Are We Alone? The Search for Life Beyond Earth
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter made history with a series of brief but groundbreaking flights into the planet's way below freezing dusty atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than ours.
NASA DRONE OPERATOR Hover, descent, landing, touchdown and spin down. The Ingenuity has performed it's first flight. The first flight of a parrot aircraft on another planet. [END CLIP].
NEWS REPORT Very, very difficult to fly a rotorcraft at Mars. You know, a rotorcraft pushes atmosphere to generate lift. And when there is that little atmosphere, the rotor system has just been really fast. [END CLIP].
NEWS REPORT For everything else that's bad in the world. For everything else that we can't do, you believe that we can do this? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This feat exemplifies the challenge robotics engineers confront when designing vehicles to explore the Red Planet's mysterious terrain. But as in any pursuit of truth, what we discover there depends on the questions we seek to answer. Brendan Chamberlain-Simon is a robotics technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was a helicopter integration engineer on the Mars 2020 mission and the Mars Science Laboratory rover planner. I asked him what drew him to the pursuit of space as if, you know, I didn't know.
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON I was just a curious kid. I had a lot of questions that I wanted answers to, and space felt like the final frontier [BROOKE CHUCKLES] that was just ripe for having questions answered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what sort of questions did you have?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON I remember being very distraught that I couldn't wrap my mind around the concept of infinity. It just kind of drove me crazy. You know, I was probably playing a lot of Super Mario at the time, and you go on the edge of the screen and you can wrap back around, and I remember just thinking about that for hours and hours and hours, looking at the night sky. I was taking it very seriously. You know, I'd say to my mom, I'm really grappling with this. But, you know, a lot of it has to do with wanting to scratch the itch of exploration. There's no bigger way to do that than to explore space.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you're working from home. Were you directing the helicopter in your pajamas?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON So for the helicopter, not pajamas. We have been working on Mars time and there have been a group of maybe 50 to 100 of us coming into the lab every day. The commands that we send to the rover that I do do from my bedroom and often from pajamas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does that bring you back to the days of Super Mario?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON It really does, and it's so funny. I went to visit my parents back in June. I got to drive the Mars rover from my childhood bed. You know, my mom used to say, you'll never make anything happen if you don't get out of bed. [BROOKE CHUCKLES] Touché.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What's it like to live on Mars time?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON Very strange. The Martian day is 24 hours, 37 minutes and change, so it's just a bit longer than a day on Earth, which sounds like it would be very convenient, but in fact, it's kind of really in the sweet spot of: "oh, this is a bummer." We wake up 45 minutes later every day. So over the course of the month, I will go from starting work at 8:00 a.m. to starting work at 8:00 p.m. and all the way back around to starting work at eight a.m. again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why are you on Mars time?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON It's a great question. We give the vehicle on Mars an entire day's worth of instructions. We'll go to bed. It will execute those plans and then we'll wake up and it will have done the work that we asked it to do and we'll have sent the data back. So every day you get to wake up seeing this is how my commands went on the actual surface of Mars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you're in the driver's seat, more or less if the rover, what does it feel like?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON There are some times when you're looking at this brand new panorama from the surface of Mars and it's very beautiful, but it's very desolate. You can connect to this idea of like this is open space and in this exact moment, it's all mine. And there's something really special about that kind of solitude. There are other times when it purely feels like a video game. I can't even convince my brain that it's real.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you think you'd react if a little green man just sort of popped into view?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON I would be excited. I would be so curious to know what would change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What would be the first question you'd ask the little green man?
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON [CHUCKLES] The first question that's that's an interesting I don't know if I've ever been asked that, actually. I went to go see a talk with some of the folks that designed the golden record and decided what was going to be on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The golden record full of humanity's greatest hits for whoever might find it.
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON Yeah, Carl Sagan worked on the Golden Record, and while working on that record, he met the person that would become his wife. And she was at that talk and she did something that I thought was so brilliant and so touching. She put on like a brainwave sensor and she did an hour long meditation on what it was like to be a human being, newly falling in love. You could tell that she really believed if we send this golden record into space and there is a species that is capable of receiving and interpreting this record, that that meditation on being a human being in love would just be as interpretable to them as the other things we put on the record. The images, the sounds, the text that they would receive that and understand that. And I thought that that was such a smart thing to include.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much, Brendon.
BRENDAN CHAMBERLAIN-SIMON No problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brendan Chamberlain-Simon is a robotics technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a helicopter integration engineer on the Mars 2020 mission, and the Mars Science Laboratory Rover Planner. While NASA sends its best and brightest out to explore Mars, did you ever wonder if anything out there has been sent out in search of us? The search for signs of life like microbes on Mars or water or phosphine on Venus is applauded by the mainstream scientific community, but according to theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, professor of science at Harvard University, where he directs the Black Hole Initiative and the Institute for Theory and Computation, there is no such enthusiasm for serious research into the possible existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. And yet, he argues, the evidence is there. In his book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, he makes the case for the most compelling evidence we have. A streak in the sky captured by a telescope on the island of Maui on October 19th, 2017. Nobody ever got a clear picture of the object, which was named Oumuamua Hawaiian for scout, but in the ten odd days that followed, scientists collected as much data as they could and detected aspects of Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system that had never been seen before. Strange and shiny reflections as it spun and sped away from the sun, a weirdly smooth trajectory, no trace of ice or dust indicating it was losing mass, which would enable its speed.
AVI LOEB First of all, it didn't look like a comet. It didn't have any tail of gas or dust around it. Then the amount of sunlight reflected from its surface as it was tumbling changed by a factor of 10, which is much more than we usually see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you're saying that as it was swinging by the sun, the reflections were like 10 times brighter and then 10 times less than 10 times brighter?
AVI LOEB Yes, every eight hours it was tumbling. It means that it's at least ten times longer than it is wide. The best model at the 91 percent confidence was that of a flat object. So you can think of it as a piece of paper tumbling in the wind. It also exhibited an excess push away from the sun. And the only sense I could make of it is that it was due to the reflection of sunlight. And for that the object had to be very thin with a large area for its mass. We have seen this phenomena of an object that is getting pushed by reflecting sunlight without showing cometary tail at all. Just about seven months ago, there was this object given the name 2020 SO then the astronomers discovered it, realized that it's actually a rocket booster that came from Earth launched in 1966. And we know that its walls were very thin. That's why it had a lot of area. Nature doesn't make thin films that look like sails. The only question is who produced Oumuamua?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some said that Oumuamua was a strange comet or an asteroid. Others suggested that it was a fluffy cloud of dust that was somehow being held together.
AVI LOEB All of the suggestions made for a natural origin involved something that we've never seen before, like an iceberg made of pure hydrogen so that we won't see the cometary tail because hydrogen is transparent. The problem with that is hydrogen evaporates very quickly. So such an object would not survive the journey through interstellar space. Then the suggestion of a dust cloud has the problem that when it gets close to the sun, it will get heated by hundreds of degrees and would not have the material strength to maintain its integrity. My point was simple, if we imagine something that we've never seen before, then why not contemplate an artificial origin? And of course, there is a way to tell the difference between a naturally produced object and artificial object. We get an advance warning of a future object that looks as weird as Oumuamua. Then we send the spacecraft equipped with a camera, then take a photograph.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have been accused of presenting this idea that Oumuamua is a light sail because you've researched light sails very closely for something called the Star Shot Initiative. What do you say to people who say you have a light sail bias?
AVI LOEB Well, my point is more that it's artificial and not natural because it doesn't share the qualities of all the objects we've seen before. The experience is similar to walking on the beach. Most of the time you see rocks that are naturally produced, or seashells, but every now and then you see a plastic bottle. A plastic bottle is an artificial object and it tells you that there is a civilization out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you see Oumuamua as a plastic bottle, but your skeptical colleagues, you say they're just looking for seashells?
AVI LOEB Right! Actually, the analogy is a better one with a caveman that is used to playing with rocks all of his life. And you present the cell phone to a caveman. The caveman would say, oh, that's just a shiny rock.
BROOKE GLADSTONE An astronomer in that camp said that Oumuamua is likely a reddish and naturally occurring object, saying: we've never seen anything like this in our solar system. It's really a mystery, but our preference is to stick with analogues we know.
AVI LOEB You know, we can stay ignorant. We can always assume that we are unique and special, there is nothing out there. We never look through the windows of our house to see if we have neighbors. But if we have neighbors, that will not change reality. Reality doesn't care whether we ignore it or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You make much in your book about the scientific community's tendency not to follow the rule of Occam's razor, that the simplest explanation is probably the right one. You wish that the scientific community would approach science more like a child would. A child has to bump into the sharp edges of the coffee table before they realize they need to look out for it. These collisions with reality, with nature, they may be painful, but they're essential for progress.
AVI LOEB I call it putting skin in the game. Making predictions that can be tested by experiments. But the current culture is driven more towards demonstrating that you are smart. And that explains why there are ideas in the mainstream of physics right now that are not tested. String theory, Extra dimensions, the multiverse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The multiverse, for instance, suggests that there's an unknowable number of universes exactly like ours, in which every possibility could happen.
AVI LOEB Exactly. Scientists in the mainstream feel very comfortable working on them because there are no experiments that can prove them wrong. But talking about technological relics from other civilizations is completely pushed to the sideline, and that's what I don't understand because we exist. We know that the conditions on billions of other planets are very similar to those on Earth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A quarter of stars in the universe may host habitable planets, maybe more than half of all sun-like stars in the Milky Way. I mean, we're talking about billions, right?
AVI LOEB Billions. And so I don't think it's an extraordinary claim to say let's search for things like us that may have existed in the past around other stars. Why is that considered outrageous? Most of the stars formed billions of years before the sun. That means that a lot of them went through the evolution of the solar system billions of years ago. So we sent out the Voyager One, Voyager Two, New Horizons into space, and you would imagine that if such stars hosted technological civilizations, that there would be a lot of space trash out there, and over time it accumulates. So in my view, the wake up call from the discovery of a Oumuamua is we should engage in space archeology. We should look for physical relics that came from other civilizations. The survival of humanity could have a relationship to what we find in space, because one possible reason why we don't establish contact is because civilizations perish a few centuries after they developed their technological abilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is an idea you introduced me to it in the book called "The Great Filter," which strongly implies we better hurry up if we want a future because we're facing a deadline of our own creation.
AVI LOEB The Great Filter argues there were a lot of technological civilizations, but they were short lived. There is a very narrow window of opportunity for us to converse with them. They live for a short time when they are achieving technological maturity
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because of technology.
AVI LOEB Yes, of the type that we encounter in the form of climate change and wars and other disasters that are self-inflicted by technology. This may teach us the lesson to get our act together and avoid a similar fate. That's my hope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you suggest that the conservative tendencies of science can doom us as well?
AVI LOEB Yeah, I argue that extraordinary conservatism leads to extraordinary ignorance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You urge the world of science, actually the entire world, to make a leap of faith. You call it Oumuamua's wager, it strongly resembles the wager on God offered by the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal.
AVI LOEB Yes. So Pascal talked about God. As a mathematician, he said there are two logical possibilities, either that God exists or that it doesn't exist. However, if God exists, the implications are major.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because we could fry in hell if we don't believe in God.
AVI LOEB Well, the implications are sensitive to the culture you grow up in. His point was that you cannot dismiss this notion because the implications could be great and you have to weigh that in if God exists. I'm advocating not a leap in faith, but rather in seeking more evidence for objects that look as weird as Oumuamua so that we can take a close up photograph. My point is we cannot ignore the possibility that Oumuamua was a technological relic and therefore we should collect more data on objects that belong to the same class in the future. For example, there would be a telescope that is much more sensitive than the one that discovered Oumuamua coming online in a couple of years called the Vera Rubin Observatory. And it could uncover an object like Oumuamua every month. If we find one, a year in advance before it approaches us, we can send a camera that would take a close up photo. I mean, that's our obligation. The only way we will not know the answer is if we argue it's always rocks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The wager then is to spend money and allot telescope time to this pursuit. And you outline in your book several times when a conservative scientific community wouldn't allot telescope time. In the end, it cost our civilization a lot of time.
AVI LOEB Yeah, there were many such examples. And when I started practicing astronomy, the mainstream argued that maybe there are no planets around other stars. In fact, in 1952 there was a paper by an astronomer who said, well, just imagine if there is a Jupiter close to a star. It would take the star back and forth. We could detect that motion and infer the existence of a planet. And for four decades nobody attempted that because people said, why would there be a Jupiter close to a star? We know why Jupiter formed so far from the sun. Therefore, we shouldn't waste telescope time in looking for that. Then in 1995, a couple of astronomers discovered such a system and that led to their Nobel Prize a few years ago. That was the first exoplanet around a sun like star.
BROOKE GLADSTONE An exoplanet, meaning a planet outside our solar system.
AVI LOEB Right. And this field is now mainstream and there are thousands of planets known around other stars and we know that they're extremely common. And what we find in the solar system is replicated in billions of other systems. So you ask yourself, OK, well, nothing bad happened, eventually, planets were discovered well there was a delay by four decades and science could have been much more efficient if people were open minded to this idea. Just to give you another example, most of the matter in the universe is made of particles whose identity we don't know we don't know the nature of that matter and we call it dark matter. And for four decades, we've been searching for specific types of particles that will have no impact on our daily lives, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in searching for such particles, didn't find anything. At the same time, the search for technological relics from other civilizations is a thousand times less funded. And you ask yourself, how is that possible? If the public cares about this question, we have the ability to search. Why are we blinding ourselves?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why is science so resistant to it?
AVI LOEB I think the real reason is that there is a lot of discussion in the public about unidentified flying objects and science fiction. And a lot of people in academia want to distance themselves from popular discussions of this type because they are not based on scientific evidence. And also they are worried about what might happen if they are wrong, because the brighter the spotlight is on what you're doing, the more scrutiny you will get.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's riding on your Oumuamua wager? I mean, what changes if we embrace the idea that we're not alone?
AVI LOEB It will change our aspirations for space. If they exist, we could potentially communicate with them, learn from their mistakes. It will change religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs. Rather than fight each other, we might work together as part of the same team. That's really my hope. You know, we might think more globally and try to work out a solution to all the threats, all the challenges in the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there anything specific that you would want to ask extraterrestrial intelligent life if you found it?
AVI LOEB Yeah. What is the meaning of life?
BROOKE GLADSTONE How are they going to know?
AVI LOEB That's a good question. They lived perhaps for longer, and so we are brought into this world like actors put on a stage without a script. And, you know, we might look for other actors and ask them what the play is about. And it's quite possible that they will not have a good answer. And then we will know that we are not alone with our puzzlement about the purpose of our existence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
AVI LOEB Thank you for having me. It was a great pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr. professor of science at Harvard University, where he serves as director for the Institute for Theory and Computation. He's also the author of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, a former child actor confronts the loss of his superpower to the new kid on the block.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
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