How a Stanford professor is organizing the hunt for alien life

On a cold December night in 1977 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a mysterious hovering object was reported to be flying overhead. Then a luminous hot molten rock fell to earth.

What was it? Where did it come from? No one knows.

But Stanford University immunologist Garry Nolan suggests one possible theory: It was a discarded part of a UAP, or “unidentified aerial phenomena,” the formal government name for objects previously called UFOs.

Undaunted by the risk of professional stigma, the biotech entrepreneur is urging the creation of a “Stardust Repository,” where this and other pieces of mysterious materials of unknown origin would be stored for analysis.

At a first-of-its-kind symposium on Friday and Saturday, hosted by Stanford, Nolan unveiled plans to bring scientific rigor to a realm that has long been home to kooks and wackos.

“We’re here to professionalize and normalize this,” Nolan told a standing-room-only crowd of physicists, data scientists, tech entrepreneurs and others, representing some of the country’s most elite institutions. “The objective is to bring people together to legitimize things — and to seek your ideas.”

“We need to approach UAPs with the same methodology that I do with cancer research,” said Nolan, who trained under Nobel laureate David Baltimore at MIT, co-developed essential tools for immunotherapy and gene therapy, and founded two successful companies.

His new Palo Alto-based Sol Foundation aims to become “a premier center for UAP research … a think tank to provide solid, reasonable answers” based on collaboration in the controversial field.

Scientists have long pondered the possibility of life beyond Earth. In a galaxy filled with billions of stars, each thought to host at least one planet, there are numerous opportunities for life to evolve. If intelligence emerged here on Earth, they say, it could have happened out there.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense established an Anomaly Resolution Office, which aims to detect and identify “objects of interest” in the nation’s airspace.

Nolan’s curiosity in UAPs was first triggered as a child. Looking back now, he remembers seeing what he believes could have been a spacecraft above the woods while he was delivering newspapers in his hometown of Windsor, Conn. In another incident, he looks back now and remembers awakening to what he thinks may have been alien figures in his bedroom.

Those memories lingered in the back of his mind. Then in 2013, he said his Stanford lab was visited by “people in the government,” whom he declines to name, carrying MRIs of brain scans of sick people who claimed to have been visited by UAPs. They asked for access to his powerful cellular analysis machine.

He wondered back to his childhood: “Is that what I saw?” referring to a UAP.

He has no time for weirdos or conspiratorial thinkers.

After the rumored discovery of an alien — a small mummified skeleton with giant eye sockets, elongated skull and 10 ribs instead of the usual 12, found in the remote Atacama Desert of northern Chile — he went to investigate.

Wild speculation “is the wrong way to do science,” said Nolan, professor in the Department of Pathology at Stanford’s School of Medicine. DNA testing revealed that it was a baby girl, perhaps stillborn, tragically deformed by a collection of genetic mutations.

But he is fascinated by scientific anomalies — evidence that doesn’t conform to expectations. He believes that’s where great discoveries are waiting to happen.

“It’s about the data that’s ‘off the curve,’” — outside of the expected trend, he explained. “When the data is all ‘on the curve,’ you’ve just repeated something that you already know.”

“When there’s data ‘off the curve,’ you have to explain it,” he said, “You can’t walk away from it — because of what it might mean.”

Unlike the major established players in the hunt for intelligent life outside the solar system, like the SETI Institute and Breakthrough Listen, the Sol Foundation is focused on the analysis of physical objects, not signals, associated with extraterrestrial technologies.

Founded in 1988, the SETI Institute is working with UC Berkeley and the Allen Telescope Array and other tools to search 1 million nearby stars for radio signals that could indicate intelligence.

Breakthrough Listen, launched by tech entrepreneur and investor Yuri Milner and cosmologist Stephen Hawking in 2015, is surveying the skies for radio and optical laser transmissions.

In its new effort, the Sol Foundation points to work by provocative figures such as Avi Loeb, professor of astronomy at Harvard University, and Beatriz Villarroel of  Sweden’s Nordic Institute of Theoretical Physics, and computer scientist and venture capitalist Jacques Vallée.

Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University speaks on stage as Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking host press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot, a new space exploration initiative, at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation)

Loeb’s Galileo Project, a research program at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics dedicated to the search for alien technology near and on Earth, is erecting small observatories in Boston, the Colorado Rockies – and, if funding permits, Southern California.

He is also analyzing fragments of a fireball scraped off the western Pacific seafloor. In 2014, when a mysterious object blazed through Earth’s atmosphere and crashed into the sea off the northeastern coast of Papua New Guinea, Loeb asserted that it could be an artifact of intelligent life.

“There is a new frontier in astronomy,” he said at Friday’s conference. Calling his collection of metallic marbles “my babies,”  he aspires to find “a technological needle in the haystack of rocks that are familiar to us.”

With former UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, a pioneer in the search for exoplanets, Villarroel is digitalizing images of the sky, past and present. They have launched the EXOPROBE research program, analyzing bright and short flashes of light outside the Earth’s atmosphere that could represent aliens’ space probes.

“In these (photographic) plates, you assemble the possibility of seeing something artificial,” Villarroel said.

Nolan asserts that scientific attitudes are shifting about the search for life outside our solar system. Colleagues were intrigued, he said, by the July testimony before Congress by David Grusch, a former U.S. Air Force officer and former intelligence officer, who said that “anonymous sources” informed him that the U.S. government is in possession of “non-human” spacecraft as well as “biological remains.”

“I had plenty of colleagues who would giggle and laugh, or once the subject came up, they’d walk away,” he said. “But often now, if I go to Harvard or MIT to give a talk, it’s one of the first questions that comes up. They’re interested.”

“I don’t need anybody’s permission to think what I do,” Nolan said. “I’m not here to convince them. I’m here to collect the data.”

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