Science Keeps Not Debunking the Alien Dyson Sphere Idea

Science can’t seem to disprove the giant alien megastructure some have proposed as an explanation for Tabby’s star, AKA, the WTF star, AKA KIC 8462852.

All the scientific studies in the world of this one mysterious star have so far ruled out every theory except one, and it’s the wildest one. The whole thing started when Yale astronomer Tabetha Boyajian located star KIC 8462852, unofficially known as “Tabby’s star,” after Boyajian. Tabby’s star is doing something very strange.


In 2009, NASA launched its Kepler probe to keep a close watch on a small section of the sky — the idea was to learn more about a smaller area than less about a larger one. The probe tracks how light reflected from stars dims and grows brighter. Generally, when a star dims, a planet has passed in front of it, and will again and again as it travels its orbital path.

Kepler’s found some 2,000+ planets orbiting stars and published its data to allow citizen scientists to confirm their findings. A group of people affiliated with Yale called Planet Finders started going over the data, and Boyajian found her star.

To start with, it’s unexpectedly dim for a star of its its size and age. But what really got her attention was this chart.

The chart that started it all. (TABETHA BOYAJIAN/KEPLER/NASA)

Each vertical dip represents a holy-cow reduction in the star’s brightness, more than 10 times the dimming that astronomers would expect from a planet even as big as Jupiter crossing in front of the star. So it appears it’s not a planet causing Tabby’s star to dim, which is why it’s also called the “WTF star,” after the paper they published about it titled “Where’s the Flux?

The data suggests something huge is orbiting the star, but what?

The reason the WTF star is famous is the hypothesis put forward to explain the dimming by Penn State astronomer Jason Wright: That what’s orbiting the star could be a “swarm of megastructures,” alien-built energy collectors, much like terrestrial solar panels. Wright told The Atlantic, “When Boyajian showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked. Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.” He was imagining something like a Dyson sphere.

Artist’s conception of a Dyson sphere (KEVIN GILL)

Crazy, right? Well, since then scientists have been frantically pushing out other hypotheses to explain the anomaly.

Here are some of the more normal theories, and why they’re probably wrong:

  • Kepler was malfunctioning — Nope.
  • It’s a cloud of dust from star formation — But the star isn’t young. It shows no sign of the infrared light that indicates a new star.
  • It’s a swarm of comets — But the dimming is too extreme to be caused by comets.
  • It’s debris from colliding planets — But that matter would get sucked into the star so quickly it would be unlikely to linger long enough for us to see it.
  • So, yes, WTF indeed.

    SETI pointed its radio telescopes at Tabby’s star for two solid weeks but detected no radio signals that would indicate civilization emanating from it. No joy — or maybe terror — there.

    And then there’s this. Louisiana State University’s Brad Schaefer went through old photographic plates of that area of the sky and deduced that the star has dimmed by 20% over the last century. Could this be when the aliens were building their Dyson sphere? Though Schaefer’s finding was disputed, there’s now a new study from California Institute of Technology and Carnegie Institute that suggests the dimming over this period is twice what Schaefer found.

    Okay, so the fact that other theories have been a bust is in no way proof that there’s a Dyson sphere collecting energy around Tabby’s star. Maybe it’s just that no one’s come up with a more plausible hypothesis yet. But it in no way is it proof that there isn’t one, either.

    Big Think
    Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

    Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

    As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

    Keep reading Show less

    Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

    Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

    Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
    Personal Growth
    • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
    • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
    • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
    Keep reading Show less

    How to flirt: 7 tips backed by science

    When it comes to flirting, love meters have nothing on these researchers' findings.

    (Photo from Wikimedia)
    Sex & Relationships
    • Flirting is an important part of life. It can be a fun, adventurous way to meet others and develop intimate relationships.
    • Many people find flirting to be an anxiety-ridden experience, but science can help us discover principles to be more relaxed while flirting.
    • Smiling and eye contact are proven winners, while pick-up lines are a flirty fallacy.
    Keep reading Show less

    New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

    Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

    Surprising Science
    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
    • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
    • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.