There could be all manner of alien life forms in the universe, from witless bacteria to superintelligent robots. Still, the notion of a starivore—an organism that literally devours stars—may sound a bit crazy, even to a seasoned sci-fi fan. And yet, if such creatures do exist, they’re probably lurking in our astronomical data right now.
Simple forms of life may be strewn all over universe, but if we ever discover intelligent aliens, they’ll probably vastly outstrip us in technology and intellect. It’s impossible to say exactly how a hyper-advanced civilization would live, but one very likely feature—according to the handful of scientists who ponder such matters—is their ability to harness tremendous quantities of energy.
“Our civilization produces minuscule amounts of energy—a trillion times less than the power produced by the sun,” Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department, told me. “You can imagine that some advanced civilization would be able to harness the entire energy of its host star. The question is, how would they do it?”
Is star-eating life one possible answer? That may depend on how we actually define life. Vidal’s starivores call for a definition free of our terrestrial biases (that life will require carbon, oxygen, water and so forth). But metabolism—the controlled conversion of matter to energy and expulsion of waste—is, by definition, common to all living organisms. And, it so happens, there are a number of stellar bodies in the universe that display similar behaviors, including certain binary stars.
“Energy flow, a maintenance of an internal organization and an exportation of entropy, all appear to be present in some binary systems,” Vidal writes in his PhD thesis, which was published as a book last year.
Which is to say, what astronomers may have taken to be two massive balls of plasma locked in a gravitational embrace could actually be a very large, very hungry civilization devouring a hapless star.
My absurdity heuristic is kicking into overdrive. Let’s give it a fair hearing then by actually browsing through Vidal’s paper. Here’s the abstract:
We lack signs of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) despite decades of observation of the universe in the whole electromagnetic spectrum. Could evidence be buried in existing data? To recognize ETI, we first propose criteria for artificiality based on thermodynamics and living systems theory. Then we extrapolate civilizational development to both external and internal growth. Taken together, these two trends lead to an argument that some existing binary stars might actually be ETI. Since these hypothetical beings feed actively on stars, we call them “starivores”. We present an independent thermodynamical argument for their existence, with a metabolic interpretation of interacting binary stars. The jury is still out, but the hypothesis is empirically testable with existing astrophysical data.
Sounds more reasonable. Urgh labels and referents and sneaked-in personal-history connotations etc.
Here’s the High Energy Astrobiology Prize for assessing the starivore hypothesis. QUoted below is the FAQ:
- What is high energy astrobiology?
It is a subdiscipline of astrobiology, focused on researching and assessing the possibility of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence manifested in known high energy phenomena in our universe.
- What is a starivore?
A civilization that actively feeds on stars. The starivore hypothesis is a reinterpretation of some existing binary star systems. Of course, we don’t know yet if such star systems are natural or artificial, that’s why there is a prize to find out.
- Do you really believe that some binary star systems could be extraterrestrial intelligence?
We do not like to believe. We want to know. The prize is meant to stimulate research in order to find out.
That’s the spirit. Completely sensible to me.