Triolet for Tabby’s Star

Artist’s rendering of Tabby’s Star by NASA

This week’s prompt for the Rattlecast was to write a poem about a scientific discovery, and I ended up writing about Tabby’s Star. First discovered in 2015 by amateur scientists looking for exoplanets in data from the Keppler telescope, the star KIC 8462852’s dimming was like nothing ever found before—it’s irregular and huge and without a corresponding drop at infrared wavelengths. Something huge and strangely shaped orbits this star, periodically blocking out up to 22% of it’s light.

Tabby’s Star is only slightly larger than our sun, and it would take a planet many times larger than Jupiter to block that much light—oh, and the planet would have to be shaped like a triangle.

It was fun to imagine it might be aliens. Maybe it’s a massive armada of starships refueling 1,500 light years away. Maybe it’s a Dyson swarm of huge satellites powering an advanced civilization. Maybe we’re not alone.

For years there really wasn’t a plausible explanation; the behavior was too odd. But last year a new paper came out that probably explains it: A detached moon the size of Mars could be orbiting the planet, slowly breaking apart and creating a ring of dust around the star like the mother of all comets. And sadly, the modeling works out—such an event is possible and really would look like this from our perspective.

Space retains its eerie silence. The Fermi Paradox lives on.


Triolet for Tabby’s Star

Why is it such a rare and fragile thing
to find a ring around a star so like our own?
The galaxies stretch out like jewels upon a string—
why is it such a rare and fragile thing?
More spheres than grains of sand—but they don’t sing.
There’s too much room for us to fill alone.
Why is it such a rare and fragile thing
to find a ring around a star so like our own?

Sunday SciKu | Word Form Area

For a long time I’ve been interested the Snake Detection Hypothesis, which says that it was primates’ co-evolution with snakes that allowed for the rapid development of our excellent vision—we had to be able to quickly recognize camouflaged snakes so they wouldn’t kill us as we coexisted for millions of years in the same habitat. My hunch has been, though I’ve never found any research on this topic, that it’s this same high-contrast pattern detection that allows us to read text, and that the “visual word form area” of the brain is an adaptive overlay on top of the snake detection area. If you look at the pattern on a snake, it kind of looks like text. Which has cool implications for the Eden myth, where it was the snake that taught us knowledge. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it would be interesting if it is.

Anyway, this paper points toward that hypothesis, showing that the visual word form area is pre-wired into the brains of infants. They put 40 newborns into an fMRI machine and showed that they already have the VWFA. Which begs the question—how could this module have already evolved when majority literacy (let alone universal literacy) is only 75 years old? In 1820, only 12% of the global population could read—yet we already have a pre-wired VWFA just 200 years later? How is that possible? My answer: snakes.


your first words
snaking across the page
parting the grass


Sunday SciKu | Fossil Tracks

footprints in the sand

Photo by Kevin Bluer

A lot of the cool things about this story are in the science paper but not the article: They found mile-long tracks at White Sands National Park and determined it was a girl carrying a toddler, shifting the kid from one hip to the other and occasionally putting it down. She walked in a straight line like she knew exactly where she was going, at about 3.8 mph, so a brisk pace, and then followed the same path back a few hours later without the toddler. During the time in between, a giant ground sloth and a mammoth crossed her tracks. The mammoth just kept walking, but the ground sloth sniffed, then stood on its hind legs to look around, seemingly worried about human predation. A whole mysterious story in these tracks—and what happened to the toddler?


such a long walk into the future fossil