From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"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.

"Can you hear me now?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 14 November 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

During my keynote at the COSI All-Team meeting recently, I spoke about our decades-long fascination with the erstwhile planet Pluto, culminating in the recent New Horizons mission to the outer solar system. I showed off some images beamed back from the spacecraft that truly inspire and amaze me, featuring nitrogen plains, mountains of water ice, and more.

Later that day Laurie Mille, Manager of Living Collections, shot me a quick followup email, asking how New Horizons can transit images across the vast reaches of empty interplanetary space - over 3 billion miles, in fact - but she can't get decent cell reception in the mountains of Vermont.

NASA and the New Horizons team have a few things going for them that Laurie's cell phone doesn't. Like, 700 million things. Sending probes to the furthest reaches of the solar system ain't cheap, and some of that money is devoted to making sure that "NH phone home".

Second, Laurie's phone doesn't tap into the NASA Deep Space Network, a collection of gigantic radio dishes and antennas dotted across the world. Those are some pretty sensitive ears, capable of hearing even the faintest echoes of our far-flung spacecraft.

Lastly, while the distances are impressive, the obstacles are not. Here's NASA's problem:

Earth...........*3 billion miles of absolutely nothing*.......New Horizons

And here's Laurie's problem:

phone....../\.../\../\.../\/\/\.../\/\/\.....*a bunch more mountains*....cell tower

Mountains aren't the best of friends to radio waves, so that presents a unique challenge that's hard to engineer around. But even with all that money, all that gear, and all that empty space, it still took over a year for New Horizons to beam back the data from the brief Pluto flyby.

"Sensory Friendly"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 07 November 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Science is for Sharing. That's my motto and I'm sticking to it. This isn't always easy, especially at a science center as large as COSI with such a broad audience. How do we make the museum as welcoming and inviting a place as possible? How do we develop demos, games, and activities that speak to one audience without alienating another? How can we tell if we're doing a good job?

Thankfully there are plenty of amazing, dedicated people at COSI and OSU that are starting to answer those questions. A couple months ago I overheard Gerlinde Higginbotham talking about preparations for an upcoming Sensory Friendly Day. On this day she wanted COSI to welcome kids with cognitive and developmental disabilities, but wasn't sure who would lead the effort to select and develop demos and activities.

Within an hour I had Gerlinde introduced to Anna Voelker, a student I advise at OSU who has a passion for bringing science to underserved audiences. Anna immediately dove into the project, selecting existing carts and outreach activities that would be appropriate, developing new demos just for that audience, and organizing volunteers from both COSI and OSU to run theater games to teach social skills.

With a generous gift from OSU's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics, we had over 100 students, chaperones, and parents visit COSI on Sensory Friendly Day. By all accounts the event was a huge success, and it was amazing to see so many COSI teams pitch in to help, including the volunteer crew, outreach, marketing, floor faculty, theaters, and CRE. Thanks to all for creating such a special opportunity for those kids!

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