WELCOME TO THE INTERSTELLAR CLUB
Interview with Abraham (Avi) Loeb, Harvard Astronomy Department
At PLASMA, we are passionate about space exploration, so we were totally star struck when we met Avi Loeb at the Falling Walls conference in Berlin and he took us through the intergalactic journey of Deep Space Exploration.
Abraham Loeb is a professor and chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University, Founding Director of the Black Hole Initiative as well as the chair of the Advisory Committee of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. This latest stage of his highly distinguished career focuses on practical solutions to deep space exploration and the search for signs of extraterrestrial life using a fleet of laser-powered nanocrafts. As some of you might know, the acceleration between the spacecrafts Sputnik and New Horizons didn’t evolve that much. In response to this, Loeb has proposed an innovative solution: LightSail. This $ 100 million Starshot Initiative is a stepping stone for developing the technologies needed for a long-term mission to explore the Alpha Centauri star system in order to transmit research data and images to earth.
PLASMA CEO, Diana Wehmeier, caught up with Avi later on this year at his office in Harvard, to learn more about LightSail his approach to living and working in Deep Space. He was so excited that didn’t even let us ask the first question…
AVI: Why are you called PLASMA?
DIANA: 99.999% of all observable matter in the universe is in plasma state. (Cyto)plasma is also the material inside our bodies. PLASMA simply means that we are covering the macro and micro cosmos – the name was only logical!
DIANA: Can you tell us more about your inspiration in your early career and how you engaged with space and plasma physics in the first instance?
AVI: I was mostly interested in Philosophy when I was young. I grew up on a farm, collected eggs every afternoon and used to go to the hills, driving a tractor to read philosophy books. And that’s because I was most interested in the big picture, in fundamental questions. I read existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre for example. But then in Israel you have to serve in the military and I preferred instead of running in the fields, I preferred intellectual work and I was good in physics. I was drafted into a program that recruits 20-30 young people to study physics and mathematics use it for the defense of the country. I was accepted to this elite program and then for 8 years worked on plasma physics and I was the first received PhD at age 24. Then there was a project, that I led. I was the theorist and there was also an experimentalist. This project was founded by the United States. It was the first international project to be founded. A few million dollars a year or so. I basically led a group of theorist and at one of the visits to the United States I was recommended by Marshall Rosenbluth, who was a very distinguished plasma physicist, to visit the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton for my Post-Doc. After I finished my military obligation I was offered a five-year fellowship at the institute for Advanced Studies, where Einstein used to be a faculty member and Rosenbluth was a faculty member. I accepted it and with the condition, that I would switch to astrophysics and I agreed to that. And then after 5 years there I was advised to apply to faculty position, I applied also at Harvard. And they offered it first to someone else and he didn’t take it, because the chance to get promoted to ten years was very small.
But I accepted and then it was ‘ten years’ three years later. I always had the option to go back to the farm, so I wasn’t worried about ten years. That was never an issue. And then I become a ten-year faculty and decided it’s too late to go back to philosophy, the love of my youth. But at the same time, I realized that this arranged marriage, I mean this circumstance lead me to astrophysics, are actually a marriage to my true love, because there are many fundamental questions in Astrophysics. And philosophical questions like: Are we alone? How did the Universe start? Then I felt that I am actually fulfilling myself in this scientific research. And about ten years later I became the director of the Institute for Theoretical Computation here in Harvard, and then a few years later the chair of Astronomy department. And now I am also the founding director of the Black-Hole-Initiative, which is the only center in the world that focuses on the study of Black Holes. And that’s where Stephen Hawking came for the inauguration two years ago.
The strange situation I am in, that I am very different from my colleagues in the sense that I arrived to Astrophysics from a different background, plasma physics and before that philosophy. And nevertheless, so I think very differently than they are, nevertheless so I am in charge in a leadership position. They respect that and it makes life interesting, because I am trying for example to shift way that research is done in the mainstream in astrophysics, for example in the context of the latest media attention. The search for extraterrestrial civilizations is not part of the mainstream of astrophysics and the reason for that is perhaps because of the baggage it carries from Science Fiction, literature and from reports on unidentified flying objects, UFO’s. But they are not substantiated to the credibility level of science. And the science-fiction stories are not necessarily obeying the laws of physics. Scientists view all of this activity with a pinch of salt, and they don’t want to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations because of this baggage and because for about 70 years people searching and didn’t find anything.
The way I see it, is different: I view our civilization as a bit childish at the moment. Because most people think we are special or we are unique. And that’s the way my daughters been, when they were infants. They thought: all the attention is on them. The world centers on them. And the way they mature is by going out to the street and seeing other kids there and realizing they are not the only ones. I think our civilization will mature, once we go out to the street. And the way that the scientists, and I talking about the cosmic street. The way the scientists behaving is similar to a kid that listens to his family members saying: “Nonsense. It’s not worth going to the street because of what my family members are saying”. But that’s ridiculous, because what happens on the street has nothing to do with what the family members are saying. The fact there is science-fiction that is not substantiated or UFO reports that are not substantiated – that has nothing to do with the existence out there. We now know that about a quarter of all the stars have planets like the earth with the same surface temperature, conditions that are similar. If you roll the dice billions of times, it’s very likely that we are not special, that you get the same outcome. So there is nothing very speculative about saying conditions are similar somewhere else and therefore the outcome could be similar somewhere else. Let’s search. Let’s check. Without prejudice. And what is really surprising to me that people have so much prejudice. After centuries following Galileo, and all the history of science – I just cannot understand that. To me: coming from a farm, you know, I think that I am down to earth. I am not hallucinating, I am not speculative, just following the simple scientific, you know, rational, we are applied to many other things like the dark matter. And there are many more speculative ideas. That are much more speculative in physics. Like extra dimensions, that are part of mainstream. And people give each other awards and they feel, as if they leading the frontiers of physics. In the context of string theory. But it’s completely speculative, we don’t know have any clue about extra dimensions. Is just a mathematical tool, that helps to unify quantum mechanics and gravity, but has no evidence.
The idea of extraterrestrial civilizations is far more down to earth then that one. Nevertheless, the other one is considered part of the culture of physics and I simply think it’s sociology of the field and I am trying to change it since I have never felt a member of the club. I prefer not to be member of societies, because in academia you have a lot of echo chambers that people built, where they put students and post-docs through repeat what they say. So that they feel more secure and hunts (?) their own voice. It’s all about Ego. And to me it’s not about Ego, but trying to find what’s out there and the only way to find, what’s out there is to look through a telescope. That is what Galileo said to the church, you know. And a strange thing is: I am advocating, collecting evidence for something sounds to me very reasonable. People are upset about it, you know that’s really strange.
DIANA: Actually, I wasn’t upset, you really sparked my curiosity at the Falling Walls conference in Berlin. Everyone is talking about interplanetary travels and you are going one step further, proposing and working on interstellar travel. You are one of the main reasons to change the subtitle for the upcoming issue into ‘interstellar art & science magazine’ instead of interplanetary.
What’s your vision, you mentioned that you are trying to change the perspective of our society, the way we look at our solar system?
AVI: I think science in general is just continuing your childhood curiosity. Staying sincere and without prejudice and without an Agenda. Kids learn about the world, allowing themselves to make mistakes by not pretending they know everything. Something wrong happens, when they become adults. And get to Academia and become ten-year-old Professors, then they start to pretending to know now more than they actually know. They don’t want to make mistakes. They don’t want to get awards and honors to belong to society. One way to do that is by pleasing other people, and not necessarily saying something that lines up with the truth better. I think the whole idea of ten year is actually to allow people to speak freely and not worry about their job. But it’s being abused right now. and people are just using it to promote their image get more honors and that’s not really the purpose.
The purpose is to learn about the world and just to be straight forward, make mistakes. Because we don’t always know. The most of scientific activity is under uncertainty, because we don’t have enough evidence. We should be straightforward about that. Scientists saying: ‘Oh, we should sit in a room and then collect all the evidence and once we know for sure that something is right, go out and go out to the public and communicate’. And I say: it’s exactly the opposite! because the one reason populist movements are regarding scientists as the elite is because of this approach. Scientists say: ‘Oh, the public is not smart enough, let’s decide among ourselves and come out with a statement to feed the public and politicians, that will basically use our input in designing future policy. And that’s just like treating students in a class. Basically, telling them what you know, what is in textbooks. But that’s not an approach to gain credibility from the public.
The approach that gains credibility is when the public sees the process entirely, where the scientists are uncertain, when they have not enough evidence. And once there is enough evidence, they come out with a unified voice and that brings credibility to the process. because it’s a human process. It’s just like a plumber that comes to my house, fixes the pipe, you know. It’s all based on evidence. He tries to figure out, what’s exactly wrong and tries to fixes it. And it’s all based on common sense. You see said process, then you relate to that. And the process of a scientist is not different from a detective, from a plumber,I don’t see that as a superior occupation. I see that as a human activity, like any other human activity: trying to figure out what’s going on. And such it should be transparent, people should see what’s going on. I’m trying to change that by speaking to the public and I try to explain thing as much. Frankly, I don’t really care about what my colleagues say, what other people say. I am sticking to the principles of being straight forward: telling the truth, and following the same approach on all subjects, that I work on.
A year ago, there was a report stating Hydrogen was much colder than expected in the early universe. That was before plasma was produced by breaking the hydrogen by first stars, UV light. One suggestion that we proposed, there is an anomaly, we try to explain it. We said: maybe the dark matter, this main constituent of matter in the universe, has a little bit of a charge, just like a plasma. And then couples to the plasma, the electrons in the universe and drains heat from the gas. Even though the gas is mostly neutral, there is some residual ionization. And so that’s one way to cool the gas, because the dark matter colder than the gas. Now this is a proposal, a suggestion that is not proven. An idea that was not tested. But it’s completely rejiggered, it was published in physical review letters. But nobody got upset about it. I don’t see the suggestion, that Oumuamua, which also is an anomaly, doesn’t look like any asteroid or comet that we have seen before. I don’t see that in any different light.
There are anomalies, we are proposing, maybe we should put it on the table, maybe it was artificially made, because we haven’t seen anything like it before or within the solar system. Actually, this morning I am writing a paper with postdoc at MIT about new propulsion methods to get from Earth to Mars. And the method, the space craft, that we are thinking about, would look very similar to the way Oumuamua appeared. You know, why not consider it on the table. Btw we are contemplating this propulsion method unrelated to anything else, we are trying to find the most efficient method of transferring cargos from Earth to Mars, now that it’s been discussed. So, if there is an object that looks unusual and looks like the blueprint of something we were talking about. Why not consider this possibility and what’s the big problem about it.
DIANA: To be honest, I am very impressed by your fierce way of thinking and making research more accessible to the public. Can you tell us more about your idea sending laser pushed light sails to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system and closest planetary system to us?
AVI: The idea is that this light sail technology, that we are trying to develop right now, because I am also chairing the Breakthrough Starshot project. The idea is to use a sail, just like on a sail boot. Instead of wind, it’s being pushed by light. So when light reflects of a sail it gives it a push. The advantage is that you don’t carry the fuel with you and more over you can reach up to the speed of light, because the light is able to chase the sail. In order to get to the nearest star, the nearest star is 4 light years away. If you want to get to it in 20 years you need to move the spacecraft at the 5th (20%) of the speed of light. The only way to achieve that speed is using a light sail. But a light sail can be propelled also by much less powerful source of light. We were thinking reaching 5th of the speed of light in Starshot with a laser beam, a very powerful laser. But if you just use sunlight, in principle you can reach speeds that are smaller, but still you don’t need to the fuel with you. It’s sort of like a sail, you are sailing on light. And it’s possible that this technological equipment, like Oumuamua was left behind by another civilization or send on purpose to the central part of the solar system to see what is happening in the habitable zone there. We don’t know, it might be completely defunct, it might belong to a dead civilization, because I think of the sky just like archeology. We can do space archeology, looking for dead civilization, that are not around anymore because we are destroying the natural conditions on earth very quickly. And it’s possible, that we will find relicts of other civilizations in the form of burned up surfaces of planets or polluted atmospheres of planets. And that will teach us a lesson to get our act together and behave better, so that we don’t share the same fate. But in principle we can find evidence, maybe most civilizations are short lived.
Once they developed technology they develop also the mines for their own destruction. If that’s the case, you will find a lot of decree in space. But that is not functional. We ourselves sent out Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 outside the solar system. It could be LightSail, that was a proposal we put in a scientific paper, just in one paragraph. The paper was accepted for publication within 3 days and there was a huge attention, even we didn’t have a press release or anything. We didn’t intend to have press release. Just a few days later I had a four television crews in my office. Actually, I went to Berlin to the Falling Walls Conference. When I arrived there I had emails from Good Morning America, CBS,.. and over there were so many reporters interested from radio, TV, newspapers, that they put many of them in one room. It was really unusual for a scientist, because most of the time you are work in the dark. I used this as a platform to communicate science more broadly.
DIANA: Well, I have seen you have been really busy with science communication. Of course, I appreciate it and would like to know more about your personal motivation.
AVI: I think it’s important, because the public funds us. The public deserves to know what is happening. The public is excited by topics like this. If the public is excited, why should the scientists say: ‘Shh, don’t talk about it’. If the public wants to hear more about it and wants us to consider these possibilities. We should attend to that. Moreover, when one kid in one country decides to enter science out of hearing my story I would be very happy, because bringing youth to science. There must be a huge amount of talent in countries around the world not going into science. And that’s unfortunate. Because I think science is the future. Technology, for example, is evolving every three years, exponentially. That’s why we have a hard time imagining what another civilization would look like. If it’s thousand, million or a billion years old – we cannot imagine. It would be like showing a cell phone to a caveman.
And the caveman would think it’s a piece of rock. That’s indeed what my colleagues are saying about this object Oumuamua – that it’s just a piece of rock. But I think it’s a lot of opportunity in the future in the form of science and technology. We should be open minded and think about what’s out there in the sky, it’s the biggest neighborhood that we have. We should also be open minded what our colleagues are discussing. To allow for innovation. We should bring young people to the process, because they have less baggage, less Ego, but more motivation. That’s the theme behind my science communication.
full article published in PLASMA magazine 5