From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"You may continue yodeling"

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

Brian Krosnick, one of COSI's fantastic outreach education specialists, reached out to me with a mythbuster-style query: a common trope in cartoons and movies is for someone to trigger a deadly avalanche by shouting, or even worse, by just whispering. Just how dangerous is a little yodel-le-he-ho on the mountain slope?

Fortunately for hikers and skiers everywhere, a little yodeling can go a long way with no risk of triggering an avalanche. Snowpacks on mountains are indeed precarious situations, with the tremendous weight of the snow itself balanced only by friction. And once set in motion an entire slab of snow can fracture off and slide down a mountain en masse to wreak havoc.

But sound is actually very weak. Think about it: a lungful of air and a tiny voicebox can fill an entire auditorium with sound. If you drop something on the ground, usually less than 5% of the energy is converted into sound. And so on.

A nice loud yell provides less than one hundredth the energy needed to initiate an avalanche, but that doesn't mean mountain-goers are out of danger. Simply walking or skiing on an insecure snowbank can supply the pressure needed to overwhelm stability and trigger an avalanche. Indeed, somewhere north of 90% of fatal avalanches are caused by the very people who end up dying in them.

"Pluto's Story"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 30 January 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

During my presentation at the COSI all-team meeting last year, I spoke at the length about the amazing story of Pluto, using our decades-long hunt for answers as an example of the kind of dedication that scientists in every discipline employ in their research.

What started as a small speck of light tucked between the distant stars turned into a complex and beautiful world as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew by the dwarf planet in the summer of 2015.

And the man that lead that mission, Dr. Alan Stern, is coming to COSI.

At OSU my office is in the Center for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics, a joint venture between the departments of Physics and Astronomy. Every year we host a lecture from a leader in our field, and having Dr. Stern join us for an evening is an incredible privilege.

We'll be hosting the event in COSI's National Geographic Giant Screen Theater, so you can feast your eyes on the incredible high-resolution images that Dr. Stern will be bringing with him. His lecture will start at 7pm on Wednesday, February 15th, followed by an interview and Q&A session hosted by me.

Did I mention that the event is free and open to the public? That seems like an important detail. Oh, and word on the street is that the theater concession stand will be on OSU's tab, too.

Hope to see you there!

"Let's get ill"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 23 January 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

As Lindy Newman, one of COSI's excellent outreach educations, lay sick with the stomach flu on her couch during the holidays, her feverish mind began to ponder: if many of her symptoms (sore throat, fever, nausea) were due to the body's immune response to the disease, what would happen if her body just left the virus or bacteria alone?

When you come down with an illness, the symptoms you feel are often a mix of the disease's own damage to the body and your body's attempts to fight it, and that mix can depend on the particular disease. For example, left to their own devices some cold viruses would only cause small irritation (or be completely unnoticeable at all) if it weren't for our body's reaction - you know, phlegm, drainage, the works.

One of the fascinating things about the world of viruses and bacteria is how specialized they are. Just among the hundred or so cold viruses, they all target different parts of the nasal passages and throat based on the particular mix of temperature, humidity, and salinity of those parts. They simply can't live anywhere else, which limits their ability to do damage.

But the true threat may not come from a relatively innocuous cold or stomach flu, but from every other nasty critter that's trying to get in. Without an immune response to take down every single threat every single time, a bit of damage here and there can open up a gateway for new diseases to push further into more vulnerable spots in the body.

This is why HIV/AIDS is so deadly: with a depressed immune response, a simple survivable cold can open the door to life-threatening pneumonia.

So the next time you're heaving up your stomach or hacking up your lung, be grateful for a heathy immune system!

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