From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Going big"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 20 November 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

With the dinosaurs finally here, and all the excitement and interest they bring, it's important to remember what really matters this holiday season: giant meteors falling from the sky.

Some paleontologists had long suspected that an impact may have spelled the end of the dinos, because their demise came so swiftly (geologically speaking). Some estimates suggested it took as little as 10,000 years to wipe them from the face of the Earth. It's so striking: we have rock formations that are infested with dinosaur bones below a certain line, and above it they're simply gone.

Another striking feature prompted a team led by physicist Luis Alvarez and his son, geophysicist Walter Alvarez, to propose the impact as a hypothesis in the early 1980's. Their reasoning came from iridium, which is rather rare in the Earth's crust, but is found in abundance in a thin layer separating dinosaur from not-dinosaur rocks. It's also found in asteroids.

Around the same time, but unknown to them, geophysicists working for the Pemex oil company discovered the half-submerged remnants of, you guessed it, a giant impact crater centered on the town of Chicxulub, Mexico. The crater is over a hundred miles wide and ten deep, and dates to the same age as the extinction event.

While other sources like the volcanic Deccan Traps and changing sea levels were causing stress on our dinosaur friends, and likely contributed to their downfall, there's little doubt that a 10 kilometer wide rock from space did some serious damage.


Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 06 November 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Politics. Religion. Salad dressing. There are a few topics that ignite heated, emotional arguments. With the opening of the AMNH Dinosaur Gallery at COSI, and its emphasis on evolution, some team members may be faced with skeptical - and even hostile - reactions and comments. While there are no perfect universal techniques, over the years I have developed a few guidelines that might prove useful:

- Any person at COSI is our guest, and we treat our guests with respect and hospitality.

- This isn't personal. This isn't an argument. It's not about winning or losing. We don't need to convince anyone of anything. We're here to share what we've learned through the scientific process.

- We are just a mouthpiece for the evidence. It's not "I believe such-and-such" but the much more dispassionate "The evidence shows such-and-such".

- Any open, honest question should be answered. If someone has a specific question, answer it to the best of your knowledge, and leave it at that. Don't take that as an opportunity to go on the attack. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.

- You're not just talking to the person in front of you, but to all the people within earshot.

- If a conversation isn't going anywhere, pivot. Share or show something they might find interesting within the gallery.

Like I said, there's never a perfect approach, but if you find yourself in a potentially confrontational conversation, it's up to you to de-escalate the situation and put the focus back on where it should be: science has revealed the beautiful, complex world around us, and we're here to show it off.

"Leaving Leaves"

Written by Paul Sutter on Wednesday, 01 November 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

This week's memo arrives courtesy Dr. Katherine O’Brien, a postdoctoral fellow at OSU and the community outreach specialist for the Museum of Biological Diversity.

In the stretch between Halloween and Thanksgiving, fall is in full swing. Despite the characteristically grey weather this is my favorite time of year watching chemistry play out on leaves all across the city. As leaves stop producing chlorophyll as the days have been getting shorter, this shows the other pigments in a leaf like yellow (xanthophyll), orange (carotene), and red (anthocyanin).

If you want to see these underlying colors in leaves that have not changed, you can! All you need are some leaves (spinach works great), rubbing alcohol, a white coffee filter, a pie plate, pencil, a glass, and some plastic wrap. Okay, ready for some home science?!?

1) Tear up the leaf and place it in the glass with enough rubbing alcohol to cover the leaves.

2) Cover the glass with the plastic wrap - this keeps the alcohol from evaporating.

3) Fill the pie plate with warm water and place the glass in the water for 30 minutes so that the alcohol becomes green.

4) Cut the paper filter into strips and tape them to your pencil.

5) Suspend the filter so it is just touching the liquid- set aside for 30-90 min.

What you will see are the pigments that are inside the leaf being masked by the green (chlorophyll) and a large strip of green pigment.

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