Avi Loeb. Interstellar, the Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future Beyond Earth. John Murray Books, 2023.
This book is potentially a trailblazer and may be one of the first in a new genre. A book about aliens visiting Earth that is not written by a UFO enthusiast trying to investigate close encounters, but is very much a consideration of that subject through the actual evidence uncovered by astronomers and cosmologists.
The author is exceptionally well placed to consider such a profound topic. as he is the longest serving chair of the Harvard Astronomy department and of the advisory committee at the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, as well as holding many such prestigious titles, including being a member of the White House President’s council on science.
So you can be reasonably sure that if there was evidence of alien life out there found soon, and it was perhaps interested in surveying the earth, and the 'Above Top Secret' eyes of the USA detected this, then the author would be in the loop of people taking part in the crucial debate. Notably over what action humanity should take in potentially the most pivotal moment in our planet’s history. Indeed Loeb says we are "at the dawn of humanity’s interstellar future" with both our efforts to find potential technologically advanced cultures in the cosmos but the profound decisions we then need to take as they likely know we are here too. And potentially see us as a threat.
We are used to seeing this played out through the eyes of science fiction such as Star Trek where adventure stories with both good and bad aliens are inevitably based on our own history. This is a feature that has leaked culturally into the UFO abduction meme that has emerged from the past 75 years or so. Here alien interaction with UFO witnesses and ‘abductees’ has left a legacy that often looks more like an episode of Doctor Who than the reality we might expect to face. As - given the diversity of life on Earth - such visitations from an alien world would surely be expected - if real - to be rather more beyond our ken than what we see. Which tends to be more similar to a visit by our uncle Ken in a spacesuit.
Loeb says we stand on the threshold of a new age where advances in science have reached a point where we can look actively for alien life or intelligence in our own solar system and - with ever marching technology - the systems we now know exist around many of the almost limitless stars in the cosmos.
The author devotes many pages to the science and the consequences of that search, reminding that now we are looking for them, inevitably that has alerted them to notice us. Or at least the stars and planets within modest light years of Earth where it is possible our ‘intelligent’ communications have had the time to be detected after travel at the speed of light toward any advanced technology. Which may perhaps have reacted to that discovery by sending probes our way.
The main purpose of this book is to tell the story of this quest from our side, with the growth of space based missions and vastly improved technology that can image other planetary systems which turn out not to be rare thus making the existence of alien life much more probable. However, in ways not usually common he considers the UFO perspective too. Not by looking at 'encounters' or the efforts made to investigate them. No - this is covered in two small (in context of the book) but rather interesting ways.
Firstly Loeb considers the possibility of any evidence that space based probes might have been heading here from elsewhere. Probes just like the Voyager missions we sent in the 1970s into deep space beyond our solar system on a very slow journey announcing our presence in thousands of years time to any possibly curious local interceptors.
In this regard he takes an intriguing stance over the unusual nature of an object called Oumuamua that was passing through our solar system in 2017. It was at first assumed to be a typical asteroid on a lengthy trajectory around our Sun. But the more we looked as it arrived and then moved on, the more it seemed regrettable we had not been prepared to intercept and investigate before it was on its way again.
The object was detected by an observatory on Hawaii and given that language’s word for ‘scout’ which shows how soon some scientists suspected this might be more than just an unusually elongated, flat rock. Oumuamua's odd appearance and behaviour hinted to several space scientists, this author included, that it might have been a long range probe sent to explore the cosmos by a distant civilisation looking as we are via Voyager to find out if we are or are not alone. It also appeared to be moving very slowly as it passed through our system as you might expect if designed to take a good look at any potentially interesting planetary system it found.
Humanity was unready so had no plan to take images or send a probe to investigate before it had gathered its data and moved on - or just flew by on its way as it was nothing but a space rock. But chances are if we are looking for aliens, then some of them are looking for us in ways that might seem both familiar but also different to how humans would do it.
Which takes us to the topic of UAP, which whilst like Oumuamua is not the main premise of the book, the author certainly does not regard as an impossibility that these seemingly-real things just might be probes in the Earth’s atmosphere of a different kind too.
It is telling that Peter Warrington and I in our very first chapter of our first book (UFOs: A British Viewpoint) argued over 40 years ago for the use of the term UAP as a more appropriate one than the even by then loaded 'UFO'. We did this to make the investigation the focus not an assumption up front that UFOs must be extraterrestrial craft. So to see renowned scientists and NASA investigations now exploring things being seen and irrefutably filmed by military aircraft in a not dissimilar objective way is most heartening.
It feels rather vindicating of serious UFO research that it saw need for and pre-empted this kind of sober thinking. Which of course has to be the right approach today as echoed by Avi Loeb. This is a richly rewarding book about humanity now tip-toeing into a bold new age. Even if it means the age of the ufologist is coming to an end and the age of UAP investigation by science has begun.
That is how it always should have been.
- Jenny Randles