gravitation

• Demonstration Highlight: Gravitational Lensing Model

In astronomy, gravitational lensing is the phenomenon whereby gravitational forces around a mass bend light in a way similar to a conventional refracting lens does. When a large mass lies between an observer and the light source they're observing, sometimes that mass can bend the incoming light, causing the source to appear in a different location, or even in multiple locations at once. This can even allow an observer to see a light source that would otherwise be unobservable due to being directly behind another object.

We have a model of this in our collection, as demonstration E1-21, a glass lens that is specially shaped to produce a similar effect to gravitational lensing. Light is bent more the closer it is to the lens' center axis. As a light source moves behind the lens, you can see the source appear to be displaced, or even see one source appear to become several, or become a ring of light around the center of the lens. All of these phenomena can be seen from gravitational lensing in space as well.

In this drawing, you can see a cross section of part of the lens. The changing curvature produces the gravity-like effect of increasing refraction towards the center.

Try experimenting with this simulation https://slowe.github.io/LensToy/ to see it in action in a starfield!

• Demonstration Highlight: Projectile Motion - Pellet and Falling Target

Welcome back! This week, we’re visiting an old favourite: C2-22, the classic so-called “monkey and hunter” demo. This is based on a traditional textbook problem: if an animal is hanging from a tree and see someone aiming directly at it (humanely, with a tranquilizer gun, we hope), and drops from the tree; but the projectile drops at the same rate as the animal, they will still collide.

Obviously, this is a somewhat artificial problem, as it requires an animal that knows what a dart gun is but decides to drop to the ground rather than ducking behind the tree, and it also requires a shooter who for some reason doesn’t understand physics and was pointing directly at their target rather than anticipating the physics behind this problem in order to hit it in its original location! But it is a fun way to explore parabolic trajectories and projectile motion.

In our demonstration, as the pellet leaves the launcher it momentarily disconnects a switch. At the far end, a plastic toy with a metal cap is hanging from an electromagnet. The pellet is aimed directly at the toy. When the pellet trips the switch, the toy starts to fall. But of course once the pellet leaves the launcher, it also starts to fall.

Because the acceleration due to gravity is approximately independent of the mass of the falling object, and assuming that air resistance is negligible, the two objects fall at the same rate, even though one also has sideways motion and the other does not. So the pellet will strike the toy, assuming they both started out high enough that their paths intersect before reaching the ground.

We can adjust the initial height of the toy and the angle of the launcher to show that this still works regardless of angle, so long as the two are in line and they have time to complete the trip.

You can try this out at home with this simulator by high school AP physics teacher Tom Walsh: https://www.ophysics.com/k10.html . You can independently vary the horizontal and vertical position, angle, and velocity to see which configurations work and which do not.

• STEM News Tip: Measuring the gravitational force of tiny masses

A recent publication announced some remarkably fine new measurement of the gravitational attraction between extremely small objects. Also reported in Scientific American, the Aspelmeyer group at the University of Vienna has measured gravitational interactions between millimeter scale objects. You can read all the details in the papers below.

B. Brubaker, Physicists Measure the Gravitational Force between the Smallest Masses Yet, Scientific American, 2021 March 10

Westfal, Hepach, Pfaff, & Aspelmeyer, Measurement of gravitational coupling between millimetre-sized masses, Nature, 20201 March 10

Aspelmeyer Group at the University of Vienna

If you’re discussing this kind of measurement in class, check out our model of the classic Cavendish Experiment, E1-01 in the demonstration collection.

• STEM News Tip: Prof. Buonanno elected to NAS

UMD Physics Professor Alessandra Buonanno was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences last week. In addition to being a professor here at UMD, she is a department director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany. She is well known internationally for her work with the LIGO Collaboration and their detection of gravitational waves.

Earlier this spring, Prof. Buonanno also was awarded the Galileo Galilei Medal from the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics for her gravitational wave work.