Avi revealed that I look for indications of intelligent civilizations in the sky because avi can’t seem to locate any on Earth in a recent Q&A forum about my book Extraterrestrial. “How do you characterize an intelligent civilization?” a member of the crowd joked.
In avi’s opinion, an intelligent society is defined by scientific hallmarks, such as creating a successful future via cooperation and the exchange of evidence-based information. According to daily news reports, humanity does not always follow these rules. We tend to argue with one another, to choose bias over facts, and to look for methods to feel superior to others. Elitism, supremacism, nationalism, racism, antisemitism, genocide, and warfare are all manifestations of the final tendency, which has been the root of all evil throughout human history.
In terms of the devastation produced by wars, Winston Churchill drafted an article in 1939 on the thrilling potential of the hunt for extraterrestrial life, but he didn’t have time to publish it because he was called to lead the United Kingdom in its battle against the Nazi government. The Second World War cost the United States alone four trillion dollars and 75 million lives—roughly 3% of the world’s population at the time—due to Hitler’s bigotry and antisemitism. A genocide of six million Jews—roughly two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population—was among the human losses. Before the war, my grandfather’s family lived in Germany for seven centuries, and all that remains now is a street named after him in his birth town, the Albert-Loeb-Weg.
We could have known by now if there are brighter kids on our cosmic block if the lost resources and lives had been committed to Churchill’s original goal instead of being wrongly wasted. This alternative history would have signified intellect on our part and secured Churchill’s legacy as a thinker rather than a politician. Instead, an alien civilization studying us during World War II would have decided that we had a long way to go before being recognized as an intelligent species on a cosmic scale.
Cooperation, the polar opposite of conflict, is best illustrated by scientific culture. As a professional scientist, Avi has the opportunity of meeting many other scientists who share my interests when he travels across the world. Sharing knowledge turns science into an infinite-sum game in which everyone wins by working together. Vaccines may have been produced sooner if medical records in China had been shared more openly during the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic, sparing more human lives. Through collaboration on the one planet, we all inhabit, science provides a worldwide answer to our global challenges.
Science and technology’s amazing accomplishment in producing the COVID-19 vaccines is underappreciated. In the United States, patients who are not completely immunized account for more than 99 percent of all COVID-19 hospitalizations. This fact alone demonstrates medical science’s and technology’s victory in protecting humanity from the epidemic. Instead of utilizing a weakened virus, the successful messenger RNA vaccine used a synthetic chemical to elicit the necessary immune response.
The transfer of scientific knowledge to a practical application, like in the instance of the COVID-19 vaccinations, frequently results from years of blue-sky study aimed at improving fundamental principles. Another important essay written in 1939 was by Abraham Flexner, the founding director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, who helped bring many Jewish scientists from Europe to the United States who would have been persecuted by the rising Nazi government, including the institute’s very first professor, Albert Einstein. Germany’s scientific leadership was lost as a result of its fascist transformation.
In his article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Flexner discusses how curiosity-driven study with no regard for applicability leads to some of the most groundbreaking technical discoveries. It might take a long time for scientific breakthroughs to be put into practice. When Albert Einstein created the general theory of relativity in 1915, he was primarily concerned with its application to the solar system (Mercury’s precession and the sun’s deflection of starlight) and the cosmos, but he never imagined it would play such a critical role in enabling the precision required for global positioning systems a century later. Quantum mechanics’ creators had no idea how widely it will be used in electrical gadgets and computers.
Science is the candle that will guide us through the darkness. Finding technical traces of extraterrestrial civilizations that had more time to develop their knowledge because their host stars originated before the sun can provide us a look into our future. This quest for biological and technical evidence of intelligent life is covered in depth in Life in the Cosmos, a new textbook I co-authored with my former postdoc Manasvi Lingam and will be released by Harvard University Press on June 29. Avi would have sent Churchill a gift copy of this textbook with a devoted dedication if he were still alive, as a token of my thanks for his insight in 1939.
Let us hope for a better human future led by science rather than war. The scientific discovery that distant alien bits of intelligence exist may appear meaningless at first look, but it might have a significant practical value in pushing our civilization to get its act together and prevent conflicts, as envisioned in then-President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 UN speech. We may show alien civilizations that there is an intelligent race on Earth worthy of their attention if we follow scientific principles of collaboration in pursuit of evidence-based knowledge. Perhaps then it will become obvious why they have been so oblivious to our existence for so long. Fermi’s dilemma will be answered if they admit that human acts are, at long last, intelligent. For the first time in human history, smarter behavior on our part might win us a seat in the exclusive club of intelligent galactic civilizations.
Avi Loeb is former chair (2011-2020) of the astronomy department at Harvard University, founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He also chairs the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a member of President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Loeb is the bestselling author of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).