Galileo Project: Religion, science and the search for extraterrestrial life

Galileo Project: Religion, science and the search for extraterrestrial life
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During the Jewish High-Holidays, Rabbi Rob Dobrusin at the Beth Israel Congregation in Michigan gave a sermon incorporating my book “Extraterrestrial.” The sermon was posted on Twitter, prompting an existential debate.

A member of the congregation who heard the sermon asked me whether I believe that humans are made in the image of God. As a scientist, I concurred with this notion as long as we identify God with nature, similarly to the view advocated by the rational philosopher, Baruch Spinoza.

Harvard historian and professor Erez Manela, wrote to me, “it’s striking how your work is shaping religious sermons but not surprising given how it bleeds into questions of the meaning of life and humanity’s place in the universe.”

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Princeton astronomer and professor Neta Bahcall said to me, “very interesting how this has reached and touched such important and unexpected places. 

The possible existence of intelligent extraterrestrials touches upon the most fundamental aspects of human existence. The natural objects that astronomers study routinely, such as stars, black hole, dark matter or the cosmic microwave background, obey without exception the strict the laws of physics and lack the freedom associated with human consciousness. 

Finding extraterrestrials would feel like discovering cosmic relatives whom we never met, and who can unravel family secrets from our past. The implications of their existence are looming too large to be encapsulated by scientific equations and extend well beyond the halls of academia.

The recently announced Galileo Project aims to employ the standard scientific method in finding out whether technological equipment from extraterrestrial civilizations exists near Earth, as hinted by the recent Unidentified Aerial Phenomena report to Congress or the discovery of the weird interstellar object, `Oumuamua. Finding that we are not the smartest species out there could have broad implications to our most fundamental puzzles:

  1. What is the meaning of our life? If these other actors had been around for a larger fraction of the past 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, they may have acquired a better perspective about the meaning of life. It is presumptuous of us to grasp this meaning based on less than ten thousand years of our recorded history.
  1. Does God exist? If we mean “someone that can create life or new universes” and their scientific understanding of biology and quantum-gravity is well ahead of ours, then they might possess the abilities that our religious texts assigned to a divine entity. We are close to creating synthetic life in our laboratories only a century into our modern scientific development.
  1. Is there life after death? If found, encountering extraterrestrials might teach us how to extend our life expectancy by orders of magnitude with advanced technologies. If death can be postponed enough, then this question loses urgency in affecting our daily routines.
  1. How should humans treat each other? The realization that there is a far more advanced species out there, will make our genetic variations less significant and convince us to treat each other as equal members of the human species.
  1. What should be our goals? A broader perspective of the realities far from Earth will reshape our goals in maintaining longevity within the full cosmic context.
  1. Unsolved scientific puzzles, such as: What happened before the Big Bang? What is Dark Matter? What happens inside a black hole? If extraterrestrial science is far more advanced than ours, we might learn the answers to our unsolved questions. Benefitting from the knowledge of others will teach us modesty. Just as opening a random page in a recipe book does not land on the best cake possible, Albert Einstein may not have been the smartest scientist since the Big Bang.

We can continue down this list of existential questions without limit. For now, thinking about extraterrestrials is equivalent to thinking about a better version of ourselves. And so let us stay hopeful as the Galileo Project searches for signs of cosmic neighbors out there. And while we are waiting, let us improve ourselves so that we will deserve their respect when we meet them. If I were a Rabbi, this would have been my sermon.

Avi Loeb is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was the longest-serving chair in the history of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He serves as the founding director of Harvard's Black Hole Initiative, the director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and chairs and the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project. Loeb is the former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the White House. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.