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No. 87: May-Jun 1993

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Cosmic Soot And Organic Asteroids

Just as we were getting used to carbonaceous chondrites and tarry comets, we have been hit with cosmic soot and organic asteroids. Truly, it seems as if the universe is one vast factory of complex chemicals. This is not a trivial observation, for it betrays a synthesizing, efflorescent cosmos rather than a universe slowly succumbing to the deepfreezing Second Law of Thermodynamics. Any of these soots and tars wafting down upon the surface of a suitable planet might initiate or accelerate life processes.

Cosmic soot. A 70-year-old astronomical enigma is the origin of the DIBs (Diffuse Interstellar absorption Bands). These dark absorption bands in stellar spectra have never been correlated with known chemical compounds. Now, L. Allamandola and F. Salama (NASA-Ames) find that the DIBs may be due to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons! A more digestible descriptor would be "soot," like that found in automobile exhaust and on your barbecued steak.

(Weiss, Peter; "Cosmic Soot Fills Space between the Stars," New Scientist, p. 15, March 13, 1993.)

Organic asteroids. Some asteroids are abnormally red. Newly discovered asteroid 5145 Pholus is 3 times brighter at near-infrared wavelengths than it is in the visible portion of the spectrum. The best explanation so far for this redness is that 5145 Pholus is veneered with organic compounds called "tholins." Tholins are synthesized when methane and other simple chemicals are bathed in ultraviolet and particulate radiations. Tholins have even been dubbed the "first foods" of aspiring new life forms!

(Anonymous; "An Organic Asteroid?" Sky and Telescope, 85:15, 1993.)

From Science Frontiers #87, MAY-JUN 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987