What Space Object ‘Oumuamua Says About How Science WorksThe space object, thought by at least one famed astronomer to be an ET lightsail, prompts thoughts about how scientists decide what to believe
The subtitle of Matthew Bothwell’s wrap-up on ‘Oumuamua is most informative: An alien-made artefact or just interstellar debris? What ʻOumuamua says about how science works when data is scarce.
At least one astronomer, Harvard’s Avi Loeb, insisted that ‘Oumuamua must be an “extraterrestrial light sail.” And few suggested that that couldn’t possibly be true.
Right. What do we do when we are not sure? Bothwell, author of the forthcoming Invisible Universe, offers some thoughts. W all imagine ET in our own image:
Victorians of the late 19th century, living in the era of ambitious engineering, looked at Mars and saw globe-spanning canals – evidence, they believed, of a grand industrial civilisation mirroring their own. In the Cold War 1960s, as millions lived under the shadow of potential nuclear annihilation, ‘neocatastrophism’ – the theory that extraterrestrial civilisations are inevitably wiped out by violent events – emerged as an explanation for our apparent cosmic solitude. The Argentinian Trotskyist J Posadas was convinced that advanced aliens would be socialists; more recently, the Vatican’s then-chief astronomer José Gabriel Funes suggested in 2008 that extraterrestrials might share a close relationship with God. We scientists tend to believe that intelligent extraterrestrials will be builders of technology, fluent in the universal language of mathematics. In Contact, the aliens announce their presence by beaming prime numbers at us, and many of our messages broadcast to the stars consist of physics and mathematics wrapped up in binary code. This perspective on aliens as scientific rationalists underlies most of modern SETI. It’s a viewpoint that I happen to agree with. Then again, I’m a scientist: of course I do.Matthew Bothwell, “Contact” at Aeon (June 15, 2021)
Bothwell doesn’t even see it as a bad thing:
Indeed, when faced with a new intellectual frontier, lacking in evidence but with plenty of tantalising questions, speculation is inevitable. It allows us to consider ideas that populate an intellectual landscape beyond our evidential horizons. Without speculation, our thinking would never develop and science would be stagnant. Many established scientific theories started out as pure conjecture: the Arabic intellectual Ibn al-Khatib made his suggestion that plagues result from contagion by minute bodies in c1362 CE, hundreds of years before microscopes provided evidence for his ideas. The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus proposed that matter was made of tiny ‘atoms’ more than 2,000 years before any proof arrived. Nicolaus Copernicus’s theory that Earth orbits the Sun was made in 1543, decades before Galileo used his new telescope to show that Copernicus was correct. Speculation and imagination are very much the creative force driving the advancement of scientific knowledge.Matthew Bothwell, “Contact” at Aeon (June 15, 2021)
‘Oumuamua certainly led the way in speculation in recent years. No one contributed more than Avi Loeb. Bothwell offers some thoughts:
What’s disturbing to many of Loeb’s (many) critics isn’t the ideas themselves, but the distinctly unscientific certainty with which he presents them to the public. He’s said that the alien hypothesis is ‘much more likely’, and that his ideas are ‘not speculative at all’. But as is so often the case, Loeb’s speculations – which is what they are – are informed by his existing ideas and politics. Loeb is heavily involved with the project Breakthrough Starshot, an engineering initiative founded in 2016 by the billionaire Yuri Milner with one goal: to build a solar sail, and send a probe to another star system. Loeb chairs the project’s advisory committee and, as a result, since 2016 has been a vocal public advocate for solar-sail technology. Around a year later, ʻOumuamua came through our solar system, and ever since Loeb has been on a one-man mission to convince the world that we picked up the trail of an alien solar sail.Matthew Bothwell, “Contact” at Aeon (June 15, 2021)
It certainly pays to know where people are coming from.
‘Oumuamua is gone forever, so far as we know, but there will be new clues all the time, if we are looking for them. And we are.
You may also wish to read: Can traditional philosophy help us understand mind vs. brain? Michael Egnor asks us to look back to the idea that the soul is the “form” of the body. In the Western world, the traditional view of the soul originated with Greek philosophers, chiefly Aristotle and Plato.