The Internet has been abuzz with the recent ‘discovery’ of a possibly artificial mega-structure surrounding KIC 8462852, a star situated 1,500 light years from Earth.1 By studying the intensity of the incoming light, scientists at NASA have determined that something is occluding the incoming photons by up to 22%. Many have speculated that the disturbances in brightness may be caused by an alien mega-structure; built to harness the awesome solar energy of KIC 8462852.
While there are plenty of other rational explanations for the variations in brightness that are not sentient in nature (such as the breakup of cometary debris),2 the media seems enamored with sci-fi inspired CGI renders of what this alien structure (oft termed a ‘Dyson Sphere’) might look like. It seems only natural to gaze into the night sky and wonder at the myriad wonders that exist beyond the thin veil of our atmosphere. This innate curiosity to know the stars has been the basis for many great science fiction stories written throughout the past century. However, I have yet to find one article that has addressed the most pressing factor of this entire speculative exercise – time.
What does time have to do with any of this? Everything! The incredible distances of our universe mean that even light takes time to travel across its vast expanses. With the ability to circle the Earth in less than a second (beat that Magellan!)3 light is certainly no slouch (travelling at a very approximate 300,000 km/s). This very simple calculation means that any light we are receiving from KIC 8462852 is over 1,500 years old! In this time the alien civilization may have either progressed to even loftier heights or wiped itself from the face of the universe. But this point of contention is not my main criticism about the whole debacle.
Even if we could determine that the interesting case of KIC 8462852 was caused by alien interference, then what? The initial instinct would be to make contact with our newly found neighbours. There is one small problem though, remember the fact that the star light we are seeing is actually a vision into the past? Well that works both ways. Any message we try and send the alien civilization (assuming they even could interpret our communications as anything but meaningless space-noise) would take at least 1,500 years to reach them. This is assuming we use some kind of super-bright lossless optical transmitter that can send photonic signals such astronomical distances. And by the time our neighbours finally get our message? All of us alive today will be long gone. Does that mean that this whole endeavor doesn’t warrant investigation? Of course not! The brave men and women of science should keep doing what they are doing and probing the depths of our cosmos. However, I think I will certainly reserve my enthusiasm for this current ‘discovery’ and continue to enjoy the infinite mysteries of our cosmos (without the need for pre-rendered CGI Dyson spheres to make it interesting!)
3 N.B Magellan did not actually complete his circumnavigation of Earth. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/09/the-first-person-to-circumnavigate-the-world/