Sunday, 18 October 2015

Alien Megastructures and Sociology

As you get older, life gets more absurd. Or so it seems. The humdrum is occasionally punctuated by something that's really out there, like the Daily Mail standing up against racism and xenophobia. Last week had one of those moments. It was announced that some of the observations of the catchily-named KIC 8462852, a star some 1,400 light years away, might be congruent with an alien megastructure orbiting it. Yes, you read that correctly. Eric Mack over at CNet notes:
Basically, the star's light curve seems to show some strange stuff passing in front of the star, at irregular intervals and sometimes even appearing to shift shape or orientation along the way - this is very different from the relatively predictable orbits we see objects making around our own sun and most other stars that Kepler has observed.
Tabetha Boyajian, the Yale researcher responsible for making observations of the star doesn't mention the possibility of aliens, and it is extremely unlikely that she and her colleagues have observed the industrial operations of an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation beavering away to capture the solar energy of their star. Having a science head and being extremely sceptical about such things, like Eric I'm sold on the anomaly being an extremely large cloud of comets sent hurtling into its inner solar system by the gravitational pushing and pulling by a nearby star. Nevertheless the doings of technologically advanced aliens remains a remote possibility, and that is very exciting.

Let us make some suppositions. SETI have requested time with a powerful radio telescope they want to point at KIC 8462852, and expect to do so around January time. Boyajian and others in the exoplanet hunter community will be refining their observations. And as infrared emissions are generally accepted to be the signature of advanced aliens, let us speculate that this time next year the observations tally together making bug-eyed beasties the most credible explanation, not the least likely. Should that come to pass, what then?

To be sure, it would be a watershed moment in science. It would arguably be the biggest discovery in all of human history, and certainly where astronomy is concerned. What, however would be the impact on human society, on popular culture, and the way we as a civilisation and a species view ourselves? I don't think it would be as profound as those - science and lay - people really into this sort of thing think it might be. Why?

First, there is distance. 1,400 light years is a mind-boggingly vast distance for 21st century humans to comprehend. If we were to beam a message direct to KIC 8462852 it would arrive there as far away in the future as the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Wales lies in our past. The good news for paranoids fearful of bodysnatchers from outer space is that while our technology may be able to detect them, they can't detect us. Yet. Well, they might be able to note the life bearing signatures of our little blue pearl. They could train mighty powerful telescopes in our direction, but all they would see are primitive folk building new cities in Meso-America and various tribes running amok in Europe sacking and burning established settlements. Because of the distance light has to travel, they would be peering into our past. They won't see direct evidence of our own industrial workings for some time yet. Of course, that's true for us as well - we're seeing the doings around their star as it existed quite a bit ago.

Physical distance breeds social distance. As we're not hooked up the the galaxy's hyperspeed broadband service, the collapse in social distance the internet allows for on our puny-sized planet is just not possible. The simulated immediacy that allows us to identify with complete strangers cannot be transferred to aliens we're never likely to meet, let alone have a long-distance conversation with. And that means the impact on our society will be minimal, it's just too airy-fairy for most people to care about. The day after confirmation will go on like any other day. It'll trend on Twitter for an hour or two, make the headlines, but apart from that? Zilch.

We do have some precedent to go on. Back in 1996, for a short period meteorite Allan Hills 84001, a chunk of Mars that fell to Antarctica some 13,000 years ago, was accepted as the vessel of fossilised Martian bacteria. Bill Clinton made his announcement from the White House lawn and front pages all over the world ran the story. Yet religions did not experience an existential crisis and go into meltdown. Everything carried on as it always has done. Perhaps a more apposite comparison to the confirmation of far away aliens would be the arrival of comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. I have fond memories of a summer staggering home from the pub and seeing it blaze away in the firmament. It was a beautiful sight. But apart from increasing the sales of binoculars and telescopes, getting a few more young people into the astronomical sciences, and, unfortunately, triggering the mass suicide of a Californian-based UFO cult, it passed the bulk of the human race by. It was a nice thing to see, that's all.

Confirming an alien megastructure would have fairly similar effects. A few fringe people would start worshipping it, entrepreneurial tykes might crowdfund a generational starship on Indiegogo, KIC 8462852's exploration appears as a staple in the resurgent space-trading genre of video games, of science fiction movies, of novels and space art, the Pope would probably deliver an encyclical on God's children in the heavens. How about an uptick in flying saucer sightings and reported alien abductions? Sociology-types like yours truly might have a fine old time trying to model the social dynamics of our green-skinned friends. And that will probably be your lot. Our place in the universe has radically shifted, and students of human behaviour would barely be able to tell the difference as far as our social structures are concerned. This is because news of beings around another star would not disrupt the rhythms of social life. It demands no collective response from governments, no shift in policy, no readjustment of the mental horizons of the vast majority of people beyond "that's nice" or "that's interesting". One's sense of security-in-the-world remains fundamentally unchallenged.

If, on the other hand, our aliens were to announce their presence in low Earth orbit, then things would be very different ...


Ken said...

Good article, especially the point that the mere discovery of distant aliens wouldn't disturb the rhythms of social life. However ...

I don't think the Mars meteorite is much of a precedent. The evidence was too tenuous, and the possibility of common origin (by the very fact of bits of rock being flung between planets) too obvious, for it to raise the really deep questions.

Far-off extrasolar intelligence is something else. True, it demands no immediate collective response. But it would have some profound effects.

First, while most mature religious establishments (Rome, Mecca, Jerusalem ...) would take it in their stride, one significant current would indeed freak out: evangelical protestant fundamentalism, which has nailed itself to not just a recent six-day creation, but the non-existence of intelligent life elsewhere. And this is a current that nearly half the population of the US agrees with!

Another institution that would be thrown into crisis is -- science. Google 'Fermi Paradox' for more, but think about it this way: we ourselves could easily be building megastructures in the Solar system within one or two thousand years. We haven't found the infrared signatures of completed Dyson spheres anywhere in the Galaxy -- and now we run across one under construction?

On the relevant time-scales, two thousand years is a blip. We and the putative inhabitants of the KIC 8462852 system would be contemporaries, as close as two people born in the same second. That would be a very unlikely coincidence. Something really weird would have to be going on. (Yes, this argument is in my novel Learning the World.)

So, it would have profound long-term consequences. Huge if true. For the above reasons, though, I think it's very unlikely to be true.

david walsh said...

Crowdfunding tykes? What is the attraction of alien megastructures to Scarborough folk?

Phil said...

We might well find out soon, Ken, which is why this is exciting!

And yes, Learning the World immediately came to mind when thinking about this ...

Iain Roberts said...

@Ken: Creationists *already* think astronomy is a trick of the Devil. (Not to mention geology, paleontology, genetics...) I don't see them freaking out any more than usual over evidence of distant aliens.

Also, not all US evangelical Christians are anti-science halfwits. Say what you will about Francis Collins, I think he'd be as interested in aliens as the next scientist.

(I like laughing at ignorant fundamentalists too, I just don't think it applies here.)

Speedy said...

Can we only travel at light speed? What about worm holes, quantum mechanics, etc?

I know NOTHING about science except science fiction, but it does seem to me rather naive to believe that just because our understanding of what is possible now, in terms of travel, is what is possible.

Never heard of Ken's novel. I will check it out.

Phil said...

Learning the World is a great novel, but I would say that as I'm a bit of a Ken fanboy.

As for light speed, it is what it is. You cannot travel faster than that. However, wormholes that provide shortcuts or warp engines that bend the fabric of space around a craft are hazy possibilities. The question then is if they're possible, and the objects 1,400 light years away turn out to be aliens, then why aren't they already here? If we can see them, they too can see there's a life bearing world right here.

Ken said...

Iain -- the creationists would have one more thing to freak out about, for sure. And it would be a big one because the only obvious explanation that would fit their world view would be demonic activity: literally, 'a trick of the devil'. To be fair, they don't say that of the other evidence. They say most scientists, because of their godless naturalistic presuppositions, mis-interpret evidence that makes perfect sense in the creationist paradigm.

Now it's one thing to come up with arguments that light from stars more than 6000 light years away (i.e. almost all stars!) in fact isn't evidence that the universe is older than 6000 years, or that the geological evidence can be explained by a global flood. It's quite another to have to explain away evidence of intelligent activity elsewhere as the work of devils and continue to seem (even if only superficially) reasonable people.

I'm well aware that 'not all US evangelical Christians are anti-science halfwits'. There is a tiny minority, ably represented by Francis Collins, who are fully on board with evolution (etc). The rest, well, are here: