Tag Archives: S104

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.


Hallowe’en silliness

With the ending of S104, I have been struggling to blog; not least because I’ve been reading as much silly crime as I can get my hands on. On my new Kindle. Which my lovely husband presented me with as a surprise on Friday!

I’ve struggled not only with finding a topic to blog about, but also with the words themselves, which bothered me. So I have devised a plan to see me through until S216 starts in earnest (sometime next month, as I have the PDFs already – nothing like getting a headstart!): I’m going to pick one of the Daily Mail’s “science” stories every few days, look at the original research paper/press release myself, and then write the article as it should have been written. Truthfully and objectively.

But before I begin that mammoth task, I feel I should share with you all a stupendous achievement – our Hallowe’en pirate ship pumpkin. Our lovely friends Dawn and Nick had a party to celebrate their engagement on Saturday night. Dawn is mildly obsessed with pirates, and loves anything to do with Hallowe’en. Plus she’s bonkers. So Joe and I carved her a pirate ship pumpkin.


Happy Hallowe'en!

Explosions and loose ends

I have Explored Science.

I handed in my final, examinable assessment this week, and – bar the Grand Waiting For Results – my level one course with the Open University is complete. I have a very good feeling about the final assessment (the EMA); I enjoyed completing it, and didn’t find it as frightening or difficult as I expected. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not…

My feelings at the moment are mixed: I have adored this course with a passion normally reserved for cheese. It’s been an eye-opening, mind-expanding, boggling and awe-inspiring journey, that has often afflicted me with a penchant for too many superlatives. But the Universe is a very large and splendid place, so the odd superlative isn’t necessarily out of place.

However, I’m now both sad that the course has ended, and at a loose end. What now? I find myself wandering aimlessly around the house, tidying and generally finding Things To Do. I started by placing myself in the vicinity of a large glass of wine, but frankly there is only so much of that one can do before one becomes the local lush, so here is a run-down of my Saturday night.

Brace yourselves…

My esteemed and marvellous husband has invited his blokey colleagues to our house for a game of poker. Now, normally, I would take myself to my study and study furiously – but I have no studying to do! And worse – I have no broadband (this is having profound effects on my sense of civilisation; I’d be rubbish in an apocalypse that involves sending us back to the Stone Age) so this blog won’t even reach cyberspace until who knows when. Which is now. Tuesday.

So what have I done with my Saturday night? Well may you ask. It has involved explosions, funk and groove. People: I have Done My Paperwork! Paperwork that has built up since March this year. I’ve filed, organised, stapled, punched holes and recycled like the crazy party animal I am. But before you write this off as a really dull way to spend Saturday night, bear in mind that I have been drinking Waggle Dance throughout, and that my hole punch exploded.

That’s right; there are holes EVERYWHERE. My study is covered in holes. It looks like an example of chaos theory, which is appropriate to my course of study, but not to my innate and, some may say uptight, sense of order and tidiness. It’s making my brain hurt. And I can’t bring the vacuum cleaner in and sort it out until tomorrow, because Joe’s colleagues will think I’m a mentaller.


The Indian Summer will continue tomorrow, and I shall make a longbow and a knife. After clearing up the holes, of course.

Quantum leap

It appears that physics and I get on rather well. That is probably apparent from the recent fangirl posts; but now I have it on paper too.

A grand total of 93% for TMA07. I am delighted; it wasn’t one of my better TMAs, and I really wasn’t sure if I’d grasped it properly. I made a couple of silly mistakes – but I can’t complain, and it’s focused my eye for detail a little more closely on the detail!

Here’s a musical interlude:

Book 8 has been pretty interesting so far; I’m searching for life elsewhere in the Universe (as ever) and the journey began by looking at the origins of life on Earth. How far back can we see? Are those tiny squiggles in the rock microfossils, or random arrangements of crystals, or just eye-worms in the heads of the scientists in question?

However long ago life sprang into life on Earth, we now have it on fairly good authority that the building blocks, at least, of life came from the stars, via the intervening space.

Comets brought water; meteorites brought organic compounds.

We haven’t found life anywhere else in the Universe just yet. The chances are it’s just too far away. But it’s crazy to believe that we’re the only life in the staggeringly vast space that we call reality. There are plenty of star systems like our Solar System, and no reason to suggest that there are no other Earth-like planets out there inhabiting that narrow band of space just the right distance from their star – and who knows what lives there?

I like to think that’s where some of the creatures from mythology abide – Pegasus, the unicorns and the odd satyr, together with pixies, fairies and well-adjusted teenagers.

Will we ever visit a different world? Perhaps. Not by conventional means, but who knows what may be possible in the future.

One thing I do know for sure: this planet of ours is extraordinary and beautiful, and thinking about the chances of everything happening just at the right place and time is mindblowing. Not miraculous; just absolutely bloody fantastic.

Now, go and look at Symphony of Science.

The end of days

S104 is really picking up the pace now – I’ve just submitted iCMA 48, with 93%. So that’s good then. And I’m zig-zagging through TMA07, which is due in on September 1.

Actually, it’s going quite well. I still have trouble deciphering some of the question wording, and suspect that they are set by people for whom English is not their first language, but you can’t have everything.

Sometimes, things just snap into place. You need to worry about them for a day or so, fret that actually, you’re rather stupid and you’ll never get this, and then it happens. A golden moment, a small firework in your mind, and there it is: enlightenment and understanding.

Question 2 (c)(i), I have the measure of you. I challenge you to a duel; pick your pistol. I’m confident, knowledgeable, and I shall have my satisfaction, sir.

I’ve very much enjoyed Book 7 – Quarks to Quasars. I’ve struggled a little with the specifics, such as energy levels, and the subtle effects electrons have on one another, not to mention the strength of the various interactions. But the concepts, the wider questions that border on the philosophical as well as the scientific – those, I love.

The feeling of stretching your mind so wide open that you feel it’s entirely possible there may be a permanent split is a heady rush. Have you ever stood on the edge of a cliff, or a very tall building, and had that momentary – just a split second – urge to throw yourself into the void? It’s a little like that.

The Universe started as a very dense, very hot mass of energy, then exploded and expanded. But how? Where did the energy come from? Was it always there, or did it just pop into existence? Lawrence Krauss maintains that yes, it came from nothing. I’m afraid I can’t accept that – which is why I shall keep reading, and watching, and learning.

And what about the “edges” of the Universe? What is it expanding into? Well, nothing that we can comprehend. The Universe has no edges, so to speak. It is everything. Or, it is everything in our comprehension. But that is not to say that there isn’t some”thing” out there beyond that, far beyond our comprehension, made of stuff that we could never know…

The more I learn about our Universe, the more fascinating I find it. I worried that I would lose the meaning of life if I was truly convinced of how insignificant we are – but, if anything, I have experienced the opposite.

Perhaps everyone has (or wants, or needs) to believe in something. I’m not sure. I don’t believe in a god, I know that now. This worried me for a time, as I see some of those I care for deeply, and their faith gives them strength and purpose. What would I have? I think my drive comes from a deep-seated desire to understand our Universe, to find out as much about it as I can. I believe it is within our grasp as a species, if we can manage not to destroy ourselves first. And what we find out may turn out to be completely unexpected.

And, I have faith in people. They are extraordinary.

Exploring Science

As this blog is following and documenting my adventures in science, it seems that I should say a few words about S104 Exploring Science for any prospective students of the Open University.

I’ll start by stating, in no uncertain terms, that this is a Very Difficult Course, particularly if there is no (recent) background in studying science or maths. This is not a light, adult-learning-style, interest-only course: it’s full on, in depth and requires an awful lot of hard work.

If any prospective students are not truly interested in science and really committed to learning, it will be extraordinarily difficult. I work full time, and I try to have a social life too – I have struggled to find the hours required for this course.

However, and I can’t emphasise this enough, S104 Exploring Science is absolutely bloody brilliant. It is Professor-Brian-Cox-jazz-hands-brilliant. Finding the time to study has not been, in any way, a chore.

Some aspects of the syllabus have been easier than others; some have interested me more than others. But overall, it’s fantastic.

Here, I need to pay tribute to my wonderful husband – I could not have done this without him. He has been supportive, interested, helpful (especially with the maths and physics) and he has become a very good cook. Joe’s patience is seemingly never ending, and I know he’s really proud of me. I am proud of him. And I am so grateful.

Anyway. Enough mush. Here are the facts, figures and ravings of an S104 Survivor.

For those thinking of starting S104, I would recommend that you do some reading first – partly to see if you really are that interested in science, and partly because it will give you a good base to build upon. I found Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science to be a great introduction to scientific method, and it’s a good read to boot. His blog is fab.

We Need to Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown is also a good read. One of the more wonderful moments of this course was when I realised, in a bolt of inspiration, that I actually understood what I had been reading about a few months earlier.

And as preparation for when you arrive, breathless and exhausted, at the bottom of the mountain that is Quantum Physics, give Jim Al-Khalili’s Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed a whirl.

In fact, just read everything you can get your hands on, in the daily media, online and in journals such as New Scientist.

Before beginning, brush up your maths. Maths used to terrify me. It’s well worth doing the Open University’s freebie maths book to start.

Exploring Science is a nine-month course, and the course team recommends that a minimum of 16 hours per week is put aside for study. I have found this to be fairly accurate, albeit the study time is probably an average. Most people will find some topics require far less work, while others require much more (biology and quantum physics, please stand up!) .

There are eight books covering different topics, and although the order may seem slightly odd when you first see it – it does all fall into place:

  • Book 1 – Global Warming. This is a fairly gentle introduction to S104, and jumps feet-first into a subject that is bang up-to-date – climate change and all that goes with it.
  • Book 2 – Earth and Space. Geology and geological processes are introduced in part one, while in part two we leave Earth and venture out into the Solar System. Again, this is not too taxing, and is a decent way to ease you in.
  • Book 3 – Energy and Light. Physics-lite – I began this book reminiscing about GCSE physics, and remembering a surprising amount. By the end of the book I realised that this was Grown Up Stuff, leading my thoughts in directions they would never previously have contemplated. The maths began to pick up pace; and rather than becoming baffled and afraid, I developed a deep and abiding love for a beautiful and elegant discipline.
  • Book 4 – The Right Chemistry. Again, it begins with a recap of GCSE chemistry, then steamrollered into the kind of stuff that makes you wonder if, by the end of the course, you’ll be able to run your own meth lab. Fascinating. And if, like me, you were once afraid of the mole, this book will cure your fear.
  • Book 5 – Life. Biology. It’s the thickest book of the lot, and it’s stroppy with it. Life lulls you into a false sense of security, starting with the difference between autotrophs and heterotrophs, looking at prokaryotes and eukaryotes, before steaming into the minute detail of the reactions that make up photosynthesis. Think you know how plants make their food? Think again!
  • Book 6 – Exploring Earth’s History. An interest in fossils and geology will mean you sail through this book. It’s absolutely fascinating, and is a grand illustration of how absolutely everything in our Universe is connected. Our planet is a staggeringly beautiful and complicated place, and I am humble before it.
  • Book 7 – Quarks to Quasars. Mind-bending stuff. But give it time, read everything VERY carefully, more than once, and it WILL make sense. I promise. I found that writing notes in my own words was really helpful.
  • Book 8 – Life in the Universe. I’m not there yet. But the book promises to pull together all the aspects of S104, enabling us to build a complete picture of how the separate disciplines tie together. All branches of science are connected, and feed into each other. It will be good preparation for the End of Module Assessment.

Everybody’s techniques for studying are different, but this is how I approached Exploring Science. As I read through each chapter, I highlighted relevant concepts, ideas and facts, making notes in my own words. I also, as you have probably gathered, began this blog. It is, in part, a method of finding out if I’ve fully understood what I’m learning: if others understand my tales and explanations, it’s a good bet that I have.

Talk to your loved ones: bore them silly! I am lucky to have a husband who is almost as fascinated by this stuff as I am, and many of my friends are crazy about science. (I thank you all so much for listening, reading and generally being interested. I love you guys!)

Use the tools the Open University gives you: do all the activities, because they really do consolidate your learning, as well as being good fun in many cases. The questions dotted throughout the text are brilliant, testing your knowledge and understanding before you come to do the assessments.

And speaking of assessments: at the end of each book, you are required to complete an iCMA (interactive computer-marked assignment) and a TMA (tutor-marked assignment). These contribute to your overall mark, as well as helping to pull together everything you’ve learned.

A good tactic for the iCMAs is to write them out in rough before you enter the answers. My first one was pretty shameful, purely because I hadn’t read the instructions properly! In my excitement at starting the course, I achieved only 80%…

For the TMAs – read the questions really, really carefully! Sometimes the OU examiners do not use language in the way you may expect… I found that leaving the TMAs right until the end of the book meant that I was a little stressed about getting them in on time. The questions helpfully tell you which chapters you should have finished before attempting to answer – I would advise that the TMA is completed as you go along.

Use your tutors, that’s what they’re there for. They are a great source of support, if you’re lucky enough to get a really good, dedicated person. The tutorials are also a good source of support, as well as helping you meet other students.

Use other students too: the tutor forums can be helpful, if you get a good group – or join the S104 group on Facebook. I’ve made some lasting online friends through that, and it’s made me laugh until I cry on more than one occasion. You are not struggling alone.

And finally: enjoy it! It’s been a fantastic experience, and I’m genuinely sad at the thought of the course ending (although I cry at the news, so don’t let that be a measure of normality…). Good luck, and remember:

“What we have learned is like a handful of earth. What we have yet to learn is like the whole world.” Avvaiyar, Indian poet-saint.

What flavour are you?

Chapter 7 of Book 7: Quarks to Quasars begins with a quote from Lords and Ladies, a book by the most marvellous Terry Pratchett. This pleases me immensely – not just because I am a big Discworld fan, but for reasons that will hopefully become clear.

“It was here that the thaum, hitherto believed to be the smallest possible particle of magic, was successfully demonstrated to be made up of resons (Lit.: ‘Thing-ies’) or reality fragments. Currently research indicates that each reson is itself made up of a combination of at least five ‘flavours’, known as ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘sideways’, ‘sex appeal’ and ‘peppermint’.” Terry Pratchett

Firstly, this description of sub-magic particles is not so far from our description of subatomic particles. Including the flavours.

Secondly, “reality fragments” is not just a poetic way to describe the fundamental particles that make up the matter of the Universe, but is also pretty accurate. Reality fragments can be put together into larger and larger particles, as the stuff of the Universe is created in star factories.

In our world, until fairly recently (50 years ago or so), it was accepted that the Universe was built from protons, neutrons, electrons and electron neutrinos. Electrons and electron neutrinos, together with their antiparticles (everything has an equal and an opposite), are indeed fundamental particles. They cannot, as far as we know, be broken down further.

Electrons and electron neutrinos are in the lepton family, along with four other fundamental particles: the muon (about 200 times heavier than an electron) and its associated neutrino; and a tauon (about 3,500 times heavier than an electron) plus its neutrino.

So, there are six flavours of lepton. The electron, the muon and the tauon, which all have a negative charge, plus their neutrinos, which are neutral. And just to really confuse matters, there are also six antileptons, with a positive charge but the same mass.

The word “lepton” comes from the Greek leptos, meaning “thin” or “lightweight”, which is reasonable really when you consider just how tiny these things are…

So are these the only fundamental particles? No. We now know that if two nucleons (a proton or a neutron) are picked apart, smaller bits fall out.

Now, let’s give the nucleons another name – just as a test of memory. Protons and neutrons are examples of hadrons. They are not the only hadrons – there are also baryons and mesons.

What makes up hadrons? Quarks!

(As an aside: if you google “quark” in images, you get the Star Trek character. This pleases me.)

This is where it becomes really fun, and has led me to believe that particle physicists are a bunch of hippies at heart. It wouldn’t surprise me if they loaf around smoking pot and drinking absinthe while pondering the nature of the Universe (and there’s nothing wrong with that). You see, quarks, too, have flavours. Sadly not “peppermint” or “sex appeal”, but Terry wasn’t far off.

The quark flavours are: up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom (or, on a particularly fuzzy day, top and bottom are known as “truth” and “beauty”). The up, charm and top quarks have a charge of +2/3e and the down, strange and bottom quarks have a charge of -1/3e. And don’t forget that each quark has its corresponding antiquark…

A hadron can consist of three quarks (a baryon), three antiquarks (an antibaryon) or one quark and one antiquark (a meson); and it always has a whole number charge, so you can determine the recipe.

For example, a proton has a charge of +e and is composed only of up and down quarks. The only way to produce a net charge of +e with up and down quarks is with the recipe up, up, down (uud): 2/3e + 2/3e – 1/3e = +e.


It is now accepted that these are all fundamental particles; that they cannot be broken down further. However, particle physics is moving at lightning speed, and boundaries are being pushed all the time, so who knows what else will turn up?

It is incredible that we have drilled down into the very fabric of the Universe, and pulled out particles that are so small they are incomprehensible. Much like trying to imagine the immense distances between the stars, numbers and sizes become almost meaningless at this point, and it’s much more helpful to think in abstract terms.

Perhaps this is why physicists have come up with such whimsical names for the particles… at this stage, it may as well be pixie dust!