Tabby’s Star


“When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.”

— Attributed to Wener Heisenberg, 1901-1976

Tabby’s Star, technically a distant star in the constellation Cygnus, known officially as KIC 8462852, is the latest astrophysical puzzle to challenge astronomers. It’s informally called Tabby’s Star or Boyajian’s Star because the star’s primary discoverer and researcher is Tabetha S. Boyajian. It’s about 1,300 light years away; not exactly a neighbor.

Image of the star KIC 8462852 (Boyajian’s Star) at infrared (left) and ultraviolet (right) wavelengths.

Image of the star KIC 8462852 (Boyajian’s Star) at infrared (left) and ultraviolet (right) wavelengths.

The thing about Tabby’s Star is that at irregular intervals it dims. A lot. Sometimes 15-20%. It’s hard to imagine what might be causing the observed effects. It’s not an orbiting object; orbital mechanics would require the dimming to be at regular intervals.

Measurements by the Kepler observatory over a four-year period show unusual fluctuations in the flux from Boyajian’s star. Analyzing the statistical properties of such fluctuations, Sheikh et al. conclude that they are suggestive of nonequilibrium phenomena occurring within the star

Measurements by the Kepler observatory over a four-year period show unusual fluctuations in the flux from Boyajian’s star.

Lots of explanations have been suggested. A swarm of comets; dust clouds; even alien megastructures.1 The measurements made by the Kepler Observatory over a four-year period were analyzed.  The statistical properties of such fluctuations, Sheikh et al.concluded, are “suggestive of nonequilibrium phenomena occurring within the star.” Translation: there is turbulence in the outer layers of the star suggesting it is about to blow up.2 But this is a main sequence star, only slightly larger than Sol, and incapable of going nova. And the star is much too young to enter late-sequence behavior.

So it’s an unsolved puzzle.

WC mentions Tabby’s Star because it appears to be entering one of those dimming phases right now. The exciting stuff in science happens when there are observations that are inconsistent with current theory: dark matter, dark energy; not Tabby’s Star.

Fun times.

 


  1. If it is alien megatructures WC wishes that Tabby’s Star was further away. 
  2. The proposed turbulence is WC’s excuse for opening with the Heisenberg quote. Among certain physicists, there is a tendency to blame any complex, inexplicable phenomenon on turbulence, because turbulence itself is chaotic, hopelessly complex and inexplicable. 
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