Extraterrestrial by Abraham Loeb

“Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” by Abraham Loeb; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (240 pages, $27).

Extraterrestrial by Abraham Loeb

Published in January 2021, Extraterrestrial is a NY Times bestseller written by renown Israeli-American theoretical physicist and Harvard University astronomer Dr. Abraham “Avi” Loeb. In 2018, Avi attracted media attention for suggesting alien space craft may be in our solar system, using the anomalous behavior of ʻOumuamua as an example. In this book he explores his scientific theories of why he believes the unique flight path of ʻOumuamua may be of intelligent design rather than naturally occurring.

ʻOumuamua was named after the Hawaiian term for scout, and was the first known interstellar object to have been detected passing through our solar system. When the object was first observed by Robert Weryk at Hawaii’s Haleakalā Observatory in 2017, it was about 21 million miles from Earth (85 times as far as our Moon), and already heading away from the Sun. After its initial discovery, many observatories around the world locked their sights onto the object to learn as much about it as we could before it was too far gone.

ʻOumuamua was up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly elongated, about 10 times as long as it is wide. Its elongated shape was quite surprising, and unlike any objects seen before, with a complex, convoluted shape and a reddish color. It was briefly classified as an asteroid until new measurements found it was accelerating slightly, a sign it behaved more like a comet.

Unlike what is expected for comets, ʻOumuamua was completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it. These properties suggest that the object was composed of dense rock and possibly metal, void of water or ice, and that its surface was reddened by irradiation from cosmic rays over a very long period. Observations suggest this unusual object had been wandering through our Milky Way Galaxy, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.

For the laundry list of rare and unexpected properties of ʻOumuamua, including its particular trajectory through our system, Dr. Avi submitted the possibility that the metallic space object might not just be a rarity of nature, but that it may perhaps be an artificial craft or probe of extraterrestrial origin. His was a controversial theory, supported by some of his academic peers but opposed by many more.

Regardless of which camp you the reader may belong to, Dr. Avi is a highly educated Harvard physicist and astronomer. In the pages of Extraterrestrial, his theory is laid out as just that: a theory. He makes his argument not only with well thought out physics equations and carefully measured statistics, but also asks the reader “If not now, then when?” He posits that, logically speaking, we’re likely not the only beings in the galaxy that managed not only to survive on our particular planet but also thrive to the point of building a civilization. Much as we as a species have launched electronics into space, it is inevitable that so too might someone else. And, assuming both we and they live long enough as species, our space-faring electronics might cross paths with one another, and that we, as a society, should have a solid Plan B in mind just in case it is ever revealed that our grand intelligence isn’t the monopoly we always thought it was.

Despite convincing arguments and valiant effort, Dr. Avi didn’t manage to convince me that ʻOumuamua was anything more than a sharp piece of space shrapnel from a cosmic event long, long ago. That being said, Extraterrestrial was still a very entertaining and enlightening read, full of important points for us as a society and as individuals to consider when it comes to the possibility of intelligent life on other planets potentially waiting for us to discover them out there among the stars, or vice versa. The truth is out there!

Donavon Anderson is a Library Assistant in Reference at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at danderson@alamancelibraries.org.