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How a California Teen Is Helping Scientists Look for Aliens

"It sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie." 

David Lipman was a junior in high school when he caught wind of strange light patterns coming from Tabby’s Star, which later became known as “the most mysterious star in the universe.”

Sometimes the light from the distant star was bright, sometimes it was dim — almost like there was something blocking it. In 2015, astronomer Jason Wright, Ph.D., from Penn State’s Department of Astronomy, even floated a theory that the strange patterns might be caused by a “alien megastructure” used to capture the star’s energy.

“When I first heard about Tabby’s Star and the potential megastructure around it, it was pretty fascinating,” Lipman tells Inverse. “It sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie.”

So, during a summer internship at the Berkeley SETI Research Center, he built an algorithm that could comb through the light that data telescopes captured from Tabby’s Star, and flag images that might be signals of artificial activity. Specifically, his algorithm searches for laser activity, which could be an indicator that there was some type of extraterrestrial activity happening around the star.

“I was already sort of involved with SETI building my algorithm, so I thought maybe applying it to Tabby’s Star would be a very useful application, and it was a hot topic at the time,” Lipman, now a Freshman at Princeton University, tells Inverse. “After going through the spectra, we flagged a few candidates, all of which appeared to be atmospheric airglow — so sadly, no alien signals.”

For his work, Lipman was listed as the first author on a paper published in Publications of the Astron Society of the Pacific, an academic journal — a prestigious accomplishment for a high school intern. The paper was published in December.

SETI interviewed Lipman about his paper, which was accepted for publication in December 2018. 

The weird goings-on around KIC 8462852, an object about 1,500 light years away from Earth, had amateur astronomers and space scientists speculating as early as 2011.

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Some floated the idea that the star was surrounded by comets, dust, or aliens trying to harvest its energy.

This illustration of Tabby's Star suggests that the strange dimming of light was caused by passing comets. 

Lipman has been fascinated by the sky for as long has he can remember. Lipman’s father is also an amateur astronomer, and the two would sometimes drive up into the hills around Palo Alto, California in the evenings to look through their telescope. During those evening visits, Lipman hadn’t actually seen the weird light patterns coming from Tabby’s Star, but other astronomers, both amateur and professional, had.

During his research that summer at Berkeley, he ran his analysis several times, double checking the images his algorithm had flagged, Lipman eventually pulled out five of the strongest candidate images that could have represented basically, alien lasers.

All the light images ended up all being natural phenomena after all, and in January 2018, scientists announced they were fairly certain that it was dust causing all the strange dimming — not an megastructure built by an advanced alien race (cool as that scenario might be.)

An artist's impression of Tabby's Star

Now, he adds, it will hopefully still be used at SETI, as the institute refines the algorithm and continues to scan the stars for signs of extraterrestrial life.

On January 4, SETI released the data used in Lipman’s paper, hoping that it might spark someone else to come up with a way to mine it for information.

“His thorough analysis of this one object will form the groundwork for the analysis of the hundreds of other targets that we’ve observed as part of the Breakthrough Listen program at APF,” writes Steve Croft, a scientist at Berkeley-SETI.

His Plans For the Future

Lipman is now trying to get involved in new research; he’s a part of Princeton’s Sports Analytics Club, and he’s playing intramural soccer and basketball. “I’m very big into sports, I’m a big Golden State Warriors fan,” he adds. “I’m worried that Kevin Durant is leaving this summer, though. That’s on my mind right now.”

Looking back at his project, Lipman admits that a small part of him was disappointed when his results came back negative for alien laser activity. The scientist in Lipman knew that finding extraterrestrial activity was a long shot, but still, he had held out a small amount of hope. He’s looking to add some machine learning capability and to help decrease the rate of false positives. The next time his algorithm flags something, hopefully it will be the real thing:

“As for my hopes to detect signals one day, I am fairly confident that extraterrestrials are out there,” Lipman says. “I just think that probabilistically there has to be something else out there, and I think we have the capabilities of finding it.”

The quest for extraterrestrial life is ongoing, but KD’s days at Oracle Arena might be numbered.

Media via SETI, NASA JPL/ CalTech , NASA/JPL-Caltech, SETI Research Center 

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