I make a lot of jokes about how we’re going to need to move offworld soon as it becomes more and more difficult to fix what we’ve done to the planet. But that was before I learned about the 288-billion-mile diameter alcohol cloud in space. Now I think we need to move offworld IMMEDIATELY.
Unfortunately, this isn’t fine Scotch we’re talking about, or even MD 20/20. It’s methanol, a type of alcohol found in antifreeze. So OK, it is basically MD 20/20, but you wouldn’t want to put it in a cocktail is what I’m saying. (There are no mixers in space anyway.) Still, it’s kind of impressive that space managed to generate alcohol in the first place.
Now, researchers are studying how an odd quantum effect allows this alcohol to react with other molecules, forming a highly reactive molecule called a methoxy radical. This shouldn’t normally be able to happen in space — molecules are less likely to collide, and lower-energy when they do because of the extreme low temperatures. Chemists at the University of Leeds recreated those temperatures — negative 346 degrees F — in the lab, and observed how methanol reacted with other radicals in that environment. What they found was that the gases, counterintuitively, actually produced methoxy radicals faster than they would at room temperature. That’s because of a weird effect called “quantum tunneling,” where particles just kind of skip a state they don’t have enough energy for. (Imagine you were too tired to climb a hill, so you just … went to the other side. Yeah. Quantum mechanics is strange.)
You don’t have to understand that. All you have to understand is this: Space is full of booze. Let’s go get some.
- Quantum mechanics enables 'impossible' space chemistry, New Scientist
- The Weird Way Alcohol Behaves In Space, PopSci
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