Aromatic molecules detected in interstellar cloud + X-rays from Uranus + Cosmic chasm

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Discovery of aromatic molecules in interstellar cloud shakes up astrochemistry

EXCERPT: A team of scientists in the US has detected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in a cold, dark interstellar cloud for the first time. The discovery challenges scientific consensus that PAHs only form in the hot atmospheres of dying stars. The group, spearheaded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist Brett McGuire, used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to identify two PAHs in the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC), which is a large cloud of dust and gas roughly 450 light years from Earth. [...] PAHs account for a significant proportion of all carbon in the universe. But until now, they were found only near dying stars where they form at high temperatures. This is the first time that they have been uncovered in cold, dark clouds where stars haven’t even begun to form... (MORE - details)

Astronomers Spot X-Rays Coming From Uranus

EXCERPTS: Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have detected X-rays coming from Uranus, revealing a previously unknown dimension of this majestic ice giant. The new finding, published in JGR: Physics, means that X-ray emissions have been detected on every planet in the solar system except Neptune. What’s more, the discovery could yield new insights into more distant X-ray-emitting objects, including black holes, supernovae, quasars, and neutron stars.

[...] The authors proposed two different theories to explain the emissions. One possibility is that Uranus’s rings are churning out X-rays, similar to what’s happening with the rings around Saturn. This process, known as fluorescence, happens when energetic charged particles, such as electrons and protons, collide with the rings, causing them to glow in X-rays.

Another possibility is that the X-rays are being produced by Uranus’s auroras, as NASA explains in a statement... (MORE - details)

The cosmic chasm

EXCERPTS (Pedro G. Ferreira): . . . These three puzzles – how the Universe began, what dark matter is, and what dark energy consists of – make a compelling science case for future particle accelerators, observatories and satellite missions. Indeed, this decade already promises to be one of plenty on the observational front. [...] Except there’s a real risk that, even after spending all this time and money, we won’t really understand more about the Universe than we already do.

By going down the route of building bigger and better instruments, sure, our measurements will be much more precise. However, there remains a possibility that all we’ll attain is yet more confidence that there’s some form of dark matter, some form of dark energy, and that the beginning of the Universe did undergo inflation. But we still won’t know what the dark matter or dark energy is, or what drove inflation. We’ll have a much more precise statement about our ignorance but nothing more.

And so we come back to our seemingly unbridgeable, cosmic chasm – between tried and tested physics, and the exotic effects we see playing themselves out on cosmic scales. On the one hand, we have a set of laws of physics, a mathematical model that works perfectly well and that we’ve confirmed with exquisite prediction. Yet we’re at a loss about how to address the true nature of what dark matter, dark energy and inflation really are.

[...] An optimist might say that we should carry on exploiting the same seam of ideas and methods that we’ve followed for years, and which have proven to be remarkably fruitful in the past. [...] There’s an alternative point of view, which is to simply explore. We can step back and look at the diversity of views that theorists have advanced over the past few decades – propelled largely by imagination – and so try to unshackle ourselves from the few well-established approaches that have dominated our attempts to answer fundamental questions. In this way, we might unearth ideas and guesses for new directions that will make us look at the data in a different light.

It’s a tricky business and, if you’re not careful, you can end up investing time and energy in ideas that make no real sense from the outset – they’re no better than the crackpot emails that I and many colleagues receive on a regular basis. So a sound principle is to keep your eyes on the fundamentals, being careful not to jettison the things we know to be true. But you need to stray far enough that you don’t end up repeating the mistakes of those who have attempted before you. With luck, you might come up with something new that offers a fresh perspective on the data. And this is where the fun begins. Theorising can be useful and interesting, sure – but you also want to test whether it’s real, and whether it will help you search for new, overlooked, phenomena.

[...] I’ve spent most of my adult life staring at the cosmic chasm – the abyss between what we know and what we don’t. And while our knowledge of the Universe has improved dramatically in that time, our ignorance has become only more focused. We’re no closer to answering the big questions about dark matter, dark energy and the origins of the Universe than when I started out. This isn’t for lack of trying, and a titanic effort is now underway to try and figure out all these mysterious aspects of the Universe. But there’s no guarantee we’ll succeed, and we might end up never really grasping how the Universe works. That’s why we need to be creative and to explore. As Einstein once said: ‘Let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.’ While bridging the cosmic chasm might not be a matter of survival, undoubtedly it’s one of the most pressing challenges of modern science. (MORE - details)

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