Apr 242011

Have you heard the expression “drink in the beauty” of something?  As in, take it in?  absorb it?  bask in its glow?  Well, “drink in the stars” may not be 100% accurate, but did you know that there are complex molecules in interstellar space, including alcohol and other hydrocarbons?

Brushing off my organic chemistry brain cell for a minute, I think I remember that alcohols are pretty simple compounds as far as organic ones go.  One of them, ethanol, is at least somewhat edible (or at least not instantly deadly).  You know it as grain alcohol or vodka or whiskey.  Ethanol is the stuff that people have been distilling and fermenting for thousands of years to make beer, mead, wine, and other things.  Methanol, or CH3OH as it’s known to chemists, is not nearly so kind as its more famous cousin, Ethanol.  Methanol will blind you by destroying your optic nerves and then kill you if you drink more than a wee swallow of it.

However, Methanol was discovered to exist in a giant cloud, off towards the constellation Cassiopeia, measuring about 288 million miles across.  You can read about it, or you can just say “wow, that’s cool” and keep going.  Other things that you might not expect to find in deep space are out there, too – it’s not just empty.

People think of “the vacuum of space” as being void of anything.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  How do you think all those trillions of suns got there?  The gas that’s in the spaces between suns is full of stuff that coalesces under gravity to form water vapor or dust diamonds.  These things come together even more to make protostars and suns and planetary disks and planets and people and your Aunt Martha’s chihuahua, Fifi.

In the end, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  As Carl Sagan said, “we are all star stuff.”  Everything that we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and can think of came out of the explosions deep inside a stellar furnace that produced all the elements we know (except for the few that we created in labs ourselves).  The air you’re breathing came in part from some of the air Sagan breathed, the water that Einstein drank, and the plant that an ancient triceratops ate.  That plant, in turn, came from our Sun which generated the carbon needed to build its structures, and our sun came from a giant gas cloud of debris and leftovers and explosive aftermaths of another dozen suns.

This cycle of building and destroying happens every minute of every day in every corner of our universe and has been for 15 billion years or so.  Luckily, we’re here to see it, experience it, enjoy it, and learn from it.  So isn’t it cool that there are vast clouds of poisonous gas in the middle of nowhere in our galaxy?  Isn’t it cooler that we’re smart enough to figure out that they’re there?