When my Harvard colleague Stephen Greenblatt saw my book Extraterrestrial featured on the coverof the Orthodox Jewish magazine Ami, he commented “It is interesting that the Orthodox evidently do not consider their faith threatened by the possibility of other inhabited worlds.” To which I replied: “They appear to be less orthodox than my colleagues in the scientific community.” This was in reference to the pushback that my book received regarding the possibility that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua might have been manufactured by another civilization.
Innovation blossoms in a culture willing to acquire new knowledge rather than being trapped in its past belief system. A mainstream astronomer who worked on rocks in the solar system for decades commented grudgingly: “‘Oumuamua is so strange…. I wish it never existed.” Such a sentiment is not the trademark of an intellectual culture that fosters discovery. In the weeks following the publication of my book I received numerous e-mails from astronomers, some tenured, who confessed that they agree with me but are afraid to speak out because of the potential repercussions to their careers.
Resistance to innovation is not a new phenomenon. When the astronomer Otto Struve suggested in a 1952 paper to search for hot Jupiters—massive, gaseous planets like our own Jupiter orbiting very close to their stars—his proposal was ignored until Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor found 51 Pegasi b. Prior to this discovery, astronomers argued that telescope time should not be “wasted” on this search because a Jupiter-like planet is unlikely to form so close to a sunlike star. Many even doubted whether exoplanets are common in the first place. The fact that this predictive “baby” was born four decades after it was conceived implies that there must be more “babies” that have never born because their existence is still in doubt. Placing blinders on our telescopes keeps us in our comfort zone at the expense of prolonging our ignorance. But reality does not abide by our prejudice; the existence of exoplanets or neighboring civilizations does not depend on whether we search for them.