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Physics/Astrophysics Science Project Ideas Help


QUESTION: Dr. Nelson: My name is Ankur, and I am going to be a junior in high school this upcoming school year. This past year, I did a science fair project entitled The Effect of the Temperature of the Universe on Black Holes in which I explored the concept of Hawking Radiation. As you can probably tell, my interests lie towards black holes and such studies. Now to my question. It seems that I have hit a bump in my current search of finding a science project of a similar subject, and I was wondering if you could suggest to me any ideas.

ANSWER: Black holes and quantum physics in junior high school, that's a pretty big project.  There's a lot of theoretical work in the area, but the specifics tend towards math that one doesn't usually learn until graduate school.  However, perhaps it's not impossible to do something interesting and visually great with a physical model.  Black holes rotate, and matter disappears into them.  Have you thought about building a physical model of this?  I have an idea for you:  The thing which most closely resembles a black hole that you could build would be a straw, sucking water out of a fishtank.  Giving the water rotation and using a dye system, you could capture video of two such black hole models colliding.  If you're interested, I can provide more details.  Sorry for the slow initial response, I've been sick this week and a lot of these requests have been going straight to my spam folder.

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QUESTION: Thank you for the response. I believe you misunderstood me, I am not in junior high, I am going to be in 12th grade next year, I apologize if I made that unclear. As far as your suggestion goes, I would be interested in the details of such a project as well as any other project ideas you could give me. I am interested in most types of physics and would like to do an original prpject, but as I am sure you can understand, it is quite difficult to do such a thing without at least a graduate level of education in physics.

ANSWER: I missed the "in" there.  The basic concept I can include in a picture (see attached).  You have two places in a fishtank where you pump out water, and one or two fishtank pumps (they're cheap, and later you can have fish).  You pump water out, and the ends of the purple straws (flexible surgical tubing?) represent the black holes.  They should attract if close enough, but some system to push them together is probably a good idea.  You'll need to rotate the water (the ends of the red return lines with some corkscrew vanes inside should provide enough angular momentum to make them rotate whichever way you choose).  You pump the water in, and find a system of introducing food coloring to the water so that you can observe the interaction.  To prevent the food coloring from re-entering in the return phase, you can introduce reservoirs (gallon milk jugs?) between the pumps and the return lines (not shown).  You'll need some trial and error in this system, but the basic setup should be easy...with nearly infinite variations on orbiting black holes vs colliding ones.  Short video clips can be used for analysis of behavior, especially unexpected behavior.  I would consult an expert again for analysis once you have it somewhere like youtube that you can share it.  The exact nature of the mechanism will depend on what you have available, really.

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QUESTION: Thank you so much for the help! I was wondering first off, if you could take a look at this article ( ) and let me know if this has anything to do with such a project. I am especially curious about the part in the article where they say that the whirlpool is mathematically equivalent to a black hole. Could you clarify that for me? What exactly do they mean when they say that? Could this be used in this project? For example, would it be possible to create mathematically equivalent black holes colliding inside the fish tank? I am also unsure of the procedure of this project and would be glad for any assistance you could give me there as well. Forgive me for the many questions, I simply want to make sure I know what I am talking about. I am in the stages of preparation for science fair and I would like to make sure that I have a good project this year. As I said before, thank you so much for your help.

Fish tank black hole simulator
Fish tank black hole s  
I can't clarify that, because the dimensions of what they're trying to compare aren't even the same.  An ocean seems deep locally, but compared to the horizontal extent they're talking about it's confined to a very thin layer (under 4 km deep, hundreds of km wide for the eddies they refer to).  It's not the same system at all, and their explanation of "mathematically equivalent to a black hole" is entirely qualitative in nature.  I don't mean to dismiss their conclusions themselves, just that bringing black holes into the discussion of ocean eddies serves no purpose aside from to gain attention from people who are fascinated by black holes but not nearly as engaged by ocean eddy currents.

Anyhow, see the attached picture.  You will need to acquirematerials:
1) A fish tank or similar.
2) Some flexible plastic tube.
3) One or two small aquarium lifter pumps (you might be able to get away with one pump by splitting your plastic hose, you can find little T-connectors various places). is probably all you'd need.
4) Two rods to drape the intake hoses over and position them with (coat hanger wire? ruler? whatever)
5) Two plastic jugs for overflow reservoirs.
6) Something plastic to stick into the ends of the tubes to make the water twist as it returns to the tank.  Maybe a piece of drinking straw or other little plastic that you can twist as you insert it into the end?  Some thin/slightly flexible piece of plastic should do it.
7) Camera/cell phone with camera to record data.
8) Some food coloring.
9) Some glue, probably to get the overflow line sealed in the jug?

Anyhow, looks pretty simple.  Assemble the parts with slack in the lines for adjustment, fill the tank and the jugs, start the system, see how close you have to get the intakes to attract one another.  That's where you'll want to position your return ends.  Then start it up with the ends almost at that point, let the water flow get to a steady state.  Start the camera, add food coloring to the reservoirs, and when the food coloring starts down the return tube move the "black holes" (black hole = the intake ends of the intake tubes) in your simulator towards one another and let them attract and collide.  You may have to empty/refill/retry several times to get a good video, but you can do qualitative and perhaps quantitative analysis from that video all you want once the physical part of the experiment is over.  You can add different food coloring to the water in the tank itself, if you want.  That analysis could get quite complex, if you want to get that far into it!

Send me a link to any video you put up on youtube, I'd love to see how it turns out.

(see attached)


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Dr. Stephen O. Nelson


I can answer most basic physics questions, physics questions about science fiction and everyday observations of physics, etc. I'm also usually good for science fair advice (I'm the regional science fair director). I do not answer homework problems. I will occasionally point out where a homework solution went wrong, though. I'm usually good at explaining odd observations that seem counterintuitive, energy science, nuclear physics, nuclear astrophysics, and alternative theories of physics are my specialties.


I was a physics professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, research in nuclear technology and nuclear astrophysics. My travelling science show saw over 20,000 students of all ages. I taught physics, nuclear chemistry, radiation safety, vacuum technology, and answer tons of questions as I tour schools encouraging students to consider careers in science. I moved on to a non-academic job with more research just recently.

Ph. D. from Duke University in physics, research in nuclear astrophysics reactions, gamma-ray astronomy technology, and advanced nuclear reactors.

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