Did I just figure out how aliens will communicate with us?


So, you’ve heard about the weird “stuff” that’s been found around star KIC 8462852, right? If not, here’s a link:


In short, there’s something orbiting it… a lot of somethings more accurately… that we’ve never seen before. Now, before you post your Giorgio Tsoukalos does his “I’m not saying it’s aliens – BUT IT’S ALIENS!” memes all over the place, there’s a number of rather mundane explanations… though here, “mundane” only has meaning relative to the notion that it could be aliens. Planet collisions and things of that nature are a distinct possibility (and probably most likely).

But, one scientist, Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, made some interesting comments that the light pattern we see resulting from these whatever-they-are’s kinda looks like the type of thing we might expect an alien civilization to produce as a result of some mega-big constructions (think Dyson Spheres, Ringworlds and that sort of “OMG THAT CAN’T REALLY EXIST!” sorts of big-ass things).

Now, if you ask me right now to place a bet I’ll give you whatever odds you want that this IS NOT aliens. It’s probably still going to be something very cool because it’s not like anything we’ve seen before, but almost certainly it’s natural.

But, that got me to thinking… or more precisely, the comments of someone on Reddit discussing this did… he asked about radio waves. He thought that particles (dust and such) distributed through interstellar space would reduce radio waves to a point that they were entirely undetectable before long. Seems logical, right? Ok, so, if that’s a given, an advanced alien species that could build unbelievably massive things in space wouldn’t be using radio to communicate. What WOULD they use? LASERs? Maybe, but they’re too precise- they have to be aimed at the receiver pretty accurately and if you don’t know where it is you waste a lot of time and energy beaming out in all directions.

In fact, this is the basic problem with most things that (a) will still be detectable at a great distance and (b) which you intend to not destroy any life on the receiving end (I mean, maybe gamma-ray bursts are an alien civilization’s calling card… but if so, they’re VERY impolite since they can destroy all life on planets if they’re too close).

Then, it kind of dawned on me how I’d pull it off: “reverse” Morse code!

Let me explain… imagine you could build massive structures around a star… imagine you could get them to align very precisely and orbit the star very precisely… now imagine that another civilization could detect the drop in the light coming from the star and even could do so over time, yielding a pattern to the drops in the light.

You could encode a message doing that in much the same way you type out a message in Morse code, but it would be a “negative image”, so to speak: the DROPS in light are where the message is encoded, NOT the light itself (in Morse code terms: the message would be encoded in the silences between dots and dashes, not the dots and dashes themselves).

I mean, think about it: even to an advanced civilization, it’s very likely that a star is still many orders of magnitude more energy that they can themselves produce. Given that, why try to produce energy in ANY form, encode information into it and beam it out into space when you ALREADY HAVE SOMETHING DOING IT, and doing it much better than you can? All you need to do is figure out how to encode information into the star’s emissions. That’s where Reverse Morse code comes into play.

Now, I don’t really know if this is an original idea or not. I do know that I can’t recall ever having seen it anywhere before, and I also know that Googling “reverse Morse code” does not yield any result that describes what I am here in any context. I’m actually sitting here wondering if I just came up with something really brilliant or if it’s an old idea I’ve just never heard of. I’m certainly betting on the later, especially given all the phenomenally smart sci-fi authors out there that think about this stuff all the time.

But, on the off chance this is an original idea, I wanted to make sure I got it written down somewhere because original or not, it really DOES seem like the way advanced aliens would try to communicate with us, especially if we assume that the speed of light is the same impediment that it is for us and that no “workaround” exist or are exploitable. Certainly no technology we know of or can realistically imagine building would allow for communication across the types of distances we’re talking about. Using the power of a star would cut out one of the biggest problems you have with communicating across great distances.

The question I have and can’t answer is exactly how precisely we can measure transit events right now. Do we have the technology to discern a pattern like I’m describing, whether we can decode it or not? I don’t THINK we do yet, I think we’re just at the point of “this much light drops out in total so we know something’s there” and that’s it. But then again, I’m not sure I understand how we could know there’s “stuff” around this particular star then. Don’t we need to be resolving at a somewhat finer level than “total light lost” to be able to say that?

I’m no astronomer, astrophysicist or anything like that. I’m just a guy that thinks about science stuff A LOT. So it’s far more likely this is just a neat idea for a sci-fi short story 🙂 But, I’ve asked a few real scientists to have a look and give me their take on the idea… I’ll let you know what I hear!


EDIT: The following was added on 10/15, after the original post:

So, I tweeted Phil Plait, the famed “Bad Astronomer” himself and got a reply pretty quickly (thank you again Phil VERY much for taking the time to read my blathering!)… I’ll quote his reply here:

“Fun idea. But radio waves travel for a LONG way, and are a lot easier. :)”

So there you have it: probably not what I said. Unsurprisingly. But, the fact that he didn’t poo-poo the idea outright makes me feel pretty good anyway 🙂 I’m certainly not about to argue with a trained, professional astronomer… though I do feel the need to point out that I’ve read a number of sources that say radio waves don’t propagate quite as well or as far as Phil seems to indicate… still, I don’t doubt he’s right: radio is simply a lot easier than building some unimaginably huge structure around a star regardless of how advanced a civilization we’re talking about. It’s probably not a trivial exercise for ANYONE and so you still have to imagine it’s pretty unlikely to be the case. Fair enough.

Interestingly, Phil sent another tweet my way a little after that first one:

“Well now, I spoke too soon. 🙂 http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1086/430437/pdf”

That’s a paper entitled “TRANSIT LIGHT-CURVE SIGNATURES OF ARTIFICIAL OBJECTS”. So, you know, real scientists are out there thinking about what I had, which is cool! It also means my idea isn’t original, but I already said it almost certainly wasn’t (although that paper doesn’t discuss it as a communication mechanism, I’m just going to assume that came up between the authors, or someone else somewhere came up with it too).

The deal with this particular star though is still something really interesting, to say the least, because the luminosity drop observed is something like 22%. That’s A LOT! A Jupiter-sized planet transiting a star general results in a drop of around only 1%. Obviously, that’s a huge difference. That makes this even more interesting if you ask me (and you’re here, so I’ll just go ahead and assume you did). The most likely explanation still seems to be things like cometary collision, but even for that, it’s kind of hard to imagine a debris cloud that large.

One thing that I see some people say when they see that 22% figure is “OMG, an object that occludes 22% of the light from this star! That’s amazing!” Well, sure, it WOULD be, granted, but that’s also not necessary. It doesn’t have to be one single coherent object- a debris cloud that occludes 22% of the light IN AGGREGATE does the trick just as well and is a lot easier to contemplate, hence the cometary collision idea being what I’m seeing most astronomers say is the most likely scenario. Even still, it’s hard to imagine a debris cloud larger than Jupiter by 22%… something tells me that’s not the whole story.

So, really, at the end of this day, what we have here is something REALLY weird. Something we haven’t seen before. Something that has at least some characteristics of what we think we might see from an artificial structure. But, we’ve got a couple of far more likely explanations that are all-natural, and all-natural is good in food so it’s probably good in astronomy too. However, with all of that said, astronomers are now working pretty quickly to get additional observations off the ground, if you will (I believe I’ve read a January timeframe is the target). There’s a lot of excitement over this, understandably so. It’s either artificial and therefore something game-changing, or it’s natural and almost as game-changing… or it’s got a totally mundane explanation that we’ve so far missed of course, that’s always a possibility. But right now, it really does look like a big deal whether it’s aliens or not.

As for it being a communication mechanism like I proposed? Eh, I suppose it still COULD be, but it was always a pretty unlikely idea. But, since we’re already talking about an unlikely idea, let me put on my sci-fi writer hat and make it even MORE unlikely, but still not ENTIRELY implausible…

Imagine you are an advanced alien civilization. You decide that building a giant screen in front of a star to send what amounts to a form of Morse code is a good idea because that energy will propagate through space better than any energy source you can produce yourself. Now, we have to assume such a civilization has the same fundamental limitations as us, which means no faster-than-light travel, which means they’re just as confined to a single star system (or a small handful) as we are. That also means that two-way communication isn’t possible for the same fundamental reasons.

Or is it?

You’ve heard of quantum entanglement, right? The idea that two photons, separated by an arbitrary distance, can instantaneously reflect changes in quantum state. This is interesting because what appears to happen is essentially an exchange of quantum “information” at superluminal speeds. This is a real phenomenon, not a theory. It’s something scientists can experimentally observe in real life. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance”, and that’s an apt description!

Now, before we get too excited, scientists have already ruled out the possibility of using this as a form of communication. That would necessitate violating causality, something we don’t believe can happen. It DOES have some potential uses in communication anyway: there are some ideas about using it to ensure a message sent isn’t tampered with in transit, but that’s a very different, and much simpler, thing.

But… since we’re playing with ideas here… what if we’re wrong? What if it IS possible to use quantum entanglement to communicate? Let’s assume that for a moment. What might our advanced civilization do with that knowledge if they had it? Well, I’ll tell you what *I* would do in their shoes: you know that starlight I’m already playing with to send Morse code-like messages? Maybe I can quantumly entangle them on the way out from the source star. If I could, I might also encode in the message itself information on how to build a transceiver.

If you recognize that idea it’s because it essentially is the story from Carl Sagan’s Contact. We’re not talking about building a wormhole transit machine here of course, because that’s much harder (I presume). But a radio that can use quantumly entangled photons? Maybe not so hard (if, once again, physics allows it at all). The medium of the message, the starlight, would essentially include the information necessary to allow two-way communications.

I think the idea has a certain logic to it… I beam my simple reverse-Morse code message out everywhere in all directions using my local star are the power source… the breaks in the starlight provide the message, including the plans on how to build a device to allow two-way communication using the quantumly-entangled starlight that the receiver already has access to. All of a sudden, assuming a civilization is advanced enough to receive the message, decode it and follow the instructions to build the device, and are willing to do all of that, then the originator can have two-way real-time communication with them!

It’s a nice idea, though it relies on breaking what we thank are some fundamental laws of quantum mechanics… which just so happens to be our most successful, well-tested and verified theory to date and which is responsible for most of our modern world. However, even if that theory isn’t as immutable as it appears now, there’s still the not at all insignificant problem of time: the original signal that tells us how to communicate with the advanced civilization will still take thousands of years or more to reach us. There’s simply no way to know if there’s anyone on the other end to talk to anymore. I haven’t conjured up a way around that problem yet, even a ridiculous one. That seems like the truly fundamental stumbling block to this whole communication idea.

Still, one can dream – and, until we know for sure what’s actually there around KIC 8462852, that’s exactly what I’m prepared to keep doing 🙂

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