A Gravity Well of Wonder: University of Minnesota A3D3 delights students with science

By: Angela Tran
April 4, 2024

As marbles swirl in orbit on a dizzying checkered sheet, the elementary students point and smile. This is their first step toward understanding how gravity stretches space-time. Showcased by The University of Minnesota A3D3 Group, this exhibit is part of an event that invites scientists around the country to share their passion with hundreds of excited attendees.

This event, filled with interactive experiments and demonstrations, is Squishy Science Sunday. Hosted by the American Physical Society (APS) at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the March meeting gave academics the opportunity to provide easy and fun points of entry for the general public to enjoy what physics has to offer. The University of Minnesota A3D3 Group was represented at this event by graduate student Will Benoit, undergraduate student Katrine Kompanets, and Professor Michael Coughlin. As enthusiastic researchers in astrophysics, they had a great time teaching students how gravity affects surroundings like the formation of our Solar System.

For the UMN A3D3 group’s demo on gravitational waves and space-time, they chose marbles to demonstrate the interactions. The giant spandex sheet holding the marbles warbled and stretched as the spheres orbited around one another. To make the idea accessible to attendees, Benoit says they presented the display like a solar system, though it could have also represented other systems such as stars orbiting a central black hole. Kompanets thinks it important for children to receive recent information as early as possible. She says, “What we’re teaching them is essential for real-time applications because we’re keeping them updated with how gravitational waves work… I learned about [waves] a lot later in my life than [the kids] are.” Benoit agrees that a good foundation is key. He says, “If you ever eventually want people to be continuing research in this area, they have to understand… gravitational waves in order to do multi-messenger astrophysics.”

After being connected with A3D3 for about three years, Benoit especially appreciates how A3D3 brings people together to focus on science and data techniques and to execute them properly. As such, he praises Squishy Science Sunday for allowing families in “the community [to] come in and see what these academics are up to… With any luck, we’ll pick out some future scientists and get them involved!” Kompanets agrees, glad to share her interests with a variety of attendees. Even after just one semester of connecting with A3D3, she says, “It’s nice to be in a group of people who are interested in the same thing that I am.”

Both students express appreciation for Professor Coughlin, who invited them to participate in A3D3’s work. His enjoyment of time-domain astronomy is conveyed through this Gravity Well demo that shares science in a student-friendly way. Coughlin says, “Discovery of gravitational waves and communication about them is a key A3D3 focus in its application of data science to discovery within astronomy.”