A star’s weird dimming

Published 11:16 am Wednesday, May 31, 2017

This column is all about taking the time to look up.

Sure, there’s plenty enough down here on our little, blue and green rock to hold our attention.

President Donald Trump made his first tour through Europe and the Middle East. A congressional candidate in Montana slugged a reporter. There was a horrific bombing in England that killed teens and children. And the model Kendall Jenner did something in Cannes that was apparently worth of our attention.

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But news this week that “the weirdest star in the sky is acting up again,” and that there’s an outside chance (however tiny, however remote) that it might be the product of alien civilization is ample reason to pause and look up.

In case you missed it (and who could blame you if you did?) scientists are eagerly tracking the activities of a star some 1,300 light years from Earth, in the constellation Cygnus, that strangely blinks in and out like a dying lightbulb.

Sometimes, as The Washington Post reports, its brightness dips by as much as 22 percent.

And scientists have absolutely no idea why it’s happening.

The star, a yellow-white dwarf by the way, bears the boring scientific designation KIC 8462852.

But I prefer its much homier and affectionate nickname, Tabby’s Star, for the the Yale University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, who first discovered it back in 2015.

Tabby’s Star did its dimming thing again last week, The Post and other outlets reported. And as much as astronomers go bananas, they went absolutely bonkers over this news. That’s because the could observe the dimming as it happened.

So they started crowd-sourcing observers, encouraging them to train their telescopes at the star and to take down what they saw.

Among them is Jason Wright, a Penn State astronomer who’s part of SETI (or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project.

He has the coolest theory by far – that it might be an alien megastructure, possibly a huge array of orbiting solar panels, maybe constructed by an alien civilization, that harvests the energy from a nearby star.

“Ancient alien civilizations could be arbitrarily advanced, and so it’s not clear what physics we’re allowed to assume,” Wright wrote. “We don’t know why they would create megastructures (though energy collection seems like a good guess to me) so we have no good reason to expect any particular shape or size for them.

“Imagine that it is advantageous to collect solar energy to be used for some purpose, and that there is enough material to do so, but not an infinite supply,” he continued. “Imagine that the panels have a range of sizes and orbit the star in a range of orbital periods.”

But even if it’s not aliens, the recent activity at Tabby’s Star gave astronomers a rare opportunity.

And whatever data they collect will go a long way toward explaining how and why it happens (comet activity is another hypothesis).

No matter what scientists figure out, it’s going to be pretty mind-blowing. And it will undoubtedly expand our knowledge of the cosmos.

But here’s what I really love about stories like this: However briefly, we put aside all the stuff that divides us and turn our collective gaze upward, pausing from our arguments to collectively marvel at the enormity and magnificence of creation and our own, relatively minor place within it.

I have this friend who lives in a tucked away corner of central Pennsylvania, where there’s hardly any houses and no development for miles and miles. He has, by far, one of the best views of the heavens that I’ve ever seen.

It stops me in my tracks every time.

And on clear and depthless night, you can look up and see this blanket of stars blinking back at you. You can watch as the planets make their transit across the sky. And you can remember that they’ve done this for millennia and will continue to do so long after you and I and everything else is dust.

The light that’s reaching us now from Tabby’s Star is a message from our own past.

It took 1,300 years for those fluctuations in starlight to travel from Cygnus. And if it came from an alien source, they, too, might be long gone.

And, whoever they were, maybe they paused to look up and gaze at their own starry sky, wondering if someone, somewhere might be gazing back at them and what they might be like and what they might be thinking.

There’s time enough for quarrels. Time enough for fighting. But those moments when you can pause and look up, and give thanks for all those slender and fragile threads that tie us together?

Those are a blessing.


John Mickek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.