From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Why not?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 15 May 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I don't know who cheekily wrote the simple question "Why?" on the whiteboard by my desk at COSI, but the question got me thinking. Why do we do science? What's the central motivation that keeps us in the labs after the 100th failed experiment, or hunched over a computer late at night when the simulation keeps crashing, or out in the inhospitable field collecting another round of samples?

Do we want to improve technology or make the world a better place? Some scientists do, I'm sure. But most science isn't done with any immediate practical benefit in mind. A solid argument can be made that by investigating nature in an open-ended way, we indirectly end up with amazing technology as a by-product. For example, the few dozen physicists working in the early 20th century to unravel the mysterious quantum nature of the subatomic realm didn't realize that their insights would lead to the transistor, pantyhose, or the atomic bomb.

But that's not *why* they did it. They did it because it was interesting. They did it because it was fun to figure things out. They did it because they had a burning curiosity, and that curiosity led them down a particular path of inquiry. Most science does not lead to practical technologies, and we should be careful when employing that argument, lest the "unessential" sciences get left behind.

So why do we do it? To paraphrase the straightforward words of James Clerk Maxwell, a pioneer of electromagnetism, we do it simply because "we cannot put our minds to rest."

"The Grand Tour"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 08 May 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I was simultaneously surprised and thrilled when choreographers from BalletMet reached out to me a couple months ago. Not for my dancing, of course, but for my narration. They had seen what I did with Song of the Stars and wanted to involve me in one of their productions.

Their concept is simple. The Voyager space probes, launched in the late 1970's to go on a "grand tour" of the outer planets of the solar system, are now headed into interstellar space. And tucked between the scientific instruments is a golden record containing recordings of voices, sounds of nature, and music.

For their annual Benefit performance, where proceeds go to the Central Ohio Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation, they wanted to perform dances to three of the pieces on the Golden Record, and they asked me to tell the story of those spacecraft and the purpose of their message.

The pieces couldn't be more different - a blues number from the turn of the century, an Indian raga, and one of the Brandenburg Concertos - but they all share something in common. They were chosen to represent us.

The performance is at 5pm in the Davidson Theatre on May 21st, and you can find more information at thebenefitcolumbus.org.

"What is Science?"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 02 May 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Science is not a search for truth. That's not to say that science doesn't contain true statements. For example, the data returned from a measurement are facts about the world around us, and facts are generally considered true. But Truth with a capital T isn't usually encumbered by uncertainties, caveats, and incompleteness. A "data processing pipeline" sounds perfectly reasonable; a "truth processing pipeline" seems a little fishy.

So what is science? The best definition I can come up with is the following: "Science is a branch of philosophy that uses empirical techniques - and lots of mathematics - to understand the natural world."

Any statement made by scientific inquiry is falsifiable. That's what gives science its strength - the ability to be proven wrong at any moment allows the scientific worldview to be flexible enough to gain more perceptive insights about the world when new observations are made. And a statement that can become incorrect at a drop of a hat probably shouldn't be considered Truth.

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