The Starshot scheme, bankrolled by the Russian internet billionaire and philanthropist Yuri Milner, had been announced only a year and a half before Oumuamua was discovered. It was natural for Loeb to think that great minds across the universe might have thought alike. It sounds crazy but there is a larger point he has to make, one well worth making and reading.
Central to his argument is what he calls the “Oumuamua wager,” a takeoff on Pascal’s famous wager, that the upside of believing in God far outweighs the downside. Likewise, believing that Oumuamua could have been an alien spacecraft can only make us more alert and receptive to thinking outside the box. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
“If we dare to wager that Oumuamua was a piece of advanced extraterrestrial technology, we stand only to gain,” Loeb writes. “Whether it prompts us to methodically search the universe for signs of life or to undertake more ambitious projects, placing an optimistic bet could have a transformative effect on our civilization.” Imagine, for example, lightsails equipped with copies of human DNA placed around a star that would one day explode, sending them riding on a flash of light across the galaxy. It would take millions of years to set up, but what is a million years in the 10-billion-year life of the Milky Way?
He goes on, “When I think of this familiar technology in that way, a lightsail tumbling in sunlight resembles nothing so much as the wings of a dandelion seed sent off by the wind to fertilize virgin soil.”
Modern academic science, he complains, has overvalued topics such as multiple dimensions and multiple universes, for which there is no evidence, and undervalued the search for life out there, not just in the form of extraterrestrial radio signals but in the form of chemical “biosignatures,” or even technological artifacts — such as, Loeb believes, Oumuamua. We could try harder, he writes. The discovery of alien life would be the greatest discovery in the history of science.
As he writes toward the end of this half memoir, half soaring monologue: “But the moment we know that we are not alone, that we are almost certainly not the most advanced civilization ever to have existed in the cosmos, we will realize that we’ve spent more funds developing the means to destroy all life on the planet than it would have cost to preserve it.”