Jan 11 2018

Fast Radio Bursts – Still Not Aliens

This is a (sort of) follow up to my previous post. Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are a legitimate astronomical mystery, and very interesting. They are very brief (30 microseconds to 9 milliseconds) and very powerful bursts of radio waves. To date about 30 FRBs have been detected. Most of these FRBs are one-offs – they occur once and never repeat (at least so far). There is one exception, however, FRB 121102 (more on that below).

What do we know about FRBs so far? They are isotropic, which means they occur all over the sky. They are not concentrated in the galactic disk. This by itself implies they are extragalactic. But also analysis of the radio bursts indicate that they have traveled through intergalactic plasma, for billions of light years. So they must also be incredibly powerful. The radio waves are broadband, so they are spread throughout the radio wavelengths. They are also highly polarized, which means they were aligned at their creation with a strong magnetic field.

Because they are radio bursts, they are studied by radio astronomers, which includes SETI astronomers, whose primary mission is to survey the sky for possible alien communications. In an SGU interview with SETI astronomer Seth Shostak he indicated that SETI does a lot of non-ET-related astronomy. This is a good example of that – they are helping to detect and analyze FRBs, including analysis of FRB 121102.

FRB 121102 is the only known FRB repeater, and so far we have detected a few hundred bursts from this same location. This has afforded astronomers the unique opportunity to more closely examine this FRB. A recent additional 15 bursts from 121102 have allowed astronomers to pinpoint the location to a star-forming region in a dwarf galaxy more than 3 billion light-years from Earth. Analysis of these bursts also shows that they are 100% linearly polarized, again indicating they are produced within a powerful magnetic field.

What this likely means is that the source of these FRBs is a massive black hole. Rotating plasma falling into massive black hole can generate a powerful magnetic field. This black hole is interacting with something to generate the FRBs.

Perhaps all FRBs come from massive black holes, but most result from rare and isolated events, while 121102 has a neighbor or something which allows for their repeated creation.

But keeping with the theme that all astronomical mysteries may be aliens until proven otherwise, SETI is analyzing the FRB 121102 signals to see if they contain any modulated information – complex information that would not be expected to come from a natural source.

It is reasonable to conduct this kind of analysis. We don’t know what we don’t know, and who can say what a superadvanced alien technological civilization could be capable of. At the very least this project will hopefully give them more experience in analyzing radio signals for interesting patterns, and may discover something non-alien but interesting about FRBs. It’s all good.

But I am not holding my breath that FRBs will turn out to be alien in origin. They clearly have a natural source. Hiding a signal in them would mean manipulating an interaction with a massive black hole in order to encode a signal in the FRB somehow. If you could pull something like this off, it would create a beacon you can send across the universe. But messing with supermassive black holes just seems unlikely. I’m happy to be surprised, but again, just not expecting to be.

The alien angle aside – FRBs are clearly the result of some interesting and powerful astronomical event. They may not be rare (well, not rare when you have the entire visible universe to survey). One estimate is that there may be thousands of FRBs visible somewhere in the universe every day. If that’s true we should start finding many more examples to study.

29 responses so far

29 thoughts on “Fast Radio Bursts – Still Not Aliens”

  1. mumadadd says:

    “astronomer SETH Shostak”

    Huh, why did you capitalise his first name — is it an acronym? 😉

  2. Ha – probably just muscle memory from typing SETI throughout the article. Fixed.

  3. edwardBe says:

    “If you could pull something like this off, it would create a beacon you can send across the universe.” And it would still take billions of years to get from there to here. If there is anyone there, I wonder what they have been doing over the last 3 billion years?”

  4. fledarmus says:

    This is just a side effect of a planet being potted into a black hole as part of a game of intergalactic bar billiards.

  5. BillyJoe7 says:


    If they are telling us via those FRBs (I still think they should be called BRBs – Brief Radio Bursts), and we end up decoding their message, it’s going to take 3 billion years to find out. 🙁

  6. BillyJoe7 says:

    Interesting hypothesis regarding SETI and SETH, especially as only the last letter is different. 🙂

  7. BillyJoe7 says:


    Your account seems to differ from the account given by the researchers in the link you posted:

    The source of the FRBs is likely to be a “massive black hole”.

    The researchers:
    The source is believed to be “a regular neutron star…either near a black hole or embedded in a powerful nebula”

    The radio signals of FRB 121102 “are 100% linearly polarized…indicating they are produced within a powerful magnetic field”

    The researchers:
    The radio signals of FRB 121102 “are almost completely polarised” and “when these polarised signals travel through a magnetic field, they become twisted” as a result of close proximity to “a massive black hole” or “a powerful nebula or supernova remnant”

  8. bachfiend says:

    There’s undoubtedly an intelligible cause for the FRBs, which includes intelligent causes, unlikely though they are. Given enough time and data, it’s likely that we (or at least scientists with the necessary expertise and equipment) will come up with a plausible hypothesis/theory as to their cause.

    ID proponents such as Michael Egnor, have the misconception that astronomers are willing to put ETIs high on the list of possible causes of currently unexplained phenomena, whereas biologists refuse to see or consider intelligent design in biological systems on Earth.

    Egnor claims that SETI is looking for intelligent design in the stars, and is science (it’s debatable whether it’s actually science – I have my doubts), so therefore Intelligent Design is also science, because it’s also looking for intelligent design in Life.

    Which is doubtful. All that ID proponents seem to be doing is casting doubt on how non-intelligent natural processes can cause some feature or other in the natural world, and hence intelligent design must be the cause.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    My take on what the researchers say:

    A neutron star is believed to be the source of the almost completely polarised radio signals of FRB 121102, which then become “twisted” by passing through a powerful magnetic field produced by a nearby massive black hole, powerful nebula, or supernova remnant.

  10. BillyJoe7 says:


    ME would have to say that the ID (Intelligent Designer) intelligently designed the ETI (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). Therefore a search for an ETI cannot possibly be analogous to a search for the ID.

  11. bachfiend says:


    I refer you to the article Egnor published on Evolution News on August 10, 2016 ‘In Astronomy, the Inference to Design is Flourishing’, which was referring to the suggestion that the anomalous irregular dips in light intensity from Tabby’s star might possibly be due to a Dyson’s sphere in construction.

    I don’t think that Egnor would ever argue that the Intelligent Designer (his God in other words) would intelligently design another intelligent species in the Universe, since that would conflict with his sense of human exceptionalism in the Universe.

    He clings to human exceptionalism even on Earth, insisting that only humans have an ‘intelligent soul.’

    He’d never admit that an ETI exists elsewhere in the Universe. It would remove his argument that atheists are being illogical in accepting that probably, verging on certainty, there’s at least one other intelligence (perhaps many) elsewhere in the Universe, but reject the possibility that his God exists (which he regards as a certainty), despite the evidence for both being identical, ie zero.

  12. BillyJoe7 says:


    “He’d never admit that an ETI exists elsewhere in the Universe”

    I don’t suppose he would.

    But, I was trying to show why looking for evidence of intelligent design on Earth, is not analagous to looking for evidence of intelligent design in the rest of the universe. Perhaps that is better seen by stating the non-analogy correctly: Looking for evidence of an intelligent designer in intelligent life on Earth is not analagous to looking for evidence of intelligent life in the rest of the universe. The correct analogy would be: Looking for evidence of an intelligent designer in intelligent life on Earth is analogous to looking for evidence of an intelligent designer in intelligent life in the rest of the universe.

    Perhaps my point is more clearly seen by imagining a time (if indeed there does come such a time) when SETI has found evidence of ETI – Egnor would have to look for evidence that the intelligent designer designed the ETI.

  13. BillyJoe7 says:

    And looking for ETI is science.

    Science is basically making observations that increase or decrease the probability of that a plausible hypothesis is true or false.
    The hypotheses: Extra-terrestrial intelligent life exists.
    The hypothesis is plausible, because we already have an instance of intelligent life on one planet in the universe so, at the very least, if those conditions are duplicated elsewhere in the universe which contains hundreds of billions of planets in hundreds of billions of galaxies, there is no reason why intelligent life cannot evolve there as well.
    And observations can increase or decrease the probability that the hypothesis is true or false:
    If we keep looking for evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligent life and we continue not to find any evidence for it, then the probability that extra-terrestrial intelligent life exists progressively decreases.
    If we do find some evidence for extra-terrestrial life that increases the probability that extra-terrestrial intelligent life exists and it increases the probability in proportion to the amount of evidence for it.

    Therefore looking for ETI is science.

  14. bachfiend says:


    I don’t think that Egnor would be looking for evidence that the Intelligent Designer intelligently designed the ETI were one discovered; that’s a given as far as he’s concerned (although Egnor thinks Life was divinely created because of teleological not design reasons).

    I think his problem would be theological. How would he be able to square the idea of the Trinity with Jesus, the Son a part of a single God, coming to Earth in physical form to provide salvation to a single intelligent species (not Homo neanderthalensis, not whales, not elephants), with ETIs elsewhere in the Universe, perhaps many of them?

    Did his God send his Son to provide salvation to the ETIs too? Or are they damned? Or are Christians supposed to be bringing the Word to the ETIs in the same way that Europeans brought Christianity to remote continents such as the Americas?

    Paul Davies discussed this in his book ‘the Eerie Silence.’

  15. bachfiend says:


    I don’t think that SETI is science because the hypothesis it is testing is not ‘extra-terrestrial Intelligent life exists.’

    The hypothesis it’s testing is ‘extraterrestrial intelligent life, with technology similar to 20th century human technology and which is close enough to the Earth for us with our current technology to detect, exists.’

    Falsifying SETI’s hypothesis does nothing to falsify the hypothesis that there might be an ETI on the other side of the Galaxy let alone a Galaxy Billions of light years away.

    SETI might have been reasonable at a time when it wasn’t possible to detect extrasolar planets. Future technology promises the ability to directly examine the atmospheres of extrasolar planets and determine the likelihood of Life existing there.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:


    I’ve no idea how ME would reconcile the discovery of ETI with his particular version of god, but there is always some way or another that religionists twist and torture the hard won victories of science into support for their pet religion.

    But regarding SETI being science:

    I will happily agree with your expanded form of the hypothesis. It is still plausible though. We can argue about how plausible, and whether it’ sufficiently plausible to warrant spending our time, money, and expertise doing the science. Presently it’s all privately funded, so governments have decided the money isn’t well spent, or low priority, no votes, don’t care. Some private individuals obviously do. I wouldn’t spend any of my money or time on it and I don’t have any expertise. However I will be happy if they find evidence in favour of the hypothesis.

    I don’t know what SETI’s actual hypothesis is, but I’m happy you agree that the expanded version is science. That’s all I meant – it’s science as long as it’s plausible and that observations over time can increase or decrease the probability that the hypothesis is true or false.

  17. mattherron says:

    I don’t know Michael Egnor’s views on the subject, but David Klinghoffer thinks that both the existence and the non-existence of extraterrestrial life would support intelligent design:
    “…if so far all the data point toward life not spontaneously assembling, powered by the mere warming rays of our sun or another star, then if it were to turn out that the galaxy really does brim with life, wouldn’t that at least be highly suggestive of some intelligence, some designer, having seeded it there?
    Of course if life exists on our planet alone, that’s also a problem for materialists. Sometimes it puzzles me that they keep pushing the notion of a widely inhabited cosmos. Whether the idea is true or not, it seems to be, for them, a lose-lose proposition while being for us a win-win.”

    from http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/11/if_ets_were_fou079301.html

  18. Willy says:

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster–He was boiled for your sins.

  19. BillyJoe7 says:

    Hmmm…Steven Novella hasn’t responded to my corrections to his post…I think I’ll now throw a Yahouda Harpaz hissy fit! 😀

  20. BillyJoe7 says:

    “The Flying Spaghetti Monster–He was boiled for your sins”

    You can show your appreciation every Sunday morning by eating his noodles and drinking his sauce.

  21. mumadadd says:

    I happen to be an ordained misistrone of the CFM and o find your comments distasteful.

  22. mumadadd says:

    *I* find…

  23. mumadadd says:

    FSM dammit, I totally messed that up. Try again…

    I happen to be an ordained misistrone of the CFSM (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) and I find your comments distasteful.

    Don’t forget to tip your waiter, I’m here all week.

  24. Willy says:

    mumadadd: If you find my belief that the FSM was boiled for your sins to be wrong, then you are clearly a heretic. I suppose you doubt his quad-une nature too? Pasta, sauce, garlic, Parmesan–and ONLY Parmigiano Reggiano! You must come from a shithole country!

    To your knees and say twenty Hail Fettuccines–NOW!

    BJ7–We do NOT drink his sauce! We slurp it!

  25. mumadadd says:

    Willy, I caught my ex-girlfriend experimenting with Grana Padano. I boiled her in salted water to cleanse her of her sin.

  26. Willy says:

    mumadadd–Good thing she paid for her sin! Next thing you know, she’d have been serving pre-grated “Parm” in a green can from Kraft. What a wicked generation we live in!

  27. BillyJoe7 says:


    “I boiled her in salted water”

    Salted water keeps in the flavour. You should have used plain water.
    Then again, if you threw out the baby with the bath water…

  28. mumadadd says:


    We reserve boiling in unsalted water for the ultimate sin — apastasy. While terrible, the eating of forbudden cheese doesn’t qualify.

  29. Robney says:

    “complex information that would not be expected to come from a natural source.”

    I’m surprised a couple of the regulars didn’t use this to shoe horn in some anti-evolution talking points.

    Maybe the same cosmic force that guides our genetic mutations is guiding black holes to encode secret messages in FRBs?

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