From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Be Afraid"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 10 October 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Recently we screened the classic horror movie "Halloween" in the Giant Screen Theater as a part of a Sloan Foundation Science on Screen grant. Given my physics background, I had absolutely nothing useful or interesting to say about the movie, but plenty of my colleagues at OSU did. So I invited over a film professor (who's actually teaching a course on horror this semester), a geneticist, a clinical psychologist, and an economist for a panel Q&A after the movie.

The audience was very active and engaged, hitting the panel with thoughtful and insightful questions. It was interesting to hear the conversations sparked between, say, the film professor and the economist about what influences were shaping John Carpenter when he made that movie in the late 70's, or the geneticist and psychology describing the role that fear plays in our lives.

What happens in our brains and bodies when we get scared? What are we really afraid of in society? How does music or mood or lighting set the stage for a great horror movie? The panelists fielded these questions and more, and there was at least one person in the audience who learned a lot from the evening: me.

"Making your genes CRISPR"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 03 October 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

To give audiences a link between the new planetarium show "Cell, Cell, Cell" and COSI's Life Exhibit, I worked with Dave Buker and the Tech Studio team to produce a short video on CRISPR.

That's right: CRISPR.

I'm not in charge of naming things in science, unfortunately. It's short for "Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats", which isn't very helpful either, but check this out. When viruses attack a bacteria, that virus inserts itself into the DNA of the host. Usually that means Game Over, but some varieties of bacteria have evolved a clever defense mechanism. They send a special complex molecule scanning down the path of their DNA, looking for the virus-laden spot. Once there, another molecule comes in and snip-snips the virus out. The DNA stitches itself together, and there you go: healthy bacteria.

Sounds nifty, but what's the big deal? The big deal is that we've been able to replicate and control this process in the lab. Which means we can go in and selectively edit out parts of a genome. And with another trick we can insert new DNA in those snipped-out parts.

CRISPR is cheekily known as a "word processor for DNA", and while folks are excitedly hyping up the potentially unlimited possibilities, in the short term the technology will be used for almost entirely therapeutic reasons, like for treating cancer and gene-related diseases. Even if that's all we got from the technique, that's a huge advance.

"How to boil water"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 26 September 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There's a saying in physics that just because something is simple, it doesn't mean it's easy. For example, "How does gravity work?" is a simple question, but even the likes of Newton and Einstein couldn't fully crack it.

Another deceptive question was sent to me the other day: when water is boiling, what's exactly coming out of the bubbles on the surface? I mean

Let's start with convection. When you heat a fluid on one side but keep it cool on the other, it will naturally start to mix with itself. That's because random blobs of fluid at the bottom will heat up just a little bit more than average. Heating up, they expand and become buoyant, rising to the surface. Once there they cool off and slink back down.

We see this same process all over nature. Pot of boiling water? Convection cells. Surface of the sun? Convection cells. Weather on the Earth? Convection cells. You get the idea.

Given enough energy, the water molecules start to get a little frisky, going from liquid to gas. This doesn't happen at the same time all across the pot of water. Again, randomly little blobs here and there will go gassy, expanding and rising to the surface when they do. But once there instead of sliding back down, the gas is free to escape, sending little packets of water out into the world in the form of water vapor.

So that's what's in a bubble of boiling water: water!

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