Sciency Words A to Z: LGM-1

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, L is for:


In the mid-1960’s, Jocelyn Bell (later known as Jocelyn Bell Burnell) was a grad student at Cambridge.  Through Anthony Hewish, her Ph.D. advisor, she became involved with the construction and operation of a brand new radio telescope specially designed to hunt for quasars.  But that telescope ended up finding something more than just quasars.

Bell Burnell recounts the story in this speech, as published by Cosmic Search Magazine.  Part of her job was analyzing data from the telescope, which came in the form of chart paper—literally miles worth of paper—produced by a set of “3-track pen recorders.”  And on those chart papers, Bell saw some odd markings, which she described as bits of “scruff.”

Naturally, that scruff required further investigation. Faster, more accurate recordings were made, and the scruff resolved itself into a series of regular radio pulses.  These pulses were so consistent, so evenly spaced, that you’d think they must be artificial. It was almost like someone out there in space was trying to get our attention!

Bell named the source of those radio pulses LGM-1, which stood for little green men #1.  But as I said in a previous post, when it comes to discovering alien life, scientists must hold themselves to the same standard as a court of law: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  While Bell may have been happy to joke about little green men, she did not actually believe that’s what she’d discovered.  As she explained in her speech:

Just before Christmas I went to see Tony Hewish about something and walked into a high-level conference about how to present these results.  We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe how does one announce the results responsibly?  Who does one tell first?

After her Chistmas break, Bell returned to work and found a big pile of fresh data to analyze, and there was more “scruff.” In total, Bell found four distinct radio sources, located in completely different parts of the sky.

And that finally put the “little green men” hypothesis to rest.  It seemed highly unlikely that four different alien civilizations, located in completely different regions of space, would all try to get our attention at the exact same time, in the exact same way, using the exact same radio frequencies.

LGM-1 is now believed to be a neutron star, spinning rapidly, projecting twin beams of radio waves out into space like some sort of cosmic lighthouse.  It’s an entirely natural phenomenon, the result of a supernova explosion.  Today, we call this sort of object a pulsar.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, maybe it’s time to stop waiting for aliens to contact us.  Maybe it’s time we tried to contact them.

Molecular Monday: Quasar-Induced Chemistry

Today’s post is part of a bi-weekly series here on Planet Pailly called Molecular Mondays, where we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe.

As a science fiction writer, one of the things I’m really doing with my research is trying to find excuses to break the laws of physics. So anything that might produce a previously unknown material substance, a substance that might be imbued with properties that are useful for storytelling purposes… that sort of thing is of great interest to me. With that in mind, I recently read a news article about quasars and the weird, unexpected chemical reactions they can cause.

Quasars are black holes with disks of superheated gas and dust swirling around them. Due to the intense heat of the disk, the extreme gravity of the black hole, and the crazy electromagnetic field the two produce together, you end up with these twin laser-like jets of super-accelerated particles shooting away from the quasar in opposite directions.

According to this research paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and according to this slightly less technical summary from Physics World, any molecules that happen to get caught in a quasar’s laser beams are ripped apart by a process known as photolysis. Then, after these quasar-zapped particles have had some time to cool off, they can recombine to form new molecules.

I was led to believe by the initial news report I read that this sort of extreme scenario might also cause atoms to recombine in ways that they normally wouldn’t. Unfortunately I don’t see anything in the actual research to back that up. For the most part, quasar chemistry produces fairly ordinary molecules like hydroxyl, carbon monoxide, and molecular hydrogen.

Still, for the purposes of science fiction, some sort of quasar-induced chemical reaction producing strange, new, potentially valuable chemical substances… that may be too awesome of a concept for me to pass up.