Astrophysicist Avi Loeb discusses UFOs, alien life and his controversial interstellar research

The "world's leading alien hunter" on his new book and his relentless search for extraterrestrial objects

Published September 6, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Avi Loeb, physicist at Harvard University, poses for a portrait in the observatory near his office in Cambridge, MA. (Adam Glanzman/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Avi Loeb, physicist at Harvard University, poses for a portrait in the observatory near his office in Cambridge, MA. (Adam Glanzman/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, August 29, Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb went to the press with a spectacular claim: His research team had combed the ocean floor for remnants of a meteorite that broke apart over the Pacific in 2014, uncovered spherules of molten droplets and determined that they had originated from outside our solar system.

This isn't the first time Loeb has made such an extraordinary claim. Loeb also said Oumuamua, another mysterious space object — and the first interstellar object ever detected, back in 2017 — could have been a form of alien technology, although others said it was merely a comet passing through the solar system. Loeb published a book about Oumuamua in 2021, and recently published another one titled "Interstellar: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future in the Stars" about the Galileo Mission undertaken to recover the spherules from the ocean, the likelihood of alien life outside our solar system and the urgency in finding it.

Loeb has garnered a reputation for being the "world's leading alien hunter," and while some of his colleagues are excited by his research, he's also become a point of strife within the scientific community. Some see his take on the scientific method — like disseminating his most recent findings in a press release and paper that had not, as of this writing, been peer-reviewed or accepted in a scientific journal — as an irresponsible approach that ultimately destroys the public's faith in science.

Salon spoke to Loeb about his new research, his new book and some of the controversy surrounding his work.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you briefly summarize the Galileo Project and what findings you're presenting in this week's press release and paper?

The Galileo Project aims to search for technological objects that were manufactured by extraterrestrial civilizations. It was triggered by the reports from the Director of National Intelligence to Congress about the unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs), a more accurate term for unidentified flying object (UFO). There were two reports and last year, there was a new office established in the Pentagon called the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office

"We are developing software that allows us to find objects that came from outside the solar system."

As soon as the first report came out, I founded the Galileo Project, which has by now built an observatory at Harvard University monitoring the sky 24/7 in the infrared, optical, radio and audio bands. The goal is to conduct a systematic study of the sky because the military and intelligence reports are all about anecdotal incidents where pilots or other people encounter some unusual behavior or objects. We would like to do a systematic study of the sky where we calibrate the instruments, we control them and we know also the noise that comes along. That allows us to calibrate what is the background and then on top of that, if there is anything unusual or anomalous, we will have a better assessment. 

[We also] search for objects that pass near Earth like Oumuamua in 2017. The Rubin observatory will find more. We are developing software that allows us to find objects that came from outside the solar system. And hopefully, there will be an observer that will find many more in the coming years starting next year. 

The third branch is the expeditions to find the remnants of interstellar meteors, and the first one was from 2014. That's the expedition we took to the Pacific Ocean that I led. We recovered the materials from that meteor in the form of spherules — molten droplets from the surface of the object. We brought 700 of them from a depth of more than a mile across the region of seven miles and we brought them to Harvard University and analyzed them over the past two months.

We found that the spherules along the meteor path have an unusual composition that suggests that they came from outside the solar system. That is completely independent of the velocity measurement of the U.S. government satellites that indicated that it has a speed too large for the sun to keep it bound by gravity. This object is the first recognized interstellar object bigger than half a meter in size, and it's the first time that scientists analyzed materials from such an object, so that's a historic discovery already. 

You were criticized for making, to quote The New York Times, an "outlandish declaration that is too strong and too hasty." What would you like to say in response to peers who are dubious of this work?

I'm following the scientific method, I'm trying to collect evidence — it was a lot of work. Those people who make these comments don't do much — they sit on their chairs and display negativity. If they have a better method of doing science, they should let me know but the way I was educated is that you need to collect the evidence, analyze it and publish it in a scientific paper. What I do differently is I also communicate with the public.

"I see it as a great boon to science if the public is able to see how an exciting scientific project like the expedition was evolving."

So when I went on the expedition, I wrote 43 direct reports and millions of people around the world read them and saw how the scientific process is done. I think that is very important to bring the public to understand how science is done because other scientists just talk about the results in a press conference as if they are teachers in a class and they feel intellectually superior to the public. 

I don't think that's the way science is done. We make a lot of mistakes during the process of discovering the truth and if the public sees that, they would believe science better because it would look like a human activity. I see it as a great boon to science if the public is able to see how an exciting scientific project like the expedition was evolving. And now we have the scientific paper, everyone can look at it. 

I develop this attitude of the eagle that has crows that peck on its back and goes to greater heights and they just drop off. I just hope that by pursuing science, the way it should be done, those crows will drop off my back.

In your book, you called Carl Sagan's adage that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" a "logical fallacy." How and why do you think that statement is somewhat flawed or a logical fallacy?

It's used as an excuse for people who don't want to deal with an exciting possibility. They don't seek the evidence and they argue, "Well, we don't have any evidence." It's like a single person who looks around and says, "Well, there is no partner next to me, therefore, I might be alone." In order to find partners, you need to go to dating sites you need to look through your window. You may go outdoors to your backyard. … You need to do something. 

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The method we used before [for detecting extraterrestrial communication] was radio signals. That's just like waiting for a phone call. You know, if someone doesn't call you at the time that you're listening, you won't detect anything. My approach is quite different. 

If or when we encounter extraterrestrial life, do you think we'll find it or it will find us? Why?

I think we will find it near us because most stars [formed] billions of years before the sun, so it's more likely that some other civilizations preceded us because their star, if it's like the sun, already went through what we in the future might go through. We just need to be humble and modest, not assume that we are unique and special — that Albert Einstein was the smartest scientist who ever lived since the Big Bang — and engage in the search.

"Knowing about our neighbors could inspire us because we will see a better way to behave."

That's what I'm trying to do, and the pushback is really strange under these circumstances because the people who argue against it have very strong opinions. But if you look at the history of science, they were very often wrong: the people [who] thought that the earth was the center of the universe, for example.

Do you think that if or when we do find extraterrestrial life, it'll be higher up than us on what you call the "cosmic ladder" in terms of intelligence?

That's what I discussed in my book, "Interstellar," and I provide different classes of intelligent civilizations. The highest class is the one that is capable of recreating its environment — like creating a baby universe or creating life. That's Class A. Class D is like us, in that we are destroying our environment or habitat. We are not making it better.

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Do you think we need to control some of those things domestically, like climate change or other local challenges on this planet before we look for life on others?

No, I think if we get a wake-up call in the form of an object, then it will tell us that we should change our priorities and start working with each other. Because we're all in the same boat: the Earth that is sailing through space. Knowing about our neighbors could inspire us because we will see a better way to behave.

By Elizabeth Hlavinka

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Aliens Astronomy Avi Loeb Extraterrestrials Interstellar Interview Meteors Science Uaps Ufos