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Op-Ed: Strange star WTF 001 — SETI and everyone else is guessing

KIC 8462852 is 1,481 light years from Earth, it’s an F class star, bigger than the Sun, and it’s creating a fuss even at that distance. The usual hardhead skeptics have no idea. With the sort of lucid incoherence we’ve come to expect from extraterrestrial subjects in media, the word is “megastructure.” It doesn’t fit any of the natural phenomena. In September, New Scientist cited a Yale scientist, Tabetha Boyajian, stating the effect was caused by a massive number of comets and dust, (a rational explanation extrapolated from a plausible cause and effect scenario) but the “WTF factor,” caused by the star’s odd signals, hasn’t gone away.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Curiosity has bloomed since then and SETI has now expressed an interest. Dr. Boyajian has also pointed out that her comets theory and related exclusion-based analyses of the blocking issue only dealt with natural phenomena.
The facts aren’t cooperating much with theories so far. Citizen scientists from renowned workhorse site Planet Hunters have described the star as “bizarre.” That’s a real reference point; I worked on the original Galaxy Zoo, and their stuff is incredible. To be called “bizarre” really takes earning. Twenty-two percent of KIC 8462852’s light is blocked, an extraordinary amount for a mature star which has had time to sweep up the dust around it. The usual dimming from dust is 1 percent.
Another view, far less definitive, but very interesting, is that the blocking agent is a “mess of objects.” Jason Wright from Penn State suggests that a swarm of megastructures around a star could relate to energy collecting operations.
WTF 001 doesn’t have any planets. It may or may not have an atypical collection of natural phenomena, but even so, those phenomena have to balance against observed data. What’s there has to equate to blocking 22 percent of the star’s light. That’s a pretty steep range of criteria for any theory.
The obstructive bodies are asymmetrical, and the effects are variable. Alien megastructures, real or imaginary, are likely to relate to some sort of consistent behavior, whether we understand that behavior or not. Repeating patterns, signals or data which don’t fit natural phenomena, you name it; artificial things can always be distinguished from natural things, sooner or later.
The alien argument
The trouble with imposing Easy Bake behavioral options on aliens we know nothing about is that it’s ridiculous from inception. Would “energy collecting” involve varying orbits, causing asymmetrical results when scanned? Possibly, depending on what’s being collected, by whom, and why. Perhaps multiple forms of energy are being collected, accounting for what would otherwise seem like demographic overkill in collecting from one star?
You could add a dictionary to these questions. This thing could just as easily be a garbage dump as an energy collector. Our “stellar energy collectors” have shrunk in size and risen in efficiency in a few decades. Why do we assume that aliens would be running hot water systems or charging their cars on this scale, in this way? Why not grow food around a planetless star, saving space? Maybe they need a lot of room for courthouses, or jails?
If there’s any group of subjects on or off Earth where anthropomorphizing has absolutely nothing going for it, it’s alien behaviors and technologies. Let’s start with the basics:
What’s consistently not fitting any known spectrum of fits? At the moment, practically everything. Let’s try narrowing it down.
Rather than guessing how many ears a cat from Andromeda may have, how about some spectrographic research on specifics? What’s associated with what?
What, specifically, is missing from the light frequencies? What’s being blocked, and what isn’t?
Bearing in mind that comets can do only so much — what behaves like comets and dust, and is plausible enough to do what this “megastructure” does?
Does the star have an unusual magnetic field? Is it a sort of underdone version of Eta Carinae, causing weird obstructed light and other emissions?
The main reason for science is discovering new things. (If it wasn’t, all science could be done by the plodders.) It’s also the most fun thing about science. Let’s not spoil the fun by pontificating sagely. Let’s go look.

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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