The metallic spherules found by controversial Harvard physicist Avi Loeb and his team have been identified.
Rather than turning out to be evidence of an interstellar object or alien construction, independent analysis has found that the spherules are most likely coal ash from human industrial practices.
The finding should serve as a reminder that, more often than not, the underwhelming explanation is the true one.
Well, the saga of the mysterious metal spherules at the bottom of the sea appears to have come to a close. If you’ll recall, a few months back, Avi Loeb—highly controversial Harvard physicist and a very public member of the “aliens are here” community—announced that he had found several small metallic spherules off the coast of Papua New Guinea with chemical compositions that are “anomalous compared to human-made alloys, known asteroids and familiar astrophysical sources.”
Not so fast.
The broader scientific community was immediately skeptical of the claims, and it turns out (unsurprisingly) that it was for good reason. Recently, a paper published in Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society showed that the chemical compositions provided by Loeb’s analysis match most closely not to interstellar space stuff, but to human-produced coal ash.
It’s underwhelming and un-exciting, but in a scientific story like this, that’s probably a good thing. It was always way more likely that the spherules would turn out to be from some “boring” source it was that they would prove to have extraterrestrial origins. But Loeb was convinced of his theory, which was largely grounded in his assertion that we were hit by a space rock from far, far away.
According to a paper written in 2019 and published after revisions in 2022, Loeb believes that an object which hit Earth’s atmosphere in 2014—known either as CNEOS 20140108 by the broader astrophysical community or Interstellar Meteor 1 by Loeb and his team—had crashed into our planet from outside our Solar System. In order to attempt to prove this, Loeb spearheaded an expedition to what he believed was the site of the “impact” (which may have actually been illegal).
Once there, Loeb and his team used a large magnetic sled to collect debris from the sea floor. Part of this collection ended up being these now-widely-reported-upon spherules, which were immediately exciting to the team. As Loeb wrote in a Medium post, “The fundamental question is obvious: was this first recognized interstellar object from 2014 manufactured by a technological civilization?”
As it turns out, he was half-right. Maybe not about the interstellar origins of the object—many other scientists believe it was most likely not from outside of our Solar System, or at least, that there wasn’t enough proof to say that it was an interstellar interloper. But it turns out that the spherules probably were “manufactured by a technological civilization”—but it was our technological civilization.
According to the new study, the chemical composition of the spherules most closely resembled contaminating coal ash from human industrial practices—not alien construction materials or even a natural, meteoric interstellar visitor. “Iron content is found to be consistent from previous reports of coal ash contamination. Nickel, beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium concentrations are found to be consistent with expectations from coal ash from a coal chemical composition database,” the study states. “The meteoritic origin is disfavored.”
The thing is, if one was following best established scientific procedure, the “meteoric origin” should not have been the first idea examined. In an article on this topic for Big Think, theoretical astrophysicist and science communicator Ethan Siegel highlights the importance of starting any scientific endeavor with what scientists call “the null hypothesis.” Basically, it’s the most boring and sensible way that a phenomenon or discovery could be explained—and in science, it should always be your starting point. Only once the null hypothesis is completely ruled out should you begin to look for more alternative and potentially revolutionary explanations. To quote Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
But the order of those statements is critical—only after you have eliminated the impossible can you begin to consider the improbable. And that, Siegel explains, is the problem with Loeb’s investigation of these spherules. He did not start with the null hypothesis, and instead went into the investigation with the assumption that it was likely to lead to aliens—or, at least, to interstellar objects. He started with the improbable without first making sure that more likely explanations were impossible.
At least, now, we know the truth about the spherules. But the rise and fall of this phenomenon should function as a reminder: if something sounds too cool to be real, it probably is.
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