On January 8, 2014, an object the size of a basketball has crashed on Earth, a hundred kilometers off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Its friction against the air generated a ball of fire carrying a few percent of the Hiroshima bomb’s energy. The material from which this object was composed must have been harder than iron as it disintegrated low in the atmosphere, just 18.7 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean, where the pressure on it was enormous due to its unusually high speed of 44.8 kilometers per second. The high speed implicit that it came from outside the solar system, and even there it was an outlier – moving faster than most local stars. Was it first interstellar meteorCNEOS-2014-01-08 unusual rock ejected from vicinity of unusual star or was it a technological relic of another galactic civilization?
The only way to find the answer is to collect its fragments and study their composition in the laboratory. The work of curious scientists.
I assembled a team of scientists dedicated to the mission. We triangulated the location of the impact, identified a boat and the machinery needed to dig the ocean floor near Papua New Guinea. The main remaining task is to raise a few million dollars needed to fund the expedition.
The company Snowfall was inspired to help by developing non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to gain crowdfunding support for the expedition. NFTs are the latest incarnation of trading cards for sports heroes.
Which brings me to the question: how would a map representing our civilization compare to the large collection of maps for all the civilizations that existed since the Big Bang in our cosmic neighborhood?
First, a few words about the evaluation metric. A civilization should be valued higher, the greater the fraction of its Gross domestic product (GDP) dedicated to science. It is for the simple reason that evidence-based knowledge enables a civilization to better cope with the challenges it faces, including disease, environmental disasters, and space travel. Performing better on this scale means better prospects for longevity and legacy. Scientific knowledge is the key to exponential growth in the development of new technologies that help.
But there are two other key elements. One is the spirit of exploration. A civilization that is completely immersed in wearing glasses and enjoying virtual realities without venturing into the vast space that lies beyond the surface of the planet on which it was born, will be vulnerable to destruction in a single point by a catastrophic event. The second key to Darwinian survival of the fittest is to focus on constructive rather than destructive goals. Scientific knowledge of the atomic nucleus can be used to solve humanity’s energy crisis through safe nuclear reactors, but can also lead to global annihilation through a nuclear world war.
A curious and constructive civilization that focuses on increasing its scientific knowledge base by exploring the unknown in space would be the winner of the Galactic Trading Card Contest. Less fortunate players with low trading cards spend most of their time on the bench and are never invited to play on the field as members of the “dream team”.
Of course, we could choose to compensate for bad behavior and sitting on the bench with an overvaluation of our trading card. Social media can be used effectively to ridicule the idea that there are better players, to avoid researching them because their existence looks like an “extraordinary claim”, and to promote self-inflicted ignorance by not funding the quest for other cards to collect. The reality of this approach may have already reduced the value of our own trading card on the galactic stage.
Hopefully the scientific expedition to Papua New Guinea will be funded and will show our neighbors that we can do better.
The sound of the Universe knocking at our door has already been heard through the seismometer signal recorded on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea in 2014. Humanity must open the door to new knowledge. Our cosmic trading card will continue to lose value if we can’t convince ourselves to invest the modest effort needed for the task. We need to lift our bodies from the comfortable sofa in our living room, and instead of asking Fermi’s Question “where is everyone?” from there, walk to the front door to find the answer.
Is it so difficult to act intelligently?
Avi Loeb is head of the Galileo Project, founding director of the Harvard University – Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and former chairman of the astronomy department of the Harvard University (2011 -2020). He chairs the Advisory Board for Project Breakthrough Starshot and is a former member of the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology and a former Chairman of the National Academies Board of Physics and Astronomy. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The first sign of intelligent life beyond Earth» and co-author of the manual «life in the cosmos”, both published in 2021.