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Clyde Lewis | January 25, 2021
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As many of you know, ever since Oumuamua was discovered by scientists, we have had the accidental pleasure of knowing Harvard Space Chair Professor Avi Loeb. He has been very generous with his time appearing on Ground Zero. Our relationship has been strictly by phone and it began when I first was asked to speak at Contact in the Desert – we were going to speak together about his discoveries and a few theories that I was batting around about my interest in Bracewell or sentinel probes.

I was particularly interested in a paper that was submitted by Scientist Jim Benford regarding Bracewell probes and how some of these interstellar objects could be beacons or probes used for recon missions by extraterrestrial intelligence.

If the idea of nearby probes seems far-fetched today, it was even more so when Ronald Bracewell advanced his ‘sentinel hypothesis.’

In 1960, Stanford radio physicist Ronald Bracewell first suggested the idea that “superior galactic communities” could disperse autonomous interstellar probes as “hypothetical feelers” throughout space in order to observe, monitor, and maybe even communicate with other life-forms, including those on Earth.

Avi Loeb appeared on Ground Zero and said that at the time the jury was still out on what the purpose of Oumuamua was –and that we may have missed our opportunity to analyze it further—he did not rule out the Bracewell hypothesis – but also at the time of the interview was reviewing data for a book that he was publishing and he hinted that the mysterious interstellar craft was quite possibly and extraterrestrial relic that used a light sail in order to travel through the universe.

Richard C. Hoagland appeared on Ground Zero last year and he suggested that the two interstellar objects Oumuamua and the newest C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) could serve this purpose as their activity has been odd and could be objects sent by an extraterrestrial intelligence to scan the solar system and if Benford is to be believed spy on Earth.

Needless to say Bracewell’s theories stood SETI on its ear. That was back in 1960 when SETI was just being born in that year through the efforts of Frank Drake at the Green Bank instrument in West Virginia. While Drake was, reasonably enough, asking whether we might pick up signs of an extraterrestrial civilization around another star, Bracewell had begun to wonder whether there might be a different way to study an alien culture. A long-lived probe could be planted in any system under investigation.

All through 2020 and now into 2021, there have been signals beaming to earth and scientists have been trying to pinpoint their origins. Some have traced them to far away starsytems while some are also being traced to asteroid clusters.

Last Month A story was leaked to the British Newspaper The Guardian about a very stong space beacon sending a signal comng from the closest star system to our own, Proxima Centauri. It is only 4.2 light years away –astronomers ay that cosmically iyt is just a stien throw away from our system.

The signal cannot yet be dismissed as Earth-based interference, raising the very faint prospect that it is a transmission from some form of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)—a so-called “technosignature.” Now, speaking to Scientific American, the scientists behind the discovery caution there is still much work to be done, but admit the interest is justified.

Again we are told that for the time being it is not aliens– until it is.

It is just one more story that scientists give us to get our hopes up — another cosmic carrot dangling in front of those who wish for disclosure so that their ideas about life out in space can be vindicated.

There are many people on social media that were confident that these stories are distraction from whatever political chicanery is going on in the world — and yet that political chicanery gets more attention in the television media.

Last year you would be hard pressed to find anyone on CNN, NSNBC and the rest of the television media excited over the possibility of life on Venus. Yet it was a very popular story in astronomy circles because it was an unlikely place for the possibility of life to exist.

The research, which had been published in the journal Nature Astronomy by an international team of scientists, claimed that observations made with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile had detected the chemical phosphine, identified by its spectral signature, in the atmosphere of Venus, and that this could be read as a possible sign of life on the cloud-covered planet. Media outlets around the world carried the story — it made the front page of The New York Times — and tens of thousands tuned in to a press conference RAS co-organized to hear the scientists themselves discuss the finding.

You could have blinked and missed the discovery. It was, in brief, the big astronomy story of 2020 — or at least it was poised to be– and then it was ignored. The story dropped out of site and after searching high and low for a follow up — a group of scientists told everyone to back off on any speculation of alien life.

Later, the biggest astronomy story of the decade was cancelled.

Within weeks of the initial publication doubts surfaced. Some astronomers questioned the methodology behind the data analysis; it’s possible, they argued, that the purported signal wasn’t due to phosphine at all, but rather due to sources in the Earth’s atmosphere or possibly in the telescope itself. Another team of astronomers re-analyzed some of the data and concluded there was “no statistically significant detection of phosphine.”

Within weeks of the discovery the journal’s editors had appended a cautionary disclaimer to the article: “The authors have informed the editors of Nature Astronomy about an error in the original processing of the ALMA Observatory data underlying the work in this Article, and that recalibration of the data has had an impact on the conclusions that can be drawn.”

Meanwhile, even if the team really had detected phosphine, there was no way to be certain of its biological origin; the paper’s authors acknowledged this, merely noting that on Earth, phosphine is typically associated with micro-organisms, but allowing that it could be due to some unknown chemical process. For many who heard the news, though, it was all too easy to leap from somewhat ambiguous spectral lines to little floating creatures in the Venusian atmosphere.

When it comes to any story regarding breakthroughs of this kind there are scientists that are part of a sort of cancel culture in scientific circles.

They say that this is how science is supposed to be run — and yet there are many science stories that are told should not be questioned– anything that diminishes the threat of COVID-19 and the questionable vaccines– or any and all topics that disprove anthropogenic Global Warming.

It is in these realms where the science is “settled.”

However, for those seeking proof of alien life, there is science that is settled on the matter and that is found in the Drake Equation.

The number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy is usually done by using the Drake Equation.

It calculates the number of civilizations in our galaxy that we might able to communicate with, and the average rate of star formation in our galaxy. Then we calculate the fraction of those stars which have planets, the number of planets that can actually support life, the number of planets that will develop life, the number of planets that will develop intelligent life the number civilizations that would develop transmission technologies, and the length of time that these civilizations would have to transmit their signals into space.

This equation was established in 1961 by Frank Drake and was the first step to quantifying the SETI field. Practically, this equation is rather a simple algebraic expression and its simplistic nature leaves it open to frequent reexpression

The idea of listening for extra-terrestrial radio communications had been suggested as far back as the late 19th century (by Nikolai Tesla), but these efforts were concerned with looking for signs of life on Mars.

Naturally, the Drake Equation has been subject to some criticism over the years, largely because a lot of the values it contains are assumed. Granted, some of the values it takes into account are easy enough to calculate, like the rate of star formation in the Milky Way. There are an estimated 200 – 400 billion stars within our Milky Way.

Assuming that our galaxy represents the average and given that that there are as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe (current estimates based on Hubble data), that means that there are as many as 1.5 to 6 trillion new stars being added to the Universe with every passing year! However, some of the other values are subject to a great deal of guess work.

Again we need to think that if there is no life out there then it is most certainly a waste of space — the odds are in favor of life in the cosmos and this is why it is so puzzling that there is still a cancel culture within astronomy.

Some say that NASA has something to do with the filtering of any and all alien claims by scientists.

As the federal agency that is in charge of exploring outer space, NASA never stops being at the front door for all manner of alien conspiracies. It has been common knowledge for some time that NASA still abides by a 50-year-old policy of denial with regards to any information regarding discoveries in space that may abruptly affect the people on planet earth.

NASA commissioned the Brookings Research Institute in Washington to prepare a report on the likelihood of encountering extraterrestrial life and to detail how NASA UFO sightings should be handled. The Final 219-Page Report, published in 1960, was titled “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs.” One section was dedicated to the “Implications of a Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life.” The study is now referred to simply as “The Brookings Report.”

The report predicted that if extraterrestrial life were discovered, it could bring about “profound changes, or even the collapse of our civilization.” The report noted that such a discovery could come about at any time and that any admission of UFO activity could incite fear in the public. It suggested that evidence of alien existence might be found in artifacts left on the moon or other planets.

The Brookings Report made no specific recommendations to NASA about continuing secrecy around UFOs and extraterrestrials. In one sense, it suggested that the public would be “less shocked” if the information was revealed. On the other hand, the report concluded that more studies needed to be done in order to determine how the public would respond “emotionally and intelligently” to the discovery of “intelligent extraterrestrial life.”

The report questioned whether the public should be told about any encounters, or whether the information should be “withheld from the public for what ends.”

Back when the Brookings Report was published; the world was a very different place. Space exploration technology was still in its early phases, and the prospect of sending humans to the moon was still a dream.

Astronomers certainly could imagine the existence of other planets outside the solar system in 1961, but it took until 1995 until the first confirmed exoplanet was found around a main-sequence star Called 51 Pegasi b – the discovery ushered in a new era when astronomers were able to track down many other planets across the universe.

Now we have had many exoplanet discoveries which again pushes us closer to the finding out the truth.

Later, Oumuamua showed up in 2017 and again this changed a lot of things. Scientists that were still searching for proof of extraterrestrial intelligence had to redefine just what exactly they were searching for. They concluded that while finding life itself would be remarkable – proof of technosignatures – or proof of technological advancements by extraterrestrial intelligence would be enough for now.

Avi Loeb again made headlines as he insists that Oumuamua did not behave as an interstellar object would be expected to and again has been speaking about technosignatures and how they are now important in the quest to find any proof of extraterrestrial life.

In an equation-dense paper that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters last year, 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. It might be the alien equivalent of an abandoned car, “floating in interstellar space” as “debris.” Or it might be “a fully operational probe” that had been dispatched to our solar system for recon.

The second possibility, Loeb and Bialy suggested, was the more likely, since if the object was just a piece of alien junk, drifting through the galaxy, the odds of our having come across it would be absurdly low. “In contemplating the possibility of an artificial origin, we should keep in mind what Sherlock Holmes said: ‘when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,’ ” Loeb wrote in a blog post for Scientific American.

Not surprisingly, Loeb and Bialy’s theory received a lot of attention. The story raced around the world almost at the speed of a interstellar object. TV crews crowded into Loeb’s office, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and showed up at his house. Film companies vied to make a movie of his life.

Also not surprisingly, much of the attention was unflattering.

Many scientists tersely said that Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship.

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

Benjamin Weiner, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, tweeted:

“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 grunt work of walking back these rumors?” 

This is the perfect example of narrow-minded thinking that still plagues academia.

Avi Loeb has a simple response to those who deny potential new breakthroughs for fear of upending established conventions. “Reality is the one thing that never goes away, even if you ignore it. 

He suggests there are more such discoveries to come, but many will be denied to us because “people will be ridiculed and ideas never pursued”, describing any consideration of intelligent life beyond earth as being a serious “taboo in the astronomy community”. to the extent that younger scientists even shy away from specific lines of inquiry.

In the case of ‘Oumuamua, there’s no denying that there are perplexing elements. Scientists remain baffled over how it accelerated out of our solar system at an unusual angle. Professor Loeb believes this was due to it being “pushed by sunlight reflecting off its surface” because it was “moving too fast to be bound to the sun”.

He thinks that its abnormal shape acted like “a sail on a boat because, in the vacuum of space, a large, thin object can be accelerated by sunlight”. And he wonders if ‘Oumuamua had an advanced “sun-sail” that an extra-terrestrial civilization could use to travel through space. This outlandish idea was shut down by the academic establishment from the get-go. 

So far, the consensus reached to explain the extra push that ‘Oumuamua displayed as it broke free of the sun’s gravitational hold was that it was a comet accelerating due to its melting water vapor, as expelling thrusts a rocket forward. The only problem with this theory – and it’s a glaringly obvious one – is that no tail of water vapor was ever detected coming off ‘Oumuamua.

In September last year, another space object showed acceleration without having a comet-like water vapor tail. Astronomers were again perplexed, and after running the data of its trajectory through a super-computer it was found to be “artificial in construction”.  Scientists declared that it was the empty hull of a discarded rocket booster from earth.

The thin hollow shape was collecting solar rays and being accelerated, just as Professor Loeb had suggested was the cause of ‘Oumuamua’s unconventional movements.

This adds to the mystery of ‘Oumuamua. As Professor Loeb explained, “It could not have been of human construction because of the particular way it passed through the solar system, faster than any rocket we could launch.” But he goes on to admit that to fully validate ‘Oumuamua is of artificial origin, “we need more data”.

So an object of artificial design, a rocket –acted the same way Oumuamua did and there are scientists that reject the possibility it could be of artificial design as well.

It just shows how picky and arbitrary some scientists can be.

Professor Loeb advises that academia should begin the kind of “blue-sky research” seen in the commercial sector in companies such as Apple, SpaceX, and Amazon. He sees “conservatism in academia”, meaning that projects that tackle alien intelligence rarely get public funding, but rely on investment by interested private individuals. 

The mainstream consensus in searching for extra-terrestrial life is to look for signs of oxygen. However, Professor Loeb disputes this, saying it will lead to inconclusive results, “as oxygen could be produced by natural processes”. Instead, he advises searching for industrial pollution on other planets, the rationale being that complex molecules, such as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), “cannot be produced naturally”.

Professor Loeb is steadfast in his belief, though, arguing that discoveries in any branch of science can happen only when people are open-minded and willing to take risks.

As things stand, the debate around ‘Oumuamua continues. I call it, the gift that keep on giving Avi seems to agree with me.

Written by Clyde Lewis

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