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Chemical Eye Up in the Sky
by Preston MacDougall


January 08, 2005

In a galaxy far, far away, one of the building blocks of proteins, an amino acid, was synthesized in a chemical reaction that occurred a long, long time ago.

jpg Preston MacDougall

This is not the very, very beginning of the Star Wars fantasy. Rather, it is a typical conclusion that astrochemists might reach after studying data collected, and relayed back to Earth, by the Hubble Space Telescope.

This eye in the sky is affectionately referred to simply as "Hubble", after the American boxer, Rhodes Scholar, and finally astronomer who, in 1929, the year the Stock Market crashed, had the nerve to claim that the entire universe was expanding! Hubble has been orbiting in Earth's sky since 1990, passing in and out of Earth's shadow. For thirty-six of its ninety-seven minute days, or orbits, Hubble is in the dark. When it is shadowed from the Sun by the Earth, and free of the "noise" of man-made light, thanks to its heavenly perch, Hubble casts a sensitive, and deep, gaze on the universe that surrounds us, much farther than the eye can see. During its daytime, Hubble "catches some rays" and recharges its batteries.

Stigmatized early on because a flaw in its construction required an unplanned Space Shuttle mission to install a "corrective lens", Hubble has recovered and surprised even its most ardent promoters with what it has seen for us. So much so that an ad hoc panel, recently formed by members of the National Academy of Sciences, forcefully argued that astronauts on a new Space Shuttle mission, and not a robot launched on its own, as is currently planned, should perform a fifth, and final, Hubble service mission.

Among the most awe-inspiring images that Hubble has given us, are the so-called Deep Field views. As photographers know, light collected through a narrow aperture, requires a slow shutter speed. However if the camera is held still, an astounding picture results, where everything in the field of view is sharply in focus. Analogous images taken by Hubble show that the universe is literally teeming with galaxies of different colors, shapes and sizes. Some relatively close, galacticly-speaking, others unimaginably far away. They remind me of my first exposure to the microscopic world.

I was ten or eleven and my parents had just given me a pretty good microscope (the cheap plastic ones hadn't been invented yet). Sure, the slides that came with it, of insect legs, stained sections of potato tubers, and so on, were interesting, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I looked at what was in water samples that I had collected from the nearby marsh. It was teeming with life!

Thanks to NASA's polished public relations efforts, many of Hubble's images have made a personal impact on a large number of people. Even so, I think that there is a lot that the public doesn't yet appreciate. For instance, in addition to seeing, with spectacular detail, the massive nebulae that are literally "star factories", Hubble is able to look for tell-tale molecular fingerprints in the starlight that it takes in. Such information can be analyzed, with reference to data collected in Earth-bound laboratories, enabling us to identify molecules floating around in distant galaxies.

Light is fast, fastest actually, but it can still take many years for it to zip here from neighboring stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, and millions of years to race between galaxies. Thus, light bearing the fingerprint of the organic molecules that it filtered through, was imprinted long ago. And the chemical reactions that built these molecules from their atomic constituents must have long preceded this cosmic scattering.

I like the message that Governor Bredesen asked University of Tennessee President, and fellow chemist, John Petersen to relay to UT students who graduated in Knoxville this month: "God has given us a gift we cannot begin to comprehend a spark of consciousness in a universe so immense and so beautiful."

A refurbished Hubble can only stretch the immensity of the universe, and refine its beauty. However the job gets done, I look forward to sharing many more images, with many more students, since beauty is still only in the eyes of the beholders, and the more beholders, the better. Beauty is also available for you to behold, simply by visiting on the Web. That's site, s-i-t-e, but what a sight it is.



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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