Monday, June 21

“Big Bertha” to “Big Horta” … You Know the Drill


No doubt you have read or heard in recent weeks about a strange, anomalous star, KIC8462852, initially discovered by the Kepler survey telescope, that has incited intense speculation among astronomers – even including some daring, but tentative and quite responsible, speculation from professionals about the bare, minimal, vanishingly unlikely but non-zero possibility that the observations just might … maybe … perhaps … probably not, but … result from intelligently created artifacts, like the components of a Dyson sphere, orbiting the star. The popular media have also gotten into the act, as witness herehere, and here. Ever conservative, astronomers have attempted to damp down speculation from the lay public about what the latter consider as the possibility of the first-ever discovery of an alien artifact by cautioning that the odd light curve observed by Kepler is most likely due to a swarm of comets or debris from a shattered planet transiting the stellar disc. Well, as it happens, your Faithful Skeptic-In-Residence is in a position to play the part of a latter-day Edward Snowden and blow the proverbial whistle: the observations of the light fluctuations of KIC8462852 are indeed the result of intelligent activity – in this case, a massive tunnel-boring project gone gravely awry and now in the process of undergoing what will probably prove to be a multi-millennial effort to fix the problem. Hence my proposal, recently formally submitted to the International Astronomical Union, to officially change the name of star KIC8462852 to “Seattle” … but that is obviously another rant for another time.

Partial light curve for KIC8462852

What is not generally known is that, quite by accident initially, the American astronomy community, followed closely by their international colleagues, have been eavesdropping for some time on the communications among the intelligent beings working on the stellar-tunnel reclamation project.  Furthermore, despite the fact that KIC8462852 is almost 1500 light-years distant, the communications to which we are privy are nowhere near that old, in fact, perhaps a century at most, maybe only a couple of decades, due to the fact that the communications medium being utilized is spin-modulated tachyons, not terribly dissimilar to the "ansible" used in the Speaker for the Dead cycle of sci-fi novels.  It turns out that, ever since tachyons were first hypothesized to exist in the late 1960s, the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on tachyonic technology for near-instantaneous, faster-than-light communication.  (Tachyons are particles that cannot go slower than the speed of light:  there seems to be no upper limit on tachyon speed, in fact. They also have imaginary mass and lose mass the faster they go, so at zero rest mass their speed is infinite.) Unfortunately for the eavesdroppers, the use of tachyonic communications entails a degree of chronic personal risk. Over few-year spans of time, people involved in the technical side of tachyonic communication seem to develop an almost irresistible urge to wear double-knit polyester leisure suits, Sans-A-Belt pants, and Nehru shirts; walk on shag carpet; place plastic pink flamingos on their lawn; listen to music by groups like the Cowsills, the Carpenters, and Strawberry Alarm Clock; and serve wine to dinner guests in McDonald's Care Bear glasses. When asked to name someone they think of as edgy and avant garde, they usually respond with Gerald Ford and Alan Greenspan. In fact, rumor has it that there is a comprehensive-care facility in the Florida panhandle -- locally referred to as the "Tacky Gitmo" -- for veteran "tackies" ... colloquial term, again. Many of my sources -- no ... please don't even think of asking for any names -- are residents of (what is also locally called) "Tacky-Ville". A moment of silence, please, for those who so selflessly sacrificed their sense of aesthetic taste for the cause of science.  OK ... onward ...

Artist's conception of possible asteroid collisions -- 2 of 2


Artist's conception of possible asteroid collisions -- 1 of 2

Veritable armies of tachyon-communications specialists and computational linguists have been collaborating over the past 15 years or so to decipher the language being used.  Results were astonishing.  It slowly emerged that the activity around KIC 8462852 involved the building of an "exit" from what will eventually be a new branch of a Galaxy-spanning "subway system" of wormholes, very much like the system Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) rode during the movie version of Contact. (Incidentally, in the novel version of Contact, it was startlingly prescient of the late Carl Sagan to re-envision the Cygnus X-1 presumptive black hole as a similar ongoing public-works project on a galactic scale, undertaken by the "Caretaker" races who jointly succeeded to the custodianship of the wormhole system after the original race of Builders just ... disappeared ... ) But unlike the Contact wormhole subway and Cygnus X-1, there was some kind of show-stopping technical problem with the machine being used to widen, extend, and sustain the wormhole. The precise nature of the problem remains unclear, not only because of the hyper-advanced physics involved, but also largely because of the necessity of filtering out what linguists have finally concluded are spontaneous and extemporaneous extraterrestrial alien curses -- references to bodily appendages and orifices, and of variegated multiple conjunctions between same, that have no analog in human evolution ... and, with any kind of decent luck, hopefully never will. The bottom line:  the variations in the light curve of KIC 8462852 are caused by the activity of certainly many dozens, probably many hundreds, of machines feverishly attempting to repair the machine intended to extend and sustain the wormhole.

Possible appearance of Cygnus X-1 black hole


But the most startling, arguably even terrifying, aspect of these intercepted communications is that, intermixed with text, linguists and tachyon specialists have managed, however sketchily, to download schematics of the projected wormhole tunnel extension.  If we are interpreting these illustrations correctly, the diagrams bear a startling similarity to (a) the "Big Dig" tunnel in Boston as envisioned and built, accompanied by much Wagnerian Sturm und Drang, back in the mid- to late-80s; and (b) the more contemporary,but no less problematical, tunnel currently slated to be dug by "Big Bertha" to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. In fact, in honor of "Big Bertha," the DARPA people working on the KIC 8462852 project have informally named Bertha's interstellar counterpart "Big Horta" -- after the intelligent creature -- the horta -- in the Star Trek episode "The Devil in the Dark" that could burrow through solid rock faster than Chris Christie through a box of mint-fudge ice cream. I say this is "terrifying" for two reasons:  (1) because there was no functioning tachyon technology at the time, the implication clearly is that the schematics of the "Big Dig" and the Seattle tunnel had to come to us from KIC 8462852, not vice versa -- we are using their design, not they ours; and (2) equations indicate that, should efforts to sustain the wormhole fail and the wormhole "exit" collapse, the entire tunnel system, as built thus far, would likely also collapse in a cascade of dominos that could take out all areas of the Universe where the fabric of space time has been, not necessarily breached, but weakened even a little ... as by high-energy physics experiments conducted by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva. The "Big Dig" cost Bostonians money and travel frustrations. (Fortunately, my wife and I were in the process of leaving Boston for Seattle just as the "Big Dig" started!) "Big Bertha" cost Seattle mega-money and mega-time ... and will do so again if Bertha gets stuck once more.  However, these consequences pale to what would happen in the case of failure by "Big Horta":  that could cost us Europe -- and that is probably a "best-case" scenario.


So here is my message to all those with grandiose hash-pipe dreams of byzantine transportation-construction projects, terrestrial and otherwise:  when in doubt, come down on the side of surface streets. Sure ... wormholes and spacetime warps look sexy as hell, but for sheer reliability ordinary, plain-vanilla, rubber-sheet neo-Euclidean space is hard to beat.

James R. Cowles


"Absorption spectrum of liquid water" by Kebes at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

PIA20053: Swarm of Comets (Artist's Concept)
NASA / JPL-CalTech

Public Domain
Created: 28 August 2014

Public domain

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