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Benedictine Faculty and Students Contribute Important Work
Dr. Christopher Shingledecker, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Benedictine College, and some of his students, are part of an international team of researchers who have uncovered what might be a critical step in the chemical evolution of interstellar molecules.
The latest study, published in the Feb. 6 issue of the journal Nature Astronomy, builds on the discovery of a separate team, also including Dr. Shingledecker, of significant quantities of relatively large organic molecules with ring-like structures in the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC-1) in 2021. The question, then, was what chemical reactions could possibly be efficient enough to make such molecules, which are more often associated with combustion, in extremely cold nebulae with temperatures near absolute zero (-440 degrees Fahrenheit)?
In this new work, the team’s findings hinged on a deceptively simple molecule called ortho-benzyne. Drawing on experiments and computer simulations, Dr. Shingledecker and his students reproduced the effects of ortho-benzyne chemistry on the abundance of molecules in space and found that the new reactions were amazingly efficient. The computer modeling results generated clouds of gas containing roughly the same mix of organic molecules that astronomers had observed in TMC-1 using telescopes.
“Small building blocks become big building blocks,” Shingledecker said. “The results of this study represent the most promising lead yet in solving the mystery of why more complex, ring-like molecules in space are so abundant.”
The experiment sheds light on a tiny step in an eons-long journey that carbon atoms make, from their formation in dying stars to becoming the building blocks of new stars and planets, and their ultimate incorporation into living organisms. Future experiments will focus on how organic molecules in space pick up nitrogen atoms—key components of the DNA and amino acids of living organisms on Earth.
“We’re only at the start of truly understanding how we go from these small building blocks to larger molecules,” Shingledecker said. “And this work represents only the first in what will hopefully be a series of papers on the chemistry of ortho-benzyne and its role in producing molecules in cold interstellar nebulae.”
Co-authors on the new paper include researchers at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, CU Boulder in Colorado, Leiden University in the Netherlands, the University of Würzburg in Germany, and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland.
Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.