Avi joins me this week to discuss his latest book, Extraterrestrial, and the amazing interstellar discovery that formed the foundation for it’s climb to number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. We discuss the possibility of alien life, and the possible source of the remarkable space anomaly Avi and his team discovered in 2017. Avi shares with me his passion for the sciences and his disagreement with the current trend of the community. He hopes to reshape the future of science, and has been focusing his recent efforts on motivating youth to pursue an interest in the universe around us.
“The study of science is meant to be a discussion with nature, not a monologue.”
“The study of science is meant to be a discussion with nature, not a monologue.”
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Avi Loeb [00:00:00] Imagining a sale, basically a very thin object such that the reflection of light from the sun would give it the push, and then this is called the lightsail.
Avi Loeb [00:00:12] It’s just like the sail on the boat, except it’s not being pushed by wind, reflected off it, rather by light. And we’re currently developing this technology for space exploration.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:25] Hi, I’m brilliant. Your host for this show. I know that I’m incredibly blessed. As the son of self-made billionaires, I’ve seen the high price some people pay for success. And I’ve learned that money really can’t buy happiness. But I’ve also had the good fortune to learn directly from many of the world’s leading teachers. I created this podcast and the School for Good Living to share what I’ve learned and to keep exploring the question what does it mean to live a good life and how can we do it? Despite my privilege, I lived for decades in a pretty dark place, and I know that living is often a painful, difficult and messy business. But I also know that it can be wonderful beyond imagination and that it’s a skill at which we can improve. That’s why every episode is a conversation with an author who’s an expert regarding spirituality, health, relationships, work, rest and play or money. I also ask my guests about their creative habits, routines and mindsets and what they’ve done to get their books written, published and read. If you are ready to be, do, have and give more. This podcast is for you. Welcome to the School for Good Living.
Brilliant Miller [00:01:30] Are we alone in the universe? Does the work we do matter? Are you willing to express a position of viewpoint and opinion even when it’s not popular? If these are questions you have for yourself and your work, I think you’ll be interested in today’s guest. His name is Avi Loeb. Avi has written eight books and 800 papers on a wide range of topics, including black holes, the first stars when light began to Shine in our universe, the search for extraterrestrial life and the future of the universe. He is the longest serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy from 2011 to 2020. He serves as chair of the Board of Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies in his latest book, Extraterrestrial. The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. He lays out a controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by an advanced alien technology from a distant star. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but he lays out the case for an object that scientists detected back in 2017. And it’s pretty compelling. One of the things that’s so interesting to me in this whole discussion in Abby’s book is how we as people can observe the same things but come to very different conclusions. I love David’s book. I say this in the interview that to me, it’s a beautiful combination of his personal story, along with a scientific mystery. So in this conversation, we explore a number of things related to science, what it means to live a good life being self expressed, and why it’s so important, especially for young people to pursue a path of science. And at one point I asked about his view about spirituality as well, which I was really curious. In 2012, Time magazine selected Avi as one of the 25 most influential people in space. He’s the founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. He’s a former member of the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the White House. I’ll leave you with this before we get into the interview. Ofay says, when you are not ready to find exceptional things, you will never discover them.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:41] Avi, welcome to the School for Good Living.
Avi Loeb [00:03:44] Thanks for having me. I’m really grateful you’re here.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:48] Will you tell me, please, what is life about?
Avi Loeb [00:03:52] Well, that’s an excellent question. What is the meaning of life at which I do not have a good answer? So if we ever find a much more advanced civilization that thought about this for a billion years or more, I would like to ask them. I’m worried that they might be silent in response because there is no meaning to life. You just live through and things happen. You know that. That’s the simplest approach. That’s the approach that animals take. And, you know, you can enjoy the experience. You can eat good food. You can try and understand what nature is all about so that, you know, the good food is a physical pleasure and an understanding. The world is an intellectual pleasure that animals do not share with us. And, you know, and you can have good friends with whom you share the experiences. And I think that’s good enough. You shouldn’t expect for more.
Brilliant Miller [00:04:50] Mm hmm. Thank you, Avi. Who are you?
Avi Loeb [00:04:57] I’m pretty much the collection of, you know, circumstances that brought me here, so I was born on a farm and as a kid I used to collect eggs every afternoon and I connected very much with nature because I was on a farm and I would take philosophy books to the hills of the village and then and read them. I was mostly interested in the deepest questions we have about life and philosophy, addresses them, but doesn’t give the answers. However, it gives you a perspective that helped me a lot in terms of my science because I have a broader view and that is an advantage when you deal with, you know, venturing into areas that others do not explore. So it’s certainly quite well. And, you know, when I started my career in astrophysics and my mentor said that, you know, how many computer programs do I do I use or do am I familiar with? And I said not much. I pretty much avoid the computer as much as they can. And and he said, wow, that that I’m really surprised. How is that possible? And that was like thirty five years ago. And, you know, I didn’t I was never fascinated by taking advantage of computers. I was thinking more in terms of my own curiosity and then ideas. And it always struck me as surprising that I come up with ideas that look rather trivial and straightforward to me, a matter of common sense, and for some reason, others do not think about them. So I can make a living out of that. But, you know, it’s not obvious to me why they don’t think about them, because they seem quite obvious to me.
Brilliant Miller [00:06:48] Well, I know you’re too humble probably to say this about yourself, but for me, I think that’s a hallmark of genius. You know, I think about when I read Leonardo da Vinci’s biography and how he would observe things that were visible to pretty much everyone, but he paid attention in a way that others didn’t. So when you see these things, maybe that is.
Avi Loeb [00:07:09] Yeah, but you see, the thing is the thing is that it doesn’t require too much effort for me. So I find those ideas to be rather straightforward. When I speak, for example, with young people, they tell me about something they are doing and then they ask them a question and say, why didn’t you check that? Did you look at that? And they say, wow, this is really interesting, you know? And then we write the paper together, it strikes me is why wouldn’t they think about it? You know, like this is not a lot of effort. It’s just it comes to me immediately, kind of with. So I don’t you know, I don’t regard these insights as particularly rare or unusual because they come so naturally that they bubble up in my head. And so I regard them as rather trivial. And in retrospect, very often people say, yeah, of course, you know, that’s that’s obvious. But for some reason, nobody else came up with those.
Brilliant Miller [00:08:08] Yeah. You know, my dad, he’s passed now, but he used to say nothing is obvious to everyone, and.
Avi Loeb [00:08:17] That’s probably true. Yeah. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:08:19] Well, you’ve written a book. I know you’ve written many books, but your latest book to be published is this book Extraterrestrial The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. A fascinating book. I love the mixture of memoir and science mystery that it represents. Tell me, please, why did you write this book? Who did you write it for and what did you want it to do?
Avi Loeb [00:08:42] Yeah, I wrote it for young people. Basically, I told the publisher if I managed to convince a young kid somewhere in the world to become a scientist, I would be satisfied. And, you know, the book is now doing so well. You know, it’s basically I have interviews from 8:00 a.m. until 10 p.m. almost every day now back to back. Well, after declining 20 percent or so of the request. And there is huge, huge interest in it. And it’s on the you know, a day ago it was selected. This a bestseller by The New York Times bestseller list between sandwiched between Michelle and Barack Obama. And I think that I wasn’t and the the the my publicist in the UK said, congratulations, Harvey, you’re doing a great job in publicizing the book, you know, in putting so much effort into publicity. And I said then, I don’t know, maybe I’m naive, but I don’t interpret the success of the book as the. The fact that I’m doing publicity to the book, this is not really the issue, I’m trying to convey a message here that appeals to people and that’s why it’s successful. It has nothing to do with how much effort I put. And by the way, I don’t care how many likes I have on Twitter. So I would say the same things if even if most people would not like them. So it’s not as if I tune my message so that it would appeal to a lot of people. And the success of the book is, of course, a pleasant surprise. But then it’s not as if I planned for it. And that’s why I said what I said. I just say what I think and to be true. And I’m very glad to recognize that, that the public agrees with me. And and I should say that this is not true in the academic community. And I come from the academic community and I have a lot of leadership positions. And and I get rather called the response from many of my colleagues. And they just have a taboo on discussing the search for technological signatures and they are not happy to discuss it. And I find that to be a problem with their scientific culture right now with academic culture. And I express my views on that. So I don’t know how many of the copies are being sold in academia, but frankly, I don’t really care. My message is intended to make things better in the future, and I target the younger people of today with the hope that they will change the current situation.
Brilliant Miller [00:11:34] Yeah, well, this is something I definitely want to ask you about. In your book, you write the scientific community’s prejudice or closed mindedness however you want to describe it is particularly pervasive and powerful when it comes to the search for alien life, especially intelligent life. Many researchers refuse to even consider the possibility that a bizarre object or phenomenon might be evidence of an advanced civilization. That really surprises me. I feel like it shouldn’t, but isn’t it a scientist job to be open minded?
Avi Loeb [00:12:08] Exactly. Once again, this is a perfect illustration of what we started from where something appears quite straightforward to me. You know, I speak out of common sense. I grew up on a farm. I completely connect to people that are not the specialists. And it’s obvious this is a fundamental question that science can address that bears a great significance to the public. You know, it will change our perception about our place in the universe, our aspirations. We may not be the smartest kid on the block so we can learn from alien civilizations. It’s just fascinating. It makes science exciting if we were to explore this question. OK, so I would expect everyone around me to say, great, let’s let’s find out. OK, so we are not sure if this object was a technological relic, but we want to collect as much evidence as possible on the next one that shows up. Instead, what I hear is how dare you even mention this possibility? It’s degrading science. Now, this is something the public cares about. The public funds science and the scientists declined to discuss it using the tools they have, like telescopes, instruments. To answer this question, I cannot understand the current state of affairs. And, you know, and by the way, it’s not a speculative idea that we might not be alone because we now know that half of the sun like stars, plus or minus 30 percent, have an earth sized planet roughly at the earth, sun separation from them. So that means that billions of earth sun systems in the Milky Way galaxy and what could be more conservative in common sense, sensible thing to say than to say that if you replicate the physical conditions in many systems, you end up with similar outcomes. Why would we assume that we are special and unique? Why would my colleagues require that I bring them in early and so that the alien would shake their hand and only then they would be willing to consider the possibility that they are not unique and special? The only way I can understand that is if they are so attached to their ego that that just mentioning that possibility that there might be someone smarter on the block offends them. And, you know, my daughters, when they were young, they thought very highly of themselves until they went to the kindergarten and met other kids. And obviously they would have preferred to stay at home because then they would have the illusion that they are the smartest. But I think science is all about gaining knowledge about our environment and not being afraid of that knowledge. And I would expect scientists to be open to that. And some of them would say, you know, there is science fiction literature and that there is discussion about unidentified flying objects that we don’t trust. Fine. I mean, there used to be in the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, there used to be people saying that the human body has some magical properties. There is a soul. We should not operate the human body. We should not dissect it. And imagine if scientists would would then respond by saying, oh, there is a lot of nonsense being said about the human body, therefore we should never examine it. Where would modern medicine be?
Avi Loeb [00:15:41] The fact that some people make nonsensical remarks about a subject doesn’t should not prevent scientists from addressing it, using the same methods and tools. And what could be more appropriate than addressing a question that the public cares about? Using the instruments we have that should be mainstream, it’s not a speculation, it’s the most conservative things think to assume that we are not alone because we see the conditions on Earth replicated in so many other places. We can just search and be open minded to that possibility. And yet you find the mainstream of the scientific community bullying and ridiculing the suggestion that I made about the specific object that looked nothing like we have seen before. And I ask you, how is that possible? So I asked my wife. I said, look, this is an amazing opportunity for me to make my case and try to change this culture. The situation is not healthy and I cannot let it go like that. And so I wrote this book with the hope that it will change the culture.
Brilliant Miller [00:16:50] Yeah, well, I’m grateful for that because honestly, until this moment, I hadn’t recognized about how there’s more at stake here than just this. You know, one object, but there’s this scientific paradigm, you know, and so I’m grateful that you’re that you’re there.
Avi Loeb [00:17:11] Not just about what I wanted to add that there is a chapter in my book called Oumuamua’s Wager, which is reminiscent of Pascal’s Wager. So Pascal wondered about God and he was a mathematician. So he tried to address this logically. And he said, you know, there are two possibilities. Either God exists or or doesn’t exist if God exists. The implications would be tremendous and therefore I must take this seriously. So I am proposing in my book that, you know, if someone what is a technological relic, the implications are enormous. It’s probably the most important scientific discovery that we ever made. So therefore, we have to take it seriously. It’s not as if, you know, this is a nuance that we can entertain or not. The thing about reality.
Brilliant Miller [00:18:05] Yeah, absolutely, and I also just want to mention here a question that you asked in your book that I thought was a really insightful question was whether or not another civilization, assuming it exists, that had been using science for a billion years, would that civilization consider us intelligent? Was like such a great question.
Avi Loeb [00:18:28] And I think probably not. If you open if you read the news every day. You know, one reason I search for intelligence in the sky is that I don’t often find it here on Earth and that, you know, there are various reasons that I think we could be more intelligent. One of them is, you know, we fight each other. We use most resources in disputes, and instead of cooperating and collaborating work and working together towards a better future. And that’s not a sign of intelligence. Also, there are all kinds of social phenomena. We must you know, most people are engaged in trying to demonstrate that they are superior relative to other people. And, you know, the one incarnation of that is racism. And there are many others. And and that makes little sense. If you look at the big picture, you know, the universe is so big and we live for such a short time, how can be how can we be arrogant and how can we feel satisfaction from arguing that we are superior relative to another person?
Avi Loeb [00:19:37] We share so much in our genetic heritage and those differences are minuscule compared to what we find in the universe, you know? And so. Rather than do that and waste our life on illusions that do not really measure up to the scale of the universe, we should focus on who is in our neighborhood and what can we learn from that so we can learn about new technologies. We can get answers to questions for which we we don’t know the answer. Or we can we could notice that, you know, they kill themselves. They they are dead by now. Many cultures on other planets. And by understanding what happened, if they change their climate or went into a war, we can avoid a similar fate by behaving better. And so that’s like getting a lesson from history.
Brilliant Miller [00:20:33] Yeah, absolutely. And I realize, you know, we haven’t set the stage, so to speak, for people listening who might not have been aware of oumuamua. So Oumuamua in October of twenty seventeen, we, being humans, the science community detected an object traveling through our solar system. Now it was we understand it was an interstellar object. Right. Will you tell me, first of all, what does Interstellar mean and then will you tell me about it on Momoa?
Avi Loeb [00:21:10] So all the objects we have seen before in the solar system are bound to the sun like the planets. They keep moving around the sun and they never escape. And there are other objects all the way out to the Oort Cloud where you find objects that are a hundred thousand times farther than the earth is from the sun. They are loosely bound, but they are still bound to the sun. Or more and more was the first object we spotted that was definitely not bound to the sun, the very first one in all in all of human recorded history. That was the first one, the first one that we noticed. And we can tell that because it was moving too fast. You know, when you send out a rocket, if you give it a high enough speed, it escapes the gravity of the earth. And this object came with a high enough speed to be completely unbound to the sun and escape the pull of the gravitational pull of the sun. So we can tell that easily just from the trajectory of this object. So it was the very first and the reason we haven’t seen anything like it before is because we didn’t have a survey telescope that was looking over the sky with enough sensitivity. And by sensitivity, I mean we detect an object like that from its reflection of sunlight. So the object needs to be big enough so that it reflects enough sunlight so that our telescope will notice it. And the bigger the object is, the more rare it is. So, you know, it just happened that we had the punsters telescope sensitive to objects of a size of order, a hundred meters or so, a few hundred feet for the first time serving the sky. And there happened to be one such object entering our view after a few years of serving. Now, a decade earlier, I wrote the first paper to get together with two collaborators, Maya Moore, Martin Eterna, the first paper forecasting how many rocks we expect of that size and whether punsters would see any of them from interstellar space. And we forecast that we see nothing based on what we know about the solar system. So the solar system loses rocks to the outside world, especially from the periphery where the rocks are loosely bound and passing stars can tear them apart. And we estimated how many rocks will be lost. And it was off by many orders of magnitude relative to what’s needed to explain the detection of a muumuus. So the mere detection of an interstellar object by past us was surprising. And, you know, punsters was primarily oriented to detecting objects that might come close to Earth because we know that the dinosaurs were killed by a rock as big as the island of Manhattan. And when they saw this rock coming in, it must have been a beautiful sight. The 66 million years ago, this rock got bigger and bigger on the sky, but the fun stopped when it hit the ground and three quarters of all life forms on earth went extinct at that point. So we don’t want that fate. And even though we don’t have the body of a dinosaur, but we have a brain and and that is more helpful for survival. So we have astronomers that can use telescopes to monitor the sky and warn us. And then we might deflect the rock from hitting the earth if it’s dangerous enough. So anyway, so that’s the motivation for us. But in the process of serving the sky, it’s. This one, which came from interstellar space and the astronomers assumed it must be a comet, just like the rocks we have seen before in the solar system. And when we collect the data on it, it didn’t look like it has a comet after there was no gas around it at all. So it was definitely not a comet. And the Spitzer Space Telescope searched very carefully around the object. Couldn’t see any traces of carbon based molecules, nothing. So it was definitely not a comet. And then it was tumbling every eight hours. Its brightness change the amount of reflected sunlight changed by a factor of 10, which is very extreme. It means that the area of the object, as it was spinning, changed, projected on the sky, was changing by a factor of 10 because the amount of sunlight you see is proportional to the area. And that’s very extreme. It means that projected on the sky, the object was at least 10 times longer than it was wide enough.
Brilliant Miller [00:25:59] And that alone. Sorry to jump in, but that alone, that dimension is very unusual relative to what we normally see with an asteroid.
Avi Loeb [00:26:07] Exactly. And that that led to the artist’s impression of a cigar shaped object. But it was not a cigar. The best model for the variation in the light was that of a pancake shaped object, flat. And that I mean, when even if you take a piece of paper projected on the sky, it could look like a cigar when you look at it from a distance. But but intrinsically, it should have been flat. Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [00:26:37] So sorry to jump in again, but a question here. So when we say we saw it with the Pan star’s telescope. Yeah. Are we actually seeing visually or is this some kind of a radio signal? What what do we know?
Avi Loeb [00:26:53] So what we are seeing is just reflected the sunlight. So we use the sun as a flashlight that illuminates the object and we can see the reflected light from its surface.
Brilliant Miller [00:27:03] So then when you say we can see it, do you mean like do we see data? We see numbers? We don’t see a picture, a photograph.
Avi Loeb [00:27:10] We know. We see a point of a point. Source of light. OK, we cannot resolve it because it’s too small. It’s only a few hundred feet roughly the size of a football field at a fraction of the distance to the sun. So it’s really impossible to resolve it with existing telescopes. But if we had a camera close to it, we could have taken a close up photo. And that would by the way, a picture is worth a thousand words. It would have saved me thousands of words in the context of this book. If if I had a picture of the object, then obviously I want to see a picture of it, because then we can tell if it’s a rock or something else. Yeah, but we couldn’t resolve it. So all we saw is a point of light, which is shown actually as the first figure, the first image in my in my book. And we could monitor how much light is coming to us over time. And as it was doubling, the amount of light changed.
Brilliant Miller [00:28:08] And by the way, it’s traveling at about fifty six thousand miles an hour.
Avi Loeb [00:28:13] Yeah, that’s primarily dictated by gravity and the initial speed of the object. Far from the sun. And so by itself it’s not particularly surprising, except what was surprising is the object came from the direction. Towards which the sun is moving in the so-called local standard of rest, so the local of raises the frame of reference that you get when you average over the random motions of stars in the vicinity of the sun, it’s sort of every star has some motion, but there is sort of the average frame of reference relative to which each star is moving. And this object was addressed in that frame, surprisingly, because only one in 500 stars is addressed in that frame. So if it came from another star, why would it be addressed?
Avi Loeb [00:29:07] I mean, all the only one in five hundred would actually have a speed similar to that of a more and more in that frame. It was just like a buey sitting at rest on the surface of the ocean, and then the solar system bumped into it like a giant ship. And that by itself is another weird’s.
Avi Loeb [00:29:30] Quite unlikely if it were a natural object and then it exhibited an extra push relative that away from the sun in addition to the force of gravity that acted on it, but there were no gases around it to give it the rocket effect to try to explain that. And the only possible explanation that I could think of was the reflection of sunlight. So I was imagining a sale, basically a very thin object such that the reflection of light from the sun would give it a push.
Avi Loeb [00:30:10] And this is called the light sail
Avi Loeb [00:30:13] It’s just like the sail on a boat, except it’s not being pushed by wind, reflected off it, rather by light. And we’re currently developing this technology for space exploration. It offers the advantage of not needing for the spacecraft to carry the fuel with it. So you just ride on a beam of light, so to speak, and in principle you can get to high speeds. But it could also be any object that is thin enough would feel that force. So it doesn’t need to be designed to act as a light.
Avi Loeb [00:30:49] So, for example, in September 2020, just a few months ago, there was another object that showed a push because of reflection of sunlight without the commentary tail. And that one was traced to a rocket booster that was launched into space in nineteen sixty six. And it was hollow and thin. And that’s why it exhibited this behavior. And we know that it’s artificial because we produced it so we can tell the difference between a rock and an artificial object that is thin based on the way it moves. And the question is who produced Oumuamua.
Brilliant Miller [00:31:28] Yeah, such a great mystery, and I was relating this to my daughter, she’s 17, she is interested in science right now with deeply fascinated by marine life. I was sharing with her. I said, look, this thing, it’s dimensions or, you know, disproportionate to what we’ve seen before. Its brightness was on. It was inconsistent with what we thought would have been a naturally occurring object. It wasn’t showing signs of gas. It moved away from the sun’s gravity as though it had some form of propulsion that was not naturally occurring like all these things. And I said, you know, an RV has this this theory that it was it’s artificial, that some one made it and it wasn’t us, but it wasn’t a spacecraft persay. It wasn’t carrying people we don’t think or life, but nevertheless, perhaps a discarded relic of a technological culture or something. So do I have that correct? Is there anything that you would clarify or add to that?
Avi Loeb [00:32:34] No. You had it exactly correct. And I’m glad that you explained to your daughter, because I really enjoy speaking and working with young people because they don’t carry a baggage of prejudice. They know they really are curious about the world. And I wish that the adults I know would have been loyal to their childhood curiosity. But instead, what they see very often are tenured professors with attached to their ego, worry about their image and not take any risk. And I’m not wondering about the world. They wonder mostly about themselves. Thus the world’s centers on them, so to speak. So, yeah, that’s exactly right. And then it’s really strange that this was the first object that we had seen. After that, we have seen another interstellar object called Borisovich. It was discovered by Gennady Borisovna, an amateur Russian astronomer, and and it was just like a regular comet. So it looked completely natural.
Avi Loeb [00:33:40] So people came to me and said, doesn’t that convince you that there are more and more was ahead? The natural origin to which I replied, you know, if you find a plastic bottle on the beach and after that you see a lot of rocks that doesn’t make the plastic bottle. O’Rorke, another example. When I met my wife, she looked special to me. I met a lot of people afterwards and she still is special to me. So has nothing to do with each other. And in fact, when we see comets coming from interstellar space, it only makes on more and more even stranger.
Brilliant Miller [00:34:21] Yeah, no doubt. So we talked a little bit about perhaps we’ve talked a little bit about why not everyone, and I just want to recognize that we can see the same things and come to very different conclusions in many areas of life, right. But, Is there anything more in your thinking about why why there isn’t a more widespread adoption of this theory or at least the possibility that this was of extraterrestrial origin?
Avi Loeb [00:34:54] Well, I think it takes scientists out of their comfort zone to discuss something brand new, but that’s the thrill of doing science. And I just think the scientific community is exactly the opposite position to where it should be, because this idea is not speculative, that we might not be alone. We see Earth Sun systems quite frequently, and we expect that if you arrange for similar circumstances, you get similar outcomes.
Avi Loeb [00:35:23] That would be the most conservative commonsensical thing to assume. And the only reason we might assume otherwise is if we are attached to ourselves too much. And I think that, you know, just like Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, argued that we are at the center of the universe and people believed him for a thousand years because it Flattr Sariego to be central to the universe. But it’s just wrong, as Galileo was arguing. And, you know, things can be beautiful but wrong. And we have to recognize that. And the way to figure it out is listening to nature. It’s a dialog. We have to look at the evidence. And if it doesn’t line up with what we expect, we might need to revise our notions. And, you know, it’s the duty of scientists to adjust their notion based on evidence rather than insist that something should not be discussed, then ridicule it when the public really cares about it. And, you know, I was in the military at the young age. It’s obligatory in Israel where I grew up. And when I was in the paratroopers, I remember that the the statement that sometimes a soldier has to put his body on the barbed wire so that others can cross over. And, you know, I’m willing to suffer through the pain of dealing with the kind of comments that are made about this and so that the younger people would be able to discuss it in the future. And, you know, the point is, the biggest impact that negative comments have is on young people, because when they enter science and they see such ridicule, they make a calculation of not to discuss it at all because it would damage their chances of getting a job somewhere or getting Holocaust awards. And so that deflects talent from entering into this research. And at the same time, if you don’t fund research in this area and you know, then it’s just like stepping on the grass and saying, look, it doesn’t grow. And then I find that to be quite unfortunate that there is not the more interest this would be mainstream in astronomy right now, but instead it’s it’s at the periphery. And given that the public is so interested in it that we must change that.
Brilliant Miller [00:37:47] Yeah, I’m reminded of that saying from Max Planck, about science progressing one funeral at a time. A science science advances one funeral at a time. We’re seeing that here.
Avi Loeb [00:38:00] Yeah, very true. And, you know, sometimes we have to recognize that that is if we are not open minded, if we do not look out and if we are not willing to discover the unexpected, we would never discover it.
Avi Loeb [00:38:19] It’s as if we put blinders on the same experience as the philosophers had when they refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. You can keep your opinions, but the reality doesn’t really care if you ignore it. And you know, the Earth continue to move around the sun and the aliens will continue to exist irrespective of whether we are willing to admit that they might exist.
Brilliant Miller [00:38:43] Yeah, you know, I remember a few years ago I finally got around to reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and I recall the calculation toward the end of the book about the I think it was about the probability that there is, in fact, intelligent life somewhere in the universe. And you mention a number in your book when you say adding all the other galaxies in the observable volume of the universe increases the number of habitable planets to a Zeda or a ten to the twenty first power, a figure greater than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth right now. I know that doesn’t speak exactly to the probability of intelligent life somewhere in the universe, but that’s a pretty big number to have that many habitable planets. That’s amazing.
Avi Loeb [00:39:25] It is amazing and also illustrates that a sense of modesty, that we shouldn’t be too proud when we accomplish something on this tiny earth, you know, and I just cannot understand how kings and emperors were arrogant and, you know, they were very proud of themselves accomplishing something on Earth. But, you know, a sense of modesty would help humanity. Also, the knowledge we have about the universe is rather limited. You know, it’s surrounded by an ocean of ignorance. So let’s just admit that we don’t know a lot and and explore and get feedback from experiments and clues that we collect through our telescopes rather than say we know the answer in advance. It’s never aliens. It’s always rocks, because then we behave just like a caveman that is used to playing with rocks all of his life. And then when presented with a cell phone, would argue that the cell phone is a polished rock, you know.
Brilliant Miller [00:40:22] Yeah, yeah. OK, I want to turn our conversation to a few other questions that you have asked and lines of inquiry you’ve pursued that I thought were really fun, like a really remarkable. And in each case here, I think you have at least one collaborator. So I want to acknowledge that as well. And you can mention them if you want. But you mentioned that there was a time when you realized that human civilization produced a great deal of noise at the meter wave radio spectrum and thought it was reasonable that another civilization might produce noise in the same radio band. So you propose speaking or seeking evidence of that? Will you will you talk about that idea and what you did as a result?
Avi Loeb [00:41:04] Yeah, that was actually my first paper. On the search for intelligent life and actually I remember after I did that, then one of the practitioners in the search for intelligent life said Jill Tarter gave a colloquium at Harvard and and said the even AbbVie wrote a paper on this subject.
Avi Loeb [00:41:30] Just to illustrate to you that I was working in cosmology, the study of the universe, and nobody expected me to write a paper on that. And the reason I wrote it is because, you know, I pioneered the study of the first stars in the universe. Let there be light, you know, the the biblical phrase that now can be studied scientifically of how the first light in the universe came to exist. And so I worked on that. And that one effect that the first stars had was to produce ultraviolet radiation that broke the hydrogen atoms into their constituent, the electrons and protons. And and one way to find those scars that were left by the first galaxies on their environment when they broke the hydrogen was to image the hydrogen in the universe. At early times, there should have been bubbles around the first sources of light and bubbles of broken hydrogen. And how can you image hydrogen when it emits very faint radio signal at a wavelength of twenty one centimeter, which is very long wavelength? And and then because of the expansion of the universe, it’s the wavelength is even stretched farther to meter wavelengths, roughly the the height of a person. And as a result of these studies, we motivated the new observatories that would search for long wavelength radiation and or low frequency radiation. And it turns out that the biggest interference for those comes from radio and TV broadcasting on Earth because it’s roughly the same frequencies, same wavelengths. And and so one at one point, the I joked with a colleague of mine yesterday, I said, look, if if radio and TV transmission poses a problem for building observatories on Earth, we could potentially use the same observatories to eavesdrop on on such emissions from another civilization, on some some planet. And and why don’t we write a paper about that? So so we wrote a paper about that. Then we realized that in fact, the emission, the radio emission from Earth can be detected all the way out to tens of light, years away with existing radio telescopes that we are building. And and so we’ve been transmitting for a century.
Avi Loeb [00:43:57] And what that means is that if there is another sort of twin civilization out there that has similar capabilities to ours, they could see us all the way out to tens of light years. And they probably know about us because we already transmitted those signals.
Avi Loeb [00:44:16] And by the way, that’s not a smart thing for us to do, because when you enter a room full of strangers, you better stay quiet and listen first and not speak out very loudly because you never know what the risks are. And, you know, we might hear back from those guys. But anyway, we did that. We did it already. Again, a sign of not being too intelligent. But but then that led me. That was the first paper I wrote on the search. And and then a few years passed by. And I I was in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, for to for a conference to celebrate the new inaugurate, a new campus that NYU built there. And the tour guide was bragging that the city lights can be seen all the way to the moon because there are all these oil fields and they have a lot of electric power. The you know, it’s very bright around. So and I just thought to myself, OK, well, you know, if if there are city lights on on an object far away, how far can we see them? The artificial lights, you can tell the difference. For example, if an object like Pluto or something else out there had a city like Tokyo, we could detect it with the Hubble Space Telescope, actually, and we could tell that it’s artificial light and not reflected sunlight. By the way, it varies as the object changes its distance because if it’s artificial light, the brightness changes inversely with distance. But if it’s reflected sunlight, it changes roughly one over distance to the fourth power. And so we wrote this paper with a colleague of mine, Ed Turner, and that was my second paper. And after. I met the observer that discovered most of the objects in the Kuiper Belt and not far from Pluto and asked him, did you ever check whether any of these objects changes his brightness as it changes its distance from us in the way that you expect from reflected sunlight? And he said, why should they check? It’s obvious it must be that way.
Avi Loeb [00:46:32] So, again, illustrating to you that when people are not considering some possibilities, they will never find them.
Avi Loeb [00:46:39] Yeah, you know, it’s another example is the Mayan culture. You know, I visited Chichen Itza in Mexico and there I realized that they elevated astronomers to the highest level in society. They were called astronomer priests. And the reason was that the politicians thought that the storm is extremely useful politically, because if you know the positions of planets on the sky, that helps you to forecast whether a war would be successful. So they had these astronomers to tell them to forecast where the planets would be at the particular time of the year so that they would decide whether to go to war, OK. And of course, nowadays it would look like not a very good recipe for success, but back then they believed in that. And then you can collect.
Avi Loeb [00:47:35] They collected a huge amount of astronomical data and astronomers were held in high regard, but it was not used for the right purpose to derive, for example, Newton’s law of gravity or Kepler rules. So the point is, if if even if you get a lot of data and you’re just not thinking right, you know, if you don’t interpret the anomalies correctly, you you may fool yourself for a thousand years. And now you might think that the sun moves around the Earth for a thousand years, and you might think that the wars are dictated by the position of planets.
Avi Loeb [00:48:12] And and, you know, the data that you collect will not change your view because you’re not entertaining other options. And so if my colleagues keep bullying and discrediting any claim that there might be evidence for something unusual, you know, we will never find something unusual.
Brilliant Miller [00:48:32] Yeah. Now that that makes a lot of sense. Let me transition the conversation just a little bit to to something else that you talk about in your book, you say and you’ve you said earlier that you’re doing so many interviews now. And obviously, you know, this is something that the public is very interested in, as you’ve said. But you write. I had undergone you said, while I had undergone extensive professional training in various fields throughout my life, no one, especially me, had thought to include media training. In hindsight, maybe someone should have. What have you learned or what did you wish you knew sooner about media training?
Avi Loeb [00:49:12] Well, I sort of learned by now because I write the Scientific American every week or so, a week or two. I write the column and commentary and there are many of them by now, maybe one hundred, more than a hundred. And it allowed me to perfect the way I communicate so that it’s more transparent than this started when I started teaching it. But before that, that was not a good communicator. And trying to teach a class guides you at organizing the material properly in a pedagogical way so that the students can follow. And later I wrote books and that also it’s a lot of work to make it clear and that there are many people that just don’t know how to organize materials in a way that would appeal to the reader. And I learned through the experience of writing books and then writing commentaries, and these were the seeds for my latest book.
Avi Loeb [00:50:14] And the I mean, it prepared me.
Avi Loeb [00:50:18] And in a way, I’m I’m now at the point where I connect to the public. I am able to explain the situation clearly as to what is going on in the scientific community. And I’m honest about it. I’m not trying to manipulate anyone and I’m giving an honest reflection on what’s going on it. And also this subject is it really felt my lap. I mean, the reason I get this attention is because my colleagues are not treating it right.
Avi Loeb [00:50:50] And once again, as we discussed at the beginning, I just don’t understand it.
Avi Loeb [00:50:55] I’m trying to convey common sense and they don’t follow common sense. And I wish they would because then, you know, it would make me sort of a typical scientist, not unusual. And I would have to go through everything I’m going. But for some reason, they don’t share this view. And it’s really strange because at the same time, you see theoretical particle physics, theoretical physicists talking about the multiverse, extra dimensions, string theory, concepts that have no connection to experimental verification. And they have been doing that for decades and they keep doing that, giving each other awards recognition and claiming that they carry the torch of physics forward. While it’s not really the torch of physics, it’s the torch of either mathematics or self promotion, and that we don’t know if reality resembles any of these ideas. They just do intellectual gymnastics and show that they are smart. But this physics is not about that. It’s about a dialog with nature. It’s not a monologue. We’re supposed to listen to nature and revise our notions based on anomalies, things that do not match what we expect. And, you know, you can be very happy claiming that you are wealthier than Elon Musk. You know, that’s a great thought. That’s beautiful thought. And you can be happy just like being high on drugs. You can be happy. But then when you go to the bank and want to use that money, you will very quickly figure out that you don’t have it. And going to the bank is equivalent to an experiment where you put some skin in the game. You make a prediction. I have a certain amount of money. You go to the bank, you check it out and it’s not there. OK, so we have to revise our notion. And if you don’t allow yourself to go to the bank, if you don’t have experimental verification, you can be happy, you can celebrate, you can demonstrate your how smart you are. But it has no bearing on reality. And it’s no different than the beautiful idea that we are at the center of the universe that Aristotle had with a sphere surround us. That was a very sophisticated and very clever model of the universe.
Avi Loeb [00:53:09] It’s just wrong. And the real universe may be simple, not so sophisticated, but it’s different. And our duty as a physicist is to figure it out, not to demonstrate that we are smart.
Brilliant Miller [00:53:24] Yeah. So in just a moment, I want to transition our conversation to something I call the Lightning Lightning Round, but before we do, is there anything that we haven’t talked about either related to the book or anything else?
Avi Loeb [00:53:43] Well, I would like to encourage the young generation to change the current culture and, you know, it’s really my messages about a more and more potentially being an artifact, a technological artifact, and and the ability for us to explore more objects of the same type and the desired change in the current academic culture. You know, it could all be accomplished if the young people that listen to this will be engaged in changing reality rather than being worried about the senior people basically blocking their path for jobs and so forth if they were to try that. I think there are many more people that sympathize with what I say based on the success of the book, based on the responses I get by email. And I think we have a good chance of making the future better than the past.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:45] I’m glad to hear that, I’m glad to hear that someone with your experience and your intelligence and just your perspective, you know, holds that view.
Avi Loeb [00:54:52] I mean, I’m in house arrest very similarly to the house arrest that Galileo was in. But it’s because of the pandemic, not because someone is doing something bad to me. Right?
Brilliant Miller [00:55:02] Yeah, that’s good. OK, well, let’s move to the lightning lightning round. So what this is, is it’s a series of brief questions on a variety of topics. You’re welcome to answer as long as you’d like, for my part. My aim is to ask the question and stand aside. Go ahead. OK, question number one, please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a.
Avi Loeb [00:55:30] Um. An adventure.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:36] OK, question number two here, I’m borrowing Peter TEALS question, what important truth do very few people agree with you on?
Avi Loeb [00:55:46] That we are not unique and special, that we are not the smartest kid on the block.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:51] All right, question number three, realize this one might be a stretch, but I invite you to go with it. If you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a T-shirt with a slogan on it or phrase or saying or quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
Avi Loeb [00:56:07] We are not the sharpest tool in the shed.
Brilliant Miller [00:56:11] OK, question number four, what book other than one of your own, have you gifted or recommended most often?
Avi Loeb [00:56:21] I’m not asked to recommend the book, but, you know, I’m very impressed recently. I’m very impressed with that because, you know, the way he’s described by the poet Lucretius, he had a lot of things that he said, according to Lucretius, that are true, like the existence of atoms and and the nature of death. And, you know, he said, for example, that he’s not afraid of death because when death is around, he will not be around. And when he’s around, death is not around. So he will never meet death and therefore has nothing to worry about death, you know. He was a very wise person. He also said that, you know, the company of people, of friends and trying to figure out the world, you know, things philosophically about the world are the best rewards that you can expect from life. And I pretty much agree with that. So, you know, the fact that the person thousands of years ago thought these true things are still very relevant is remarkable to me.
Brilliant Miller [00:57:33] Yeah, that is remarkable. And somebody wrote them down and other people preserved them. Yes. So great. OK, question number five. So you have traveled a lot in your life. What is one? Travel Haak, meaning something you take with you or you do when you travel to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable.
Avi Loeb [00:57:54] Nowadays, it’s jogging with nature, you know, so since the pandemic started, I developed a new routine every morning at.
Avi Loeb [00:58:06] Drove out to the local woods and there is no person around, actually today I went out even earlier than five a.m. because nowadays I wake up at three a.m. Otherwise I cannot accommodate all the requests for interviews. And it’s just fun. And I do it irrespective of the weather, even if it snows or rains or I don’t care. It’s really fun to be embedded with nature in the company of rabbits, ducks, birds and snow, you know, in the Boston area right now.
Avi Loeb [00:58:37] And I really enjoy that because I was born on a farm and I used to collect eggs every afternoon. I really connect to nature much more than to people. I don’t have any footprint on social media. And so that’s what I preserve when I go places. My I would go out and jog anywhere.
Brilliant Miller [00:58:59] Wow, so that’s perfect, that’s maybe the answer to the next question as well, but of course, you’re welcome to answer with whatever you want. What’s one thing you started or stopped doing in order to live or age? Well.
Avi Loeb [00:59:14] Well, so I changed my diet in addition to the exercise. I’m on a low carb diet and about half of the calories I get per day now with the interviews, I think it’s more like sixty five percent of the calories they get per day are from dark chocolate. You said not a box of chocolate, but that’s actually what they lost. And you might ask, how is that possible? Well, you know, I eat about them maybe a bar and a half of dark chocolate a day. I don’t eat a lot more. I mean, I do eat dinner and stuff, but it’s something I really enjoy.
Avi Loeb [00:59:53] And I eat dark chocolate, so it doesn’t have much sugar in it. And I cherish that. You know, it’s really great. And since I’ve started this diet where I don’t consume much carbs, you know, I lost about a third of my weight within a few years. And it’s a lot I mean, a third of your weight. And and together with the jogging, you know, I can tell that my ability to think and concentrate and remember things is as good as or even better as ever in my life, better than when I was a teenager. And I can and basically at the peak of my intellectual abilities ever. And I think diet is extremely important exercise as well in keeping you up to shape.
Brilliant Miller [01:00:44] Yeah, sleep, sleep is important, too.
Avi Loeb [01:00:46] I know, you know, sleep is important, but I can testify that over the past few weeks I didn’t get enough sleep. You know, I would go to bed because of the interviews at 10, 30 p.m and wake up at 3:00 a.m. and you might think, OK, well, that’s too too little. But I for some reason, you know, perhaps the diet and exercise keep me on track.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:08] Yeah, well, and and the chocolate. I’m curious. I know some people are as they’re. What’s the word? Like an afficionado, you have a particular brand or.
Avi Loeb [01:01:19] Oh yeah. I have a number of I have like ten different types and I, you know, take a little bit of each. It’s not as if it’s all one type.
Avi Loeb [01:01:29] And then I stick to those brands because I tested a lot. And they are mainly from South South America. You know, Latin America, they they make just superb chocolate in some of the countries in Peru, for example, Ecuador.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:48] That’s amazing. OK, question number seven, what’s one thing you wish every American knew?
Avi Loeb [01:01:57] That science is important and crucial for our future, that knowledge is to our benefit, always see some people prefer to bury their head in the sand. And when I say some people, it’s not just the general public, but also scientists, you know, the scientists that refuse to examine some some anomalies. And what they don’t understand is knowledge is always good. What you do with it might not be good. So let me give an example. Nuclear energy, you know, so we discovered nuclear forces, nuclear energy. And then, of course, you can make nuclear bombs out of that. And that affects politics. You know, this the the Cold War with the Russians was pretty much triggered by the development of nuclear weapons. And of course, that’s a bad thing. But at the same time, you can use nuclear energy for our needs, the energy needs we have. And that could be a very nice solution to our energy needs in the future because it’s relatively clean energy if you do it right. You know, and France has most of its power coming from nuclear energy. So it’s possible to do in the US for some reason didn’t really reach its potential.
Avi Loeb [01:03:08] And the point is that anything just like nuclear energy can be used for either positive or negative purposes or uses, and it depends on the set of values that we adopt when we use this knowledge and yeah, but knowing something is always better than not knowing something because look at the animals. They don’t know anything. Look at the dinosaurs that this rock came down and killed them because they didn’t know much about astronomy. So annoying is always good. And how the best way for us to gain knowledge is through science because it uses we can tell because look at all the technology that we are surrounded with. It all came from science, quantum mechanics, solid state physics, you know, all of these things that appear to be just academic pursuits, you know, ended up serving us on a daily basis, completely changing our lives and improving our life.
Avi Loeb [01:04:09] And and we should be grateful to science for allowing us to advance and and the future is even brighter than that. So I think overall for society, science is the most precious commodity we have and science advocates for collaboration, cooperation.
Avi Loeb [01:04:26] So when you see a phenomenon like China not allowing scientists to enter and examine the covid-19 virus when it just started, you know, and that is very distressing because, you know, science is about collaboration. It’s about sharing information, working together to solve problems. And I wish that we didn’t insert politics into science, that science would be regarded by all humans as something to share, because I define science as an infinite sum game. You know, in economics, there is a zero sum game where if someone benefits, another person loses because the total is fixed. But science has no limits. If someone discovers new knowledge, new truths, it benefits everyone. So I call it an infinite sum game where by adding knowledge, everyone benefits. And that’s why it should be shared. And that’s why we should work on science collaboratively. And if there is covid-19, we should all share the information. We have to help everyone on the globe because our fate is also common. Know and we see that with a pandemic.
Brilliant Miller [01:05:39] Yeah, I appreciate that perspective, and I also think it’s a it’s an enlightened view, you know, I can see where, yes, everyone benefits from knowledge, but I also see, you know, what is perhaps selfish human nature of recognizing some people benefit more if they’re the only ones who have it. So the altruistic view is, yes, everyone will ultimately benefit. But, yeah, I can.
Avi Loeb [01:06:03] Well, you see, I you see, I regard science not as an occupation of their lead or an occupation of, you know, some nation or I see it as a way of life.
Avi Loeb [01:06:16] You know, that you have clues, you have evidence and you’re trying to interpret them. And you you know, if the evidence is is becoming clear, then you figure it out. And I think any person can pursue science, you know, even on a daily basis. You know, if you have a problem, you’re trying to solve it. If you think scientifically, you know, that’s the path to resolving real problems. And, yeah, I just hate it when it’s associated with academia, as if, you know, you have to be on a pedestal to deal with science and which is the sentiment that you get from people saying, oh, we don’t want to discuss technological signatures from other civilizations because the public connects to it too. Well, you know, it appears in science fiction literature. Why would that be an argument against it? You know, it should be an argument in favor of it.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:06] You know this and maybe you’ve seen this or maybe you think it’s hogwash. Who knows? Either way, it reminds me a little bit now of what what I understand some of the religious authorities did in the Middle Ages of not teaching Latin or allowing the scriptures to be read and so forth. It’s up in that tower.
Avi Loeb [01:07:26] Exactly. No, I mean, a lot of the phenomena that they see right now in the academic culture resemble religious cults in the sense that a group of people decides to agree on something, that something may not have any resemblance to reality. But as long as a large enough community agrees to it, that’s fine. You know, there was a philosopher giving a talk at the an annual conference that we called it the Black Hole Initiative.
Avi Loeb [01:07:55] I’m the founding director of the Blackwell Initiative, which is the only center in the world focused on the study of black holes. And we bring together philosophers and scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and philosophers. And one of the philosophers in the first annual conference gave a talk in which he said, if scientists agree, if physicists agree on something for a decade, it must be right by definition because physics is what physicists do. So I raised my hand and said, you know, how can you say something like that? The physicists can agree on something, but it may have nothing to do with reality. And the judgment should be based on evidence, on clues, not on people agreeing with each other. You know, a lot of people agree that the sun moved around the earth, that the earth is at the center of the universe, that, you know, that makes no sense. But but in today’s culture of social media and people connecting and people agreeing on what to do, as if, you know that is acceptable and it’s acceptable to the philosopher and he gives justification to that. And I, I just find it distressing because, you know, our duty as physicists is to pay attention to nature. It’s a dialog with nature. It’s not a monologue.
Brilliant Miller [01:09:12] Yeah, I love that view. And with what you’re saying to this reminds me of that saying I’ve heard attributed to Abraham Lincoln about if you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? Right. And it’s it’s still for calling a tail. A leg doesn’t make it a leg. So. Yeah, exactly. The other thing I’m curious about and I know I’m devia I’m breaking my own lightning round rules by polling on this this question’s response. So on. But but as I hear you share your view of science and in response to this question, what do you wish every American knew? I share that I have a although I’m not a scientist in the way you are, I have a respect for science and what it has already done for us, what it can do for us. And I’m really curious to know what your view is of spirituality. Where and how does that fit into our lives?
Avi Loeb [01:10:09] OK, so first of all, I should say that, you know, our body I believe our body is just a physical object. You know, when you die, it’s basically just like unplugging a computer system. You know, the old systems shut off and that’s that’s all. You know. Now, I think that spirituality is extremely important for human life. But just focusing on the physical knowledge we have.
Avi Loeb [01:10:41] Is too minimal, you know, there is much more I think that the humanities offer an extremely important perspective about reality and, you know, science scientists tend to dismiss it, but it’s extreme, this especially philosophy and the arts. And it’s another way of looking at reality that is complementary and can be inspiring to come up with a better idea. And, you know, Einstein, for example, he was inspired by philosophers like Mark Ernest Mark when coming up with his theory of gravity. And, you know, scientists that are very technical and focusing on a niche within science can ignore the bigger picture, but. So they are likely to drill very deep in that niche, but they might hit the rock bottom and and with that and not have a broad impact and you have to have the bigger perspective.
Avi Loeb [01:11:35] And, you know, as now a writer, I can say testify that that art and writing and, you know, art more broadly, paintings and so forth, is really providing intuition into things that you can’t formulate clearly and other people might see or art differently than you do.
Avi Loeb [01:11:59] And there is some subconscious embedded into it that you are not aware of when you do it. You know, it comes out in a way that is sometimes strange to you as well. It’s sort of like giving birth to a baby and the baby is independent and doing some things that you haven’t expected and has. The baby has some qualities and you don’t really know where the baby came from in the sense that you contributed some DNA to that baby. But there was another another parent that you are not aware of. And and it’s just a different way of reflecting on reality. And I should say that the creative process of doing science is not very different than the creative process of.
Avi Loeb [01:12:42] Of an artist, in both cases, it comes to you out of inspiration without a prescription. It’s not like there is a recipe for making a discovery, scientific discovery. Just it just happens, you know, just like in art, you know, you need an inspiration. It comes out, you know, it’s not something you can plan for and you can design a discovery. And, you know, like NASA, for example, when they ask you for a proposal, they ask you to forecast what you will discover in year two, year three. And how can you forecast a discovery that’s impossible. You know, and it’s completely counter productive to tell scientists to forecast what they will discover. Of course, NASA would argue, you know, I’m giving you taxpayers money. Therefore, we need to know that you will produce something useful. But the whole point about science is not to be useful in the short term. It’s it’s to benefit from unexpected findings that cannot be prescribed ahead of time. These are the biggest breakthroughs. And if you look at the commercial world, you know, the companies, they have a component of the company that is brainstorming all the time and, you know, in an unprescribed fashion and, you know, places like Google or SpaceX and and these are these are organizations that are in for the profit and they’re investing in risk taking endeavors. So if NASA gives a grant to an academic institution, you know, you would expect the academic world to be even more daring to be even more risk taking because, you know, it’s blue sky, supposed to be blue sky research that you can Preska. And somehow this is not recognized on funding selection committees. You have the mainstream scientists serving and providing primarily funding to things that we can foresee. You know, that that will just enhance what we already know. And that, to me, is boring. Why not invest a fraction of the funding in risk taking and out of the box ideas and, you know, then we might discover things more frequently. You know, there is this example of the discovery of exoplanets, planets outside the solar system. And in 1952, there was an astronomer called Otto Struve in the throat, a short paper suggesting that we might search for Jupiter sized planets around stars if that if if the planet is close enough to the star, it will target the back and forth and we could detect that. Or if it comes in front of the stars, there will be a diminution of the amount of light that we see and therefore we can detect it in another way.
Avi Loeb [01:15:40] And he just proposed that in for four decades, astronomers refused to allocate time on telescopes to search for such systems because they said, we know the Jupiter in the solar system is far away from the sun and we understand why. Therefore, we don’t we shouldn’t waste telescope time on searching for things that don’t exist. The only problem is that they do exist. And in 1995, more than four decades afterwards, the first system was found and that opened the whole field of exoplanets. And the Nobel Prize was awarded a few years ago for that for that discovery. And you might say, well, OK, so it was delayed by four decades was the big problem. Science did make progress. Well, first of all, it was delayed. So we could have made additional progress by now. But this is a baby that was barely born. And think about all the babies that were never born, that they were ridiculed and we never pursued. And as a result, science did not make any progress on those fronts. So it’s this conservative approach of not allowing babies to come out.
Avi Loeb [01:16:55] And not allocate. Risk taking it is troubling.
Brilliant Miller [01:17:02] Yeah, thank you. OK, coming down the stretch on the lightning lightning round, so last few questions. Question number eight, what’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about making relationships work?
Avi Loeb [01:17:19] Oh, well, first of all, listening to the person that you speak with and attending to their concerns, you know, that’s really important because, you know, it’s when you work with people, you have to understand where they’re coming from. And, you know, I started my life from a background that.
Avi Loeb [01:17:40] Also, the Harvard professors, you know, I grew up on a farm in a foreign country and, you know, it was always plan B for me to go back to the farm. You know, I was never worried about getting tenure at Harvard. That’s one reason I accepted an offer of an assistant, an associate professor without tenure at first. But then, you know, the people that were even less privileged than I recognize that because, you know, my circumstances perhaps were quite fortunate by chance. And others may not have those. And I’m trying to help people that come from underprivileged circumstances. You know, 80 percent of my graduate students were women over the past decade. And I feel strongly about promoting women in science. And I work with underrepresented minorities and try to help them. And it all stems from the fact that I do think that, you know, people talk a lot about promoting students and scholars from under from from backgrounds that are not this is easy to come out of in. And they talk about it, but they do not really do anything about it. And I feel strongly about helping individuals, you know, that that is what we are supposed to do. And so that you accomplish by attending to people needs to listening to what what would help them. And I’ve seen over the years, you know, there were students that came in and didn’t have much skills and were not there, did not look very impressive, you know, and they ended up being my best, you know, ever. And there is one example of someone that came to me and said, you know, I really want to work with you. I read your papers and he didn’t he didn’t know anything about astrophysics. And I started working with him originally from India and from a poor background and started working with him. And they told him a little bit of astronomy and and he became my most prolific collaborator. We wrote about forty five papers over the past four years, and we have a textbook coming out of more than a thousand pages, monastery lingham. And just think about it, this person would never have worked in astrophysics if I didn’t meet him. And we and we had an amazing collaboration. I benefited greatly. I learned a lot from him. He’s he has a brilliant intellect. It’s just that it was not it was not used for any, you know, productive purpose without me helping him to fulfill his potential. And, you know, I really think it’s important.
Brilliant Miller [01:20:30] That’s great. OK, question number nine, this one’s about money, so aside from compound interest, the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about money or what something you’re always sure to do with it or you never do with it?
Avi Loeb [01:20:45] You know, it’s interesting. When I was very young, I was, uh, I was I saw my peers worrying about their bank account and trying to maximize their profits on various things. And I never cared about money. And I always thought to myself, you know what, to spend as much as they need not worry about making money and things will work out. And, you know, it worked out. Now, I don’t have a lot of money. Uh, you know, and, you know, I don’t have very large savings and but it worked out, you know, and I never cared so much. And, you know, for example, regarding my book, the publicists publicist said, you know, that the book sales are doing great. And and I said, look, I’m not I don’t really care about the book sales. I’m trying to convey a message here. And I really care about the public listening to it. I don’t care that it sells books. That’s not my motivation. And my belief was always that things will work out. And you know what? I think at the fundamental level, you know, what makes you happy is not I mean, obviously you need money above a certain threshold. Otherwise you are preoccupied with surviving.
Avi Loeb [01:22:03] You know, but but once you cross that threshold, you know, it’s really not something I care about.
Brilliant Miller [01:22:13] All right. Thank you for that. So the final question here in the Lightning Round is, if people want to learn more from you or if they wanted to get in touch with you, what would you have them do?
Avi Loeb [01:22:26] Oh, they can find all my writings linked on my website, personal website at Harvard, and then such as the commentaries I have in Scientific American, the papers say write the scientific papers and links to videos, some selected videos that they have and also my history description of my career. And they can also find my email address there and then send me an email if they want to discuss anything important. And, you know, I’m I’m open to responding.
Brilliant Miller [01:23:01] Awesome. Thank you for that. OK, so as I do still have just a few questions for you about writing and the creative process. But before we go there, I just want to share with you that as a gesture of gratitude for sharing so generously of your time with me and everyone listening, I’ve made one hundred dollar microloan to a woman entrepreneur who’s actually in Tulga. She’s a 32 year old married mother of five who sells donuts. She she sells donuts so she’ll buy wheat and flour, oil and bags of charcoal and in this way enhance the quality of life for her.
Avi Loeb [01:23:41] That’s amazing. And then thank you so much for doing that. You made my day, so to speak.
Brilliant Miller [01:23:47] Well, thank you. OK, so the final questions here just about writing creativity. I want to start with with this question. You know, you talked about the time growing up on a farm and you’d have the books you read philosophy and so forth. But when did you first know you were a writer or that you wanted to write?
Avi Loeb [01:24:09] Oh, that’s interesting. Actually, at a very young age, when I was a teenager, I used to write my thoughts and put the notes in the drawer. And then when I left home, I left the village and my mother kept those and put them when they sold the farm just about five years ago.
Avi Loeb [01:24:32] She collected all those pieces of paper and put them in a box. And in one of my visits to Israel, I looked into the box and decided to borrow a few of those notes and showed it to a friend of mine who is a writer. And I asked him, do you think it’s worth putting out? And he said some of some of these thoughts when you were a teenager are quite interesting. And so we together we collaborated and put it in a book or.
Avi Loeb [01:25:03] Were written in Hebrew, but then I translated it and put it on Kindle, and it’s over there right now. It wasn’t a commercial enterprise and so I didn’t make an actual published book out of it. So really, my first popular level book is The New One. And and I’m really struck by the fact that this is really my very first popular level book. And a week after it’s out, it’s you know, it’s the bestseller between Michelle and Barack Obama. So that’s a complete surprise. And it’s also in my mind, it reflects the fact that I think, like the public, I have my common sense appeals to people. That’s a surprise to me because I wouldn’t change anything in what I say, irrespective of how many people like it. But it illustrates the fact that they think I mean, the way I think appeals to people, which is a surprise, but it’s a pleasant surprise. And I’m very grateful for that. And, you know, it’s a surprise because, you know, I think about it. I put it out and people say they agree or they like it.
Avi Loeb [01:26:14] And it’s not clear to me why, but it’s sort of like you are you have a clock watch and somehow it’s synchronized with other watches without you tuning it in the first place to be synchronized with other watches. But it shows the same time. So that’s a good experience, you know.
Brilliant Miller [01:26:31] Yeah, absolutely. Who has been influential in your development as a writer and what have you learned from them?
Avi Loeb [01:26:40] Yeah, so again, it dates back to when I was a teenager, I used to read the philosophy books and also literature written by mostly existentialists. I remember Jean-Paul Sartre in a very commercial.
Avi Loeb [01:26:54] And, you know, they wrote them in a way that appealed to me because they described a human existence as a state that should be authentically pursued, like without pretending, without pretensions, without trying to portray an image of yourself that is different than you actually are and just living life the way it is and not somehow masquerading it or putting some makeup on it like most people do. And that appealed to me. And I you know, I kept that sense throughout.
Avi Loeb [01:27:31] And I also read the Becket’s know Samuel Beckett, the I remember that, you know, his early writings were never published. And people he managed I mean, one of his early books, the first book was published after his death. He got the Nobel Prize. Also, Jean-Paul Sartre got the Nobel Prize in literature, but he declined it, he said. Pay attention to this selection committee that gets its self-importance out of giving me a prize, you know, I don’t care about their opinion. I mean, I do what I do. And he just declined the Nobel Prize in literature. And, you know, that’s a noble thing to do, to basically admit that you’re doing it because of the substance, not because of the recognition. And and, you know, it’s just like basketball coaches often say, keep your eyes on the ball, not on the audience, which is pretty much what I’m trying to do.
Brilliant Miller [01:28:29] Yeah. With with this book, with Extraterrestrial, what was the moment that you knew you were going to write this book?
Avi Loeb [01:28:39] Oh, that was when the response of the scientific community.
Avi Loeb [01:28:46] And I just thought, you know, if there were to show me evidence or come up with better ideas to explain these anomalies that we see, I was driven just by the evidence that was not driven by anything else. And, you know, and there is and the response of some people was hostile without a good reason they would ridicule. That made little sense to me. You know, I start the book by mentioning an anecdote about me as a kid, you know, entering the first day of class and looking around. And I saw the kids jumping up and down on the desks and I was thinking, does it make sense to jump up and down on the desks? You know, why would they do that? Is is that a pleasurable thing to do? And then the teacher came into the class and said, look at how well behaved is, why can’t you all be like him? And I was thinking to myself, I’m not well behaved. I’m just thinking whether it makes sense to jump up and down. If I convince myself that it makes sense, I would do it as well. It’s it’s not like I was trying to be different and will behave. And that pretty much reflects my life, you know, and in the sense that they don’t follow the crowd, I don’t do what others are doing just because they’re doing it. I’m trying to think for myself whether it makes sense. And that’s practically what I did with this book. I expressed my common sense. And, you know, I’m glad that it appeals to too many people.
Brilliant Miller [01:30:08] Yeah. Well, you have you are prolific in your production of academic papers and books. What is your writing routine like? What are your habits like?
Avi Loeb [01:30:22] Oh, I just need to know this distractions. So, for example, you know, before the pandemic, I would get most of my ideas in the shower when nobody interrupts. The problem is, when I went to work, I have leadership positions. I was chair of the astronomy department, director of two centers serving on the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, head of the chair of the Advisory Board for the Starship Project. So all of these things I did as a service to, you know, improve my environment, not as a status symbol, but just to to serve the community that I belong to, to make it better. And they would take my time and people would interrupt all the time and ask me to do things for them. I felt like a server in a restaurant. You know, people ask you to bring this and that and and do this and that. And that takes your attention away from creative work. So when the pandemic started, actually all these distractions evaporated suddenly and I had much more time for creative work. So actually, the last year has been the most productive in my in my life because I don’t get these disruptions that nobody enters my my room and asks for something. And I just I can dedicate my attention to and and creative work for me just bubbles out. You know, it’s not something I make an effort for and it just comes out if I have the free time, then any day, any time I can write something new.
Avi Loeb [01:31:58] And that’s pretty much the routine that I just need no distractions. I just need to sit down and not be interrupted.
Brilliant Miller [01:32:08] Wow, that’s great. What advice or encouragement would you offer someone who is in the middle of their own book process or there maybe they haven’t begun, but it’s something they aspire to do? What do you say to somebody in that situation?
Avi Loeb [01:32:25] Well, I think it’s most important to identify a theme for your book that has something new to offer, that there was not covered extensively elsewhere and so that it’s unique and the message is unique and also that it will resonate with the lives of people the way they think about important issues.
Avi Loeb [01:32:50] And I mean, of course, this is a very general statement, but at the same time, it’s important to be authentic, not to pretend and just to convey what you truly believe in, because people can see through it. If you’re pretending, I mean, these days and, you know, if you’re just authentic, I found that know the best policy for me to be, for example, department share, just to give you an example and the same applies to writing, is not to hide anything, not to manipulate people, not to try and give it an image that is different than reality, because people can see through it. And if they suspect that you’re manipulating them, then the process is much less efficient because you have to convince them to do things. And if they don’t believe you, if they suspect that you are fooling them, it doesn’t work out that you spend a lot of time repairing damage that you created by not being sincere. You know, and my policy from the beginning of starting to be department chair was to be straightforward and transparent, to lay out the truth without hiding anything. And I thought it would never work out because in politics you have to hide some things, otherwise you don’t accomplish anything. But it worked wonderfully in the sense that people believe me, they never thought I’m fooling them. What you see is what you get. And my term as department was extended twice. So I was the longest serving the Parmentier for nine years. The usual term is three years. And I think the same applies to your writing.
Avi Loeb [01:34:22] If you are sincere and honest, you know, that would resonate with some people.
Brilliant Miller [01:34:28] Yeah, no doubt. What what surprised you in the process of creating this book in particular, extraterrestrial, what did you learn either about yourself, about the creative process, about your subject, about the publishing world, like anything? What what surprised you or what did you learn in the process?
Avi Loeb [01:34:47] Well, I should say so. I wrote this this scientific paper about the moon, why it attracted a lot of attention. There was a media storm that was really surprising, the amount of attention that they got. You know, and I describe it in the book a little, it it got to the point where, you know, just a week or so after the paper was published, I had to give a lecture, a public lecture at a conference in Berlin and the Falling Walls, which is a major conference that brings in scientists from many different disciplines.
Avi Loeb [01:35:23] So I got to Berlin after, you know, after a TV crew stood in my front door and asked me, do you think aliens exist? And I said, I have to go to the airport. And they said, well, just tell us. And then I got there and I you know, I saw an email from Good Morning America asking me to get interviewed. And then I went to dinner and a dinner. Suddenly, all the people that I’ve never met, you know, from other disciplines said, we know you. You were just in the news. And that was a surprise to me anyway. The strange thing is that there was there were several literary agents that approached me, and one of them was insisting and asking me, do you think about writing a book? And I said, no, I don’t have time for that. You know, I’m a scientist. I don’t want to write a book right now. I have too many things. And she said her name is Leslie Meredith. And she said, no, you have to write the book. You know, this is important. And I said, no, I don’t want to write a book. I’ll get back. And then she came back to me and convinced me that it’s important. And I said, OK, well, let’s give it a try. And we had a book proposal and it was accepted. And and then I started writing. And I’m really grateful for her for convincing me to do it because it was very rewarding. You know, I wrote the book and to see now the response of the public to this book and the fact that it’s a completely different experience than just being a scientist, you know, in the sense that there is a huge crowd out there, every huge audience.
Avi Loeb [01:36:53] And it gives me great satisfaction in the sense that they can promote the recognition that science is important, that the excitement about science to young people. And and I get emails all the time, that young people are enthusiastic about what they say. And, you know, that’s that’s something that I could not have reached without writing the book. And that was a surprise.
Brilliant Miller [01:37:19] Yeah, that’s great. Well, I know we often think that writing is a very solitary endeavor and in some ways it is, no doubt. But also books are ultimately very collaborative. And you mentioned Leslie, but I wonder if you’ll tell me about what was the timelike all the way from maybe a thought partner early on to just generate ideas to research structure, all of that? How did other people factor in?
Avi Loeb [01:37:48] You see the book, I wrote a lot about this subject, either in Scientific American or I had some notes because of the exposure to the media early on. And the main challenge was to take all of this material, which I collected in a huge PDF and edited an assembly to something that would look compelling.
Avi Loeb [01:38:10] And I’m grateful to the people that worked with me on that. There was much more material that I left out. And, you know, when you are very close to that material, it’s difficult for you sometimes to see what to leave out. And people that come from outside, you know, sit in a better perspective. So I’m really grateful to the team of people that worked with me on that. But, you know, just it was interesting because after things were trimmed out, suddenly I would see a phrase made and I would say, wow, that’s that’s profound.
Avi Loeb [01:38:43] It did I actually say that. Then I went back and found it somewhere, you know, like I would forget what I myself said at some point and I wrote down. And so for me, I mean, I was moved by the final product because when I read it a year later, I recognized things that resonate with me very authentically, even though a lot of other things were trimmed out by the editing process. But altogether, the book is me. So if you read it.
Avi Loeb [01:39:15] You get a good sense of who I am, and that’s why I’m so happy about it, because, you know, I wanted to convey that message and the fact that it’s appealing to people means that, you know, I’m not completely wrong about what they advocate for. And what you see in the book is pretty much means nothing. There is nothing missing, you know, and if you read the book, you pretty much know who I am. I mean, in all respects, yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:39:45] For what it’s worth, I definitely think it’s a book that you deserve to be proud of. Yeah.
Avi Loeb [01:39:52] Thank you. Now the question is what to do next then then, you know, since I finished this book, there are a large number, like 50 Scientific American articles that they wrote and they carry the seeds of the next the next book. So I’m thinking about it now.
Brilliant Miller [01:40:08] That’s great. Well, obviously, this has been a tremendous privilege and a pleasure. I’m really grateful to you for sharing. I hope I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I hope I’ve asked you some things that you haven’t necessarily shared.
Avi Loeb [01:40:22] Yeah, it was wonderful. And, you know, I had more than 150 interviews over the past few weeks, and yours was very original, I must say. I enjoyed it tremendously. Thank you so much.
Brilliant Miller [01:40:32] Well, thank you for being so open. I know a lot of this was not right down the center of the astrophysics and astonomy and all that so…
Avi Loeb [01:40:41] Not at all, I mean what you asked about are the core issues. And I really enjoy them.
Brilliant Miller [01:40:45] Yeah. And maybe we do this again with your next book.
Avi Loeb [01:40:48] Yeah, I would be delighted. Thank you for the excellent questions and insights I learned from this interview.
Brilliant Miller [01:40:55] I’m so glad. Thank you.
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