The ‘Astrophysics Disruptor’ Who Made Us Think Seriously About Aliens
Tabetha Boyajian made history when she and a group of citizen scientists spotted a star that defied physics. What will she do next?
Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the fourth profile in a five-part series.
In 2009, NASA hurled the Kepler Space Telescope into the dark expanse of space. The goal? Explore the far corners of the Milky Way galaxy and find exoplanets that were Earth-like, potential places humans could live and thrive in in the future.
Almost immediately, the Kepler Space Telescope was vomiting out data and information—so much so that scientists associated with the telescope asked the public to help process the deluge. Astronomers couldn’t rely on algorithms and artificial intelligence to pick up on changes in light patterns—as The Atlantic noted, “they needed the human eye, and human cognition, which remains unsurpassed in certain sorts of pattern recognition.”
So Planet Hunters was born. After just a short tutorial, people without astrophysics degrees could watch their computer screens whenever they had a spare moment for patterns, helping to figure out if the pin-prick shadows they might spot floating around a dot were in fact masses that could be classified as exoplanets.
Most of what the Planet Hunters initiative tracked was mundane and predictable, offering armchair nerds the chance to watch the skies from the comfort of their homes with neither a telescope nor high-end technology. It was supposed to be boring, but pleasantly so, the type of activity one did to be in awe of the universe, a mindless but intrepidly good one in the name of science.
But in 2011, one star repeatedly made these citizen scientists do a double take, sit up, squint at their screens, and flag the Planet Hunters team for its odd behavior.
KIC 8462852 was encircled by what seemed like particles that clogged up the view we had from Earth of its brightness. To be sure, that’s not abnormal behavior: When stars are first born and in their infant stages, gravity takes time to sweep and pull the flying objects into a mass that eventually becomes a planet.
But KIC 8462852 wasn’t a young star. It was a mature one. Scientists were positive about this, because young stars expel infrared light, making them seem almost brighter than they should be. That wasn’t the case with KIC 8462852. The rocks and dust and other galaxy crumbs that were smudging what should have otherwise been a clear view of KIC 8462852 were a mystery.
What was going on with that star?
In 2015, a Yale post-doc in the Department of Astronomy published a paper on the beguiling star, citing several Planet Hunters (PDF). Wryly titled “Where’s The Flux?”—a double entendre on the popular internet slang WTF and flux, or light emitted from a star—the post-doc detailed KIC 8462852’s odd behavior, which included “dipping events” at odd intervals that weren’t explainable by comets. The paper’s best explanation for the star’s bizarre behavior was “a family of exocomets” that “trigger[ed] a barrage of bodies into the vicinity of the host star.”
Perhaps because of the paper’s snarky title, or because of the enigma surrounding the swirl of dust, KIC 8462852 shot to fame. After its publication, the star invited a deluge of wild theories outside the natural hypotheses the paper put out of comet crumbles and intergalactic dust. The most notable of these came from an astronomer, Jason Wright, who boldly theorized that the odd splotches showing up intermittently were proof of “alien megastructures” and an intelligent life that had built gigantic, planet-sized architecture—something akin to Star Wars’ Death Star. Or was the star not really a star but some new astronomical object?
Through it all, the name KIC 8462852 became annoying. The strangest, most talked-about star in Earth’s history underwent a re-branding, with both professional and amateur astronomer’s referring to the star based on the paper’s leading author, who’d led the Planet Hunters and incorporated their work into her paper. Her name was Tabetha Boyajian, and KIC 8462852 was re-christened Tabby’s Star.
You’d think that a woman who was an astrophysicist, who had published a rock-and-roll paper that had garnered both international acclaim and pop culture status—who’d gotten a star named after her, for goodness sake—would be a nerd, perhaps someone who was shy and awkward, who spent time scribbling out equations and reading thick books in her free time.
That nerdish stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth for Tabetha Boyajian. She makes it clear early on, in conversation with The Daily Beast, that she wasn’t—isn’t—that kind of girl.
In fact, while she found math and science “easy,” her childhood was one marked by how little she cared about school.
“I was a bad egg,” Boyajian, who indeed goes by Tabby, laughed. “I didn’t like going to class. I was bored.”
Boyajian couldn’t be bothered to read a book or study during her childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, and she certainly didn’t grow up dreaming about the day she’d be making groundbreaking astronomical discoveries that questioned what we thought we knew about stars. She was instead absorbed by the outdoors: her love for horseback riding and joining her mom for camping trips, indulging her curiosity without the intellectual claustrophobia of a classroom. “My thinking was, ‘Why does school matter when there’s so many other things you could be doing?’”
Boyajian’s restless spirit and boredom made for a slightly lackluster academic career—she wasn’t a terrible student but she also wasn’t a high achiever. She chose to go to the College of Charleston in South Carolina to be with her friends, spending her time hanging out, and delivering pizza for Papa John’s on the side to earn some cash (“I made five times more money delivering pizza than doing [undergraduate] research work,” she said).
On a whim, Boyajian took an astronomy class to fill requirements. It changed the course of her life—and would alter the history of astronomy and the search for life in the cosmos.
“The topic in itself, it’s the most interesting science,” Boyajian said of her magnetic attraction to astronomy. She’d never owned a telescope or looked to the skies and mapped out constellations. But the astronomy class instilled in her a curiosity and sense of perspective that made her feel challenged for the first time. “There’s planets, life in the universe. You don’t talk about that in high school—or maybe I skipped class that day,” Boyajian joked.
That astronomy class was the first time Boyajian felt like she was learning something new, something exciting. She was arrested, focused; “I could really dig my nails into the subject.”
It helped that Boyajian had an amazing professor, Jim Neff (now at the National Science Foundation), and that he spotted her talent and mentored her. “He came up to me one day and asked me about my major,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You’re really good at this. You should do this.’”
Boyajian hadn’t chosen a major yet. That day, she decided on a career in physics.
It proved to be fortuitous timing. The 1990s saw the dawn of the exoplanet era, thanks to better technology that allowed scientists to track and find distant stars. Scientists had thought extrasolar planets were theoretically possible in the 19th century. But it wasn’t until 1992 when the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet made us realize that our solar system was probably surrounded by other solar systems, some with Star Wars-esque twin stars. The paper published in Nature, “A planetary system around the millisecond pulsar PSR1257 + 12,” cemented astronomers’ stark, cold naming system for stars and planets—but more importantly, it showed that an easy way to prove an exoplanet’s existence was to track a floating dot of a shadow circling around a star. The stunningly simple “transit method,” as it was called, was quickly adopted into practice.
A few years later, in 1995, the first exoplanet was confirmed using the transit method. The exoplanet’s description in Nature was “Jupiter mass,” located near a star called 51 Pegasi. It was huge, but somehow in the same orbital zone as that of the planet Mercury. Scientists were stunned: How could a planet of that size exist within the astronomical version of spitting distance of a burning orb?
Those two discoveries—that planets existed and could be spotted by watching their shadows flit across a star’s brightness, and that a gigantic planet could be so close to a star—made it clear that the hunt for exoplanets didn’t follow the rules of astrophysics, paving the way for Tabby’s Star.
At the time of the exoplanet discoveries, however, Boyajian was still an undergrad, spending time—when she wasn’t delivering pizza and going to class—mapping flares from stars. She remembered the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995 vividly, though Boyajian couldn’t have predicted where her career was going.
She described watching solar flares like this: “You’re sitting in a very small room with old computers, a terminal screen with no windows and a command line where you’re typing in commands for a software program and measuring features on a computer.” Even to this day, much of Boyajian’s work doesn’t involve peering through a telescope, but rather programming data and interpreting the resulting data.
College ended, and Boyajian was again left in a lurch: What next? She didn’t want to leave school—“I was delivering pizzas for Papa John’s, I had tons of friends, I didn’t know if I wanted to leave yet”—so she enrolled in graduate school at Georgia State University in Atlanta, persuaded by the university’s CHARA array interferometer in Mount Wilson, California, a set of six telescopes with meter-long mirrors to reflect light and capture images, which are then funneled through vacuum tubes into a beam.
The resulting image is sharper and able to gather more data than a single telescope operating on its own. “It’s really cool,” Boyajian nerded out. “You’re cheating on how you can engineer a telescope, which you can only make so big.”
Ironically, Boyajian’s interests when she first went to Georgia State were closer to home, with Earth’s neighbors. “I could relate to that, stuff that you could see with the naked eye instead of doing faraway galaxy work,” she said. “I didn’t quite relate to that much. I was interested in the stuff going around our solar system’s neighborhood.” But her interest in the images and the compelling information the CHARA array interferometer was showing got the better of her: Her PhD thesis was on measuring faraway stars with interferometers.
Boyajian graduated, then went to Yale for her post-doc and published a paper on that strange star, KIC 8462852. That’s when all hell broke loose.
Boyajian was hiking in the mountains when the ‘WTF’ paper published. By the time she’d descended, she’d “learned the meaning of going viral.”
“My phone was constantly pinging,” she remembered. “There was the news. Then text messages and calls from all around the world. It was very overwhelming.” She wasn’t used to celebrity, and hadn’t signed up for it. Sure, she’d written a paper with the help of citizen scientists (a point she consistently emphasizes, that it’s not her work alone), but not for a second could she have imagined KIC 8462852 going… viral.
“I didn’t know what was happening at that point,” she said, still in disbelief three years after the paper’s publication. “I was just going to meet with my press person when I got back. I was overwhelmed and didn’t realize the magnitude of things and wasn’t prepared for it.”
To be clear, Boyajian only cited “natural” theories for what other people called alien megastructures. But high-profile astronomers that Boyajian showed the data to thought otherwise. In an Atlantic writeup of her paper, Jason Wright, an astronomer from Pennsylvania State University who specializes in exoplanets, said aliens couldn’t be ruled out as a source of the strange blotches around Tabby’s Star. The following year, he also published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters offering “plausible solutions” for the mystery, and included “artificial material” among them.
“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked,” Wright told The Atlantic. “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
Boyajian—who believes that there’s life outside our planet—said that what excited her and simultaneously mystified her was the fact that the material blocking the star defied typical rules about exoplanet formation and star flux. “The amount would indicate there was a lot of stuff there,” she said. “The light should hit it. We didn’t see that. The fact that an alien civilization could be doing this, that an artificial structure around the star could lead to the infrared patterns—it was an ‘aha’ moment.”
To Boyajian’s delight, the astronomy community was incredibly supportive of her—and Planet Hunters’—work. “We went over each of these points, everything that could possibly have occurred,” she said. “They [her fellow scientists] were more along the lines of checking to see if there were changes and errors. That’s what made this science, the reproducibility.”
For the next few years, Tabby’s Star remained a mystery, with blips of odd activity. In May of last year, for example, it began dimming again. Amateur and professional astronomers alike watched the dipping, wondering if it was an alien civilization harnessing the star’s power for energy or simply a random rush of particles choking up the view.
Meanwhile, Boyajian trucked on with her investigation. What were the blockages? Where was the flux?
In January, Boyajian published a paper that the science world had waited so patiently for: Those towering shadows were… dust.
In the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, Boyajian and her co-authors offered a straightforward explanation, without the alien megastructures that some had hoped would prove extraterrestrial life and intelligence. It was probably dust, or perhaps they were exceptionally vibrant solar flares, or comet bits that just hadn’t gotten collected.
In a comment to The Daily Beast at the time, Tyler Ellis, Boyajian’s graduate student, said the alien megastructures theory was always a bit of a left-field possibility. “I don’t think any scientist legitimately considered the megastructure hypothesis more viable than any [other] explanation, due to a lack of evidence,” he said. That doesn’t mean aliens don’t exist, but simply that follow-up observations indicated that Tabby’s Star just had the astronomical version of hairballs and cobwebs and was weirdly messy.
These days, Boyajian is an assistant professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Tabby’s Star certainly took on a life of its own, but Boyajian said she’s been incredibly busy with other astronomical matters. “For the past decade or so, I’ve been running tests on other nearby stars using infertometers,” she said. “We’re looking at the exact properties of stars and finally able to get fundamental data and measurements to create more accurate stellar models and learn how stars behave.”
The data for that program has taken the past decade to compile and she’s only now started to be able to analyze that information, thanks to not only patience but also technology, which has improved resolution and allowed for more precise tracking.
Her Twitter bio describes her as a “disruptor of astrophysics.” The attention she’s gotten from the alien megastructures debate has made her fiercely pro-science and scathing: Next week, her Twitter advertises, she’ll talk to flat-Earthers about “why you do not live in a pineapple under the sea” in Baton Rouge. She recently was part of 10 scientists (alongside fellow astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and physicist Michio Kaku) selected to talk to NBC’s Mach about what special ability she wished to have. (Her answer: “the ability to ‘poof’ [teleporting without a machine].”)
Being a female astrophysicist isn’t something that Boyajian thinks about regularly. It could be that she’s oblivious—“I just don’t know where my head is sometimes,” she confessed—but it wasn’t until she was leaving graduate school that Boyajian realized how few women were in her department. “I was like, wait a minute, uh, there’s none,” she recalled. “And that’s when I thought, ‘This is kinda strange.’”
It wasn’t always that way for her. As an undergraduate, Boyajian’s physics classes were split fairly evenly. But as she moved higher through her academic career, Boyajian realized that she had fewer and fewer female colleagues, and even fewer female teachers. Which made her think: During her more wayward years, when she couldn’t care less about being in the classroom, would a female teacher have helped? Would being able to look up to a science teacher who was a woman have gotten her interested in astronomy earlier, thinking of the right questions sooner?
Obviously, it’s impossible to know. But Boyajian does wonder; she felt herself become what she called “the token female.” Boyajian said she hoped that her example, and seeing more women pursue science, would help topple the disbalanced ratios. “We have to keep the momentum going,” she said. Who knows—maybe one of those girls will grow up to become the woman who finds alien life on an exoplanet. They’d certainly have Tabetha Boyajian to thank.