why a scientist wants to look for ufo shards in the ocean, and why he’ll fail
In the popular science world, there’s now a bit of a tradition. Every time there’s a headline that claims we’re on the verge of finding aliens or alien technology, those of us who know read the article, look for the name Avi Loeb, sigh deeply, close the browser tab, and prepare to explain why the claims are nonsense for months to come. Don’t get me wrong. It would be amazing if we discovered technology from another world, or an alien organism. It’s just that unlike Loeb, we can take no for an answer after examining the facts.
For years, Loeb frustrated astronomers with bold proclamations that a very strange shard of rock passing through our solar system was a piece of an alien spaceship. That shard, which was given the name ‘Oumuamua, was already a rather remarkable object by itself because it came from another solar system given its odd trajectory, and there are still open questions about its origin. Currently, researchers think it was a small piece of a dwarf planet like Pluto broken off by a comet and ejected from its home system about 400 million years ago.
But thanks to Loeb’s spectacularly wrong paper claiming that the object was an alien light sail that’s seen better days, it’s practically impossible to write an article on the subject without at least a passing reference to a debunking of the idea that we’ve been accidentally visited by an alien spaceship. Worse yet, in response to criticism from his peers in pushing unfounded claims wrapped in a patina of scientific jargon and numerology, he vociferously doubled down, saying he’s on a mission to keep challenging science.
Now, with ‘Oumuamua out of the news, Loeb is looking for the next chance to point to an alien visitation and thinks he found his next target, a meteorite designated CNEOS 2014-01-08 that crashed into the South Pacific in, yes, you guessed it, 2014. According to a preprint of his 2019 paper, this was yet another interstellar visitor given its speed and trajectory, an assertion later confirmed by both civilian and military astronomers. With this vindication, you’d think that the scientist would be happy and move on to his next project. But no, not Loeb.
With confirmation that the object in question came from another star, he’s trying to launch an expedition to recover any pieces of it, then analyze said pieces to find evidence of alien alloys. If you’re wondering how he managed to jump from trying to prove that one meteorite came from another solar system to leading a search for the wreckage of an alien spaceship, so are plenty of experts left scratching their heads because the data on which Loeb is relying is highly redacted since it originally included military satellites, and that the meteorite disintegrated on impact.
Best case scenario? Loeb may find a gram or two of material that came from a meteorite, and it probably won’t come from the object he’s targeting given nearly a decade of the dust swirling around ocean currents, and the fact that most meteorites burn up over the ocean so the odds of finding traces from the exact space rock you want are extremely slim. And there’s also the question of defining what an alien alloy looks like and whether it’s naturally formed or not, a feat that would require a lot more than a speck of dust or two.
None of this fazes the aspiring alien hunter in the least, who compares his critics to incurious cave dwellers who can’t understand his grand vision. By pop culture standards, he’s being an iconoclastic rebel thumbing his nose at the squares. In reality, by refusing to listen to skeptics, correcting mistakes, and clinging to cherry-picked, incomplete data while making waves in the media instead, he’s crossing over into delusion. If you can’t take no for an answer, you’ve left the world of science long behind.
Lone geniuses who revolutionize science, change everything we know about the world despite the opposition of graybeards, and go on to bask in the glory of redemption, are almost always an invention of creative writing. Real scientific progress comes from collaboration, trial, error, and replication, not blind, obsessive persistence. And this is what’s so annoying about Loeb’s crusade. Instead of advancing the conversation and knowledge, he’s derailing them by giving what amounts to an Ancient Aliens episode pitch a scientific veneer.
See: Jackson, A., Desch, S. (2021) ‘Oumuamua as an N2 ice fragment of an exo-Pluto surface, generation of N2 ice fragments and the origin of ‘Oumuamua, JGR Planets, DOI: 10.1029/2020JE006706