On February 11 of this year, when scientists announced that they had detected gravitational waves, I was among the thousands of people who were so excited we couldn’t sit still. This news was literally Earth-shaking! Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time, and they’re created by events like the collision of massive objects, such as black holes. So of course, being an astronomy educator, I took the first opportunity to talk about this news with visitors at the Museum. The day after the announcement, I set up our black holes Discovery Station, which uses a rubber sheet to demonstrate how space-time gets warped by massive objects. I created my own “gravitational waves” by tapping on the rubber sheet to make it vibrate, like ripples on a pond.
Midway through the afternoon, a man came up to the Discovery Station and was interested to see that I was connecting the activity to the previous day’s big news. This visitor turned out to be University of Oregon physicist Dr. Robert Schofield, a member of the LIGO science team that had made the discovery! I spent 20 fascinated minutes asking him tons of questions, and his animated explanations were nothing short of amazing. How often do you get that kind of opportunity?! Little did I know that the best part of the conversation would come at the end. Standing there in the Explore the Universe gallery, which tells the story of humans and astronomy, Dr. Schofield said that he grew up here in Washington, DC, and he used to be one of the kids running around these exhibits. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “It was this Museum, and people like you, that grew my interest in science.” WOW. That is the education equivalent of winning the Olympic gold medal. What a great example of the impact museums can have on people’s lives! Dr. Schofield went on to describe the value of seeing the “real thing” in person, and how as a physics student he would come to the Museum to study the instruments on display because details about the way an object was made, and how it was used, don’t all come through in a picture or textbook. Those real-life observations were crucial throughout Dr. Schofield’s education as they helped him to fully understand the scientific principles that underlie everything he does now. I was completely blown away by our conversation. Here’s a person whose research has changed the world, and he’s telling me that the work my colleagues and I do is what got him excited about science. That is the single most excellent thing that any educator can ever hope to hear. I see hundreds of Museum visitors daily, usually for less than five minutes, when I’m running educational programs. I watch their eyes light up when they learn something really cool. I notice them pull out a phone to look up concepts we’ve been talking about. I smile as I recognize that their Museum visit, and their interaction with me, makes a difference for at least that moment. But I almost never get to follow up and find out what kind of long-term effect it has on their interests, career aspirations, or life paths. But on February 12, 2016, I got the rare gift of unequivocal validation that the work we do at the Museum really matters and can make a profound difference for someone. There is no greater reward than that! The black holes Discovery Station is often set up in the Explore the Universe gallery, located on the first floor at the Museum in Washington, DC. You can also visit the black holes Discovery Station this weekend at our annual Explore the Universe Day, Saturday, April 9 from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Shauna Edson is an astronomy educator at the National Air and Space Museum.