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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Let there be light"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 08 August 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Someone recently asked on my little office whiteboard what theory I wish I had come up with. I'm still not sure whether they were being cheeky or not, but I took the question seriously. Because, well, why not? Also, it gave me the chance to talk about one of my favorite old-timey physicists: James Clerk Maxwell. If you haven't heard of him, look him up. Outrageously brilliant. Deeply insightful. Fantastically bearded. The trifecta.

One of his big contributions to the world of physics in the late 1800's was the discovery of light. I mean, everyone knew that light existed, but Maxwell was the first to figure out what it was: waves of electricity and magnetism. And he didn't stop there. In 4 compact equations, he was able to unite three different realms of cutting edge (well, for the nineteenth century) physics: electricity, magnetism, and light.

Let that sink in for a bit. The magnets on your fridge, the battery powering your smartphone, and the light from distant stars are explained by the same simple principles. That feat of unification - of finding a single overarching theory to describe a wide swath of the natural world - doesn't happen often.

In a battle between Einstein and Maxwell, I'm betting Maxwell every time.

"Science of comics"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 01 August 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Heat vision? Faster-than-light spaceships? Mutants? Techno-viruses? Spandex?

Comic books and sci-fi movies explore some pretty fantastic concepts, and naturally folks start wondering if those concepts are in the least bit plausible or realistic.

In general, they're not. Biological eyes can't shoot lasers. Nothing can go faster than light. Mutations are generally disappointing. But that's fine. For one thing, there's a relationship between science fiction and science fact: authors will push the limits of known science and engineering, and these stories often excite new generations of scientists and engineers. That's nice.

Plus, comics give us a wonderful opportunity to start talking about science. People often don't even know where to start when given the chance to ask, which is why it's so important to find cultural touchpoints for communicating complex topics. "Could Superman really fly?" is an easy way to start discussing gravity, air resistance, energy, and so many more topics.

I was privileged to host a panel at the recent Wizard World Comic Con, featuring a bevy of experts representing disciplines from biology to economics to architecture, and we had the wonderful opportunity to use comics to do exactly that with a jam-packed audience. Tons of questions, tons of interest, tons of science, and most importantly...tons of fun!

"It's a big universe out there"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 25 July 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

One of my favorite things to share with people - and give me five minutes and you'll get to experience it - is the concept of the true enormity of the universe. It's really really hard to put into words. Numbers too are just filled with meaningless zeros: the observable universe is about 80 billion lightyear across, or around a trillion trillion miles. How are our primitive just-above-lizard brains supposed to comprehend such magnitudes?

They don't.

Neither can our biological muscles move a 100-ton block, but that doesn't stop us from building pyramids, aqueducts, and Target stores. Our ridiculous ingenuity has devised all sorts of clever tools and contraptions for manipulating our physical world in ways that our animal cousins couldn't imagine (because they have a hard time literally imagining anything).

Likewise, we've come up with a very nifty tool for thinking incomprehensible thoughts: mathematics. Math allows us to understand, predict, modify, and reshape knowledge of the world around us. It allows scientists to write down in a few compact equations the past 13 billion years of cosmic history, and use those equations to predict its future. With math we can think larger and more powerful thoughts. We can squeeze the staggering complexity of the universe into an easily digestible shape.

For example, we don't ever have to think directly about the size of the universe; we can just let the math do the work for us.

That's a pretty powerful tool!

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