Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Physics professor researches beginnings and ends

George Flynn is a physics professor at Plattsburgh State, who spends his spare time studying the origins of life on Earth and how to avoid a potentially catastrophic asteroid if it were to hurdle right for us.
“Much of what I do is either physics or asteroid chemistry,” Flynn said.

His research focuses on this question:
“Are these elements, which are raining down all the time from space, in the right form to be incorporated into organic compounds and to be useful as insight into the start of life on this planet?”
“Most extra-terrestrial material comes to Earth in the form of very small particles,” Flynn said.

As an asteroid-chemist, Flynn studies and analyzes these particles, of which seven could fit across the width of a human hair.
“There are 30,000 tons of this material that rains onto the Earth every year,” Flynn said.

Flynn frequently travels to Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, where he and other scientists analyze the composition of this raining space dust with new and cutting-edge technology.
“They have a new instrument, which allows us to take measurements never before possible,” Flynn said.

Brookhaven boasts the next generation of a powerful electron storage ring known as the National Synchrotron Light Source II. This system, which Flynn states takes around 15 minutes to circle its perimeter, was completed in 2015 with a price tag of $912,000,000. The state-of-the-art machine, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, allows scientists such as Flynn to look at the particles collected from space at a view of one micron — a human hair is about 70 microns wide — in order to scan and characterize the material.

This past week marked Flynn’s most recent visit to Brookhaven, during which he collected data from space particles in hopes of shedding light on the “great phosphorus problem”.

“The great phosphorous problem” is a scientific conundrum that has puzzled scientists studying the origins of the universe. Phosphorous is an element needed to create life; yet, all samples of phosphorus taken from Earth are not useful in biological compounds.

“The phosphorus found on Earth is not soluble in water and cannot be absorbed into particles,” Flynn said. “This planet got hot enough when it formed to melt rock, and any carbon-based compounds needed to create life were destroyed.” If phosphorus is needed for organisms to thrive, and all samples of this element from our planet cannot be incorporated into molecules, then the question arises: how did life originate?
“People have suggested that when the Earth was forming, there was this continuous planet-wide rain of dust particles and bigger meteorites from space,” Flynn said.

These particles, Flynn theorizes, could have quite possibly transmitted life-creating elements to Earth in “bioavailable form”, which means they can pass through biological material.
Flynn stated that the results of these tests could be useless, or they could offer profound insight into the origins of beings and life on this planet.

“Most of the particles I work on you can’t see, which makes things challenging,” Flynn said. “But it’s rewarding because these [particles] are the best-preserved samples of what went on when the original dust of our solar system was forming.”

Samples taken of meteorites have been compromised by heat and water, Flynn said. The dust particles have had little outside interference and are a great window into viewing the history of this planet and the universe.
Flynn studied mathematics before receiving degrees in physics and astrochemistry.

“I think people frequently fall into what they do rather than having a clear plan,” Flynn said.
Flynn always shown interest in the space program.

“When I attended MIT, I was the editor of an engineering magazine there,” Flynn said. “I got to cover the Apollo launch.”

Flynn also reported for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. His favorite assignment while there was covering the canning jar crisis that had struck the area one summer.

“I spoke to a lady with a huge tomato crop and no canning-jar lids,” Flynn said. “After the article came out, someone with canning-jar lids and nothing to can sent them to her doorstep.”

The turnaround for the data analysis at Brookhaven is fast, and Flynn expects to have results by at least next week. In the meantime, Flynn could be found teaching at PSUC, collecting meteorites from the campus garden, and photographing his favorite butterfly, the blue morphe.

The work Flynn has accomplished has extended into many regions. He was the team leader of chemical analysts for NASA’s Project Stardust, which involved studying samples of a comet with 200 international scientists. He also performed experiments concerning the recoil of potentially hazardous asteroids, much like the one that came closer to the Earth than the moon is on April 15, in which he shot at meteorites to analyze how large celestial bodies would behave, and how to best break them up into little pieces which would burn up in our atmosphere.

“You get a nice sky show,” Flynn said, “but no one would get killed.”

Email Sage Lewandowski at news@cardinalpointsonline.com

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