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No. 124: Jul-Aug 1999

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The 21-micron mystery

The following phenomenon is rather technical and is observable only to those astronomers lucky enough to have an infrared spectrometer aboard a satellite. These privileged scientists "see" strange infrared shrouds centered at 21 microns draped around certain red giant stars. The feature of these infrared shrouds that makes the phenomenon worthy of our attention in SF is the width of the spectrum. It is so wide that it cannot be produced by single atoms or molecules. The shrouds must consist of complex molecules, possibly even solids. The infrared glows are so strong that the elements involved must be common in the universe, in all likelihood carbon and hydrogen. Speculators have fingered polymers, ball-shaped fullerenes, and "nanodiamonds"; i.e., very tiny diamonds! The debate has scientists repairing to their laboratories where they are trying to find some substance with a spectrum that matches that of the mystery shrouds.

(Hellemans, Alexander; "Labs Hold the Key to the 21-Micron Mystery," Science, 284:1113, 1999.)

Comment. Are not biological materials rich in carbon and hydrogen? This reminds us of F. Hoyle's books: Lifecloud and Diseases from Space, wherein outer space is characterized as teeming with prebiotic molecules, bacteria, and even-more-bizarre life forms.

From Science Frontiers #124, JUL-AUG 1999. 1999-2000 William R. Corliss