The Greatest Story Ever Told (or not)
Last year KIC 8462852 (Tabby’s Star) made headlines as a possible - although far fetched - candidate for an alien mega-structure. While there isn’t yet any evidence of this audacious hypothesis, I thought it would be a good idea to explain why this star is so unique and also give an update on the current science being done to study the star. Aliens or not, it’s a fascinating story. So sit back, relax, and prepare to hear one of the greatest tails in modern scientific history.
In the beginning the telescope Kepler was launched into space to look for exoplanets. And it looked upon thousands and thousands of stars and found many new worlds - and the scientist called it good. For the wealth of knowledge that the Kepler wrought was worth far more than a thousand earth based telescopes combined. And all was right and well within the scientific community.
But there was one scientist who noticed something irregular in the vast troves of data. Brought to her attention by citizen scientist - she realized there was one star unlike any other star seen in the entire universe. It was dimming up to 20% of its output for days and weeks at a time. And the dimming was happening in irregular and lopsided intervals. And this astronomer, Tabetha Boyajian, was skeptical of what she saw and thought the data was surely corrupt. Because KIC 8462852 was a main sequence star (type F to be exact) and much like our Sun (Type G) it should be highly stable in its energy output.
So she and her team sought to find the culprit in the data. But no culprit could be found and they soon realized the data was in fact sound. So Tabby sought an explanation for such a large and irregular dip.
At first she thought it could be caused by a large accretion disk - but the star was too old to still have such baby features and there was no infrared signal coming from the star system that such a disk would put out. Next Tabby thought it could be the remnants of a broken up comet - but the dip was too large and the intervals didn’t match up. Next she thought it might be the aftermath of the collision of two planetary bodies or a runaway chain reaction in a tightly packed asteroid belt - but both those explanations would also be measurable in the infrared - and there was no such infrared signal to be found. Her colleagues even considered that the stars dimming could be caused by one or more dust enshrouded planetesimals - but this was ruled out as well. Finally, Tabby reasoned the data could only be explained by a massive swarm of comets in multiple and highly elliptical orbits. And she was at peace with this explanation.
But there was another scientist. And his name was Schaefer. And Schaefer looked at the archive of photographic plates taken of KIC 8462852 over a period of a century from 1890 to 1989. And Schaefer saw that Tabby’s star for the past century has been dimming by an average of of 0.165 ± 0.013 mag century−1 (or 0.152 ± 0.012% yr−1). And this dimming could not be explained by swarms of comets. And the dimming was not how main sequence stars behaved.
It must be understood that the longer a main sequence star burns - the hotter and brighter it becomes as it fuses heavier and heavier elements doing so all the way up to iron - at which point fusion can no longer take place and the star swells into a massive red giant. But Tabby’s Star was not warming up 1% every 100-million years as main sequence stars should. Rather, in the past 100 years, the star had dimmed by several percentage points. And it was the work of Dr. Schaefer that showed this to be so.
But many in the scientific community did not like this new and unsettling information. And some sought to dispute Schaefer's findings. And they called into question the statistical accuracy of the photographic plates from which he had gathered his information. And many were convinced that Schaefer’s findings were not sound. And, in the media, his work was openly discredited. And it was a sad time for Bradley Schaefer.
But then astrophysicist Benjamin Montet came to Schaefer’s rescue. Dr. Montet and his colleague, astronomer Josh Simon, looked at the four years of observations taken by the Kepler Telescope of the star KIC 8462852. And they showed, conclusively, that the star, over a function of time, was in fact dimming. And Schaefer’s work was vindicated. And the mystery of Tabby’s Star deepened. For no one could produce a viable natural explanation for why this star was dimming over the years. Nor why it would periodically dim up to 20% for days and weeks at a time.
So Tabetha Boyajian took this up this question as her mantel. Knowing that NASA wouldn’t jump to pursue such a high risk / high reward mission and also knowing that it could take years for her to secure funding from the National Science Foundation - she instead chose to start a kick-starter. And Tabetha raised over $100,000 for he cause. And she used this money to purchase observation time from the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. And, starting in August of 2016 and continuing all the way to December 2017, she will monitor KIC 8462852. And when dips occur again she will be ready to measure its spectrum. And this will tell her what kind of material that is passing in front of the star and she will be able to more accurately measure the rates of the dips. And, after he work is concluded, she will put forth a better and more informed hypothesis to explain the mystery that is Tabby’s Star.
And many of us today are holding our breath - silently hoping that her explanation is attributed to a massive extraterrestrial engineering project. While this is the most unlikely of all the possibilities - it is also the most interesting. And, as of today, the mystery of Tabby's Star remains. And the mystery is good.
... silently hoping that her explanation is attributed to a massive extraterrestrial engineering project.
Why on earth would you hope for that? The most likely scenario for the non-first civilization that reaches into space is annihilation.
Read this for a great explanation why and how the various scenarios play out (and why life is very probable, but we've not come across it yet):
Basically, we hope we are the most advanced and most intelligent life in the universe and the first to colonize space. If we're not, then we're the Aztec's and the Inca's, the Africans and any other group that had the misfortune to meet another, more technologically advanced group before they had chance to develop.
Any species that achieves interstellar travel must come from a highly cooperative society. Otherwise they stand no chance of making it off the ground in the first place. This species must also have some curiosity about the universe otherwise it could never have developed the technology necessary for interstellar travel.
Beyond colonization would also be the interest in exploration and the chance to study other civilizations. Raw materials can be extracted from ANY solar system. Hell, an advanced interstellar species would almost undoubtedly have fusion technology so that they could turn hydrogen into whatever elements and/or molecules they want. The idea that they would need Earth or any part of our solar system is crazy.
If there is intelligent life that knows of our existence it seems perfectly rational to think their xenobiologists and xenohistorians are observing us with intense interest. Perhaps even from within our own solar system. It's also highly probable they would have an extremely complex and rigorous set of requirements for first contact.
We don't yet have the technology to know if other advanced civilizations exist. Our own galaxy could be chalk full of them and we'd have no idea. That they haven't come into our atmosphere in flying saucers and started abducting cows isn't evidence there's some kind of ticking time bomb for advanced civilizations.
As the link you provided points out, there are several reasons why we wouldn't expect to see ET show up at our front door. And, my biggest problem with the Fermi Paradox is that it ISN'T a paradox. It'd be like us going out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, taking a single teaspoon of sea water, and being baffled as to why we don't see any whales in our sample - and calling it the "Whale Paradox".
The same is true of intelligent life. Our sample size (parts of solar system) is way too small to make a determination one way or the other.
Its a good read. For me its amazing what conclusions Tabetha Boyajian already could draw from the given facts. Its exciting.
let us not forget that Pulsar pulses were originally attributed toor called " LGM" (not so "Little Green Men"), the The small patches of heat in the background radiation , "The hand of God". so-- If we find out what is happening: Does it shed light in our standing of the laws of nature? confirm any unexplored ideas, If ir;s artwork: how did they do it? what was better about their science. let's probe properly.
Whatever the reason for it is we need to be open minded and willing to consider all possibilities and not turn away from evidence just because it may change everything we thought was true. Sounds familiar doesn't it? We should follow truth wherever it takes us it's exciting. It's a shame that funding for these things is scarce.
I thought that the bible was "the greatest story ever told"? (emphasis on story)
Science follows the most likely explanation. That is to say, the one that best fits the available information and requires the fewest assumptions. At this point, it's more than fair to say we don't yet have ANY viable explanations.
As I've said before, I think the most exciting prospect is aliens. But I have serious reservations with putting this forward as a serious hypothesis because it has no predictive powers. What is the rate of dimming we'd expect to see from the construction of an alien mega-structure? How often would we expect the Dyson Swarm orbitals to occur? How long would we estimate their eclipses to last? What kind of energy output would we expect to see from them? Etc.
Any variable we put into any of these questions could be justified by invoking "aliens". And something that can be an answer for everything is an explanation of nothing.
Perhaps when the James Webb Telescope is up and running in 2018 we can image the system. And, if it is aliens, we'll have grounded evidence for that conclusion. But, as it stands, I just don't see what kind of positive evidence ground based telescopes could give us for such a hypothesis.
There is new information, even about the observations online. Occam's razor would suggest a shorter path, via natural laws, rather the billions of years developpement via life, and then with really advanced, powerful civilization technology, massive energy capture. Fundamentalist of course deny "god" did anything within 6000 light years distance, he is resting, so it must be aliens.
Was that morks planet by any chance?
Nanu Nanu !!!