From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Skies so blue"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 31 October 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There's a saying in physics: "Simple doesn't mean easy."

Chris Hurtubise wrote on the board outside my office a nice little question: why is the sky blue? Like the water boiling question from a few weeks ago, simple questions like this often deceptively hide complex answers.

Here's a snappy reply: the sky is blue because it's a blue thing. All sorts of things are all sorts of colors, and air happens to be blue. Just not...very blue. It's mostly clear, but look through enough of it and you can see its blueness.

But what about sunsets? If you look through a whole bunch of air, it turns pink or red.

Hmmm. Simple, but not easy.

It turns out that not all kinds of light bounce off air molecules in the same way. When reddish light hits air, it tends to just keep going in the same direction. When blueish light hits air, however, it tends to ricochet off into a random direction. This is called Rayleigh Scattering and it's really fun.

So white light (a combination of all the colors) from the sun hits our atmosphere, and the blue light scatters around while the red doesn't. So we see a blue sky and a yellow (white minus blue) sun.

During sunsets and sunrises, when we're looking right at the sun through lots of air, all the blue light has scattered off to the sides, and even some of the yellows, leaving a lovely red tint.

"Be...more afraid"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 24 October 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

My recent memo on the "Science of Fear" event prompted an email from the ever-curious Mary Ann Wojton, a research associate in COSI's Center for Research and Evaluation, who wanted to learn more about the thoughts and insights of the panelists.

One of the first questions posed after the showing of Halloween was this: what makes scary music so dang scary? Katie Walton, a clinical psychologist, suggested conditioning. Scary images or disturbing scenes are tied to a certain musical melody or tone early in a film, letting our minds create an association between the two. Later, when just the music is heard, our brains make the quick connection that "something bad's about to go down."

The conversation then pivoted to what we're *really* afraid of. Lauren Jones, an economist, reminded the audience to keep the time period of the movie - the late 1970's - firmly in mind. Of the women in the film, what were the jobs and lifestyles of the ones who Michael Myers targeted, and which ones were spared? Who just gave in, and who managed to fight back?

Finally, we talked about clowns, because of course we did. The film professor, Jane Greene, noted how the movie's villain was introduced early in the film as a kid wearing - you guessed it - a clown costume. Biologist Rob Pyatt suggested an explanation for the general creepiness of clowns: usually when we see faces, they change and react to social cues and other stimuli. But a clown face is painted with a single unchanging expression, which unnerves us because the only other things that do that are cadavers.

The full panelist discussion was recorded for the Sloan Foundation, so soon you'll be able hear all their insights.

"STEAM Powered"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 17 October 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Haven't you heard? STEM is old hat, and there's a new game in town. That new game recognizes that science, technology, engineering, and math don't quite encompass the entirety of human endeavors, so it includes an "A" for arts.

STEMA doesn't sound very cool, so fortunately the arts were wisely wedged in between engineering and math, giving us STEAM. Of course, those in the artistic community correctly pointed out that there's more to "art" than just Art, so STEAM isn't really considered an acronym anymore. Just a word that we're going to type in all caps, okay?

Anyway, a few years ago some energetic faculty at OSU created the STEAM Factory. The group is dedicated to facilitating cross-discplinary research and outreach. They even have a space right around the corner from COSI over at 400 W Rich.

I had the privilege of joining the STEAM Factory last year, and that group is my go-to source for any potential partnerships with COSI. Mechanical engineers, visual artists, pathologists, lighting designers, economists. You name it, they've got it. If you're ever curious what we're about, you'll usually find us testing outreach ideas during Franklinton Fridays, so come on over.

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