On October 12, 2018, AAA members Irene Pease and Stanley Fertig visited Dr. Daniel Wolf Savin’s astrochemistry laboratory in Irvington, NY. The lab is part of Columbia University’s Nevis Labs complex, which once even housed a cyclotron. Generally, Columbia researchers use Nevis Labs for experiments that are too large to fit in Pupin Hall on the Morningside Heights campus. For the Columbians among you, the Nevis campus was the former estate of the son of one of the more famous alumni, Alexander Hamilton, and was named after his birthplace.
Dr. Savin is a friend of the AAA and has presented his research as part of the AAA Lecture Series at the American Museum of Natural History. If you attended this year’s Annual Meeting, you also may recall his presentation about sodium sputtering on Mercury.
In his Nevis lab, he and two postdoctoral researchers study astrobiology, specifically the formation of organic compounds in molecular clouds. As he puts it, the chain of chemical reactions leading to the creation of life begins with gas phase chemistry in such clouds. The lab itself is a veritable labyrinth of wires, tubes, lasers, reaction chambers, and other apparatus designed to conduct research using merged beams of various elements and ions.
In one experiment, a portion of which is shown above, neutral atomic carbon (C) reacts with ionized hydrogen (H3+) in such clouds to form CHn+, which in turn leads to the formation of more complex organic compounds including carboxyl, cyano, and amino compounds (H3+ + C => CHn+). The H3+ on which these reactions are based is created when cosmic rays strike neutral hydrogen molecules, ionizing them. The H2+ in turn reacts with another H2 molecule to form H3+, which drives much of the chemistry in molecular clouds.
The rates at which these reactions take place has hitherto been uncertain, which limits our understanding of these first reactions. Dr. Savin has designed the apparatus and these experiments to shed new light on these primordial processes.
Dr. Savin walked us through some of the numerous obstacles he and his team had to overcome in designing and improving the experimental apparatus, in securing the grants to fund the experiments, and even in obtaining the Nevis Lab space in which to conduct them. For each of these, being in the right place at the right time with the right ideas is essential—once again, as he put it, “fortune favors the prepared mind.”