Locklin on science

Astronomical anomalies 2

Posted in astronomy, Corliss, Open problems by Scott Locklin on April 23, 2022

Part 1 here. Honestly, astronomy is so filled with weird shit, this could be an infinite series.

Tabby’s star and friends. The last few decades have found plenty of exoplanets more or less by looking for wobble and periodic dimming of the star. As such that caused folks to do more widespread surveys looking for periodic dimming.  The project which organized this detected all kinds of cool exoplanets. Tabby’s star, discovered by Tabetha Boyajian, has a highly irregular dimming pattern for which nobody can give a decent explanation. A cool thing about astronomy is there is a lot of historical data kicking around nobody has had a look at as well, so they were able to find out that this has been going on for a long time by looking at antique photographic plates. Existing stellar theories do not account for this sort of fluctuation. Everything from dust rings to comet clouds to asteroid swarms to alien megastructures has been proposed to explain these weird variations, but nobody has the slightest idea what is going on. The most likely explanation (published by Miz Boyajian) is that it’s dust, but nobody really knows. This sort of thing is a lot of fun as it was really kind of an amateur thing. Corliss also noticed the general effect (AOF2) before this survey, and further ones have been detected over time. Wakipedia has a convenient list of some of them. The Random Transiter is a popular one that seems particularly odd. Speaking of which, the weirdest known star of them all:

Przybylski’s star. I ran across this looking at John Baez twatter feed for some reason (I think I was looking for something relating to his uncle). This star is also oddly variable. Worse, it is missing what you’d otherwise expect of iron and nickel in its composition due to its type. Solar models are sort of baseline facts for observational astronomy and all kinds of stuff is derived from them, so deviations from elemental composition are a big deal. Weirdest of all, it has all kinds of weird elements in it. Lots of rare earths which you never see in solar spectra; Przybylski himself discovered these. Worse, in 2008, some spectroscopists had a look and discovered all kinds of weird radioactive elements; including ones which are not supposed to exist in nature. These things are only supposed to exist in reactors or by merging neutron stars I guess (what are the chances of that happening?). It contains Einsteinium which has a half life of only 400-odd days. How does this happen? Some have speculated its weird motion and weird elemental composition could be explained by it having a neutron star nearby. Others suggest it is a garbage dump for an advanced alien civilization. Finally, the spectroscopists who discovered all those weird lines in Przybylski’s star might have been smoking crack. I think the wakipedia entry is fairly useless, but this series of blergs by Jason Wright  was pretty good.


Wolf Rayet stars (AOF4). These were considered  anomalous in Corliss’ time,  I guess they’re now considered a normal phase of stellar evolution in large stars, though I think that’s just because they’ve been around a long time. What makes them weird is they’re big, very high temperature and the emission lines of helium, carbon and nitrogen are broad, meaning there’s some large Doppler-shifting velocities going on in the photosphere. Maelstroms of high energy chaos. They’re an old discovery: 1867 by Charles Wolf and Georges Rayet (in Paris, lol; imagine astronomers discovering things in cities now). They’re also rare, meaning whatever they are, they are probably short lifespan objects. The accepted hand-wavey idea behind them is that they’re really big, have exhausted their core hydrogen and sort of semi-exploded leaving behind lots of helium and other fusion products. It could be considered a fizzled supernova, a stage towards supernova explosions, or a form of supernova which happens outside the visual spectrum. The first one blowing up into an actual supernova was detected just this year.


Anomalous Cepheids (AOF6). Cepheid variable stars are a common form of pulsating star which astronomers understand reasonably well and use for all kinds of handy things. They’ve been known about for hundreds of years, and are an important basis for figuring out distances of other objects and groups of stars in the universe. The mechanism is thought to be fairly well understood; it has something to do with the opacity of doubly excited helium. Some of the Anomalous Cepheids have weird multi-frequency variations, and others have weird mass ratios compared to the ordinary run of Cepheids.

Bright Carbon Stars Rarity (AOF8). Carbon stars themselves are pretty rare, but it seems odd that there aren’t more bright ones. The simple model is that a carbon star is an old and sickly red giant with more carbon than oxygen in the atmosphere due to changing internal reactions. You’d expect to see similar red giant to carbon star brightness ratios, but you don’t.


Impossible triple star KIC 2856960. I found this one in the fun catalog of anomalies called “the Breakthrough Listen Exotica Catalog” by some SETI guys. I don’t think it’s a particularly good candidate for SETI listening (nor are most of the other things they list), but it is kind of neat, and everyone loves lists. This one comes from the Kepler satellite data, just as Tabby’s star did, and there is no way for 3-stars to satisfy Newtonian physics and match the observed data. There is a weird way for a 4-star system to do so, but only if you have a weirdly resonant 4th body, the resonance of which can’t be detected. Not the weirdest thing in the world, but it’s an excuse to mention the BLEC reference which I may draw upon in a future. Lots of weird radio and gamma ray anomalies there. Plus they list other stars with odd elemental abundances (though none as weird as Przybylski’s star).


9 Responses

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  1. anonymous said, on April 24, 2022 at 12:55 pm

    In your ancient gears to quantum mechanics article, you mentioned Edwin Jaynes, a guy whose attitude I admire, even if I’m not entirely sold on correct statistics tying up the unsolved strangeness in QM.

    Jaynes had an interesting series of letters he sent back and forth to Hugh Everett while Everett was fighting his own battle against the Copenhagen mafia (1957). They discussed some of the deeper esoterica of sorting out what must be ontological from what must be epistemological, and therefore described in information-terms. It was fascinating to read through. Here are two men who are actually trying to understand the world, and they’re being fairly intensely snubbed and sabotaged in academic catfights by this conspiracy of weirdos who seem opposed to and *offended by* the idea of the clarity that these men were seeking. People like Leon Rosenfeld (who if I recall correctly, also played a role in getting Bohm exiled to Brazil as a communist. (Rosenfeld was also a communist, and had some vendetta against Bohm because of Bohmian mechanics.))

    These letters and a few other things sort of clued me into the *politics* and *philosophy* behind some of the mess we are left with in physics: It isn’t all due to the difficulty of the subject or the actual mystery of the phenomena. Niels Bohr’s acolytes, and they were acolytes of a sort of anti-Realist philosophy, seemed to have it in for people trying to arrive at clear explanation. It wouldn’t take much to write some sort of “hidden history” thriller about the generational revolution in physics of the first half of the 20th century.

    • anonymous said, on April 24, 2022 at 1:13 pm

      Everetts letters to Jaynes and vice versa were all about ideas, logic, etc.

      Rosenfeld and Belinfantes letters to various people were almost entirely about snubbing this student, or failing that student, to suppress the wrong sort of ideas from the wrong sort of people gaining respectability, and bring everyone into line with the “new physics”, in which realism had no place.

      I’ll try to show your previous articles to a relative who is a machinist. It’s a hard field to survive in right now. It’s also so incredibly necessary. I’ve been fighting the gravitational pull of “abstracto-land” (where nothing ever happens outside of a damn slide-deck) my entire career.

  2. anonymous said, on April 24, 2022 at 1:24 pm

    Finally found where I pulled some of them from again:

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 26, 2022 at 7:15 pm

      Thanks, yeah, I’ll probably bloviate on this at some point. One or two people have made interesting comments on the topic. You’ve heard of zero of them. Sort of like Arkady Bolotin should be kinda famous at least among HN weebloids, but unfortunately he didn’t cornhole any Epstein sex slaves, unlike …. certain people at MIT, so no fame and fortune for him.

  3. tg said, on April 24, 2022 at 8:16 pm

    Not as interesting as stars but it’s still not known if there is/was life on Venus. Some, like Carl Sagan, speculated bacteria could live in the upper atmosphere. Scientists recently thought they detected phosphine gas there, which could be a signature of bacterial life. But then it turned out to be a likely data error. Sulfur dioxide looks a lot like phosphine spectrally.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 26, 2022 at 7:16 pm

      That would be pretty interesting!
      I think there’s enough weird shit with life on earth subsisting on hydrogen sulfide it certainly seems possible. Inevitable even.

  4. JaLnn said, on April 24, 2022 at 11:50 pm

    Besides ALL the other signs we see….Luke 21:25 kjv

    “And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring;”

  5. anonymous said, on April 28, 2022 at 11:57 am

    How does a guy like Corliss go about noticing this sort of stuff? There is infinite text out there, 1-epsilon of it being lethally uninteresting. What mental habits do you have to adopt to pick these things up?

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 29, 2022 at 9:07 am

      Most of his references are from the top journals; Nature, Science, etc. You could put in an hour or two a day of thumbing through old volumes and get pretty far finding weird stuff just in those. He was also a freelancer for a big chunk of his life (that’s how I find interesting stuff). Then once he got started on it, lots of people pitched in to help him out.

      Amusingly I find from his account that we both used to work in the same building in Berkeley, and probably frequented the same bookstores:

      Click to access 16.3_corliss.pdf

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