All puckered up and ready for a probing

by Gus Donohoo

In a Preview of the [CTRL-C]+[CTRL-V] Issue (on Newsstands January ’16), We Ask Esteemed Physicist Freeman Dyson About the Mysterious WTF Star, and Whether Aliens Might Be Plagiarizing from Science Fiction
Aside from the occasional cosmic joke, such as when a middle-aged man named Walter White gets convicted for 10 years of cooking (in his own words) “the best meth in Alabama,”14 generally speaking reality doesn’t plagiarize from fiction. Yet fictions give us models for the world that are our best possible expressions of the unknown. Like children in the dark, it is our imaginations that fill the shadows.

This year the Kepler space telescope—a solar orbiting satellite custom designed for planet hunting—detected a mysterious anomaly far away in the inky darkness. Something very strange is happening to a star named KIC 8462852. Whatever is happening to this star is something that the collective “we” of humanity—or the collective “we” of astrophysics at least (which let’s face it, might as well speak for the rest of us)—doesn’t understand at all. We have detected something that our science doesn’t explain, but that our science fiction, just maybe, just might.

Spotting planets is quite a difficult thing to do—stars are a long way away, and planets are (relatively) very small, yet Kepler has managed to spot a lot of these cosmic marbles by staring unblinkingly at a star and waiting for its light to dip as a planet passes in front. But the light of KIC 8462852 doesn’t drop by some small, insubstantial amount—by 1% say, as it would if there were a very large orbiting planet. Whatever is orbiting this star is causing its brightness to dive intermittently by 15%, or even 22%.

Star names are one of the world’s great missed-marketing opportunities, yet KIC 8462852 happens to be so curious that astronomers have given it a rather more catchy title: WTF Star—“Where’s the Flux?”—or as the Internet has embraced it, WTF 001.

A very serious scientist—one of the greatest living—is the 91 year-old Professor Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1960 he published a paper in Science where he posited that a sufficiently advanced alien civilization might create a swarm of giant structures that would surround a star for the wholesale harvest of its radiation. Dyson theorized that such a civilization might be detectable by the infrared emission of these giant solar panels. He thus inadvertently created an iconic mainstay of science fiction—the “Dyson Swarm”—an alien superstructure surrounding a star. Yet ironically, Dyson admits to being inspired by the Russian science-fiction writer Olaf Stapleton who imagined such objects in his 1937 novel Star Maker.14.1

Thus we have a hypothetical scientific proposition, emerging from a fiction, inspiring in its turn a great deal of other fiction, and perhaps now detected almost 1500 light years away, orbiting a star called WTF 001.

I asked Professor Jason Wright of Penn State University—a planet hunting astronomer, and the lead author of the first paper proposing that the object blocking the light of WTF 001 may be a Dyson Swarm—about what these objects might be that Kepler is observing.

“Whatever is blocking the starlight is almost certainly close to the star and in orbit around it.” Wright told me, “The distance is about one to five astronomical units [editor's note: an astronomical unit is the distance from the Earth to the Sun]. It’s hard to say because we don’t know how big the objects are, but we know that at least some of them are star sized.”

This is very curious, because when you have the enormous mass required for a star, gravity should supply sufficient pressure to create nuclear fusion. How do you have something that’s star sized that isn’t fusing fuel? I asked Wright, Are there any objects that potentially do that?

“No there aren’t.” Wright told me, “A big dust cloud could be the size of a star, but it shouldn’t last very long. It should be ephemeral. It’ll either dissipate or collapse.” All the data taken thus far quite clearly indicates that WTF 001 is an old and stable F type star. Once a star is stable, it tends to stay that way for a very long time—literally billions of years. Wright acknowledges that stellar astrophysics is generally considered to be one of our best-understood branches of astrophysics. Stars age in characteristic ways that are well understood. Younger stars—soon after their formation—can be surrounded by large discs of material that can obstruct their light in a similar way to what has been observed, but such discs only last for 10-100 million years, and there’s no good reason why a star the age of WTF 001 should have such a disc—and certainly not a disc gigantic enough to block so much of the light of its star.

I asked Professor Dyson about the star, and whether he thinks it might be the first Dyson Swarm we’ve identified:  “That’s a lot of rubbish of course,” he told me, “but certainly it’s a very interesting object. We probably won’t understand it for quite a long time.”

Wright asserts that the most likely explanation proposed so far is that the objects blocking WTF 001 are a swarm of orbiting comets, “It’s really the only explanation that doesn’t really contradict any of the data.” He told me, “The problem is that you have to invoke giant comets, much bigger than anything in the solar system. Much bigger than anything we thought could exist, but you have to invoke a whole bunch of them. Its not even clear it works in detail. Right now it’s just a hypothesis and there still needs to be a lot of work done to see if that hypothesis makes physical sense.”

The idea that some god-like alien civilization is capable of architecture on a cosmic scale is incredibly alluring—at least to those of us whose imaginations like to wander—yet up until now humanity has not been able to detect so much as microbial life beyond the Earth’s atmosphere—what chance is there that such a grand civilization is at work in our galaxy? Perhaps the most famous attempt at answering this exact question is the probabilistic ‘Drake Equation’ of astronomer Frank Drake. This equation attempts to quantify how many civilizations like our own might be present in the galaxy at any one time. Dyson is not a fan of it.

“Oh I hate the Drake Equation.” He told me, “It’s not true, it’s a stupid equation. It never was true. It’s not helped at all.” Do you think it’s an oversimplification? I asked him. “It has no information in it really at all.” He continued, “It’s just one of the few equations which actually doesn’t say anything.”

In terms of the search for other civilizations however, Dyson is more optimistic, “We’re doing very well. We’re still searching for a signal, but we’re getting better and better at it. But to calculate in advance the probability of discovering things makes no sense.”

Wright points out that: “Obviously intelligent space-faring life is a natural process, because we’re it, and we’re a natural process. On the other hand it’s not a process that we can constrain very well. We don’t know what an advanced civilization would be capable of. So there’s a danger that if you just say ‘maybe it’s aliens’ that they could do anything. You have to make sure that you stick to testable hypotheses and that you’re not just filling in every gap in knowledge with aliens.”

In the absence of data, plugging the holes in our knowledge is the place for fantasy, fiction, or perhaps religion. We must be curious explorers, willing to investigate both our imaginations and our physical reality, yet perhaps applying caution when we allow one to copy and paste into the other. Many of the world’s telescopes are now pointed towards WTF 001, eagerly awaiting the next eclipse as something passes in front of it again. Irrespective of whether it’s some solar system dwarfing alien technology, or an unimagined clutter of galactic detritus, evidently something very interesting awaits. “One shouldn’t divide the universe into living and dead,” Dyson told me, “you want to explore everything. You never know what you might find.”