There is a lot of talk these days about the pleasures we could harness from virtual reality. Based on my experience as a scientist, virtual reality is no less dangerous to society than hallucinogenic drugs. While reality is shared by everyone, illusions are unique to those who develop them. Their addicting power is not a new phenomenon, as it was used by numerous cults to attract followers throughout human history.
Most of our data about reality stem from our personal interaction with it. As a result, we tend to be self-centered. This is a natural consequence of being conscious of the information we receive from our immediate environment. A higher level of consciousness involves being aware of the broader context and noticing that we are not as significant as we initially thought in the grand scheme of things. This was the shocking news conveyed to my daughters on their first day in kindergarten. And it is the shocking news that astronomy brought to all of us when it unraveled that we are not at the center of the universe, nor is the Earth-Sun system privileged, and perhaps we are not even the smartest kid on our cosmic block.
A delay tactic of avoiding evidence that contradicts our sense of self-importance was adopted by the philosophers who refused to look through the telescope of Galileo Galilei and placed him on house arrest. Today, they would have canceled him on social media.
But reality stays the same irrespective of whether we prefer virtual versions of it that flatter our ego. If we are brave enough to revise our notions based on empirical data, we will be able to use the new understanding to our benefit. The philosophers four centuries ago could have never designed a space vehicle that would reach its destination, given their wrong conception of the relative motion between celestial objects and Earth.
Virtual reality, tailored to match our wishful thinking, sways us away from the humility of gaining new scientific knowledge by gathering evidence and understanding the actual reality we all share.
Some argue that we live in a simulation, but they need to provide evidence for pixelization or glitches for this notion to be believable. Experimental evidence is not a nuance but a necessity required to avoid Ponzi schemes in the infinite world of virtual possibilities.
Computer simulations often assist scientific analysis and interpretation of experimental data. But these simulations are no substitute for a deeper understanding of reality. Often, a simple analytic model might capture the essential details better than a sophisticated computer simulation.
In a research exam that I attended recently, a student insisted that better computer simulations would resolve apparent discrepancies between data and theory regarding the properties of galaxies in the standard cosmological model of cold-dark-matter. This prompted me to ask the question: “… and what should we do if the refined computer simulations would still not agree with the data?” The student, who was mentored by a mainstream cosmologist, answered without hesitation: “in that case, we would continue to add new ingredients to the simulation until the standard cold-dark-matter model would agree with the data.”
This conservative line of adding epicycles would never reveal a situation where our popular theory of cold-dark-matter is wrong.
Subsequently, I was fortunate to attend a discussion forum with General Stan McChrystal. He pointed out that, early in his career, he expected all of his subordinates to follow his orders. As he rose through the ranks, he realized that to adopt the correct path forward – a leader must allow multiple opinions and free discussions. This lesson must also apply to how we interpret anomalous experimental data within academia.
Most of our scientific learning stems from facts that contradict our preconceptions. Even though such conflicts between data and prejudice do not flatter our reputation as “experts” or “the adults in the room who can anticipate whatever comes along,” they are essential for shaping improvements in our understanding of reality.
The most intriguing anomalies in recent history are related to unusual objects detected near Earth, in the form of the first interstellar object, `Oumuamua – which did not behave like any of the comets or asteroids seen before, or in the form of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) – whose nature is not understood by the government.
Collecting better scientific data is essential in allowing for the possibility that one or more of these objects may have been manufactured by an extraterrestrial technological civilization. As rattling as that would be to the notion of our place in the universe, it would constitute a significant step forward in our understanding of the reality in which we live.
The present-day academic and political establishments possess the power that the church used to carry during the days of Galileo. Therefore, it is fitting that the newly established Galileo Project will use telescopes to seek indisputable scientific evidence and advise those in power regarding the nature of the strange objects found near Earth. Remarkably, the recent decision by the US Congress to establish a new office in government that will study UAP indicates that the political system is ahead of the academic community in its willingness to learn more about intriguing possibilities regarding our cosmic reality.
In a recent forum of the Ada Lovelace Festival 2021, Professor Miriam Meckel asked me why empirical evidence is so important to me.
I replied: “I love nature, and when you truly love someone – you wish to know every detail about them.” She added wisely: “But sometimes, leaving hidden secrets makes the love more passionate.”
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.”