KIC 8462852 and Strange Stars

KIC 8462852, Tabby’s Star, has been in the news recently. Scientists are pretty sure that something very large orbits the star, but haven’t worked out what it is.

A few scientists, looking at the data, say that it’s probably a really odd natural phenomenon: but that it might be something built by folks who aren’t human.

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is still a science in search of a subject. But quite a few scientists are taking it seriously, which is why Berkeley SETI Research Center added few stars to the Automated Planet Finder’s observing queue.

  1. Tabby’s Star and Something Weird
  2. Strange Stars and the Rio Scale

What I say about SETI and science in general may take some explaining, if you’re new to this blog. Basically, I think God is large and in charge; and that part of my job is appreciating God’s work — not telling the Almighty how it should have been made.


Psalms and Ptolemy

The Bible generally reflects Mesopotamian cosmology: like pillars of the earth in 1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 9:6, and the dome of heaven in Psalms 150:1. (August 28, 2016)

On the other hand, I think that bit about the morning stars singing in Job 38:7 might reflect Pythagorean ideas applied to cosmology. The book was being written around the time Pythagoras noticed that music was mathematical.

Celestial spheres show up in Anaximander’s cosmology about two and a half centuries before Aristotle said that the universe is a set of concentric spheres with Earth at the center: or bottom, more accurately.

Ptolemy added his observations and analysis to Aristotle’s ideas, describing a universe of nested spheres in “Almagest.”

Ptolemy’s ‘nested spheres’ model matched observations pretty well for more than a millennium. It also reflects how we talk about the sun “setting” or “rising.” I like to believe that most folks realize that the sun’s apparent motion happens because Earth rotates.

On the other hand, a fervent Christian told me that the sun goes around Earth, ‘because the Bible says so.’ He had a point: given a completely figure-of-speech-free reading of Joshua 10:1213 and Job 9:7.

Small wonder folks like this Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology, make goofy assumptions about Christianity:

Earth 2.0: Bad News for God
Jeff Schweitzer, Huffington Post (July 23, 2015)

“…Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days….”

I’ve talked about “Earth 2.0,” Kepler-452b, ancient Mesopotamians, and getting a grip, before. (July 29, 2016)

Folks living north of the Alps lost track of Ptolemy’s work after Theoderic took over management of the Ostrogothic Kingdom — but not all knowledge, thanks in part to centers of learning like Gaelic Ireland, and that’s another topic.

Using Our Brains

From Wiley Miller, used w/o permission.

Ptolemy wrote “Μαθηματικὴ Σύνταξις,” “Mathēmatikē Syntaxis,” around the year 150. Folks speaking my language call it “Almagest,” “المجسطي” — “al-majisṭī” — because a 12th-century Latin translation was particularly famous in our culture’s history.

Ptolemy’s work replaced most earlier Greek studies of mathematical astronomy, and started being translated into Arabic in the 9th century.

Ptolmaic and Aristotelian ideas about a round Earth may have shaken the faith of some folks living in the Byzantine Empire, but Christianity kept going.

I’ll grant that Theodosius I had a hand in that. I’ve talked about Charlemagne and the Thirty Year’s War before. (November 6, 2016)

Where was I? Pillars of the earth, Ptolemy, getting a grip. Right.

As I said last week, my faith doesn’t depend on ignorance, or desperately clinging to long-outdated efforts to understand the universe. (November 25, 2016)

Scientific discoveries are invitations “to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283)

God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: one that is changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 282308)

Honest and methodical study of this astonishing creation cannot interfere with an informed faith, because “the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.” (Catechism, 159)

God gave us brains. Using them is what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 35, 50, 159, 22922296)

Reading and understanding Sacred Scripture, the Bible, is very important. But it’s not all there is to my faith. Because I’m a Catholic, I follow our Lord, and can draw on two millennia — more, actually — of accumulated wisdom.1 (Catechism, 95, 101133, 174)

“…The Bible is a collection of 73 books written over the course of many centuries. The books include royal history, prophecy, poetry, challenging letters to struggling new faith communities, and believers’ accounts of the preaching and passion of Jesus….

“…Know what the Bible is – and what it isn’t. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation….”
(“Understanding the Bible,” Mary Elizabeth Sperry, USCCB)

God’s God, Aristotle’s Not

From Eric Gaba, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Aristotle noticed that we can see stars in Egypt that aren’t visible in the Aegean, and that Earth always casts a circular shadow on our moon during an eclipse. This meant, he said, that Earth is a sphere.

He was right about that, but he also said Earth was the center of the universe because earth sinks in water, but air bubbles rise. I’m oversimplifying Aristotelian physics: but that’s pretty much the idea.

Aristotle also said that there’s only one world, the one we’re standing on; and that it has always existed. That makes sense, given his assumptions, but we’re learning that it’s not how reality works.

Starting around 1100, European scholars rediscovered Aristotle. Some of them got overly-enthusiastic, insisting that Earth was the only world: because Aristotle said so.

That’s when the Bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, issued the Condemnation of 1277. It was a rather lengthy list. Proposition 27/219 said, over-simplifying again, that if God decided there are other worlds, what Aristotle said won’t change the facts.

Basically: God’s God, Aristotle’s not.

The 219 Propositions of 1277 were later annulled, but not the principle that God decides what’s real.2 It’s not a new idea:

“Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.”
(Psalms 115:3)

“A Mighty Soberin’ Thought”

I think Walt Kelly had it right:

“Thar’s only two possibilities: Thar is life out there in the universe which is smarter than we are, or we’re the most intelligent life in the universe. Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.”
(Porky Pine, in Walt Kelly’s Pogo; via Wikiquote)

I also think that if we learn that we have neighbors, some folks will be upset, some won’t care, and that’s a topic for another post. (September 18, 2016)

If we learn that we have neighbors in the universe, some Catholics may be surprised, even shocked. Others, not so much:

“…Why the Vatican is involved in Astrobiology?

“On the occasion of the International Year of Astronomy the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has organized a Study Week on Astrobiology.

“This is a quite appropriate topic for the Academy which has a multi-disciplinary membership, since it is a field which combines research in many disciplines, principally: astronomy, cosmology, biology, chemistry, geology and physics. This is not the first time that such a topic is subject of interest in the Vatican. In 2005 the Vatican Observatory conducted a Summer School on this topic and brought together as a faculty some of the most important researchers in this field.

“Although Astrobiology is an emerging field, and still a developing subject, the questions of life’s origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very suitable and deserve serious consideration. These questions offer many philosophical and theological implications, however the meeting will be focused on the scientific perspective.

“Among the objectives of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the promotion of natural sciences and stimulation of interdisciplinary approach to scientific knowledge are counted; the Study Week on Astrobiology tries to accomplish these goals….”
(Conferenza Stampa di Presentazione della Settimana di Studio su “Astrobiology” (Press Conference for the Study Week Presentation of “Astrobiology”),
Casina Pio IV, Vatican (November 6-10, 2009))

Astrobiologists” study the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe: on Earth, and extraterrestrial life. “Exobiology” is more specific. It’s the search for life beyond Earth, and learning how extraterrestrial environments affect living things. (Wikipedia)

We don’t know of life anywhere except Earth, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assume that life cannot exist anywhere else. The ‘jackpot’ discovery would be learning that life exists elsewhere, and that it includes people.

I don’t “believe in” extraterrestrial intelligence, but I won’t insist that we must be alone in the universe. It’s not my decision. (July 29, 2016)


1. Tabby’s Star and Something Weird


(From NRAO, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The Green Bank Telescope is located in a rural area of West Virginia”
(BBC News))

Dish to listen for ET around strange star
BBC News (October 27, 2016)

A $100m initiative to listen for signals from alien life is targeting a star with an unusual dimming pattern.

“The Breakthrough Listen project, backed by Prof Stephen Hawking, will train a US radio telescope on a target called Tabby’s Star.

“Tabby’s Star has been a subject of attention and controversy over its irregular dimming pattern.

“Some scientists have been puzzled by large dips in the star’s brightness.…”

Tabby’s Star, KIC 8462852, may or may not be “strange,” as the BBC News article put it. It’s a F-type main-sequence star about 1,480 light-years from us, in the general direction of Deneb, very roughly as far away as Sadr.

You’d pass Rukh, Delta Cygni, on your way there. Rukh will be Earth’s North Star around the 113th century, and that’s yet another topic.

Anyway, KIC 8462852 is about half again as massive as our sun, five times as bright, and unremarkable: except for one thing. It was one of the 150,000 or so stars observed by the Kepler spacecraft.

A team of scientists working with Tabetha S. Boyajian noticed something very odd about the star’s light curve. It’s flickering.

Every 750 days or so, KIC 8462852 gets up to 22% dimmer than usual. That’s a lot of dimming. Whatever’s coming between us and the star is big. A planet the size of Jupiter would only block 1% of the star’s light.

That’s assuming that the change in luminosity happens because something’s blocking the light. If the star itself is dimming like that — that’d be really weird.

Planet Hunters and Credibility


(From JohnPassos, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Light curve data from Kepler: March 5, 2011 to April 17, 2013.)

There’s no ‘extra’ infrared radiation near KIC 8462852; so whatever the stuff is, it’s not warm. That (probably) rules out a lumpy protoplanetary/accretion disk, or debris from a major collision of planets.

Maybe the whatsit is an irregular and unreasonably dense cluster of comets in a wide elliptical orbit.

Or — this is what’s getting in the news — maybe we’re looking at something artificial. Maybe. As Penn State University’s Jason Wright wrote:

“…My philosophy of SETI … is that you should reserve the alien hypothesis as a last resort. One of the reasons not stated in that link is analogous to Cochran’s Commandment to planet hunters prior to 51 Peg b’s discovery:

Thou shalt not embarrass thyself and thy colleagues by claiming false planets.

It would be such a big deal if true, it’s important that you be absolutely sure before claiming you’ve detected something, lest everybody lose credibility. Much more so for SETI….”
(Jason Wright (October 15, 2015))

Wright is an associate professor, young — by my standards — and a serious scientist. He and others don’t say that there is an alien megastructure orbiting Tabby’s Star.

They’re saying that we don’t know what’s happening there: and that something like a Dyson swarm might be a reasonable explanation.

Folks building something that big would be on their way to being a Type II civilization on the Kardashev scale. I talked about that before. (September 16, 2016)

On top of everything else, it looks like KIC 8462852 is getting dimmer, even when it’s not being eclipsed. Assuming that we’re not looking at a world-class string of instrument and analysis errors, there’s something really unexpected happening out there.3


2. Strange Stars and the Rio Scale


(From Oleg Alexandrov, via Wikimedia Commons/Tech Times, used w/o permission.)
(Automated Planet Finder: a robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California.)

Evidence Of Alien Life? 2 Scientists Think Strange Signals From 234 Stars Are From ETI
Rhodi Lee, Tech Times (October 25, 2016)

“Two scientists claim they may have found evidence of intelligent alien life and published their findings in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

“Astronomers Ermanno Borra and Eric Trottier, from the Université Laval in Quebec, examined the stars that were catalogued from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Out of more than 2 million surveyed stars, the scientists found 234 that exhibit spectral modulation.

“The stars exhibit rapid bursts of light. The spectral modulation also seems to be identical across many different stars. The scientists said that the signal from the stars is consistent with signals from an alien civilization sending extremely rapid optical pulses that was predicted in an earlier paper by Borra….”

Borra and Trottier have found something. It might be evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization, a previously-unknown natural phenomenon, or maybe a glitch in the data.

A quick read of their paper makes that last possibility unlikely. They’ve ‘done their homework,’ looking for errors either in the original observations or their math.

I think the folks at the Berkeley SETI Research Center are right. That paper doesn’t prove that we have neighbors.

“…The one in 10,000 objects with unusual spectra seen by Borra and Trottier are certainly worthy of additional study. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence….”
(seti.berkeley.edu (October 11, 2016))

The stars listed by Borra and Trottier are interesting enough to warrant another look, though, so they’ve added a few to the Automated Planet Finder’s observing queue.4

Berkeley SETI Research Center said that the Borra-Trottier results get a 0 to 1 rating on the Rio Scale. That’s ‘none’ to ‘insignificant.’

The Rio Scale goes back to October 2000, when Ivan Almar and Jill Tarter presented it as an attempt to assign numbers to the discovery of a signal from extraterrestrial intelligence. It includes how we’re likely to react, and is — my opinion — very speculative.

It’s better than nothing, though, and helps us discuss research like Borra and Trottier’s. It’s a zero-to-10 scale, with zero being no relevance and 10 being ‘extraordinary.’

My guess is that a “10” on this scale would be a spaceship landing on Washington DC’s National Mall: with an eviction notice.

A Natural Phenomenon: Probably

Borra and Trottier say that if light from their 234 stars includes artificial signals, someone’s trying to communicate with us.

They could be right.

My guess is that as we collect more data about these odd stars, we’ll learn that their odd behavior is a natural phenomenon.

That won’t stop me from indulging in a little speculation.

If they’ve detected artificial signals, and that’s a big “if,” I’m not at all convinced that they’re the interstellar equivalent of “CQ QRV” signals. The location of these stars suggests another (also quite unlikely) explanation.

The 234 ’emitting’ stars are in the Milky Way galaxy’s halo; a nearly-spherical region, home to population II stars, globular clusters, and dark matter.

Scientists looking for life in the universe have been concentrating on our galaxy’s disk and spiral arms, where stars like ours are more common. It’s where our star is. The odds seem pretty good that it’s where we’d find life: and neighbors.

The Milky Way’s disk is also more-or-less filled with stars, dust, gas, and molecular clouds. It’s not exactly opaque, but picking out objects that aren’t “close” by galactic standards can be difficult or impossible.

Maybe — and I think this is very unlikely — those 234 stars are navigation beacons, a pan-galactic civilization’s equivalent of lighthouses; set above the galaxy’s disk, where ships can spot them easily.

More about science, sense, and SETI:


1 Definitions:

  • BIBLE: Sacred Scripture: the books which contain the truth of God’s Revelation and were composed by human authors inspired by the Holy Spirit (105). The Bible contains both the forty-six books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (120). See Old Testament; New Testament.”
  • MAGISTERIUM: The living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture), or in the form of Tradition. The Magisterium ensures the Church’s fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles in matters of faith and morals (85, 890, 2033).”
  • TRADITION: The living transmission of the message of the Gospel in the Church. The oral preaching of the Apostles, and the written message of salvation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Bible), are conserved and handed on as the deposit of faith through the apostolic succession in the Church. Both the living Tradition and the written Scriptures have their common source in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (7582). The theological, liturgical, disciplinary, and devotional traditions of the local churches both contain and can be distinguished from this apostolic Tradition (83).”

And see Catechism, 95, 113, 126, and 174.

2 Aristotle in perspective:

“…Beginning about 1100 a.d., text after text of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle reached the West, and Christians were suddenly confronted with a unified, well- constructed account of the universe, an account written by a pagan. Aristotle denied that there could be a plurality of worlds. Of course, if there could not be a plurality of worlds, then the question of extraterrestrials was moot.

“There were three reactions to Aristotles [!] purely natural, non-Christian philosophical account: vehement rejection (the radical Augustinians), careful embrace (St. Thomas), and passionate embrace (the radical Aristotelians).

“Around 1265 a conflict between the two radical wings began to heat up, resulting in the famous (or, for Thomists, infamous) 219 Propositions in 1277, issued by the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. Proposition 27 condemns all who hold the Aristotelian position ‘that the first cause cannot make more than one world.’

“It should be stressed that the aim of this condemnation was not to affirm a plurality of worlds but to affirm Gods omnipotence against any account of nature that seemed to restrict Gods powers. Aristotles [!]insistence that there could only be one world accorded nicely with the Genesis account of creation, but it appeared to the radical Augustinians to make God the servant of natural necessity rather than its master. The remedy, so Bishop Tempier and his followers thought, was to assert that the first cause could indeed create a plurality of worlds (even if we know, by revelation, that He happened to make only one).

But the condemnation had an unforeseen effect. No sooner had the ink soaked into the vellum than speculation about a plurality of worlds began in earnest. By the beginning of the 15th century, that speculation had led some Christian thinkers to affirm the existence of extraterrestrial life. In his On Learned Ignorance (1440), Nicholas of Cusa argued that ‘life, as it exists here on earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose, in a higher form in the solar and stellar region.’ Cusa then began to churn out a zoology….”
(“Alien Ideas Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life,” Benjamin D. Wiker, Crisis 20, no. 10 (November 2002))

3 That’s odd — KIC 8462852/Tabby’s Star/Boyajian’s Star; also EPIC 204278916:

4 More oddness:

About Brian H. Gill

I’m a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I’m only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.

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