LEXINGTON – Harvard University theoretical physicist Avi Loeb is willing to consider the possibility that the Messiah will come from beyond Israel – indeed, beyond Planet Earth.
“In Jewish tradition,” said the Israeli-born Loeb, “We are waiting for the Messiah to arrive and bring a better future … I consider the possibility of the Messiah being extraterrestrial. Having a visitor from another planet outside the solar system could be a wake-up call for humanity.”
Loeb, who set a record for longevity as chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department (2011-2020) before stepping down from his leadership position, has long been fascinated by what lies beyond the solar system. That includes two unusual objects – one detected in 2017, deemed interstellar and termed “Oumuamua;” and a meteor that burst over earth three years before, traced to a spot near Papua New Guinea in Southeast Asia. “Interstellar” also happens to be the title of his latest book, in which Loeb muses about the possibility of first contact between humans and an extraterrestrial civilization.
When Loeb spoke with the Journal, he was several months removed from a June visit to Papua New Guinea, where he and a research team scoured the Pacific seabed for traces of the 2014 meteor, which came to Loeb’s attention through its unusually high speed and unusually tough composition. The team brought back tiny particles called spherules, in some of which Loeb noticed another unusual characteristic – an abundance of the elements beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium. He called the resulting composition “BeLaU.”
“We argue that the BeLaU composition indicates a source outside the solar system,” Loeb said. “We also look at isotopes of iron and demonstrate that the material could not have originated from Earth.”
From there, he moves on to mull what kind of interstellar object the material could be from: natural or artificial.
In the latter case, “You can also imagine, maybe it’s of technological origin,” Loeb said. “Maybe it’s a molten semiconductor or some kind of technological equipment.”
This discovery was recently highlighted in “A Piece of Sky,” a one-man show starring Loeb that he premiered at his home on Sept. 30 before an audience of family, friends, colleagues, and media. Loeb worked with dramatist Josh Ravetch, whose previous collaborators included Carrie Fisher and Dick Van Dyke. In the show, Loeb not only discusses his scientific research, but also his life growing up in Israel, and his close relationship with his late mother, Sara, who is honored at the end, accompanied by a clip of Barbra Streisand singing the title song from the movie “Yentl.”
Earlier in the production, a different kind of music is played – the “Indiana Jones” theme. As John Williams’ music heightens to a crescendo, Loeb dons an Indy-worthy fedora and holds up a container of spherules from the expedition.
“I am holding the first-ever material from an object that came from outside our solar system,” he said. “One source could be a planet with a major ocean orbiting a distant star. A more exotic possibility is that this is the melted technology from an extraterrestrial probe, something like our Voyager probe.”
He told the Journal that extraterrestrial technology could be how first contact unfolds, rather than a biological alien arriving on Earth.
“It’s unlikely we will be visited by biological creatures,” Loeb said, “because traveling through interstellar space is hazardous. Cosmic rays can damage any biological tissue. Travel takes extremely long. The kind of spacecraft we launch take somewhere between millions of years to billions of years to traverse the distance separating the stars of the Milky Way Galaxy – a very long time for a biological entity to reproduce and survive.”
In one sense, Loeb has come a long way from his boyhood home on a moshav in Israel, where his family raised 2,000 chickens. In another sense, he’s always thought about the big picture. The self-described farm boy was interested in philosophy as a teenager and wrote down his thoughts in a journal that he published in Hebrew eight years ago.
“I’ve always been fascinated by philosophy, the big questions about our existence,” Loeb said.
Asked about the role of Judaism in his life, he replied, “In general, I’m very proud of my roots. I’m very proud of the Jewish tradition. There’s a lot of wisdom in it.” He describes himself as not religious, but remembers going to High Holiday services in a synagogue while growing up in Israel.
“I don’t see a conflict between science and religion as long as the two don’t overlap,” Loeb said, adding that the former “explains the physical reality we all share,” while the latter addresses “metaphysical questions – how did I come to exist, is there anything beyond it? As long as they complement [each other], there’s no conflict.”
Readers of his book will find a concern about the future of human existence. It states matter-of-factly that one billion years from now, the Sun will increase in brightness, likely wiping out ocean life on Earth. Climate change, however, has the author wondering whether the end could come even sooner.
In an interview, he described “all kinds of existential risks we face, some of which are self-inflicted wounds – climate change, pollution of the environment we are creating. In my book, it refers to various types of civilizations. We are Type D – destroying our environment rather than adapting to it or taking advantage of it. It’s the worst we can do.”
In contrast, he said, “The best, most intelligent class of civilizations recreates its environment it was born into … it can create life, it can create the universe … to get through the circumstances we are in, we have to make sure for us there is a Plan B. Consider going out of Earth in order to save what we find precious.” Θ