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The possible existence of technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations — not just alien microbes, but cultures as advanced (or much more) than our own — is one of the most provocative questions in modern science. So provocative that it’s difficult to talk about the idea in a rational, dispassionate way; there are those who loudly insist that the probability of advanced alien cultures existing is essentially one, even without direct evidence, and others are so exhausted by overblown claims in popular media that they want to squelch any such talk. Astronomer Avi Loeb thinks we should be taking this possibility seriously, so much so that he suggested that the recent interstellar interloper `Oumuamua might be a spaceship built by aliens. That got him in a lot of trouble. We talk about the trouble, about `Oumuamua, and the attitude scientists should take toward provocative ideas.
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Abraham (Avi) Loeb received his Ph.D. in plasma physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently the Frank B. Baird Jr. professor of science at Harvard University. He served as the Chair of Harvard’s Astronomy department from 2011-2020. He is Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Founding Director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. He is chair of the Advisory Committee for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. His new book is Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.