In some ways, brothers Michael and Scott Coughlin are your classic odd couple.
Michael, 23, is intense and introverted, a skilled ballroom dancer as well as a scientist. Scott, 22, is easygoing and social, a sports junkie who often ends sentences with the words “and stuff.”
But the two Burnsville natives have something major in common: a passion for physics. Indeed, their academic accomplishments put them among top scholars in the country, and both are studying gravitational waves as part of the same international research project.
The brothers say collaboration and support for each other, not competition, are key to their success.
“We’re competitive about everything but our academic accomplishments,” said Scott.
Growing up, that included everything from video games to sports.
“Nowadays, that would just set us back,” said Michael. “Each of our successes pushes the other one forward.”
Scott is a recent recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, which will allow him to earn a Master’s degree studying gravitational wave physics next year at Cardiff University in Wales. He will graduate from Northwestern University, triple majoring in classics, math and economics, this month.
Michael, a 2012 Carleton College grad, is pursuing a physics Ph.D. at Harvard University. Last year, he earned his Master’s at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy as the recipient of a Churchill Scholarship. To date, he’s the author or co-author of 39 publications.
“I think from an early age they both were very good at math and science, naturally talented at it,” mother Lisa Coughlin said.
But Scott said he never would have pursued physics without Michael’s initial interest. Both got their first taste of it by learning a computer program in high school that analyzes data, allowing users to do real and simulated physics experiments. Once Michael got into it, he suggested Scott might enjoy it, too.
“It all started with him,” Scott said. “That was huge for me.”
The path to Fulbright
They aren’t the children of scientists, though their mom did train as a doctor. Father Bill is an attorney and Burnsville City Council member.Still, there was a lot of encouragement of math and science as they were growing up, Michael said.
Bill subscribed to Scientific American and liked to talk about string theory and dark matter with Michael when he was young, but Michael wasn’t interested, Lisa said.
Today, Michael said he loves physics because it allows him “to understand the world and universe around me using the tools available now.”
The purpose of detecting gravitational waves — which so far have never been found — is to learn more about the forces creating them, like black holes and exploding stars, he said.
“I really enjoy working on kind of these big physics experiments,” he said. “Whatever the coolest physics thing is at the time, that’s what I’ll want to work on.”
He’s also working on the LSST Telescope Project, a massive telescope being built in the Chilean mountains that will take pictures and create maps of the universe with an unprecedented level of detail.
Scott, or Scotty, prefers the math and data analysis side of physics, including “writing [computer] programs to do what human beings couldn’t possibly do in our lifetime,” he said.
He had already lined up a job after graduation, writing computer code for a stock trading company, he said.
His dad suggested he apply for the Fulbright Scholarship, and he began preparing his application a month before it was due.“I’m not one of those guys who was, like, at the first info session for the Fulbright,” he said.
He was initially chosen as an alternate. Just getting to that stage was “pretty surprising,” he said.
In May, he learned he had gone from alternate status to receiving a Fulbright, which isn’t typical, he said. Having studied at Cardiff University several summers ago likely helped his case.
While abroad, he will analyze large data sets in an attempt to detect gravitational waves from a supernova, he said.
While one day getting a Ph.D. in physics is a possibility, Scott said he might also pursue a degree combining finance and math, or get a job in the stock trading industry. “I like to go with the flow,” he said. “I like to explore different avenues.”
Unlike many physicists, neither of his sons struggles to explain what they do to people outside the physics world, their father said.“Neither one is what I call, in this great big world, ‘weird-smart,’” Bill said.
“I don’t want to come across as a nerd who cannot speak to people,” Michael said.
In addition to crediting their parents with their success, Michael and Scott believe having college advisers who challenged them helped a lot.
“We were really bad when we started out,” said Michael, remembering that while at Carleton, he broke a computer by accidentally filling it up with too much data. When his adviser found out, he said it was ok to make mistakes, because “that’s how science gets done,” recalled Michael.
The brothers will be in close contact this year, as both will be working on the LIGO project, a multi-university effort related to detecting gravitational waves.
Michael said they realize their situation is somewhat unusual. “It’s pretty unique to get to work with one’s brother on something you work on every day,” he said.
Scott jokes that while he’s generally supportive of his brother, he’s not supportive of Michael’s competitive ballroom dancing, which he picked up at Carleton and continued at Cambridge.
And Michael remembered that Scott didn’t even know his name was on an article published in a major research journal until Michael told him: “I think this has to do with him not checking his e-mail very often,” he joked.
Bill said as a parent, he’s happy his kids have found careers doing something they enjoy. His sons just happen to have a “special, similar talent,” he said.
“I’m proud of both of them for [using] whatever gifts God gave them and trying to maximize their gifts, to contribute to the greater good of society,” he said.