From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Aliens in the Ground"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 22 May 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Recently a Columbus Dispatch reporter interviewed me about the growing excitement for COSI's new dinosaur exhibit, opening this fall. He wondered why dinosaurs were so dang fascinating.

I know I was obsessed with dinosaurs (and space) growing up, and seriously considered going into paleontology. And I guess I'm not alone. So what's the attraction?

To me, thoughts of dinosaurs run parallel to thoughts of extraterrestrial life. We're constantly inquiring if we're alone in the universe, and if there is life out there, what forms and shapes it could take. But buried under our feet are the fossilized remains of fantastic - almost mythical - creatures.

Massive beasts as long as school buses, fierce killers with teeth longer than my hand, flying and swimming creatures that are almost too big to comprehend. The dinosaurs and their kin have no real living analog to compare them to. Birds are descended from them, but only a few thin lines of the full variety of dinosaurs survived the extinction event 65 million years ago.

I think dinosaurs are fascinating because a) they're so different, and b) they're dead. It's only by careful reconstruction that we can even begin to imagine what they were like in real life. To us, they might as well be aliens.

"Why not?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 15 May 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I don't know who cheekily wrote the simple question "Why?" on the whiteboard by my desk at COSI, but the question got me thinking. Why do we do science? What's the central motivation that keeps us in the labs after the 100th failed experiment, or hunched over a computer late at night when the simulation keeps crashing, or out in the inhospitable field collecting another round of samples?

Do we want to improve technology or make the world a better place? Some scientists do, I'm sure. But most science isn't done with any immediate practical benefit in mind. A solid argument can be made that by investigating nature in an open-ended way, we indirectly end up with amazing technology as a by-product. For example, the few dozen physicists working in the early 20th century to unravel the mysterious quantum nature of the subatomic realm didn't realize that their insights would lead to the transistor, pantyhose, or the atomic bomb.

But that's not *why* they did it. They did it because it was interesting. They did it because it was fun to figure things out. They did it because they had a burning curiosity, and that curiosity led them down a particular path of inquiry. Most science does not lead to practical technologies, and we should be careful when employing that argument, lest the "unessential" sciences get left behind.

So why do we do it? To paraphrase the straightforward words of James Clerk Maxwell, a pioneer of electromagnetism, we do it simply because "we cannot put our minds to rest."

"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

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