More than a decade ago, scientists identified and described a new disease known as “Nobelitis,” in which “some Nobel laureates may consider that their award is a certificate of competence in any field…prompt(ing) them to undertake projects or accept positions which are beyond their capabilities.” The case studies are numerous: Linus Pauling thought Vitamin C could cure schizophrenia and the common cold, James Watson thinks white people were genetically more intelligent than other races, and Brian Josephson, winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in physics, thinks homeopathy is real. Remember homeopathy? Yeah.
At this point the question isn’t whether or not Nobelitis is a real problem, but whether or not the name should be changed to be more inclusive of scientists who have achieved some level of fame and go on to exhibit symptoms of the disease despite never having won a Nobel prize. On that note, let’s talk about Avi Loeb, Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University and noted crank who keeps appearing on my social media timeline like an ad for Cheech and Chong’s new CBD gummies.
So yes, Loeb is a very accomplished theoretical physicist who has authored many respected papers on topics like black holes and exoplanets. He’s been at Harvard since 1993, and as these things often go in academia, that means that he’s probably going to stay there until he dies. Unless someone catches him fully making up fraudulent data, that is, I guess. Maybe.
That hasn’t happened (yet?), but in the past few years he has seemingly lost interest in his field of expertise and gone all in on aliens, which is why Harvard University, the elite Ivy League school that has produced 8 US presidents, 49 Nobel laureates, and 369 Rhodes scholars, is putting out press releases claiming that one of their eminent theoretical physicists chartered a boat to the middle of the Pacific Ocean where he (possibly illegally and unethically) collected the remnants of an extrasolar meteor that crashed there nearly a decade ago, because he thought that it could be “artificial in origin or hold equipment from alien civilizations.”
Not only did Loeb claim he was able to pinpoint the exact location of this meteor on the sea floor, but that the metallic spheroids he collected, according to a preprint submitted this month, “originated from a highly differentiated magma ocean of a planet with an iron core outside the solar system or from more exotic sources.”
On the other hand, an independent analysis done last month found that the spheroids are, in fact, coal ash. Literally just beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium spit into the ocean thanks to boring old disgusting human industrial contamination.
If you’re interested in a very thorough debunking of Loeb’s alien spheroids romp, check out this Big Think article that systematically dismantles every part of his argument, but here’s a quick rundown: there is no solid evidence that the initial meteor was extrasolar in origin, there’s a very good chance the high velocity of the meteor caused it to mostly or entirely burn up in our atmosphere, there’s little chance that even if it hit the ocean and fell all the way down to the sea floor that Loeb successfully found the remnants within a 100-kilometer range of uncertainty, and the molecular composition of the spheroids all point to an origin in our solar system.
Also the piece ends with some choice comments from other experts:
From astrophysicist François Rincon: “I feel so sorry for all the real Harvard astronomers.”
From astrobiologist Caleb Scharf: “Well, they did indeed discover evidence of a technological civilization…right here on Earth.”
From astronomer James Beattie: “lol.”
This is hardly the first time Loeb has pranced off to do something that has the actual experts in this field face-palming. He’s written an entire book about his obsession, ’Oumuamua, the first confirmed interstellar object we’ve observed passing through our solar system. It was first identified in 2017, but unfortunately it was already on its way out of town, so scientists had very little time to collect as much data as possible. What scientists were able to learn is very impressive, but there was an unavoidable vacuum of information that made it tempting to wonder if this mysterious object from outside our solar system was really a Rendezvous with Rama situation: an alien craft speeding by us, or a piece of alien tech that has been hurtling through space for millions or billions of years.
Even the astronomers studying the object had that initial giddy thought, because scientists are humans and the idea of alien civilizations is cool as hell. And so researchers like Jason Wright, director of the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, have spent a lot of time going over the evidence for and against a natural origin for ‘Oumuamua and with some measure of disappointment found that it is overwhelmingly in favor of “not aliens.” And yet, Avi Loeb published many papers arguing the opposite, forcing the experts in the field to repeatedly counter his points. You can click through in the transcript linked below to read the full explanation but again just to keep things brief here, ‘Oumuamua’s shape, albedo (the amount of light it reflects), acceleration, speed, and trajectory are all easily explained as a natural object matching those astronomers have been observing for decades, despite what Loeb claims.
These points have been explained repeatedly to Loeb, but they didn’t stop him from publishing an entire book on his hypothesis, which became a New York Times bestseller because of course it did.
Loeb has gone on to launch his own project to set up Earth-based monitoring systems to watch our skies for alien civilizations who visit us. And while actual respected scientists point out pesky details like “we’re already monitoring the skies for strange phenomena to study” and “your dismissal of scientific evidence makes people think that scientists studying extraterrestrial intelligence are all quacks,” Loeb has gotten increasingly defensive. For instance, here he is on a Zoom call responding to Jill Tarter making those exact points. Tarter, in case you weren’t aware, is the astronomer who is so connected with the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe that the main character in Contact is based off of her, so keep that in mind.
After seeing that logical and reasoned response to valid criticism, you might not be surprised to learn that Loeb retreated into the open arms of the very unscientific UFO fan community, like Ancient Aliens star Nick Pope and “self-proclaimed UFO whistleblower” Luis Elizondo. And that’s why for the past few months I’ve been randomly seeing more and more headlines and social media posts about how a “Harvard astrophysicist” is endorsing weirder and weirder things.
All of which brings me to this very week, just before I recorded this video, when I saw this post from PZ Myers about how Loeb is now attacking the field of…geology. He’s turned his attention to the Permian-Triassic extinction, aka the Great Dying, Earth’s largest known extiction event that occurred 251.9 million years ago (TO THE DAY, can you believe it?) and which, due to it being so far in the past, is still a bit of a mystery. That said, geologists have formed a consensus that it likely occurred due to volcanic eruptions.
But in a recent Medium post, Loeb dismisses that consensus as “popular opinion,” and instead posits that the Great Dying was actually due to global warming caused by an ancient, technologically advanced civilization that also left behind UFOs as “functional relics” that still zip around despite the destruction of said civilization.
I say this with all sincerity: is Ari Loeb okay? Like, it’s cool for someone who excels in one field to take an interest in another field; it’s less cool for them to ignore the experts in that field; it’s very uncool to grab headlines that end up tarnishing the reputation of the actual experts in that field; and when that person starts spinning off into whole new fields and throwing out ideas that sound like they were rejected by the writers of season 5 of Sliders, it may be time for that person’s friends, family, and colleagues to start to have some serious conversations.
It’s sad to see a case of Nobelitis proceed so quickly to Stage 4, where it seems that there’s not much chance of stopping it. But just know that this disease is not inevitable, and many esteemed scientists buck the trend. I’m reminded of noted astrophysicist Katie Mack, who was staying at my house once when I used that as an opportunity to get my telescope fixed–I had taken it apart and couldn’t put it back together properly. When I asked Katie if she could take a look at it, she stared at me for a moment and said, “But Rebecca…I’m a theorist.”
Ah, bless a scientist who knows her area of expertise. You know what the kicker is? She fixed the telescope anyway. Also she didn’t shout over me to say I’m a blogger with no written scientific papers. And that’s why Katie Mack is always allowed at my house and Avi Loeb is not.