Bright blue space stars background

Bright blue space stars background Credit: iStock

Kicking around near the top of my very long and weird list titled "Things I'm Definitely Gonna Write Someday, I Swear" is a science fiction short story.

Picture this: We have encountered our first alien life form and it's clearly intelligent. We set about feeding each others' languages into computers and finally, come up with a translator program. And once everything is set up, the first thing the aliens say to us is, "Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?"

I always imagine the lead scientist as someone who both the plot and appearance make clear is not Christian, like Jeff Goldblum, typing back, "I did hear about that . . . but I wish I'd paid more attention to it."

I can think of an almost infinite number of first statements from aliens that would blow our minds, and the best book on the subject would be one in which every chapter were a different story, with a different first statement. But in real life, to find the alien wisdom, we've first got to find the aliens.

The story idea popped back into my brain last week with the announcement that scientists have discovered a very strange star, with some seemingly unnatural attributes that could suggest a highly intelligent civilization has been hanging out there and building stuff. It's official designation is KIC 8462852 but it's much cuddlier nickname is "Tabby's Star," after Tabetha S. Boyajian, a Yale University postdoctoral student whose team observed it and published a paper about it.

What's special about Tabby's Star is that its pattern of light emission doesn't make sense in any normal way for a star its age and size. It's one of a group of about 150,000 stars that the Kepler Space Telescope stared at for four years. When the Kepler team members realized they couldn't interpret all the data, they created Planet Hunters, a group of humans who look at the sky through telescopes, which Boyajian oversees. It is, to me, amazing and charming that in many ways, humans are still better at looking for certain things in stars and space patterns than any computer program.

What's weird about Tabby's Star, and several Planet Hunters noticed this trait independently of each other, is that the light pattern it emits was interrupted at regular intervals by something that seemed to be orbiting it. And for a variety of reasons that are well-explained in Boyajian's 15-page, deeply brainy paper (age of the star, how gravity fields work, etc.), the light pattern suggests an orbiting clump of matter circling the star that doesn't quite match up with natural phenomena. It looks like it was made, scientists say, on purpose.

And that's one of the things the folks at the Center for SETI Research at the University of California have always thought we should be looking for in the big sky.

So Monday, SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) announced it had begun pointing its dish at Tabby's Star to see whether it emits radio waves, which would suggest intelligence-created communication. If SETI finds those, it'll bring more technology to bear. And this could happen very fast. We could know a lot more in a year about what's happening around Tabby's Star.

Or rather, what was happening on Tabby's Star. You see, it's about 1,500 light-years away, which means we're looking at light emitted right after the Roman Empire wound down.

Which leads us to another idea for a science-fiction story, a sad one I find all too easy to believe: If there were a technologically advanced civilization around Tammy's Star 1,500 years ago, and it was anything at all like us, I find it very hard to believe it's still around.