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Real Science

Visitors from other solar systems

Michael Rosenthal

(1/2018) A recurring theme in the world of science fiction is that of travelers from other civilizations outside our solar system visiting earth. Though no documented cases of such happenings have yet been verified by the scientific community, the public fascination continues; it is supported by films, books, the internet, and show business. As reported before in this column, Roswell, New Mexico, has built an economy for tourists around purported visits by aliens and with their elaborate alien museum. I reported on our visit to the alien museum in an earlier article.

The latest development does not support extraterrestrial life, but supports the accepted scientific knowledge about the vastness of our universe. An asteroid that we have named Oumuamua, hurtled past our sun recently and has been unequivocally identified by scientists as originating in another solar system. It is traveling at 196,000 miles per hour. Nothing like it has been sighted previously in our solar system.

Oumuamua, named for a Hawaiian term for messenger or scout, is the first space rock to have been identified as being formed around another star other than our sun. Scientists believe that there are many others, as many as 10,000, but none has been previously observed in our solar system. Its red color suggests that it carries organic (carbon-containing) molecules that are the building-blocks of life. Oumuamua is a dark red, highly-elongated metallic or rocky object about 400 meters long.

A scientific analysis shows that its orbit is almost impossible to achieve from within our solar system. Asteroids coalesce during the process of planet formation, so we are especially interested in what we may learn about planet formation around stars other than our sun. Two independent groups of astronomers have been studying this phenomenon: a group from the University of Hawaii, led by Karen Meech, and a group at UCLA, led by David Jewitt. Meech’s group was the discoverer of Oumuamua.

Though it is early in the studies to answer all the many questions that arise, some aspects are known and understood. Ground-based telescopes show that Oumuamua is quite similar to some comets and asteroids in our solar system, indicating that planetary compositions could be typical across the galaxy. It is widely thought that the delivery of organic molecules to the early earth by the collision of comets and asteroids were the basis for life on earth. Thus it can be speculated that life could have similarly originated in other solar systems. So, great potential lies ahead in this astronomical sighting, in our quest to understand our universe.


A chemical education diversion: In my days as a chemistry student (in prehistoric times!), we aspiring chemists were mostly obligated to choose between being an "organic chemist," whose study focused on compounds of carbon, and could lead to biochemistry, the chemistry of life forms, and being an "inorganic chemist," who studied compounds other than the carbon-based molecules, which included metal atom chemistry. I was aesthetically drawn to inorganic chemistry, studying metal ions, whose compounds often had beautiful colors, and which was a less developed field at the time.

The barriers between chemical categories have since broken down; biochemistry, physical chemistry, and organometallic chemistry (to name a few classifications) now encompass these various subdivisions. Though the classifications are recognized as artificial, since the laws of nature apply equally to all categories, the division still remains to help organize our study. I actually was best classified as a "physical inorganic chemist," one who used physical chemistry techniques to study the compounds of metal atoms in their interaction with organic molecules. The organic chemists generously allowed us the use of their carbon atoms when we needed them! Joking aside, all of science is artificially divided into categories for convenience, and many great discoveries continue to be made at the category interfaces. I wouldn’t try to explain the difference between a physical chemist and a chemical physicist, except for which campus building each occupies.

The scientific community is understandably upset about the federal government’s lack of interest in promoting alternative energy that has lower negative environmental impact and about its support of the coal industry. As we have previously mentioned, coal is on the way out for economic reasons, and I am convinced that the federal government cannot save it in the long run.

A recent Washington Post story supports the idea that there is a trend toward use of alternative energy that government policy cannot reverse. General Electric is cutting 12,000 jobs in its power division as alternative energy siphons demand from coal and other fossil fuels. This is 18 percent of all jobs at GE Power, most of them outside the United States, many in Europe. Power companies see the "handwriting on the wall" – that current or eventual environmental regulations and economic reasons will continue to move the world away from use of fossil fuels. The cost of natural gas and, solar, and other alternative energies continues to fall, and regardless of how one may feel about it, economics drives the engine here.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics in October 2017, suggest that the top-growing job classification over the next nine years will be solar voltaic installations and that wind turbine service technicians will be # 2. Though fossil fuels still dominate the power generation market in the United States, the balance is shifting apart from government policy. We’ve reported before that objection to the siting of wind turbines along the New England coast has impacted their development, but people will get over that. I would certainly rather see a wind turbine on the horizon, than smoke and pollutants coming from smokestacks in industrial facilities.

I remember the latter well from growing up in northeastern Ohio in the 1950s. Nuclear energy has a very important role to play. We need to continue to work on the issue of nuclear waste disposal and to develop our technology to keep nuclear power plants safe, but the role of nuclear power is a very important one is producing energy all over the world.

Reading the news every day (we subscribe to the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as utilize on-line services), we find that the science news is often depressing. But here are good items too. Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, has assured that his scientific staff will be able to discuss their work from now on in public forums. This follows an event in October in which two scientists were prevented by the EPA from discussing findings regarding the health of the Narragansett Bay. This is especially significant after the EPA removed most mentions of climate change from the EPA website. Mr. Pruitt pledged to continue to conduct research as outlined in EPA’s four-year strategic plan. On the negative side, climate change is not mentioned in the strategic plan.

There is a delicate balance between loyalty to scientific findings and that of advancing political policy. There are scientific issues that can stand apart from politics; however, one cannot ignore scientific findings to support a political belief. This is one of the reasons I became a scientist and not a politician.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal