“Intelligence may indeed be a benign influence creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens…On the other hand, intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation, sweeping across a galaxy as irresistibly as it has swept across our own planet” – Freeman Dyson
Not to be alarmist, but we’re all going to die. Sooner, rather than later that is. Maybe not in the imminent sort of way like when your new girlfriend is suspiciously interested in the specific terms of your life insurance policy or you poke a bear for giggles, but it is certainly on the horizon. Now, that horizon seems to be 454 parsecs away, somewhere in the Cygnus constellation, which gives us time to put our affairs order. In what should probably have been worldwide headline news, the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society recently announced a forthcoming article (which probably should have been entitled something catchier like “The Sky is Falling”, rather than “KIC 8462852 – Where’s the Flux?”), regarding Kepler space telescope observations of a star, modestly named KIC 8462852 (personally, I would have gone with “The Death Star”) that appears to have a highly curious transit signal. Not edgy enough CNN? In all fairness, the Royal Astronomical Society hasn’t been mired in controversy since it was pointed out that its founding president William Herschel never bothered to chair a meeting, but that really had neither profound organizational nor existential implications. Most reasonable folks don’t get all hot and bothered about “curious transit signals”, and certainly don’t directly associate such a phenomenon with the apocalypse. Most folks incautiously don’t wear tinfoil hats either, thus can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the mind control satellites with any authority. Don’t worry. As someone who specifically concerns himself with existential threats to humanity, I’m here for you. And I’m telling you, we’re all going to die.
Here’s the short version. We can’t see KIC 8462852 with the naked eye, but we can get a pretty good look at it with a powerful space telescope. When astronomers turned the Kepler Space Telescope towards KIC 8462852, the light pattern they saw seemed to indicate a big mess of matter circling the star, in tight formation. This would be no big deal for a young star – things get pretty messy during the early stages of solar system formation. The problem is that KIC 8462852 is not a young star, and scientists seem to agree that all the potential explanations in terms of conventional physics and natural phenomena are found wanting. A few mainstream astronomers have made seemingly innocuous, but ultimately terrifying suggestions, such as Penn State University astronomer Jason Wright when he blithely noted that the light pattern observed was consistent with a “swarm of megastructures”, and after examining the data more closely cautioned, “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.” The next proposed step in the investigation of this stellar anomaly it seems is to point the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico at it and see if we can catch some radio waves, potentially indicating some sort of technological presence. While we can appreciate the curiosity and thirst for knowledge involved, it seems that nobody is considering whether we should get really, really quiet, turn the lights off, and pretend we’re not home on the odd chance that there is galactic armada assembling only 1480 light years off our doorstep.
Science has dodged a few bullets along the way. There were bets going at the Manhattan Project on whether the first atomic bomb would ignite the atmosphere and incinerate us all. Happy that didn’t happen. We pulled the trigger on the Large Hadron Collider and thankfully didn’t create any black holes to swallow the Earth. We’ve so far managed to avoid designing any super-plagues, ushering in any zombie apocalypses, or being enslaved by artificial intelligence. Sure, climate change may eventually drown a lot of us in rising seas, but speculators figure they can make a killing on a revised concept of beachfront property. Maybe it’s time to count our blessings and stop poking the bear. If extraterrestrials exist, there has to be good reason everybody in the galaxy is so quiet. A mega-space fleet lurking out Cygnus way might be a good clue. One of the endearing qualities of humans is that when we encounter something novel, our primary concerns are whether we can eat it, sleep with it, or if it wants to play a game. Somewhere along the way (probably when we learned how to make fire and sharpen spear points) and became apex predators ourselves, we stopped thinking like prey, and thus have abandoned concerns such as “will it eat us?”