Was ‘Oumuamua a rock or an alien scout? Harvard astronomer talks controversial hypothesis in new book

Ari Loeb, who suggested in 2018 that the mysterious object was an alien craft, is back to discuss the evidence.

Was ‘Oumuamua a rock or an alien scout? Harvard astronomer talks controversial hypothesis in new book
Credit: NASA/M. Kornmesser, European Southern Observatory/Big Think
  • 'Oumuamua is the first known object we've observed coming to our solar system from somewhere beyond it.
  • Most experts think it was just a very odd rock, but not everyone is so sure.
  • Harvard astronomer Ari Loeb says the evidence is more consistent with it having been a light-sail spacecraft.

If we became especially interested in another solar system and wanted to send an exploratory craft, how would we do it? Even the nearest solar system—Proxima Centauri is its sun—is about 40,208,000,000,000 kilometers from here, so there's no way our scout could carry enough fuel to get there. Might we could use something like a light, or solar, sail? Light-sail craft already exist, and they do work.

Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb made headlines in 2018 when he suggested that the extra-solar object 'Oumuamua—which, after all, does mean "scout" in Hawaiian—was just such a craft sent to have a look at our solar system. Since then, if anything he's become even more convinced, and Loeb has just published his reasoning and other thoughts in a new book, "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond Earth."

But it's a rock

Credit: M. Kornmesser, European Southern Observatory (top)/ K. Meech et al., NASA (bottom)

The visual image that comes to mind in thinking about 'Oumuamua is the artist's rendition (above top) that was released by the European Southern Observatory when the object was discovered on its way out of our solar system in 2017. Listening to Loeb's claims, one may think, "What light sail? It's a rock."

However, it's all too easy to forget that this ubiquitous image is just an artists' rendition after all, based on the assumption that our visitor was a rock. It need not have looked like this at all. We have no idea what 'Oumuamua really looked like, since the image at the bottom shows the best look at the object we really got.

What is a light sail?

The camera on Planetary Society's Light Sail 2 capture an image of northern Brazil

Credit: Planetary Society

A light sail is a spacecraft constructed from panels of a lightweight, reflective material such as Mylar or polyimide treated with a metallic reflective coating. When photons from a star, such as our Sun, hit the sail, they give it a small push. When the photons bounce back off of the sail, they give it another one. It doesn't take much of a shove to move a light sail through a vacuum of space, and it's believed light sails can pick up quite a lot of speed as they go. Loeb himself is involved in the Breakthrough Starshot project that envisions light-sail craft shooting through space at 100 million miles an hour.

The first functioning light sail, LightSail Sail 2 was sent aloft by the Planetary Society in June 2019, and is currently orbiting the Earth. This year, NASA plans to deploy the NEA Scout mission that will send an 86-square-meter light sail off from Moon orbit to explore the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa.

Loeb's clues

To Loeb, the object's apparent appearance and behavior doesn't suggest a rock.

First off, what appears to be 'Oumuamua's shape—described as being about 100 meters long and resembling either a cigar or pancake—doesn't describe previously seen comets or asteroids. Second, 'Oumuamua was also exceptionally bright, 10 times moreso than space rocks typically seen whizzing around our solar system. This high level of reflectivity would consistent with a shiny, metallic surface.

Finally, 'Oumuamua accelerated as it whipped around the sun as if it was picking up energy from the star. While such behavior is common when comets speed up, pushed forward by evaporating gasses from the sun's warm, no such gases were observed with 'Oumuamua.

With all this in mind, Loeb, along with co-author Shmuel Bialy, published a controversial paper in Fall of 2018 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters hypothesizing the object might be an extraterrestrial craft. The paper suggested that maybe "'Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space," perhaps "debris from advanced technological equipment." It also posited an admittedly more "exotic" possibility, "that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization."

Needless to say, the paper was met with a great deal of excitement. Did 'Oumuamua signify the presence of intelligent life beyond our solar system, or—as many scientists felt—was such conjecture unworthy of serious consideration?

Welcome to 2021

As the title of his new book implies, Loeb continues to assert the validity of his earlier analysis, demanding that the scientific community at least consider the possibility that 'Oumuamua was an exploratory craft.

One of the underlying themes of the book is Loeb's concern about the "health" of a scientific community that can't even entertain a hypothesis such as his and Bialy's. (This month, Scientific American published an extended and thought-provoking interview with Loeb.) In the book and interview, Loeb attributes his notoriety to an overreaction by the scientific community to his 2018 paper. While much of the book is autobiographical, Loeb claims he isn't interested in his own fame, and he recently stepped down from Harvard's Astronomy department.

"My message is that something is wrong with the scientific community today in terms of its health," Loeb told Scientific American, adding that too many in the science community are motivated by ego and self-image, when science should be about taking risks and trying to understand the world.

"People ask why I get this media attention. The only reason is because my colleagues are not using common sense," Loeb said. "Contrast string theory and multiverses with what I and many others say, which is that based on the data from NASA's Kepler mission, roughly half of the galaxy's sunlike stars have a planet about the size of the Earth, at about the same distance of the Earth from the sun, so that you can have liquid water on the surface and the chemistry of life as we know it. So if you roll the dice on life billions of times in the Milky Way, what is the chance that we are alone?"

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Credit: Getty Images
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Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
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