The Lonely Universe: Think Big

Aliens thinking big.  This edition published by Sphere Books 1973.  Cover art by Eddie Jones.

Aliens thinking big. This edition published by Sphere Books 1973. Cover art by Eddie Jones.

Advanced alien civilizations are surely bound to build on the big scale – really big.  Since that’s what we try to do on Earth, we expect that they will do just the same in space.

Science fictional alien megastructures have a strong appeal, even if they are no longer being actively used by the aliens in question.  Larry Niven’s 1970 novel Ringworld is rightly considered a classic in the field, describing an expedition to a vast artificial ring constructed around a star at approximately the distance of Earth from the Sun, and rotating to provide roughly the equivalent of Earth’s gravity.  However, the mysterious civilization that built it seems to have died off, and the ringworld remains a majestic monument to its achievements.

But if such megastructures really exist, there’s not much evidence of them dotted around the Galaxy as far as we can see.  There was considerable interest in 2015 when it was found that the star KIC8462852 in the constellation of Cygnus (more snappily known as ‘Boyajian’s Star’ after the lead author of a study of it), around 1500 light years away, showed some strange behaviour with odd fluctuations in light output, though it may not be the only star with these features.

It was suggested at the time, and still is by some, that it could be due to artificial megastructures in orbit around the star – perhaps aliens building a Dyson sphere or an existing Dyson swarm of a large array of solar panels in space.  Or, more prosaically – and more probably – it may be due to unusual dust clouds or clumps of comets, or the effect of intervening clouds in the interstellar medium.  Specific monitoring to detect any radio signals coming from a civilization building or using any such hypothetical megastructures in the vicinity of Boyajian’s Star has certainly found nothing.

An author who has written extensively on the subject of engineering on the grand scale, both here on Earth and elsewhere in the cosmos, is the geographer Richard B Cathcart.  And he has arrived at some interesting theories on the consequences of macro-engineering, whether by the human race in future or already by extraterrestrials.

In A Megastructural End to Geologic Time (JBIS, July 1983), he looked at how the Earth’s geological history might be affected by humanity’s advancing technology over the next ten thousand years.  He speculated that construction of a Dyson sphere, spread widely around the Sun to capture most of its energy output though not necessarily completely enclosing it, could be realistic within such a timescale.  The Earth itself would be demolished, bringing an end to geologic time as we know it.

However, in a paper Geo-Engineering Gone Awry: A New Partial Solution of Fermi’s Paradox (JBIS, May 2004) with Milan Ćirković of Belgrade Astronomical Observatory, he suggested a more worrying scenario.  They argue that there is a strong chance that any technologically advanced species is likely, at some stage in its development, to embark on massive geo-engineering activities.  And those projects could have significant risks, whether to the climate or to the structure of the planet itself.

They point out that, whilst such macro-engineering may often be suggested as a means of mitigating against the adverse effects of large-scale technological advances, it might have the opposite effect of commencing an extinction event.  And it only needs to go seriously wrong once to devastate the civilization concerned.  As a solution to the Fermi Paradox of why we see no evidence of advanced aliens in our universe, it has a certain logic – sooner or later, they will all wreck their own chances.

That just might be the reason for no radio signals from Boyajian’s Star.  The project failed – big time.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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