Well, it actually started back in 2015, with a paper on KIC 8462852, more informally and better known as “Tabby’s Star,” named for one of the lead authors, Tabetha Boyajian. The team used data from the Kepler spacecraft, which looks for periodic dips in a star’s brightness — ones that could indicate the crossing of a potential planet — to make their strange discovery.
There were dips in the star’s brightness, but they were anything but periodic. The amount the brightness changed varied considerably, too, and over a few years’ time, dropped so dramatically that not even a planet would be a big enough explanation.
Good on the “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait, who kept an eye on every development, acknowledging while more-or-less dismissing the public’s favorite explanation — the aliens around that star must be building a Dyson sphere to harvest its energy! Now that the dips are almost assuredly due to dust, Plait shares everyone’s disappointment, but reminds that it’s still great we figured things out.
And that’s the issue — can’t anything just be fucking cool anymore? Not only have we observed something never seen before, by anyone living or dead, which could be the very recent break-up of COMETS near the star, but this was truly science by the people! Funding for more telescope time was raised on Kickstarter! But no one cares unless it’s aliens? Come on.
What about ʻOumuamua? You know, that weird, red, cigar-shaped(?!) THING from ANOTHER SOLAR SYSTEM that just swung its way past our sun last summer? Fricking AWESOME! So much we can learn about the formation of other stars, and how the hell did it GET that shape and … oh. You just want to check it for aliens. And when SETI wasn’t enough, you sicced Breakthrough Listen (aka SUPER SETI) on it! At least they were realistic about the expectations.
“We don’t want to be sensational in any way, and we are very realistic about the chances this is artificial, but because this is a unique situation we think mankind can afford 10 hours of observing time using the best equipment on the planet to check a low-probability hypothesis,” billionaire Yuri Milner, financier of Breakthrough Listen, told Scientific American. But that didn’t stop Harvard astrophysicist and Breakthrough advisor Avi Loeb from speculating!
“Perhaps the aliens have a mothership that travels fast and releases baby spacecraft that freely fall into planetary systems on a reconnaissance mission,” he said. “In such a case, we might be able to intercept a communication signal between the different spacecraft.”
Needless to say, they all found squat. Not only does this “aliens or nuthin'” mentality rob these already amazing things of their due wonder, but it’s a little like crying wolf, isn’t it? What happens if we DO finally find aliens, after all these false alarms? Will the public even believe it? Will they even care?
Maybe I’m too pessimistic, as people were still ready to see aliens in a SpaceX rocket launch two weeks ago. Thankfully, word of the launch got around quickly and most people acquiesced to the simple explanation, but that’s not always the case in UFO reports.
Especially when the government’s involved! Christmas came early for conspiracy theorists when the long-awaited DISCLOSURE of a SECRET UFO INVESTIGATION program was revealed by the New York Times on December 16. Of course, just INVESTIGATING something doesn’t mean it’s real. I could go fishing for a plesiosaur; that doesn’t mean I’d catch one. And this isn’t even the FIRST government UFO program. There was Project Sign. And then Project Grudge. And THEN Project Blue Book (which is probably the one you’ve heard of). You can guess how they all ended.
So what makes this one, that only lasted between the years 2007 and 2012, any different? Well, it was done out of the public view, so as not to embarrass then-Senator Harry Reid, who cooked the idea up with some of his colleagues, including astronaut and fellow Senator John Glenn. And the private sector got involved, with most of the $22 million earmarked going to billionaire Bigelow Aerospace founder, Robert Bigelow, which he used to “modify” buildings “for the storage of metal alloys and other materials” recovered from UFO incidents.
That sounds fantastic, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. The first people on the scene in Roswell, New Mexico in July of 1947 were unable to identify the debris from an experimental balloon, Project Mogul, meant to listen for potential Russian nuclear tests. The “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program” also included some sightings and video recordings from professional pilots — which isn’t all that persuasive when you consider the same kinds of sources were fooled by offshore oil platforms in 2004.
Look. I get it. We all want to meet and greet that wise, alien civilization, but what if we never do? What if life (especially complex life) is incredibly rare? We know of exactly one instance of life emerging and one instance of that life developing technological sophistication — which isn’t a lot to go on, statistically. If we never find it again, does that make the universe any less bad-ass? Does that somehow detract from all the bizarre planetary systems Kepler’s found, or the interstellar cigars no one ever expected? Or does it just make our one instance of life all the more special?
And what if, again, we’re too burnt out when we do discover aliens to find the will to give a shit? At this rate of NOT finding aliens several times a year, despite thinking we MIGHT, will the real thing just roll off our backs? How many people will call it a false flag or #fakenews, or say, “Yeah right, I’ve heard that before”? By finding aliens everywhere when they might be nowhere, we’re pre-cheapening what would be the greatest discovery in human history. Not exactly a fair trade for a few clicks and another five minutes carved out of the 24-hour news cycle.