The Alien Energy Crisis Solved

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, humans have been searching for more energy. Especially lately, there has been a huge interest in wind, solar, geothermal, and other ways to capture and harness power. However, we have a huge power plant just eight light minutes away: our sun. Oh sure, we toy with solar power, but the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth or even Earth orbit is a tiny fraction of Sol’s total output. But what if you could capture nearly all of the sun’s output? Scientists think that maybe — just maybe — they’ve detected 60 new extraterrestrial civilizations doing just that. At least, that’s what it could be.

[Freeman Dyson] popularized the idea of a Dyson sphere, an artificial sphere surrounding a sun to capture the maximum amount of energy, back in 1960. However, the idea is older and usually credited to [Olaf Stapledon]’s 1937 novel Star Maker. While most people think the sphere would be solid, [Dyson] himself thought it would be a swarm of disjointed collectors owing to the difficulty in creating a solid shell of the required size.

Both SETI and Fermilab have searched for what is thought to be telltale infrared radiation that scientists think would emanate from a star surrounded by spheres or swarms. Several have been located, but there is no conclusive evidence.

The new 60 were identified by analyzing data from the Gaia satellite. Again, the evidence is not conclusive, but small and dim stars that are very bright in infrared can’t be explained by conventional explanations. One way to explain at least some of the stars would be if about 16% of the star was obscured by something like a swarm of Dyson sphere collectors.

There are, of course, more jejune explanations possible. For example, the star might happen to be in front of some more distant IR source. Still, it is tantalizing to think there may be more than 60 high-tech civilizations out there either waiting to meet us or, perhaps, waiting to eat us, depending on how paranoid you are.

48 thoughts on “The Alien Energy Crisis Solved

  1. Any civilizations capable of building and utilizing one or more Dyson spheres would look at us like we look at the first mammals after the dinosaurs were wiped out. Cute, full of potential, but of no significance. Or, to quote Douglas Adams, “Mostly Harmless” and ripe for a bypass to come through.

    1. It’s a sentence with subject shifting, perhaps poorly, but still…
      “Several [telltale infrared radiation that scientists think would emanate from a star] have been located, but there is no [star surrounded by spheres or swarms] conclusive evidence.”

      I suppose the writer is [mis]assuming the readers familiarity with the subject.
      We do have the ability to detect IR from stars.
      We do not have the ability to detect swarms of collectors around those stars.
      That’s why we know for certain the former was there and no longer is, but why we can’t know if this is the reason. (Hopefully that is a “can’t -yet- know”, but alas, physics can be very mean to us)

        1. No, because these guys are old, and, well, gravity. The ‘old’ stars with buckets of dust like this have all been F/G type stars, so there was enough ‘stuff’ in their accretion disk that a chance collision produced a large debris disk well into the system’s formation. That’s not really likely for an M-dwarf (but of course, there are a lot of M-dwarf systems).

          The argument that those 7 aren’t “normal” is pretty strong, but obviously the jump from “not normal” to “alien megastructure” is large. It could just be a chance alignment with another infrared source, for instance (one of the 7 shows indications of that, and statistical estimates would suggest 2 of them are chance on average), or they could’ve just discovered a few oddball M-dwarf systems.

        1. That’s an odd set to include – the ‘Dyson sphere’ discussion there is just pretty much as an aside in the intro, and the candidates they have include known debris disks. The other paper is much more explicit.

  2. “…or, perhaps, waiting to eat us, depending on how paranoid you are.”

    Paranoia has absolutely nothing to do with this.
    As Carl Sagan rightly pointed out, and with a warning to be very careful what one wishes for (to those who, for some reason, are absolutely, irrationally committed to finding and making contact with extraterrestrials; most particularly with those types which might be capable of visiting us):
    it is an incontrovertible fact that the smartest organism in any ecosystem is a predator of every other organism (translation: the guy at the top of the food chain got there by eating most everything dumber than it is). There is no mental leap involved in knowing that any race which has mastered interstellar travel and/or intelligent, comprehensible (to us) communication with us is smarter than we are.
    HG Wells understood this basic tenet very well; simply read War of the Worlds–written in ~ 1896 (well before Carl Sagan)–in which the invaders use us as food. HG Wells did not use this part of his narrative as cheap sensationalism fluff; he was too good a writer for that, and knew too much science.

    Old, old adage, in a very many cultures:

    Be very careful what you wish for.

    1. Also, there is a difference between ‘being around long enough to have seen a lot’s and ‘smarter than you’.

      Your parents have seen a lot more and so have a larger pool of experience to draw from.whe trying to do something – but they’re not smarter that you.

  3. The Dyson sphere concept puts the cart before the horse a bit in that there’s no way you could distribute and put to use all that power (if you could, we would probably detect that rather than the infrared leaking through the solar swarm)

    1. “(if you could, we would probably detect that rather than the infrared leaking through the solar swarm)”

      No, you wouldn’t, because you’re still staring at the star. You can’t capture all the energy of the star, just a sizable fraction. Also, you don’t have to *concentrate* that power. The entire point of searching for things in the ~300 K range is that you’d have a big swarm of artificial biospheres, and that’d be their natural temperature. Basically a whole bunch of space habitats.

        1. “So the goal is just maximizing biomass?”

          I mean, yeah, although that’s a weird way of writing “people.”

          ” I don’t think something like that would motivate such a monumental undertaking”

          It doesn’t have to happen all at once. Human expansion across the Earth is pretty damn monumental as well considering the starting point. It’s basically the equivalent of looking for clouds of satellites around a planet as a sign of intelligence.

  4. “Dozens of stars show signs of hosting advanced alien civilisations”

    Sigh,,,, Those who hype such a claim may want to read _Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe_ by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee.

    1. Maybe our planet _is_ the Dyson sphere, and the ancient aliens (dinosaurs) abandoned it when the star turned gooey and started leaking out. While there is no conclusive evidence, it makes sense to assume this is fact.

  5. Above all, these Dyson spheres are proof that man believes that the physical limits of any environment can be overcome by appropriate engineering.
    Anthropologically speaking, this idea should probably be seen as an infantile disease of complex societies, which have just discovered engineering…

  6. Dyson came up with the idea of a Dyson *shell* – a shell of statites held up by light pressure – not the ‘sphere’ in popular imagination.

    The sphere both requires materials no one can build but it’s interior is at 0g and gravitationally unstable (it won’t stay in place on its own).

    Secondly, if you don’t have hard evidence then you haven’t detected anything.

    The signature of a Dyson shell would be high-entropy, low temperature thermal radiation. Multiple shells feeding off the heat emitted from the next shell inwards.

    1. Dyson literally said he was uninterested in the construction details. The entire point of his letter was in response to the nascent SETI project, suggesting that we should look for objects with a ton of output in the infrared as well. It didn’t matter how it was constructed, it only mattered that it took a large portion of the star’s energy and re-emitted it at ~300K-ish.

      “The signature of a Dyson shell would be high-entropy, low temperature thermal radiation”

      I don’t know what the “high-entropy” is supposed to mean there – the only thing that characterizes thermal radiation is its temperature.

      The downside of looking for “tons of low temperature thermal radiation” is that anything that blocks a large portion of the star’s light and sits near-ish the habitable zone will look exactly the same. Hence the confusion with debris disks.

  7. Not sure about the interest in the Dyson Sphere when a Niven Ring World (Larry Niven) would be just as advanced and perhaps more easily constructed in a material poor solar system. It would be more difficult to detect being just a ribbon around the star and if it were in a polar orientation than it would only have a faint infrared signature. The star for both ring and sphere would have to be long lived and quiet like a class K. If not then well that was theorized on Star Trek TNG episode of Relics. Sphere or ring, the builders would be giants and we would be ants at their feet. Perhaps that is why we have global warming….one of their kids has a magnifying glass on us….😁

    1. Dyson’s idea was never a solid object, because it physically can’t work (hence “the ringworld is unstable” being a constant meme everywhere), just a large number of artificial biospheres surrounding a star. The details are unimportant, the idea was just to get people looking for “excessive infrared” as a technosignature.

      So no, a giant ring enclosing a star is absolutely 100% not easier, since “swarm of artificial biospheres” can be built slowly one at a time.

  8. VERY unlikely. Why bother with a stationary object when you could just have a fusion reactor? Furthermore, why assume that they need that much energy for anything but transport? Finally, if they did do this then only a the largest of fools would risk their home planet by attempting this on their own star.

    1. “why assume that they need that much energy for anything but transport?”

      It’s not total energy, it’s energy per unit surface area. Dyson’s argument was that if you have a civilization, the continual push for expansion and growth would progressively dim the star and create more ~300K flux as more livable area was constructed.

      The idea of something fully enclosing the star is just the extreme limit, these searches are sensitive even to a few percent enclosing the star along the line of sight.

    1. I don’t get this. The earth isn’t yet too hot to live in. It catches exactly its cross-section of insolation. Why would capturing all the insolation over a sphere the diameter of the earth’s orbit heat up more? It’s not like heat is somehow slipping by. It just reradiates: some portion is extracted and used for local reversal of entropy in manufacturing stuff and turned into heat.

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