Vibrations From “Interstellar Meteor” Actually From Local Truck; Or, Fact-Checking The Celebrity Scientist

On Jan. 8, 2014, an extraordinarily bright meteor plummeted from space to Earth and crumbled into confetti over the ocean near Papua New Guinea. Sensors from the U.S. government that track bright meteors called fireballs dutifully recorded this fireball’s breathtaking speed—nearly 28 miles per second. NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies logged this fireball, dubbed CNEOS 2014-01-08, in its catalog of fireballs, where it would be discovered five years later by Avi Loeb, an Israeli-American theoretical astrophysicist at Harvard University, and Amir Siraj, then an undergraduate at the university. Loeb founded the Galileo Project, a research program that seeks to bring the search for extraterrestrial technology into mainstream science, and had been looking for objects of unusual speed, which he believes could be a sign of interstellar origin. As Loeb saw it, CNEOS 2014-01-08 was moving far too quickly for something gravitationally bound to our sun, and instead must have originated beyond our solar system. Loeb even speculated the object might be an alien spacecraft.

Loeb and Siraj’s first attempt in 2019 to publish this paper in The Astrophysical Journal ended in rejection, with reviewers noting that the military data cited by the authors, which relied on obscured readings to protect military secrets, was not sufficient to prove an interstellar origin. In 2022, the journal recanted and published the paper, just months after the U.S. Space Command—a division of the government that aims to exert U.S. tactical dominance in space, whatever that means—released a memo on Twitter confirming that the military data was indeed sufficient to indicate an interstellar origin. NASA scientists remained unconvinced. An emboldened Loeb launched a $1.5 million expedition to dredge the bottom of the ocean for shards of the meteor. And he found them, or at least he found about 850 microscopic metallic blobs called spherules. The composition of nearly a quarter of these spherules indicate they came from igneous rocks, meaning they were once molten. “Their chemical composition is unlike any known solar system material,” Loeb and colleagues wrote in a recent preprint.

How did Loeb manage to pinpoint the stretch of ocean where the microscopic fragments of a former fireball might have sunk five years ago? His team targeted a seven-mile region in the Pacific Ocean based on the obscured sensor data from the U.S. military satellites, which was released publicly through CNEOS, as well as data from a seismometer from Manus Island, located near where the meteor fell. All of this would be terribly exciting if it were true.

On March 12 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, several scientists presented early evidence that directly refutes Loeb’s claims, Nature reported. One argument, directed at the spherules, came from Steve Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University. In a preprint, Desch argued that the blobs’ chemical composition suggest they are microtektites—bits of melted rock from Earth—from an asteroid that struck Earth 788,000 years ago. In other words, the spherules are home-grown. Not all scientists are convinced by Desch’s counter-argument, Nature reported.

The second, funnier refutation is directed at the seismic data Loeb examined to home in on the meteor’s landing spot. When Benjamin Fernando, a planetary seismologist at Johns Hopkins University, examined the ground vibrations recorded at a seismic station on Manus Island, he found no evidence of seismic waves from a meteor. Instead, he noticed the signal Loeb cites “changed directions over time, exactly matching a road that runs past the seismometer,” Fernando said in a press release, suggesting that the “alien sound” was actually a heavy truck driving to and from the hospital. “It’s really difficult to take a signal and confirm it is not from something. But what we can do is show that there are lots of signals like this, and show they have all the characteristics we’d expect from a truck and none of the characteristics we’d expect from a meteor.”

If the sound of the meteor was merely a truck, what did the actual meteor sound like? In their preprint, Fernando’s team examined data from stations in Australia and Palau equipped with sensors to detect sound waves from nuclear tests and found waves that seemed to resemble a meteor hitting the atmosphere—more than 100 miles from the spot Loeb investigated. “The fireball location was actually very far away from where the oceanographic expedition went to retrieve these meteor fragments,” Fernando said. “Not only did they use the wrong signal, they were looking in the wrong place.”

the astrophysicist Avi Loeb smiling in front of various paraphernalia of his face
Avi Loeb among his many Avi Loeb effigies.Anibal Martel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Loeb is an avid blogger. He has already taken to his chosen bully pulpit—his Medium blog—to refute the truck hypothesis. Just this week he has posted five blogs in which he often rails against the unintelligent journalists who question his claims, repeatedly compares himself to Galileo—the astronomer famously placed under house arrest for suggesting Earth revolves around the sun—and compares his critical press to “stoning any innovative messenger in the town center.” Here, at least, Loeb is not incorrect; he has amassed a good number of haters. His history of extravagant claims constellated around evidence of extraterrestrial life has provoked the ire of many of his peers in astrophysics, such that some researchers now refuse to engage with Loeb’s work in peer review, as Katrina Miller reported for The New York Times. “It’s polluting good science—conflating the good science we do with this ridiculous sensationalism and sucking all the oxygen out of the room,” Desch, the Arizona State astrophysicist, told Miller.

Loeb built an establishment career over decades publishing hundreds of papers on standard astronomical stuff—black holes, dark matter, etc.—and ascended to various directorships at Harvard. All this changed in 2017, when a cigar-shaped object named ‘Oumuamua soared through our solar system from another. ‘Oumuamua was the first known interstellar object enter our orbit, and scientists marveled how it did not fit into any existing notions of an asteroid or comet. Loeb published a paper suggesting ‘Oumuamua could be a form of space travel called a lightsail, and therefore a sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Since then, Loeb has pivoted to aliens, a focus that has skyrocketed his public profile. If you do not read Loeb’s blog, you can read Loeb’s books, read about Loeb in a series of glossy magazine profiles, listen to Loeb on Joe Rogan and other podcasts or, apparently, see Loeb’s one-man show about his life and work that he performed in his attic last November.

None of this is surprising, of course, because this is what celebrity scientists do, as Kyle Paoletta explained in a piece for The Baffler. They preach from their pulpits, extrapolating bizarre connections from their putative fields to completely unrelated issues. They simply must go on Joe Rogan. They are invariably fascinated with images of themselves—Loeb ends each of his blogs with an enormous headshot and bio, in case you forget who you’re reading!—because their faces are part of their brands. They leap at the chance to show their faces, no matter the context, which is how Neil deGrasse Tyson has made cameos no one asked for in such illustrious films as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, even playing the astrological sign Taurus in Jennifer Lopez’s self-financed $20 million dollar autofictional music video This Is Me… Now. (In an interview with Scientific American, Loeb expressed his wish to be played by Brad Pitt in the event his book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth is ever adapted into a movie.)

Besides evangelizing the vaunted intricacies of academic knowledge into Simple English for the unwashed masses or even simply spreading misinformation, perhaps what a celebrity scientist does best is take up space. They hog attention, both in fawning stories about their work and stories about the researchers who inevitably question their work. They hog funding: Loeb ended one Medium rant against a New York Times reporter’s story on the truck reveal with the news that his Galileo Project just received a large grant, not that the privately funded project seems at all strapped for cash. (You may not be surprised to learn that crypto mogul Charles Hoskinson, who funded the de-extinction company Colossal apparently so he can eat a dodo egg, also funded Loeb’s seabed expedition and even let the team borrow his private jet.) And they hog time, forcing scientists like Desch and Fernando to rely on their own, far less substantial resources to rein in Loeb’s outlandish claims instead of advancing their own research. Because at the end of the day, Loeb, a tenured professor at Harvard, can do whatever he wants.

No field of science should be associated with a face. It’s telling that a newcomer to the search for intelligent life like Loeb has become the figurehead for SETI in seven years when a researcher like Jill Tarter, a SETI pioneer who is the inspiration for the film Contact, is not mentioned once in the New York Times Magazine profile of Loeb, “How a Harvard Professor Became the World’s Leading Alien Hunter.” (Loeb infamously yelled at Tarter during a public webinar after she critiqued his characterization of the field that she worked in for more than 40 years.) When we give attention to celebrity scientists, even in the form of much-needed critiques, without spotlighting the researchers who are doing the real, grueling, longterm work that doesn’t always lead to sensational claims and is therefore left out of the discourse, we are still only promoting the celebrity scientist and their many money-making projects. We are still getting them paid.

So with that, let this be the first and last time I write anything about Loeb, whose work I only want to encounter after it has been translated and contextualized by his critics. And in the case of the spherules, Fernando told Scientific American, “I think they’ve found some sludge.”

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