The Oumuamua Wager
Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century French philosopher, theologian, mathematician and physicist, who created the famous Pascal’s Wager. A theory, in which he argues that a rational person should live as though god exists. The principle is simple: if good really exists the believer will only suffer the loss of some terrestrial pleasures in exchange for infinite gains (eternal life in paradise); on the other hand, the non-believer stands to enjoy the limited and short term benefits of a sinful terrestrial life but will afterwards endure eternity in hell.
If we fast forward to the 21st century, a new Wager, loosely based on Pascal’s, is being proposed by another prominent scientist. This February, Avi Loeb, a theoretical physicist who currently directs the Black hole initiative and the institute of theory and computation at Harvard University, published Extraterrestrial. In this new book Loeb defends the theory that the strange object that in late 2017 soared through our solar system, named Oumuamua by the Hawaiian observatory that discovered it, could not be an asteroid or a comet due to its shape, trajectory and speed, but instead was a piece of advanced technology developed by a distant alien civilization. In the book he also proposes a new philosophical gambit, calling it the Oumuamua Wager.
The Oumuamua wager is simple: The implications of discovering extra-terrestrial intelligent life would be immense. Imagine how such discovery would impact science, philosophy, religion, education… The rewards of knowing for sure that we are not alone in the universe would be enormous, while the cost would be, in the grander scheme of things, insignificant.
Avi Loeb defends that the search for alien intelligence, through technology that already exists and some still in development, of which he gives details in his book, deserves much higher levels of funding and political support. After all, if billions of dollars have been spent in the large hadron collider and in the quest to prove theories as exotic as the existence of parallel universes, why not play the Oumuamua Wager, too?
Loeb believes that it would be advisable for the scientific community to remain open minded and be more pro-active in the search for evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligent life, rather than just assume that everything in the sky must be rocks. In other words, the physicist challenges us to think big and expect the unexpected.
Avi Loeb is not yet a household name but that may change in the years to come, as the scientist dares to challenge the status quo, pushing through the boundaries of orthodoxy that he believes constrain the scientific community. Like Galileo, a contemporary of Pascal, who bravely contradicted the prevailing views of his time, including those of the catholic church, by defending the idea that the Sun, not Earth, was at the centre of our solar system, Loeb’s desire to study signs of intelligent alien life is proving controversial among his peers but may end-up paving the way for a revolution in science, and in our understanding of the universe and of ourselves.
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