The Dyson sphere has become such a staple of SETI as well as science fiction that it’s hard to conceive how lightly Freeman Dyson himself took the idea. In a 2008 interview with Slate, he described the Dyson sphere as no more than ‘a little joke,’ and noted “it’s amusing that of course you get to be famous only for the things you don’t think are serious.” Indeed, Dyson’s 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation,” was but a one-page document in Science that grew out of his notion that an intelligent civilization might not have any interest in communicating. How, then, would astronomers on Earth go about finding it?
Waste heat was his answer, a nod to the laws of thermodynamics and the detectability of such heat in the infrared. Coming hard on the heels of Frank Drake’s Project Ozma (a likewise playful name, coined out of affection for L. Frank Baum’s imaginary land of Oz), Dyson saw a search for what would come to be called Dyson spheres as a complement in the infrared to what Drake had begun to do with radio telescopes. And in fact, Dyson didn’t refer to spheres at all, but biospheres. Let me quote him on this from the 2008 interview:
I suggested that people actually start looking in the sky with infrared telescopes as well as regular telescopes. So that was the proposal. But unfortunately I added to the end of that the remark that what we’re what we’re looking for is an artificial biosphere, meaning by biosphere just a habitat, something that could be in orbit around the neighboring star where the aliens might be living. So the word biosphere didn’t imply any particular shape. However, the science-fiction writers got hold of this and imagined a biosphere means a sphere, and it has to be some big round ball, so out of that there came these weird notions which ended up on Star Trek.
Changing Notions of a Dyson Sphere
Dyson told Slate he hadn’t been thinking remotely of a shell around a star, but a ‘a swarm of objects surrounding a star,’ one that from the outside would look more or less like a dust cloud. He was also quick to give credit for the concept to writer Olaf Stapledon, who as we saw in the previous post introduced it in his novel Star Maker all the way back in 1937. And indeed, we find Stapledon writing about a way to tap the energies of entire stars through “a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed…”
That Star Trek reference is to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that ran on October 12, 1992 (Season 6 Episode 4). It depicted the Enterprise crew encountering a shell-like Dyson sphere. Dyson didn’t mention Larry Niven’s wonderful Ringworld (1970), which draws on the shell concept to envision a vast ring around its star, a ‘cut-through’ of a full Dyson shell. I suspect he read it somewhere along the line, as he was frequently in conversation with science fiction writers who increasingly found his work a source for good ideas.
Image: Olaf Stapledon, author of Star Maker and Last and First Men.
As far as his light-hearted approach to the things he is best remembered for, I take that as a personal quirk. When I interviewed Dyson back in 2003, I found him quick to shift credit for ideas to other people and charmingly dismissive of his own contributions. I think his was an intellect so formidable that it surprised him with ideas that seemed to well up unbidden, so that in a real sense he didn’t want to lay claim to them.
And on Stapledon’s Star Maker, a further thought. It’s fun to note that Dyson sphere hunter Jason Wright at Penn State maintains a blog he calls Astrowright. It’s a fine play on words, I assume intentionally containing a nod to Stapledon. For if a shipwright is a maker of ships, an astrowright is surely a ‘star maker.’
The paper by Wright and Macy Huston that I looked at yesterday notes the distinction between Dyson shells and Dyson spheres; i.e., between a solid spherical shell and a vast collection of objects in orbit around the star, adding that ‘for simplicity of language, we refer to any configuration of a starlight-manipulating megastructure as a Dyson sphere.’ I think that’s common usage throughout the literature, saving the intriguing work on Shkadov thrusters, which are inherently asymmetrical and don’t fit Dyson sphere modeling. But moving stars is a topic for another day.
How Dyson Sphere Searches Proceed
Playful or not, it didn’t take long for Dyson’s SETI notion to take hold. In 1966, Carl Sagan and Russell Walker delved into “The Infrared Detectability of Dyson Civilizations” in a paper for the Astrophysical Journal. This too is no more than a note, but it makes the case for looking for astronomical sources that would appear as blackbodies with a temperature of several hundred K. Such detections were possible, the authors argued, but “discrimination of Dyson civilizations from naturally occurring low temperature objects is very difficult, unless Dyson civilizations have some further distinguishing feature, such as monochromatic radio-freqency emission.”
Note that last comment, because we’ll come back to it. It’s insightful in describing the nature of Dyson sphere searches and the possible results from a detection.
Which brings me to the Russian radio astronomer Vyacheslav Ivanovich Slysh, who in the 1980s examined sources identified by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) in a search for just the kind of waste heat Dyson had discussed. In 2000, Slysh’s work was followed up by M. Y. Timofeev, collaborating with Nikolai Kardashev (most famous, of course, for the ‘Kardashev scale’ ranking technological civilizations).
Richard Carrigan, a scientist emeritus in the Accelerator Division at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, went to work on IRAS data as well and in a 2009 search, used the data on 250,000 infrared sources (covering 96 percent of the sky), looking for both full and partial Dyson spheres in a blackbody temperature region from 100 K to 600 K.
The result: Some 16 candidates with temperatures below 600 K in a field of objects out to 300 parsecs. And as Carrigan noted, most of these have non-technological explanations, and all are in need of further study before any conclusions are drawn. I should also mention the searches for Dyson spheres by Jun Jugaku and Shiro Nishimura when talking about IRAS. Their work in the 1990s found no Dyson spheres around the roughly 550 stars they surveyed within 25 parsecs.
This is a good time to mention some useful background materials. The first is a video presentation Jason Wright made to a seminar at Penn State in 2020, helpfully made available online. It’s an excellent encapsulation of the Dyson sphere concept and the investigations into it, including the subsequent searches using WISE [Wide Field Infrared Survey], with higher resolution than IRAS could provide. One problem with all of these is what Wright dubs ‘infrared cirrus,’ which basically refers to diffuse dust that greatly compromises the consequent data. Carrigan would doubtless have retrieved a much higher number of candidates if he could have worked without this background.
The second reference is Wright’s overview “Dyson Spheres,” which ran in the Serbian Astronomical Journal, Issue 200 (2020), with preprint available here. For those wanting to come up to speed on the origins and development of the idea of Dyson spheres, their purpose, their engineering, and their detectability, this is an excellent resource.
Until reading the Huston & Wright paper, I had been unaware of Massimo Teodorani, whose 2014 paper in Acta Astronautica presented what he called a ‘pragmatic strategy’ for searching for Dyson spheres involving infrared excess and anomalous light curves using Spitzer data to locate such signatures at G-class stars. A common theme in much of this work is the recognition that the goal is to identify interesting targets for further study. A detection of an interesting source would not in itself be proof of an extraterrestrial civilization, but rather identification of an object that could be followed up with more conventional methods such as laser or radio search. There is no single ‘aha!’ moment, but steady and careful analysis.
The search space for Dyson spheres has been expanding dramatically. In the late 1990s, James Annis analyzed the rotational dynamics of 137 different galaxies in the Ursa Major and Virgo galaxy clusters, looking for Kardashev Type III civilizations. He found no evidence for them, but going to this scale inevitably reminds us of the Fermi paradox. As Annis told Lee Billings in 2015:
“Life, once it becomes spacefaring, looks like it could cross a galaxy in as little as 50 million years. And 50 million years is a very short time compared to the billion-year timescales of planets and galaxies. You would expect life to crisscross a galaxy many times in the nearly 14 billion years the universe has been around. Maybe spacefaring civilizations are rare and isolated, but it only takes just one to want and be able to modify its galaxy for you to be able to see it. If you look at enough galaxies, you should eventually see something obviously artificial. That’s why it’s so uncomfortable that the more we look, the more natural everything appears.”
The mid-infrared WISE survey [Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer] gave us far more data within which to conduct such a search. Wright’s work using WISE data has been extensively covered in these pages, including an article he wrote for Centauri Dreams called Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies, the name of the program he started at Penn State. The G-HAT program led to a search through WISE data that culled out some 100,000 galaxies looking for unusually strong signatures in the mid-infrared. Fifty of these galaxies showed interesting infrared properties, though as with Carrigan’s results, without any definitive signs of a technology.
I’ve quoted Wright on this result before, but that was years ago, so let me pull this out again:
“Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes. That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them.”
Note the phrasing: This is explicitly a search for Kardashev Type III, one manifestation of which would be civilizations that fill their galaxy with Dyson spheres. The G-HAT results do not close the book on Dyson sphere searches, but they do tell us that such Type III civilizations are not detected within the energy levels we might expect.
Image: A false-color image of the mid-infrared emission from the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, as seen by Nasa’s WISE space telescope. The orange color represents emission from the heat of stars forming in the galaxy’s spiral arms. The G-HAT team used images such as these to search 100,000 nearby galaxies for unusually large amounts of this mid-infrared emission that might arise from alien civilizations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team.
G-HAT is all about putting upper limits on energies emitted as waste heat in nearby galaxies, and while Dysonian SETI methods seem to diverge from earlier radio and laser SETI, the two approaches actually work quite well together. As the search continues, anomalous objects form a catalog which can be consulted by the entire SETI community, using its resources at various wavelengths to probe the result more deeply.
Although I’m out of time today, I want to make the point that Dyson spheres shouldn’t be thought of purely as means of energy collection, because the manipulation of a star at this level could involve changing the character of the star itself. In a future article I’ll look at why a civilization might want to do this, and who has been investigating the matter. Until then, here are references to the searches we’ve talked about today.
The Sagan and Walker paper is “The Infrared Delectability of Dyson Civilizations,” Astrophysical Journal 144 (3), (1966), p. 1216 (abstract).
The Slysh paper is “A Search in the Infrared to Microwave for Astroengineering Activity,” in The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: Recent Developments, M. D. Papagiannis (Editor), Reidel Pub. Co., Boston, Massachusetts, 1985, p. 315.
Timofeev and Kardashev wrote “A Search of the IRAS Database for Evidence of Dyson Spheres,” Acta Astronautica 46 (2000), p. 655.
The Teodorani paper is “A strategic “viewfinder” for SETI research,” Acta Astronautica Vol. 105, Issue 2 (December 2014). Abstract.
On G-HAT, see Griffith et al., “The ? Infrared Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations with Large Energy Supplies. III. The Reddest Extended Sources in WISE,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series Vol. 217, No. 2, published 15 April 2015 (abstract / preprint).