Author Spotlight: Gravitino




Introduction: Author Spotlight: Gravitino

About: I got an old sewing machine when I was just a kid, and I've been making stuff ever since. My name is Sam and I'm a community manager here at Instructables.

Welcome to another Author Spotlight Interview!

The Instructables community is full of amazing and talented people.

Author interviews are a way to spotlight individual Instructables authors, highlight their projects, and get to know them a little better and see what makes them tick.

For this Author Spotlight Interview, I had the opportunity to chat with Shane Larson, known around Instructables as gravitino.

Shane has shared some fantastic projects with the Instructables community over the years. The image of Shane's homemade telescopes above is from his instructable Cosmos Mariner: a Large Aperture Dobsonian Telescope; be sure to check it out!

You can find all of his other projects here.

Many of his projects are notably deeper than the average DIY project, taking science-based making above, beyond, and well . . . out-of-this-world!

Shane and I had a great chat via Skype, followed with a series of written questions and answers which are shared below.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him, and I think you will too. Enjoy!!


1 Astrophysicist

100,000 LEGO blocks

Step 1: I Learned to Be Creative From My Parents

What were your experiences that led you to becoming a hands-on, creative person?

I think I learned to be creative from my parents. My dad has always been a woodworker, and my mom has a zillion hobbies ranging from painting to crochet to birding. I learned to have hobbies, I think, by example!
When I was young, I had two hobbies since before I could remember: one was "drawing" and one was "building." Drawing was always mostly an exercise in imagining distant science fiction futures -- spaceships and moonbases and alien invaders. Today I still draw sometimes, though of late it seems to be more "near future" stuff.
When I was learning to build, it was mostly for the express purpose of building forts and treehouses. The classic example of my early skills was what my mom calls THE Fort, which I built sometime around 5th grade when I lived in Colorado. I had the good fortune of having parents who just let me design and build by trial and error, and provided me plenty of raw materials (nails, scrap wood, the works).

Step 2: I Should Really Document It

Images from Quill Dipping Pen and Barncaster Electric Guitar

How did you discover Instructables and what inspired you to share your first instructable?

I've always thought that if I figured out how to do something, I should really document it so someone else could try to do the same thing. I've always taken lots of pictures, but used to put them all up on my web-site as galleries with accompanying descriptions. Nothing got wide attention, but it was at least out there.
A few years ago, my daughter had seen a feather quill and gotten interested in dip pens. She wanted to know if we could make one from a feather she had. Because she didn't want to trim her quill away to nothing, we had concocted a plan to bind a permanent steel pen nib to her quill. As always, I documented the process, and when we were done I did a quick search looking for somewhere more visible I could put our project online. That's when I found Instructables!

Step 3: I Feel a Deep Obligation to Pay It Forward

Images from Tiny Telescope Observatory and Dymaxion Earth

Instructables is experienced differently by different people; what is Instructables to you?

I've always benefited from the fact that other people have been willing to teach me new things and share their own experiences, and so I feel a deep obligation to pay it forward myself. The most awesome thing about Instructables is it is a huge community of people who share something they are proud of and something they think is awesome, for no other reason than they can! You can see it just looking at all their pictures -- look how happy they are! Look how much fun they are having! Howard Thurman once said "Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." People who have come alive -- I think that fits Instructables folks to a T!

Step 4: I Never Met a Hobby I Didn't Like

You're a person with many hobbies! Please tell us a little about your variety of hobbies, and what aspects really pique your interest and get you excited.

I have a LOT of hobbies; my wife says I never met a hobby I didn't like. My primary ones are woodworking, amateur astronomy, and Lego modeling. I read a lot too (my wife will tell you that I also never met a book I didn't like). I have a host of hobbies that I also pursue including underwater ROVs, fountain pen collecting, high altitude ballooning, HAM radio, model rocketry, and fine-scale modeling.
There is a great opportunity always to do things yourself, and I tend to just give into the desire to learn to do something new. Does that make the new thing a "hobby"? Maybe! I also think browsing Instructables gives me great ideas about new things I can try, and makes me aware of things I've never thought about before, and that is also very stimulating.

Step 5: We Live in the Future!

Images from Spacetime Table and Starwheel for Backyard Astronomy (Planisphere)

In our chat you mentioned "basement science" and the modern accessibility we have to create amazing things. Would you outline your thoughts on this topic?

I often say to people that I have a notion that any classic science experiment done before around 1970 (or so) can be done today by a dedicated amateur (folks like me and you) in our basement. Why? Because we live in the future! Equipment and technology used to be custom built and designed, but today much of it is off the shelf. Micro-electronics, computers, electronic imaging, plastics and carbon-fiber, 3-d printing -- all of it gives you capabilities that hobbists 20 and 30 years ago never dreamed they would have access to.
Today people build radio telescopes, submarines , drones, and microscopes, and a zillion other things. All because we have access to technology.
I once replicated the "Cavendish Experiment" which demonstrates that everything in the Universe is gravitationally attracted to every other object. This is a fact that is hard to recognize because the Earth pulls on you far more strongly than your coffee cup. BUT, it is possible to build an experiment in your home that shows this (which I've done, before I was aware of Instructables! -- I'm going to do it again and post it!) -- it is possible, in your own basement, to measure gravitational forces that are 0.000000000000000000000001 times smaller (10^-24) than the force of gravity from the Earth. That's "basement science!"

Step 6: I See a Rich and Diverse Mix of People of All Ages

We discussed the "graying" of classic, club-based hobbies (like ham radio and amateur astronomy). Can you explain what this means?

People in hobbies like amateur astronomy and ham radio often look around the room at their meetings and lament how old everyone in the room is. They worry that young people aren't picking up the hobby (for instance, see the long set of articles on "Youth in Astronomy" in this issue of The Reflector from the Astronomical League: ). We spend many long hours trying to imagine ways we can reach new younger members and get them interested in a hobby that all of us feel we have so richly benefited from.
You will often hear people lament that they think the lack of interest is due to modern technology (having screens in your hand all the time) or because young people have busy social agendas that don't include clubs (which ironically are social gatherings!). But when I look at communities like Instructables, I see a rich and diverse mix of people of all ages and I often think there are good lessons to be learned about how to build cross-generational communities. The maker movement and technical hobbies are alive and well with young people, and certainly have plenty of opportunity to overlap with traditional hobbies like amateur astronomy. People who do "DIY" projects are *exactly* the same kind of people who build telescopes. People who build their own computers from Raspberry Pi's are *exactly* the same kind of people who build a ham-shack with a rack of radios that can talk to the International Space Station. People who build Arduino controlled gliders from egg-cartons and salvaged cardboard are *exactly* the same kind of people who build R/C planes. They are just separated by how and where we talk to each other, and sometimes by decades of playing around in a hobby. They all get mixed together at places like Instructables, and I think it is probably a way for them to find each other and do what we all do so graciously -- share some passion and knowledge.

Step 7: The World Has Changed a LOT

What is your philosophy on lifelong learning?

I'm a professional scientist, but I do a lot of public interface stuff as well -- I sometimes teach evening community classes, I visit school classrooms, I do public lectures, and you can see that I do some sciencey stuff in my Instructables. I sometimes get asked why I do all of that, and the answer is simple: people have a need, and as it turns out, a desire to learn long after they have left the high school or college classroom. Most of us spend the first couple of decades of our lives in classrooms, where our teachers and our friends help us learn. We learn all the formal stuff, like how to add and how to write, but we also learn all the stuff that ultimately turns into hobbies: maybe you learned to draw in art class, and maybe your biology class sparked your interest in having a salt-water aquarium, and you probably wrote your first poem in English Composition.
But what happens when you graduate? You're out on your own in the big-wide world, and now you have to learn on your own. You certainly can learn on your own, but what do you do when you have questions? How can you learn about really complicated stuff? Think about what the world was like the last time you were in a classroom. When I graduated from high school:

  • Of the 17 fundamental particles that make up everything (quarks, leptons, etc) only 14 had been discovered.

  • The Hubble Space Telescope had not been launched, and no human spacecraft had ever visited Pluto.
  • No planets were known around any star except the Sun (and Pluto was STILL a planet).
  • The human genome had yet to be mapped.
  • The Macintosh SE was just released; Commodore Amiga's and Timex Sinclairs were still far more common personal computers.
  • Phones commonly had things called "cords" attached to them.
You get the idea. The world CHANGES, and for most of us the world has changed A LOT since we were last in school. If you want to really understand and appreciate the world around you, you have to have good ways to learn about it, and there is no better way to learn than to immerse yourself with a group of people who want to learn themselves and want to teach people what they know.
As a scientist, this is why I do so much public facing work -- to help people on their learning journey, even though they aren't students in my class anymore.

Step 8: What I Call Myself Usually Depends on Who I Am Talking To

Images from Sonification of Gravitational Waves With Lego Mindstorms EV3 and Cylindrical Mirror Art

Would you share a little about what you do professionally, as well as your public science outreach work?

I have a degree in theoretical physics, and I work in astrophysics. What I call myself usually depends on who I am talking to, but "astrophysicist" or "relativist" or "gravitational-wave astronomer" are all in the right direction. I mostly study what can we learn about the Universe from gravitational waves. I work with both the ground-based gravitational-wave project called LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and am on the NASA science team that is working with the European Space Agency to build a gravitational wave observatory in space called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna).
What my group mostly works on these days is how to study the stellar graveyard of the Milky Way using gravitational waves. Stars, like people, are born, live long and lustrous lives, and ultimately perish. When they do, they leave behind a variety of stellar skeletons. If we can find and study those stellar skeletons, we can learn something about the life and history of the galaxy! What we do is we look for stellar skeletons orbiting other stellar skeletons using gravitational waves. I wrote an Instructable ( to represent the signals we get from such systems with sound generated by a Lego Mindstorms brick -- we call these kinds of signals "chirps."
In addition I do a lot of public facing science communication. I have a regular public science blog where I write about all kinds of stuff (, and I also give a lot of public lectures.
I've given three TEDx talks so far:
My favorite is one about how we feel small in the Universe, but we shouldn't. "Feeling Small in a Big Cosmos"
I've also done one about how we are creative and curious and that gives us a nearly unfathomable power to solve just about any problem we face. "The Elevation of Thinking Stardust"
And lastly, I defended Pluto's honor! "Pluto's Day of Reckoning"
Undoubtedly one of the coolest talks I ever got to give was a Kavli Full Dome Lecture at the Adler Planetarium. The planetarium visualization team helped me write and design a talk that was on the planetarium dome, and then it was simulcast around the world to 25 other planetariums. They captured the talk and you can watch it on YouTube in full 3D with GoogleCardboard. "The Cosmos in a Heartbeat"

Step 9: Thanks Shane!!

I hope readers have enjoyed getting to know Shane as much as I did. If you haven't clicked over to look through all of his projects, go check them out!

Thank you, Shane, for sharing a little more about yourself with the Instructables community!

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    3 years ago on Step 9

    You're the man, Shane! Thanks for bringing your enthusiasm to Utah State and the classroom!


    3 years ago on Step 9

    What a great guy and kindred spirit!
    Thanks for what you do.