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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"No Other Like Emmy Noether"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 27 February 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Let me tell you about Emmy Noether, perhaps the most important mathematician that you've never heard of. I was prompted to share this by Chris Hurtubise, COSI's Senior Marketing Director, who asked me who was my favorite female scientist of all time. Of course some heavyweight contenders immediately came to mind - Caroline Herschel, Marie Curie, Vera Rubin, and many others - but after some thought I realized perhaps the most important woman in science wasn't a scientist at all.

Coming into prominence in the early 20th century, she faced the usual barrage of sexism and discrimination, having to fight for every educational opportunity and position. But her work was so remarkable and groundbreaking that it couldn't be ignored, and she quickly found herself supported by academic allies that helped promote her and her research.

Noether contributed to many fields of math, but one area in particular laid the groundwork for our entire - and I'm not exaggerating here - modern conception of physics. She discovered a fundamental connection between symmetries and conservation laws, and that's a big deal.

Here's an example. The COSI floor faculty rely on the fact that they can do the same demo day after day, and assuming they set it up correctly every time, they'll get the same results. Thus there is a symmetry in time for the laws of physics as applied to those demos. That symmetry, by the eponymous Noether's Theorem, leads to the principle of conversation of energy.

And the fact that you can pick up the experiment and get the same result on the opposite side of the building? That's a symmetry in space, which leads to a conservation of momentum. The equations of electromagnetism have a certain mathematical symmetry, which leads to a conserved quantity that you may know as electric charge. And on and on.

I'm barely scratching the surface of the significance of her insights. To really give Noether her due will require a whole new post. Next time...

"The Way the River Flows"

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

A brave COSI educator reached out to me recently, requiring my assistance to settle a workplace debate. Brave because the educator had a question for me that they felt was a little on the silly - or perhaps worse, obvious - side, and didn't want to display their apparent ignorance to the world. That natural reluctance, while perfectly understandable, is a major impediment to science education, and developing strategies to overcome that will be the subject of another memo.

But for today we have the central question: what direction do rivers flow? North-to-south? South-to-north? Downhill? Something else?

Well, let's look at the major rivers of the world:

Amazon: west to east
Nile: south to north
Yangtze: west to east
Mississippi: north to south

Our own Scioto river flows from north to south, where it joins the westward-flowing Ohio river, and eventually to the south-heading Mississippi.

So rivers definitely don't follow a particular direction around the globe, but what sets their course? The answer is "downhill", but not in the way you might expect. While the Amazon's headwaters are in the mighty Andes mountains, the Mississippi is born in modestly hilly Minnesota.

To see why a river flows in a particular direction, you must ask yourself: "If I were a drop of water falling from the sky, where would I go?" If you fell on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, for example, you might find your way to a small stream that connects to the Missouri River, heading eastwards until you join the Mississippi. Even though the Mississippi has humble origins, it's fed by rainwater in the distant mountains.

The collection of all sources of a particular river is called its watershed, and detailed mapping and sophisticated algorithms can reveal what "downhill" really means to a river.

"Betting the Farm"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 13 February 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I'm no stranger to farms. I grew up surrounded by them, my undergrad university in California had a big agriculture program (and a dairy with some delicious cheeses, but I digress), and my graduate school in Illinois was notable for an experimental corn field right in the middle of campus.

But when a correspondent for Farm World magazine reached out to me for an interview, I was surprised. One, that there is a Farm World magazine and it's apparently a big deal; and two, that they wanted to talk to an astrophysicist. About sunspots.

Over the course of the interview I learned a lot, and what struck me the most was how sophisticated the industry is. GPS, drones, specialized weather simulations, complex market forecasting, cutting-edge research in biotechnology, the works. I suppose if 2% of the US is feeding the remaining 98% (and then some), they've got to be pretty smart about it.

And farmers - as an industry - think about sunspots. There's a notion that sunspot activity is connected to weather. While the sun's brightness does change, and does so in a measurable way, it doesn't substantially affect our weather. But increased sunspot activity is tied to higher rates of solar storms, which do seriously impact both weather and GPS satellites. And that's definitely something for a farmer to worry about.

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