From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"How Old are Your Leftovers?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 28 November 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Maybe you've reached your limits on turkey sandwiches, and perhaps that stuffing is looking a little long in the tooth. But your leftovers are far older than you might think:

- Turkey is a great source of selenium, an essential nutrient. This element was forged in a supernova explosion billions of years ago, maybe even just before the formation of the solar system.

- Cranberries have lots of fiber, which is just carbon. Carbon is fused inside stars like our sun near the end of their lives.

- Your stainless steel silverware is mostly made of iron, which is only formed in the most massive stars just before they detonate as supernovas.

- Your beverage of choice contains a lot of water, the most common molecule in the universe. The oxygen comes from sun-like stars, and hydrogen is the oldest element of all, coalescing in the first 20 minutes of the big bang itself, over 13.8 billion years ago.

So maybe it's time to toss those leftovers.

"Going big"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 20 November 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

With the dinosaurs finally here, and all the excitement and interest they bring, it's important to remember what really matters this holiday season: giant meteors falling from the sky.

Some paleontologists had long suspected that an impact may have spelled the end of the dinos, because their demise came so swiftly (geologically speaking). Some estimates suggested it took as little as 10,000 years to wipe them from the face of the Earth. It's so striking: we have rock formations that are infested with dinosaur bones below a certain line, and above it they're simply gone.

Another striking feature prompted a team led by physicist Luis Alvarez and his son, geophysicist Walter Alvarez, to propose the impact as a hypothesis in the early 1980's. Their reasoning came from iridium, which is rather rare in the Earth's crust, but is found in abundance in a thin layer separating dinosaur from not-dinosaur rocks. It's also found in asteroids.

Around the same time, but unknown to them, geophysicists working for the Pemex oil company discovered the half-submerged remnants of, you guessed it, a giant impact crater centered on the town of Chicxulub, Mexico. The crater is over a hundred miles wide and ten deep, and dates to the same age as the extinction event.

While other sources like the volcanic Deccan Traps and changing sea levels were causing stress on our dinosaur friends, and likely contributed to their downfall, there's little doubt that a 10 kilometer wide rock from space did some serious damage.

"Controversy"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 06 November 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Politics. Religion. Salad dressing. There are a few topics that ignite heated, emotional arguments. With the opening of the AMNH Dinosaur Gallery at COSI, and its emphasis on evolution, some team members may be faced with skeptical - and even hostile - reactions and comments. While there are no perfect universal techniques, over the years I have developed a few guidelines that might prove useful:

- Any person at COSI is our guest, and we treat our guests with respect and hospitality.

- This isn't personal. This isn't an argument. It's not about winning or losing. We don't need to convince anyone of anything. We're here to share what we've learned through the scientific process.

- We are just a mouthpiece for the evidence. It's not "I believe such-and-such" but the much more dispassionate "The evidence shows such-and-such".

- Any open, honest question should be answered. If someone has a specific question, answer it to the best of your knowledge, and leave it at that. Don't take that as an opportunity to go on the attack. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.

- You're not just talking to the person in front of you, but to all the people within earshot.

- If a conversation isn't going anywhere, pivot. Share or show something they might find interesting within the gallery.

Like I said, there's never a perfect approach, but if you find yourself in a potentially confrontational conversation, it's up to you to de-escalate the situation and put the focus back on where it should be: science has revealed the beautiful, complex world around us, and we're here to show it off.

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