Oumuamua: Space Junk, or Avi Loeb’s Wager That We’re Not Alone?

A Canadian astronomer discovered a comet like no other on October 19, 2017. Generally speaking, discovering a comet is not an extraordinary event. However, 1L/ 2017 U1, colloquially dubbed “Oumuamua,” which means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian, was a unique finding. As the Hawaiian phrase suggests, Oumuamua did not originate from familiar territory. In fact, Oumuamua is “The first known interstellar object passing through the solar system.” 

If the origins of this uncanny visitor are not unsettling enough, consider Oumuamua’s shape and nature.  It was on a trajectory abnormally close to Earth, within 16% of the Earth-to-Sun distance. Further, it was not the average, inconspicuous asteroid floating through the ether of space. Instead, it happened to be a quarter of a mile long, possibly ten times as long as it is wide and was zipping onward at a scorching 196,000 miles per hour. To be more succinct, Oumuamua was an oddly energetic rotating baton. 

Incessant enthusiasm in the astronomical scientific community eventually led to theories that aimed to explain the anomaly. NASA suggests a rather jejune verdict: “Oumuamua is dense, composed of rock and possibly metals, and has no water or ice.” Similarly, since 2017, the standing theory has been that Oumuamua was a mere hunk of metal, likely elongated due to its tight trajectory around a substantive star which exerted a remarkable amount of gravitational force on Oumuamua, ergo the stretched out shape and the speed (due to the gravitational boost from the star). 

Later, however, more interesting Oumuamua theories became popular that contested its purpose. To address the elephant in the solar system, several hypotheses were made that Oumuamua could be from an alien civilization. The sheer oddity of Oumuamua intrigued Israeli-American theoretical physicist and Harvard science professor Avi Loeb, who is an avid proponent of the alien theory. Loeb suggested that the comet wasn’t really a comet. After all, the aberration, being the first object in the solar system from interstellar space, was shrouded in mystery as it did not originate from a place humans know of.

Avi Loeb entered the limelight in early January 2021 after announcing his book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. This book not only revives the theory that Oumuamua is from an alien civilization and it is more than a hunk of metal but also explores the abstract and existential implications of aliens. Loeb proposes that the comet could be a “reflective light sail made by extraterrestrial life,” which essentially propels a spaceship forward by capturing the momentum of photons from light, a technology that researchers are experimenting with and developing on Earth. Granted, there was no spaceship detected, and this purported “sail” was likely retired by the alien civilization. The second argument Loeb makes is that we, as humans, are inherently arrogant and self-destructive and that alien life would relegate us to our rightful, humble position. 

Though Loeb makes a coherent and fascinating argument when strictly focusing on Oumuamua’s origin and purpose, his rebuke on human society is less engaging. Loeb argues that human nature’s self-centered mentality has poised us to spurn the notion of alien life. He also believes that an (unproven) alien species would likely be “superior beings” who could enlighten us and reveal “the meaning of life.” What starts as a relatively pragmatic proposal (per the standards of theoretical physicists) eventually evolves into a vexed manifesto, overly romanticized with the facade of  “exploring the implications of Oumuamua for science and religion,” as the book’s promotional self-description states. Claiming that an unknown alien species would both enlighten humans and teach us our place is an obscene point of view. In the off-chance that aliens are real and intelligent, should a future human interaction with aliens entail submitting ourselves to aliens, our new de-facto rulers, with who knows what ulterior motives? Instead, we should diligently approach an alien civilization with cautious optimism to learn more about them. 

Moreover, in Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Loeb makes the case that alien life is possible and that the disappearance of this understanding as a mainstream premise for the exploration of space should be reversed—and of course, it should. Expanding the human horizon has always been at the center of societal action. However, where Loeb gets it wrong is the blind presumption that we should willingly accept ourselves as inferior to the potential alien civilization that may have once upon a time used Oumuamua to explore space; this philosophy is a pernicious approach.

Let’s look to the stars, not to false prophets.

By Daniel Waheed

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