The identity of this Real Astronomer must remain mysterious. I will say he/she works at one of the universities in the Western part of the U.S.A and studies the sort of things that will forever be mysterious to the rest of us - such things as "large-scale structure (that is, how the universe looks and behaves if you step back and give it a bird's-eye view) and galaxy formation and evolution", but who also says something that we can all agree with:
"The marvelous thing about our universe is that it's fascinating on every scale, from enormous clusters of galaxies and beyond to tiny molecules of ethyl alcohol, and the marvelous thing about astronomy is that it's one of humankind's oldest sciences, deeply entangled with history and culture."
I now hand you over to:
The Old Foodie tracked down a manufacturer of booze that makes the Guinness brewery look like a backyard moonshine operation. TOF immediately zeroed in on the important questions:
"How many of these interstellar booze-clouds are there? An approximately Infinite number? (Is `Infinite' a number? ) How can the alcohol be harvested? Is it a renewable resource? Can these clouds be seeded to make it rain beer? Would that be 400 [trillion] trillion pints of low alcohol beer, or high? Presumably, as they were British scientists, they mean British trillions (18 zeros) and not US trillions (12 zeros) . . ."
We astronomers are historically very enthusiastic about our drink; unsubstantiated legend has it that the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe died of a bladder burst by too much ale drunk at a royal banquet. Present-day astrophysicists are also fans, of course.
How many interstellar booze clouds?
After doing some rough calculations assuming a standard British pint (3.5% alcohol by volume), I'm afraid that the "trillion" in the news article indeed refers to the American "trillion" (a one with twelve zeroes after it).
But never despair. There are many varieties of interstellar clouds, and of the type in this case, the "hot molecular core" (generally associated with the births of new stars! no booze in baby's bottle, please), there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of three to ten thousand in our own Milky Way galaxy. That still means enough booze for up to four million trillion trillion (a four with thirty zeroes after it) pints! That's about a million pints per person on Earth . . . each minute . . . for the next billion years.
Or if you prefer, instead of a million pints, make it seven hundred thousand gin martinis. The bubbly has already been provided; some structural changes in hot molecular clouds are actually called champagne flows by astronomers.
In case you are planning to hold a party, there are also at least another hundred billion other galaxies in our observable universe, presumably with their own alcoholic clouds.
But every overly happy evening must end in a hangover.
How do you bottle some of this exotic brew? Are you sure that you want to?
There are logistical problems, to be sure. A trip to the vicinity of one of these clouds runs a long 10,000,000,000,000 kilometers. Even traveling at the speed of light, that's the difference between a university party man at departure and a somewhat more haggard thirty-something with a mortgage on arrival. And as far as extracting the goods goes: for every one gram of alcohol, such a cloud would also contain about one hundred thousand (100,000) kilograms of hydrogen. Happy distilling!
For the advanced drinkers among us, the pleasure in an excellent beer or cocktail comes not just from that happy buzz disrupting our neurons but from the other vital chemicals that lend a drink its aroma, flavor, body, and color. The vast majority of these acids, salts, oils, esters, and so forth have not been found in interstellar space. Some of the most complex are built painstakingly, atom by atom, in the remarkable laboratories of living cells and tissues. Forget about gin in space; true gin needs juniper, and juniper needs Earth.
These clouds also contain a distressing number of substances guaranteed to leave a headache, such as
- carbon monoxide,
- hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas),
- formic acid (the sting in bee and ant venom),
- aldehydes (what your frog was pickled in back in Miss Winney's biology class),
- and cyanides, which in tiny incidental amounts can lend rather a pleasant bitter almond flavor to wild cherry wines but which, in slightly less tiny amounts, kill.
Drink 'er down!
Even if hot molecular cores contained real beer; just as in real life, the new baby (star) embedded in the hot cloud would readily get in the way of a good time. Young, hot stars, particularly the large ones, produce an immense amount of ultraviolet and blue light. The same type of light is the reason that many wines and beers come in dark bottles (or — shifting my eyes judiciously — sealed boxes). The high-energy form of light does a number on the brew, instigating chemical reactions that produce sulfurous compounds. If you have ever had the misfortune to taste a beer that has gone off after a few minutes in the air or a "skunked" wine, you know what I'm talking about. Might as well make vinegar from it — yes, that too can be found in space, as can sugars (although the alcohol in space is not generated via Earthly varieties of fermentation).
Never mind all the naysaying. Talking of Old Foodies (or Drinkies): Inanna, a Sumerian goddess of the long-gone first human civilizations, and titled "supreme queen of the heavens" (!), understood the importance of a party of cosmic proportions. She is said to have sung, four thousand years ago:
While I circle around the abundance of beer,
While I feel wonderful, I feel wonderful,
Drinking beer, in a blissful mood,
Drinking liquor, feeling exhilarated,
With joy in the heart [and] a happy liver —
While my heart full of joy,
[And my] happy liver I cover with a
garment fit for a queen!
The heart of Inanna is happy again,
The heart of the queen of heaven is happy again!