And now for something a little different….
So…going back through the Nevada Technical Associates archives it looks as though I’ve written over 110 pieces, the first of which was posted on March 19, 2014. With only a few exceptions (a piece about cell phones, a piece about electromagnetic fields), every article has dealt with ionizing radiation – and we can argue that the other two were about radiation as well (in both cases, electromagnetic radiation). That’s because ionizing radiation safety is what I’ve worked with my entire adult life – it’s what I know the best. So this piece will be a bit of a break from that tradition – this one is about recent claims to have discovered metals (possibly from an alien civilization!) in the sea. And, while I’m not an astronomer, I’ve used a fair amount of astronomy in my scientific research (including working with two astronomers on my dissertation committee) and I’ve got several good friends who are astronomers. But, more than that, I’ve been a scientist for much of my adult life and this particular piece is more about science in general than about astronomy in particular. So with that as a lead-in, let’s talk about recent claims by Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, who recently announced that he’s found tiny metal spherules from the suspected debris field from a meteor that might have come from outside of our solar system. In fact, Loeb has stated that this might even represent debris from an alien civilization. And I’ve got to admit to being dubious – here’s why.
What Loeb did was to look through years’ worth of data on meteorites logged as entering the Earth’s atmosphere, looking for anything that, based on very high speed and trajectory, looked likely to have arrived from outside of our solar system. Finding one that entered the atmosphere over Papua New Guinea in 2014, Loeb hired a boat to take him over the likely path taken by the meteor, dragging a magnet-covered sled along the seafloor. From this sled, Loeb recovered a fraction of a gram of magnetic metal spherules, some of which had a metallic composition (beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium) he said had never been seen in any materials studied from our solar system. From here, Loeb went on to speculate that these spherules must have originated outside our solar system.
One reason I’m dubious is that Loeb bypassed the normal scientific process and took what he says he found and his speculations directly to the public without first letting fellow scientists have a chance to weigh in. And he’s done this a few times.
The way science is supposed to work is that a scientist does a study, writes a paper describing the work that was done, the results, and what those results might mean, and then submits the paper to be reviewed and commented on by fellow scientists. When the paper is published, other scientists will weigh in – some agreeing, some disagreeing, some asking questions, suggesting alternative explanations, and so forth. Over time – months, years, or even decades, a scientific consensus arises and the scientific community as a whole reaches some sort of agreement as to what was discovered and what it means. Somewhere in this process is when scientists (or, more likely, the science writers at whatever institution they work at) start talking with the media and telling the public what was found. When a scientist short-circuits this process is when I start to become dubious. The most infamous example of this happened in the late 1980s, when two American scientists announced they had produced hydrogen fusion at room temperatures – what was called “cold fusion”…and that turned out to be a tempest in a teapot. But by going to the press before letting the scientific community review their results, the scientists got a lot of press – at the time of their announcement and again when their results turned out to not hold up.
In this case, Loeb might well be right in his assessment that the spherules he found represent material that traveled across the vast distances between stars. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to think that a piece of rock that comes to Earth might have been formed around another star – I’d be surprised if it’s never happened (alien technology is another matter). But this is something to be worked out by the scientific community, not by science writers and their readers. Going directly to the public suggests that Loeb seeks acclaim or that he fears his work might not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
The thing is, most scientists are scientifically conservative – they’re willing to accept novel ideas, but only after those ideas have been thoroughly examined, discussed, and otherwise vetted by their colleagues. If this vetting tells us that the novel idea is flawed – that there are reasonable explanations within the realm of existing science – then the most scientists are willing to ignore the novel claim and to stick with existing science. The reason for this is that the universe is a complicated place and no single scientist is likely to think of all the disparate ways their findings might be interpreted or all of the factors that might have been in play to give rise to what they observed. Of course, novel ideas are sometimes correct – and these are what we tend to remember (the Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and so forth). But most novel ideas end up in the dustbin of scientific history – alongside polywater, the planet Vulcan, cold fusion, and so very much more.
As Nobel laureate Richard Feynman put it, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” Going to the public before letting one’s colleagues weigh in puts a scientist in the position of fooling themselves – and then going on to fool the public. That’s where Loeb is at the moment. And the fact that he’s done this before, in suggesting that the extra-solar asteroid Oumuamua might actually be a piece of alien technology, raises the possibility that Loeb is just as interested in attention as he is in the science. At the moment I’m intrigued – but waiting to see what other scientists, more informed than I, think. If Loeb can convince them that his interpretation is correct then I’ll start to take it a little more seriously. That should play out over the next several years – long after the public has forgotten his recent press releases.