Sharing ideas about the black hole picture with a 7th grader

The first ever image of a black hole was released last week, and it blew my mind! For our Family Math project this morning I decided to try to share some of the ideas relating to that image with my younger son. He’s in 7th grade and had not heard about the announcement, so it was especially fun to hear his off the cuff reactions.

I started by simply showing him the picture and asking him to describe what he saw and if it looked like what he expected a picture of a black hole to look like:

Next we watched Katie Bouman’s Ted Talk video (published in 2017) about the black hole imaging project. This video is fantastic and great to share with students because the explanation of the project, and especially why the project is so difficult, is done at a level that kids can appreciate even if they can’t understand all of the details. Here’s that video:

After we finished watching, I asked my son to tell me some things from Bouman’s talk that caught his eye:

Next I had my son read through two great twitter threads from when the announcement happened last week. Those threads are from two physics professors – Katie Mack from North Carolina State University and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein from the University of New Hampshire. Those two twitter threads are here:

Here are two of the tweets from those threads that caught my son’s eye and his explanation of why he thought those two tweets were interesting:

Now I had my son play with a on online program that Leo Stein made a few years ago that shows the amazingly beautiful paths light can take orbiting a black hole. You can find the program here:

Unfortunately our camera was having a strange fight with the computer screen at the beginning of this video, so I cut that part out. Because of that cut the video starts mid conversation, but you’ll still be able to see that Leo’s program is really great to use with kids. I love his comment at the end: “Black holes seem pretty mysterious and neat and have weird properties.”

Finally, I showed him a picture from one of the papers about the black hole image that was published last week. The link to the paper with the image is here:

Here’s our quick discussion about that image and what my son thought about it. Talking a little bit about this image can help younger students see and understand some of the statistical work that went into producing and checking the image:

It was really incredible to see the announcement of the black hole image last week. It is equally incredible that so many people in the physics community take time to share their ideas about discoveries like this with the public. I’m super grateful for the public-facing work those people do because it makes sharing new discoveries with kids possible (and fun!).