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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"The Grand Tour"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 08 May 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I was simultaneously surprised and thrilled when choreographers from BalletMet reached out to me a couple months ago. Not for my dancing, of course, but for my narration. They had seen what I did with Song of the Stars and wanted to involve me in one of their productions.

Their concept is simple. The Voyager space probes, launched in the late 1970's to go on a "grand tour" of the outer planets of the solar system, are now headed into interstellar space. And tucked between the scientific instruments is a golden record containing recordings of voices, sounds of nature, and music.

For their annual Benefit performance, where proceeds go to the Central Ohio Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation, they wanted to perform dances to three of the pieces on the Golden Record, and they asked me to tell the story of those spacecraft and the purpose of their message.

The pieces couldn't be more different - a blues number from the turn of the century, an Indian raga, and one of the Brandenburg Concertos - but they all share something in common. They were chosen to represent us.

The performance is at 5pm in the Davidson Theatre on May 21st, and you can find more information at thebenefitcolumbus.org.

"What is Science?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 02 May 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Science is not a search for truth. That's not to say that science doesn't contain true statements. For example, the data returned from a measurement are facts about the world around us, and facts are generally considered true. But Truth with a capital T isn't usually encumbered by uncertainties, caveats, and incompleteness. A "data processing pipeline" sounds perfectly reasonable; a "truth processing pipeline" seems a little fishy.

So what is science? The best definition I can come up with is the following: "Science is a branch of philosophy that uses empirical techniques - and lots of mathematics - to understand the natural world."

Any statement made by scientific inquiry is falsifiable. That's what gives science its strength - the ability to be proven wrong at any moment allows the scientific worldview to be flexible enough to gain more perceptive insights about the world when new observations are made. And a statement that can become incorrect at a drop of a hat probably shouldn't be considered Truth.

"Going Negative"

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 23 April 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Josh Kessler, COSI's Program Manager, had a quick question for me as we were driving to OSU to talk with the Astronomy Department about solar eclipse plans (more on that later). He heard in the news "something something discovering negative mass", and that seemed like a big deal.

Indeed, discovering negative mass would be a big deal, since it doesn't exist in our universe. Particles with negative mass would repel positive-mass particles, which means you could put one next to a positive-mass particle and watch as they spontaneously accelerate off to infinity. That seems...wrong.

So imagine my surprise when the headlines came rolling in recently about a "breakthrough" that is "turning physics upside down". For once, the blame isn't fully on the press release or the media. The scientists flat-out put it in the title of their paper accepted by Physical Review Letters:

"Negative mass hydrodynamics in a Spin-Orbit--Coupled Bose-Einstein Condensate"

How profound! But the very first sentence of their abstract gives the game away: "A negative effective mass can be realized in quantum systems..."

A negative *effective* mass is an entirely different beast than a negative mass. In fact, the term is really a historical artifact that doesn't mean what you think it means. It means that in ultra-cold quantum systems, there are internal forces that make a fluid move in surprising ways. In this case, when they shut off their trapping laser, the fluid expanded a little bit then stopped. That's it.

It's a totally routine operation in this branch of physics, not at all surprising, and not at all negative.

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