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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