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Abraham (Avi) Loeb is the Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University. Loeb wrote 6 books and over 725 papers (with an h-index of 107) on a wide range of topics, including black holes, the first stars, the search for extraterrestrial life and the future of the Universe. He has been the longest serving Chair of Harvard's Department of Astronomy, Founding Director of Harvard's Black Hole Initiative and Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 2012, TIME selected Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space and in 2020 Loeb was selected among the 14 most inspiring Israelis of the last decade.
In what ways does nature inspire or inform your work?
Throughout my scientific work I have realized that very often Nature is more imaginative than we are. By collecting data we gain new insights and expand our horizons for imagining new frontiers of research. Our knowledge is a small island in a vast ocean of ignorance, and we should always be humble as students of Mother Nature. Let me illustrate that with a historic example.
In view of the great advances in physics during the late nineteenth century, the prominent physicist Albert Michaelson argued in 1894: “… it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established … An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” In contrast, over the subsequent several decades, physicists witnessed the emergence of the Special Theory of Relativity, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, which revolutionized our understanding of the physical reality, disproving Michaelson’s forecast.
We should learn an important lesson from this historic example and never assume arrogantly that we know the truth before exploring it experimentally with an open mind. Being proven wrong is an integral part of our learning experience. By insisting on being right to maximize the number of likes we get on Twitter or our prospect for awards, improved status and recognition, we might miss important discoveries.
What does it mean to you to be part of a thriving ecosystem?
To me it means that we should explore space with the sole desire of embedding ourselves in Nature, soaking in its beauty as spectators, not reformers, and suppressing ego-motivated plans for space colonization. Having my home near Walden Pond, I remain loyal to the legacy of Henry Thoreau as we make new plans for sending people to the Moon, Mars and beyond.