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Astrophysics/Science Fair Help


QUESTION: Hello Dr. Nelson,
     My name is Jonathan. I am in the 11th grade at my high school. Science Fair is fast approaching and I was wondering if you could help me. I have a vast array of interests in physics with special interest in astrophysics. I was wondering if you might be able to set me on the right path to a project with quantifiable data that explores new material or looks at a subject in a new manner as I find myself bored with projects that others have done before me. Thank you in advance for your help.

ANSWER: In the 11th grade, I assume you want something more impressive than a 5th grader would do.  Astrophysics is a huge area.  If you look through my previous answers, you'll find detailed instructions on a black hole collision project which I believe the previous questioner will never actually complete.  Aside form that, I'm going to have to figure out what you're really interested in.  Stellar physics alone is a huge topic, from magnetic fields to stellar nucleosynthesis.  None of these projects are easy.  I once directed someone to do a project on Lunar science involving the Moon's electrostatically levitated dust atmosphere.   Planetary science, vacuum science, these things are all open for experimentation.  I need to know what you're specifically interested in (theoretical, experimental), and how much time you really have per week to devote to a project.  Preferably, if you are interested in experimental astrophysics, I need to also know what kind of equipment you might have access to.

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QUESTION: The black hole collision project did intrigue. However, the problem I see with that is that there seems to be very little, if any, quantifiable data. Also what would such a project inform us of? How large would the fish tank in question need to be in order for the system to work? I do not have access to a lot of equipment so I believe this leads to the fact that any advanced project I do would, by necessity, need to be theoretical. I can put in as much time as needed per week. Thank you

ANSWER: Video gives you tremendously quantifiable data, measurements in both space and time.  It could be converted into spatial and time displacements, which could say something about the magnitude of gravitational waves.  

That aside, theoretical astrophysics projects generally rely on data...but they're ridiculously complex unless you have a knowledge of differential equations and/or tensor algebra.  OK, let's narrow this down.  What kind of astrophysics project are you interested in working on, specifically?  There's gravitation (high gravitation all the way down to asteroid orbits and microgravity), optical phenomena, high-energy physics (high-energy particles), planetary physics (from formation to behavior in the steady state), stellar dynamics (energy generation, magnetohydrodynamics), and a few more areas I'd be less able to suggest projects in.  But we need to focus on what you're really interested in.

Random suggestion:  thermal physics calculation of isotope distributions due to gravitational gradients.  That's complex, but I'm sure something can be calculated which could be used to suggest a comparison to observational data.

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QUESTION: Your random suggestion sounds tremendously interesting. Could you explain to me what exactly that entails?

Have you taken physics and/or thermodynamics?  The simplest things to calculate would be the ratios of the light isotopes.  Specifically, something like 3He/4He ratios have been measured on the Moon.  It might be interesting to compare measured isotope ratios to a calculated isotope ratio.  That calculation is quite complex and will take you a long time to figure out, especially when you need to make a ton of assumptions just to do the calculation in the first place.  A different example might be found from the recent Rosetta mission to comet 67 P/C-G:


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Dr. Stephen O. Nelson


Fusion, solar flares, cosmic rays, radiation in space, and stellar physics questions. Generally, nuclear-related astrophysics, but I can usually point you in the right direction if it's not nuclear-related or if it's nuclear but not astrophysics.


Just moved from being a physics professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin into government work. Doctoral dissertation was on a reaction in CNO-cycle fusion, worked in gamma-ray astronomy in the space science division of the naval research laboratory in the high-energy space environment branch.

Government work as a physical scientist with a nuclear focus.

Ph.D. in physics, research was on nuclear fusion reactions important in stellar fusion, further work on space telescope technology.

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