My Visit to the Metaverse
Separating science from fiction
When I opened the link to my first interview in the metaverse, the interviewer appeared to be a monkey with heart-shaped glasses and a cigarette in his mouth. He introduced himself as the avatar of the real interviewer, Marc Fernandez, whose voice I could hear. Marc reasoned that this monkey is an NFT (Non-Fungible Token), worth tens of thousands of dollars because it is part of a rare digital collection.
During the Q&A, I explained to the metaverse monkey with love glasses that as a scientist, I am in love with the actual reality of the physical world, shared by all humans. And as a result of being in love with physical reality, I want to know everything about it and not be distracted by fictitious notions of it. Just like cosmetic makeup, these notions hide true beauty along with any pimples. I want to see my real interviewer’s face and not the avatar, even if the latter is digital art worth a lot of money.
Metaverse assets could disappear as a result of a global electricity blackout. But other virtual realities are entrenched in our mind. For example, mainstream theoretical physicists dedicate their life-long careers to exploring the multiverse in the string theory landscape, without goggles attached to their heads. It is human nature to fly high on the wings of imagined narratives rather than be chained by the constraints of scientific evidence.
The metaverse interview focused on the question of whether ʻOumuamua, the first interstellar object spotted near Earth by the Pan-STARRS observatory, might have been technological equipment sent by another civilization.
Three days later, I was interviewed by William Shatner, who portrayed Captain James T. Kirk on the imagined USS Enterprise in Star Trek. I had never enjoyed Star Trek because its storyline violates the laws of physics, and that bothers me as a physicist. Based on his recent experience with an actual space flight, Shatner agreed with me that the actual reality feels different from the virtual reality portrayed in Star Trek.
Following both interviews, I came to realize that the metaverse would be a fertile backdrop for science fiction narratives. However, in dealing with the reality we all share, we must separate science from fiction. And as Galileo Galilei advocated, this is best done by subjecting ideas to experimental tests. In that vein, a science fiction idea, such as the possibility that an interstellar object might be technological equipment manufactured by an advanced technological civilization, will be tested experimentally by the Galileo Project that I am leading.
Some extraterrestrial equipment that the Galileo Project finds might be defunct. NASA launched five spacecraft that will exit the solar system within tens of thousands of years. They were intended to report back on what they probed in the solar system — but in a billion years they will be space trash. Most interstellar equipment might be like unusable plastic bottles on the surface of the ocean, accumulated over the billions of years of the cosmic star formation history, during which most stars were born before the Sun.
The likelihood of success in finding mail within our mailbox — the orbit of the Earth around the Sun — depends on the abundance of artificial objects per unit volume. There may be many more small objects than large objects, and Pan-STARRS is only able to detect reflected sunlight from objects bigger than a football field within the Earth-Sun separation. NASA never sent a craft that big, but many smaller ones. Also, some spacecraft might move much faster than comets or asteroids, and all the search algorithms employed by astronomers would miss very fast-moving objects.
The senders may not be alive at present. But even if we imagine electromagnetic communication of some probes with their senders, it would likely be done in brief, sporadic, directional, narrow-band transmissions to save power, and so we could easily miss them. The travel time of signals is very long, tens of thousands of years across the Milky Way disc. It therefore makes more sense for probes to pursue a task assigned to them by their senders without feedback, like a group of ants on a journey to a distant hill without the ability to communicate with their base colony in real time.
In an email correspondence I had with former NSF Director, France Córdova, she noted insightfully that most of the exodus of probes might occur near the end of the life of the star hosting a civilization. The civilization from which probes were sent in a final act of distress might have died by now. In this case, it would be just the technological descendants that we will encounter.
Experimental data from the Galileo Project will serve as the meeting place between what is possible and what exists, similarly to my first interview in the metaverse. The metaverse allows a virtual reality which violates the laws of physics. But when we take its goggles off, we must accept the pleasure and pain of the real world, in which the laws of physics do not budge. Pain because those laws dictate that humans cannot live a long life when exposed to cosmic rays on the surface of Mars. Pleasure because the same laws allow humans to live long on Earth, where if they choose, they can pretend to be monkeys in the metaverse.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.