The avalanche of a thousand interviews for podcasts, newspapers, and television in the months that followed the publication of my new book, Extraterrestrial, was expected. But the series of visits by extraordinary guests to my home was a complete surprise. Because of the pandemic, I hosted them unmasked in the open air of my front porch. There, we sat on the comfortable rocking chairs and conversed on whether humans might not be, after all, the smartest kids on our cosmic block.
In a recent podcast, the commentator lamented: “I wish I was a fly on the wall of your porch over the past few months.” What would this fly see?
First, the fly would witness hours of interviews by TV crews from the US and distant origins, such as France, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, and Australia; as well as journalists from major outlets including, most recently, the Smithsonian Magazine and the Boston Magazine, in addition to numerous podcasters. It would also notice a local student from Latin America whose father sent him to get my autograph on the Spanish translation of the book, two visitors who took a selfie with a tree branch that is mentioned in my book (which I tied with insulation tape when it was broken, and now it is the tallest branch – a symbol of the importance of helping young people early on in their career), a married couple whose daughter sent me a small red oak tree in a planter with hopes for a better future for our planet, and a YouTuber who took the “red-eye” flight from Seattle to interview me for half an hour. Distinguished guests included the former director of the National Science Foundation, France Cordova, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, and the creator of Mathematica, Stephen Wolfram.
But most consequentially, on June 18, 2021, Frank Laukien – the CEO of the Bruker Corporation and a Harvard affiliate, visited my porch with questions about my book. Ten days later, it was decided that we would establish a research project derived from the book’s content.
Within a month, we founded the Galileo Project, a scientific research program that would search for unusual objects near Earth that may have been manufactured by extraterrestrial technological civilizations.
By now, the project engages more than a hundred scientists, and it will assemble its first telescope system in the coming months on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory. The system will include optical, infrared, radio, and audio sensors. Computer algorithms will analyze its video data of the sky to separate out natural or human-made objects.
Another branch of the Galileo Project aims to design a space mission to study the nature of unusual interstellar objects, like `Oumuamua, which look different from known comets or asteroids.
The ground was fertile for the Galileo Project. A couple of weeks before I met Frank, NASA administrator Bill Nelson encouraged scientists to study the nature of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), which are routinely seen by military personnel. On June 5, 2021, I submitted to NASA a white paper that included the skeleton of what later became the Galileo Project.
A couple of weeks before I met Frank, the administrator of the Harvard Astronomy Department congratulated me with the unexpected news: “you have a new research fund from private donations!” When this fund accumulated nearly two million dollars, the time was ripe to establish the Galileo Project with Frank’s encouragement.
The Galileo Project aims to determine whether our Solar System is home to equipment produced by other technological civilizations that may have predated us by billions of years. Its data will be open and its analysis transparent, just like any other scientific endeavor. The project’s cost will only be a few percent of the cost of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, but the information it uncovers could be far more consequential for the future of humanity.
We should keep in mind that human history has only been recorded for less than ten millennia, a millionth of the age of the Earth. We, therefore, know very little about the past of our cosmic neighborhood.
To find our neighbors, we cannot submit to Enrico Fermi’s impatient question: “where is everybody?”
If we do have neighbors, assuming that they must knock on our front door right now and reveal their existence unambiguously is not the way to move forward.
Instead, we should dare to look through our windows to find evidence for our neighbors – preferably using our best new telescopes. This is what the Galileo Project aims to do.
Enrico Fermi did not have access to the remarkable instrumentation, computers, and telescope systems we have today.
In summary, what would the hypothetical fly conclude from all of these conversations on the porch of my home?
It might realize that some humans are intelligent enough to seek new evidence as a way of learning about their cosmic environment. However, the steady pushback against the content of my book by other people and the reluctance by some to support the Galileo Project financially or scientifically (while they are busy studying untestable notions like the multiverse) can only leave the fly with the hope that there are brighter cosmic species out there – far away from Earth.
If these distant neighbors were to show up as extraordinary porch guests, the fly would learn new insights about the cosmos. The empty space outside the Earth’s atmosphere will never be available to this fly unless it were to sneak under the shirt of one of the porch visitors, Alan Stern, the first Galileo team member who will fly into space next year.
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s – Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos.”