Back in October, researchers announced a strange finding in our own galaxy. A star about 1,500 light-years from earth was emitting light in such a strange way, that some scientists said that it could be home to an “alien megastructure.”
Though several explanations have been offered as to what’s causing it—including a cluster of comets—scientists seemed at least willing to discuss the possibility of intelligent life.
We called up Science Mike McHargue to get a better explanation about what was discovered, what the possibility of alien life could mean for Christians and why the mysteries of science can make our faith even stronger.
Recently, some scientist speculated that a newly discovered planet could be home to some sort of weird alien megastructure. Can you explain what caused them to theorize this?
What we’re talking about is a particular star called KIC8462852—super catchy name—1,500 light-years from the Earth that was analyzed by the Kepler space telescope.[With Kepler], they’re looking for the brightness of a star to dip, and then return to its former brightness. And when that happens, it’s typically because something passed between the telescope and the star and that’s almost always a planet.
By using math, effectively to analyze these transits—this dip in visible light coming from the star—we learn about the size of that planet and its distance from the host star. And using spectronomy, we can learn about its composition—its atmosphere, the materials that are in it.
In this case, whatever passed between the star and the Kepler telescope didn’t appear to be a spherical object. It was irregular. In fact, it’s something we don’t even look for in the computer model for Kepler data. It just happened to be that a research assistant noticed the anomaly and took a closer look.
As people conjectured what it may be, some scientists thought it might be the result of a large object colliding with the planet and creating a debris field. Other scientists thought it might be a collection of comets with a highly irregular orbit. And then, a few scientists went as far to say it looks like what we would expect to see if there were an alien megastructure orbiting a planet.
Hypothetically, what would the purpose of an alien megastructure be? Why would scientists even propose something like that?
This structure has been called a “Dyson Sphere” before. Basically, if you were to imagine building literally a giant sphere around a star, you could capture all the radiation and all the particles coming out that star and converting it into another type of energy, for example, electrical energy.
You would imagine that if you couldn’t completely encapsulate a star itself, you could maybe build a ring around it, or build very large structures that act as solar collectors that let you harness that radiation output of a star, in order to do useful work. When we look at the dip of this irregular object coming from this star, it fit the initial classification for what that would be.
It’s interesting that scientists are even open to proposing the idea of an intelligent alien civilization being out there. For Christians, what are some of the theological implications of that?
Most scientists believe that, at some point, we’ll likely find life in the stars. To me, theologically this has a number of implications.
For people who are Christians and believe we were created in God’s image—in Genesis, we were created as companions to God—does that mean that life on other planets was also created as companions to God?
For people who believe, we have an innate sin nature and salvation is only possible through Jesus, are we supposed to use the Great Commission across the stars onto other planets?
Do those aliens have their own Jesus? Do they need Jesus at all? Do they sin? If they don’t sin what does that mean about us? Depending on the nature, behavior and beliefs of other civilizations, it really could have profound implications for how we approach our faith here on earth.
Do you think that traditional Christian teaching has left room for the discovery of extraterrestrial life?
I think a lot of Christian teachings and practices would be unthreatened by other civilizations. They would see that as a manifestations of God’s creative power and create a universe that because of its reflection of God’s capability constantly creates including life.
I think it’s just a matter of how you approach the faith.
If you have a faith that’s a set of propositional ideas and assumptions, then those assumptions could be threatened by new information. But if your faith is not a zero-sum game, but a reflection of wonder and awe and majesty and beauty, I could see other civilizations doing nothing but driving you to greater reverence at the greatness of creation and the God who created it.
A lot of new discoveries create new, much bigger questions. Do you see a pattern with some of the questions science opens that is a reflection of similar questions about the nature of God?
Absolutely. In both cases, the most fundamental questions we face are: “Why are we here? How did we get here? What are supposed to do about this?”
I think science and religion are different ways of approaching the same problem. We have this innate desire to know, to explore and to wonder “How could this be? Why is it that I live and move and breathe and the rock doesn’t?”
Western religion tends to limit mystery. It tends to try to answer every question, but the beautiful thing about science is the more I learn about the universe, I feel like the less I know.
I become more aware of my vast ignorance. For a while, that was discouraging, and it made me feel very small. But what interest would a universe be that you could figure out in 100 years? What life would you have if in a lifetime, you could know all there is to know?
It fascinates me that the nature of the creation is that it is an inexhaustible source of knowledge, insight, beauty, wonder and experiences. This universe is fearfully and wonderfully made. It’s a gift.
Science is such a mystery, and it kind of underscores the need for a faith.
That’s why the study of science is, to me, an act of worship. Like any other form of worship—prayer, Bible study, singing—the study of science is a posture of gratitude, an awareness that I did not create myself, that I could not create myself and that I do nothing to continue my existence. That everything I have is, at a fundamental level, a gift I did nothing to receive.
I was in London recently. I was in one of the cathedrals, and it was grand and beautiful and sonically amazing, and there were incredible works of art. I kind of got for the first time why the high church does what it does trying to create these ethereal spaces, these grand architectures: So that we might experience the presence and maybe even the breath of God.
But then I thought about when I go out and look at the sky through a telescope and how that moved me so profoundly. For all of the beautiful art we’ve created, could there be anything more awe-inspiring, anything more beautiful than the Hubble image of this picture of a small patch of sky that’s composed of galaxies, and every point of light is itself hundreds of millions of stars?
I think that speaks to God’s character and God’s grandness.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.