interstellar objects when the Large Synoptic Telescope in Chile starts operating in 2022.

 

In October 2017, a telescope operated by the University of Hawaii picked up a strange cigar-shaped object (artist rendering in top image), which had slingshotted past the sun at a more-than-brisk top speed of 196,000 miles per hour. Scientists at the university dubbed it ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for scout, and at first labelled it an asteroid, then a comet, but agreed that it came from another solar system.

Avi Loeb

Around the world, telescopes were quickly aimed toward ‘Oumuamua’s path, and scientists dove into the data. One of them, Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department, published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters the following year theorising that the object could be artificial. “Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from advanced technological equipment,” he and co-author Shmuel Bialy, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, wrote. “Alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilisation.”

   Don Donderi

That’s not something you read every day in a serious scientific journal. The paper went viral, and Loeb began fielding an onslaught of media calls while fellow scientists weighed in. In terms of his colleagues’ reaction, Loeb said, “almost all of them reacted favourably, and they thought, you know, it’s just an interesting idea.”

Even so, he added, there were some adverse reactions as well. One cutting tweet by Paul Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, reads: My publicist asked me for a quote on the ‘Oumuamua story making the rounds. Here it is:
“No, ‘Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it.”

Richard Bower

Feel free to use that, @fcain, @tariqjmalik!  — Paul M. Sutter (@PaulMattSutter) November 6, 2018
Also read: India Planning to Launch Own Space Station by 2030, ISRO Chief Says

All this hubbub took place in the aftermath of news reports that the Pentagon had been collecting data on UFO sightings for years. Clearly, the hunt for alien intelligence is alive and well in our solar system, and it’s hot news. Indeed, Loeb’s article was approved for publication in mere days.

                Silvano Colombano

But while scientists tossing around the idea of alien life may find a rapt public audience, they can also draw cynical, even hostile reactions from their fellow scientists, a response summed up by acclaimed physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who once quipped to CNN: “Call me when you have a dinner invite from an alien.”

This paradox has ripple effects. The threat of being written off as a kook can loom large for researchers, especially young ones. A lot of academics “won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole,” said Don Donderi, a retired associate professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal who now teaches a non-credit course called “UFOs: History and Reality” in the school’s continuing education department.

Loeb says many discoveries have their roots in theories that were initially dismissed. He thinks open-mindedness keeps scientific inquiry moving forward while shutting down new theories “reduces the efficiency of science.”

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UFOs Exist and Everyone Needs to Adjust to That Fact

by Daniel W. Drezner                      May 28, 2019                     (washingtonpost.com)

• UFOs have historically been associated with crackpot ideas like Big Foot or conspiracy theories involving crop circles, and consistently dismissed. But as more military pilots come forward to describe encounters with unidentified flying objects, government officials reluctantly acknowledge that UFOs (or “UAP”s) do exist. At this point, authorities are trying to destigmatize the reporting of UFOs while adamantly refusing to say that these UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin.

• Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall authored a paper entitled: “Sovereignty and the UFO”, published in the journal Political Theory, which argues that state sovereignty is “constituted and organized by reference to human beings alone.” They argue that the real reason UFOs have been dismissed is because it challenges the worldview in which human beings are the most technologically advanced life-forms. “UFOs have never been systematically investigated by science or the state, because it is assumed to be known that none are extraterrestrial. Yet in fact this is not known, which makes the UFO taboo puzzling given the ET possibility.” So if humankind is the most technologically advanced life form, then in order to preserve this premise, UFOs cannot be of an extraterrestrial origin. The UFO can be “known” only by not asking what it is.”

• Wendt and Duvall’s paper makes a persuasive case that UFOs certainly exist, even if they are not necessarily ETs. For them, the key is that no official authority takes seriously the idea that UFOs can be extraterrestrials. As they note, “considerable work goes into ignoring UFOs, constituting them as objects only of ridicule and scorn.”

• In recent years, however, there has been a subtle shift that poses some interesting questions for Wendt and Duvall’s argument. Discussion of actual UFOs has become the topic of serious mainstream media coverage. The government acknowledged the existence of a Pentagon program to study UFOs. A noted astrophysicist claimed that the ‘asteroid’ Oumuamua could be of artificial construction relying on a solar sail. Military pilots came forward in December 2017 and then again in May 2019 relating their encounters with UFOs on both the West and East Coasts of the US. No one in the Defense Department is saying that the objects are extraterrestrial, though even skeptics cannot completely rule out the possibility that extraterrestrial activity is involved.

• So the government and mainstream media are not behaving as Wendt and Duvall would predict. Politico’s Bryan Bender reported that, “The U.S. Navy is drafting new guidelines for pilots and other personnel to report encounters with ‘unidentified aircraft,’ a significant new step in creating a formal process to collect and analyze the unexplained sightings — and destigmatize them.” Deanna Paul of the Washington Post wrote, “Luis Elizondo, a former senior intelligence officer, told The Post that the new Navy guidelines formalized the reporting process, facilitating data-driven analysis while removing the stigma from talking about UFOs, calling it ‘the single greatest decision the Navy has made in decades.”

• As the stigma against the existence of UFOs wears off, will Earth governments face the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations as the origin of these unexplained UFOs?

 

The term “UFO” automatically triggers derision in most quarters of polite society. One of Christopher Buckley’s better satires, “Little Green Men,” is premised on a George F. Will-type pundit thinking that he has been abducted by aliens, with amusing results. UFOs have historically been associated with crackpot ideas like Big Foot or conspiracy theories involving crop circles.

The obvious reason for this is that the term “UFO” is usually assumed to be a synonym for “extraterrestrial life.” If you think about it, this is odd. UFO literally stands for “unidentified flying object.” A UFO is not necessarily an alien from another planet. It is simply a flying object that cannot be explained away through conventional means. Because UFOs are usually brought up only to crack jokes, however, they have been dismissed for decades.

One of the gutsiest working paper presentations I have witnessed was Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall presenting a draft version of “Sovereignty and the UFO.” In that paper, eventually published in the journal Political Theory, Wendt and Duvall argued that state sovereignty as we understand it is anthropocentric, or “constituted and organized by reference to human beings alone.” They argued that the real reason UFOs have been dismissed is because of the existential challenge that they pose for a worldview in which human beings are the most technologically advanced life-forms: “UFOs have never been systematically investigated by science or the state, because it is assumed to be known that none are extraterrestrial. Yet in fact this is not known, which makes the UFO taboo puzzling given the ET possibility…. The puzzle is explained by the functional imperatives of anthropocentric sovereignty, which cannot decide a UFO exception to anthropocentrism while preserving the ability to make such a decision. The UFO can be “known” only by not asking what it is.”

When Wendt and Duvall made this argument, there were a lot of titters in the audience. I chuckled, too. Nonetheless, their paper makes a persuasive case that UFOs certainly exist, even if they are not necessarily ETs. For them, the key is that no official authority takes seriously the idea that UFOs can be extraterrestrials. As they note, “considerable work goes into ignoring UFOs, constituting them as objects only of ridicule and scorn.”

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Harvard Astronomer Stands By His Alien Theory

by Dugan Arnett                     April 3, 2019                     (bostonglobe.com)

• ‘Oumuamua’, a mysterious celestial object that hurtled close to the Earth in 2017, is the first known object to come here from outside the solar system. Rob Weryk, the person who initially spotted Oumuamua at the University of Hawaii, says that there isn’t “any reason to believe that it’s anything but a natural object.”

• But Professor Abraham ‘Avi’ Loeb (pictured above) of Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics noted that the object did not behave like a typical comet or asteroid. If it were a comet, Loeb said, its excess acceleration would have likely been apparent in the form of a tail of dust or gas. Also, its elongated shape is unlike any asteroid or comet observed before. Loeb said he is simply using the available data to draw an evidence-based conclusion. “Let’s put all the possibilities on the table,” Loeb said. Perhaps, Loeb reasoned, the object had been an artificial object sent from an extraterrestrial civilization. “If someone would show me clear evidence that it’s natural in origin, then I would admit it and move on,” he said.

• Loeb’s speculation has drawn the ire of the scientific community. Astrophysicists from across the country have spoken out against Loeb’s theory, painting him as a sensationalist and worse. Some think that Loeb’s assertions will damage the field’s long-term credibility. “[P]eople think that astronomers are just hunting for aliens,” said Paul M. Sutter, astrophysicist at Ohio State University. “The next time we go out to Congress or the public asking for money, there’s going to be a lot of people shaking their heads saying, ‘Oh, you guys are just nutballs.’”

• But Loeb has refused to back down, digging in his heels against what he considers unjust appraisal. His work, he insists, is not the result of some half-baked sci-fi fantasy. The researchers whose opinions Loeb does value have offered support for the idea — even if they’ve been wary of putting their names to it publicly. Loeb argues that scientific study has become far too conservative — avoiding controversial or unpopular examinations in favor of safer subjects that might earn a scientist an award or induction into a prestigious society, but are not necessarily conducive to substantial scientific advances.

• Irwin Shapiro, the former longtime director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, called Loeb “brilliant.” Stephen Hawking once dined at his home. In 2012, Loeb was named one of the 25 most influential people in space by Time Magazine.

• Loeb was raised in an Israeli farming village. He passed his days reading philosophy books and writing notes to himself. He didn’t move into the field of astrophysics until the age of 26. “The reason I’m different from my colleagues,” he said, “is because I was different from the beginning.”

• In spite of the backlash, Loeb has been happy to field calls from media outlets across the world, and is close to signing a deal for a book on ‘Oumauamua’. Seven different filmmakers have reached to him out about the possibility of doing a film.

 

Like a lot of people, Avi Loeb, the chairman of Harvard University’s renowned astronomy department, does his best thinking in the shower.

It’s where he has hatched ideas for papers on black holes and the future of the universe, and where, last year, he spent some time pondering a notion that would eventually make him — in some circles, at least — the subject of considerable ridicule.

artist’s rendering of ‘Oumuamua’

He’d been thinking about the phenomenon of ‘Oumuamua, a mysterious object that hurtled close to the Earth in 2017. It had become an instant sensation in the scientific community, the first known object from outside the solar system, and astronomers and astrophysicists had jumped to analyze and explain the anomalous object. Theories were developed. Papers were published.

Loeb had a theory, too, and late last year, he detailed it, along with co-author and postdoctoral researcher Shmuel Bialy, in an article for The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Perhaps, he reasoned, the structure had been an artificial object sent from an extraterrestrial civilization.

Almost immediately, the piece ignited the kind of firestorm rarely, if ever, seen in the buttoned-down world of modern-day astronomy.

In the months since the paper’s publication, astrophysicists from across the country have spoken out against Loeb’s theory, painting him as a sensationalist and worse. The researcher who first discovered ‘Oumuamua — Hawaiian for “messenger from afar arriving first” — via telescope has called Loeb’s suggestions “wild speculation.” Another compared Loeb’s logic to that of flat-earthers.

But even as criticism has continued to pour in, Loeb — who is short and slight and wears a near-constant half-smile — has refused to back down, digging in his heels against what he considers unjust appraisal.

He has brushed off much of the negative feedback as the jealous or prejudiced grumblings of scientists he doesn’t respect, adding that the researchers whose opinions he does value have offered support for the idea — even if they’ve been wary of putting their names to it publicly.

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