Former Scientific American editor Mark Alpert talks about his latest science fiction thriller, The Orion Plan, featuring the method whereby aliens most likely really would colonize our planet.
Former Scientific American editor Mark Alpert talks about his latest science fiction thriller, The Orion Plan, featuring the method whereby aliens most likely really would colonize our planet.
Steve Mirsky:Welcome to Scientific American Science Talk posted on May 5, 2016. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode…
Mark Alpert:This probe if it’s actually run by artificial intelligence as it approaches our planet it would recognize that there’s an intelligent species on this planet because it would sense our radio and TV broadcasts, it would see the lights from our cities and it intentionally on homes in on the brightest spot that it sees because it wants to take advantage of our electric power.
Mirsky:That’s Mark Alpert. He used to be an editor at Scientific American before he left to write science thrillers. His latest is The Orion Plan and, though it’s fiction, there’s an awful lot of science in it and inspiring it. We talked in his apartment on the Upper West Side so, again, enjoy the vintage sirens of New York’s Emergency Vehicle Fleet.
Mirsky: Mark I want to start at the end of the book, in fact past the end of the book. The Author’s Note says, “I got the idea for this novel back in 1999 when I edited a special issue of Scientific American that focused on space exploration. One of the articles in that issue was entitled ‘Interstellar Space Flight: Can We Travel to Other Stars’ by Science Journalist Timothy Farris.” Let’s talk about hat article, what you got from it and how that informed what you turned in, what you developed into this science fiction novel.
Alpert: Well that was my favorite article in that particular issue because I’m a long-time Star Trek fan. I love the idea of traveling to another star system but I wanted to know is it really possible, could you really do it and I thought I would assign that story to Timothy Ferris and he would come back with an answer and his answer was really interesting. He said, “A lot will really depend on the mass of the starship that you send to another star because the larger it is the harder it’s gonna be to accelerate it.” Now you know in order to get—the key problem with interstellar travel is that the distances are so vast. You’re talking the closest star is four and third light-years away, 24 trillion miles and so you’re going to have to accelerate a spacecraft to a significant fraction of the speed of light in order to get there in a reasonable amount of time, say, less than 1,000 years and so— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: [Laughs] Why is that a reasonable amount of time?
Alpert: Well [Cross talk]—
Mirsky: Because at least we can—maybe the answer is at least you can think that the human species will still be around even though the individuals won’t be.
Alpert: Or you could build a spacecraft that would actually last that long.
Alpert: Yeah so—and not only accelerate the spacecraft but you also have to decelerate it at that need of its journey because what good is it if it’s gonna be just whizzing by the star system at a third of the speed of light? That’s not gonna do you any good. You want it to so you’re gonna, at a certain point in this journey, probably halfway through it, you’re gonna have to turn the rockets around, whatever rockets you’re using, whether they’re chemical rockets, antimatter rockets, whatever it is, you’re gonna have to turn them around and decelerate the craft and so any way you do it, it’s gonna require a huge amount of fuel, a huge amount of energy and when Timothy Ferris actually did the calculations he found that this was enough to basically bankrupt any [Laughs] civilization that tries to send a large spacecraft to another star system. It would just be beyond the energy consumptions of our civilization, of even a much more advanced civilization.
Mirsky: And so when we watch Star Trek, which is supposed to take place a couple of hundred years from now and they’re in these gigantic ships that hold hundreds of people in rather luxurious conditions and they’re bouncing around from planet-to-planet, star system-to-star system, you know, I hope I don’t sound naïve by saying, “Boy it’s kinda crazy that whole notion.”
Alpert: Well they get away with it in the Science Fiction world by creating Warp Drive, which some physicists say, “Well that might be possible, it’s not a completely crazy idea.” There’s all these proposals about using some kinds of exotic forms of energy to create this bubble around you so that you’re not actually—within the bubble you’re not actually—traveling faster than the speed of light, you’re basically changing the spatial dimensions so that you’re rapidly decreasing the distance in front of you and increasing the distance behind you and in this way you create a shortcut through space time and that’s a real science idea and, believe it or not, there’s a guy at NASA who’s actually investigating this, you know? NASA has a $17 billion [Laughs] budget and so they gave this guy $50,000 to try to create a tabletop experiment to show whether Warp Drive is possible and I looked into it. I think I actually sent the guy an email saying, “Hey what are your results [Laughs]so far?” And I haven’t heard back from him so I assume that we’re not any closer there. Okay but assuming things like Warp Drive are not possible, Timothy Farris said, “Well the only way you could really feasibly send something to another star system is if it’s small, if it’s something that you could hold in your hand.
If it only weighs 10 pounds it will still take an enormous amount of energy to accelerate it to 20 percent of light speed and then decelerate it but it’s within our energy budget. It would only be maybe half of our total annual consumption of the world’s [Laughs] energy right now but that it’s feasible, basically. And so that but then Timothy Ferris says, “Well what could you actually do with a spacecraft that’s that small?” And— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: And also we’re still talking about as you said 1,000 years. We’re talking about spending way longer than a human lifetime getting this object from one planet to another.
Alpert: Right and we’re talking about an unmanned, automated object but it turns out that even with something so small with the way electronics have been miniaturized you probably could create a very sophisticated electronics inside a small spacecraft. You could have it run by an artificial intelligence system that would—could—make decisions remotely about how to choose a landing site for example because if you’re sending a star craft all the way to another star system that’s hundreds of light-years away, it’s totally impractical to get instructions from your home planet and you— [Cross talk]
Mirsky: Right and by the time message, “What do I do now” comes [Laughs] everybody’s dead.
Alpert: Exactly. Exactly so—but yet you could have an artificial intelligence system that’s making the decisions about where to land, which asteroid or planet do you wanna land on and the other thing this spacecraft could be equipped with is some kind of automated tools so that when it does land it could then start building things right there at its landing site. It could start extracting the minerals and metals from the ground underneath it and then start building slightly larger tools. It could build a solar panel, perhaps. It could build a small manufacturing, like, a 3-D manufacturing system so that eventually, over time, it could build up to build everything it needs, everything this system needs to explore the planet and even colonize it so that was the idea and you call a probe like that a self-replicating probe because it could—at a certain point it could—even build rockets and copies of itself and then send those off to explore all the other planets that may be in this star system.
So when after I saw this article by Timothy Ferris, I thought, “This is a great idea for a novel” because couldn’t you just imagine, like, a probe the size of a bowling ball lands in your backyard and then what? [Laughs] Exactly like isn’t that—this is a scary, fun idea and so I sat on it for a long time because, you know, I had other novels I wanted to write but a few years ago I thought, “Okay it’s time to write my alien-invasion novel and I’m going to use what I think is the most realistic scenario for interstellar travel, the idea of an automated probe the size of a bowling ball, what if it lands right here in New York City and I wanted to set it in New York City because that’s where I live and I even had a rationale for it, which was that this probe again if it’s actually run by artificial intelligence as it approaches our planet it would recognize that there’s an intelligent species on this planet because it would sense our radio and TV broadcasts, it would see the lights from our cities and it would recognize that this is an intelligent species that’s capable enough to notice the approach of this spacecraft and so it would recognize that it has to establish a foothold on our planet really fast because otherwise we would grab it, take it apart and put it in the Smithsonian or whatever. And so it intentionally homes in on the brightest spot that it sees because it wants to take advantage of our electric power and it’s going to land right in a relatively deserted corner of New York City, right up in Inwood Hill Park, in the northern tip of Manhattan, where it would land and immediately sink tentacles into the ground to tap into Con Edison power lines. And so I thought this sounds like the beginning of a really cool, scary thriller so that was the idea behind The Orion Plan.
Mirsky: Yeah when I started reading it I thought to myself this is—of all the whacky ideas for alien invasion this strikes me as—the most realistic one that I’ve ever come across and the idea that it would tap into the electrical lines also made a lot of sense and you talk about and in a way that’s how they track the object as it’s coming in, the authorities, but the fact that there’s, all of a sudden, this big pull on the Con Ed system, there’s a lotta juice being taken from this area, is another sign to the authorities that something’s going on that they need to investigate real quick. And you have a whole scene in the book where a Con Ed guy is driving around in one of their vehicles that is designed to figure out where there are leaks in the system and I assume that that’s a real truck.
Alpert: It is. It’s called a Stray Voltage Detector and Con Edison started running these trucks because there was a few tragedies about 10, 15 years ago where what would happen is the wires would get frayed and the insulation would break and so current would leak from the underground cables up to metal structures on the surface such as fire hydrants or lamp polls and people would step on or touch these things and get electrocuted and then it was pets would get electrocuted and even people have died this way. So Con Edison has gotten very serious about you know running these trucks throughout the neighborhoods and looking for any kind of stray voltage and it’s fairly easy to detect because you can run just a dimple, electromagnetic antenna behind your truck and because the current is alternating current, right, it’s AC, it’s constantly oscillating, it’s giving off radio waves so it’s something that you can detect. So I did a fair amount of research as [Laughs] you can tell.
Mirsky: I assumed [Laughs] yeah.
Alpert: I even—I poked my head into a few manholes, I thought this would be—you know in New York there’s always a manhole being opened somewhere and the first thing that you see is that the Con Edison trucks have these enormous vacuums that suck out all the gunk at the bottom of these manholes because they’re not watertight by any means, you know? The manhole covers are grated so the rain just goes right in there and whatever street detritus flows in there as well and so if anyone needs to work inside the manhole, the first thing they have to do is just suck out the gunk out of the bottom of it.
Mirsky: So when you were sticking your head in the manholes that were open, were there Con Ed guys working?— [Cross-talk]
Alpert: Oh no I’d have to go over to the Con Ed guys. I’d go, “Hey listen I got this book and I was thinking about writing about manholes, would you mind if I’d just take a look?” And they’d go, “Yeah come over here, come over here, we’ll show you,” you know? You should see these. They’re amazing because just huge snake-like cables, you know, really thick, really thick covered in this black insulation and there’s primary lines and secondary lines and the primary lines are taking the current from the substation to the transformers that are on each block and then the transformers step down the voltage so that it’s now household current, they can go into the various buildings and so the whole system seemed so incredibly [Laughs] chaotic and also it’s decentralized to a point where Con Ed itself does not know where it’s power is going at a certain point. I mean you know it has meters at each usage point but as far as how to draw power, it’s a fairly decentral, you know?
You wouldn’t necessarily know if someone is draining the power in a certain area you’d be able to locate it within a certain part of the city. You’d say, “Okay the power drain is coming to this substation” but as far as where within that neighborhood the power is being drained they would have a hard time figuring it out so I thought, “Okay that’s perfect because the alien probe, they would know the power is being drained and they would have no idea exactly where and so they’d have to start hunting for it. So I thought that would be fun.
Mirsky: And you also have at a certain point and because otherwise there’s no story the alien probe starts infecting humans.
Alpert: Yeah exactly. It’s sort of a “Body Snatchers” classic trope for alien-invasion stories and so I did a little research for that, too. I went to Inwood Hill Park, which is you know is the most deserted part of Manhattan. It’s—some of the—it’s the only place in Manhattan where they have original. It hasn’t been cut down. There’s original— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: Old-growth forest.
Alpert: The old-growth yeah forest right there and it’s quite—it’s hard to climb up those slopes. I was just trying to make my way through those rocks, you know, the leftover glacial rocks that are just jutting outta the mud and it’s tough. And what you’ll notice is that there are all these cardboard boxes in the mud and especially in the summer and a lotta homeless people, this is where they go to sleep at night and so I thought, “Well that would probably be the first person who would notice this alien probe after it landed.” And then I thought, “Well that’s interesting. What kind of person would that be?”
“Would it be someone who has some kind of substance-abuse problem why? Why did this person become an alcoholic, say? Does this person want to go back to his or her old life? Does he have any hopes of—did he have a family? Does he have any hopes of rejoining his family?”
So I thought there was an interesting story there. It would be a different kind of character and so I thought that would be an interesting person for the probe to—the first person to—stumble upon this probe. And of course the probe is programmed, like I said, is by an artificial-intelligence system to take advantage of all the local resources at its landing site and those resources would also include biological resources and so any humans that happen to nearby, the probe would take advantage of and would figure out how to infect this human, how to change the human’s behavior so that it would serve the probe’s purpose because the probe is vulnerable at this point. It’s just sitting there and if anyone—if humans—discover it, they could easily uproot it. The probe has to spread its alien machinery and so it needs the help of these humans and so I thought that would make for an interesting, exciting plot.
Mirsky: So basically the planet Earth has been invaded not by aliens but by alien technology?
Alpert: Yes at the start but of course you know in a book about an alien invasion you’re going to be disappointed if you don’t see a real alien by the end of the book so this kinda strategy can be used to colonize a planet and the probe has a ton of computer memory with it. It has all the information about the civilization that it came from. It has all the equivalent of the genetic information for this alien species that set the probe and so it can possibly resurrect the species of its home planet on Earth and so that is eventually what my book The Orion Plan heads toward and, again, that seemed to me scary, too, because I could imagine there would be some process of transformation from human to alien.
Mirsky: Right and you have tissue-culture dishes that you co-opt and, basically, you grow your own alien.
Alpert: Right and of course you know—and I was thinking a lot about biology in this instance. I was thinking about parasites that influence behavior because I was reading about this. This is such a fascinating topic. There’s a parasite that starts, the toxoplasmosis.
Alpert: You’ve heard about this?
Mirsky: Oh yeah.
Alpert: It’s carried by cats.
Mirsky: I’m sure I—right because I have two cats.
Mirsky: I’m sure I have a toxo infection that is altering my behavior toward the cats, especially.
Alpert: Yeah I think in the United States they say the rate is something like ten percent of all people carry this and— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: And if you cats your chances are much higher.
Mirsky: And it changes the behavior of rodents so that rodents would ordinarily be averse to approaching cats and the smell of cat urine they would run away from but once the rodent has a toxo infection, the rodent will actually approach the cat-urine smell and the cat.
Alpert: Right because the parasite somehow alters the neurotransmitters in the rat’s brain to change its behavior to behavior to benefit the parasite and what was interesting was that scientists used to think that it didn’t really have an effect on humans because we were just collateral damage. We were not a target vector of the species. We’re what they call like a secondary host of this, this parasite but then someone had the idea and said, “Well let’s do a really thorough epidemiological study and see if there is any health effect on people who have toxoplasmosis and people who don’t.” And it was fascinating because what they found was that they couldn’t find any, like, you know, they didn’t have, people who carried the parasite don’t have any higher cancer or heart disease but they had greater rates of schizophrenia and they had three times the rate of traffic accidents and that was really strange, like, what’s going on with that is— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: Their behavior is more reckless maybe.
Alpert: Or it’s affecting reaction times. Really no one knows but it just proves that a parasite can influence the human brain and so I thought, well, that’s going to happen in my case with this alien. Somehow it’s gonna change the functioning of the brains of these, of the people that the alien probe infects and they’re going to be—they’re going to start, they’re going to become pawns of the probe. They’re gonna start pursuing its will without even recognizing that they’re doing it.
Alpert: And so they—so one of the characters goes into the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and steals a tray of stem cells, which the alien probe needs to resurrect its alien species and so I thought this would be interesting because the characters themselves really don’t know what they’re doing but the reader can sense, okay, this must be the probe that influenced the person to do that.
Mirsky: Yeah that’s pretty cool. I don’t wanna give too much of the plot away because we want people to read and enjoy the book, which I really did. I mean I gobbled this one up but what I wanna ask you is other than sticking your head down open manholes did you do anything else unusual in your research or execution of the book?
Alpert: Well the book takes place in New York City but I thought it would be fun to focus on places in New York that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to go to so, for example, like manholes and things like that and then I, at one point, one of the homeless characters winds up at Ryker’s Island and so I thought, “Wow, I really would love to see that gel” but it’s really hard to get into because there’s a lot of terrible abuses that happen at that jail. It’s been in the news, all over the news about how the guards have been beating up the prisoners there and so I tried to get a tour of the place, you know? A press tour? No, no dice. No dice so I did the next best thing for— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: [Laughs] You know no boundaries.
Alpert: [Laughs] Yeah I wish I could say I was that dedicated but instead I went on the web and started looking for videos of the prison and what I found was a lot of church people who are evangelizing the prisoners are allowed into the prison and therefore—and they do videos of people testifying their faith in prison and so I was to see a lot of the prison [Laughs] by looking at those videos and so that was another form of research that I did and then I also don’t want to give away too much of The Orion Plan but there is one scene that takes place in Yankee Stadium and there is one part where the characters are going through the Yankee Clubhouse, through the locker room and I did get a chance to— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: To show DiMaggio— [Cross-talk]
Mirsky: Quote that hangs there.
Mirsky: Yeah I remember specifically you citing the quote. If anybody doesn’t know it’s pretty famous that as The Yankees pass from the locker room out onto the field, they walk underneath a sign that has this quote from Joe DiMaggio that says, “I just wanna thank the Good Lord for making me a New York Yankee.”
Alpert: Yeah this book was a very New York-centric book and I wanted to show a little bit of my love and pride in the city and so I enjoyed that. Of course by the end I destroy a good part of it [Laughs] but it’s all in love, it’s all for love.
Mirsky: Before we started recording you mentioned maybe people have heard of this unusual kind of information that’s coming in from a particular exoplanet where it just looks like—it’s probably not but it looks like—one possibility for what we might be seeing is a gigantic alien structure so what do you know about that?
Alpert: Well this announcement was perfect timing for a book about aliens. What happened was you are familiar maybe with the Kepler Space Telescope, which between 2009 and 2013 was monitoring a patch of sky and looking at the light from more than 100,000 stars, really closely looking at the stars, you know, at very, very frequently looking at their light to see if there’s any change in light because what I was looking for was the passage of a planet in front of the star because a certain number of those stars, their planets will be aligned in such a way that the planet will pass right in front of the star as the telescope is outside of Earth is looking at it and you will see a characteristic dip in the intensity of the light from that star, small dip, usually only about 1 percent and it’ll be very regular because it’ll happen every time the planet comes around its orbit and so you will be able to measure two things from this. You’ll be able to see from the period from how often this dip takes place you can calculate what is the size of this planet’s orbit around the star and then from the intensity of the dip, how much it decreases and, like, you can estimate the size of the planet and so this is a great tool that this Kepler telescope has provided for showing I think they’ve discovered something like 1,000 exoplanets this way and of those more than 1,000 candidates there’s a few dozen that seem to be about the size of Earth and that are also orbiting at in what they call the Habitat zone you know the Goldilocks zone, not too far from the star, not too close, you know, not too hot, not too cold, just right for liquid water. So this is very exciting but you know the Kepler Telescope collected so much data that people are still sifting through it, even though the mission ended a few years ago and there was this group called Planet Hunters that actually looks at the data. It’s sort of a crowdsourced effort and they—this group they—flagged this one star and they said, “This star’s like Earth. It’s the measurement of the intensity of light is radically different from every other star that’s in the Kepler sample.
It’s not having these small dips at regular intervals. It’s having really big dips, like, as much as 22 percent at crazy intervals, you know? After a few weeks, after 100 days, it varied all over the map and, not only that, but the dips weren’t regular. They weren’t. When a planet passes in front of a star you see a very symmetric dip in its light whereas these were very asymmetric.
They would—the light intensity would—go down very slowly and then shoot right back up. It was a very strange result and so a bunch of scientists—a team that was led by this researcher at Yale, named Tabetha Boyajian—was sorta tasked with explaining you know what are the—what could possibly explain this? It can’t be a planet because a planet is too small to create these kind of huge reductions in the star’s light and so they thought, “Well maybe it’s just a vast cloud of dust.” So as we know young stars are often surrounded by clouds of dust especially when those clouds are coalescing into planets but Tabby’s Star, which is the name indicating that it’s known as Tabby’s star, after Tabetha Boyajian, is by all evidence is not a young star. It looks like a old main-sequence star and moreover when they pointed infrared telescopes at this star, they didn’t see any excess in infrared radiation and if there really was dust around the star then the dust would absorb the starlight and then reradiate it as infrared and so that’s a very characteristic thing so they know it can’t be dust. It can’t be, like, two planets that have collided and created this huge cloud of dust so that was ruled out.
So the one hypothesis they came up with that could possibly explain this crazy light curve was that it’s possible that maybe a nearby star had disturbed some of the distant comets that were orbiting the star and thrown them out of their regular orbits and hurled them toward the star. And there was a huge swarm of them and they passed right in front of the star at just the moment when Kepler observed it, which seems unlikely but it could happen. It is a possible explanation and so that was the preferred explanation, you know? Another team of researchers of course they had been writing a paper, saying, “Well how could Kepler be used to detect alien structures. The idea—I guess the idea—really comes from Freeman Dyson who way back in 1960 speculated that once any civilization becomes advanced enough it would, its energy needs would increase and so it would be logical for it to try to capture as much of its star’s energy as possible and so ultimately it would build this huge sphere around the star.
Mirsky: Around the star.
Alpert: Right around yeah.
Mirsky: Famous in a Star Trek: Next Generation episode.
Mirsky: “Could that be a Dyson sphere?”
Alpert: [Laughs] Exactly and—but they said, “Well what about the—what if you don’t have the—full Dyson sphere if it’s transitional, you know if you’re going toward it?” They call that a Dyson swarm and a Dyson swarm could consist of you know solar planets that may be thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of miles across and they might have irregular shapes, you know? They might be very, very thin but have a huge surface area. They might be orbiting the star or they might actually be what they call a statite, which is actually held in place by solar pressure so it doesn’t even have to orbit the star because it’s so light and the solar wind would be enough to keep it in place. But if you had a bunch of these things, they would create this kind of very irregular blocking of the stars, like that you’d be seeing so it was a radical alternative explaining to what’s going on with the Tabetha Star. Now most scientists say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on, let’s not invoke alien engineering too quickly, let’s.”
“There’s probably a simple astrophysical explanation for this.” And scientists have encountered this sort of mystery before, you know? In 1967 when they discovered the first pulsar, when astronomers saw the first pulsar, which is a very strong, very regular radio signal, they thought, “Well maybe this is a beacon from an alien civilization” and for a few months, this. They actually —the designation they gave to the first pulsar was LGM-1 and LGM stood for “Little Green Men” [Laughs] but, as it happened, within a few months, they discovered a second pulsar and they realized, okay, you know what? It’s a neutron star. It’s a rapidly-rotating neutron star, not, no aliens.
And so a lotta scientists are professing caution, they’re saying, “Listen you know don’t get ahead of yourselves, you know? There’s probably some astrophysical phenomena that can explain Tabby’s Star but that didn’t stop you know scientists at the Allen Telescope Array in California to point their radio telescopes at Tabby’s Star just to see if there’s any messages coming, anything radio coming.
Mirsky: Or episodes of I Love Lucy coming out.
Alpert: Exactly. It might improve our entertainment here on Earth and so they pointed it and they found nothing but the star is 1,500 light-years away and so even with the very sensitive nature of this telescope—radio telescope—that we have here on Earth, the aliens would have to be broadcasting messages using hundreds of times the power consumption of our planet just for this radio and so just the fact, the fact that they didn’t see radio messages does not mean that there’re not aliens there. The aliens may just not be—they may have figured out you know more efficient ways to communicate than radio, anyway. So that didn’t rule it out and then, in January of this year, something new popped up because people are—everyone’s—wondering well there’s a lotta telescopes now pointed at Taby’s Star, waiting to see if there’s gonna be another dip and it’s like amateurs on the American Association of Variable Star Observers are now looking at this star pretty much every night and if they see another dip in light they’re going to alert the professional astronomers who would then train the big guns, the most powerful telescopes at the star but in the meantime this one researcher decided to go through the archival records. It turns that Harvard College Observatory between 1890 and 1989 collected glass-plate photographs of the sky from telescopes around the globe and there are hundreds of thousands of these glass-plate photos of the sky, all parts of the sky, stored up at the Harvard College Observatory and so this researcher, Bradley Schaefer was his name, I believe at Louisiana State, decided to look, “Well, where is Tabby’s Star in any of these glass plates?” And it turns out it was in several hundred of them and so he started trying to use old-fashioned techniques for estimating the magnitude, the intensity of the starlight from its appearance on these glass plates.
It’s almost a forgotten art because now everything is digitized. We don’t use glass plates anymore. Well he discovered something pretty incredible, which is that between 1890 and 1989 the magnitude of the star, the intensity of its light went down by about 20 percent on average.
Mirsky: So it’s consistent with the modern findings of 22 percent?
Alpert: But it’s on a different timescale because the flickering that Kepler saw was on a timescale of days and weeks and here you have a separate kind of fading that is happening over a 100-year timescale. Now that’s strange, right, because you look like you have two different strange anomalies is does one phenomena—is one phenomena, one thing—producing both anomalies? You would think you know using the principle of Occam’s razor, which of course I always translate as “keep it simple, stupid”— [Cross-talk]
Alpert: That there would probably be—there’s probably—just one astrophysical phenomena that can account for both things but it can’t be the comet swarm that Tabetha Boyajian’s team proposed as the most like explanation for the time curve of the star—I’m sorry the light curve of the star—because these comets, if a whole buncha swarm of comets was actually disrupted and sent, hurled toward the star, they would disburse over time, you know? This wouldn’t happen. It would be a one-time thing and so suddenly the comet hypothesis has become suspect now however the alien megastructure [Laughs] hypothesis is not ruled out because you—one—could imagine it might take 100 years to start assembling your megastructures and so you could imagine how that might fit both of the observations. Of course now we’re not—I’m not—saying it’s aliens, Steve, but it’s aliens. [Laughter]
Mirsky: Very shortly after Mark Alpert and I spoke, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced he was devoting $100 million of his own money toward the development of an interstellar probe called Starshot that would be very light-and-small, just as Alpert discussed, although any probe Milner got off the ground would not be self-replicating so we wouldn’t be taking over anybody else’s planet. Mark wrote about Milner’s plan. You can find his essay “Alpha Centauri or Bust” on our Web site, www.scientificamerican.com where you can also find all the latest science news and follow us on Twitter where you get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site and our twitter is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk I’m Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.