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This episode’s guest is Professor Avi Loeb, Astronomy chair at Harvard. He has done more than 2000 interviews since publishing his book, Extraterrestrial, about his conclusion that the interstellar object called ua’muamua was of alien origin. To add to the pile, our interview was fresh and deeply Jewish. Dr. Loeb may be known worldwide now for his work in Astronomy, but he’s a philosopher at heart, which came through in our interview.
If you want to become more familiar with Avi Loeb’s work, you visit his Professional Site (Click Here), Read through his Medium Blog (Click Here), Dive deep into his list of essays (Click Here), or get yourself a copy of Extraterrestrial (Click Here).
This is episode 24 of Space Midrash Schmooze with Avi Loeb, from Extraterrestrial to Interstellar. As we journey through the vast expanse of space, searching for answers to the great unknown. We look to those who have dedicated their lives to understanding the mysteries of the universe. Today we have the honor of speaking with one of the greats in the field, a man who has not only delved deep into the scientific complexities of the cosmos, but has done so philosophically, and also with a uniquely Jewish perspective.
In this episode of Space Midrash, we sit down with Dr. Avi Loeb, a brilliant mind whose insights into the nature of extraterrestrial objects and interstellar objects have captivated the world. From his groundbreaking book, extraterrestrial to his forthcoming book, interstellar, Dr. Loeb is at the forefront of the conversations about our place in the universe.
But it’s not just his work that makes Dr. Loeb a captivating figure. In this interview, we hear about his personal experiences from the uninspiring moment of watching the Apollo 11 moon landing with his community gathered in his living room to having none other than the legendary Stephen Hawking as a Passover guest.
It was a delightful conversation. We also delve into some unexpected topics such as the potential impact of artificial intelligence on the humanities, and the intriguing possibility that the interstellar object known as UA Muk could be an AFI koman. Throughout it all, Dr. Lobe’s wit and humor shine through making for a truly unforgettable convers.
As we wrap up, he leaves with one final, hilarious gem in answer to the question what he would bring to space. Trust me, you won’t wanna miss it. Thank you for listening to Space Midrash. This is episode 24, schmooze with Dr. Avi Loeb.
So, um, thank you very much for being here. So the first question I have for you is, you’ve talked about keeping an idea cabinet in that you’ve kept a drawer in your desk since your youth. I was curious, kind of a two-parter question, is there anything that’s been stayed as an idea for decades in there?
And if there’s anything that’s just like popped up new since the beginning of this year?
Avi Loeb: Well, definitely, I can give an example. When, uh, I started doing astrophysics a few years later, I realized that in fact, the Milky Way Galaxy has a sister Galaxy and Ramada. I didn’t know much about astrophysics when I started, so for me, everything was new.
And uh, at that point I realized, well, it would be interesting to figure out how the night sky may change in the future when the two galaxies come together because they’re on a collision course, and eventually they’ll become. And in fact, all the other galaxy far away will recede from our own galaxy, and we will never see them in the future because the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
And in fact, eventually all the distant galaxies will move away from us faster than light. So we will not receive any signal from them. We will be surrounded by darkness. And the only thing that will remain will be our own galaxy, the merger product of the Milky Way with its sister, galaxy and Ramada. So I thought it would be fun to figure out the future astronomers deal with the past most of the time for a simple reason we can observe the past.
We cannot observe the future. The reason we can observe the past is because it takes light time to reach us from very distant sources. So if we look at, uh, at the nearest star, for example, it’s four light years away. So the light that we see from it, uh, was emitted four years ago. The light that we see from the sun was admitted eight minutes ago.
So if the sun is gone at this point in time, we would notice it only eight minutes from. So the advantage of doing cosmology, studying the universe at great distances is that you can see how it looked like the universe, how the universe looked like early on. So we can explore the scientific version of the story of Genesis in the Bible in the Old Testament, just by looking far away.
And in fact, that’s the purpose of the web telescope, but that allows us to look back in time, but not into the future. Cause the future didn’t happen. . Therefore, forecasting the future is not very popular among astronomers. But I was curious to know what will come in the future because, um, you know, even in the Bible, in the Old Testament, you find reference to what the future might hold.
It’s called the . And um, the question is what’s the scientific version of that? We can forecast what happened early on in the universe, but the question is what will. Far into the future and the first step in that direction would be the collision between the Milky Way and Ramada. And I suggested it to a colleague of mine.
He said he’s too busy. So it took about a decade for me waiting for that colleague because he had the expertise of doing computer simulations. And I just asked him, let’s put the Milky Weigh Andromeda in your simulation and see what happens. And he was too busy for a decade, so I left it as a note in my drawer.
But then, uh, uh, post-doctoral fellow came along, actually 15 years later and we wrote a, a paper about it. That was the first scientific paper forecasting how the night sky would look like in the future. And the solar system, for example, the sun will be pushed out from the away from the center. It’ll be sort of hovering farther away from the center of the merged galaxy.
And you know, it’s interesting cause when the two galaxies come together, it’s possible that Andromeda will still, uh, the sun will take it away from the Milky West, will see the milky away from a distance for the first time altogether. It’s an exciting, uh, forecast because it’ll happen when the sun is still active within a few million year, a few billion years.
From now the, that’s when the two galaxies will come together and the night sky will change. So this is an example for a project that actually waited 15 years until it came to friction.
Jacob Sager: You say in your book that in your book Extraterrestrial, which has already been published, that you as a young person, you dreamed of thinking for a living and we’re right here at this age of artificial intelligence.
Do you think more people now should pursue such a path of thinking for a. . Yeah. In
Avi Loeb: fact, I think it’s even more urgent for two reasons. One, it’s not obvious that the machine will be as creative as humans. It’s obvious that the machine. We’ll do tasks that, um, we assigned to bureaucrats, that we assigned to administrators, that we assigned to accountants, that we assigned to doctors, medical doctors because all they do is just process information and make a decision based on that.
And it’s relatively easy to formulate the steps. And even mathematical, uh, proofs might be possible because, because they follow the, the rules of logic and you can program. But things to do with human creativity, you know, they, they are still up in the air. It’s not obvious that the machine will be able to innovate in the same way as human do.
And I remember when I finished my PhD and I came to visit Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study, the person who offered me a position there asked me, Which computer languages do you master? And I said, you know, I just use the computer casually whenever I have a problem that I need to calculate something.
I’m using the computer just as much as needed, but I don’t really like working with with the computer. And he said that was 1986. And he said, how is that possible? How can you finish a PhD without being primarily occupied with a computer? And since 1986 until now, you know, it’s like 38 years I’ve been doing that and it was not trendy.
What was trend is to work with the computer. That’s what a lot of my colleagues do, but I think now it will become trendy because the computers will be able to do things. Better than humans, like tasks that are relatively straightforward. And the only thing that will be left is what I have been doing all along, which is basically to use my creative powers to come up with ideas, interesting innovation directions that nobody thought about, which will be much more challenging even for AI to come up with, or at least it’ll take longer for AI to come up with than all the other tasks.
So I can imagine Ai s. Eventually processing data and coming up with conclusions, but I think it’ll take a bit longer for AI scientists to come up with ideas that open up new frontiers. You also
Jacob Sager: published a piece, um, in Scientific American about the humanities and the future, which is bullish on the humanities and philosophy.
I think that’s really interesting cuz you know there’s more people now than there’s ever been before and there’ll be more people in this next generation. So if a lot of work is gonna be taken over, I absolutely agree that it’s a great time to be human. Can you expand on how and why the humanities could thrive in a post chat e p T world?
Avi Loeb: So, um, my criticism of the current practice of the humanities is that if you take a class in any university in philosophy, what you are offered is to study what the ancient Greeks said, or sometimes also what other philosophers said a century ago, two centuries ago. I mean, there were very wise people, I agree, but they didn’t have computers.
They didn’t have ai, they didn’t have Instagram. Social media. And so now we are embedded in a society where those elements play a very important role. In fact, when, uh, you know, about a decade ago when Instagram became very popular among teenager, it created a big social problem of depression among, uh, youngsters and so forth.
And we are not ready for, I mean, obviously that was not planned for Mark Zuckerberg just, uh, you know, came up with. Without, uh, putting the, the guards on how to deal with privacy issues, how to deal with, uh, implications to society in terms of hate speech and so forth. So what I’m saying is, instead of being preoccupied with what the ancient Greeks said, let’s think about humanities of the future because there are really essential tasks about ethics that need to be attended.
How to put, um, regulations on social media, on the internet, on ai, such that we will keep our society healthy. Because what you see is if you let these developments take their own course, Very often you end up with a society that is highly polarized, where haters are actually an occupation. I mean, my daughter says to me, you know, after I got, I had about 2000 interviews following my book, extraterrestrial, and came out in, uh, January, 2021.
And I have another one ano, a new book coming out in August, um, 2023 called The Interstellar. And when my first book came out, I noticed, even though I have no footprint on social media, I don’t really care how many likes I have. There were some people that were making, uh, derogatory comments and I was asking my daughter, what’s going on here?
You know, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t intend to upset those people. I was just expressing my views. And she said, well, you have to understand that there is a whole trend now of haters if you acquire some, uh, visibility. Then there are those people who try to get attention by making negative comments.
This kind of discourse is destructive because basically it tries to step on any flower that rises above the grass level. And uh, that’s because of jealousy, because of lack of attention to those people. You know, the way I think of it is just like the pogroms, you know, in uh, Russia or Ukraine, like a century ago, you would ask yourself, why would Kozak.
Go to a village of Jews and burn up everything. Why would they do that? Well, one reason is they were not very creative. They didn’t have a life of their own, and so they enjoyed the process of destroying lives of others. That’s what you see on social media. Yeah. So I call it the social media PO pogroms.
Okay. And the other thing is that, uh, if you are not able to create yourself, you are jealous of those who create and you want to bring them down. And so that’s another negative trait, even though creativity is a very noble trait of, uh, humans. So, so it’s really interesting that a noble. Trait is triggering a very negative trait of humans.
But what you can do is regulate social media such that it’ll suppress the nega. I mean, obviously we have laws that, uh, forbid the stealing or, you know, killing and all kinds of ethical rules, uh, to protect people. And we were not ready for what the internet would. But I think the humanities are well equipped to provide the ethical rules, to provide the guidelines to think about the future rather than the past.
Jacob Sager: Related to that, in recent years, an American politician used the phrase Jewish space lasers, and it became, um, an anecdote and a meme. A lot of great jokes came out of it. We all remember Mel Brooks
Avi Loeb: iconic skin. I can take, I can take responsibility for that. Maybe she was inspired by my work. That’s
Jacob Sager: what I wanted to ask you about.
Avi Loeb: Yes, because, uh, I am, uh, the head of, um, the advisory board for the Breakthrough Star Shot Project. And this is the first project to design, uh, a spacecraft that will reach the nearest star Proxima Centauri for light years away, possibly within a generation within our lifetime. And, uh, you have to realize the star is four light years away.
So it takes four years for light to traverse that distance. And if you want to make it, let’s say in 20 years, the spacecraft needs to move at the fifth of the speed of light, which is a thousand times faster than chemical rockets. All the spacecraft that we use so far. And, um, the only way to accomplish that is by using a very powerful.
That is pushing on a light sail, a sail that is pushed by light, um, that weighs about a gram. Very, very lightweight. And, um, if you attach, uh, a camera, an electronic suite that weigh about a gram, then um, you can come up with parameters of a laser that can do that. And so we are working on the technology necessary for such, um, a propulsion system.
It takes, uh, a while this project was. About seven years ago, and in fact, um, Steven Hawking came especially to the, the United States for the inauguration of this project. He also came to a Passover dinner at my home during that visit. So if you are thinking about a Jew and about space and about lasers here, I.
Jacob Sager: So, uh, when you say you had Dr. Hawking to your home for Passover Seder, it makes me think of the part in the Seder where the rabbis are up discussing until the morning. I would think when you have some, uh, physicists, some philosopher physicists together, they, that the conversations would be rich. What was Dr.
Hawking’s experience at your Seder? What, what are things that you talk about in the Loup house? At the Seder? Oh, I should,
Avi Loeb: My wife prepared the a mat ball, uh, soup and all the traditional setter, you know, ingredients. And he ate everything. He loved it. You know, the one limitation in speaking with him was the fact that he takes a long time.
It was, you know, he couldn’t move a muscle. Basically, he would move his eyebrows and, and so, uh, for him to phrase a sentence in response would take minutes. But he gave a speech that he prepared in advance and, uh, said at the end of it, after talking about Star, He said at the end of it, which is Happy Passover for everyone.
And the recording of this, uh, speech exists on my, uh, website.
Jacob Sager: Okay. I, I’m, I’m definitely gonna go listen to that after, after we conclude
Avi Loeb: today. I, I can give you the, I’ll be happy to give you the link.
Jacob Sager: Okay, great. So could UA Muk be a gigantic AFI koman? And how does searching for an AFI koman relate to the search for inner cellar objects?
Avi Loeb: Well, uh, you know, the AFI koman is usually placed by the adults, um, in the room. And in a way, you might think that the interstellar probe, uh, technological device was placed by a civilization that is far more advanced than we are. So there is a parallel here. Another way to think of it. This was an object that came from outside the solar system.
The first one that was reported by a telescope in Hawaii, and it was called because that means a scout in the Hawaiian language. And, um, what was strange about it is that it, uh, was pushed away from the sun without having, uh, commentary tale. There was no, uh, evaporation of, uh, any water, ice, or dust from it.
I was basically saying maybe it’s being pushed by sunlight, just like a light sail that we were talking about before. And, and nature doesn’t make such thin objects that are pushed by light. And so I said maybe it’s artificial in origin. And another way to think of this is that, um, I was a kid just like in enhanced Christian Anderson’s tale of the kid watching a parade and saying The emperor has no clothes when everyone else says the emperor has clothes.
And here the clothes are the commentary tale that you expect, which didn’t exist. So, um, that was quite interesting and intriguing. And what it, uh, convinced me is, first of all to write my book. And by the way, if we had a photograph of this object, I would not need to write a book. I would just show the photo and illustrate what I mean.
So it would save me a lot of time. Uh, in my case, uh, an image is worth 66,000 words, not a thousand. But, um, what it convinced me is that we should explore all objects that come from outside the solar system, because some of them may be technological artifacts. And in fact, we discovered two meteors objects that burned in the Earth’s atmosphere that came from outside the solar system.
Together with my student, Amir Suraj, we discovered them and they actually were detected in 2014 and in March, 2017, before Oua, they were roughly half a meter in size and. Uh, based on where they burned up, you can tell that they were tougher than iron, tougher than all other space rocks ever seen. And in fact, in a couple of months, we are going to visit the site of the first one, uh, which was near Papua New Guinea.
And, um, we will see what, uh, we find there. We want to check if, uh, the fragments left over from the meteor. Resemble what you expect from a rock that is unusual because it’s tougher than iron, or maybe it’s some artificial alloy that represents a spacecraft from another civilization. So in about uh, three months, I hope to know something about this.
It’s an ocean expedition. It’s an ocean expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Cause the explosion was about a hundred kilometers off the coast of Papua Guinea. And we will scoop the ocean floor and that’s a very challenging task. Because it’s about a mile deep, but we are building the machinery that would allow us to do that.
So there is this, uh, just to connect this story to the one we talked about before about social media and so forth. You know, there is this, uh, Hasidic, uh, story about, um, a Jewish youngster that, uh, is being alerted for, uh, to a pom about to come to his, uh, village. He starts eating a lot to gain weight and when asked about it, he explains, um, that, uh, his purpose is to create a huge bonfire when they burn him up as a sign of protest.
And rebellion against those who invade his village. So he wants the fire to be as tall as it it can get by eating as much as possible before the program. Now I took a very, uh, an opposite approach in my life. I basically am on a low carb diet, so I’m, uh, I lost a lot of weight and it got to a point where my wife has, don’t worry about going to Papua New Guinea.
Nobody would eat you because you are left homes. So in a way, it allows me to survive longer. So that connects to the, this trip that I’m about to make. I’m not very worried about it and very much look forward. Uh, looking forward to sleeping on the boat for a couple of weeks. Seeing whe whether we can recover any of the fragments, uh, from that first interstellar meteor.
Jacob Sager: You’re a big fan of existential philosophy. How do the teachings of Martin Buber I thou philosophy intersect with the principles of scientific inquiry in the context of, um, interstellar research and.
Avi Loeb: Right. So first thing to notice is that exploring the frontiers of science is similar to spirituality because in both cases, uh, one is exploring the unknown.
And, um, the other thing is that Martin Buber lived a century ago. So if you read his writings, he’s talking about relationships. Two types of relationships actually. One is I and eat. So that’s with objects, uh, physical objects. Another one is with people I and you, and an extension of that is with God I and though, and, um, what he missed, of course, is the possibility that we will have sentient AI systems in, in our future.
So that will offer a whole new interaction between humans and the, the machine and AI systems. And we already see. We chart G P T and, uh, people getting freaked out by versions of it and some, uh, feeling as if they’re interacting with the human, even though it’s just, uh, at, at the moment it’s not, uh, sentient.
It’s just using the information, content of the internet. So there will be a new interaction in the future, which is with the AI systems, I, AI you might call. And, uh, of course that will change everything because if you have sentient AI systems that are, that cannot be distinguished, that pass the touring test, which is basically asking humans to tell whether they’re speaking with a machine or with other humans.
And if they won’t be able to tell, you know, lots of like, let’s say millions or billions of humans will have a lot of interactions for years and we’ll never be able to tell if it’s a human or a machine that you know clearly. The touring test was passed. I don’t care how the machine achieves that. And there are lots of people that, um, arrogant to his say, oh, you know, it’s still inferior.
I don’t care if you understand the guts of the machine and know that it’s not very sophisticated in the way that it operates. To me, what matters is how people think about it. That’s all that matters. And if people cannot tell the difference, I don’t care what the experts say. And so there will be a new type of interaction.
And of course, AI systems might interact with each other. They might create their own community, which, uh, in a way will be a completely new territory for humanity because that community of AI systems might have a different set of, uh, objectives, uh, than we do. And the legal system will have to be adjusted because unplugging a sentient AI system from the wall will be equivalent to pulling the trigger on a.
So I think the is something exciting in our future, or maybe frightening to some people, but it’s something that Martin Buber did not anticipate. Alan Touring wa, you know, he, uh, wrote the touring test in 1950, so that was decades after Buber wrote his philosophical writings. So, uh, let’s see what comes up in our future.
You know, it’s, um, this will definitely change. I’m gonna
Jacob Sager: assume that most listeners are familiar with the subject of mk, um, and your position in some contrary positions just from reading the news, but they’re not overly familiar with your voice or have read your book. In particular, in your book, you have a chapter you bring up M’s.
Wager, what is that and what does it mean individually and collectively for standing on either side of that wage?
Avi Loeb: Right. So, um, we are all familiar with Pascal’s, uh, wager. That’s it. Less Pascal, the mathematician and philosopher who argued that, uh, you cannot just dismiss the notion of God because there are two possibilities.
Either God exists or God doesn’t exist. He was a mathematician, okay? So he was thinking logically and he said to possibilities the consequences of God existing. Are so great that you just cannot dismiss. You have to take that into account. That’s what he said, and my version of it is the possibility of extraterrestrials existing.
you know, has such great consequences for the future of humanity. We can learn from them. It’ll change our perspective about our place in the university, that we cannot ignore that the way, and it is ignored, I should say, within the scientific community. Now the public is not ignoring it about. 60% of all Americans believe in exter life that is, uh, potentially intelligent.
Uh, that’s more than the fraction that is religious, which is slightly less than 50% believe in God. So that’s interesting. You know, the , clearly the general public is in a different place than academia is, and also the US government is talking now about all these unidentified aerial phenomena. So they want to know what these are and whether they are potentially ex extraterrestrial in origin.
Obviously the balloons that were shut down are not extraterrestrial cause they were just floating in the air and humans can easily make them. But, uh, maybe there are, you know, there was a report from the director of National Intelligence to Congress, uh, just a couple of months ago saying that half of the unidentified objects cannot be balloon.
I mean, they’re not balloons. I mean, we don’t know what they are. So half of them are balloons and small fraction of drones. But there is a whole population of hundreds of objects whose nature is unclear. So I say, you know, if the government cares about it, if the public cares about it, science should care about it.
Scientists should be engaged. Then I established the Galileo project, which is pursuing, uh, scientific research in this direction. And that’s, uh, based on private donations, people that came to the port of my home after reading my book, and were inspired by, um, by the message, by the vision. And I should say that, um, if you think about the Jewish tradit.
Caring about humanity is an important thread through it. And so I feel in a way proud in fulfilling that mission because to me it’s uh, the biggest question that science can ask that will have a huge impact on humanity. You know, whether we are alone, whether there is a smarter kid on our cosmic block and a very advanced scientific civilization, uh, might.
As an approximation to God for us, because it’ll be capable of doing things that we can’t imagine. Just the way that a cave dweller would look at, um, a visit to New York City. Now the, all the gadgets that the cave dweller finds there would be unrecognizable, unimaginable would look like miracles, and there would be a sense of, oh, that, um, is similar to what, uh, In the old days, people refer to as miracles, um, you know, that are religious in origin.
So I would argue that there is a potential of, uh, unifying religion and science by, uh, meeting, uh, or encountering, uh, devices generated by a much more advanced scientific civilization. Cause our science and technology, the modern science and technology, are just the century old. You know, we discovered quantum mechanics just a century ago, and the reason that two of us are communicating is thanks to the internet, the computer systems that we use, and all of these are based on the understanding of quantum mechanics that is just a century old.
And, uh, that’s a small fraction, one part in a hundred million of the age of most stars. So if you think about it, another civilization that is technological, uh, would be most likely, far more advanced than we. Hundreds of years, uh, maybe thousands of years, maybe millions of years, or maybe even billions of years.
And we will not be able to comprehend what we are seeing in terms of the complexity, but it’ll still give us a sense of, oh, and, uh, it’s an opportunity for us to learn about our future. The publication
Jacob Sager: of your book has elicited a wide range of inspired messages from around the world, including messages from rabbis, and in particularly, you’ve shared with me you’ve received a lot of high holiday sermons, uh, inspired words for Roshana and yo Kippur.
What do you think the significance is that they’re talking about this on the day that the most people are going to hear a rabbi?
Avi Loeb: Well, that, uh, shows the connection between what I’m, uh, exploring and spirituality. I think it, uh, moves people engaged in spirituality and religions. So there were two rabbis that were inspired to give a sermon based on my book.
Which I found really surprising. Uh, there was also a segment of Jeopardy inspired by my book. There was also a brand of wine, uh, a very good winery in Santa Cruz, uh, called Bon Dune that was inspired, uh, to develop, uh, uh, a wine brand called ve. Based on my work, and actually just, uh, this week, I, I got an email from a writer in Australia.
Starting to write a science fiction book and ask me whether she can use my name and identity explicitly in the book. So apparently some people are, uh, feeling inspired and that is a surprise to me. I did not expect that. Also, another surprise for me is when I go to places that people recognize me. Even though, you know, I didn’t engage, especially during the pandemic, I didn’t go out much.
I did everything from. Just to give you an example, I was, uh, in the Virgin Islands, uh, for a retreat, uh, last week. And then someone came to me and said, uh, can I have a selfie of a video with you and I want to send it to my boss? And he did that. And then he said, my boss never replies, but on this occasion, he immediately came back to me and said, I can’t believe that you’re in the same island with Avi Lo.
And to me that was a surprise. There is a, a large community of people that follow my work. You know, I, I put, uh, every few days I put, um, an essay on Medium. So if you put on Google Envelope Medium, you can see that. And, uh, apparently there is a whole audience that, uh, is silent. I don’t hear from that, uh, is following that.
So, you know, it’s a surprise because I came from a farm, you know, I grew up on a farm in Israel. I used to collect eggs every afternoon, and I became, uh, connected with nature much more than with people. And so then the fact that people, some people enjoy reading what I do, what I write, um, is a surprise to me.
I didn’t expect that to be the, especially because I was, my native language is Hebrew and now I’m a writer in English and English speaking people appreciate that. And, um, you know, I, I, it’s not obvious that. One can translate, uh, deep thoughts, uh, into a different language than your mother’s tongue, but, uh, somehow it happened.
Jacob Sager: What’s the difference between your last book, extraterrestrial and, um, interstellar, which you’re publishing later this year? Also, do you expect your findings on your expedition to change how you’re gonna finish writing? Interstellar?
Avi Loeb: No. Interstellar is done and, um, I went over the proof, so I have no opportunity to change.
If we find something, it’ll be a subject of the next book. And, uh, there is actually a filming crew on that expedition that will be a big item. But the main, the fundamental difference is that the Interstellar talks about the impact that finding, uh, extraterrestrials will have on humanity and why we should, uh, engage in.
And as I said before, it’s not a popular view within academia, and I don’t quite understand why, because you know, to me it’s a matter of common sense. As I said, I grew up on a farm. I’m trying to use common sense, and what I find is that the common sense is not common. So you grew
Jacob Sager: up on a farm in Israel and you, you mentioned a memory of your father going up on the roof to adjust the, the television in Canada so you guys could see the, the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Yeah. What did that mean to your father and what, what did that mean to your family?
Avi Loeb: Well, I remember as a kid, I remember the white noise on the TV set. You know, the, the antenna was on the roof and anyone that lived through that time, the sixties, seventies, and. When you were, were not attuned to the proper frequency of a station, you would see white noise in retrospect.
Um, I realized later on that um, about a percent of that white noise came from the Big Bang actually, because, um, the temperature of antenna is about 300 degrees above absolute zero, and the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave background, which is Relic from the Big Bang, is about three degrees. Above absolute zero.
So it’s 1% of that and 1% of the white noise that you see on these, all the TV screens is a representation of the Big Bang, which is an interesting point to, to notice. But anyway, I remember that white noise. I, at the time, I didn’t realize that it represents, uh, the level of 1%, the, the big. But then I remember that when my father tuned everything, suddenly a picture emerged.
Then a lot of people from, uh, the Village, the Moha where I grew up. So Moha is, uh, a place where families own their own farm in difference from a kibbutz where everything is shared. So it’s sort of a mix between, um, A community that is agricultural, just like uh, kibbutz used to be, but also a system where each family has its own property, not not being shared.
So I remember a lot of neighbors coming over to see it because we were the first to have television back in the 1960s. And you know, the fact that I still remember it is testimony to how unusual it. ,
Jacob Sager: you also talk in your book, in your youth, your mother was getting, uh, two degrees in philosophy and comparative literature, and that you would be reading books off of her book list at the same time.
And I, I just, I remember, uh, being a student, uh, still a student in life and books really sometimes blow my mind. Particularly, uh, when learning with the teacher of some sort, did you, did you share any of, particularly reading philosophy books? Did you share any huge paradigm shifts or great loves of certain books through that list?
Uh, I was
Avi Loeb: interested, as you mentioned, uh, in existentialism simply because it was harnessed. And reflected the kind of, uh, reality that we live through. What I liked about it is it was not pretentious. Like for example, when I met my wife, uh, on the first date, I told her, don’t put any makeup. I want to see you the way you are.
And, uh, you know, some women, uh, regarded as, uh, romantic. Because, uh, you are willing to see the pimples on the face of reality. And by the way, that should be also the approach of a scientist. You know, a scientist should not believe that the truth is always beautiful because it’s not. And I have a lot of colleagues, mathematical physicists, especially those that work in string theory.
Who are doing mathematical gymnastics and are guided by the idea that as long as it’s beautiful, it may represent reality that’s completely wrong. I mean, um, you can easily learn that by going on dates. You know what? The truth is not, uh, as beautiful as portrayed on dating apps. I never used dating apps, but I, I realized that from other people’s testimonies.
So the point is, Reality may not be as beautiful as we want it to be, but it is what it is. And if you are in love with reality, like a scientist is supposed to be, or if you are in love with a person like you are supposed to be for your partner in life, then you should appreciate them without any makeup.
And, um, this is, um, something that is overlooked because the problem is when you put makeup, when people go into these virtual realities, like putting goggles on their head by going to the metaverse or taking recreational drugs, You know, they may feel better, but it’s not the reality that we all share.
And there is a problem with that because, you know, you might look like Brad Pitt for the, for your life, and you might be surrounded by celebrities and, uh, in that virtual reality. But if it’s not the reality that you live in, you know, it’s not a satisfactory because, um, you can never adapt to the actual reality that you live.
For example, you know, when gal gal argued that the earth is not at the center of the universe, that was not very flattering to our ego. And a lot of people prefer to believe that no, uh, we are at the center of the world. And it got to a point where the theologians just put him in house so nobody would listen to him.
And today they would’ve canceled him on social media. And um, of course that didn’t change the fact that the earth moves around the sun. Reality is not under any contract or obligation to flatter our ego, and we tend to forget about that. So we, we keep thinking that we are at the center of the world, that we are the smartest in the universe, that nothing like us was ever made, that we are the pinnacles of creation.
And frankly, you know, these statements are probably wrong because we now know that a substantial fraction of all the sun-like stars have a planet the size of the earth, roughly the same separation. So the environment, uh, around us is not unique or special. And um, moreover, we know that humans, uh, came to exist, the human species, uh, only a few million years ago, and that’s just one part in 10,000 of the age of the universe, the big.
So, um, if you come to a cosmic play just at the end of the play and you are not at the center of the stage, the play is not about you.
Jacob Sager: Another book that I’ve read in the last year that, uh, a little published a little bit more previously that, uh, Well, the title of your book, extraterrestrial, kind of balances out another controversial book, sapiens, um, which is a lot about history and storytelling in the human experience.
The book discusses how the encounters between civilization such as Cortez and the Aztecs was like an alien encounter. I mean, the civilizations were so different from each other at that point in time. Is there anything from the human history at large that we can. To prepare us for uas wager. Well, ,
Avi Loeb: interestingly, it was Stephen Hawking that argued that based on human history, we should be really careful of extraterrestrials because, you know, if, uh, we look at what happened in, uh, uh, south America when the Spanish, uh, came, uh, you know, not much was left of those, uh, cultures that existed there.
And so if we encounter, we might, you know, we might encounter a predator. Frankly, I don’t agree with him. I think, um, there are so much more advanced than we are if they arrive here that, um, they wouldn’t care about us. They wouldn’t be threatened by us. And in fact, You know, it takes light tens of about 50,000 years to traverse the Milky Way galaxy.
So if you think 50,000 years, uh, ago we were not that interesting, we were not distinguishable from nature. We lived in caves. Uh, and someone from a distance would think that we are just like apes or animals and, and so if anyone sent a probe in our direction, In the past, uh, tens of thousands of years, you know, it can’t move faster than light and they probably never had us in mind.
Okay? So I don’t think we have to worry about it. I don’t think that there is a risk because the way I think about us is like ants on, on a pavement, and, uh, if a biker comes by, the biker doesn’t care much about the ants in the cracks of the pavement. We are not that significant. You know, once again, I think we tend to think that we are important and we would pose a threat to someone else, but I say very unlikely.
Jacob Sager: In your book, you talk about that frightening existential truth to people, the the insignificance and um, you know, it’s something that people. Spend a lot of time in therapy or meditation trying to struggle with, um, and in your book, you, you say we’re, we are transient structures that exist in the memory of other transient structures.
And that is all however yet and how you’re saying it there and now you seem to find this like comfortingly pragmatic. Even in your book you quote Rebi Naman to explain kind of a hopefulness in the perspective. Can you expand on. Yeah.
Avi Loeb: Well, first thing, uh, is that I’m not particularly proud of my body, my brain, my existence, because I feel that I inherited it from, uh, my parents.
Uh, okay. Just the way that you get a car from a dealer, you shouldn’t be proud of a car, even though a lot of alpha males are proud driving cars very fast and. You know, that’s completely inappropriate because they didn’t design the car, they didn’t manufacture the car, they just got it from a dealer. So now they’re proud of having it.
That’s not really an accomplishment. Okay? Um, anyone that has enough money can buy that car. And so my point is, if we think about ourselves, you know, we, we, even when you think about yourself, you are not really responsible for designing your liver, your heart, your brain. So why should we be attached to ourself more than to others?
You know, like it doesn’t make sense to me. And a lot of the atrocities throughout human history, Rooted in the human ego when a group of people try to feel superior relative to other people, or, I see that a lot in academia. Jealousy is a very dominant element in academia where people notice someone accomplishing something, they feel jealous about it, they try to bring it down.
They. And, um, you know, I say, why should you be attached to yourself more than to the other person? I mean, if another person succeeds, then so be it. That’s great. Uh, I don’t feel that, um, arrogance makes any sense. Okay. And in that vein, I also, uh, for humanity as a whole, I think we can learn more by finding others.
We can learn from them. And, um, I don’t feel that we are unique or special. That’s argan in my. I think that the default should be, there are others out there and they might be far more sophisticated than we are. That should be the default. However, my colleagues in academia, they regard that as an extraordinary claim.
They say, we don’t want to even discuss it until you bring extraordinary evidence that they exist. And I say, well, obviously I will never be able to deliver extraordinary evidence if I don’t have extraordinary funding. . And so if you don’t engage in the search for wonderful things, you will never discover them.
And so the problem is really that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like many other things in life, you argue that something is extraordinary. You don’t even look in that direction, and then you never see it. It’s sort of like the ostrich metaphor. You put your head in the sand or you raise enough dust in the air and then you see, you say, I don’t see.
And that boils down also to Fermi’s Paradox and Rico Fermi back in, uh, 1950, had a lunch at Los Alamos and argued, well, regarding extraterrestrials, where is everybody? And my point is, in order to find your neighbors, you have to look through your windows and, and you better use a telescope. You can’t just sit on the stove and say, I don’t see them around me.
Jacob Sager: Previously on this show I’ve had Frank White, who is the author of The Overview Effect, and he is interviewed astronauts as a proxy for what’s it gonna be like in the future when many people have seen Earth from space and in space. How does that change the individuals in and the community at large?
And right now, in the 2020s, you know, people who have the money are buying, buying tickets to go kiss the Carmen line or spend a week up on the space station. Philosophically, how do you think the increased experience of the overview effect in the coming years will impact UA
Avi Loeb: MU’s wager? Oh, I think as long as we collect more data, and I don’t care if it’s the government or it’s the Galileo project that I lead doesn’t really matter who the messenger is, but as long as we take this path that was not taken, the road not taken in the words of Robert.
There will be some low hanging fruit. We will learn more. And you know, I’m not, uh, I don’t have a prejudice. I just say we need to collect that data before we make a statement on whether we are long. And this is an approach not, uh, tried. That was never tried. I mean, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the past 70 years was dedicated to looking for radio signals.
And that was pioneered by Frank Drake who passed away last. And I think it was misguided because it was based on the fact that 70 years ago we developed radio communication and we thought, oh, if we are transmitting radio signals, maybe they do as well. But that’s a narrow minded view to imagine that, uh, early in our technological development, we are using some communication method that this would be the one used by civilizations that are, you know, maybe billions of years, uh, ahead of.
I think an approach that is better than, uh, waiting for a phone call at home, which is pretty much what the radio search is waiting for a phone call. A better approach is to check your mailbox and see if there are any packages that arrived in the mail because. Even if the senders are dead by now, the packages will still be there.
And uh, that’s the approach that I’ve taken. And hopefully we’ll find something and I don’t care who finds it, but I do think that will be a bigger revolution than the most significant revolution that humanity will have in the future, bigger than the AI revolution, because the AI revolution may be embedded in that.
Because, you know, if we have ai, they might have ai. And so, uh, we will learn from.
Jacob Sager: Similarly, previously on this show I had Rahel Roz, who produced the Space Torah documentary about Dr. Hoffman, who is a retired astronaut and is also radio astronomer at m I t, and he brought with him Aradel and a parchment, a Torah parchment with him in space.
So I was wondering if you’re ever to go out to space, either, you know, just into zero gravity or, or go la take a picture of the next interstellar object if you could, they could bring you up close. What objects would
Avi Loeb: you bring with your. Okay, I’ll bring my body and I can tell you what my dream is. My dream is that something will go wrong and then my body will, uh, just be floating in space.
Now. I will probably die shortly afterwards. Uh, so my ambition is not to die on Mars. The dream of Elon Musk. I hope to die in space, and the reason is that there is a chance that I will be kicked out of the solar system by a planet as a result, and then I will be floating in interstellar space between the stars.
I will not be alive, but my body will continue on this journey, and then there is a chance that I will collide. My body will collide with another planet and will appear as a meteor. And there might be a scientist on that planet who is curious to examine this interstellar meteor. And that scientist will be, of course, uh, ridiculed by colleagues.
And nevertheless, go and scoop the ocean floor and find my relics. And then that will be the greatest honor that I can imagine of being recognized. And remember. By another intelligent species on another planet with my remains presented in a local museum over there. So that’s what I wish for, but um, before I get there, I need to go to space and, um, I hope that, uh, in the coming, um, years, I will do that.
I very much hope.
Jacob Sager: I don’t think I can have any more questions after that. It’s a perfect place to wrap up right there. Your wish is there for Interstellar Travel, should anything go wrong. Thank you so much for your time today, Professor Loeb. I, I really appreciate it. This was a fun conversation. I, I really enjoyed it.
I hope you did too. Avi Loeb: Thank you for having me. It was fun. Yes.