From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Nothing new under the sun"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 05 December 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Recently I had the privilege of giving the opening keynote address at Columbus State Community College's "We Are STEM" event, where a couple hundred high schoolers toured the campus and engaged in a bunch of STEMy demos.

As I was preparing my notes it struck me just how old STEM really is. Technologies like fire and stone tools predate homo sapiens as a species - and hence, for the curious, beat the development of art, music, and religion by a couple million years.

We've been engineers for a fantastically long time too. Take the city of Damascus, continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years. Its name is so old that we don't even know the language that it comes from or what it means. And we have evidence of abandoned settlements dotting the globe for at least the past 10,000 years.

Our prehistoric ancestors kept tally marks in bone fragments around 20,000 years ago, and as soon as agriculture became a thing the study of geometry went right along with it.

The modern conception of science is relatively young, not even 400 years old. The concept of falsifiability - a bedrock of our view of how science ought to work - was only fully developed in 1932! But the spirit of science and its open inquiry into how nature works has its roots in philosophy, which stretches back untold millennia.

STEM may be a new name, but the traditions are anything but.

"Trumpets in the sky"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 28 November 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

A couple weeks ago Laurie Miller shot me another quick email with a burning question. There's a YouTube video making the rounds purporting to show a large circular cloud formation above Jerusalem accompanied by a deep, continuous trumpet-like sound. Laurie's question: according to online articles, NASA says it's a natural thing, so what's going on?

I (painfully) read a bunch of the articles describing the video, and one amusingly ended with the rhetorical question "Is this caused by God or ET?" Well, let me toss in two more possibilities: nature, and a computer.

Regarding nature, none of the NASA quotes were attributed to a human being with a name. Just "a source at NASA", or "a NASA associate". A couple articles just quote "NASA", as if it were an entity capable of thought and commentary. Anyway, nature does make funny sounds sometimes, but I don't think that's the culprit here.

I'd also like to point out that we live in a age where almost every person on the planet carries with them a high-definition camera, and judging by Facebook and Twitter, enjoy sharing every single picture taken with those cameras. Jerusalem hosts around 800,000 such people, and this one dude was the only one to capture this strange event?

Did I mention that the dude who posted the video is a digital effects artist, whose YouTube channel features many other blends of the real and the virtual?

"Oceans so blue"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 21 November 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

The irrepressible Chris Hurtubise, apparently satisfied with my response to her query on the color of the sky but hungry for more science, continued undaunted with a new question written on my board: what about the ocean? Sometimes it's blue, and sometimes it's brown or green. What gives?

Just like air, water is also a blue thing. And also just like air, it is only slightly blue. A glass of clean water appears almost perfectly transparent, but a waist-deep pool takes on a characteristic blueish tint. Although air gets its blue color from scattering of different wavelengths of light, water molecules simply absorb reds, yellows, and greens while reflecting blue.

This is most apparent when scuba diving, where colors are visibly muted. For example, if you accidentally cut yourself the wound appears mud-brown instead of vibrantly red. Photos of spectacular coral reefs are usually taken at night (when the corals are active) and using super-high-powered lights.

But there's more to water than water. Almost all of the oceans are deserts, both in the sense of meteorology (no rain) and biology (no life). A blue ocean is a dead ocean, but currents can dredge nutrients and minerals from the deeps, and where there's food there's life. Brown sediments and green and red algae can overwhelm the natural color palette of water. A murky ocean is a lively ocean.

Speaking of corals, those creatures require shallow, clear water so their symbiotic algae can get sunlight. Normally these regions would be devoid of life, but the reef system provides the base of a complex ecosystem - to the delight of divers worldwide.

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