GRE Reading Comprehension

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Source: 1996

About a century ago, the Swedish physical scientist Arrhenius proposed a law of classical chemistry that relates chemical reaction rate to temperature. According to the Arrhenius equation, chemical reaction are increasingly unlikely to occur as temperatures approach absolute zero, and at absolute zero (zero degrees Kelvin, or minus 273 degrees Celsius) reactions stop. However, recent experi- mental evidence reveals that although the Arrhenius equa- tion is generally accurate in describing the kind of chemical reaction that occurs at relatively high temperatures, at tem- peratures closer to zero a quantum- mechanical effect known as tunneling comes into play; this effect accounts for chemical reactions that are forbidden by the principles of classical chemistry. Specifically, entire molecules can "tunnel" through the barriers of repulsive forces from other mole- cules and chemically react even though these molecules do not have sufficient energy, according to classical chemistry, to overcome the repulsive barrier. The rate of any chemical reaction, regardless of the temperature at which it takes place, usually depends on a very important characteristic known as its activation energy. Any molecule can be imagined to reside at the bottom of a so- called potential well of energy. A chemical reaction corre- sponds to the transition of a molecule from the bottom of one potential well to the bottom of another. In classical chemistry, such a transition can be accomplished only by going over the potential barrier between the wells, the height of which remains constant and is called the activation energy of the reaction. In tunneling, the reacting molecules tunnel from the bottom of one to the bottom of another well without having to rise over the barrier between the two wells. Recently researchers have developed the concept of tunneling temperature: the temperature below which tunneling transitions greatly outnumber Arrhenius transitions, and classical mechanics gives way to its quantum counterpart. This tunneling phenomenon at very low temperatures suggested my hypothesis about a cold prehistory of life: the formation of rather complex organic molecules in the deep cold of outer space, where temperatures usually reach only a few degrees Kelvin. Cosmic rays (high-energy pro- tons and other particles) might trigger the synthesis of simple molecules, such as interstellar formaldehyde, in dark clouds of interstellar dust. Afterward complex organic molecules would be formed, slowly but surely, by means of tunneling. After I offered my hypothesis, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe argued that molecules of interstellar form- aldehyde have indeed evolved into stable polysaccharides such as cellulose and starch. Their conclusions, although strongly disputed, have generated excitement among inves- tigators such as myself who are proposing that the galactic clouds are the places where the prebiological evolution of compounds necessary to life occurred.

Question List: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The author of the passage is primarily concerned with

  • A describing how the principles of classical chem- istry were developed
  • B initiating a debate about the kinds of chemical reactions required for the development of life
  • C explaining how current research in chemistry may be related to broader biological concerns
  • D reconciling opposing theories about chemical reac- tions
  • E clarifying inherent ambiguities in the laws of clas- sical chemistry

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