March 1, 2024

We are not alone!. We live for a short time, but will we… | by Avi Loeb | February 2024

Lotem Loeb (left) — a first-year Harvard College student alongside her father, Avi Loeb — a 31st-year professor in Harvard’s Astronomy department, during a sold-out book event with 300 fans at the Harvard Science Center Harvard on February 8, 2024 (Behind the camera: Klil Loeb — recent graduate of UMass Amherst College).

We live for a short time, but does it make sense to pay millions of dollars for just tens of seconds of visibility? The Super Bowl is tomorrow and advertisers are willing to pay an average of 7 million dollars for a 30-second ad in front of viewers of the event. As many popular shows have moved to streaming platforms, live events like 2024’s Super Bowl LVIII offer a unique opportunity for advertisers to capture the attention of a large audience, typically more than 100 million people in 190 countries and 25 languages, to commercial products. Given their high cost, Super Bowl ads often reflect viral trends in society.

With that perspective, is there any hope that science could appear in a Super Bowl ad? Thirty seconds of a Super Bowl ad cost more than our next expedition to the Pacific Ocean to recover large fragments of the 2014 interstellar meteor, IM1. Our Galileo Project research team has just completed some new papers (with the first two published here and here and an extensive paper I worked on day and night last week) describing the results of the six-month analysis of 850 spherules recovered from our first expedition to the IM1 meteor site from June 14 to 28, 2023. Our discovery of millimeter-sized spherules with a unique extrasolar composition, never reported before in solar system samples, motivates our plan for the next expedition. Finding centimeter-scale fragments of IM1 that did not lose volatile elements would allow us to infer the nature of the parent body. In addition to revealing the entire material composition and structure of IM1, these fragments – which are thousands of times more massive than the spherules we found on the first expedition, would contain enough material to allow the age of IM1 to be dated.

The isotope Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years — similar to the age of the solar system, and the isotope Thorium-232 has a half-life of 14 billion — similar to the age of the Universe. Most of the stars in the Universe formed between these two time scales ago. One morning, while running at sunrise on the expedition ship “Silver Star,” I realized that dating interstellar objects would allow us to discover where they came from. Knowing its speed near Earth means that we can integrate its trajectory over time and discover its point of origin among the stars.

To discover centimeter-scale pieces of IM1, the expedition team would need to employ a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and real-time video transmission to the ocean floor. Finding large fragments would allow us to infer whether IM1 was an interstellar rock resulting from tidal disruption from a planet near an ordinary star, as argued in a recent paper I wrote with my postdoc Morgan MacLeod, or perhaps a Voyager-like meteor launched on the other civilization.

Centimeter-scale fragments were recently recovered from the 2024 BX1 meteor that exploded on January 21, 2024 over Berlin, Germany. BX1 was similar in diameter to IM1 and therefore gives hope that we can recover similar sized fragments from IM1. Finding centimeter-scale fragments a mile deep in the ocean requires expensive tools that would cost as much as a 20-second commercial for the 2024 Super Bowl.

This brings me to the surprise I had when I saw the new Super Bowl commercial directed by Martin Scorsese under the title: “Hello Down There”. In one minute of video, worth 14 million dollars in prime time, the ad features the visit of extraterrestrials being ignored by earthlings worried about their daily routines. When asked by a reporter yesterday about this announcement, I noted that it resonates with my view that new knowledge requires searching for new data with a beginner’s mind. That’s what our next ocean expedition is all about.

The fact that the depiction of a visit from extraterrestrials will attract more than a hundred million viewers of the 2024 Super Bowl means I’m not alone. You are not alone. We are not alone.

I highlighted this insight to hundreds of fans at a sold-out book event at the Harvard Science Center a few days ago. Within a week, I am scheduled to speak before heads of state and other high-level politicians at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. Politicians seek popularity. To demonstrate that science appeals to the public, my presenter, Rolf Dobelli, suggested that we play Scorsese’s video as the opening to my presentation. A day later, I head to Torun, Poland, where the Polish government will celebrate 550 years since the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473), who discovered that we are not at the physical center of the Universe. Coincidentally, my birthday is a week later, on February 26th. My hour-long talk is titled “The Next Copernican Revolution.” Scorsese could probably summarize my message in 30 seconds for the 2025 Super Bowl.


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023).

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and former chairman of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and former chairman of the Council on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the best-selling author of “Extraterrestrial: The first sign of intelligent life beyond Earth”And co-author of the book“Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.

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