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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Salt"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 15 August 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Last week Kelly Berger, the Store Director for COSI, stopped me in the hallway. Apparently they had been getting some comments. There's a towering display in the gift shop full of Himalayan Salt Lamps, which promised that the lamps would "emit negative ions" to "remove impurities from the air". I'm sure the comments went somewhere along the lines of "uh...are you....are you sure?"

Salt is made of two elements stuck together: sodium and chlorine. This connection is pretty strong, and they only tend to separate in things like water. Making...you guessed it...salt water. If you heat up a block of salt enough to vaporize it, the negative ions of chlorine* and positive ions of sodium** just find the nearest water molecule floating in the air and hitch a ride.

So assuming the lamp is hot enough to even do anything interesting to the salt (and it probably isn't, because it's just a light bulb), the only thing it would make is slightly salty air.

I'm glad Kelly came to me. If you search online almost all the links are to horrible sources, so it's hard to tell what's really going on. And I don't object to selling the lamps as lamps. They look nice and fit in with the other gem and mineral doodads we sell.

However, this concept of magical healing/cleaning properties from Himalayan*** Salt Lamps isn't grounded in much actual science. I'm sure that turning on a cozy light and chilling out has health benefits, but it ain't the salt that's doing it.

*Fun fact: If this device actually emitted pure negative ions from salt, it's spitting out chlorine gas, which is a deadly deadly poison.

**Bonus fun fact: Sodium by itself is highly reactive, which is a fancy way of saying "explosive". So remove all the chlorine from salt and...boom.

***Extra credit fun fact: Despite the name, they're usually from Poland.

"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!

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