Tabby’s Star: Astrophysics, Consulting, and Being Great

KIC 8462852. Where’s the Flux? Tabby’s Star. These names may mean nothing to you. But they all refer to an interesting star about 1500 light years from Earth.

“But Andy,” you say, “what could this star have to do with SharePoint … or consulting . . . or whatever it is you’re supposed to be writing about today?”

Directly, nothing. But it is an amazing story. Perhaps explaining some of it might get you thinking about what makes scientists, or consultants, or anyone doing anything, great.

So . . . Tabby’s Star.  In analyzing the data from the Kepler space telescope (designed to hunt for planets around other stars), a very strange fluctuation was spotted. The light from this star was found to dim in a frequent but non-periodic way (In one instance more than 22%!). This is quite astonishing on its own, but let me detail the way Kepler works so you can see for yourself.

How Kepler Works

Kepler is designed to look for planets transiting other stars. It measures the light coming from a star. If it sees a slight dip in that light, it means something has crossed between it and Kepler. Repeated measurements can establish the size and orbit of this thing.Then you typically get a report of another exoplanet found.  Now even the largest of planets is tiny compared to the size of a star. For example, Jupiter (which is huge) would block only about 1% of our sun’s light at this same distance. So to measure something blocking 22% goes way beyond finding a planet.

And then it gets stranger. The dimming repeated, but not in any kind of timed pattern (as you would expect for a planet orbiting a star), and not with any kind of regular dip.

Several different hypotheses were offered up as solutions:

  1. What if there were planets still forming, and there were great rings of gas and dust blocking the light?  Nope – the star isn’t young, isn’t still forming planets, and doesn’t have the right spectroscopic signals anyway.
  2. How about if two planets collided? That doesn’t work either – that kind of collision would produce a lot of dust that glows in the infrared, none of which was found.
  3. Maybe there’s a cloud of comets in an irregular orbit around the star? That could account for the dimming and lack of infrared signals, but some rough calculations indicate it would take between 30 and 40 simultaneous comets to block that much light. Not impossible, but kind of a reach.
  4. Or, the ever present astronomical-phenomenon-we-don’t-know-about-yet, definitely possible (in fact mostly likely), but still unsatisfactory.

Other Explanations

There is another possible explanation … in 1960 physicist Freeman Dyson popularized the idea of what was to become known as a Dyson Sphere (or Dyson Swarm). He theorized that, as humanity’s energy demands increased, we would need to harness more and more of the sun’s power. This would logically take the form of a series of solar collectors, orbiting the sun in a ring, or a grid, or even an entire sphere.

. . . persistence, open-mindedness, adherence to the scientific method – embracing characteristics like these and using this kind of methodology is an amazing way to go about problem solving.

So what if what we’re seeing around Tabby’s Star isn’t a swarm of 40 comets, but an in-progress Dyson Sphere?  What would that look like, to us, 1500 light years away, as it was being built?  It very well might look like irregular dimming as random pieces transited the star.  And, depending on how advanced the project was, it could even block large percentages of the light.

Alright, time to step back for a second, and then make my point.  First, I’m certainly not saying this is an alien megaproject.  No one is saying this – they’re just offering up the theoretical possibility as something that might fit the observations.  We don’t have a natural explanation yet, despite a lot of really smart and experienced people looking really hard.

And that’s the best part.  The folks involved in this research have handled their findings in a way that makes me smile and take great pride in what we can do as a species.

Is there a perfectly natural explanation for what we’re seeing?  Most likely yes.  But no one’s dismissing anything out of hand.  And no one’s making crazy, grandiose proclamations.  They’re putting in the work to find the answer.  Comets or aliens or something else, they will figure it out.  And that makes me really proud — to know that we’re capable of this kind of effort.

My Point – Problem-Solving Methodology

Which (finally!) brings me around to my point – persistence, open-mindedness, adherence to the scientific method – embracing characteristics like these and using this kind of methodology is an amazing way to go about problem-solving.

And not just in astrophysics.  We routinely make pushes like this in medicine, engineering, computer science, art, music, and thousands of other fields. Even at Pharmica I’ve been part of an effort where a talented group of people working within pretty constricting limitations have been able to build a solution to a problem that has persisted across Big Pharma for years.

Now we don’t get a lot of stellar flux riddles at Pharmica. But we do get a lot of people in stressful situations looking for help. We do our best to meet these kinds of challenges with the same attitude and excellence that makes me proud of the people looking at Tabby’s Star.

We may be streamlining clinical metrics instead of teasing out spectroscopic details from a star 1500 light years away, but we’re still striving for the one thing Pharmica has always asked of its people: Be Great!

P.S.  The scientists behind the research I talk about above just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise enough funds to observe Tabby’s Star uninterrupted for the next year.  So – more great science to come!