The scientific journalism world has always been sensational. From “man lands on moon” to “smallpox eradicated globally,” there are plenty of truly awe-inspiring stories of the accomplishments of humankind. But sometimes science news is filled with extravagant claims and fictional exaggerations. Most recently, a wave of alien life seems to have invaded the press, with fantastical tales like “Search for ‘alien megastructure’ on distant star underway.” The subject of the most recent wave of alien theories is the work of Tabetha Boyajian, who has discovered a fascinating irregularity orbiting a distant star.
Tabetha Boyajian is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University as a member of Debra Fischer’s exoplanet group. She has been working in astrophysics for the last fifteen years and is also involved in the Planet Hunters program, a citizen science project that brings the public in to do real exoplanet research. She is the primary author of a recent paper on KIC 8462852, a star situated in the constellation Cygnus in the Northern skies. While the star may look like every other point of light to our naked eyes, powerful telescopes have picked up strange irregularities in how the star becomes brighter and dimmer over time, or what scientists call the “light curve” of a star. Today, periodic irregularities in the light of a star indicate the presence of an exoplanet, or a planet that orbits a star other than the sun. However, Boyajian’s group found something that isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen.
How did Boyajian discover this? This star is one of many that have been photographed by the Kepler Space Observatory, a space telescope that was launched in 2009 to better understand exoplanets. Every day, Kepler looks deep into the universe and measures the intensity of light from stars in its field of vision. Typically, stars have a constant brightness, but sometimes stars get dimmer and brighter. Examining the star’s brightness can lead to the discovery of exoplanets, as regular dips could mean that a planet is passing in front of the star. The radius and even mass of an exoplanet can be determined just by studying the star’s brightness, and an entire sub-discipline of light curve analysis – or analyzing the star’s brightness over time – is now emerging as the most powerful way to detect exoplanets.
But KIC 8462852’s light curve wasn’t something that could be easily described. With a massive 20% dip in light happening twice and many more smaller drops happening with seemingly random frequency, it’s clear that something odd is happening here. Not only is the scale of the dip odd, but its shape raises questions as well; the intensity of light drops slowly and then returns to normal very rapidly in a manner that doesn’t agree with typical exoplanet movements. In addition, there is no clear periodicity with the dips that might correspond to some regular object passing by. It was “something never seen before, ever” said Boyajian. So, after much head-scratching and brainstorming with other researchers, the Yale team published their research on arXiv and is currently awaiting publication in peer reviewed journals.
The exoplanet mission has been booming since the launch of the Kepler mission, because the telescope is really great at finding light curves. As seen in the graph below, using new methods and more efficient algorithms has enabled scientists to discover many more exoplanets. There has been an enormous shift in the way that we view the galaxies as scientists realize that there are thousands, maybe even millions, of undiscovered exoplanets out there. It has led to constantly-improving methods and new space telescopes, such as the TESS project that will launch in 2017. There is much science to be done in this area.
However, Boyajian’s discovery was not made alone. She had the help of thousands of people, or citizen scientists, who helped examine light curves through a program called Planet Hunters. Over the past decade, citizen science has truly taken off as a new method to learn about our world. We have reached a point where the amount of data we can collect far exceeds the abilities for scientists to analyze by hand. While computers are great at matching patterns, they have a hard time locating irregularities. Citizen science groups have been around for a while—the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Count Program, for example, was started in 1975—but over the past decade, they have taken on a new form. Projects like NASA’s Clickworks, which allowed people to classify Martian images from home gave nonscientists the opportunity to be part of the most cutting-edge research projects.
Planet Hunters was born in a similar way. Launched in 2010 under the Zooniverse collaboration as Kepler data was made available to the masses, the website allows any citizen to examine a light curve by eye to see if there are any dips that might indicate exoplanets. Such events are then flagged and further examined by the scientists in charge. Through the collective work of thousands of people at home, serendipitous discoveries are made in data that has already been combed through by computers. While the machine is getting to be quite good in finding what the scientists want, it lacks the critical thinking that is needed for breakthroughs. Through the public interface, any person with an Internet connection can assist in this discovery process, searching through the gigabytes of data to find anomalous data like the ones used in Boyajian’s paper.
However, the controversial nature of finding anomalies in space triggered a deluge of web comments. Suddenly, the little green men seemed to dominate the story. The Atlantic published under “The Most Mysterious Star in Our Galaxy”, dedicating a quarter of the article towards the future investigations that SETI was planning for the star. Soon, comments started pouring in. Everything from Dyson Swarms, a theoretical collection of solar-power satellites designed to harvest energy from stars, to a “force field encapsulating the solar system for unknown reasons” has been suggested. Most of the major news publications have gone along the same vein as these armchair alientologists, trying to cash in on the wave of alien mania. While the original article focused on the science, many of the newer articles are leaning towards the extreme. Huewire reports that “Experts believe they have found an alien mega structure in space,” even though the original authors emphasize that aliens are the last thing that they’re positing.
While this outpouring of attention is positive for the exoplanet community, not all attention is constructive, and much of it is misdirected. It leads the public to believe outlandish remarks about what scientists have truly been studying. For instance, this is not a spur-of-the moment discovery; the data has been undergoing analysis for the past four years in the Yale group and each possibility has been closely scrutinized. In fact, four theories to explain the anomaly have been proposed: an asteroid belt, an unstable planetary system, a Hill sphere dust, or perhaps fragments of a comet. These hypotheses may not have enough data to be fully supported, but they fit in with our current understanding of our universe. This is not to say that there is no possibility that there is indication of alien life out there, but that the news covering the story is slanted towards the wrong direction. Traditional media may believe that there isn’t anything “sexy” about the story without throwing in some of the more extreme theories.
But really, Boyajian’s discovery doesn’t need to be sensationalized to be interesting news. There are more than enough juicy details in this story: the dramatic discoveries by citizen scientists, the phenomenal research put into the star’s intrinsic properties, and the careful collection of data by a telescope whizzing around the Earth at several thousand miles per hour. We need honest scientific journalism that excites people without fabrication, because that kind of journalism brings together great minds to investigate mysteries. Since the news articles have been published, there has been a large spike in activity at the Planet Hunters website, from people at home who want to be part of something greater. We are the people who can create change; we are the people who can create knowledge.
Chunny Ding is a freshman in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Featured image from Wikimedia.)