Left: Kimberly Cartier. Right: An Internet meme that circulated after one of her colleagues mentioned the word "alien."

Left: Kimberly Cartier. Right: An Internet meme that circulated after one of her colleagues mentioned the word "alien."

Penn State student researching that ‘alien’ star: ‘It’s kind of a funny story’

In a Q&A, Kimberly Cartier talks about the overwhelming public interest in her work: There’s “always the risk that the legitimate science you’re doing can be taken and blown out of proportion somewhat.

Kimberly Cartier never thought what started out as her summer project would turn into an international headline.

Cartier, a 25-year-old Penn State graduate student originally from Chicago, is the second author on a paper that obliquely examined a faraway star — one that has something orbiting around it that’s strange to researchers. One theory contained a mention of the possibility of aliens. And the Internet basically exploded.

Last Tuesday, The Atlantic published a piece about the star called KIC 8462852 that, in its most simple terms, has some things floating around it that scientists are really struggling to explain. Originally discovered by Yale’s Dr. Tabetha Boyajian, the star spotted by the Kepler Space Telescope isn’t visible to the naked eye.

But studies by Boyajian and her team looked for, essentially, dips in the light coming out of the star that indicate objects around the star. So as part of his research at Penn State, Dr. Jason Wright — along with Cartier — attempted to study the star as part of their research into potential communications from alien megastructures.

In the end, the paper was inconclusive. And no one is saying alien megastructures are floating around this mysterious star. But it also can’t be proven wrong.

Wright said this to The Atlantic in the original piece about the star: “When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked. Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

And that quote set off a firestorm of media interest, with tabloids claiming astronomers had found alien megastructures and sent memes like the one above trickling all over Twitter and Reddit again. Wright ended up publishing a blog post saying he’s thankful for media coverage of the interesting star, though he said, “I am a bit embarrassed about the less responsible reporting overstating the evidence here.”

So we caught up with Cartier, who’s been working with Wright, her boss at Penn State, to help weather the storm of misinformation that’s come out over the last week. Below is what we talked about (our conversation was lightly edited for brevity and clarity):

So how did you first get involved in working on this project?

It’s kind of a funny story because this started out as a small summer research project last year. I was looking for something small and not too time-consuming, so Dr. Wright asked me to work on this side project of his which is related to the SETI initiative —

Sorry, what?

SETI. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Oh, ok.

And he wanted me to develop a way to distinguish symbols from naturally occurring transits like those observed by Kepler from things artificial in nature, which is where alien structures come in. So what started as a small summer project became more involved and blossomed into a much bigger project.

What were your thoughts when Dr. Wright came to you and was like, “hey, want to be a part of this alien team?”

My initial reaction was, wow, that sounds really cool. I’ve always been a big science fiction fan, so my imagination sort of ran away with this and said wow, this could be really interesting if we could take scientific procedures and apply that to something that has traditionally not been as based in science and more just in imagination and fiction. So I was very excited about it and I still am.

So at what point did you figure out that this was more than a short summer gig?

I probably realized about six months into a three month summer project. So I realized it would probably take a bit longer and the focus of the project itself sort of evolved and shifted over time as a simple way to distinguish natural and artificial transits. It shifted to let’s see if we can make this as concrete and statistical as possible and make the methods and the techniques we’re using widely available to everyone so we can apply it. So the idea sort of grew on us as time went on.

Can you explain the finished paper in layman’s terms?

The paper that is linked at the bottom of Dr. Wright’s blog post, that was the project that I worked very heavily on, only briefly mentions this very strange star. So the conclusion of the paper itself is that we developed a technique to distinguish what could possibly be beacons or attempts at low levels of communication from an alien civilization like you might see in the move Contact. And we developed a way to distinguish those kinds of beacons from natural occurrences.

We applied this technique to a few very representative cases, a few very normal things that were transit planets. We’re not worried about those. Also a few stars from Kepler (are) doing very strange things, where their signals were evolving over time and we figured those were probably still naturally occurring events.

And then there was the very strange star that Dr. Boyajian from Yale had discovered a few months earlier. We weren’t able to apply the techniques to that directly because we don’t have enough information about it yet. But it could be similar to an alien megastructure. We just don’t know until we get more information about it.

Is that something you plan to do?

There is at least one observing proposal that has been submitted to the Green Bank telescope which is a radio telescope led by Dr. Wright and Dr. Boyajian. 

The media has eaten this story up this week. What’s that been like? Were you surprised?

For me, it was pretty surprising. This is the first time the science I worked on has garnered so much attention, so it’s been exciting and a bit unexpected. I was talking with Dr. Wright a few days ago and we realized this sort of comes with the territory when you work on study projects. There’s always the risk that the legitimate science you’re doing can be taken and blown out of proportion somewhat.

So it’s certainly been an interesting week. We’ve been focused on interviews and writing about it and communicating the legitimate science behind this claim and tamp down on the hype.

Then what is really happening?

Well, the fact of the matter is we don’t really know what’s happening. It could be something completely natural. In Dr. Boyajian’s paper, they proposed a swarm of comets like in the Kuiper belt where Pluto is. Something could have mixed up, and that’s certainly a possibility. But whatever it is, it’s certainly something we’ve never seen before and it’s going to be interesting no matter what it turns out. We’re very excited about it even if it’s something completely normal and natural.

How does the rest of the science community act when you start throwing around phrases like “alien megastructures” and “extraterrestrial”? Do they take that seriously?

When it comes out of two outstanding researchers, people understand that both of them are doing very good science. And they have amazing reputations in the field, and no one is expecting they’re actually saying that it’s aliens. The scientific community has been very understanding about this and have read the paper and are understanding what they’re really saying and not believing the hype. 

OK, so it’s not definitely aliens?

None of us in the scientific community is saying that it’s aliens. It is certainly something very exciting and we hope to find out more soon.

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