Dec 23, 2016 I Paul Seaburn

Mystery of Tabby’s Star and Its Dyson Sphere Finally Solved

The hottest non-political and non-sports story of 2016 had to be the discovery of a star that appeared to be mysteriously and dramatically dimming and brightening – some described it as “blinking” – for no apparent reason. And by “no apparent reason” we mean every scientific and astronomical reason was eliminated, leaving the popular explanation that an alien civilization was building a Dyson sphere around the star to capture its energy to fuel their spaceships and whatever else needs that kind of energy. Now, a team of researchers announced it has solved the blinking mystery of Tabby’s Star. It’s not being hidden by a Dyson sphere … it’s being covered by an avalanche of statistics. Wait, what?

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Not this kind of avalanche of statistics

In their study published this week in Physical Review Letters, researchers at the University of Illinois revealed a new technique they used when staring at the star and scratching their heads didn’t work. According to study co-author Karin Dahmen, they looked at the relationships between the dim and bright blinks and fed the data into a model that identified a known pattern called avalanche statistics.

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Infrared (left) and ultraviolet (right) emissions from Tabby's star

This pattern is found in common natural phenomena where dimming and brightening occur, such as solar flares, solar storms, gamma-ray bursts, and neural activity in the brain. The patterns indicate phase transitions between solid, liquid, gaseous and occasionally plasma states of matter, says Dahmen.

Examples of such transitions are magnetic systems that are slowly driven with a magnetic field, or the slow deformation of somewhat brittle materials where there is often first little crackling that gets louder and louder until there is a big snap when the material breaks.

How does this crackling relate to Tabby’s Star and its blinking?

The small events in our star analysis would be like the little crackles while the large events would be the analogue of the big snap.

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An artist's depiction of Tabby's Star

So Tabby’s Star is crackling like a campfire and that’s what causing the dimming? “That’s sounds absurd!” say many who want to believe it’s aliens building a megastructure. On the other hand, after reviewing the study, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel thinks the avalanche statistics explanation may be the right one

Their analysis shows that the avalanche model is extremely consistent with what's observed. In other words, this could just be a star that's intensely active in some poorly understood way, giving off periodic massive outbursts that cause a dimming of the light. And the fact that stars like this are rare is what's been fooling us all along.

So Tabby’s Star is just a poor, misunderstood hothead prone to massive outbursts followed by periods of cooling off that’s been fooling everyone since coming onto the scene.

Sound like anyone you know?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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