The designation above is, for those not rabidly following astronomy news, the name of a star that may end up being the biggest scientific discovery of our lifetimes. An article dropped recently on The Atlantic that every SF-nal person should check out. The short form: the Kepler telescope discovered a star called KIC 8462852, which contains a bizarre enough light signature to attract in-depth study from scientists since 2011. Generally light flicker patterns are used to search for planets, but this particular flicker is unlike anything seen before. A paper came out earlier, concluding that the only plausible explanation within our current knowledge is that another star wandered through that system with fantastically good timing, depositing a wreath of comets around KIC. Not impossible, but, apparently, rather implausible. Bigger news: another paper is about to be published suggesting that this light signature is more suggestive of gargantuan, artificial structures orbiting the star. Not conclusive of course, but it is still a bombshell.
Nobody is calling this a definite thing of course. I think all of us are fully aware that we shouldn’t see something strange in the night sky and say, “Hey! Ringworld!” Still, there is an opportunity to find more evidence. And if the evidence mounts? What happens then?
In practical terms, very little I think. KIC 8462852 is 1500 light years away from us, give or take. Thus, we are seeing today events that took place shortly after the fall of Rome. Unless this mysterious race has faster than light travel, and everything we currently know says that FTL is impossible, it will be awhile before they wander over here. Why? Well, the first signals our planet gave out that anyone is here are less than one hundred years old. I’m hazy on whether or not radio/TV waves attenuate over long distances, but even if they are detectable, Flash Gordon episodes aren’t due to KIC 8462852 until 3400 AD or thereabouts. If we decided to meander over and take a look, we’re currently talking about multiple thousands of years. Acceleration to, and slowing down from, an appreciable fraction of the speed of light is still beyond us. We can probably put first contact fears behind us for now, at least for this prospective civilization.
I’m very curious about the possible effects on our society though. A surprisingly large number of people in my fair country have yet to fully process the existence of dinosaurs. How will they deal with a civilization capable of ringing its sun in power satellites while we were still hacking at each other with iron swords? I doubt it would dent religion at all, but there would be entertaining debates over where Jesus/Mohamed/Buddha/etc. fit into a universe where we are no longer God’s only children. Would this bring about the same level of change as the heliocentric solar system did? Would it spur us to greater scientific achievements, knowing that it was already possible for someone else? I don’t give much credit to the idea that we’ll all curl up in an emo ball of malaise because someone else is better than us; that doesn’t seem like the way humanity responds to crisis.
Experts disagree on how we should feel about extraterrestrials. And by “experts,” I mean “SF writers and fans,” because, really, who else is thinking seriously about this? I used to be part of the optimistic bunch that assumed that any civilization who had progressed enough to build Dyson spheres had probably also gotten rid of war, inequality, starvation, and all that sort of thing. It makes some sense, if one charts straight line growth into the future vis a vis how far we as a species have come. More and more though, I find myself aligning with the tribe that assumes that we’ll take most of our warts with us into the future, that enlightenment probably won’t follow naturally on the heels of technology. I think things will get better, but will probably level off at some point.
These groups have directly opposite views of aliens, naturally. The first welcomes First Contact on the assumption that anyone advanced enough to find us will have already put utopia together. The second fears the same Contact, suspecting that it will lead inevitably to subjugation or extinction. While the Culture is a possible future (and one worth hoping for!), imagining what would happen today if a Bronze Age society appeared and said, “Hi folks! Let’s be friends and initiate one-sided trade and technology exchange,” leaves me skeptical. It someone is indeed at KIC 8462852, it may be in our best interests to hold off on the signal flags until we know what we’re potentially dealing with.
I realize that I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. Still, with all the recent news close to home – water on Mars, details about Pluto, and more – the KIC 8462852 news really stirs the pot. How will we feel if this really is it? What if we know that we aren’t alone? I’m preparing for disappointment, but the thought of something artificial orbiting a (barely) visible star is enough to fire up the wildest imaginings.