Teacher's Corner

The research of Professor Bob McMahon is important for many reasons. Bob and his graduate students study molecules found in interstellar space. They begin this process by synthesizing stable precursor molecules in the lab. The precursor molecules are then "isolated" between argon atoms at 10 Kelvin under high vacuum. A rough example of isolated precursor molecules would be to think of Jello with fruit in it. The Jello represents the argon and the fruit represents the precursor molecules. It is important to isolate the molecules at low temperatures between solid argon atoms for two reasons. First, because the strange environment mimics that of space - cold, with no neighboring space molecules. Secondly, the precursor molecules must be isolated because after they are cooled and in the argon "matrix" light is shined on them and reactive molecules, the kind often found in space, are formed. If the molecules were near each other, or if there was much kinetic energy available to them, they would surely react, and the space environment would not be effectively mimicked. Because of the popular theory of the Big Bang, studying these molecules allows for clues as to the origin of life and also helps us to understand space itself. The data gained from the studies done in the lab can be compared to that obtained by astronomers from radio telescopes and other devices. If the data matches, molecules found in space can be positively identified. The more we know about space, the more we can surmise about the origin of the universe.

Topics for Grades 5-8

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