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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Dinosaurs!"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 19 September 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Recently you may have noticed a couple things: 1) COSI is getting a whole bunch of dinosaurs, and 2) I'm kind of excited by it.

Growing up I read - or more accurately, consumed - two kinds of books: books about space and books about dinosaurs. There was also an 80's cartoon series that featured dinosaurs from space, which while pretty awesome didn't offer much educational value.

So you can imagine my delight when I learned that a rock from space was responsible for killing almost all the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. Don't get me wrong - I felt bad for the dinosaurs, but I was happy to learn that my two passions were strangely connected.

In fact it was a physicist and a geologist that first identified this cataclysm. Buried within strata all across the globe is a thin line of dark earth with an usually large concentration of iridium. Iridium is pretty heavy and pretty rare, since most of it sunk to the Earth's core billions of years ago before the planet chilled out from its molten state. But it's still found in abundance in any remnant from the days of the early solar system. Say, asteroids.

That dark line is about 65 million years old, and there are plenty of dinosaurs below it and not so many above it. Ergo: extinction event.

And the size of that dino-killer rock from space? A mere six miles across.

"Trieste"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 12 September 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I recently had the pleasure of meeting team member Hannah Speranza (née Brooke) on her very last day at COSI, as she prepared to jet off to the city of Trieste, Italy with her husband.

It's a small world: I spent about two years in that very same Italian town. It's a lovely spot, nestled a couple hours away from Venice on the Adriatic coast just a short drive from the border of Slovenia. On a clear day you can see the Alps in the distance, and the city itself boasts a deep natural harbor surrounded by dramatic limestone karsts.

Trieste's architecture mirrors its eclectic heritage: an ancient Roman amphitheater sits in the town center next to a typical Italian piazza bordered by Austrian-style buildings. Coffee, pizza, schnitzel, and gelato shops string almost every street.

You wouldn't expect a relatively-unknown city like that to be a major international hub for physics, but the world is full of surprises. To start there's the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, founded by Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, located behind a nineteenth-century castle. I worked at the Astronomical Observatory, which was split between two buildings: a hilltop site commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa in 1753 and a villa formerly owned by the Bazzoni family. There's also the University of Trieste, and a post-graduate school called SISSA located up the hill in a former tuberculosis clinic.

Fun place, filled with great science and - perhaps more importantly - great food.

This post is definitely not brought to you by the Trieste Tourism Bureau, but it might as well be.

"Planet X"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 06 September 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

COSI team member Michael Humphrey asked me via email: is there any truth to the so-called "Planet X"?

Answer for the impatient: No.

Answer for those who don't even know what I'm talking about:

Every once in awhile rumors start swirling, bouncing from ear to ear and facebook feed to facebook feed, about a giant planet in the outer reaches of the solar system, careening sunward with one goal on its gaseous mind: death to Earth.

I mean, of course it's not true, because, you know, astronomers might've told you. But what's more interesting than a nonsensical rumor is its origins.

It's true that we don't know much about the outer solar system. It's large and it's dark, and like that one corner of your basement you never get around to sorting through, we're pretty sure it's just full of junk. We're constantly learning new things - for example, there are indeed some slight hints of a brand new giant planet waaay out there, but if it is out there it's staying out there.

There have also been some studies that tried to find a regular pattern in the extinction record on Earth, and posited that a giant outer planet would disturb a new batch of comets every few million years. Turns out there aren't regular patterns in the extinction record, but hey we tried.

The point is that while there are still spacey mysteries in our own back 40, it doesn't meant they have to be bad things.

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