Harvard astronomer argues that alien vessel paid us a visit

Finding intelligent life beyond our solar system could be the most important event in human history. But what if scientists chose to ignore proof that this has already happened?

This is the main idea of a new book by a famous scientist. He says that the easiest and best way to explain the very strange features of a cosmic object that sped through our solar system in 2017 is that it was made by aliens.

Does that sound weird? Avi Loeb says that the evidence doesn't support this, and he is sure that his scientific peers are so stuck in groupthink that they won't use Occam's razor.

Loeb has a lot of great qualifications. He was Harvard's longest-serving chair of astronomy, has written hundreds of groundbreaking papers, and has worked with greats like the late Stephen Hawking. This makes it hard to just dismiss him completely.

He told AFP in a video call, "Thinking that we are special, unique, and lucky is cocky."

"The correct approach is to be modest and say: 'We're nothing special, there are lots of other cultures out there, and we just need to find them.'"

This mysterious guest Loeb, 58, makes the case that the object called 'Oumuamua, which means "scout" in Hawaiian, came from another planet in "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth."

The following are the facts.

Astronomers saw something moving so fast that it could only have come from another star in October 2017. It was the first object ever seen coming from another star.

It didn't look like a normal rock because after slingshotting around the Sun, it sped up and went in a different direction than planned, apparently pushed by an unknown force.

This would make sense if it were a comet releasing gas and dust, but there was no apparent sign of this "outgassing."

Scientists think the visitor tipped over in a strange way because it got brighter and darker in their binoculars. It was also very bright, which could mean it was made of a bright metal.

Astronomers had to come up with new ideas to explain what happened. For example, they thought it might have been made of hydrogen ice, which would explain why there were no visible trails, or they thought it might have broken up into a cloud of dust.

"These ideas that came to explain specific properties of 'Oumuamua always involve something that we have never seen before," stated Loeb.

"If that's the direction we are taking, then why not contemplate an artificial origin?"

'Oumuamua, which sailed on light, was never shot up close during its short stay; we found out about it after it had already left our solar system.

The strange things seen can be shaped in two ways: either long and thin, like a cigar, or flat and round, like a pancake, and almost completely thin.

Loeb says that models point to the second possibility, and he thinks that the object was made on purpose to be a light sail that is pushed by radiation from stars.

The object's movement was also strange, which made the scene even stranger.

Before it met our Sun, 'Oumuamua was "at rest" compared to other stars in the area, which is statistically very rare. You shouldn't think of it as a ship moving through space; from its point of view, our solar system hit it.

"Perhaps 'Oumuamua was like a buoy resting in the expanse of the universe," says Loeb.

Like a trip wire that an intelligent lifeform left behind and is now waiting for a star system to set off.

Uniting people

Loeb's ideas have put him at odds with other scientists.

Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel wrote in Forbes that Loeb was a "once-respected scientist" who had turned to playing to the public because he couldn't get his peers to agree with him.

For his part, Loeb is against what he calls a "culture of bullying" in the school that punishes people who don't agree with the majority, just like Galileo was when he said the Earth wasn't the center of the universe.

He said that the search for alien life is a much more sensible topic to study than more controversial but well-known areas of theoretical physics, like the search for dark matter or multiverses.

This is why Loeb wants to create a new field of astronomy called "space archaeology" to look for signs of alien life and technology.

"If we find proof for technologies that took a million years to develop, then we can get a shortcut into these technologies and use them on Earth," Loeb said. Loeb spent his childhood on an Israeli farm reading philosophy and thinking about the big questions in life.

An important finding like this could also "make us feel like we are on the same team" as we face risks like climate change and nuclear war.

"Rather than fight each other like nations do very often, we would perhaps collaborate."