A Most Interesting Star and a Context Lesson

Geeks and space nerds are all aflutter with word there is something odd about KIC 8462852. And while I really got excited about the news about that star, I also slipped into j-prof mode while reading the pieces.

For me, context is vital to not only telling any story, but also telling a story about an issue or topic that is not normally on the reader’s radar. Normally, in this space it is all about making a global-local connection. This time, it is all about science and excitement about a new discovery. The question here is: How does this fit in with what I already know?

But first, the exciting news from space.

In recent days there have been a number of articles about some great news that from space. The Atlantic Magazine has one of the best pieces about KIC 8462852 and unusual dips and peaks in the light the Kepler telescope received from the star. (The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy)

This is pretty cool.

A paper published about the star drew on data from the Kepler telescope and observations based by PlanetHunters, an online group of just average folks who volunteer their time to study that data. What they all found is a bunch of stuff around the star that, basically, shouldn’t be there.

[There is a] mess big enough to block a substantial number of photons that would have otherwise beamed into the tube of the Kepler Space Telescope. If blind nature deposited this mess around the star, it must have done so recently. Otherwise, it would be gone by now. Gravity would have consolidated it, or it would have been sucked into the star and swallowed, after a brief fiery splash.

So scientists worked at coming up with reasons for all this stuff. There are many natural reasons for the existence of this debris, but there are also some logical and scientifically based explanations that are a bit outside the envelope.

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish an alternative interpretation of the light pattern. SETI researchers have long suggested that we might be able to detect distant extraterrestrial civilizations, by looking for enormous technological artifacts orbiting other stars. Wright and his co-authors say the unusual star’s light pattern is consistent with a “swarm of megastructures,” perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

“When [I saw] the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told me. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Sources cited in an Ars Technica piece went further:

Other sources have been reporting that KIC 8462852’s behavior could be evidence of an alien Dyson sphere or an alien megastructure. The researchers didn’t actually discuss this possibility in their paper, where they concluded the comets are currently the best explanation. But as the cometary explanation is not fully satisfying, lead author Tabetha Boyajian of Yale consulted with Jason Wright, an astrophysicist with Penn State University, who had studied ways to detect potential extraterrestrial constructions.

Wright posited that the dips in flux from the star might be due to an alien Dyson sphere. Dyson spheres, of Star Trek fame, are massive, hypothetical constructs built around a star to collect its energy through millions of solar panels.

Even though aliens should be the last thing to consider, that does not mean they should not be considered.

As a j-prof these articles hit all the right buttons:

  • Newsy
  • Interesting
  • Just enough “isn’t this odd” to draw in readers
  • Well written

But what really struck me — again as a j-prof — about the articles written about this odd-duck star is that no one said how far away it was.

Yes, it is in our galaxy, so it is not too far away — in terms of all of space — but it is hardly next door. A few seconds of research showed that this very interesting star is 1,480 light years away. That means the light left that system in 535 CE.

If the residents of the KIC 8462852 system did build space stations or a Dyson sphere, think about how far ahead of us they are. Here are some things that were happening on Earth in the 6th century:

  • The Mayans were in their Classical Period
  • This is the century of King Arthur and Beowulf
  • Mohammad was born in 570. (So 35 years after the light left KIC 8462852.)
  • And in 589, the Chinese scholar made the first known reference to toilet paper.

And the residents of KIC 8462852 were building large space-based systems. (Or so it is speculated.)

Is knowing that the star is about 1,500 light years away vital to the story? No. But it does help put the discussion of what is going on there in context. It is not as if we will be able to communicate with anyone in that system until the laws of science are changed — hint: warp drive and sub-space communication (thank you Star Trek.)

And, another bit while wearing the j-prof hat:

It takes just a few extra steps to make international issues relevant and interesting to Main Street. Likewise, to make science and the scientific process exciting, it takes great writing and an appeal to the readers’ imagination.

Many thanks to Ross Andersen at The Atlantic and the folks at Ars Technica for meeting this standard so well. This really is exciting news and they made it sound exciting.

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Filed under Connections, Kepler

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