It’s old news now, the bizarre case of KIC 8462852. A star 50 percent larger than our sun that experiences irregular dips in brightness very different from everything we’ve seen so far in space. At about 1,481 light-years away from Earth, the star is close enough for us to see with telescopes, but not exactly a quick Sunday jaunt in the event that something really interesting is there. Scientists were able to confidently rule out all but one of their plausible natural causes for these variations, but the unnatural cause is what had everyone talking.
Scientists — real, serious scientists — are cautiously talking about how maybe, just maybe, this weird behavior could be explained by something fantastic. Alien megalithic structures, orbiting their star and collecting energy from their star.
The buzz in popular media was short lived and contradictory, full of wide-eyed writers speculating about what kinds of civilizations could build such structures, whether they could still be out there, whether they could have pointed their own telescopes at a mediocre little star with an odd little rocky world in orbit and noticed the atmospheric effects of a planet full of life. To the other side, skeptics and realists admonishing all of us to calm down, that it’s probably something, but something probably isn’t life, and especially not intelligent life.
But there are presidential campaigns to cover, and planes crashing. Local elections and refugee crisis and transgender kids all demanding their thirty seconds of airtime in the 24 hour cycle. What possible relevance could a flickering star have to us all in this moment?
I want to tell you a story.
It’s a story about a teenage girl in the 90s, an avid consumer of popular astronomy and cosmology reporting. Her brother will one day join the Air Force because he secretly wants to fly an X-Wing, and she has untenable dreams of becoming a theoretical astrophysicist. It is 1998, and her issues of Astronomy Magazine have been all aflutter about the work being done to determine the future of the Universe itself.
The Universe, we knew then and know now, is expanding. What wasn’t known yet was whether the rate of expansion was changing. Is it slowing down? Will it eventually collapse into a “Big Crunch,” perhaps to be followed by a second “Big Bang”? The analogy of life cycles was too easy to avoid, and I fell into the trap as only a teenage girl can. I was married to the story of the Universe as a constantly self-renewing environment, a closed loop in which the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth could continue not just into the far future but forever.
But the data didn’t care about my narratives. The Universe, it was discovered, is never going to crunch. Everything is flying apart faster and faster, and eventually the stars will be so far apart that they can’t see one another, and then the protons will all decay and there will be absolutely nothing. Cue nerd tears.
I want to tell you a story about a press conference.
NASA scientists declare that a meteorite of Martian origin has been shown to contain fossilized microbes. It is 1996 and this is the first time anyone has dared to say that there is evidence of life originating on a world other than Earth. An electron microscope image of a string of round structures is blown up and broadcast on every news channel. The world is watching, and President Clinton makes a live statement about the findings.
In the following months and years, however, we slowly found out that maybe the researchers were a little too eager to get the findings they wanted, and the structures that looked like maybe-fossils turn out to be a lot less promising than we all had hoped. The one scientist who pushed his colleagues and the media to curb their enthusiasm is vindicated.
I want to tell you a story about a planet.
In 1992, astronomers discovered the first evidence of a planet outside of our own solar system. The new worlds orbited pulsar PSR B1257+12, were bathed in lethal radiation, and generally looked like a terrible place to live. These worlds never grabbed our attention, because they were worthless to our stories of spacefaring civilizations. You could never raise your kids on PSR B1257 — you couldn’t even stop over there to refuel.
Just three years later, though, we discovered 51 Pegasi b. This planet orbited a sun-like star, and we ate it up like crazy. Artists painted representations of the first of the “hot Jupiters” in swirling clouds of tans and yellows and we dreamed of life out there.
But the planet was just too big and too close to its parent star. Well outside of the “goldilocks zone,” no liquid water could exist on that world, and the crushing gravity and searing heat made it an impossible place for life to get going or survive.
Over and over again, we get our hopes up, and space crushes them.
Regular pulses of radio waves that we once hoped could have been signals from alien civilizations turned out to be nasty balls of super compacted matter spewing radiation blindly into the black. The canals of Mars never were, and the face turned out to look more like a foot or a pepper upon closer inspection. Beautiful Venus, where we dreamed of oceans and civilizations under the clouds turned out to be a hellish landscape of unbearable heat under a poisonous atmosphere where our probes melted in the acid falling from the sky.