Fast Radio Bursts

No, Harvard scientists have not announced the imminent arrival of an alien armada.

Two of them have, however, shown that we may have detected power beams pushing light sails. I think they may be right, but like one of them said, “it’s a matter of evidence.”

  1. Fast Radio Bursts: Looking For an Explanation
  2. “It’s a Matter of Evidence”
  3. Churchill and Extraterrestrial Intelligence

“Either Way …”

This is among the most clear-headed things I’ve read on the topic:

“I been readin’ ’bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with ad-vanced brains. On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains…maybe our intellects is the universe’s most ad-vanced. Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.”
(Porky Pine, in Walt Kelly’s Pogo (June 20, 1959) via Wikiquote)

I’ve quoted Walt Kelly’s Pogo before. (December 2, 2016)

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

I hope we do have neighbors, people who are matter and spirit; like us in some ways, but different because their home is another world. (December 23, 2016)

Using Our Brains

Ancient Mesopotamian cosmology is “Biblical” in the sense that its imagery is in Sacred Scripture.

I’ve talked about pillars of the earth in 1 Samuel 2:8 and Job 9:6, and the dome of heaven in Psalms 150:1, before. (December 2, 2016; August 28, 2016)

Taking the Bible seriously is a good idea. So is “frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

Rejecting everything we’ve learned since Job’s time, not so much. God gave us brains. Using them is a good idea. (Catechism, 35, 50, 159, 22922296)

Studying this wonder-filled 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)

That gets me Anaxagoras. He wasn’t a scientist. The word goes back to 1833, when William Whewell wrote a review for Quarterly Review.

I’ve talked about his spheres before. Anaxagoras, that is, not William Whewell. Most of us had come to grips with the idea that Earth goes around our sun, not the other way around, by the early 19th century. (December 2, 2016)

Anaxagoras wrote about panspermia, the idea that life on Earth might have started elsewhere. That was around the time Bimbisara ruled Magadha, and Goujian was cleaning up a mess in Yue.

God’s God, and I’m Okay With That

From Eric Gaba, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Aristotle came along a few centuries later. He was Alexander the Great’s tutor, a very smart man, and interested in just about everything: including metaphysics and logic.

European scholars rediscovered Aristotle, starting around 1100. It’s roughly when St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote “Physica” and “Causae et Curae.” St. Albertus Magnus came along a bit later. Both were scientists back when science was still called natural philosophy.

Aristotle’s emphasis on observation and logic arguably encouraged natural philosophy’s morphing into science, and that’s another topic.

Some scholars got overly-enthusiastic, insisting that Earth was the only world: because Aristotle said so. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris put his foot down. If God decided there are other worlds, what Aristotle said won’t change the facts.

God’s God, Aristotle’s not, and I’m okay with that. (December 2, 2016)

I suspect the notion that religion, specifically Christianity, is rabidly opposed to science got started in part when Aristotelianism caught on in 12th century Europe. Like just about everything else involving people, it’s complicated.

Aristotelianism influenced Scholasticism, a method of learning that leans heavily on dialectical reasoning: emphasis on reasoning, I think.

St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” is probably Scholasticism’s high point, and anything but terse.

Logic applied to faith, scientist-Saints? What could possibly go wrong?

Basically, European politics.

Faith, Reason, and an Overdue Reform

Over-simplifying the situation, southern Europe was profiting from reopened trade routes. So was northern Europe, but wealth wasn’t trickling north nearly as fast as northern princes liked.

In 1517, someone copied and printed a list of topics for academic discussion. The list gave folks who wanted reform, leaders who wanted more power, and just about anyone else, access to what we call talking points.

The northern European discussions turned into a firestorm we call the Reformation. In my language, at least, 16th century Catholic reforms are called the Counter-Reformation because they were “initiated in response” to the Reformation.

That’s accurate, but I suspect that we’d have cleaned house pretty soon anyway. The reforms were overdue. We’ve gone through similar rough spots without quite so much fuss. The 910 Cluniac Reforms and 1962-65 Second Vatican Council come to mind.

We were in another rough patch in the 5th century, I think. But the western Roman Empire’s collapse took care of it; and that’s yet another topic.

Where was I? Faith, reason, politics, the Defenestration of Prague. Right.

Copernicus and Vulcans

The Catholic version of faith is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

Truth is important, and beautiful — whether it’s expressed in words, “the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality;” or “the order and harmony of the cosmos;” or in other ways. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, 2500, more under Truth in the index)

Noticing God’s infinite beauty reflected in “the world’s order and beauty” helps us learn about God. It should, at least. (Catechism, 3132, 341)

A thirst for truth and happiness is written into each of us. It’ll lead us to God, if we’re doing our job right. (Catechism, 27)

Faith isn’t reason: but it’s reasonable, and certainly not against an honest search for truth. (Catechism, 3135, 159)

So how come Third Order Dominican Nicolaus Copernicus delayed printing of “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” until after his death in 1543? Like I said earlier, European politics. Also badly-overdue reforms in the Catholic Church.

Can’t say that I blame Copernicus for delaying publication.

His newfangled ideas upset some folks with an apparently-shaky grasp of distinctions between poetry and science. And like I said, politics didn’t help. (November 6, 2016; October 30, 2016)

A few centuries later, Albertus Magnus is the patron Saint of scientists, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has hosted a study week on astrobiology, and some Catholics still don’t like science. I’m not one of them.

I think my insistence that what I believe must make sense, no matter what my emotions are doing at the moment, helps. And that’s yet again another topic.

“…The Catholics were unsentimental when I heard them talk about love. How could my flinty stoic heart not leap for joy in reply?
“If Vulcans had a church, they’d be Catholics.”
(John C. Wright, (March 21 2008)))

1. Fast Radio Bursts: Looking For an Explanation

(From WochIt Media, via, used w/o permission.)

Scientists Ponder Whether Fast Radio Bursts Power UFOs (March 11, 2017)

“One of the weirdest phenomena astronomers have run across in the past decade is something called ‘fast radio bursts.’ They’re millisecond-long flashes of radio signals that don’t have an obvious source. Possible causes include exploding black holes, magnetars and hypothetical blitzars…”

“But now, Harvard scientists have run the numbers on the most intriguing potential explanation: ginormous transmitters powering alien starships….”

I enjoyed the short special-effects video embedded in the article: but it has just about nothing to do with the Harvard scientists’ speculation. On the other hand, that “flying saucer” image was too good to pass up. also mentions some of the things scientists think might cause fast radio bursts (FRBs). That gives me an excuse to talk about FRBs, and why wondering if they’re artificial makes sense.

Beyond Our Galaxy

Folks at the Parkes radio dish in Australia don’t always “see” data as it’s coming in. It’s archived and passed around for later study.

Data collected and stored on July 24, 2001, eventually reached a West Virginia University undergraduate, David Narkevic, in 2007. He was looking for pulsars.

He found an odd burst of radio waves.

It came from a spot in the Tucana constellation near the Small Magellanic Cloud. Different frequencies in the burst arrived at different times.

That wasn’t odd, by itself. Radio waves from very distant sources, like other galaxies, get spread out that way.

Astronomers can use the spread to work out roughly how far away something is.

Plugging in numbers for this source, researchers — more folks had joined the undergrad at this point — got a distance of roughly 1,600,000,000 light-years. That’s not odd, either. Most of the universe is more than 1.6 billion light-years away.

But it meant the burst came from outside our galaxy.

The distance and strength of the pulse let scientists estimate how much energy it started with. Whatever produced the burst released as much energy in under five milliseconds as our sun puts out in a month.

Light travels at roughly 1,500 kilometers in five milliseconds: which means that the burst’s source is almost certainly less than 1,500 kilometers across.

That is very odd indeed. Pulsars are about that big, but they pulse at regular(ish) intervals. FRBs only happen once, which means they’re probably caused by something that can’t repeat: like merging neutron stars.

Whatever the things are, they’re rare birds. We’ve detected 17 so far, counting FRB 121102 and the clusters of 2015 as one FRB. I’ll get back to that.

The known FRBs are scattered across the sky, not concentrated in our galaxy’s plane. That seems to confirm that they’re very far away.1

FRB 121102

Every FRB found so far has pulsed once, and then been quiet. Except for FRB 121102.

The Arecibo radio telescope detected an FRB November 2, 2012, in the constellation Auriga, very roughly between the stars Capella and Elnath.

That’s Alpha Aurigae and Beta Tauri, for folks who like Bayer designations, which have nothing to do with aspirin. And that’s still another topic.

Scientists called the burst FRB 121102, and kept discussing what could be causing these things. Like other FRBs, FRB 121102 is apparently well outside our galaxy: about three billion light-years away.

Heino Falcke and Luciano Rezzolla showed how FRBs could be Blitzars, a still-hypothetical object that happens when a rapidly-spinning pulsar collapses.

Then, on May 17, 2015, astronomers picked up two more bursts in the same direction and at the same distance. That was very odd, since no other FRB had pulsed more than once.

June 2, 2015, they detected eight more bursts coming from the same spot.

That’s really odd. The new clusters, ten bursts — 11, including the original one — give scientists more data to analyze. FRB 121102 probably isn’t produced by a one-time phenomenon.

Cataclysmic events, like merging neutron stars, happen only once. Stars can’t ‘un-merge.’

Researchers say it might be a magnetar, a neutron star with an unusually strong magnetic field; or highly magnetized pulsars moving through asteroid belts; or something else.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’s Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam say “something else” might be very powerful solar-powered radio transmitters.

2. “It’s a Matter of Evidence”

(From Harvard-Smithsonian Center forAstrophysics, used w/o permission.)

Could Fast Radio Bursts Be Powering Alien Probes?
Megan Watzke, Peter Edmonds; press release, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (March 9, 2017)

“The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has looked for many different signs of alien life, from radio broadcasts to laser flashes, without success. However, newly published research suggests that mysterious phenomena called fast radio bursts could be evidence of advanced alien technology. Specifically, these bursts might be leakage from planet-sized transmitters powering interstellar probes in distant galaxies.

“‘Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence,’ said theorist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. ‘An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.’…

“…Loeb admits that this work is speculative. When asked whether he really believes that any fast radio bursts are due to aliens, he replied, ‘Science isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence. Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge.’…”

Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb’s paper reviews what we know about FRBs, and what other scientists have said might cause them.

They weren’t the first scientists suggesting that FRBs might be artificial. California Institute of Technology’s Jing Luan and Peter Goldreich discussed the possibility that they’re narrow-beam signals directed at us.

It makes sense, assuming that upwards of a dozen different folks in our corner of the galaxy decided to ping us, with the signals arriving within the last 16 years.

Luan and Goldreich’s suggestion assumes that FRBs are from transmitters about as powerful as we can make today.2 I think that’s possible, but I also think it’s unlikely.

Back to Harvard’s Lingam and Loeb. They wondered if FRBs could be beams from a scaled-up version of Robert L. Forward’s fictional light sail propulsion system.3

Forward’s 1982 “Rocheworld” is fiction. The physics behind his laser-pumped light sail spacecraft isn’t.

I mentioned the Breakthrough Starshot project a couple weeks ago. (March 3, 2017)

Today: Solar Sailing Ships

Today’s light sail spacecraft are more like sailboats than Starshot’s proposed Starchips. They get thrust by reflecting sunlight off large mirrors.

I think mostly-successful flights by JAXA’s interplanetary IKAROS and NASA’s Earth-orbit NanoSail-D2 show that light sails work.4

They also give real-life data for scientists like Lingam and Loeb.

Several ‘coincidences’ showed up when the Harvard researchers started doing the math.

Optimal frequency for a beam pushing a light sail is very close to observed frequencies for FRBs. The beam would need about as much energy as you’d get with a solar power collector about twice Earth’s diameter, assuming the system used water as a coolant.5

We can’t build anything that big. Not yet. But I think the scientists are right: it’s too many coincidences to dismiss without good reason.

If they’re right, and that’s still “if,” the vehicles pushed by these systems would be huge. Taking values for today’s lightsails, and the International Space Station’s average density, Lingam and Loeb said the payload could be something like a hundred meters across.

That’s big.

Tomorrow: Direct Impulse Beam Propulsion, Maybe

(From “Optics and Materials Considerations for a Laser-propelled Lightsail,” Geoffrey A. Landis (1989), used w/o permission.)

Besides the coincidences they found, what impressed me about Lingam and Loeb’s paper was what they assumed about extraterrestrial intelligence.

More accurately, what they didn’t assume:6

“…The first, and most immediate, possibility is that they serve the purpose of ‘beacons’, and are thus meant to broadcast the presence of alien civilizations. But, why would a civilization want to broadcast its presence? … Although these possibilities cannot (and ought not) be ruled out, there are some inherent difficulties. They rely on complex (anthropocentric) reasons to some degree, and are thus not easily testable….”
(“Fast Radio Bursts from Extragalactic Light Sails, Manasvi Lingam, Abraham Loeb (February 27, 2017)5)

Hats off to Lingam and Loeb. They realize that folks who aren’t human may not think like humans. Besides, as they point out, that’s an awful lot of energy to pour into a millisecond one-time signal.

It is, however, about what you’d want if you are pushing a large payload up to relativistic speeds with a light sail. Again, it’s an intriguing coincidence.

I also like Lingam and Loeb’s proposed explanation for FRBs lasting only milliseconds. Tightly-focused radio beams providing thrust to an interstellar spacecraft would change direction as the spacecraft moved.

Meanwhile, the beam’s source and Earth would be moving relative to each other.

Beams sweeping across space, passing momentarily through our part of this galaxy — it’d be surprising if one of them lasted more than a few moments.

Maybe it’s less of an ego-booster than imagining that more than a dozen civilizations are pinging us. But I think it’s a tad more reasonable.

Lingam and Loeb go a few steps further. This is even more speculative, but I think they’re right in assuming that astronomers aren’t detecting every FRB ‘visible’ from Earth.

Anyway, they came up with a ballpark estimate that there are fewer than 10,000 FRB-producing civilizations, on average, in a galaxy like ours.

That might seem like a lot, but this is a big galaxy, and that’s a maximum count.

How many civilizations besides the FRB-producing ones is even less certain. As the scientists said, “…These civilizations must belong to the Kardashev I class (Kardashev 1964) at the minimum, as seen from the characteristic power required….”5

As I said earlier, building something like the Lingam and Loeb transportation system is beyond what we can do today. We have, however, worked out the physics of large-scale direct impulse beam propulsion.4

“Recognizably Like,” Probably Not “Identical”

I’ve said this before: humans are chatty creatures. One of the first things we did, when it looked like there might be other folks living on Mars, was start making plans for signalling them. (December 16, 2016)

Maybe we’ll find neighbors who are as gregarious as we are. Or not.

If we do share this universe with folks who aren’t human, I think Brother Consolmagno is right. We’ll find that they have “an awareness and a will recognizably like ours.”

We’ll quite likely also learn that “recognizably like” isn’t “identical.”7 (December 23, 2016)

3. Churchill and Extraterrestrial Intelligence

(From Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Churchill wrote the first draft in 1939, as Europe headed towards war”
(BBC News)

Winston Churchill’s views on aliens revealed in lost essay
Paul Rincon, BBC News (February 15, 2017)

A newly unearthed essay by Winston Churchill reveals he was open to the possibility of life on other planets.

“In 1939, the year World War Two broke out, Churchill penned a popular science article in which he mused about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life.

“The 11-page typed draft, probably intended for a newspaper, was updated in the 1950s but never published.

“In the 1980s, the essay was passed to a US museum, where it sat until its rediscovery last year….”

Churchill’s science writing doesn’t make much of a showing in Wikipedia’s Winston Churchill as writer page. My guess, from what the BBC News and Nature articles said, is that the Wikipedia “…writer” page focuses on his books, not newspaper and magazine articles.8

I recommend reading the Nature article. It’s around 2,000 words, and non-technical. I particularly like these bits, near the start and end:

“…An exchange about the use of statistics to fight German U-boats captures his attitude. Air Chief Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris complained, ‘Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?’ Churchill replied, ‘Let’s try the slide rule.’…

“…he was also concerned that without understanding the humanities, scientists might operate in a moral vacuum. ‘We need scientists in the world but not a world of scientists,’ he said. In order for science to be ‘the servant and not the master of man’, he felt that appropriate policies that drew on humanistic values must be in place. As he put it in a 1949 address to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s convocation: ‘If, with all the resources of modern science, we find ourselves unable to avert world famine, we shall all be to blame.’…”
(“Winston Churchill’s essay on alien life found,” Mario Livio, Nature (February 16, 2017))

I’ve discussed life, war, and acting like people matter, before. (January 22, 2017; February 5, 2017; January 11, 2017; October 30, 2016)

One more thing, about “humanist values.” I’ve run into folks who think that someone can either be a humanist or a hate-fueled religious nut job.

Coming from another direction, some painfully-religious folks seem to feel that humanism is some kind of Satanic plot and/or anti-American. Some of them apparently have the same opinion about the Catholic Church and Islam. (February 1, 2017; November 29, 2016)

Me? I’m a Catholic, and I like to know what words mean. Turns out, “humanist” can mean quite a lot of things, and so can “humanistic

I’m pretty sure that the “humanistic values” Churchill advocated were the sort held by “a person having a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity.” (

That works for me, which is just as well: as a Catholic, having “a strong interest in or concern for human welfare” and so on, is a requirement. (Catechism, 19291933)

But what about extraterrestrial intelligence? Like I said earlier, I hope we learn that we have neighbors. But it’s not my decision.

Studying the Universe

(From Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(PlanetQuest illustration showing where most of the planets we’ve found so far are.)

About science and technology, some Catholics are a bit like Air Chief Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris: less than comfortable with what we’ve learned over the last few centuries.

As I keep saying, a lively interest in science isn’t central to my faith; but we’re supposed to be curious. Truth cannot contradict truth, and scientific discoveries are opportunities for greater admiration of God’s creation. (Catechism, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341)

Science and technology, studying the universe and using what we learn, is part of being human: and ethics matter in both, just as they do for everything else we do. (Catechism, 22922296)

Much of the science I learned in high school is outdated. The growing number of known worlds is in the thousands, and our first interstellar probes are in the research and development phase.

I like living in a time when our knowledge of God’s creation is rapidly expanding.

Even if I didn’t approve of reality, my opinion wouldn’t make much difference:

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

More, mostly about looking for neighbors:

1 What we know, and don’t know, about FRBs:

2 Signals, maybe:

  • Physical Constraints On Fast Radio Burst
    Jing Luan, Peter Goldreich; abstract, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, via Cornell University Library (Submitted on 8 January 8, 2014 (v1), last revised 22 March 22, 2014)

3 Fiction, but well-researched:

4 Speculation and research:

5 Several ‘coincidences:’

6 I agree with folks who say the Kardashev scale isn’t universally useful because folks who aren’t human — may not act like us. That said, Kardeshev’s scale is a handy way to think about what sort of civilizations could exist. It sorts hypothetical civilizations by how much energy they can store and use. On this scale, we’re working our way up to Type I:

  • Type I
    All energy reaching their planet from their sun
  • Type II
    Energy of the entire star
  • Type III civilization
    Energy on the scale of its entire host galaxy


I’ve talked about assumptions and SETI before:

7 I’ve quoted him before:

8 Churchill, history, science, and technology:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Fast Radio Bursts

  1. Bob Kurland says:

    It’ll take a while to digest all this, but many thanks for putting it up.

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Missing a word: “less than comfortable with we’ve learned over the last few centuries.”

    Repeating yourself: “I agree with folks who say the Kardashev scale isn’t universally useful because folks who aren’t human — may not act like us. I also agree with folks who say the Kardashev scale isn’t universally useful because folks who aren’t human may not act like us.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!