On October 19, 2017, astronomers at the University of Hawaii spotted a strange object traveling through our solar system, which they later described as “a red and extremely elongated asteroid.” It was the first interstellar object to be detected within our solar system; the scientists named it ‘Oumuamua, the Hawaiian word for a scout or messenger. The following October, Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, co-wrote a paper (with a Harvard postdoctoral fellow, Shmuel Bialy) that examined ‘Oumuamua’s “peculiar acceleration” and suggested that the object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth’s vicinity by an alien civilization.” Loeb has long been interested in the search for extraterrestrial life, and he recently made further headlines by suggesting that we might communicate with the civilization that sent the probe. “If these beings are peaceful, we could learn a lot from them,” he told Der Spiegel.
I recently spoke by phone with Loeb, who was frustrated that scientists saw ‘Oumuamua too late in its journey to photograph the object. “My motivation for writing the paper is to alert the community to pay a lot more attention to the next visitor,” he told me. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Loeb thinks we need to consider the possibility that ‘Oumuamua was sent by aliens, the dangers of unscientific speculation, and what belief in an advanced extraterrestrial civilization has in common with faith in God.