This week saw yet another example of how attitudes in both the scientific community and the mainstream media have been changing when it comes to what was long treated as a taboo subject. Are we alone in the universe? Is the possibility of extraterrestrial life – and perhaps even intelligent, technologically advanced life – still strictly in the realm of science fiction or does it merit proper scientific investigation? Prior to only a few years ago, you never would have expected to see the headline of a New York Times op-ed like the one that dropped this week. “Aliens Must Be Out There. Why aren’t we looking for them?”
The piece by Gray Lady columnist Farhad Manjoo isn’t breaking any news about shocking recent discoveries, but rather addresses the question based on how scientists have treated the topic over the ages. A large part of the column deals with Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb’s new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. We’ve discussed Loeb here before, specifically his rather shocking theory that the interstellar object Oumuamua that whizzed past us in 2017 wasn’t actually a comet or an asteroid, but a wrecked piece of alien technology.
What impressed me most about Manjoo’s coverage of this subject was that it was completely serious. There were none of the standard chuckles and jokes about little green men or the X-Files. Nor was the author attempting to claim to know all of the answers. It’s simply an examination of an important question and one that he clearly feels merits further attention.
Loeb, a professor at Harvard, argues that the absence of evidence regarding life elsewhere is not evidence of its absence. What if the reason we haven’t come across life beyond Earth is the same reason I can never find my keys when I’m in a hurry — not because they don’t exist but because I did a slapdash job looking for them? …
I’m far from qualified to determine which side has the upper hand in the debate over Oumuamua (The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert has a terrific piece sorting through the evidence). But in some ways the origin of Oumuamua is not the deepest mystery in Loeb’s book; a bigger puzzle is the closed-mindedness of the scientific establishment, its grumbling reluctance even to entertain the idea that an unusual object might be of alien origin.
What accounts for the reflexive skepticism? Much of it is a matter of optics — looking for alien life just sounds kind of zany. In 1992, NASA spent $12 million on a project to listen for radio signals from other planets; the next year, Congress cut the funding, with one senator joking that “we have yet to bag a single little green fellow.” The joke illustrates a persistent problem for scientists who want to look for alien intelligence — the “giggle factor,” a sense that there’s something unserious and whimsical about the entire endeavor.
The “giggle factor” isn’t entirely gone. Loeb received some immediate pushback from other members of the community of astrophysicists, some of whom claimed that he was overreaching based on a slender body of data. That may be the case, but at least Avi Loeb started the conversation and it’s continuing to this day. The giggle factor may not be entirely gone, as I said, but it appears to be fading rapidly.
The subtitle of the column is a bit misleading, however. It’s inaccurate to ask “why aren’t we looking for them.” We are looking for them and have been for decades. It’s just that more of the members of the hard science community and the media are catching up to what’s been going on. The ongoing search for exoplanets isn’t entirely focused on geology and atmospheric analysis. We’ve been looking for signs of life. Loeb himself received a grant from NASA to search for “technosignatures” of life on other planets. Later this year, the James Webb space telescope will be launched and its primary goal is to give us a closer look at exoplanets than ever before. If they spot any unnatural-looking clusters of light or perhaps signs of industrial pollution in an alien atmosphere, we may be on our way to a definitive answer. Should they detect something like a Dyson Sphere on another world, that will be pretty much the end of the debate.
Of course, we may not need the James Webb telescope to answer the question. We’re expecting a congressionally requested report from the Pentagon’s UAP Task Force by June of this year. While I don’t hold much hope for anything truly revelatory being released to the public, anything is possible. It may still turn out that we won’t need to spend as much time looking for aliens on Proxima Centauri B if all we had to do was look in Nevada.