Meet Avi Loeb. His academic credentials are basically beyond reproach: a Harvard science professor who is also the chair of the Harvard Astronomy department. In 2012, Time called him one of the 25 most influential people in space.

Now, he's come up with a highly  controversial theory, and his colleagues have been on the attack since he published it in November. 

In short, Loeb believes that there may be a piece of space debris, from some kind of interstellar alien spaceship, flying through our solar system right now.

This comes after scientists and astronomers have been trying to identify a strange blip of light that's traveling so fast that it has to have come from another solar system.

Loeb's theory: It "is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment."

An 'insult [to] honest scientific inquiry'

Just to emphasize, if it's interstellar, and it's "debris from an advanced technological equipment," that would have to mean it had been made by aliens.

It might not still be functional; it might have been built eons ago. But Loeb theorizes that somebody did build it, and it wasn't us.

To put it mildly, his colleagues say this is an insane theory. But while it would be easy to dismiss if you or I started talking like this, see Loeb's credentials.

The object is known as 'Oumuamua, and his colleagues simply don't believe 'Oumuamua could be any kind of alien-made thing. 

"'Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it," tweeted Loeb's colleague, astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter.

An uncharitable theory

Honestly, that's one of the nicer reactions.

Now, as to whether Loeb is right, or has a leg to stand on: I have no idea. 

But his scientific article positing the theory came out four months ago, in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, and he's only doubled down on his idea since then.

There could be at least two other explanations for Loeb's insistence on the theory, besides sheer good faith, at least as implied in a recent article in The Washington Post

First, that after decades of toiling in relative obscurity, he simply enjoys the attention. That does seem to come through -- there are anecdotes about how pleased he seems when a student realizes who he is. But it wouldn't necessarily cheapen the theory itself.

The other suggested rationale: Loeb's belief that human relationships would change across the globe, if we were to realize suddenly that we're not alone in the universe.

"We are fighting on borders, on resources," he told the Post. "It would make us feel part of planet Earth as a civilization rather than individual countries voting on Brexit." 

That would be a nice thought, but not a defense of the science. Of course, opining on the benefits if it is true doesn't mean it's more likely to be false.

The good-faith test

I think we need to regard Loeb's theory with skepticism, but also with an eye on what it means to put forth an idea you believe in that you know other people will think is ridiculous, and be willing to stand behind it anyway.

I think we all face this kind of challenge at least a few times in our careers. And when it does happen: You should be challenged. You should be judged. Perhaps at the end you should lose the argument.

But you should also get some credit, as long as it's reasonable and done in good faith, for standing up for what you believe in.
 

Published on: Feb 6, 2019
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