The Oumuamua ‘controversy’


A few years ago, an unusual object zipped through the solar system. It flew through on a straight trajectory at high speed and vanished into the depths of space; it was also unusual in shape, flickering in intensity as it tumbled through. It was named Oumuamua, and astronomers had a great time trying to figure out what it was, where it came from, and how it came to be moving so fast.

And then one guy, a Harvard astrophysicist named Avi Loeb, came up with the Intelligent Design explanation: aliens built it and launched it at our solar system. It was a perfect example of Intelligent Design thinking. He had no evidence for his hypothesis, he automatically rejected all other explanations, and spends most of his time complaining about other people’s hypotheses while not proposing observations or experiments to support his claim. The reaction by everyone else was typical, in that Loeb got all the attention in the tabloids and newspapers and television, while the scientists were left to do the unheralded real work, as reported in a maybe too even-handed New Yorker essay.

“No, ‘Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it,” Paul M. Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, wrote.

“Can we talk about how annoying it is that Avi Loeb promotes speculative theories about alien origins of ‘Oumuamua, forcing [the] rest of us to do the scientific gruntwork of walking back these rumors?” Benjamin Weiner, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, tweeted.

By the way, the essay title is a question, “Have we already been visited by aliens?. You know the answer. No.

You will not be surprised to learn that Loeb has now written a book that asserts that Oumuamua is an intelligently designed object. Ho hum. Maybe double the ho-hums, because of course he also compares himself to Galileo, one of the most common symptoms of terminal crackpottery.

Loeb has now dispensed with the scientific notation and written “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In it, he recounts the oft-told story of how Galileo was charged with heresy for asserting that Earth circled the sun. At his trial in Rome, in 1633, Galileo recanted and then, legend has it, muttered, sotto voce, “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”). Loeb acknowledges that the quote is probably apocryphal; still, he maintains, it’s relevant. The astronomical establishment may wish to silence him, but it can’t explain why ‘Oumuamua strayed from the expected path. “And yet it deviated,” he observes.

One of the better parts of the essay, though, is that it concludes by comparing the book to “Chariots of the Gods?,” by Erich von Däniken, and predicts that he will most likely end up ranked with von Däniken, not Galileo. Unfortunately, that means that while it ends up as pseudoscientific trash, it will also be profitable and spawn all kinds of pseudodocumentaries, and that Loeb will be very popular on the space alien lecture circuit.

Can we have another sigh of despair, everyone?

Comments

  1. Artor says

    The astronomical establishment may wish to silence him, but it can’t explain why ‘Oumuamua strayed from the expected path. “And yet it deviated,” he observes.

    I see he blithely ignores the evidence that the object outgassed from it’s close approach to our sun, as can be observed normally with in-system comets and asteroids that make a similar fly-by. Of course they can’t explain, if you reject out of hand all the explanations that have already been given.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    Can we have another sigh of despair, everyone?

    Sighs of despair are my primary means of verbal communication these days, so why not?

  3. PaulBC says

    “No, ‘Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it,” Paul M. Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, wrote.

    I enjoy thinking about it, and it doesn’t seem to have been ruled out definitively. It’s not science to build an elaborate explanation if there’s a simple one for some of its odd characteristics (and I guess there is, but I stopped following the discussion after a while). That doesn’t mean you cannot “suggest” it as a long shot possibility.

  4. says

    I read about & wrote about Oumuamua a while ago. My impression is that the “aliens” argument is built upon pattern matching its long shape and “rocket-like” force to an alien rocket. A weak argument to begin with, but it gets even worse when you realize that this “rocket” is slowly rotating every 8 hours, and the “rocket-like” force is just pointing away from the sun.

  5. says

    It’s got to be pointing in some direction. If it were side-on, then they’d be saying “see, that way the solar panels collect the most light” etc.

  6. says

    People speculate about space aliens coming to earth and enslaving us. D’oh, it already happened: they’re called cats. They built the internet to assert their dominance over people. Face facts!

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Sometimes a cigar-shaped interstellar object is just a cigar-shaped interstellar object.

  8. PaulBC says

    By the way, the essay title is a question, “Have we already been visited by aliens?. You know the answer. No.

    So Blake’s Jerusalem is really about the ancient aliens? (Heavy with metaphor. E.g., “feet” should be “tentacles” etc.)

  9. Howard Brazee says

    I heard him on Science Friday saying that those who don’t believe don’t want to believe.

    Oh, yes we do. We just need some real evidence.

  10. PaulBC says

    I heard him on Science Friday saying that those who don’t believe don’t want to believe.

    They didn’t even offer me a lift, so screw ’em. Just a big rock for all I care!

  11. Matt G says

    “But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” -Carl Sagan

  12. KG says

    I see he blithely ignores the evidence that the object outgassed from it’s [sic] close approach to our sun – Artor@2

    IOW, it farted. That’s what the aliens think of us!

    I’m sorry Loeb has been sentenced to perpetual house arrest and commanded never to publish anything further about his hypothesis, and salute his bravey in nevertheless producing this book. I guess there won’t be a sequel, as he’ll have been burned at the stake.

  13. Jason Nishiyama says

    Why do they always pick Galileo as the renegade for scientist? Galileo wasn’t a radical with odd ideas, what he was showing was what science was thinking at the time. He came afoul of religious dogma, not scientific consensus. They can’t even get that right when creating their martyr complex.

  14. nomdeplume says

    Some scientists have learned (like most politicians) that the media would rather report a big lie than a small truth. And this clogs up the media landscape from reporting good science. Economics has Gresham’s Law “bad money drives out good”. Perhaps we could have Loeb’s Law “bad science drives out good”.

  15. blf says

    @16, Mr Carpenterson did build Stonehenge. First he built a time machine so he could travel to the time. Once then, there he found a bunch of 18th century druids who had also time traveled. Using their “modern” equipment they built the thing. Whilst the building was going on, some snakes crawled inside his time machine. On the way back he had snakes in the time machine, and crash-landed in Wales in the 5th century. Enlisting the help of a local named Padrig he banished the snakes, and then left, presumably returning to his own place and time.

  16. Dr. Pablito says

    Just thought I’d share with you science-geeky types that I recently helped edit a long paper which evaluated the feasibility of a probe fly-by mission to the next one of these weird, interstellar, hyperbolic-orbit thingies. There will surely be more in the near future (we’ve already had Oumuamua and Borisov detected), and if an asteroid probe is designed and constructed, it could be launched on detection and calculation of suitable orbit parameters of such an object. Intercept trajectories look favorable for current “off-the-shelf” rockets, and the type of optical navigation used in far-asteroid and minor planet missions have proved the feasibility of autonomous navigation to similar objects. A fly-by mission could yield much better data than is available from earth-based telescopes and we might really get some answers to what these things are, how they’re produced, and what the interstellar environment is like. Proposals are slowly working their way through NASA and JPL, and presumably the European agencies, too. The Japanese have a mission proposed which would park a probe at the earth-sun L2 Lagrange point and then fly off to an interceptable object on detection. In the next couple of decades, we might really have some good science results.

  17. chesapeake says

    PZ writes “ he automatically rejected all other explanations,”. Is that true? according to the article he co-authored two equation dense papers, the second to reject one theory about the object. I am not saying what he wrote made any sense but that’s not exactly “automatically” rejecting all other explanations, is it?
    From the New Yorker article:
    ”In an equation-dense paper that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters a year after Weryk’s discovery, Loeb and a Harvard postdoc named Shmuel Bialy proposed that ‘Oumuamua’s “non-gravitational acceleration” was most economically explained by assuming that the object was manufactured.
    “Far from being deterred, Loeb doubled down. Together with Thiem Hoang, a researcher at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, he blasted the frozen-hydrogen theory. In another equation-packed paper, the pair argued that it was fantastical to imagine solid hydrogen floating around outer space. And, if a frozen chunk did manage to take shape, there was no way for a block the size of ‘Oumuamua to survive an interstellar journey. “Assuming that H2objects could somehow form,” Hoang and Loeb wrote, “sublimation by collisional heating” would vaporize them before they had the chance to, in a manner of speaking, take off.”

  18. ORigel says

    @2 Artor: That’s what I immediately surmised when I read here that it deviated from its expected path.

  19. Rob Grigjanis says

    Dr. Pablito @22:

    The Japanese have a mission proposed which would park a probe at the earth-sun L2 Lagrange point

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to park probes at Jupiter-Sun L2 (and maybe L3)? Or is that maybe too far for reliably staying on station?

  20. blf says

    @24/@25, It was The Rani, which means, given her disdain for humans, whatever the real purpose of Stonehenge was, it might have been worse than Trump (who is not known to be her, but there’s always a plot twist…). Those “18th century druids with their marvelous ‘modern’ equipment” used to build Stonehenge, were actually several of the Doctors in disguise, carefully sabotaging her project. The snakes were mischievously introduced as a reminder of a certain T.Rex.

    Details of the story are unknown, as there is only one surviving badly burnt copy, dated 201—(indecipherable), a Betamax which fell through the wormhole at CERN and apparently titled A Clockw(indecipherable).

  21. John Morales says

    It was named Oumuamua

    No. ʻOumuamua.
    According to Wikipedia:
    “The name comes from Hawaiian ʻoumuamua ‘scout’ (from ʻou ‘reach out for’, and mua, reduplicated for emphasis ‘first, in advance of’), and reflects the way this object is like a scout or messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to humanity. It roughly translates to ‘first distant messenger’. The first character is a Hawaiian ʻokina, not an apostrophe, and is pronounced as a glottal stop; the name was chosen by the Pan-STARRS team in consultation with Kaʻiu Kimura and Larry Kimura of the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.”

    (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%CA%BBOumuamua#Naming)

  22. jrkrideau says

    @19 Jason Nishiyama Why do they always pick Galileo as the renegade for scientist?

    Presumably because they, like most scientists and the real nutters, are historically illiterate and know nothing about Galileo nor his slight contretemps with the Roman Inquisition?

    Galileo wasn’t a radical with odd ideas

    He was in this matter. The scientific consensus at the time was for a geocentric solar system. It is hard to think of many people in Europe at the time who considered a heliocentric solar system really likely. Keplar, definitely but I am not sure who else. One or two Jesuit (?) astronomers, IIRC, who at least thought it was a good bet. Nicolaus Copernicus but he had been had dead for almost a century. This is not to say others were not willing to seriously consider the idea, it just that the consensus was against it.

    He came afoul of religious dogma, not scientific consensus.

    It gets complicated but Galileo ran afoul of religious dogma, and scientific consensus. Weirdly enough, he might have beaten the religious dogma problem if he could have shaken the consensus. In the end, he succeeded in neither.

  23. outis says

    @30 jrkrideau: yes ol’ Galileo had quite an interesting life. But he was rather good at what he did, his use of the telescope was quite pioneering (one wonders, why there were so few people interested in pointing that thing upwards?) and his writing has real style. It is even taught at school in Italy: “rinserratevi sotto la coperta di alcuno grande navilio – seclude yourselves under the deck of some large ship”, a description of the inertia principle.
    Of course the church not only they did very efficiently shut him up, but managed to disrupt the academy he tried to start, a group of like-minded investigators with Torricelli as the best-known member. Can’t have such mud-stirrers around oh no…

  24. says

    The astronomical establishment may wish to silence him

    He’s been chair of Harvard Astronomy for the last decade. It really isn’t possible for him to be any more “establishment”.

  25. Amphiox says

    The thing to me that really makes the alien technology proposition for Oumuamua silly even as a null hypothesis is the thing’s speed. It was moving at exactly in the velocity range one would expect from a wholly natural extra-solar system object, and the speed changed exactly as expected for such an natural object falling in towards the sun.

    At its observed velocity, Oumuamua would have taken over 3400 years to travel one light year, or about 14000 years to cover to distance between the sun and Alpha Centauri.

    You’d think that the produce of an alien technology would be made to move a wee bit faster than that.

  26. PaulBC says

    Amphiox@33 By definition, alien technology is a bad “null hypothesis”, since it would be entirely unprecedented and quite astonishing, not “null” at all.. The null hypothesis is roughly what you followed with: it’s just your run of the mill space rock (aside from originating outside the solar system and having an unusual shape).

    I believe it was worth investigating alternative explanations, including the notion that it’s a technological artifact. If the latter were supported, that would weigh against the null hypothesis as an explanation. However, I agree with you that the evidence is not compelling for anything else. It would be nice to get a closer look at one of these, whatever they are.

  27. jrkrideau says

    31 outis

    But he was rather good at what he did, his use of the telescope was quite pioneering

    He was very good at what he did. Apparently his mechanics work was even more outstanding. His early telescope work was definitely impressive but from the little I know I think the mechanics was more impressive. He got priority on the moons of Jupiter by good research and some improvements in telescope design but a rival would have discovered them fairly soon. There were a lot of people around Europe starting to point that new invention at the sky.

    ,i>the church not only they did very efficiently shut him up

    True he only managed to publish two or three books after the trial and he took good care to publish in the Netherlands. :) I think that as long as he made no challenges to Catholic dogma the Church really did not care what he published but there was no way he was going to get an imprimatur in the Papal States.

    I have never heard of Galileo establishing an academy. It does not sound like him. You are not thinking of Accademia dei Lincei, are you? He was very proud to be a member but I am pretty sure he did not found it.

    I don’t remember reading anything about Torricelli and Galileo but my memory for names is abysmal.

  28. outis says

    @jrkrideau: well, after all the brouhaha died down, Galileo was allowed to retire to Arcetri, a rather nice place in the countryside, but was “advised” not to stir up things again, capisce? And what I remember reading years ago was that Torricelli and others did gravitate around him, forming a group of like-minded people interested in science (a proto-academy if you will), but were unofficially pressured to bloody well leave it alone, and the group dissolved.
    While the Galileo-Torricelli contact is well established, I quite admit being unable to come up with references concerning the subsequent fate of the wider group. Apologies for that…

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