|The mega-maser 12 billion light years away|
Photo by Hubble Space Telescope
I discovered a very gifted science writer, Meg Urry, chairman of the Physics Department at Yale. She's also the director for the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and contributed a nice and very clear article on mega-masers to CNN.COM today.
Astronomers have discovered a huge reservoir of water in the distant volume of the universe. It contains roughly 140 trillion times the volume of the oceans on Earth. Urry cracks the joke that astronomers don't refer to this reservoir of water like we might on earth, Lake NASA for example. It's called a "mega-maser." Masers amplify light into a powerful beam. The light, in this case, was emitted when the universe was about 450,000,000 years old, 10% of its current age.
Megamasers (it is spelled both with and without the hyphen) stimulate specific spectral lines, and are known to occur for hydroxyls (OH), water (H2O), formaldehyde (H2CO), and methine (CH) (note, not methane). The word MASER stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiaton. A maser is the predecessor to lasers, which operate at optical wavelengths (Microwave is replaced by Light to get "LASER"). In these systems, atoms or molecules having different energy states may absorb a photon and move to a higher energy level, or the photon can stimulate emission of another photon of the same energy and cause a transition to a lower energy level. ((Note, see Wiki for this discussion). Masers were first built in a lab in the 1950's, subsequently an OH maser was discovered in 1965 in the plane of our Milky Way. The first evidence for an extragalactic maser was in 1973, and the first megamaser was discovered in 1982. The history of this and definition of mega and kilo-masers is in the Wiki article on Masers.
Much of Urry's article is focused on pointing out that discoveries like this come from basic research, but that--over time--basic research has led to very practical applications that are relevant to our lives in general. For example, she points out how the discoveries of atoms and the development of quantum mechanics led to our present electronic and computer technologies. These, in turn, fuel our present economy, and appear in our hospitals and affect our medical conditions and diagnoses.
Coincidentally, NPR had a very interesting story yesterday on China's goal of renewing its status as a scientific superpower, pointing out that it was "probably the world's earliest technological superpower," with the invention of the plow, the compass, gunpowder and block printing. However, science languished there for centuries. Until 1893, apparently, the Chinese didn't even have a word for "science"! In contrast, in May, the premier Wen Jiabao declared that "China cannot develop without developing science and technology." The government has set aside a pot of money to bring back academics who have been studying/working outside of China. So far, more than 3100 have been brought back, into tenured positions and research labs, generally with one-time bonuses of $150,000 per person. In contrast to a decade ago, when there was a substantial brain drain, now there is an abundance of scientists waiting to return. 80,000 Ph.D.s are apparently returning, and positions for them all are now getting scarce because of the number wanting to return.
Most tellingly, China's R and D spending is scheduled to rise from 1.7 percent in 2011 to 2.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Major foci are on nanotechnology, clean energy, and stem cell research. Although the absolute dollar amount is about 1/3 of what the US is spending, the investment in R and D in China is rapidly increasing.
And, reading to the end of the NPR article above, I came across a wild statement that the antics of one geologist "could be holding China back"!! "Leading geologist Duan Zhenhao was sacked after accusations he embezzled $1.5 million of research funding to spend on his three mistresses." My goodness..... (Even Science has gotten into reporting on this situation!)
Guess I'll go back to contemplating how mega-masers work!