Tabby’s Star And Infiniteness

For Science Scholars Week 3

Some Brief Thoughts for Tonight

KIC 8462852 is usually known as Tabby’s star, after astronomer Tabetha S. Boyajian, its discoverer. I just wish to start this post from here.

Do I have any specific reasons? I sometimes prefer to dwell on the past, which I was often too slow to properly deal with in the first place, or was outright overwhelming to my feeble mind.

Please, don’t feel deterred. This is going to be a welcoming article to anyone that is infinitely curious, like me.


A. “Where’s The Flux?”

Back in my CIE break in 2015, not long after the star got its prolonged notable status, I was asked this Massachusetts style question:

“If, for a period, you were granted access to unlimited resources in this institution, what would you do?”

“I would,” resolute, I answered my interviewer, after a few minutes of reflection (that I happen to remember verbatim), “experiment as much as I can, and learn from those experience. I am not even an undergraduate student right now, and knowing exactly what I’ll research is hard… That being said, I would probably mess around with some total synthesis, play in our cloud chamber…”

“And I will spend all my nights scrutinising what is going around KIC 8462852 – you know, the star that has got a suspicious luminosity variation according to Kepler… ‘where is the missing flux!!?’ et cetera.”

The case for the star had been intriguing me by the time of that response. And don’t worry, here is my point. Kepler’s mission is to record how a star in its eyes, one in a few million, changes in luminosity because of a nearby planetary companion (or otherwise). Usually, stars with planets demonstrate periodic changes in brightness. Planets cross their sun’s disc every lap, dimming it a little, just as you would imagine.

Example from our neighbourhood, Venus Transit (2012).

But Tabby’s star doesn’t do so. By the time of its discovery, it had been giving light variations never before seen: irregular drops with various amounts of decrease each time.

The hyper-regular luminosity curve of the Kepler-16 system, with its proposed system model. Lines represent orbit. We have our own simulations. [Click on picture to enlarge]
The Luminosity graph for KIC 8462857, with irregularities zoomed in

Two of the prevailing theories were either that the star is swarmed at a comet attack, or that human race is for the first time witnessing an alien civilisation harvesting a starful of energy.

Quite the mystery. I read a paper this morning addressing this particular star: recently, the star became more obscure for a while, making many previous theories seem more futile or less elegant.

On a separated note, distributing numerous nuclear weapons on trans-Neptunian orbits and detonating them to artificially flicker our sun to broadcast was a method devised in the magnum opus of Chinese sci-fi, The Three Body Problem. In case human race goes to extinction (spoiler free), doing so was thought to be an efficient way to claim “we exist(ed)”. And on first reading the news about Tabby’s star, the very sentence came to my mind.


A ginormous comet attack probably cannot cover it all (Again, we have our own simulations :P)

Alas, perhaps the gist is that even today, there has not been a theory that can
beautifully explain what is happening:

“We spent a long time trying to convince ourselves this wasn’t real. We just weren’t able to.”


B. Finitely Infinite

Here comes relevance, hooray! We have been given this inspiring lecture on finite and infinite games among people. Instead of gazing at the wall, I actually had a good listen (and played learned, I feel serendipitous for that). These games are representative modes in which a group of people have fun, form common values, and, obviously, interact in general.

What we did in class involved throwing paper planes at each other – at first freely – and later with an added goal to collect as many planes as possible to win. The first setup, in all, makes a pleasant game that likely contains infinite fun; the latter ones were full of greater fun negative fulfilment for the most of us – more so after my only plane was (blissfully) robbed by someone pretty soon after the finite game commenced.

I found such joy real yet ephemeral. How infinite is the process of life on earth? I wondered.

Three years ago I started a solitary middle school research project, Fermi Paradox (links to my project Keynote. It is in Chinese, but the illustrations are fun!), in which I read stuff and naturally came to the idea of Kardashev scale.

To be concise, I’ll paraphrase what Wiki says:

  • The Kardashev scale measures a civilisation’s technological capabilities. Its basis is the amount of energy this civilisation can harness for communication.
  • Type I civilisations can fully use and store energy which reaches its planet from the host star.
  • Type II can control the power of the entire star (the most popular hypothetic concept being the Dyson sphere—a device which would encompass the entire star and transfer its energy to the planet)
  • Type III civilisation can manage energy on the scale of their entire host galaxy.

Does Type II sound familiar? What if what we have spotted around Tabby’s star is just a Dyson sphere, a tremendous array of solar panels being constructed?

For the sake of a galactic squint. The lightwave, a function of time, endeavoured through 1480 earth years to reach us and to generate this overabundance of questions among ourselves, a bunch of an insolent Class 0.6 civilisation’s dwellers.

When will we know how this happened? It is in us to work further and deeper. Back to my earlier research topic, the only sensible conclusion I could think of then is “There is not much to call ‘luck’ in natural processes;  we emerge to think about this question: it’s all about time.” (feed my PowerPoint to a translator or study NCEA Chinese, and you would have found that statement.)

It’s about time, a concept we perceive to be finite in each of us’s lives. And along time we change. Not because joy in any way hinders or hastens that process, but because we are a temporary lifeform, a temporarily sophisticated and complex one you’d say.

We have this picture of the world: time will never stop or reverse in the way we intend it to; “orange is the new black”; genetic algorithms help us solve things the way bacteria became resistant to antibiotics. Do you want any static element but changes themselves?

What if others – though they may not just walk out of nowhere like the ISOs in the film Tron – exist, and by that simple rule of entry, are savouring at this party of infiniteness, creating their unique histories right now. Just imagine if the Dyson sphere scenario is real. Are we looking at someone else’s infinite game of life, of economics and of potential, one that had a brutal natural selection, sibling populations branching away and countless forgotten joys?

Changing becomes the game, and things are infinite again in our viewfinder.

May all of us be limited, in time, in resources or otherwise. That is a gift. Like an incredibly long-period component in a Fourier expansion (an important way to represent all nice functions, I will write an intro to Fourier later), somewhere awaits a barrier that we cannot ever walk around, unless we change yet again. And the process should sometimes reoccur – not like history replaying itself, but as a solution that is fundamentally recursive and heads towards a better adaption.

According to the notes I still have at hand, infinite games’ sole intention is to continue themselves, to expand the horizon, while everything gets interconnected,  and the procedure tends to go to diversity. Each point gives a perfect match: we are having new happiness thinking about all these.

Okay, in and of itself, this post is about Tabby’s star, our (we two worlds, if there’s life) limitations and potentials. It’s fun to think if there is another infinite game going on – this makes the total number of games two, and isn’t two less finite than one?

Tabby’s star is slightly brighter than our sun, and somehow I (would expect) more elderly than our sun, and it flickers. No matter what the actual mechanism, we have another object existing, directing our attention. May there be some natural phenomena in motion, or probably another advanced space probe being confused by the lonely artificial lights over here.

I have been working on my short stories elsewhere, so we’d better stop before this post gets too sci-fi.

Whichever the reason, aliens or unknown natural processes, it makes our world look a bit more animate.

And alive, ultimately.

It is a great universe out there. And as we see more of it every second, the game should feel less and less finite.

And we would have to sleep. Good night.





I was too sleepy to make them APA… sorry.

Publications about KIC 8462857


The Three-Body Problem Series on Goodreads


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