Oumuamua’s date with Science
Oumuamua may not have revealed itself but it exposed something about our scientific culture.
When Oumuamua was first discovered by Robert Weryk in Hawaii and the news surfaced in popular media, I was so excited hearing it. Oumuamua was not just the first confirmed interstellar visitor to our solar system but also it looked unlike any natural body. My imagination immediately ran wild wondering if it could be an alien spaceship.
The following year I was visiting Hawaii and the observatory there. While standing and peering at some notice board, a couple of scientists with IDs dangling from their necks excitedly stopped by to show me their iPad. The lady was telling me the video I was seeing was a live stream from Mars. I was startled and also I didn’t know how to respond to their excitement.
But the first thing that came out of my mouth was “Is Dr. Robert Weryk your colleague… Robert who found Oumuamua?” The lady paused, looked at me, and asked back “You don’t work here?”. I said “Nope. Am just a visitor.” That’s when they must have realized am some silly guy who had walked into their office space! She was nice though. She said she knew Dr. Weryk but he was not working there.
I didn’t loose the opportunity. I prodded them further on Oumuamua by forcing myself to do small talk. I said “Ever since I heard of Oumuamua I have been excited thinking if it was an alien ship”. The scientists weren’t amused. The guy retorted “Oumuamua is surely exciting but not an alien ship for sure!”. The lady added “Oh, how we wish the media doesn’t hype up these findings in science.” And both moved on, leaving me standing bewildered.
Turning back to the notice board, I was staring at it emptily wondering if I had just asked them something silly. Their reaction was such that the episode was playing in my head repeatedly like I goofed up. And the incident also had an impact on my imagination about Oumuamua. From then on Oumuamua didn’t excite me that much. It ceased to exist in my imagination as this amazing alien spaceship we needed to catch up with and explore.
A few years later in 2020, I stumbled on an article on alien probes and how Oumuamua could be extraterrestrial. It was written by none other than Dr. Abraham Loeb, one of the greatest astrophysicists today. I knew Dr. Loeb, or Avi as he’s known to many, from Harvard. By 2020, he was the chairman of Department of Astronomy at Harvard, Advisor to the President of the US in Science, founding Director of the Black Hole initiative, and chief advisor to Prof. Stephen Hawking’s Breakthrough Starshot project. But among the many big hats he dons, he’s also a friendly person at heart.
I got excited again reading the article. If Dr. Avi is thinking like I was thinking, then I may not have been silly or wrong after all! My imagination started running wild again. And with obsessive thinking, new ideas, theories, and revelations aren’t far away. They come flowing, and one of them in particular came in January of 2021 that got me hooked. After toying with it for sometime and figuring it could be a great idea, I shot off an email to Dr. Avi describing it:
My idea was that, Oumuamua’s bizarre shape which was found to be peculiarly elongated could mean it was specifically designed that way. Because a cylindrical spaceship if rotated about its axis will create artificial gravity on the large curved surface. Having gravity and a large surface area to live on are practical requirements for any long distance space travel by a life form that evolved on a planet.
With glee I was waiting for Dr. Avi’s reply. I was certain I had a genius theory and I was already imagining Dr. Avi congratulating me for such a revelation calling me to his office to discuss further! I was even co-authoring a paper with him on “The Alien origins of Oumuamua”. As I was day dreaming, I heard the email ‘ding’. His reply came in just 2 hours in the middle of the night for him in EST. As always, this was expected of such amazing people.
I had the fortune of being guided by some great minds, and have noticed this among all of them — they have an abundance of time and knowledge. They always entertain a sincere interaction. They are playful, but mind-games are not what they like to play. Try testing them, or trivializing their time, they will sense it and won’t interact again.
Dr. Avi is one such great mind. He always seems to have the time to respond and share his knowledge. Interacting with such great people, I have come to one profound conclusion: Scarcity of time and knowledge is for those who bother themselves with silly things. The scarcity is created entirely by us. Once I realized this, I have never found myself busy again. Time and knowledge come to me in plenty even as I share mine.
I digress to metaphysics. Here’s the real world reply I received:
Opening the email, all my day dreams crashed. Dr. Avi had a simple response for me: My idea was void!
He said “The spin period of `Oumuamua was 8 hours and its size was about 100 meters, so the centrifugal acceleration induced by its rotation was a million times smaller than the Earth’s surface gravity.” Not only had the scientists figured out its spin rate but also based on that, it is impossible to have any kind of useful gravity that aliens may enjoy. Doesn’t matter if they are ant sized or the gigantic ones from Arrival.
Oh wait, I just had a tangential thought writing this. Those Arrival aliens are floating in a medium that seems like a liquid. For such aliens do we even need gravity to travel across space? And can negligible micro-gravity induced inside Oumuamua still be useful… may be to keep the liquid medium from separating into droplets in zero gravity? That seems like an amazing thought. May be time to pick Dr. Avi’s brain, but let me not digress more.
Dr. Avi in his email had suggested that I read his new book on Oumuamua. I waited for it to release in India and only recently finished reading it. The book gave a mind-blowing story of the first interstellar visitor to our solar system. I came to appreciate the knowledge gap that gets created between professionals and amateurs even in such a recent event: Professionals, due to their inherent knowledge and experience, seem to have much more grasp of an event than what we amateurs can have from reading articles on the internet.
Having written the story of Oumuamua and Dr. Avi’s own theory on how it could be an interstellar visitor, the book also went on to describe and explain the exact feelings I had years ago. When standing at the observatory hallway in Hawaii after the scientists left. The feeling that may be, just may be, the scientists were being prejudiced about my idea that Oumuamua could be an Alien spaceship. That they were simply casting it away like a conspiracy theory without much thought. Without the consideration required by science.
The days after the incident at Hawaii, as I obsessed over the slighting of my idea by the scientists, I had developed a new idea. An idea that humans somehow resented thinking about radical new theories because they feared the unknown. Lest if such thinking leads them to danger. I termed this the “Thought-bounding gene”. A gene that regulates our thoughts and keeps them under boundary conditions so as to minimize risks to our species.
This I felt is detrimental to science. Because science requires considering the impossible more than any other discipline. That’s how astounding discoveries and inventions are made. My friends often tell me I think like a conspiracy theorist about events that happen. And my response has always been that there’s a thin line between a conspiracy theorist and an unrestricted thinker.
A conspiracy theorist believes in what he says. I don’t — I only consider the impossible. The alternatives to the mainstream. And I fight hard to prove myself wrong. It is important to think this way. Because if the impossible turns out to be true, it is a black-swan event. And by very definition, the implications may be too big.
In our culture, I find people are afraid to think radically different. They are afraid of ridicule. Dr. Avi’s latter part of the book, to my surprise, talked exactly about such social culture. Especially in science where it severely impedes progress. So I immediately shot off an email to Dr. Avi describing my ‘thought-bounding gene’ concept and how social acceptance bias is creating a dangerous culture in science:
And as usual his reply came in hours. This time he agreed with me and said my ‘thoughtful insight’ explained much of the ‘push-back’ he has received.
I couldn’t believe a professor of such repute even receives push-back for his ideas. Isn’t that what he gets paid to do for work — to think about what others can’t? And progress science by such out of bounds thinking and postulating? But sadly it looks like the current culture in science is all about being right, following the tribe, and not being controversial. Or, as I heard from a researcher, ‘you may even get cancelled from science’.
If the top mind in astrophysics and cosmology currently faces push-back for extraordinary ideas, no wonder the scientists in Hawaii just walked away like I was a lunatic. May be we are, but let’s not forget: Science is created by lunatics.