From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"An Adventurous 2017"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 08 January 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

As the holiday festivities wind down and us in the northern hemisphere settle in for a few more months of pointing uncomfortably away from the sun, it's a good time to reflect on the scientific journey we've had in the past year. Perhaps most interesting was that of the most notable achievements and discoveries made in astronomy last year, almost all were surprises.

A family of Earth-sized exoplanets around a nearby red dwarf star; the serendipitous observation of colliding neutron stars using both gravitational waves and the more familiar electromagnetic ones; the brief encounter with an asteroid of definite interstellar origins. All unexpected, and all significant.

But then there was the Great American Eclipse. Astronomers have been able to predict solar eclipses with to-the-minute accuracy since 1715, so we pretty much knew that one was coming. And to be perfectly honest, I count August 21st as the most significant scientific moment of the year. While I personally didn't get to see totality due to an unfortunately placed cloud over Nashville, hundreds of millions of across the US, Canada, and Mexico got to enjoy at least some solar coverage.

For a brief moment, it seemed as if everyone's eyes looked skywards and all thoughts turned astronomical.

And then it was back to business as usual, as usual.

"Feel the Force"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 18 December 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Now that everyone has seen the new Star Wars flick at least once, I can use some cheesy puns to talk about physics. Case in point: the force. We're familiar with the four known forces of nature. Electromagnetism, governing everything from light to your fridge magnets. Strong nuclear, binding quarks together to make protons and neutrons, and gluing those together to make atomic nuclei. Weak nuclear, responsible for radioactive decay. And lastly gravity, which connects all matter and energy in the universe.

Why are there four forces, not more or less? Why is gravity so weak? Why is the strong force so short-ranged? Is there any connection at all between them?

Obviously we don't have all the answers, but some intriguing hints have been discovered in the past few decades. For one, we've discovered that at very high energies the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces merge together. Inside our particle collider experiments, there are only three forces of nature.

We have good mathematical reasons to think that at even higher energies the strong nuclear force disappears too, and based on that we suspect that at extremely high energies, like those found in the first instants of the universe, there was only a single unified force. Not The Force, but close enough.

"Taking the Risk"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 11 December 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

We've all been there before. Someone asks a question about a topic we're presenting on, and we're not quite sure how to answer. Maybe we're completely stumped. Maybe we only half-remember the subject. We don't want to disappoint the audience or leave them hanging, but we don't want to say something totally wrong. What do we do?

Indeed, it's exactly that situation that prevents a lot of people, especially scientists, from engaging in public outreach. For a scientist, being correct and thorough is a key part of any communication, from an email to a conference presentation. We train for weeks on a talk, preparing ourselves for any potential question. But with the general public you never know what you're going to get...so you're better off not even trying.

Just putting yourself out there in front of an audience is a major achievement.

Mistakes are going to be made. Wrong numbers will be quoted. A simplification of a topic will leave an important aspect out. Words will get flipped around. That's life, and that's fine, as long as we're constantly challenging ourselves to do better. It's okay to say "I don't know." It's okay to admit a mistake. It's okay to go back over a topic.

Sometimes science communication requires a little risk.

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