COSI Hires First Chief Scientist, Paul Sutter

Mar 28, 2016

After a ten year hiatus, the recent re-launch of COSI’s popular Planetarium exhibit has brought with it a new Chief Scientist. It is the first position of its kind at the Center and there are high hopes for what he can do.  

Ask Paul Sutter how old he is and you’re likely to hear something like this:

“I’m thirty-three, I think. What year is this,” Sutter asked.

But get Paul Sutter talking about the dark vastness of the cosmic web and the 33-year old astrophysicist lights up and the words flow effortlessly.

“You can learn about the evolution of dark matter and dark energy. You can learn about what the universe is made of, how it’s been evolving over 13-billion years and how it will evolve in the future. It’s almost like studying Swiss cheese by just looking at the size and properties of the holes,” Sutter explained.

Josh Sarver is the Senior Director of Experiences at COSI. He’s says it’s that kind of talk that qualifies Sutter as COSI’s first Chief Scientist.

“He does a lot of public speaking. So he does a lot of outreach for us. He’s also great with social media so he’s doing Facebook posts. He’s doing website posts. Things that we didn’t necessarily have all those opportunities available to us without Paul Sutter and his dynamic public speaking ability,” Sarver said.

Before spending three years at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, Sutter got his Ph.D at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s now a visiting scholar at the OSU Center for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics. That OSU connection, Sarver says is also important to COSI.

“You have two institutions, two great institutions of education here, The Ohio State University and COSI, Central Ohio’s big leaders in both formal and informal education. So bring Paul Sutter to the table with his recognition from public speaking piece is a great asset to us,” Sarver said.

Like popular Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sutter says, despite his intense scientific background, he wants to make science more accessible to the general public. 

“I’m very interested and I’m very passionate about finding new ways to express scientific concepts. To get away from the mathematics, get away from the jargon, get away from the really long, boring Wikipedia articles and present science in a new way,” Sutter said.

One example: Sutter is currently working on a project with a modern dance company called "Song of the Stars."

“The audience can get a beautiful, professional dance performance. And then, oh by the way, you happen to get a little bit of understanding of the way the universe works. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to bring to COSI is these new kinds of views. These new ways of interpreting and telling these stories that we’ve learned in science, so that it connects with new audiences,” Sutter explained.

Sutter says astrophysics didn’t come easily to him and that’s one of the reasons he can break down difficult scientific concepts for non-science types. Sutter originally started out as a computer science major in college, but he took an astronomy course where an inspirational teacher changed the course of his life.

“Within a week I switched to physics knowing that I wasn’t the most gifted mathematician or physicist. But I wanted to do it because I felt something about it, you know something passionate. And, it’s been hard the physics classes I took were way harder than any class I’d ever taken before,” Sutter recalled.    

In addition being COSI’s first Chief Scientist, Sutter also hosts the podcast “Realspace,” co-hosts an online show called “Space in Your Face,” and answers space questions on his YouTube and podcast series “Ask a Spaceman.” Sutter says he is blown away by the quality of questions he gets.

“Where is the edge of the universe? What is the universe evolving to? Why do galaxies look like this? Why do stars explode? People are curious and I’m flooded with questions. I have more questions than I have time to answer,”  Sutter said.

“So do want to be our own Neil deGrasse Tyson?”

“I prefer to think of myself as the first Paul Sutter not as anyone else’s Neil Tyson. Neil’s great. And I’m not trying to copy Neil. I’m trying to bring my own voice to the table,” Sutter chuckled.

If you're interested in mixing a little science with dance, 'Song of the Stars' premiers April 21st at the Capitol Theater in the Riffe Center.