Recently, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos used their wealth to loft their bodies upward by a tiny percentage of the Earth’s radius. This is not much to be proud of, since space is vast. The observable universe extends out to 1019 Earth radii, and the only way to respect our cosmic insignificance is not to show off, but rather to stay modest.
It was presumptuous of us to send the “Golden Record” on the Voyager mission. Most likely, extraterrestrials do not care about our cultural accomplishments since we must seem to them as one more species of ant among many similar ants that have surfaced on the “sidewalk” of the Milky Way galaxy.
We can be proud of our limited accomplishments only by restricting attention to our local neighborhood. My daughters were very proud of themselves when they were young and stayed at home, because the only people they knew were their immediate family members. On their first day at kindergarten, they suffered a psychological shock upon meeting kids with better skills. Similarly, our civilization will get a proper perspective about its global standing only after meeting others. And the simplest way to find whether they exist out there is to search our backyard for objects that may have originated from them.
In short, we need to monitor the sky for relics of extraterrestrial technological civilizations. This is the rationale behind the recently announced Galileo Project. Its research team will construct new systems of telescopes that will assemble high-quality scientific data on objects near Earth whose nature is unknown. The new data will aim to identify unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) such as were noted in the recent report to Congress, as well as weird interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamua that do not look like a familiar comet or asteroid. The project will employ the standard scientific method based on a transparent analysis of open scientific data to be collected using optimized instruments.
This approach is complementary to the traditional search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), in that it searches for physical objects and not electromagnetic signals. For the Galileo Project, only “known physics” explanations are in scope. “Alternative physics” hypotheses, while interesting, are explicitly not part of the project. Moreover, the project will not engage in retroactive attempts to analyze existing images or radar data, or speculate on prior UAP, observations or anecdotal reports, as these are not conducive to cross-validated, evidence-based scientific explanations. The Galileo Project aims to change the existing intellectual landscape on the subject in which data of limited quality were reported, fueling speculation by some along with unwarranted dismissal by others. It breaks the current status quo by aiming to gather high quality information that will hopefully remove doubts and unravel the nature of UAP and ‘Oumuamua-like objects. Evidence gathering is the standard path by which scientific knowledge advances. Even if most objects have mundane explanations, the one that does not could change our worldview as much as Galileo’s data did four centuries ago.
When announcing the project’s name on July 26, 2021, I was unaware of an intriguing historic anecdote. One Harvard colleague, the distinguished history professor Erez Manela, noted that, as mentioned in Wikipedia: “The Italian male given name ‘Galileo’ (and thence the surname ‘Galilei’) derives from the Latin ‘Galilaeus,’ meaning ‘of Galilee,’ a Biblically significant region in Northern Israel.”
When I notified the Galileo Project members of this, our scientific advisory board member Brian Keating reminded me that the term “galilee” means “cylinder” in Hebrew (I should have realized this myself given that Hebrew is my mother tongue). The “cylinder” connotation relates to two near-Earth objects, which were discovered by the Pan STARRS observatory in Hawaii and exhibited an excess push away from the sun without a cometary tail. The cylindrical object discovered in September 2020 and named 2020 SO was identified as a rocket booster from a 1966 NASA launch. But the first interstellar object, discovered in October 2017 and named ‘Oumuamua, was of an unknown origin and nature. It was inferred to be elongated because the amount of sunlight it reflected varied by a factor of 10 as it tumbled every eight hours. This background constitutes an interesting connection with the name of the Galileo Project, which aims to discover similar weirdly-shaped objects.
Following up on this exchange, our advisory board member Riz Virk wrote that “while we are on the topic of cylinders, we might as well bring in a little science fiction,” from Arthur C. Clarke's book Rendezvous with Rama. In the novel, humanity has its first encounter with an alien spacecraft: known as Rama, it is a near-perfect cylinder, all but featureless and measuring some 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter and 50 kilometers (31 miles) in length. Clarke’s object was a thousand times larger than ‘Oumuamua.
Here’s hoping that the Galileo Project will transform imagined notions of science fiction into the science of reality. If doing so, it will affirm our sense of modesty since any extraterrestrial object must have traversed huge interstellar distances compared to the vehicles we have constructed so far. Darwinian selection can be extended to technological equipment. Self-replicating systems with artificial intelligence and 3-D printing that survive interstellar journeys over billions of years may outlast us and carry the flame of human consciousness into the future. Constructing them would be something to be proud of, even on the cosmic scale.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.