Avi Loeb, Harvard professor and author of “Extraterrestrial,” to host an author talk at Ruth Keeler Memorial Library

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Avi Loeb is the is the Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University, chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, and founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. (Photo by Herlinde Koelbl)

In October of 2017, astronomers at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy detected an object moving through our solar system. The relatively flat object was tumbling end over end and accelerating at a pace seemingly greater than could be accounted for by gravitational forces alone. It left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. Astronomers were stumped. Nothing like it had ever before been observed on Earth. The object was given the name “`Oumuamua,” a Hawaiian word meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first.”

Astronomers and scientists raced to come up with theories that would explain what they had seen. Some presumed it was a comet; others posited that it was a giant fractal snowflake. Many suggested it was a rock of a type not previously found in nature. Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird, Jr. professor of science at Harvard University and author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” disagreed. He argued there was only one conceivable explanation: `Oumuamua was evidence that we on Earth have neighbors elsewhere in the universe.



“The size of the universe – the number of stars, the number of planets, is bigger than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth,” Loeb explained. “To believe that we are unique or special is ridiculous.”

The theory that we on Earth are simply residents of a much larger celestial neighborhood is what Loeb outlines in detail in “Extraterrestrial.” The book explores the significant implications for science and religion, the future of our species and of our planet if we discover that `Oumuamua was, in fact, evidence of life outside of Earth. On Tuesday, February 15, Loeb will dive into these themes during an author talk hosted by the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library.

“Four centuries ago Galileo was talking about the physical universe not being centered around us,” Loeb said, referring to the 16th century Italian astronomer who was ostracized for supporting the idea that Earth revolved around the sun. “How can we still believe in our specialness four centuries after Galileo?”

In Loeb’s view, we as a civilization likely sit in the middle of a timeline of evolution. Probably there were civilizations that formed before us and probably there are civilizations that will form after us. The ones who predated us have just had the advantage of having more time. “We see our technology as evolving exponentially on a few year time scale,” Loeb explained. “If you think ahead one thousand or one million years from now, who knows where we would be? Someone who predated us, who went through that already, they might be far more advanced than we are.”

Rather than shy away from or try to defend against other beings should they be discovered, Loeb thinks we have much to learn from our extraterrestrial neighbors. If given the chance to make contact with other life forms, he has a long list of questions: what existed before the Big Bang? Did life on Earth arrive from somewhere else? What is inside of a black hole? What is the story of the beginning of the universe?

“It might feel like copying on an exam from a smarter student next to you, but I don’t care if it means we save a million years in the process,” Loeb said. “We might benefit from adopting their technological advancements. It might also give us a sense of what to do so that we might survive longer.”

Loeb hopes that his book and his work in astronomy will inspire others to think differently. “The biggest advances in our knowledge came about because some people decided to think critically about ideas that are widely accepted,” he said. “Our knowledge is just an island in an ocean of ignorance.”

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