Is “Hoag’s Object” an “engineered” galaxy?

The question asked in the title of this post is one I have been pondering for the most part of a decade now, ever since I saw the image, shown in Figure 1, of the galaxy PGC54559 (popularly known as Hoag’s Object) in 2010, following several months of thinking about what Kardashev Type III civilisations might look like.

hoag_hst_big_full
Figure 1. PGC54559 (“Hoag’s Object”). Image credit: NASA & The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Acknowledgement: Ray A. Lucas (STScI/AURA). Multiple formats and sizes are available from: http://hubblesite.org/image/1241/news_release/2002-21

I had seen it before, of course, as it is one of the most striking of the many superlatively beautiful and photogenic images that the Hubble Space Telescope has made available to humanity as part of its astounding legacy. But when I saw it again on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day on that day in late August 2010, I saw it in a quite different context – one prompted by having thought deeply for some months about what galaxy-scale macro-engineering might look like. And so, picture it: that idea, coupled with that image, and you can see, I hope, how the question asked in this post’s title would come immediately and insistently to mind (at least, for me!). As I thought about it even more for a few weeks, I even ended up tweeting about it – so strongly had the idea installed itself into my head! – https://twitter.com/JosephVoros/status/26173613969 (see Figure 2).

JV-tweet4
Figure 2. A tweet from Oct 02, 2010.

In fact, there were five tweets in all (first, second, third, fourth:shown here, fifth) which, fortunately, were so far in the distant past of the tweet-stream that when I decided to delete thousands of tweets as a precursor to getting off social media entirely a couple of years ago (well, it worked, for a while…), they were no longer easily accessible, and so survived the bulk-cull. Thus, luckily, they still exist as an historical record of what was at the time an hysterical time of intense SETI-focussed cogitation!

Of course, there is a fair bit of background thinking that underpins the suggestion that Hoag’s Object might (with any luck!) be an example of galaxy-scale macro-engineering. It started with a paper written over a decade ago for the Journal of Futures Studies (‘Macro-perspectives beyond the World System‘ [1]), which itself was an extension of an idea from an earlier paper for the same journal [2]. The jumping-off point for that paper was an observation by Johan Galtung [3], who had proposed a three-level schema for conducting social analyses of various types – at the individual, the social-system, and the world-system levels – which all come under the umbrella of what is part of a broad “macrohistorial” approach to looking for possible “patterns” in history (all taking place on Earth, of course). He noted [3, p.3]:

The macrohistorical approach also makes sense beyond this [three-level schema]. Imagine if we discovered other worlds with historical processes. We could then move up one level and write an interworld history as raw material for a macrohistory of interplanetary or even intergalactic systems, incorporating biological and physical systems, and their rhythms.

This of course prompted the thought that, in order to extend the schema (as he suggested was possible), another framework would be required which began with world systems, rather than ended with them – such as, for example, the above-mentioned Kardashev schema. The Kardashev scale, as originally proposed in 1964, had three levels also – planetary, stellar, and galactic – and the civilisations Kardashev designated as Types I, II or III map to these levels of structure, respectively [4]. The Macro-perspectives paper [1] then went on to discuss various perspectives that move beyond an Earth-based scope or context (as the title suggests), including, of course, the observation that other technological civilisations might exist, as implied by the Karadashev scale, which thereby brings our attention to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It was in this context – while examining various parameters which researchers have used to think about SETI and the consequences of detecting extraterrestrial life or intelligence – that the idea was mooted of conducting a full-blown parametric analysis of possible detection scenarios. The 2007 paper noted [1, p. 16] that:

From a futurist’s perspective, the range and scope of possible detection scenarios are of some interest, as an understanding of the extent and contours of this scenario space could help us prepare for the implications of such an event. … [O]ne can imagine several parameters which might characterise the scenario space of contact: proximity, ranging from proximal to distal (e.g., terrestrial, solar system, nearby stellar system, within our galaxy, in another galaxy); complexity of life, from simple (e.g., bacteria), to complex (e.g., reptiles), to intelligent; and, the nature of contact, whether direct (face-to-‘face’), or indirect (e.g., fossil traces, or mediated through technology, such as an intelligent probe). Additional parameters might also include, in the case of intelligent life, the motivation of the extraterrestrials towards us (hostile, benign, indifferent, helpful, etc.), as well as the age or stage of development of their civilisation (such as its Kardashev type, among other things).

Fast-forward a decade and the follow-up paper to this suggestion – ‘On a morphology of contact scenario space‘ [5] – has now appeared in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, as mentioned in an earlier post. The approach used to conduct the parametric analysis is a variant of the technique of “morphological analysis” developed by Fritz Zwicky, the legendary Caltech astrophysicist of the early-to-mid 20th Century CE who, among other things, inferred the existence of “dark matter” as early as the 1930s, but which suggestion was not followed-up until Vera Rubin (re-)discovered it in the 1970s.

I had written a paper in 2009 on the use of morphological methods in foresight [6] which had discussed a number of approaches to morphological analysis (and which, I am very happy to say, won the “Outstanding Paper” award for the journal volume for that year in the Emerald Literati Awards for Excellence, 2010). A move to another city at around that time had necessitated daily long train commutes to get to/from my university for work, and it was on these commutes that the 2009 morphology paper was mostly written (as well as during a two-week stint while quite ill in bed). Once it was published it was not long before I began trying out various parameters for a possible scenario space for “contact”, building upon the idea from, and parameters mentioned in, the 2007 paper. The long train commutes provided an opportunity to while away the traveling time by experimenting with various scenarios that might emerge from the (very!) many possible configurations which would be contained in the parametric “configuration space” of any proposed morphological array that attempted to be seriously realistic (see below).

In this particular investigation I used the variant of morphological analysis known as “field anomaly relaxation” or “FAR” (developed by Russell Rhyne, see [6]), where the parameters are called Sectors, the parameter values are called Factors, and which uses a mnemonic “word” of up to six or seven letters to represent the morphological space, derived from letters contained in the Sector names. There is some degree of latitude in the choice of the Sector-designation letters used to produce the mnemonic “word” and, obviously, the more memorable the mnemonic, the better! The mnemonic which eventually came to be used was LSEARCH (“ell-search”) and the resulting “Sector/Factor array” that was eventually published is shown in Figure 3. A few other parameters for possible subsequent analysis and exploration were also mentioned as potential extensions to this “minimalist” morphology for contact scenario space, but were not used in that particular instance of analysis, although they could be one day in follow-up work…

1-s2.0-S0040162517306078-gr2
Figure 3. The LSEARCH Sector/Factor array; a minimalist morphology for contact scenarios (called Fig. 2 in the paper itself). Source: Ref. [5].
A single specific “configuration” in the total morphological “configuration space” is selected by choosing one Factor from each Sector for all of the (in this case, seven) Sectors. In the array shown in Figure 3, one can see that there are therefore 3\times 2\times 3\times 2\times 6\times 2\times 4 = 1,728 possible configurations in the total morphological configuration space, each of which represents one potential contact scenario. (Not all of these are necessarily “coherent” or “consistent”, and usually some “pruning” of the configuration space is generally possible which can reduce the total configuration space of all the formal possibilities to a somewhat smaller “solution” space of the “consistent” ones; see [6] for more details.)

Something that can be quite fun when exploring a newly-constructed morphological space is to – as it were – “spin” the Sectors at random like the reels in a poker/slot machine to see what “hand” is so dealt, and then to reverse-engineer what the configuration(s) in the morphological space might represent in the “real world” that the morphology is being used to model.

One of the morphological “hands” that emerged in this way (during the above-mentioned train commutes) can be rendered as: L_3S_2E_iA_jR_6C_2H_{2/3} – the i and j indices are “free” in the sense that no specific index values are assigned to them (here think of free indices such as are found in some forms of tensor analysis). E_i represents “some entity of unspecified nature”, while A_j represents “a sign of indeterminate character” (i.e., possibly intentional, possibly not). The other terms indicate: L_3 – an intelligent entity; S_2 – a physical sign (i.e., not an electromagnetic signal); R_6 – extra-galactic (i.e., outside our own galaxy); C_2 – “indirect” contact (i.e., there is no actual direct contact between us and the entity); and H_{2/3} – a Kardashev type that is II or III or some transition between these (i.e., at least stellar possibly heading towards or at galactic scale). In other words: this designation characterises what might be called galaxy-scale macro-engineering outside the Milky Way Galaxy. Couple this designation with the image shown in Figure 1, and I hope you can see why I found this idea so intriguing on that day in 2010.

As is remarked in Ref. [5, sect. 7], this idea was so intriguing that it has stayed very firmly in mind ever since. It was mentioned in the 2010 running of what had come to be called the “scary aliens” lecture of the MSF unit Dimensions of Global Change, the final unit of the first year of the MSF back in those days. This had been the customary final lecture of that unit since 2003, so students would finish their first year of the MSF with what was intended to be a series of fun, big-picture, and mind-blowing macro-perspectives, including SETI and possible contact (hence, “scary aliens”). (This lecture was also the basis of Refs [1] and [2], both of which have now been updated, edited and abridged into the book chapter for the Big History Anthology [7], mentioned in an earlier post). This was then followed by: a conference presentation at the International Big History Association inaugural conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in August 2012 [8], later written up as part of a selection of papers from that conference [9]; a public event (held, appropriately, in a planetarium) at the Asia-Pacific Foresight Conference in Perth, Western Australia in November 2012 [10]; as well as forming the final part of a presentation at the Big History Anthropocene conference held at Macquarie University in Sydney in early December 2015 [11] (also mentioned in an earlier post, and embedded below).

For me, this is an idea that just cries out to be tested experimentally (and I hope for you, too!). Of course, there are many papers dealing with the striking core-gap-ring structure which attempt to explain the galaxy’s unusual morphology by modelling naturally-occurring dynamics (many of these are cited in [1] and also in [9]), and most of the hypotheses remain viable, so there is no criticism of the viability of those hypotheses intended. It’s just that, given the thinking leading up to the LSEARCH designation shown, it does invite the further suggestion that perhaps, just perhaps, the processes involved in giving rise to the highly unusual structure of Hoag’s Object might not be entirely natural… And that, I think, suggests that taking a much closer look – “just in case” – is worth a bit of time and effort, given the astonishing pay-off that it might possibly yield…

Luckily, it is not too difficult to think of several empirical observations that could be made to begin to investigate this beguiling possibility, including [1, p.135; 9, pp.12-13]:

  1. examination of the radiation coming from behind the galaxy through the ‘gap’ between the core and ring for any anomalies (e.g., diffraction, scattering, polarisation) compared to analogous background radiation from immediately adjacent to it;
  2. spectroscopic examination of the composition of the ring for any anomalies in the extent or character of star-forming regions or in the chemical composition (e.g., metallicity profile) compared to what would be expected from the ‘usual’ processes of stellar evolution going on in analogous spiral galaxies of similar diameter and age; and
  3. examination of the peri-core region for any possible time-keeping or other beacons that may be being used to coordinate in time any putative galaxy-scale engineering activities that might require synchronisation.

The idea of an, as it were, “Galactic Mean Time” to aid synchronisation of engineering activities is prompted, in part, by the presence of an intriguing “osculating braid” structure in the stars of the ring [12, p.463], and also, in part, from a whimsical short-story by Seth Shostak [13]. The star-forming regions appear to be synchronised in space, which could, of course, simply be a pressure-shock effect from cascading supernovae. But, what if this effect is being deliberately produced or nudged-along, or perhaps is being made to move in the direction opposite to what is expected for comparable galaxies where similar dynamics occur? An effectively-immortal species with a macro-engineering bent might decide – perhaps as a way to while away the endless aeons – to create an aesthetic effect by setting off supernovae in synchronisation so as to generate a braid of star-forming regions in the ring, which would require a standardised galactic clock. In other words (putting on a “preposterous futures” thinking hat), could the braid actually be an example of galaxy-scale installation art?

Or, perhaps the braid may be being used to signal to other galaxies, since only really long-lived species (like themselves) would notice any anomalous motion of such a braid structure. There would thus likely only be a response possible from similarly long-lived species, as opposed to shorter-lived ones who might not be that interesting to them (after all, we don’t bother to make “contact” with mayflies, do we?). In this regard, it is interesting to note that there is visible in the gap (at roughly the “12:30” position) what appears to be another, presumably much more distant, galaxy which appears to have a similar morphology to Hoag’s Object. Could that more distant galaxy have been a trigger for the intelligent entities in Hoag’s Object (the “Hoagsians”?) to re-engineer their own galaxy (e.g., by seeding in them the idea of undertaking their own galactic macro-engineering and possible ring-braiding project as a form of “reply”)?

On my ultra-preposterous futures thinking days I like to imagine that, at some stage, if we humans manage to get our act together and become really serious about our long-term future, we too (or, rather, what is perhaps more likely is that our post-biological descendants) could do something like this to our own galaxy. Then, there would be three such beautiful Hoag-type galaxies in a row, at least in this neck of the Cosmos… And, who knows, maybe there is an even larger daisy-chain of such macro-engineered galaxies emerging in both space and time throughout the Universe as it evolves. Picture in your mind for a moment the utterly stupendous scale of such a thing: A Universal Daisy-Chain of macro-engineered Hoag-type galaxies embedded in the overall background Cosmic webUtterly preposterous! Of course it is! And that’s why it’s totally beguiling and irresistibly captivating, too! 🙂

The Square-Kilometer Array (SKA) is now being set up. I would think that Hoag’s Object might make a very nice calibration target which could be used for configuring and fine-tuning the instrument during its commissioning and subsequent testing. At the very least, it might yield some new data and deeper insights into the history or dynamics of the intriguing structure of Hoag’s Object. But, as I am suggesting here and have suggested elsewhere, it also holds out the quite enchanting possibility of being potential confirmation of L_3. Given its quite large distance from us (R_6 \approx 600 million light-years) [12], this could be a contact scenario that would be much less likely to engender the degree of fear or concern that might otherwise occur if the proximity of contact is somewhat closer. You only have to look at how contact scenarios with R_1 have been depicted in popular culture to see that most are not assumed to go that well (with some notable exceptions, of course [5, sect. 6])… If Hoag’s Object’s striking structure is one day demonstrated to be have been the result of deliberate engineering, then we could get all the benefits of detecting L_3 without the potential terror that any R_{1-4} proximity might bring with it. I’d call that a win! 🙂

The contact scenario paper [1] ends with the following comments (p.136):

[it is] fondly to be hoped that an empirical observing program of Hoag’s Object be undertaken to search for any subtle signs of possibly-artificial activities, given the astonishing pay-off that such a modest investment might just yield….

One of these years, when I get the time, I’ll explore these ideas in much more depth and scientific rigour, and write it up more fully for a suitable journal, in the hope of elaborating more specific technical details of how to undertake any proposed empirical observations. In the meantime, though, I already have the title I’ll use for that follow-up article (hopefully sooner than in another decade…!): it is the (very captivating!) research question:

Is Hoag’s Object a Dysonian artefact?

Now I just need the time and headspace to do it.

References

[1] Voros J. Macro-perspectives beyond the world system. Journal of Futures Studies 2007;11(3):1-28. http://jfsdigital.org/articles-and-essays/2007-2/vol-11-no-3-february/articles/macro-perspectives-beyond-the-world-system/

[2] Voros J. Nesting social-analytical perspectives: An approach to macro-social analysis. Journal of Futures Studies 2006;11(1):1-21. http://jfsdigital.org/articles-and-essays/2006-2/vol-11-no-1-august/articles/nesting-social-analytical-perspectives-an-approach-to-macro-social-analysis/

[3] Galtung J. Macrohistory and macrohistorians: A theoretical framework. In: Galtung J, Inayatullah S, editors. Macrohistory and macrohistorians: Perspectives on individual, social, and civilizational change. Westport, CT, USA: Praeger Publishers; 1997. pp. 1-9. Available from: http://www.metafuture.org/product/macrohistory-and-macrohistorians/

[4] Kardashev NS. Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations. Soviet Astronomy 1964;8(2):217-21. Available at: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1964SvA…..8..217K. See https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2014/03/21/what-kardashev-really-said/ for a detailed discussion of Kardashev’s proposal.

[5] Voros J. On a morphology of contact scenario space. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 2018;126:126-37. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2017.05.007. arXiv:1706.08966.

[6] Voros J. Morphological prospection: Profiling the shapes of things to come. Foresight 2009;11(6):4-20. doi:10.1108/14636680911004939. Also available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1959.3/69196

[7] Voros J. Big Futures: Macrohistorical perspectives on the future of humankind. In: Rodrigue B, Grinin L, Korotayev A, editors. The way that Big History works: Cosmos, life, society and our future. From Big Bang to galactic civilizations: A Big History anthology, vol. III. Delhi: Primus Books; 2017. pp. 403-36. ISBN: 978-93-86552-24-2.

[8] Voros J. Galactic-scale macro-engineering: Looking for signs of other intelligent species, as an exercise in hope for our own. Paper presented at: Teaching and Researching Big History: Exploring a new scholarly field; the International Big History Association inaugural conference, 2012 Aug 2-5; Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.

[9] Voros J. Galactic-scale macro-engineering: Looking for signs of long-lived intelligent species, as an exercise in hope for our own. In: Grinin L, Baker D, Quaedackers E, Korotayev A, editors. Teaching and Researching Big History: Exploring a new scholarly field. (Selected papers from the inaugural International Big History Association Conference held at held at Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 2-5 August 2012.) Volgograd, Russia: Uchitel Publishing House; 2014. pp. 283-304. ISBN: 978-5-7057-4027-7. Available from: http://hdl.handle.net/1959.3/366566 and http://arxiv.org/abs/1412.4011/.

[10] Voros J. Galactic-scale macro-engineering: Looking for signs of long-lived intelligent species, as an exercise in hope for our own. Presentation at: Planetary Future Event, 3rd Asia-Pacific Foresight Conference, 2012 Nov 16-18; Horizon: The Planetariuim (Scitech), Perth, Western Australia.

[11] Voros J. The Anthropocene, “Threshold 9” and the long-term future of humankind. Presentation at: The Big History Anthropocene Conference: A Transdisciplinary Exploration, Big History Institute, Macquarie University, Sydney, 9-11 Dec 2015. https://youtu.be/Z7gU3ZsSWr0. The SETI/macroengineering sequence starts at around 20m 40s.

[12] Schweizer F, Ford WK, Jr, Jedrzejewski R, Giovanelli R. The structure and evolution of Hoag’s object. The Astrophysical Journal 1987 Sep 15;320:454-63. doi:10.1086/165562

[13] Shostak GS. In touch at last [Visions]. Science 1999 Dec 3;286(5446):1872-4. doi:10.1126/science.286.5446.1872

Author: Joseph Voros

Cosmic Evolutionary Physicist; Big History Futurist; Integral Kosmologist.

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