Avi Loeb’s deep dive for alien life makes other scientists gasp

On January 8, 2014, a fireball shot from space through Earth’s atmosphere and crashed into the sea, north of Manus Island off the northeastern coast of Papua New Guinea. Its location, speed, and brightness were recorded by US government sensors and quietly put away in a database of similar events.

That data lingered for five years, an indisputable source until Avi Loeb, a theoretical astrophysicist at Harvard University, and Amir Siraj, then an undergraduate at the university, stumbled upon it in 2019. Based on its recorded speed and direction, Mr Siraj identified the fireball as extremely extreme.

Last month, Dr. Loeb led an expedition to recover fireball fragments from the seafloor of the western Pacific Ocean. On June 21, he said claimed which he had. And that, he says, to the chagrin of many of his colleagues, may be evidence of extraterrestrial life.

“Not biological creatures, like you see in science fiction movies,” said Dr. Loeb. “It is most likely a technological tool with artificial intelligence.”

However, many astronomers see the announcement as the latest example of Dr. Loeb making a strange announcement that’s too forceful and too hasty. His remarks (and promotional Video in Times Square about the search for extraterrestrial life) They say that public perception distorts how science actually works.

“People are tired of hearing Avi Loeb’s wild claims,” ​​said Steve Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University. “It pollutes the good science—confusing the good science we do with this ridiculous excitement and sucking all the oxygen out of the room.”

Dr. Desch added that many of his colleagues now refuse to engage with Dr. Loeb’s work on peer review, the process by which scientists evaluate each other’s research to ensure that only high-quality studies are published. “It’s a real breakdown of the peer-review process and the scientific method,” he said. “This is very frustrating and tiring.”

dr. Loeb also studies Fireball Catalog From the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA. This led to the discovery of the object in 2014. From its orientation and velocity at impact — 28 miles per second — Dr. Loeb and Mr. Siraj concluded that the fireball was moving far too quickly for something associated with the Sun’s gravity. This means that, like Oumuamua, he must also be among the stars.

They wrote a paper about the discovery in 2019. It was initially rejected by The Astrophysical Journal, but the same journal accepted it for publication last November, several months after the US Space Command announced In a note circulated on Twitter that measurements of the fireball’s velocity were accurate enough to infer an interstellar origin.

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That appeal to power is not enough, said Peter Brown, a meteorite physicist at Western University in Ontario. It is not known how accurate the US Department of Defense data is, which affects how likely it is that the object came from abroad.

“We know from experience, operating ground-based radar networks and optical networks, that you often find that many percent of all the events you detect appear to be interstellar,” said Dr. Brown. So far, he continued, nearly all of these events can be attributed to measurement error.

Dr. Brown and others were also alarmed by Dr. Loeb’s lack of involvement with the community of experts who study fast-flying fireballs.

Dr. Loeb’s latest trip to the ocean to save the remains of the meteorite in question was funded by $1.5 million from Charles Hoskinson, a cryptocurrency entrepreneur, and organized by EYOS missions. The voyage took place about 60 nautical miles north of Manus Island along the expected path from Fireball 2014. In addition to Mr. Hoskinson, Dr. Loeb was accompanied by a group of scientists, engineers, sailors, and a camera crew. He documented the trip and its results in 42 volumes (and counting). A series of self-published blog posts.

For two weeks, the science team dragged a specially designed sled equipped with magnets, cameras and lights across the seafloor, retrieving it at regular intervals to search for the metal pieces from the 2014 fireball stuck to its surface. In the end, they recovered dozens of shiny beads, each less than a millimeter in diameter. Preliminary analyzes on the ship showed that these pellets were mostly made of iron, with smaller amounts of other metals.

This was not commonly found in the waters around Manus Island, said Maurice Teevey, a marine geophysicist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who was not involved in the expedition but used underwater robots to map that area of ​​the sea floor. Instead, sediments and volcanic ash are prolific – material that doesn’t move around much once it settles to the ocean floor.

This, along with the roundness of the retrieved parts—suggesting that they were once aerodynamic—seemed largely decisive to Dr. Tivey. “So I guess he found pieces of it,” he said.

Suspicions about the endeavor have flared up recently Asteroids, Comets and Meteorites Conference that occurred during the Deep Sea Expedition. There, Dr. Dish argued that had the fireball been moving at the speed reported, there would be nothing left to find – the meteorite would have burned up completely in the atmosphere. Even in the most generous scenario, he said, only one milligram of material would have remained, and it would have spread over an area of ​​tens of square kilometers along the ocean floor.

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Dr. Brown also presented at the conference, describing a recent analysis using data from a variety of instruments to verify the measurements of 17 objects listed in the same NASA fireball catalog used by Dr. Loeb and Mr. Siraj. for him resultswhich has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, indicates that catalog data often get wrong directions and velocities and that the magnitude of error for velocity measurements increases for objects with greater velocity.

These faults, Dr. Brown explained, are large enough to move 2014’s fireball from an unbound orbit to a bound orbit – meaning it probably wasn’t among the stars after all. He found that if the object was actually traveling at close to 12.5 miles per second upon impact, its brightness, density and aerodynamic drag fit better with theoretical models of meteorites.

On this basis, Dr. Brown concluded that the fireball was most likely affected by a lower velocity. “If the velocity is overestimated,” he said, “the object becomes, in a sense, within the realm of what we see in terms of other solar system objects bound.”

Dr. disagreed. Lube with this rejection.

“When I was educated as a physicist, I was told when you have a model and it doesn’t agree with the data, that means you have to revise your model,” he said, referring to measurements in a NASA catalog.

He also believes, unlike many of his colleagues, that US military sensors are trustworthy, although he lacks access to their raw readings. “They are responsible for national security,” said Dr. Loeb. “I think they know what they’re doing.” That he and his team found what they believe to be fragments of a 2014 meteorite at the location indicated by those measurements makes him even more certain.

The government is unlikely to declassify the accuracy of these devices’ data. So Dr. Loeb relies on a different kind of proof: He has sent the spheres to labs at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Brucker in Germany for analysis and a thorough history. The balls are older than our solar system, or have a distinct isotopic signature, must be interstellar.

At Berkeley, Dr. Loeb performed some of the first examinations himself. Early tests revealed the presence of uranium and lead, and their abundance can be used to estimate the age of the material. Dr. Loeb claims that two of the spheres along the projected trajectory of the fireball appear to be as old as the universe itself.

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This is in contrast to the ball recovered farther from the fireball’s path, which Dr. Loeb speculates is either geological in origin or from a different meteorite. He estimated that this ball is a few billion years old, compared to the age of our solar system.

But even if the fireball did indeed come from another cosmic neighborhood, more evidence is needed to show that the fireballs are linked to extraterrestrial life.

According to Don Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington who used magnets to collect cosmic marbles from the seafloor in the 1970s, if the balls don’t contain nickel, they probably aren’t from a natural meteorite. On the other hand, he says, if no oxygen was found, it is unlikely that the substance would have passed through Earth’s atmosphere. Dr. has done. already lube written that early results revealed a nickel deficiency, but it did not mention oxygen.

He’s open to the possibility that he’s wrong, but he also likes to call out science stars in response to such concerns. “Einstein was wrong three times over,” he said, referring to supermassive black holes, gravitational waves, and quantum entanglement — all discoveries that have since been recognized with Nobel Prizes in Physics. “It’s useful to test ideas empirically,” said Dr. Loeb. “Let the guide be the guide.”

According to Dr. Desch, the meteorite community believes that interstellar objects are out there, and they’re eager for one of them to hit Earth — there’s been no solid evidence yet of that happening. “I just want to assure the public that scientists don’t make things up,” he said. “What the public sees in Loeb is not how science works. And they shouldn’t go so far as to think about that.”

The public may hear more from Dr. Loeb about cutting extra rocks from the sea floor. Later this year, his team plans to return to the waters north of Papua New Guinea to search for traces larger than the 2014 fireball. And in 2024, the team says it will visit a site off the coast of Portugal for the remains of a second meteorite that Dr. Loeb and Mr. Siraj have. confirmed He is out among the stars.

“He could be wrong, but we’ll never know unless we look,” said Rob McCallum, co-founder of EYOS Expeditions and primary organizer of the latest expedition.

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