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Orthodoxy and vanity

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A new book by astronomer Avi Loeb considering the mysterious object from interstellar space that passed through the solar system in 2017, Extraterrestrial, may not have conclusively solved the many questions about this event, but the reaction of some of the scientific community to Dr. Loeb's theories have revealed a lot about ourselves.

The object, dubbed 'Oumuamua, was about 400 meters long, cigar-shaped, moving at an unusually high speed, shinier than a typical space object, and came from the direction of Vega, a star about 25 light years away. Not only was the shape and reflection of the object unusual, but an anomaly in its trajectory was observed that was not readily explainable by conventional physics. It appeared to deviate from the path calculated if the object was just being influenced by the sun's gravitation alone.

These unusual characteristics resulted in speculation that the object was an artifact of an intelligent civilization. Similar scenarios had been depicted in science fiction novels, including Arthur C. Clarke's famous work, Rendezvous With Rama. Dr. Loeb's book argues for that theory and has received a lot of derision from the scientific community, many of whom also ridicule the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence generally, and SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence).

While his book certainly does not offer conclusive evidence of the intelligent origin of 'Oumuamua, nor does it purport to, it is an interesting theory at least deserving of consideration. Just applying Occam's Razor (the most probable explanation for something is that requiring the fewest assumptions), lends it weight. While the shine, shape, and speed might be natural, how can the physics-defying trajectory be explained without inventing new laws? If alien civilizations do in fact exist, our first physical encounter with one might well be in the form of an ancient artifact. This approach does not require postulating the existence of some faster-than-light "warp drive" or other fantastic technologies. It is a lot more serious than predicting that little green men in a saucer will demand an audience with our leaders (although I suppose that some of our political leadership might be best explained by malign extraterrestrial intervention).

The possibility of other intelligence can be supported by considering the vastness of the universe, and applying simple math. If intelligence can occur on Earth, it is likely to have also occurred elsewhere in the infinite reaches of the universe. The old "infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters ... " thing, and all that.

So why are some of the scientific community so hostile and dismissive, especially when many of them readily consider other theories without experimental proof, such as string theory, dark matter, and multiple universes?

Conservatism in science is not only desirable, but necessary. Theories need to be vigorously challenged, especially where acceptance demands an expensive and painful reaction, such as with anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. As Carl Sagan observed, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." But the opposition to Loeb's theories and extraterrestrial intelligence go beyond normal conservatism. What gives?

Well, as Galileo discovered, many people are emotionally resistant to having their place at the center of the universe questioned. His theory that the Earth did not occupy the center of the universe offended the notions of many as to their own primacy in the greater scheme of things. Any civilization with the ability to send an interstellar probe is necessarily more technologically advanced than we are.

This leaves humanity, at best, playing the role of sidekick Ed McMahon to the alien Johnny Carson. Or, less appealingly, treated as entertaining "pets," with our race's greatest achievements reduced to mere amusing tricks like "sit" or "roll over." We might be viewed dryly as just another sample to be catalogued, just as we view, say, a new species of lichen. Still worse, we might be viewed as just a "snack" to be noshed upon while en route to an important destination.

Our egos resist any scenario that challenges our importance. Thus, our emotions drive many to just pretend that other intelligent life can't possibly exist. But the ostrich approach is hardly objective and scientific.

This unwillingness to contemplate the possibility of anything greater than ourselves manifests itself in atheism as well. Those who confidently purport to absolutely "know" that God definitely does not exist, because they have seen no proof, disregard the logical difficulty in proving a negative. By their logic, radio waves, viruses, etc., did not "exist" 200 years ago, as we were then unable to detect or prove them. The current inability to detect is not proof of anything. For those dedicated to logic and science, instead of their own emotional needs, agnosticism and leaving the question open makes the most sense.

As with all professions, science is subject to the vanity and insecurities of its practitioners, and orthodoxy can be a comfortable refuge for those unwilling to face uncomfortable possibilities. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach who has already packed his bags for an anticipated ride on the spaceship and has set up a GoFundMe page for the fare. Send comments in a letter to the editor by emailing letters@newtimesslo.com

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