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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"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.

"You may continue yodeling"

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

Brian Krosnick, one of COSI's fantastic outreach education specialists, reached out to me with a mythbuster-style query: a common trope in cartoons and movies is for someone to trigger a deadly avalanche by shouting, or even worse, by just whispering. Just how dangerous is a little yodel-le-he-ho on the mountain slope?

Fortunately for hikers and skiers everywhere, a little yodeling can go a long way with no risk of triggering an avalanche. Snowpacks on mountains are indeed precarious situations, with the tremendous weight of the snow itself balanced only by friction. And once set in motion an entire slab of snow can fracture off and slide down a mountain en masse to wreak havoc.

But sound is actually very weak. Think about it: a lungful of air and a tiny voicebox can fill an entire auditorium with sound. If you drop something on the ground, usually less than 5% of the energy is converted into sound. And so on.

A nice loud yell provides less than one hundredth the energy needed to initiate an avalanche, but that doesn't mean mountain-goers are out of danger. Simply walking or skiing on an insecure snowbank can supply the pressure needed to overwhelm stability and trigger an avalanche. Indeed, somewhere north of 90% of fatal avalanches are caused by the very people who end up dying in them.

"Pluto's Story"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 30 January 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

During my presentation at the COSI all-team meeting last year, I spoke at the length about the amazing story of Pluto, using our decades-long hunt for answers as an example of the kind of dedication that scientists in every discipline employ in their research.

What started as a small speck of light tucked between the distant stars turned into a complex and beautiful world as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by the dwarf planet in the summer of 2015.

And the man that lead that mission, Dr. Alan Stern, is coming to COSI.

At OSU my office is in the Center for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics, a joint venture between the departments of Physics and Astronomy. Every year we host a lecture from a leader in our field, and having Dr. Stern join us for an evening is an incredible privilege.

We'll be hosting the event in COSI's National Geographic Giant Screen Theater, so you can feast your eyes on the incredible high-resolution images that Dr. Stern will be bringing with him. His lecture will start at 7pm on Wednesday, February 15th, followed by an interview and Q&A session hosted by me.

Did I mention that the event is free and open to the public? That seems like an important detail. Oh, and word on the street is that the theater concession stand will be on OSU's tab, too.

Hope to see you there!

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