Meet Paul Sutter, COSI’s New Chief Scientist
Dr. Paul M. Sutter, Central Ohio’s resident spaceman, has a new job.
Sutter, a visiting scholar at the Ohio State University, grew up devouring books about space, “but I never really realized that it could be an actual job. I don’t know why I never realized or made the connection that scientist was an actual profession.”
After a couple of years majoring in computer science, Sutter took an astronomy course on a whim and realized space would be his profession. Since earning his PhD in astrophysics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Sutter has studied the universe in Paris and Italy, contributed articles to Space.com, and hosted two podcasts – “Realspace” and “Ask a Spaceman.” And earlier this month, Sutter became the new chief scientist at COSI.
“They brought me on and kind of created this position of chief scientist for me in the course of our discussion, and the point is really to do two things,” said Sutter. “One is to kind of serve as like an educational, a scientific consultant for all the various chiefs so that they have someone to run materials by, someone to check up on stuff, someone to consult with.”
The other half of the job, said Sutter, is to “strengthen the bonds between COSI and OSU.”
Sutter called his work with the two scientific and educational titans of Columbus a “joint appointment;” an opportunity to continue his research into the vast mysteries of space at OSU, while sharing those universal mysteries with the masses at COSI.
“I’m really interested in connecting with people outside the classroom,” said Sutter. “We already have a great, world-class university for teaching people in classrooms. But engaging with people of all ages, of all backgrounds, of all levels of experience, knowledge, I’m really passionate about bringing science to as many audiences as possible in a way that they can understand and that they can enjoy.”
Sutter serves as a bridge between OSU and COSI, but he also serves as a doorway to all manner of scientific pursuits, beyond space and astrophysics.
“I’m not, like, chief astrophysicist, I’m just chief scientist,” said Sutter. “It’s not like you can get a PhD in science, they don’t make those. You have to specialize in something. So when it comes to stuff outside my field, I have an entire university at my back with those specialists that I’m very well connected to through various mailing lists and faculty groups, so that if I feel outside my depth in a particular topic, I can reach out to them for help, or I can just bring them over to COSI to present in my place.”
But since his expertise is in astrophysics, after all, the first few projects Sutter plans to undertake at COSI involve its planetarium. Sutter said the planetarium team is working to produce in-house custom shows as well as shorter content about recent science or astronomy news for theater audiences and to be put out on social media. Sutter said he is also working on the Camp COSI program for the coming summer.
Public interest in space, said Sutter, typically comes in waves, and the country seems to find itself in one such wave at the moment. Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Fox network brought the science series “Cosmos” back to television in 2014 to critical acclaim and high ratings. In December, when NASA asked for new astronauts, a record-breaking 18,000 Americans applied.
“I think it’s a combination of big budget shows like ‘Cosmos’ that came out, NASA’s been doing cool stuff like the New Horizons probe that went by Pluto, that was a big splash in the media, lots of people were hooked to that,” said Sutter. “Just that sense of excitement, the sense of discovery, I think is starting to be rekindled.”
Sutter went on to say, “NASA may seem to be kind of stuck in a rut for the past ten or twenty years, but now you have private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, that are launching new kinds of rockets, that are pushing in a new direction, and that’s exciting. It feels like we’re doing something again, like we’re doing something interesting again. And all that combined with the space exploration, with the new kinds of rockets, and the new kinds of scientific discoveries that we’re making, I certainly enjoy it myself.”
Even though there seem to be more people excited by space, science and technology these days, Sutter sees part of his job as being able to reach those people who aren’t that interested.
“There’re lots of people out there that are interested in space and if we advertise that there’s a space talk or there’re astronauts coming to visit or we’re going to have a panel based on some documentary movie about physics or space, there’s plenty of people in Columbus that will show up to it. And they’re great and I love them,” said Sutter. “But there’re lots of people that don’t realize how enjoyable or how interesting science topics can be because it’s never been presented to them in a way that they can enjoy and appreciate. So the challenge for me is finding ways to repackage science, repackage these topics, these stories, and find new ways to convey what we’ve learned about the universe and make it enjoyable, make it interesting and compelling for people who may not realize just how fascinating and beautiful the universe is.”