How a Stanford professor is organizing the hunt for alien life

Biotech entrepreneur launches ‘Stardust Repository’ and Palo Alto foundation to study Unidentified Aerial Phenomena — what we used to call UFOs

A mysterious hovering object was reported flying overhead on a cold December night in 1977 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Then a luminous hot molten rock plummeted to the ground.

What exactly was it? What caused it to appear? Nobody knows.

However, immunologist Garry Nolan of Stanford University proposes one possible explanation: it was a discarded part of a UAP, or “unidentified aerial phenomena,” the formal government name for objects previously known as UFOs.

Undaunted by the possibility of professional repercussions, the biotech entrepreneur is advocating for the establishment of a “Stardust Repository,” where this and other mysterious materials of unknown origin could be stored for analysis.

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

“We’re here to professionalize and normalize this,” Nolan told a packed house of physicists, data scientists, tech entrepreneurs, and others from some of the country’s most prestigious 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.

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

He is also studying fragments of a fireball found on the seafloor of the western Pacific. When a mysterious object blazed through Earth’s atmosphere and crashed into the sea off Papua New Guinea’s northeastern coast in 2014, Loeb speculated that it could be an artifact of intelligent life.

“There is a new frontier in astronomy,” he said at the conference on Friday. He refers to his metallic marble collection as “my babies,” and aspires to find “a technological needle in the haystack of rocks that are familiar to us.”

Villarroel is digitizing images of the sky from the past and present with former UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, a pioneer in the search for exoplanets. They’ve launched the EXOPROBE research program, which will look for bright and brief flashes of light outside the Earth’s atmosphere that could be alien space probes.

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

Nolan claims that scientific attitudes toward the search for life beyond our solar system are changing. Colleagues were intrigued, he said, by David Grusch’s July testimony before Congress, in which he stated that “anonymous sources” informed him that the US government possesses “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 told me. “However, it’s one of the first questions I get when I go to Harvard or MIT to give a talk.” They’re curious.”

“I don’t need anybody’s permission to think what I do,” Nolan went on to say. “I’m not here to persuade them. “I’m here to gather data.”

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