“The Last Word” –Clashing Conclusions on the Oumuamua Interstellar Mystery from SETI’s Seth Shostak and Harvard’s Avi Loeb


You would have though it was 1938 again following Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds the way the way Twitter lit up last week when the chairman of Harvard’s astronomy department, Israel-born theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, suggested that an alien spaceship was possibly on its way to Earth to study humankind, and probably had Stephen Hawking spinning in his grave.

Back in October, Loeb published a study explaining how aliens can travel throughout the galaxy on the backs of everything from meteoroids to space dust. “Our paper considers the possibility that life could be transported across the entire Milky Way galaxy and beyond,” Loeb said. “The solar system acts as a gravitational ‘fishing net’ that contains thousands of bound interstellar objects of this size at any given time. These bound interstellar objects could potentially plant life from another planetary system and in the solar system.”

All hell broke loose last week when Loeb followed up with a new paper suggesting that the interstellar object we know as Oumuamua might be a spaceship, a lightsail, from an alien civilization.”

Loeb has spent much of his amazing career searching for alien life. In addition to his myriad Harvard hats (Director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), he’s the chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee, a $100 million initiative that is currently listening for signs of aliens.

To refresh your memory on the backstory: about a year ago, scientists using some of the biggest telescopes on earth detected an odd oblong-shaped mystery object floating through space. They said the interstellar asteroid is like nothing that’s been seen in the solar system before, with an “extreme oblong shape” that’s as much as 10 times as long as it is wide. ‘Oumuamua was discovered Oct. 19 using the Pan-STARRS telescope, which is operated near the summit of Maui’s Haleakala volcano by the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

The dim object was spotted as it traveled through the inner solar system, at a distance of about 19 million miles from Earth, but an analysis of its trajectory suggests that it came in from a place far beyond the solar system, somewhere in the constellation Lyra, heading towards the constellation Pegasus.

Named Oumuamua, Hawaiian for “Messenger from Afar”, it’s believed to be the first interstellar object observed passing through our solar system. Many tried listening to it, to see if they could determine what it was. Was it a shard from an ancient asteroid, a weird comet? Or was it something else?

So we emailed Avi Loeb and SETI’s world-renowned senior astronomer, author, and alien hunter, Seth Shostak. Here’s what we asked them…

“We’d like to include a quote (of any length) from you on your thoughts about human implications of the Oumuamua “spacecraft” debate. In short, it seems that we are rooting beyond the science for validation of the spacecraft hypothesis. In the rancorous, tribal environment we’re living through, it appears the human species is yearning for validation of intelligent life beyond our fragile Blue Dot.”

Read their replies here.

Image credit: Shutterstock, Giovanni Cancemi, 3d rendering Oumuamua asteroid