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Do you know Oumuamua?
Published in Ahram Online on 02 - 02 - 2021


Is this Earth both our heaven and hell?
How often has early man gazed at the vast blue sky, and wondered what lies yonder?
Surely it was home to all his gods. Up there was the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve dwelled. In Abrahamic religions, they were banished to Earth for disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit.
God, forever merciful, forgave them and ordered them to go out and multiply and populate the world, and they did. Earth became the centre of the universe.
How do you reconcile science and the story of Adam and Eve in the holy books? The creation is famous the world over and has helped shape civilisations, morals, sins and the forces of good and evil.
Many scientists have tried, if you put Adam and Eve back 200,000 years, that is, but the general view is that it is highly unlikely and the story of Adam and Eve is but an allegory. Blasphemy. Science and religion, therefore remain wide apart.
Yet, Earth is our planet. We know of others, but no other form of life applies. We have been born in it, grown in it and have died in it, but it has not stopped us from searching, dreaming, hoping that in this vast universe there is other life somewhere.
Discontented, perhaps we are reaching out for a haven from this Earth, filled with pain and suffering.
Every effort has been made by science to encounter or imagine some form of life among the trillions of planets in the cosmos. It is impossible that we are home alone. So far Earth remains a global standard, one of a kind, the only planet to host life.
In an age of fast-paced discovery we are literally just one of billions of planets in the Milky Way Galaxy and among the smallest, but we are blessed with embarrassing riches, not rock and sand.
The first month of the New Year has introduced good news at last. The publication of a new book that introduces us to the first confirmed object from another star to visit our solar system. No, not science fiction, book, or a Stephen Spielberg movie, it was a real interstellar interloper.
In his book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life beyond the Earth, January 2021, Harvard professor Avi Loeb made an earth-shattering discovery. He claims that alien debris passed near Earth in 2017. Thus, finally, scientists detected the first sign of intelligent life outside Earth.
Intriguing, yes, but not without scepticism. How about all the UFOs, the interstellar objects out there? They were simply theories, deductions, perhaps even wishful thinking.
Now for the first time we have direct evidence they exist.
When it was originally discovered there was great excitement among scientists, and a few disbelievers. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission, gave it his seal of approval: “For decades we have theorised about such interstellar objects, but now for the first time we have direct evidence they exist.”
NASA named it 11\ 2017 U1 Oumuamua which in Hawaiian means “a messenger that reaches out from the distant past.” The first object ever seen in our solar system that is known to have originated elsewhere, but where? Its origins are still unknown.
It was first noticed by a telescope on the island of Maui, October 2017, when it was already on its way out of the solar system. Well, what does it look like?
There is no picture of Oumuamua. Why not? Nobody was prepared, but, “that much we know, it had come from outside the solar system from the direction of the star Vega,” say the elated astronomers. Astrophysicists were nonetheless able to form a picture from the brightness that it was about a quarter mile wide and at least five to 10 times longer than it was wide.
An artist's interpretation of a reddish cigar-shaped rock has been widely reproduced.
Most of NASA's research is focused on finding signs or sounds of any sort of life in another world — finding an Earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like star similar to ours.
That is one of the great mysteries of our existence.
Why does this Oumuamua not excite us as much as it does the scientific community?
Science fiction has inundated us with visions of aliens from other planets, from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), to Jules Verne's (1826-1905) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H G Wells' War of the Worlds, and who can forget ET?
We would be remiss, however, to underestimate the discovery of alien life, which would be the greatest discovery in the history of science.
It was Einstein who said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Science is restrained by evidence. Imagination is largely free from objective restraints, therefore has no limits. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world, or should we say worlds?
An experimental partition of the mind develops theories and ideas based on functions. Progress in science is due partly to imagination.
So what do we stand to gain?
“If we dare to wager that Oumuamua is a piece of advanced extraterrestrial technology it can make us more alert, receptive and prepared to thinking outside the box,” writes the author.
Copernicus, Galilleo, Kepler, and others dared. With their imagination they changed the way we approach the mysteries of existence.
So, welcome Oumuamua, come back and teach us what another life is like out there.
“Chance favours the prepared mind.”
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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