Looking for Life in All the Wrong Places

It’s been over a month since my trip to KIC 8462852, better known as Tabby’s Star. And yes, my trip was totally for real. I was actually there and saw the alien megastructure for myself. You can trust me on this.

Anyway… I did a lot of research and reading to prepare for my trip, and I noticed a common theme in almost all the papers and articles I read: whatever’s happening to Tabby’s Star, it was very easy for us Earthlings to miss. In fact, it almost was missed.

Tabetha Boyajian herself (for whom Tabby’s Star is named) initially dismissed the star’s anomalous light curve as faulty data. And that could have been the end of it, no further investigation required.

It’s almost dumb luck (plus the persistence of a few citizen scientists) that Boyajian and others ended up taking a second look at that “faulty” data and realized it wasn’t a problem with the telescope, that something legitimately weird was going on.

Enrico Fermi Still Whats to Know: Where Is Everybody?

I’m bringing this up because I think it has interesting implications for the Fermi Paradox. Circa 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi argued that advanced space faring civilizations should be out there somewhere, and furthermore Fermi said we should have seen them or heard from them by now. So where is everybody?

Now I don’t want to oversell my point here, because there are a lot of possible answers to Fermi’s question. Maybe we really are alone in the universe, or maybe intelligent life is less common than Fermi assumed. Or maybe intergalactic law forbids making contact with primitive worlds like Earth.

But it’s also possible—in my opinion, very possible—that evidence of alien civilizations is there, but we’ve just missed it. Maybe we haven’t been looking in the right places, or maybe we haven’t been looking for the right things. Tabby’s Star is a perfect example. I don’t know if aliens are responsible for what’s happening to Tabby’s Star… wait, I mean I do know, because I was there and saw the aliens. No really, I did.

Umm… anyway… even if there weren’t an alien megastructure, the story of Tabby’s Star should tell us something about how easy it is for us to overlook what’s happening right in front of our eyes—or what’s happening right in front of our telescopes.

16 thoughts on “Looking for Life in All the Wrong Places

  1. We should always keep in mind that we don’t know what we don’t know. It’s possible we’re looking directly at aliens or alien technology and simply can’t recognize the significance of what we’re seeing.

    OTOH, isn’t that true about any attempt to understand anything? Maybe rocks are conscious and suffer when we break or melt them, or maybe dolphins are more intelligent than we give them credit for and have complex intricate societies we can’t comprehend. But if so, our perceptions may never be able to register it.

    Ultimately we can only assess reality according to what we can perceive or derive as probable from our perceptions. When we do that,I think we have good reasons for concluding that life may be pervasive, but intelligent life profoundly rare.

    Of course, new data could turn up tomorrow that radically changes the whole picture.


    1. Agreed. I’ve often said that life (especially microbial life) is probably all over the cosmos. Multicellular life is probably rare, and intelligent life even more rare than that.

      Again, I don’t want to oversell my point. It’s striking to me that we came so close to overlooking Tabby’s Star, and I just have to wonder what else we might have overlooked.

      At the same time, astronomers can’t go searching for every form of life we can possibly imagine. Even if they had unlimited funding, that still wouldn’t be practical. Nor should astronomers assume that every weird piece of data is a sign of alien life. That would be unprofessional.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You missed an excellent opportunity make a geeky joke and say ‘Alderaan’ places. But yes, it’s entirely possible that we just aren’t seeing something right in front of us. We kind of a except a more advanced civilization to be like us, just with better technology, gigantic spaceships, and megastructures. But for all we know, the natural course of progression for societies across the galaxy might be something we’ve never thought of. And then we’re back to the ant analogy, declaring that there’s no life out there, because they surely would have responded to our pheromone trails.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There may be distant civilizations in our galaxy that we have missed, but if so, then they are not interstellar-travelling civilizations.

    I agree with you that the available evidence suggests that simple life may be widespread, so the question remains – why doesn’t simple life evolve into life that is capable of modifying its environment through technology?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it helps to consider what is required for civilization: both intelligence and a dexterous body plan capable of manipulating the environment. Several species on our planet evolved to be relatively intelligent. But only one branch had the right accidents in its evolutionary history that enabled it to make complex tools, structures, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s very true. Life seems to have started very soon after the formation of the Earth, but it took billions of years before the first plants appeared. Simple microscopic animals appeared about 500 million years ago, reptiles a couple of hundred million years later, and mammals within the last 100 million years.

        In relative terms, once multi-cellular life appeared, it didn’t take long to evolve into humans, but a very long time elapsed between the first life and the first multi-celled organisms. My guess is that most life in the galaxy is still at the pre-eukaryotic stage, and may never evolve further.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. You may be right that there could be other civilizations out there, but they just haven’t developed interstellar travel. I tend to be pretty optimistic about this stuff, but I have to admit that Fermi is assuming a lot when he says that someone must have developed interstellar travel by now. Out of all the civilizations I know of (in real life), none of them have done that yet.


  4. I think about things like this, and I wonder if the most reasonable answer is that it’s right under our nose, and we’re just not seeing it. With good reason, we’re very concerned about where liquid water is. Afterall, here, where there’s water there’s life. But, who knows? Maybe there’s forms of life somewhere that we simply aren’t aware of that aren’t carbon-based, and don’t need water. It could be life as we don’t know it. No matter, I like to be optimistic. To borrow from Carl Sagan, it would seem like such a waste of space for us to be the only ones around. Seems awfully unlikely, too.

    Another technical problem: the way you’re set up now doesn’t allow people to like other commenters’ posts. There’s lots on this post a lone that I wanted to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay, I think I fixed the thing about the like button.

      I absolutely agree we need to think outside the box regarding alien life. Life doesn’t necessarily need carbon or water, and intelligent life may not behave the way we expect it to.

      There is an interesting counterargument, however, which I think I first read in “All These Worlds Are Yours” by Jon Willis. By focusing on life as we know it, at least we know what to look for. Whereas if we go searching for life as we don’t know it, how can we know if we’ve found it?

      That being said, I still think we need to keep an open mind so we don’t miss the mysteries unfolding right before us. If we came so incredibly close to missing Tabby’s Star, then we must have missed other things too.


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