S207: Very small, or far away?

Crikey. The largest distance measurable is 1044 times bigger than the smallest distance measurable.


The observable Universe

That is so far out of our range of understanding, it’s almost meaningless. It’s difficult enough for us to imagine relatively small stellar distances, let alone the numbers we’re talking about here.

The largest distance we can measure is the size of the observable Universe, at 1026m. It’s taken light about 13 billion years to reach us; and that’s just a fraction of the Universe’s actual size *boggle*.


The quarks making up a proton

The smallest distance we can measure is that of a quark (the bits that make up a proton – two up quarks and a down). A quark is about 10-18m. Again, so small that it’s almost incomprehensible.

Human beings have evolved on a scale that runs from around 10-4m to around 104m (plus a little very recent expanding of our horizons) so that fact that we can measure and understand such tiny and vast distances at all is staggering.

I love the fact that my first foray into S207 has completely blown my mind. I knew these facts anyway, from my study of S104 and from general interested geekiness, but the course has presented it in such a way that I see things differently.

The first multimedia sequence is presented by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the inspirational British astrophysicist. Born in 1943, she was a real pioneer for science (and for women): as a postgraduate student, she discovered the first radio pulsars with her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish. Shockingly, her name on the paper publishing the discovery was listed second, and she did not share in the Nobel prize awarded to Hewish for her discovery. She is remarkable.

I’ve dived into S207 a little early to try to get a head start, and the very first paragraph of the very first book made my heart soar! The first words I read were:

“Studying physics will change you as a person. At least it should.”

The authors went on to say:

“We want your exposure to physics to change you, and we want you to be consciously aware of that change.”

It is a joy to learn when the teachers are passionate about their subject, and their aim is to inspire and develop a deep love for the subject in their students. I knew I would love this course anyway, because the subject matter is endlessly fascinating. But now I’m sure I’ll love it because it’s going to be taught in such a way that it makes you approach learning with delight.

Studying physics has changed me already over the past few years. I’m looking forward to it changing me more.


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