Risk assessment in mainstream science
Mainstream science invests billions of dollars in searches for the unknown — but which unknowns are worth the money?
The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, cost about $10 billion to search for supersymmetry. After smashing subatomic particle at unprecedented energies that were expected to reveal the existence of new supersymmetric particles, none was discovered.
Risk is an inevitable component of innovative research at the frontiers of science. But how should we decide whether it is worthwhile to take a particular risk and what level of risk should scientists tolerate for a given price tag?
The existing funding system is based on committees led by mainstream scientists who are trained and rewarded for a conservative mindset guided by consensus within academia. But there are alternative measures of the worthiness for taking risks in science:
- Interest by the public, which funds science
- Potential impact on society
- Magnitude of improvement in our scientific knowledge of reality
By these additional measures, other areas if research should gain priority relative to the search for supersymmetry — including the search for extraterrestrial equipment near Earth. Yet, searching for such objects is funded at two parts in 10,000 of the budget allocated to the search for supersymmetry. How did we get there?
There are three major arguments used by the scientific mainstream to favor the investment of funds in the search for supersymmetry over extraterrestrial equipment in space.
One argument follows Astronomer Carl Sagan’s standard, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The problem with this argument is that it constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just as with supersymmetry, it is difficult to collect extraordinary evidence for extraterrestrial equipment without investing extraordinary funds in the quest for it.
The second argument dates back to physicist Enrico Fermi’s 1950 question: “where is everybody?” Obviously, it would be meaningless for us to ask the question, “where is supersymmetry?” without investing billions of dollars in a new collider that could find it, because supersymmetric particles were never observed before such an expensive accelerator was built. Similarly, it only makes sense to ask “where is everybody?” after investing billions of dollars in the search for extraterrestrial artefacts in space.
Finally, there is the assumption that we are likely to be the smartest kid on the cosmic block. It helps our ego to promote this arrogant premise as our starting point. But the message we keep getting back from exploring the universe is exactly the opposite: We are not situated at the center of any astrophysical system. We arrived late in cosmic history — 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and the planet-sun system is common. Given that most planet-sun systems formed billions of years before our solar system, our starting point should be that a technological civilization like ours probably predated us by billions of years. And since we have been launching probes into interstellar space, others may have done so before us. Even if the senders perished by now, their packages may still be in our mailbox. The only way to find out if we have mail is to search for unusual interstellar objects in the solar system.
Seven decades ago, when Fermi asked his question, we did not have the capability to notice interstellar equipment of reasonable size within the orbit of the Earth around the sun. For the first time in human history, the installation of the survey telescope Pan STARRS allowed us to detect the reflected sunlight from an interstellar object of the size of a football field.
In October 2017, Pan STARRS discovered the first interstellar object, `Oumuamua. Remarkably, this object appeared and behaved differently from known asteroids or comets. It possessed an extreme — most likely flat — shape and was pushed away from the sun without showing any sign of outgassing.
In September 2020, Pan STARRS discovered another strange object, 2020 SO, which also exhibited a push away from the sun without a cometary tail, just as `Oumuamua did. This object turned out to be artificial for sure, a rocket booster launched by NASA in 1966 and pushed by the reflection of sunlight from its thin walls.
The discovery of `Oumuamua is sufficiently intriguing to bring the search for extraterrestrial equipment to a higher priority level in our scientific mainstream agenda than the search for supersymmetry, for which we still do not have experimental indications.
When considering research to support, federal agencies and donors must recognize the opportunity and potential impact of the search for interstellar objects and extraterrestrial life.
Avi Loeb is head of Harvard’s Galileo Project, a systematic scientific search for evidence of extraterrestrial technological artifacts. Loeb is 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 he chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project. He is the author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.”