Strange Days Indeed

Just walking around the new WNC offices.
Just walking around the new WNC offices.
People have asked me why I quit writing about Florida, specifically, and stupid things people do in red states in general. Most seem to assume that the idiocy has been tamped down to levels seen everywhere else. Most would be horribly wrong. In Florida, alone, the amount of people doing stupid things has risen to such epic levels that the South Central Sun-Sentinel has been forced to hire staff just to keep tabs on them and, for a while, even offered the content as pay-per-view. Oddly enough people weren’t stupid enough to pay to read about stupid people, so they just increased their ad rates and now everybody’s happy. But, quite honestly, I’d be writing about them day and night and still not cover it all. Consider me officially whelmed on that topic. I moved on. Besides, I have to admit, it’s kind of draining. No human should ever read a sentence containing the words “naked” “meth-lab” “strip-club” “infant” and “gun used as dildo” which is delivered without irony. I have read such sentences numerous times. So I don’t do that to myself anymore.

I’ve got a few things in que for you today, so let’s start with aliens. By now most of you have heard of the star KIC 8462852 a/k/a Tabby’s Star, named after Tabetha Boyajian, the woman who led the team that discovered its behavior, it was supposed to have an alien megastructure around it. Like a Dyson Swarm, an array that would collect all the sun’s energy and distribute it evenly across the system for the inhabitants to use. Cool idea, but there was no evidence of transmitted energy. Others, such as yours truly, posited that it could be a swarm of comets. Many smart people said “Yep, that makes sense” and went back to reading Dilbert. Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy, says one dude said “oorrrrr, maybe not.” And here’s where the weird turn pro.

But still, the star is weird. And we just found out it’s even weirder than we thought.

Bradley Schaefer is an astronomer at Louisiana State University. He’s a clever fellow and has a habit of thinking outside the box when it comes to astronomical mysteries. When it came to Tabby’s Star, Schaefer realized there might be older observations of it that could help inform its study.

He found that Tabby’s Star has been photographed more than 1,200 times as part of a repeated all-sky survey between the years 1890 and 1989. Using two different methods, he examined those observations and measured the star’s brightness over time.

fading star

Tabby’s Star is fading over time. The blue diamonds are measurements made between 1890 and 1989. The solid line is a linear (straight-line) fit to all the data while the dashed line is just a fit to the starting and ending points. The gray points are from two other stars as controls; they don’t fade over the same period.

Graph from Schaefer, 2016

What he found is rather astonishing: The star has been fading in brightness over that period, dropping by about 20 percent!

That’s … bizarre. Tabby’s Star is, by all appearances, a normal F-type star: hotter, slightly more massive, and bigger than our Sun. These stars basically just sit there and steadily turn hydrogen into helium. If they change, it’s usually on a timescale of millions of years, not centuries. Schaefer examined two other similar stars in the survey, and they remained constant in brightness over the same time period.

The long-term fading isn’t constant, either. There have been times where the star has dimmed quite a bit, then brightened up again in the following years. On average, the star is fading about 16 percent per century, but that’s hardly steady.

So it appears Tabby’s Star dims and brightens again on all kinds of timescales: hours, days, weeks, even decades and centuries.

Again. That’s bizarre. Nothing like this has ever been seen.

So what’s causing this? Well, think Occam’s razor. The simplest explanation is probably the best place to start, and in this case that means one thing is probably behind all this weird behavior. Schaefer looks into this in his paper and concludes that the comet family idea doesn’t explain all the behavior. It might explain the short-term dips (maybe, kinda) but are hugely unlikely to be behind the long-term fading. You’d need truly vast numbers of comets, and they’d have to be huge, much larger than reasonable. And they’d have to be slamming into each other just as we happen to be looking.

So, yeah. Unlikely.

Phil goes on with a list of other, logical, things which could account for the known facts. All of them have been dismissed or deemed highly unlikely. Just for giggles, I posted on a NASA blog what I thought it could be. A ringworld. I expected to get laughed out of the room. Larry Niven’s flight of fancy, a single structure to replace all the planets in a system, has very little practical value.

Except …. it kind of fits. If you were building something like that there would be periods of massive dimming and periods of increased brightness. Also, since the structure would only be capturing solar energy, there would be no transmissions to track. Plus, once completed the dimming would be constant. So my stupid suggestion got added to the list of possibilities. I’ll keep you posted.

A little closer to home Pluto’s still a dwarf planet, but that’s okay. Scientists now know it’s got lots of company out there so it’s not some lonely little wanderer. The problem is that its wanderings, and the wanderings of its buddies, are a little off. As in, off enough that something must be disturbing them. Something big.

Irene Klotz, over at Discovery, says that something is a planet as big as Neptune.

The astronomer who helped kick Pluto out of the planet club believes a much larger body may be lurking in the outskirts of the solar system.

If it exists, the solar system’s ninth planet is estimated to be a gas world about 10 times bigger than Earth, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) astronomer Mike Brown wrote in this week’s Astronomical Journal.

Brown and colleague Konstantin Batygin, also at Caltech, used mathematical models and computer simulations to deduce the planet’s existence, but they also have some observational evidence to support their claim. Several small icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt region beyond Neptune have quirks in their orbits that may be explained by the gravitational influence of a larger, more distant planetary cousin.

Scientists then realized that six of those bodies follow elliptical paths pointing toward the same direction in space.

“It’s almost like having six hands on a clock all moving at different rates, and when you happen to look up, they’re all in exactly the same place,” Brown said in a press release, adding that the odds of that happening are about one-in-100.

The orbits also are tilted in the same direction, roughly 30 degrees downward relative to the orbital plane of the solar system’s other eight planets.

“We thought something else must be shaping these orbits,” Brown said.

After checking if a batch of other Kuiper Belt objects might be responsible, the scientists started doing computer simulations that included a distant outer planet in various orbits.

They found an unusual match: a massive planet in an anti-aligned orbit, which is an orbit in which the planet’s closest approach to the sun is 180 degrees across from the closest approach of the objects and known planets in the solar system.

“I was very skeptical,” Batygin said in the release. “I had never seen anything like this in celestial mechanics.”

Besides accounting for peculiarities in some Kuiper Belt objects’ orbits, the predicted rogue planet, located at least 200 times farther away from the sun than Earth, also would pin other Kuiper Belt bodies into orbits perpendicular to the plane of the rest of the planets.

“I realized there are objects like that,” Brown said. “We plotted up the positions of those objects and their orbits, and they matched the simulations exactly.”

If true, and all signs point to it being so, a planet like that should have moons. And, as we’ve discovered, many moons have water. That could easily become a staging area for extra-solar exploration.

But first we need to find it.

Even closer to home, the nice folks at the Irish Examiner have noted that aliens may already live among us and, even odder, I may have eaten some of them.

Not to send you into a meltdown or anything but octopuses are basically ‘aliens’ – according to scientists.

Researchers have found a new map of the octopus genetic code that is so strange that it could be actually be an “alien”.

The first whole cephalopod genome sequence shows a striking level of complexity with 33,000 protein-coding genes identified – more than in a human.

Not only that, the octopus DNA is highly rearranged – like cards shuffled and reshuffled in a pack – containing numerous so-called “jumping genes” that can leap around the genome.

“The octopus appears to be utterly different from all other animals, even other molluscs, with its eight prehensile arms, its large brain and its clever problem-solving abilities,” said US researcher Dr Clifton Ragsdale, from the University of Chicago.

“The late British zoologist Martin Wells said the octopus is an alien. In this sense, then, our paper describes the first sequenced genome from an alien.”

The scientists sequenced the genome of the California two-spot octopus in a study published in the journal Nature.

They discovered unique genetic traits that are likely to have played a key role in the evolution of characteristics such as the complex nervous system and adaptive camouflage.

Analysis of 12 different tissues revealed hundreds of octopus-specific genes found in no other animal, many of them highly active in structures such as the brain, skin and suckers.

The scientists estimate that the two-spot octopus genome contains 2.7 billion base pairs – the chemical units of DNA – with long stretches of repeated sequences.

And although the genome is slightly smaller than a human’s, it is packed with more genes.

Reshuffling was a key characteristic of the creature’s genetic make-up. In most species, cohorts of certain genes tend to be close together on the double-helix DNA molecule.

A gene is a region of DNA that contains the coded instructions for making a protein.

In the octopus, however, there are no such groupings of genes with related functions. For instance, Hox genes – which control body plan development – cluster together in almost all animals but are scattered throughout the octopus genome.

It was as if the octopus genome had been “put into a blender and mixed”, said co-author Caroline Albertin, also from the University of Chicago.

Okay, breathe, relax, calm down. Their genes are ordered different than ours, they aren’t actually different than ours. All the parts are there, just like in us, they just never came together like ours did.

Just in case you, for some reason, think we’re the most advanced beings on the planet, I’ll remind you that, in 2016, Louisiana banned oral sex, or any form of sodomy, but kept necrophilia legal.

Now you know why I don’t write about them any more.

Toadies : Summer of the Strange (NSFW) from Kirtland Records on Vimeo.

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