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Saint Vincent College Faculty Blog

Do You Believe in Alien Megastructures?

Posted by John Smetanka on Tue, Nov 17, 2015 @ 09:11 AM

Ringworld by Larry Niven coverSpeculation about technologically-superior, alien life is abundant in science fiction. Novels such as Larry Nivan’s Ringworld, video games such as Halo, and a TV episode of Star TrekThe Next Generation depict solar-system-scale structures (megastructures) built by incredibly-advanced, intelligent civilizations. Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson proposed that increasing energy demands would lead extraterrestrial civilizations to build larger and larger structures to capture the energy from their star. This might culminate in a “Dyson Sphere”, a megastructure that would completely or nearly completely enshroud the central star of the civilization’s solar system. The episode “Relics” in the Star Trek the Next Generation series depicts a Dyson Sphere. Larry Nivan’s multiple-award winning novel Ringworld imagines a slightly less grand megastructure, a million-mile-wide ribbon that circles a star at the distance separating the earth and sun – ninety three million miles. The video game Halo takes place and is named after smaller versions of the ringworld megastructure.

Last month newspapers around the world ran provocative headlines reading, for example, “Astronomers find ‘Alien Megastructures’” and “Are Those Really Alien Megastructures?” The reason for the excitement is the publication of a detailed analysis of the variation in the brightness of the star named KIC 8462852 recorded over a several years by NASA’s Kepler telescope. The planet-finding satellite stares at the same area of the sky, carefully measuring the brightness of Milky Way stars. Sophisticated computer algorithms look for the occasional dip in the brightness that is caused by a planet in its solar system passing directly between us and the star. In addition to the computers, human eyes examine the data in a people-powered, crowd-sourced analysis. Anyone can log onto Zooniverse and contribute to the analysis of the Kepler data. Occasionally, odd variations are found that a computer discards. Most of the variations that Kepler detects can be explained by planets or star spots or some other phenomenon. In the case of KIC 8462852, human eyes spotted large, aperiodic dips in the intensity of the star light. None of the usual suspects would adequately explain the extreme drops in the star’s brightness tagged by amateur astronomers on Zooniverse.

The scientific paper released in advance of publication on October 15th reports follow-up observations and systematically examines several possible causes for the irregular variability of this strange star. The authors settle on a very unusual swarm of comets being the most likely cause of the unprecedented brightness fluctuations. This may have been caused by a violent collision of planets in this exo-solar system.  While not mentioned in the paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society some of the authors suggested that another explanation might be considered. Specifically, instead of a comet swarm, they speculate that the star’s light may be obscured by an alien megastructures, similar to a ringworld.

A ringworld, or similar engineering marvel, seems to be a wondrously creative concept. Ironically, a solar-system-scale megastructure actually represents a failure of our imagination. A megastructure results from following the path of our current technology and resulting patterns of consumption. However, as the current state of our climate testifies, this path is not sustainable. Megastructures represent the ultimate extrapolation of current unsustainable practices. Undoubtedly the path we follow dead ends long before we could hope to build a megastructure. So, while it is exciting to wonder about the mysterious variability of KIC 8462852, an alien megastructure is not only a very unlikely candidate for its explanation but also illustrates the need for more creative solutions when we envision the future advancement of our civilization or even our dreams of advanced alien civilizations.

In his Threshold lecture last month, Roman Verostko, computer art pioneer, spoke of the physical leverage that ancient humans gained with tools like a hatchet. During Verostko’s career, computer technology was developed that provided mental leverage, moving our civilization in directions previously not considered. While our ancRoman Verostkoient cave-dwelling ancestors might have envisioned a future of megahatchets or megacaves in the heavens, we dream of ringworlds. New forms of leverage, perhaps technological, but also economic, moral, and political must move our civilization in new, unimagined directions if we are to find a sustainable path to the future. No doubt that an advanced alien civilization would have developed technology and consumption practices - perhaps even evolved biologically - so that a megastructure would not be needed for energy or resource production. We need to look for inspiration everywhere - in nature, art, science, fiction, poetry and prayer – if we are to find a path to a sustainable future for all.

Computer art

Topics: John Smetanka, Halo, megastructures, aliens, Ringworld

About the Authors

Michelle Gil-Montero is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Saint Vincent College. She runs the visiting writers series on campus, oversees the student literary magazine, and serves as guru to aspiring poets on campus. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2007, and she has been on the Saint Vincent faculty since that year. She is an active poet and literary translator from Spanish. She is spending part of the 2016-17 school year travelling to Argentina on a Howard Foundation fellowship and Fulbright grant. 

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January 2008. Dr. Smetanka has taught courses in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry and Geology as well as interdisciplinary seminars. He has published scientific research articles in physics and astrophysics journals, numerous conference proceedings and also works in science education reform and the interaction between science, technology and theology.

Jim Kellam is an associate professor of biology at Saint Vincent College and our resident ornithologist. He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2003, and is taking this semester as a sabbatical. What does that mean? He'll explain in his blog posts.

Dr. Michael J. Urick is Graduate Director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program, and Associate Professor of Management and Operational Excellence at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government. Dr. Urick teaches courses related to organizational behavior, human resources, culture, leadership, diversity, conflict, supply chain, operations and research methods. Professionally, Urick serves on the board of the Institute for Supply Management (Pittsburgh) and belongs to the Society for Human Resource Management and APICS. For fun, Urick enjoys music and, since 1998, has led and performed with Neon Swing X-perience, a jazz band that has released multiple albums and toured portions of the US. He enjoys watching movies, is an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and also likes to fence.

David Safin, C'00, has been a lecturer in the communication department since the Fall of 2003, and has served in a variety of administrative roles since the summer of 2004. Currently, he teaches multimedia in the communication department as an assistant professor. 

Dr. Michael Krom received his Doctorate in philosophy at Emory University in 2007 and is currently the chair of the philosophy department at Saint Vincent. He has authored a book on religion and politics and continues to publish works in Catholic moral and political thought. Dr. Krom also directs the Faith and Reason summer program every summer. 

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