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'Oumuamua cigar-shaped comet

Seeing the Spaceship: Why We Need to Pay Attention to Anomalies

In late 2018, the chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy made an astonishing statement about ‘Oumuamua – a recently discovered object from intergalactic space that had entered our solar system. “Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” Abraham ‘Avi’ Loeb wrote in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The comments set off a firestorm of criticism. “The authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry”, wrote one astrophysicist. “A shocking example of sensationalist, ill-motivated science,” said another.

But Loeb has not backed down from his position; rather, he has embraced the publicity – even taking part in a Reddit AMA about his ideas – and continues to push the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be alien technology. He does so because – having looked at the data so far – he sees ‘Oumuamua as a genuine anomaly: its shape, its trajectory, and its movement do not match with natural explanations. And so he is willing to look at the anomalous space object through a different lens – one where it is an artificial creation, made by an alien civilization.

And he is clear that in doing so, he is trying to get the ‘orthodox’ science community to start looking outside the box of their own preconceived notions about what is possible: “My motivation, in part, is to motivate the scientific community to collect more data on the next object rather than argue a priori that they know the answer,” he told the New Yorker.

We have seen an object from outside the solar system, and we are trying to figure what it is made of and where it came from. We don’t have as much data as I would like. Given the data that we have, I am putting this on the table, and it bothers people to even think about that, just like it bothered the Church in the days of Galileo to even think about the possibility that the Earth moves around the sun.

Prejudice is based on experience in the past. The problem is that it prevents you from making discoveries. If you put the probability at zero per cent of an object coming into the solar system, you would never find it!

Loeb’s words resonated strongly with me when I recently viewed an image posted to Twitter by Antonio Paris. It’s a four-year-old photo taken on Mars by the Curiosity rover, of a bunch of rocks – one of which looks a lot like a thigh bone:

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

I’m not saying it is a bone – Mars sure does throw up some weird geology. What struck me, however, was the text that accompanied the image:

No bones about it! Seen by Mars rover Curiosity using its MastCam, this Mars rock may look like a femur thigh bone. Mission science team members think its shape is likely sculpted by erosion, either wind or water.

If life ever existed on Mars, scientists expect that it would be small simple life forms called microbes. Mars likely never had enough oxygen in its atmosphere and elsewhere to support more complex organisms. Thus, large fossils are not likely.

The question isn’t even posed – it’s an impossibility, there cannot be bones on Mars, therefore we need not investigate, or even think about this further. As Loeb said, the problem with this approach, is that “it prevents you from making discoveries.”

It reminds me of another Martian anomaly from a few years ago. Two images taken by the Curiosity rover showed what looked like a light source on the horizon. Mars scientists said it was simply an imaging artifact. When I questioned them about the likelihood of two different images both showing the artifact in not only the same part of the landscape, but the horizon line – both pieces of evidence that should, I think, make any curious person investigate further – they dismissed the query out -of-hand based on their previous experience with imaging artifacts.

'Light' seen on the horizon by Mars rover Curiosity

Again, I wasn’t saying it was aliens. It was just an anomaly that I thought worth checking out further. But for scientists, just being an anomaly meant that it could be explained away without proper justification.

Happily, in this case, Mars scientists actually did later change their mind, concluding it probably wasn’t actually an imaging artifact, but something real in the landscape that reflected the sun. But the initial responses to my query were again illuminating as to how ‘orthodox’ science can so quickly dismiss genuine anomalies.

This inability to look beyond orthodox science conclusions reminds of the ‘SEP field’ that hides an alien spaceship from human eyes in Douglas Adams’ novel Life, the Universe, and Everything (part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series). ‘SEP field’ stands for “Somebody Else’s Problem field” – the spaceship is made invisible by the brain’s desire not to see it:

An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot… The Somebody Else’s Problem field… relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.

It’s a more-than-apt analogy for describing the ‘Oumuamua controversy, but it extends to all scientific anomalies – from weird space rocks through to parapsychology results to strange archaeological artifacts. Mainstream science is bedeviled by the SEP field that surrounds anomalies, and it stifles our chances of new and exciting discoveries beyond the current paradigm.

It’s part of the reason this site exists: not to say for sure that alien spacecraft are visiting our solar system or that an advanced civilization once existed and has now been forgotten – but that anomalies should be looked at carefully, critically, and without prejudice. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to see the spaceship?

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