From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"A Horoscopic Perspective"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 29 January 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I feel incredibly sympathetic towards our ancestors for looking to the sky for answers. The dependable, regular movements of the heavens stand in stark contrast to the chaotic, unpredictable, and often violent Earthly world. It's not a huge stretch to imagine that perhaps the positions of the planets would tell us something important. Indeed, many of the early pioneers of what would become science were motivated not by understanding nature for the sake of it, but to build better tools for astrology.

Alas, the more we learned about the celestial realm the more we realized that it's just as chaotic, unpredictable, and often violent as it is down here. And while one of the great triumphs of scientific understanding was the realization that physics is universal throughout the cosmos, that same understanding places strict limits on what can influence what across the vast expanses of time and space that we call the universe. And it's very clear that the positions of the planets bear no relation to human activities.

So why does astrology persist even today? It's part confirmation bias - horoscopes and attributes are so vaguely written that you can give the exact same "prediction" to a hundred people and most will agree it applies to them, despite their sign. It's part cultural tradition - when humanity has been doing something for at least thousands of years it's hard to shake it off. And it's part comfort - who doesn't desire some form of control or knowledge over their lives?

It's this last part that puts science communicators in a tough spot. Obviously horoscopes fill a need in the lives of some people. If we're to (rightly) claim that they're bogus, what do we have to offer in replacement?

"Calling all Experts"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 22 January 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There's a lot of expertise within the walls of COSI. Educational experience, life experience, professional experience. Things you were taught, things you learned on your own. Things you're still working on. With this many people in the COSI team, there's a lot of raw knowledge locked up in your brains.

And it's time to share!

It's easy. Send me a short (2-3 paragraph) writeup describing some interesting bit of science and I'll include it in future editions for the whole team to enjoy.

That's it. See, I told you it was easy.


Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 15 January 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

The recent below-freezing temperatures, while not the most pleasant to experience, do give us opportunities to explore some pretty interesting physics. One of my favorites is the phenomenon of supercooling a liquid.

We're used to the idea of dropping the temperature of water beneath its freezing point and it becoming ice. Normal routine so far. But if the water is especially pure then it can be cooled far lower while still maintaining is liquidy state. This is because phase transitions, when a material completely changes character, need a starting place to get the party going.

This starting point has a name, of course: the nucleation point. A tiny imperfection, like a mineral or a speck of dust, allows the water molecules to cling to something and start lining up in the familiar regimented order of a solid. Without that impurity water can stay as water.

But once the impurity is introduced the phase transition takes place as rapidly as it can (because the water is super cold) and before you know it you have a block of ice.

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