Cosmic Curves: Investigating Gravitational Lensing at the Adler Planetarium

Today’s post comes from Kyle Sater, Senior Educator for Public Program Development at the Adler Planetarium. Kyle’s enjoys making STEM fun and relevant for everyone, especially when it involves Star Wars and legos. He lives in Chicago with his wife, who is also an educator, and his lovable cat Boots. 

It’s a funny thing: Einstein was usually right. His General Theory of Relativity predicted that gravitational masses can alter the direction of light, creating strange lensing effects in deep space. In short, light can be bent and we can see those effects—sometimes arcs, sometimes full-on rings, in far-away galaxies.

In 2013, the Adler premiered Cosmic Wonder, full-dome sky that takes guests on a journey to the far reaches of space—to places like enormous galaxy clusters, some which are acting as gravitational lenses because of their gravitational mass (with the help of elusive dark matter). To further the experience for guests after the show, the Public Programs department developed a cart program that attempted to make lensing more…tangible.

As you can imagine, the challenge was taking a relatively abstract concept, like gravitational lensing, and creating a museum program suitable for guests with different background knowledge. At the Adler we engage in “backward design,” meaning we develop 1 or 2 large learning goals and work backwards to find instructional methods that will work on the floor. But we also value inquiry-based exploration and want guests to have fun! So we started with a basic premise, “How can we detect the invisible?” and “How can light be bent?” and create experiments to explore these concepts. In this case, we utilize a quilting frame with taught fabric interwoven with a battery-powered light strand, and placed a heavy object (billiard ball) on the fabric. This helps illustrate that, even if we can’t see an object, its mass “warps” space-time and can bend light. As a follow up, we challenge guests to use a special acrylic lens and a laser to create their own “lensed objects” on the exhibit wall.

Adler Planetarium floor interpretation volunteers ready to engage museum guests with Cosmic Curves.
Adler Planetarium floor interpretation volunteers ready to engage museum guests with Cosmic Curves.

Our in-house team of facilitators, Mission Specialists, are crucial to the success of floor programs like Cosmic Curves. This program, more than others, requires a comfortability with the content, especially since they’re talking about cutting-edge topics in cosmology. And even then, guests can always surprise you! After all, a 1st grader and a grad student studying physics are coming from vastly different places.

Zooniverse projects, like Space Warps, and apps like GravLens only further the experience for our guests. So get classifying on spacewarps.org or learn more by coming to the Adler!

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Wrap-Up from the Workshop on Citizen Science in Astronomy

Last week was a productive and busy week in Taipei for the attendees of the workshop on Citizen Science in Astronomy at the Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Academia Sinica (ASIAA).

In case you missed the live webcast, all the slides from the invited talks on the first day as well as video recordings are archived online at http://csiaworkshop.zooniverse.org/

At the workshop dinner, with the help of an iPhone and a Lazy Susan, Chris took a video of all the participants. You might spot some familiar faces from the Zooniverse and various project science teams:

Members of the Galaxy Zoo team also held a short hangout later in the week:

All and all, I think I can speak for everyone who attended by saying it was a successful workshop with the general consensus being, that funding permitting, in a few years everyone would like for a similar workshop to happen again.I look forward to hearing about the results and papers produced from the efforts to better combine classifications  started at the workshop over the coming months and year. Keep tuned to the Zooniverse blog and project blogs for updates.

This workshop was possible due to the support of the Zooniverse and the financial support from the Ministry of Science & Technology and ASIAA in Taiwan. Other co-organizers on the Science Organizing Committee were Chris, Rob, Stuart, and Arfon and on the Local Organizing Committee: Shiang-Yu Wang.

Thoughts From the Classroom: Kat

Kat is sharing her impressions of Galaxy Zoo and Radio Galaxy Zoo as the fifth post in our Thoughts From the Classroom series.  

My name is Kat and I attend a school called GATE Academy.  Let me tell you a story about my experience with Galaxy Zoo.

Two months ago, my teacher discovered Galaxy Zoo.  She thought it would be a good class activity, so she had us read some articles as background information for what we were about to be doing on Galaxy Zoo.  These articles included information about the different characteristics of the different galaxy types and how this galactic information ties into the evolution of our Universe.  It hadn’t occurred to me before that galaxies tie into the Universe as a whole, but it made sense once I read it and I thought it was fascinating.  Then we started actually classifying galaxies as our class assignment.

In retrospect, I should have been amazed and acknowledged how incredible looking at these far-off galaxies was, but I just didn’t see it at the time.  I overlooked it because my mind was set on it being a class assignment and how I just needed to do it to get a good grade.

When I started, all that came up on my screen were pictures of blobs of clumpy blurry things.  I wasn’t very impressed.  Everyone around me, though, started seeing beautiful, wonderful images of incredible galaxies.

This is when I understood what a privilege it was to be participating in this new, cutting edge, amazing research.  On my screen showed actual galaxies from outer space.  It struck me how little we know about the universe around us, because nobody really knows what’s out there.  We have hypotheses, but, honestly, anything could be out there. I became proud of the blobs I classified, because you really needed to look and observe the characteristics, unlike perfect, sharp, clear galaxies (but these were really quite beautiful).  There was more mystery in the blobs for me, so classifying them correctly (or as close as I could get) became my challenge.

I learned a lot about classifying these galaxies along the way. The Zooniverse taught me about how galaxies can be spiral, irregular, or smooth, with bars, clumps, and varying sizes of central bulges.  I learned about how black holes are visible in radio telescopes but not in infrared.  I also learned the different types of black holes, such as compact, extended, and multiple.

After seven weeks of classifying these galaxies, my classmates and I had classified over 9,000 galaxies.  We were all proud of our accomplishment and of all we had learned along the way. I definitely recommend you at least try classifying on Galaxy Zoo, whether its galaxies or black holes or what have you.  Why not?  Don’t you want to say you’ve had the experience?  Would you like to contribute to our knowledge of the universe, or even do your OWN original research about the wonders around us?  If you have any of those interests, or just want to check it out because it sounds cool (and trust me, it is), definitely go to Galaxy Zoo and start classifying.

Workshop on Citizen Science in Astronomy

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This weekend several members of the Zooniverse development team and many representatives from the science teams of Galaxy Zoo, Planet Hunters, Space Warps, Moon Zoo, Radio Galaxy Zoo, Planet Four, and the Andromeda Project are traveling to Taipei, Taiwan for the workshop on Citizen Science in Astronomy. I wrote about this workshop last November when it was announced. The Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Academia Sinica (ASIAA)  in Taipei, Taiwan (with support from the National Science Council) along with the Zooniverse are organizing this workshop.

The aim is to bring together for a week  computer scientists, machine learning experts, and the scientists from astronomy and planetary science based citizen science projects with the goal of taking the first steps towards addressing the critical questions and issues that citizen science will need to solve in order to cope with the petabtye data deluge from the the next generation observatories and space missions like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). I think it’s fair to say this is the largest gathering of Zooniverse astronomy and planetary science project teams assembled in one place. I’m looking forward to what new algorithms to better combine and assess your classifications will be developed during the week and to all the interesting results that will come out of this workshop.

In addition to the main workshop, there will be a teacher workshop held on March 2nd for local teachers in Taiwan co-organized by Lauren Huang (ASIAA), Mei-Yin Chou (ASIAA), Stuart Lynn (Adler Planetarium/Zooniverse), Kelly Borden (Adler Planetarium/Zooniverse), and myself . In preparation for the workshop, the ASIAA Education and Public Outreach (EPO) Office translated Planet Four into traditional character Chinese. You can find out more about the translation effort here. At the teacher workshop, we’ll be introducing citizen science and how it can be used in the classroom along with presenting the traditional character Chinese translations of Planet Four and Galaxy Zoo.

The first day of the main workshop will be a series of introductory talks aimed at getting everyone thinking for the working sessions later in the week. If you’re interested in watching the workshop talks,  we’re going to try webcasting the first day’s sessions on Google+ starting on March 3rd 9:30am in Taiwan (March 2nd at 8:30pm EST ). The schedule for Monday can be found here. You can find the links for the morning and afternoon video live streams here. If you can’t watch live, the video will be archived and available on youtube through the same link.

You can follow along for the rest of the week on Twitter with the hashtag #csatro.