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Our galaxy is sexier than your galaxy.
Our galaxy is sexier than your galaxy.

(1) In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth (2) And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. – Genesis (KJV). That’s not a bad allegory for the Big Bang Theory, all things considered. From nothing came something. I can hear scientists from numerous branches lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks. I hope they’ll bear with me since this isn’t for them. This is, instead, for the nice folks at home who come here for introductory level stuff so they can grasp the initial concept before dumpster diving into the minutae. It’s also a nice place to bring people up to date on discoveries thus far. Today we’re going to talk about the fun we can have chatting with aliens. Or, if you’re a believer in God, our galactic cousins who were brought forth into the firmament by Him. See, if He created everything, then he created them. That’s how “everything” works.

Two months ago I wrote about a team of Russian scientists who claimed to have discovered an alien signal. They later claimed that the signal came from a cloaked Russian satellite that was launched in the 60’s. Or, maybe, later. Since, if Kruchev and pals had that kind of tech in the 60’s, it would mean we’d all be speaking Russian today and, obviously tovarich, we’re not, I feel safe in setting that particular excuse aside for now. I should also note that other scientists, this time in Italy, requested additional research be done for a myriad of reasons. Mostly because they thought the initial claim, and not the satellite one, was valid. Or, at least, credible.

So time is being spent hunting that bugger down. As of that writing it was the second signal discovered which warranted attention. The first being the famous WOW Signal from 1977.

But the times, they are a changin’.

Shannon Hall, over at New Scientist, reports that two Canadian scientists are claiming they have found not one, not two, not three, but two hundred and thirty four alien signals. That’s out of about ten billion solar systems they tested.

Before we go any further I’ll let Shannon tell you the rest.

It’s a bold claim. Two astronomers think they have spotted messages from not just one extraterrestrial civilisation, but 234 of them. The news has sparked a lively debate in the field as other astronomers think the claim is premature and are working fast to get to the bottom of the signals.

In 2012, Ermanno Borra at Laval University in Quebec suggested that an extraterrestrial civilisation might use a laser as a means of interstellar communication. If the little green men simply flashed a laser toward the Earth like a strobe light, we would see periodic bursts of light hidden in the spectrum of their host star. They would be incredibly faint and rapid, but a mathematical analysis could uncover them.

“The kind of energy needed to generate this signal is not crazy,” says Borra. In fact, Borra showed that technology we have on Earth today – specifically the Helios laser at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – could generate that kind of signal, should we want to reveal ourselves to the cosmos.

With this in mind, Borra’s graduate student Eric Trottier combed through 2.5 million stars recorded by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in search of such a signal. He found it, down to the exact shape, in 234 stars.

The overwhelming majority of those stars are in the same spectral class as the sun, which Borra says supports his hypothesis that this signature must be the result of extraterrestrial intelligent life. And with the data in hand, he thinks that 234 distinct civilisations are beaming pulses of the same periodicity (roughly 1.65 picoseconds) toward the Earth.

Borra and Trottier ruled out other possible explanations for the pattern, like rapid pulsations in the atmospheres of the stars themselves and rotational transitions in molecules. “We have to follow a scientific approach, not an emotional one,” says Borra. “But intuitively – my emotion speaks now – I strongly suspect that it’s an ETI signal.”

Extraordinary claims

Other astronomers think that Borra’s intuition might have run away with him.

“They don’t consider every natural possibility and jump prematurely to the supernatural – so to speak – conclusion,” says Peter Plavchan at Missouri State University in Springfield. “I think it’s way too premature to do that.”

“There is perhaps no bolder claim that one could make in observational astrophysics than the discovery of intelligent life beyond the Earth,” says Andrew Siemion, the director of the SETI Research Centre at the University of California Berkeley. “It’s an incredibly profound subject—and of course that’s why many of us devote our lives to the field and put so much energy into trying to answer these questions. But you can’t make such definitive statements about detections unless you’ve exhausted every possible means of follow-up.”

So that’s exactly what the Breakthrough Listen Initiative—a project headed by Siemion that searches for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth—will do. The team plans to observe several stars from Borra’s sample with the 2.4-meter Automated Planet Finder telescope at the Lick Observatory in California.

Borra is excited to see that others are taking the reins. “At this stage, the signal is so strange, that although our detailed analysis seems to indicate that it is a real signal, it has to be validated with more work,” he says.

Still, the Breakthrough Listen team doesn’t share Borra’s enthusiasm. According to a statement, they have rated the detection as a zero to 1 on the Rio Scale for SETI observations, meaning that it is insignificant.

In fact, Siemion thinks the spectral patterns were likely caused by errors in calibration or data analysis. And Plavchan agrees. He points to several steps in the team’s data analysis that “scared him” because they didn’t consider how those steps might affect their results—a red flag in any scientific claim. At the end of the day, the signal probably comes down to a human error, he says.

“It’s not a bad idea to look for a signal, it’s just that they didn’t do their homework,” says Plavchan.

Journal reference:  Borra Trottier Paper

The skepticism held by the two scientists noted, and by many others, is exactly what this type of research needs. When supposition replaces fact we end up in bad places. Or, if you prefer, Dark Ages.

That said, the paper from Borra and Trottier adds to a growing pile of data that is starting to weigh on the side of the teeter totter that says “here there be aliens.”

Part of that data is the is the century old study of Tabby’s Star a/k/a KIC 8462852. It was named after Tabetha Boyajian, the woman who led the team that discovered its behavior . The numeric thing is just a catalog number but you can use it to win bets at nerd parties if you wish.

Back to the star.

Stars. They start out gassy, like your Uncle Elroy after a burrito as big as his head, then they form, attain their maximum level of brightness, begin to wane, and then die. Sometimes spectacularly – like novas, sometimes not. What they do not do, unless they’re pulsars, which Tabby’s Star is not, is oscillate. There are no galactic discos which require a strobe light. Nor do they begin to dim in the prime of their lives. Especially not in a definable band. Stars don’t grow rings.

Obvious reasons, such as an exploding planet or a ring of comets caught in its gravity, don’t account for the steady dimming viewed since the late 1890’s. If any of those reasons were valid the star would appear dimmer and stay at the same, reduced, luminosity. That is not what’s happening here. Each year it gets a little dimmer in a certain band. Just as if someone was building a structure around it to harness its energy. Here on Earth we call such things Dyson Spheres. I have no idea what the aliens call them. Or if they name things at all.

Naming, after all, is a human convention. Nothing in the universe demands names.

When I first wrote about this in January of this year I had this to say;

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.

While no one is saying this thing is really an alien structure, fewer are dismissing the concept out of hand. As one scientist said to me, after a few adult libations and sandwich, “We know more and more what that fucker ain’t. But ain’t no one gonna sit on that thin limb and say what it is.”

Yes, drunk scientists are fun.

However, at some point  we’re going to run out of options. Then what? Put it on our “to do” list for when we develop interstellar travel?

For now, let’s not say “we have proof” one way or the other. Instead, let’s say, damn, that looks interesting, let’s check it out.


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