Real Stars Break Down Alcohol Through Quantum Mechanics, Not Their Liver

When most people think of astronomy, they think of physics. Many astronomers are technically astrophysicists, and even if that’s not their title, most have a physics background. (If you’re really in the know, you might know that planetary science is a distinct field that draws a lot on geology as well as astronomy.)  But another aspect of space science that’s grown a lot over the last decade or so is astrochemistry. Astronomers have been able to study chemical compounds in celestial bodies since the the middle of the 20th century, when radio telescopes could detect spectral emissions unique to certain molecules (both nearby and across the galaxy) and even more so when space probes could directly analyze celestial bodies in our solar system. But there’s also a lot of chemicals just out in the middle of space, and the list keeps getting longer and includes increasingly more complicated compounds. Astrochemistry looks at these chemicals and tries to understand how they could form in astronomical environments.

One of the bigger puzzles for astrochemists has been understanding how alcohols are formed and destroyed in space. Space is too cold for methanol to break up into the highly reactive methoxy radical in a way similar to most reactions on Earth. While UV radiation exciting molecules enough to break them apart can explain how some chemicals are formed (and why UV light gives you cancer), lab tests couldn’t detect methoxy after exposing methanol to UV radiation. Dust wasn’t even acting as a catalyst. It actually turns out the reaction works best when the methanol is in its gaseous form at low temperatures because those conditions are optimal for quantum tunneling.

The procession of a chemical reaction in normal, bulk circumstances (on the left) and via quantum tunneling (on the right). From Richard Helmich.

Tunnelingis a phenomenon that only occurs in quantum mechanics. There’s really no good analogy in the classical physics we’re most familiar with. To very quickly sum up, if an electron is in place A and can also be in place C, but A and C are separated by a region B where it shouldn’t be able to travel, it can sometimes still end up in C by tunneling through B. This is also generalized to more than just physical space. Tunneling means particles can do things they shouldn’t have the energy for, like the reaction picture above. Quantum mechanics just says that it won’t happen very often and it can take some time. This is where the low temperature comes in. As we’ve talked about before, temperature reflects molecular motion. At the low temperatures of open space, the methanol and hydroxide are moving relatively slowly. When they bump into each other, this means they won’t bounce off immediately, and in that longer frame of time, an electron is more likely to jump from the methanol to the hydroxide. It turns out this tunneling reaction is really efficient at lower temperatures: lab experiments showed methanol reacted 50 times faster at -210 degrees Celsius than at room temperature. The researchers are also confident that quantum tunneling can explain many other reactions in space.

An Open Letter to Humans of New York from a Person Who Wears a Lab Coat

Because open letters seem like the preferred form of expressing Internet concern these days, here’s one of my own.

Dear Humans of New York (or HONY, as we nearly all end up calling you),

I really love your project. I think it’s cool. I follow you on Facebook and nearly every update that ends up in my news feed makes me smile. This week I was super excited to see the photo and quote below during lunch one day.

“I’m not sure what I want to do, exactly. But I know that I want to wear a lab coat. Everyone I’ve met who wears a lab coat is helping people.”

Especially because after lunch, I was planning on preparing samples to do an experiment. Which also meant I was planning on putting on a lab coat.

So I was a bit disappointed to see that on a page typically so affirming of everyday people, the comments seemed markedly more negative than usual. The top comment was your own remark “unless they’re cooking meth.” I don’t watch Breaking Bad, so maybe that’s just not my cup of tea.  What worried me more, though, was that so many of the middle comments seemed to say “Yeah, except [insert name of some unpopular science-focused company here]”. Monsanto and Pfizer seemed to be the two most popular ones.

I’m not going to defend Monsanto’s and Pfizer’s political and legal maneuvers. But the people doing those aren’t typically the ones in the lab coats. And I’m not going to say all their products are wonderful, or even neutral but used to nefarious ends (though it’s worth pointing out some nasty chemicals Monsanto has made were ordered by the government for purposes of war, so maybe people should focus more on a government and society that condones such action instead of blaming the company in a vacuum). But a lot of their products have done good for people. Monsanto was one of the first mass producers of aspirin in the US. They were one of the first companies to sell LEDs.

Blaming companies for manufacturing chemicals before scientists realized they were dangerous (sometimes with a gap of decades) seems to be blaming people for not having incredible foresight. (If you bought a cell phone before the mid-2000s, consider the trade off you made in getting a cell phone before a scientific consensus on cell phones’ effect on human health was formed). It also ignores competing interests. PCBs, another chemical Monsanto produced, are now recognized as incredibly hazardous chemicals. But they were also crucial in electrifying communities, because they were one of the best early  insulators to prevent utility poles from catching fire from power lines. While they are definitely harmful, they were made because some people in a lab coat thought they may help society.

Similarly, lots of people seem to call out Pfizer for drug prices (again, not really controlled by the scientists) or for making Viagra. It’s worth pointing out that Viagra was initially looked at as a treatment for high blood pressure and chest pain (angina), and treating those seems like something that would be really helpful. During clinical trials, one of the researchers discovered its more well-known properties and realized it wasn’t as effective at treating angina. But eventually Viagra did get approved for use as a treatment for pulmonary hypertension because the same mechanism also helps relax the ventricle and relieve stress on the heart. One of the reasons Viagra is marketed so much is because it turns a good profit to help fund Pfizer’s research into new drugs. Other comments seemed to view all bioengineering with suspicion. I wonder how many of those skeptics shared that Upworthy video about “injecting a dying girl with HIV” to cure cancer (ignoring how much that oversimplifies the issue) and thought it was so inspiring. Even though the modified virus is also an act of genetic engineering. People should also realize the girl’s in a small early trial, which means all the potential dangers aren’t known.

It’s also interesting how there seems to be uniquely negative focus on this young man’s career aspirations for looking at medicine or a technical field. You don’t see a remark under your other posts about aspiring artists saying we hope they don’t end up ordering ethnic cleansing, forced sterilizations, and euthanasia as part of a eugenics program if they don’t succeed. Or a comment under a post about a performer saying “I hope this person doesn’t join a religion that routinely locks practitioners in confined spaces for months at a time as a form of torture.” And while posts about old couples typically get charming sentiments, this thread is filled with lots of Viagra jokes with the punchline that old people having sex is awkward and shouldn’t happen (or based on jokes about vaginas being tired, men who take Viagra seem to either become rapists and/or sexually incompetent). I honestly don’t know if you moderate your Facebook page or not, but the very different tone of comments on this post seems striking.

HONY, your work typically challenges our preconceived notions of people and that is part of the reason it’s so rewarding to see. That’s why I’m disappointed that in something about my own field, this doesn’t seem to be happening. I don’t place that blame all on you. It just makes me a bit sad.

Sincerely yours,

A trivial scientist

You Can’t Name a Star, but You Can Name a Planet

If you’ve ever considered buying a star, let me give you advice: don’t. The International Star Registry, the major company that sells “naming rights” to stars, has no official power to do so and admits the name is only put in their own internal catalog, not any reference that astronomers use. In fact, the stars they name aren’t even visible to the naked eye. And considering that they have sold over 1 million named stars, we’re probably getting to the point where you need to make an investment in a good telescope if they’re keeping true to the promise of not renaming any stars.

So screw naming a star and go with something practical: name a planet that orbits another star (an exoplanet). The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the official body responsible for naming celestial bodies, has recently changed its procedures on naming exoplanets and their moons. Part of this was in response to an attempt to sell naming rights to a nearby exoplanet. The IAU pointed out that a naming process taking place completely outside it may have a winner that still doesn’t end up as the official name.  (They seemed particularly worried that people were paying money for this, even if it was a fundraising campaign for astronomy.) The campaigns were really popular, though, and the IAU seems to have decided that the public interest in these cases merits opening up exoplanet naming to the masses.

Currently, exoplanets just get an official scientific name based on the star they orbit. It’s not the typical science fiction standard where a planet’s name is the star it orbits plus a number representing what order it is from the star. Planets are still named after the star they orbit, but are named with lower case letters indicating the order of discovery, not the distance of the sun. So 55 Cancri e is closer to 55 Cancri than 55 Cancri b, but b was discovered first. The IAU’s new proposal doesn’t replace the technical names, but also creates official “common” names for public use.

Like all IAU naming systems, this one comes with a lot of rules. The big ones are that suggested names shouldn’t duplicate names of other bodies and they shouldn’t be commercial, offensive, or controversial. Other than that, the system is pretty open because the same rules as naming asteroids and dwarf planets apply. Those are pretty diverse, with names ranging from Ceres, Roman goddess of grain, to Einstein to Karl Marx. The system also specifies how groups that want to organize competitions to name bodies should do so: organizations should notify the IAU in advance, not collect revenue from the process, and inform the discoverers of the object.

One thing the IAU points out is that our understanding of discovered exoplanets is incomplete. In particular, there isn’t 100% certainty that each exoplanet that has been announced actually exists. Some of the detection techniques can give false positives, and though repeated observations are done before the discovery is announced to minimize that chance, it still exists. And it is also possible some planets may have been detected multiple times by different techniques. I wonder what would happen if the multiple discoveries had different names and were later revealed to be one.

If this really does catch on (and the IAU manages to quickly assign public names), I wonder how much theme naming would unofficially catch on in nomination. Would Sirius’ planets be doomed to dog and/or Harry Potter names? And I’m totally seeing someone trying to name a gas giant with multiple moons Polyphemus and one of its moons Pandora.

What’s interesting is the IAU note seems to cover more than just exoplanets and their moons. The title says “planets and planetary satellites” and nothing in the announcement specifies that the procedure only applies to extrasolar bodies. So this might mean that this applies to all future planet and satellite discoveries, even in our solar system. While we’re probably done with finding planets, astronomers expect to find more dwarf planets (though technically, as minor planets, they follow a different naming scheme than regular planets) and we keep finding satellites of both regular and dwarf planets. In fact, the IAU chose one of the names that won a contest to name one of Pluto’s two newly discovered moons.