(this paper was led by James McBride as first-author. I am second author of this paper.)
This paper is quite special to me, because it was a fishing expedition that seemed unlikely to detect anything, and then nature and the universe surprised us.
Hydroxyl (OH) is a molecule that is often found in very dense regions, and is one of the lines that has been found to mase. Masers were actually the progenitor to lasers, which we are all now extremely familiar with (thanks to Charlie Townes for their discovery! He won the Nobel prize for it.)
|Masing of an OH molecule (adapted from the figure here)|
molecule gets pumped to a high excited level which decays to a sub-level, then to hit the ground state will decay by a MASER transition. It strongly amplifies a very particular transition in the molecule, leading to unphysical conditions (if the masing was not occurring). OH is one of those molecules that mases.
Originally, many thought that to get this line, the perfect conditions needed to be present. There needed to be enough energy pumping the molecule that it could have the maser transition, and the molecule was thought to be present in very dense gas. After the maser lines were found (both in the Galaxy as well as in bright, dense, prolifically star-forming extragalactic sources), absorption was also found against strong radio continuum sources. But the sources that these transitions were found in were almost always interacting galaxies with powerful star formation, or potentially starbursting galaxies. No one ever thought to look for this emission or absorption in "red and dead" galaxies, because why bother?
|OH absorption against the radio continuum of NGC5866, one of the detected ATLAS3D galaxies (adapted from McBride et al. 2015)|
|Detected OH masers and absorbers, compared to our newly detected OH absorbers (adapted from McBride et al. 2015)|
|Optical image of NGC5866 from the Hubble Space Telescope.|
Image credit: Hubble Heritage
When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. But it was still a lot of fun discovering the unexpected, and getting to change the conventional wisdom. James wrote a clean and clear paper on this, and I highly recommend it as a read, especially if you want to understand more about the wonderful and interesting world of OH.
The official published version can be found on NASA ADS.
The arXiv pre-print version (prepared by James) can be found here.