“Before he started the whole alien spaceship thing last year, the chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department was known for public lectures on modesty. Personal modesty, which Avi Loeb said he learned growing up on a farm. And what Loeb calls “cosmic modesty” — the idea that it’s arrogant to assume we are alone in the universe, or even a particularly special species.” A. Selk, The Washinton Post
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“You can find a poster for one of these lectures in Loeb’s office today, though it’s a bit lost among the clutter: photos of Loeb posing under the dome of Harvard’s enormous 19th-century telescope; thank-you notes from elementary-school children; a framed interview he gave the New York Times in 2014; his books on the formation of galaxies; his face, again and again — a bespectacled man in his mid-50s with a perpetually satisfied smile.
Loeb stands beside his desk on the first morning of spring courses in a creaseless suit, stapling syllabi for his afternoon class. He points visitors to this and that on the wall. He mentions that four TV crews were in this office on the day in the fall when his spaceship theory went viral, and now five film companies are interested in making a movie about his life.
A neatly handwritten page of equations sits on the desk, on the edge closest to the guest chairs. ‘Oh, this is something I did last night,’ Loeb says. It’s a calculation, he explains, supporting his theory that an extraterrestrial spacecraft, or at least a piece of one, may at this moment be flying past the orbit of Jupiter.
Since publishing his controversial paper, Loeb has run a nearly nonstop media circuit, embracing the celebrity that comes from being perhaps the most academically distinguished E.T. enthusiast of his time — the top Harvard astronomer who suspects technology from another solar system just showed up at our door. And this, in turn, has left some of his peers nonplused — grumbling at what they see as a flimsy theory or bewildered as to why Harvard’s top astronomer won’t shut up about aliens.
What you can’t call Loeb is a crank. When astronomers in Hawaii stumbled across the first known interstellar object in late 2017 — a blip of light moving so fast past the sun that it could only have come from another star — Loeb had three decades of Ivy League professorship and hundreds of astronomical publications on his résumé, mostly to do with the nature of black holes and early galaxies and other subjects far from any tabloid shelf.
So when seemingly every astronomer on the planet was trying to figure out how the interstellar object (dubbed Oumuamua, Hawaiian for ‘scout’) got to our remote patch of Milky Way, Loeb’s extraordinarily confident suggestion that it probably came from another civilization could not be easily dismissed…’Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it,’ tweeted Paul M. Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, shortly after the paper published.
‘A shocking example of sensationalist, ill-motivated science,’ theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel wrote in Forbes…Most scientists besides Loeb assume ‘Oumuamua is some sort of rock, be it an asteroid ejected from some star in meltdown hundreds of millions of years ago, or an icy comet wandering the interstellar void.
But it’s moving too fast for an inert rock, Loeb points out — zooming away from the sun as if something is pushing it from behind…And while he’s not saying it’s definitely aliens, he is saying he can’t think of anything other than aliens that fits the data. And he’s saying that all over international news.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming
Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about the topic (alien life on earth). Regroup as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Dr. Avi Loeb is the chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department.
- Loeb learned personal modesty growing up on a farm.
- Dr. Loeb has many books on the formation of galaxies.
- His spaceship theory went viral.
- Since publishing his controversial paper there has been many media people in t his office.
- Loeb may be the most distinguished E.T. enthusiast of his time.
- Some scientists view Loeb as an astrophysicist that poses a theory that they might not believe.
- Some scientists believe Oumuamua is some sort of rock, but it’s moving too fast— zooming away from the sun as if something is pushing it from behind.
- Loeb is not saying it’s definitely aliens but he can’t think of anything other than aliens that fits the data.
- In a matter of months, Loeb has become a one-man alternative to the dirge of terrestrial news.
Grammar: Identifying English Articles
Directions: Have students choose the correct English articles (THE, A, AN)to fill in the blanks.
It’s ___stable lifestyle, but for me it resembles more ___lifestyle of___ business person rather than scientists,” he says. Loeb grew upin___ Israeli farming village.
“I don’t have___class system in my head of academia being ___elite,” he says, as he leads ___reporter into ___locked chamber of ___Great Refractor — ___enormous 19th-century telescope where he sometimes does photo ops. “I see it as___continuation of childhood curiosity — trying to understand what ___world is like.
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
“The ___ thing that can happen to___ is I would be ___of my ___duties, and that would give ___even more time to___on science,” Loeb adds. “All the ___ I have, I can ___them back. In fact, I can dial myself back to the farm.”
WORD LIST: focus, dial, me, administrative, titles, relieved, worst, me,
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
- Do you believe there are aliens living among us? Provide reasons for your answer.
- The article states, “Since publishing his controversial paper, Loeb has run a nearly nonstop media circuit, embracing the celebrity that comes from being perhaps the most academically distinguished E.T. enthusiast of his time …And this, in turn, has left some of his peers nonplused — grumbling at what they see as a flimsy theory or bewildered as to why Harvard’s top astronomer won’t shut up about aliens.” After reading this article do you think Loeb is talking too much about the possibility of aliens? Explain why or why not.
- In your opinion, what are the most significant ideas of this article? Explain why.
1-Minute Free Writing Exercise
Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.Review the responses as a class. For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.