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Science is better than politics

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI via AP
(Rotated) This image released by NASA on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, shows the Pillars of Creation, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope in near-infrared-light view.

“Surely, we can distinguish melted shrapnel from stones,” I noted during a Galileo Project research team meeting as we were planning the machinery for the Pacific Ocean expedition to retrieve fragments from the 2014 explosion of the first interstellar meteor.

As shown in a recent paper (that I co-authored with Amory Tillinghast-Raby and Amir Siraj), air friction should have brought down the tiniest spherules just under to the explosion site and larger fragments farther along the original line of motion of the meteor up to its intersection with the ocean surface. The fragment size distribution depends on the unknown material composition of the meteorite. The object was tougher than all other 272 meteors in NASA’s fireball catalog over the past decade. If the material happened to be an artificial alloy characteristic of a technological space artifact, the expedition might recover centimeter-sized pieces akin to shrapnel. Large pieces could alert us to the structure and not just the elemental composition of this object.

I then paused for a few seconds of introspection as to why I used the military metaphor of shrapnel. It occurred to me that on the previous day I was very moved by watching the recent film “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Why did the film resonate so much with me?

The answer is straightforward. I am the grandson of a German Jew — whose full name I carry. My grandfather survived World War I as an artillery cavalry soldier stuck in the mud for two years in the bloody Battle of Verdun against the French army, where 700,000 people died. These deaths were pointless; for all the combat that occurred on the Western Front as the major theatre of the War between 1914 and 1918, the front line remained largely static.

The disregard to human life was displayed in the film through numerous scenes where men were sent to be slaughtered by gun bullets or bayonets for no good reason. These views portray the absurdity of life. Humans can cheer as they march toward their death based on a fictitious narrative of political or military authorities.

The following morning, I told my Harvard students in a class on the “Genesis of Life and Stars in the Universe” to always question authority. A worthy example is the first Ph.D. thesis in astronomy at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, written in 1925 by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin who discovered that the most abundant element on the surface of the sun (and the universe) is hydrogen. However, she was dissuaded from including this conclusion in her thesis by the world authority on stars at the time, Henry Norris Russel, director of the Princeton University Observatory, who said that her findings were “clearly impossible.” The moral of this story is that the elemental composition of the first interstellar meteor will be decided by a mass spectrometer and not by the number of likes it gets on Twitter. 

I never met my grandfather, but I remember inheriting the bayonet and cavalry picture he kept as memorabilia from WWI. When Hitler came to power, my grandfather received a medal as one of the few German heroes who survived the war, but he ended up throwing it away. A Nazi official gave a speech in front of a crowd at his hometown, Netze (in the vicinity of Frankfurt), and remarked on how the Jews are using up the German society for their personal benefit. My grandfather was obviously upset to hear that. He stood up and remarked that he fought for Germany in the war while the speaker chose to be a communist and dodge the draft at that time. The Nazi speaker replied: “We all know about your patriotism, Mr. Loeb; I was referring to the other Jews.” After hearing that and consulting with German friends, my grandfather decided to leave Germany. In the decade that followed, he lost 65 of his family members who were not as concerned as he was and planned to leave on the last train if German politics would deteriorate. That train led to the concentration camps where they lost their lives. Today, this history is encapsulated by Google Maps showing a street named in honor of my grandfather, the “Albert Loeb Weg” at his home German town.

How can we understand the horrors of history? Humans live for merely one part in a hundred million of the sun’s lifespan, yet they happily engage in bloody battles that shorten their lifespan even farther.

If the universe is pointless, as suggested by the Physics Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg,our actual lifespan does not really matter. “To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” wrote the literature Nobel laureate Albert Camus at the opening of his philosophical essay“The Myth of Sisyphus.” Camus added, “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”

I bet that the soldiers in WWI, including my grandfather, had no uplifting answer to Camus’ question. The distinguished scientific career of one of them, Karl Schwarzschild, the Jewish director of the Astrophysical Observatory at Potsdam, was prematurely terminated at age 42 after he volunteered out of German patriotism to join the Russian front in May 1916. While in Russia, Karl wrote two papers on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and one on Max Planck’s quantum theory. The quantum theory paper explained the Stark effect, involving the splitting of the spectral lines of hydrogen by an electric field. Schwarzschild’s relativity papers give the first exact solution of Einstein’s equations of gravity, deriving the spacetime around a point mass. He sent the first paper to Einstein, who replied, “I had not expected that one could formulate the exact solution of the problem in such a simple way.” Schwarzschild’s solution laid the foundation for our current scientific understanding of black holes a century later, including their images.

How many more scientific breakthroughs would have been made by Schwarzschild or other scientists in the absence of WWI or WWII? How much more scientific knowledge would have humanity acquired if it invested its annual military budget worldwide, amounting currently to $2 trillion, in space exploration? With this much money per year, we could have launched miniaturized satellites known as CubeSats to every star within the Milky Way galaxy within this century. Here’s hoping that the first interstellar meteor was sent toward the sun by an intelligent civilization who favored the benefit of scientific exploration over mutual destruction by politics on their home planet.

The reason I seek a higher intelligence in outer space is because I do not find it on Earth. To paraphrase on John F. Kennedy’s “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech: We choose to find our interstellar partners not in order to get more likes on social media, but to claim our status in the class of intelligent civilizations within the Milky Way.

The subdued mood brought about by the film was washed away by three acts of kindness a day later. One was an MIT postdoc thanking me for writing recommendation letters that helped him enter the United States when he applied for a visa as a beginning student. Another was from the instrumentation lead for the Galileo Project thanked me for my mentorship. A third was a former student, the recipient of the Harvard Astronomy department’s Bok Prize for excellence, who thanked me for my support over the years. They all made my day.

So, here we are as humans. Bound by gravity to the surface of a rock we call Earth and capable of acts of kindness or violence. Life feels like swimming through turbulent waters. Some waves carry us down to the ocean floor while others lift us up. During the limited time I have left on this Earth, I am determined to minimize the impact of the downward spiral of politics by celebrating the uplifting moments of scientific discovery and companionship.

The life and premature death of Schwarzschild illustrate the choice we face between science and politics. Here’s hoping that relics of a more advanced extraterrestrial species in the Pacific Ocean will convince all of us to favor science over politics.

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and he is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos.” His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.

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