Brendan Mullan ’07: A new science experiment

Autumn 2017

Brendan Mullan '07 does a science demonstration for an audience

Brendan Mullan ’07 wants to wrinkle your kid’s brain. An assistant professor of physics at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Mullan’s passion for science has intergalactic range. His research focuses on how young clusters of stars form and survive in the wreckage of colliding galaxies. Here on Earth, Mullan is boldly venturing into the unexplored realm between the ears of middle school students with The Wrinkled Brain Project.

“We want to promote critical thinking and information-driven decision making in kids and teens through novel learning experiences,” said Mullan, who founded the project with science educator Amanda Joy. “Instead of traditional science experiments where the answer is already known, we want to expose students to unsolved questions in science and give them the tools to do exciting brain work — conducting background research, collaborating with others, creating a hypothesis, and figuring out how to test it.” Teachers can download the curriculum, which includes a teaching guide, worksheets, and materials developed by Mullan and Joy.

Their approach is called gedanken — short for Gedankenexperiments, which are thought experiments that physicists use to test out ideas. In an era when standardized tests leave students more comfortable spouting facts than harnessing them for creative thinking and problem solving, Mullan said, The Wrinkled Brain Project aims to make kids furrow their brows and ask well-informed questions.

“Students grapple with questions like: Is there intelligent life in the universe, why do we sleep, how do we deal with climate change, and how do we power the future with renewable energy?” Mullan explained. He’s using gedanken in some of his physics classes at Point Park, and has tested it in summer camps and in schools. “Kids love it,” Mullan said. “At this point, the challenge is spreading the word and helping teachers find a way to fit it into their curriculum.”

Mullan’s own little gray cells have been star struck since childhood. “I fell in love with space science and the night sky by the time I was eight or nine, going to shows in the planetarium of our high school outside Buffalo, N.Y.,” he said. As a physics-astronomy major at Colgate, his interest was affirmed one night in the control room of the university’s Foggy Bottom Observatory. Professor Thomas Balonek and one of his students invited Mullan as they were looking at the light output of a star trillions of miles away, watching for a dip that was evidence of an orbiting planet.

“The idea that those photons, those packets of light, had made that immeasurable journey and could be captured was amazing,” Mullan recalled. “They gave me a printout that I kept on the bulletin board in my dorm room. I looked at it every night before I went to sleep and thought ‘yeah, that’s what I want to do.’”

— Sari Harrar