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Coming into the World

September 19, 2016


In 2016, the change in brightness of a star sparked the interest of the scientific community about the possible existence of an alien world. A suggestion like this reminds us that scientific thought is incorporating elements which traditionally come from different areas of interest, including art. Words of the astronomer Paolo Tozzi.

The end of the world has always been associated with astronomical phenomena. The warning for the Apocalypse is naively described as the simultaneous occurrence of the three most dramatic events visible to the naked eye in the sky: solar eclipses, lunar eclipses and meteor showers. From a religious perspective, where the world is a unique and immutable divine creation, it is unnecessary to specify what constitutes the end of the world. Today however, we imagine a universe teeming with life, despite the fact that this has not yet been directly verified, the end of the world could come about in a number of different ways. Is it the end of our civilisation? Or of all humankind? Or even of all forms of complex life on Earth? Or again, the end of all forms of life including single-cell life forms, so that life could never reappear on Earth? The destruction of the planet itself, or the death of the Sun? Or, finally, the thermal death of the universe, when all the available gas will be transformed into stars, and all of the stars will have exhausted the nuclear processes inside of them so that no new planets, no new stars could ever form again in any place?
Let’s begin with the etymology of the word world which is uncertain but is probably similar to that of cosmos, or rather a place, physical or mental, clean, tidy, which has organisation and structure. Inevitably, when we imagine other worlds, that which we consider to be a prefiguration of our future, we imagine a maximum order, a fullness of equilibrium and harmony. We can find traces of this cosmic optimism even in the most important astrophysical works where, in recent years, astrobiological works have increased and among these some deal with none other than the direct observation of the presence of extraterrestrial civilisations.


As explained in the work of a research group which publishes on this subject, the most promising strategy for observing an alien world is based on the idea that every advanced civilisation will sooner or later be forced to use all the energy that can be accessed, just because a world is complete only when it reaches the most complex structure and the maximum possible organisation possible. This can be achieved by absorbing all the energy of its star, building them around what is called a Dyson sphere, or in other words, an artificial shell which encompasses almost the entire star. In recent months a possible alien world was detected around the star KIC8462852, which showed an aperiodic variation and was very unusual in its brightness, just as if someone was gradually closing (the star) in an artificial shell. A theory which was immediately encouraged by some studies, but also discouraged by others. The latter, however, did not prevent optical telescopes and radio antennas from being pointed towards the star to figure out a detector signal from this possible world, a sign which has not yet been found. This frenetic activity may surprise the scientific community on an issue which, up to a few years ago, was considered totally irrelevant. Indeed, attempts to export this research outside of our Milky Way, searching entire galaxies which are much less bright given their their size, due to a super-world that has encapsulated not only its own sun, but also the majority of the stars of its own galaxy to fuel its prodigious hypothetical structure.


A civilisation which can only progress to reach its full potential has obviously developed a perfect harmony, politically and socially, and also with regard to technological progress. It expresses a single thought, overcoming once and for all the primitive distinction between science, art and politics. Such a world is very different from ours, where we note the discrepancy between scientific thinking and artistic thinking, where technology is perceived as a threat and contrasted with "good nature." So how should we judge humanity with regard to the worlds in the Universe which we immagine are populated? Are we ourselves a world recognisable from the outside for its orderly structure? Or maybe we are still in a phase where our culture is disconnected, in which science and technology instill fear and art is perceived as a trivial way out rather than a valuable instrument of knowledge. Thus a phase in which our organisation level is extremely low, below the threshold above which we can clearly define ourselves as a world.
In that case, the world which we must fear in the end would be still to come. Perhaps this dizzying digital age of silicon is no more shocking than an age of bronze or iron, one of the many steps still needed before coming into the world. This implies that there are other concerns before that of the apocalypse.

Cover image:

Star KIC8462852. Credit: Nasa


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