25 August 2013

The hunt for alien, star-encompassing Dyson Spheres begins

Forty years ago, global financial pioneer and philanthropist Sir John Templeton founded the “Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities” — or, to give its slightly shorter name, the Templeton Prize. In 1979, Freeman Dyson (Templeton winner 2000) published his landmark paper, “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe.” In it he detailed how life might extract indefinite persistence from a finite source of energy, provided it is dissipated at a rate bound by the power which it is able to radiate away into space.  
What a Dyson Sphere might look like, if created in our own Solar System

Even earlier, inspired by crystallographer JD Bernal’s 1929 classic, “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” Dyson imagined that civilizations in the far future would build huge rings, shells, or spheres around their parent star in order to capture all the energy escaping from it. These theoretical constructs came to be known as Dyson Spheres. If they actually exist, they may now be detectable by NASA’s Kepler satellite, which is being used to look for habitable planets (and diamond planets, as the case may be). In May this year, the Templeton Prize went to Tensin Gyatso (aka the 14th Dalai Lama), however an additional grant of $200,000 has also been given to cosmologist Geoff Marcey of Berkeley. Marcey realized that the Kepler data might also reveal stars that are surrounded by Dyson Spheres. 

Not everyone thinks this proposal is realistic. If it is the destiny of life to maximally convert matter into consciousness and information for it to process, then using much of the mass available in a solar system to build a Dyson Sphere may not make sense. Future sources of energy including fusion or even antimatter could make the cost of constructing a Dyson Sphere prohibitive.

Other investigators subscribe to the ideal that it is better to detect than to be detected, and believe building a Dyson Sphere would be folly since it could be easily discovered by any hostile competitors. In the larger context, the actual existence of Dyson Spheres, in an open or closed universe, is not the critical point. The grant award is good business for cosmology in general. It brings in new viewpoints and feeds the scientific mill which so reliably churns out new knowledge, often in the detailed search for something else.

As an aside, one of the many eclectic recipients of the Templeton Prize was John Barrow (winner 2006), a noted cosmologist who co-authored the well-cited “Anthropic Cosmological Principle” with Frank Tipler in 1986. In this work, they derived constraints under which life might evolve in a closed universe. By processing information at exponentially higher rates as the universe contracts, they concluded that as consciousness expanded to encompass all the known universe, it could achieve subjective immortality. In the years since, Tipler has become increasingly evangelical, identifying rigidly with Christian philosophy, and bending his physics to meet its predictions. I met with Tipler in 1994, in his rather stark, wood-clad office at Tulane, and his departure from mainstream cosmology was quite evident even then.

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