Catastrophic Events In The Universe’s Past Could Be Revealed By A “Cosmic Barometer”

Our Universe was born almost 14 billion years ago in the Inflationary Big Bang, when it experienced exponential expansion from an unimaginably small Patch--that was perhaps as tiny as an elementary particle--to reach football size in only the tiniest fraction of a second. Violent events have played a starring role in the turbulent history of our Universe--exploding stars called supernovae, random and fierce crashes involving meteorites and comets, and even near misses between two potentially colliding bodies can create regions of intense heat and high pressure. In April 2014, researchers from Imperial College London published their findings showing that they have now developed a new method for studying the pressure experienced by small samples containing carbon-based molecules--that may have been shot out from dying, doomed stars before making a long and treacherous journey through the vast, turbulent, expanding Cosmos.

The scientists studied a type of aromatic hydrocarbon called dimethylnaphthalene, which they think will enable them to identify violent events in the history of the Cosmos. Aromatic hydrocarbons are molecules that contain one or more benzene rings and normally emit a sweet fragrance. As a matter of fact, their name is derived from the fact that a large number of them emit a pungent, strong aroma. Aromatic hydrocarbons are frequently found in meteorites, and they can be used to help scientists investigate the fingerprints left on the tattle-tale hydrocarbons that result from past violent events in the Universe. Aromatic hydrocarbons characteristically change in response to pressure, and dimethylnapthalenes are hydrocarbons that are comparatively easy to analyze spectroscopically and have been shown to exist in the carbonaceous dust swirling around in the medium between the stars.

Previously scientists have only been able to investigate how samples of dimethylnapthalene are influenced by heat. The scientists from Imperial College London, however, say that their new method can spot periods when dimethylnaphthalenes also experienced episodes of high pressure, thus enabling them to undertake a much more comprehensive analysis of organic materials.

"The ability to detect high pressure environments in Space has tremendous implications for our ability to learn more about the formation of our Solar System and the Universe. Dimethylnaphthalenes are like microscopic barometers and thermometers recording changes in pressure and heat as they travel through Space. Understanding these changes lets us probe their history, and with that, the history of the Galaxy," explained Dr. Wren Montgomery in a March 31, 2014 University College London Press Release. Dr. Montgomery, a co-author of the study, is of the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London.

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