Dug Campbell

Oumuamua and the Paradigm Shifts

I read a bit of sci-fi (not enough) and one of my favourites is Arthur C. Clarke’s classic ‘Rendezvous With Rama‘. So when I first heard about the appearance of Oumuamua last year, I was fascinated. The parallels between this emergence of this first ever visitor from outside our solar system and the mysterious cylindrical alien starship were notable for anyone with an ounce of imagination.

So I really enjoyed listening to the ‘After On’ podcast that I’ve discovered recently (tagline: unhurried conversations with thinkers, founders and scientists). This episode revolves around a conversation between Rob Reid and Avi Loeb from the end of November last year. If you were following the story, you’ll know that Loeb is the Chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department who published a paper last year (one of over 700 so far in his career) in which he stated that there was a possibility that the object passing through our solar system might well be the product of an alien intelligence.

So you can probably imagine why the media suddenly went crazy around the story.

What’s really interesting here is the extent of the backlash against his paper. The comments were met with serious criticism – and it appears to be that this is because the ‘A’ word was mentioned. Much like Voldemort, using the word ‘alien’ is a trigger, perhaps one of only a few within the scientific community over the use of which careers can be destroyed in an instant. Whereas Loeb’s approach is very different: as he says in the podcast, he’s simply looking for the truth. He is agnostic as to what that is – but to simply shut down and refuse to engage in such debate is not an environment that is conducive to enabling truly great discoveries to be made.

For example, Einstein worked in a patent office. It’s not simply about research at the top universities – genius can increasingly be found everywhere (partly because increasing amounts of scientific data is being opened up for public access). But one of the most vitriolic rebuttals of Loeb’s theory came from an individual on a blog whose thoughts were then picked up by the mainstream media. Perhaps an example of the huge power that you can wield as an expert (real or otherwise) when news outlets simply need a pithy summary to fit into the daily news diet.

Regardless of the outcome here (interestingly, we may have the answer relatively quickly when the existing telescopes that initially identified the visitor – the Pan-STARRS telescopes in Hawaii – are replaced by a far more powerful system within the next three years), it’s interesting to see how Loeb’s theory was received.

When it comes to the stars, we still know so little. And sometimes things that are ‘certain’ do change. Einstein made mistakes for example. And what about the Copernican Revolution where mankind’s entire view of the solar system changed entirely? Previously, the Ptolemaic Model (with a stationary earth at the centre of the universe) was accepted scientific wisdom.

Then Nicolaus Copernicus came along and argued that everything here was wrong. That instead, the Sun was at the centre of the Solar System and it was the Earth and other planets revolve around it (the Heliocentric System). Didn’t exactly go down too well with many people, at least initially.

Who knows what the real answer is. It’s possible that we’ll never know in the case of Oumuamua. But as a general tip regardless of the subject, it feels that it’s probably important to remind ourselves to keep our minds open wherever possible. Because at some point, when accepted wisdom becomes factually incorrect, you probably don’t want to be the Luddite on the other side.