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I wandered lonely as a cloud...

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I know it's not the done thing to diss the Romantic poets, but I'm not sure clouds are really lonely, are they? Let's anthropomorphise them for a moment, and consider the evidence in a logical and scientific manner.

Cumulus

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Cumulus clouds. They don't look lonely.

Cumulus is a lumpy cloud. Its name comes from the Latin for "mass" or "heap". It's a good description; a lumpy heap of cloud.

It has clearly-defined edges, and looks like cotton wool. In my head, I can sleep in them because they look so very comfy. And when I'm in aeroplanes, I always think it would be nice to jump out and land in one. In fact, it is the type of cloud drawn expertly by children everywhere, and can be found moonlighting as Father Christmas's beard as and when required. A cloud such as this could not possibly be lonely.

Interesting fact about cumulus clouds: they form "streets" when they get together. And have street parties because they are harbingers of good weather; they don't generally grow tall, and so do not participate in precipitation.

Stratocumulus

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Stratocumulus cloud. A cumulus with a hangover.

Stratocumulus is a "flattened lump or heap". So, basically, it's a cumulus cloud with a hangover. It doesn't get high, forming in the lowest two kilometres of the atmosphere and, like it's more portly brethren, is not associated with precipitation.

I suppose an argument could be made for this cloud being lonely, but I would take issue with that. It has formed from a squishy mass of cumulus clouds, which is pretty neighbourly, and chose its own hungover state. It's usually found in the company of others, which makes it fairly sociable.

Arguably, this cloud is not lonely either. Also, it indicates high pressure and stable winter weather. So it is a pleasant fellow.

Cirrostratus

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Cirrostratus. Wispy. Friendly.

So named from the Latin cirrus, "wisp" or "curl", and stratus, "layer". A wispy layer of cloud. They spend their time high up in the atmosphere (between five and ten kilometres) as a veritable veil of ice crystals.

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Cirrostratus halo. Spooky.

They often produce a halo effect (see photo) and indicate moist air and an approaching warm front. Cirrostratus and altostratus form from each other. Such close relationships indicate that cirrostratus are unlikely to be lonely clouds. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Cirrus

These wisps are the aloof clouds of the cloud world. They form in the highest and coldest regions of the trophosphere, are composed of ice crystals, do not bring rain, and they spawned Will 'o' the Wisp, Kenneth Williams' alter ego and entertainer of children of the 80s.

There is a variety of different cirrus clouds - cirrostratus, described above, is just one type. Others include cirrus intortus, tools of the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition to use clouds as instruments of torture. Cirrus castellanus is another type of cirrus cloud, used to build castles in the sky; and cirrus vertebratus has no backbone.

Cirrus clouds can be artificial too; contrails from aeroplanes are a type of cirrus cloud. You can judge wind direction up there by looking at how contrails are scattered. And if they persist, you know the relative humidity is quite high. If they disappear quickly, the air up there is very dry. So they're useful things too.

But they all join with each other, and with other cloud types, and are most definitely not lonely.

Nimbostratus

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Nimbostratus. Lonely, perhaps, but not wandering.

These are low-lying clouds that bring rain. They are named from the Latin "nimbus", meaning rain, and "stratus", meaning spread-out. They are big, with flat bases, and are often to be found engulfing the top of a hill. Of course, from the hill's point of view this stratus cloud would be fog. They are the bullies of the cloud world, being big grey brooding miseries, and are the friends of the hills.

They produce dull and gloomy wet days, with the cloud base often touching the ground. The word "fug" describes them nicely.

I suppose that these clouds could be described as lonely. But they don't wander, so my original point stands.

Anyway.

As part of Block 2: Air and Earth, we are studying weather systems. This is, sadly, not as interesting as I thought it might be. I think the extreme weather comes in later in the course. For now, the only thing that has held my interest is the clouds.

I love clouds. They bring depth and mood to the sky, and can often be found making interesting shapes - like pigs, and teapots, and - on the odd occasion - snakes and slippers.

They can also give you a clue as to what the weather may do next, if you know what you're looking for. So this post was really for my benefit; to make sure I've got a vague idea of what clouds look like, and what they herald weather-wise.

I still think cumulus clouds would make a grand bed though. The laws of physics and common senses be damned.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Anthony Dooley, Monday, 27 Feb 2012, 10:17)
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Cool scientific instruments

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Of these, there are many; this much is true. However, by far the coolest scientific instrument I have seen recently is this: the sunshine hours recorder.

sunshine-recorder.jpg
Coolest scientific instrument of the day

I came across this during my virtual fieldtrip to the Teign Valley, where I am having a crash course in climate in the local area. We're trundling around a meteorological station and poking about in the instrumentation.

This device is a thing of beauty. It's a crystal ball, for goodness' sake. What's not to like? And it is simplicity itself. The glass ball focuses sunlight onto the paper chart, and burns a small hole in it. When the sun is behind a cloud, no hole is burned.

Useful things don't have to be ugly. Here endeth today's (very short) lesson. I'm off to get me a crystal ball.

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The virtues of virtual field trips

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After a certain amount of technology woe (the laptop DVD drive died a horrible, grindy death), the IT manager at my workplace managed to do the (as it turns out, simple) job of installing the Teign Valley DVD on my work computer. What a splendid fellow. (We now have a new DVD drive on the laptop, so I'm currently studying at home. Win!)

On starting up the "tour guide" section of the DVD, I took the tour. Now, I'm the kind of girl who likes being told what to do.

  1. Start here.
  2. Click this.
  3. No, not that, you muppet, THIS.
  4. Listen and absorb.
  5. Keeping clicking the "next" arrows at the end of each section.
  6. Do the activities in order when prompted.

What I got was a rather fuzzy and chaotic set of non-instructions, leaving me unsure as to when the tour finishes, and the actual activities start. I'm still a little unsure, but I'm plodding on, and have completed my first activity - Differences on Dartmoor.

This takes you through a series of places in the Teign catchment, and asks you to look at various maps. You're provided with a spreadsheet, and you've to fill in the missing information. So far, so Sesame Street. One problem: the resources window on screen is tiny. Really, really tiny. And when you have an overlay on the map (e.g. contour lines, so you can give the altitude of the locations you're talking about), you can't zoom in. So you kind of have to guess at the exact measurements you're asked to take at the relevant locations.

This displeases me greatly, because I am, after all, a budding scientist. And there's no room for guesswork in precise measurements.

I'm about to embark upon activity 2 - The Heather Hypothesis. I'll keep you posted.

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Mr Motivator

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Does anyone remember him? A rather frighteningly cheerful fellow in big glasses and lycra shorts that were FAR too tight. (He didn't have a lunchbox like Linford, though.) He did, however, look like he could get anyone out of bed early in the morning - if for no other reason than the thought of him in your bedroom for more than one nanosecond is terrifying.

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Mr Motivator. Motivating via terror.

The wide-leg stance, the bum bag, the curiously hair-free legs, the cheery-faced punch, the 80s shoes and socks - they all scream "I'm going to motivate the ass off you, muthafucka" because although he may look cheery, with his cheeky grin and his stripes - if you look a little closer you'll see flecks of spit and an unhinged glint in his eye.*

The reason Mr Motivator is currently residing in my head is this: I wanted to get to work for 8am today (and, in fact, every day) so that I can get an hour's studying done before I start. My plan was scuppered this morning by two things:

  1. I love my bed. It's made of walnut, it's huge, it's got lovely gorgeous bed linen from Cologne and Cotton, and it's got my husband in it. Naked. Plus, our house is made of gaps, so the second you put a hand out of the covers you get frostbite (fact).
  2. The world is very, very cold this morning. Minus 4 at Casa Fraser (yes, yes, I know that compared to actual cold places this is not that cold, but the British like hyperbole, okay?). I had to scrape ice off the car, which normally I don't mind, but this was really sticky ice and took bloody ages to remove.

However, tomorrow will be a different story. I will be here by 8am, and will get an hour's studying done. Teign Valley - a virtual field trip - will be undertaken, and good progress will be made.

The extreme coldness of this morning also gave me another idea. The world is extraordinarily beautiful today; I love it when it's this cold. The air is clear, the sun turns the sky pink and orange, and causes the frost to sparkle like diamonds. I saw a perfect photograph, but had no means to capture it. So from now on, my camera will travel everywhere with me.

Tomorrow morning, at around 7.45, I will be found with a camera and tripod on the Fosse Way overlooking the M40 southbound taking what I hope will be a beautiful photograph.

Be motivated, people. Go out and look at the world. I hope that you can manage it without a disturbing image in your head...

*This is fiction, and is in no way intended to get me sued for libel. I'm sure Mr Motivator is a big cuddle, really.

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Vicky Fraser, Thursday, 2 Feb 2012, 21:20)
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Starting S216: Environmental Science

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My S216: Environmental Science course materials have arrived! Cue much rejoicing, general study planning, and a little list-making.

A brief aside on the topic of world maps:

Among the six books and the DVD pack was also a wall map of the Earth's surface. It's the Mercator projection, which has always bothered me. People's sense of geography is not based upon fact, but upon the Mercator map, and has been ever since it was first produced in 1569.

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What we think the world looks like...

Representing a spherical object on a flat surface is always going to present problems, but the Mercator projection is not even close to being area accurate... Africa is frickin' huge. MASSIVE. As is South America. The main problem with this map is that the further the land mass is from the equator, the more its size is distorted. Thus, Greenland becomes a similar size to Africa.

However, in 1855, a clergyman named James Gall produced his own version of a map of the world, known as the Gall-Peters Projection. This has its drawbacks, too, but the areas represented are much more accurate. See - the northern hemisphere is puny in terms of landmass size compared to the south:

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How the world really looks...

Back to the books:

Anyway. That's enough of maps (although I LOVE maps - if anyone wants to buy me antique maps, feel free).

The first block of S216 is a virtual field trip to the Teign Valley in Devon, and is DVD based. Then we're on to the books, which sound very interesting indeed...

Book 2: Air and Earth.

Part One - Air: We'll be looking at the atmosphere. It's cold outside, and there is an atmosphere. I'm all alone, more or less. Then there's the weather, and weather observations. Followed by the ins and outs of the atmosphere, and the global weather machine including ocean circulation and that pesky El Niño.

Part Two - Earth: Comprising rocks and minerals; igneous rocks; metamorphic rocks; fragmentary rocks; and the weathering of rocks and minerals. Then there's an introduction to soil - what it is; soil ecosystems; and soil processes and properties in the environment. I've got to be honest; this section doesn't sound so interesting...

Book 3: Water and Life. This is quite an alarmingly thick book.

Part One - Water: All types of water. What happens to rain? Ground water; a journey down a river; and the hydrological cycle. I like water. I'm reading a biography of water at the moment, and it's bloody fascinating. Water is strange stuff; it doesn't obey the usual laws of liquids. There is nothing as sweet as water when you're really, really thirsty.

Part Two - Life: Vegetation patters; resources to support life; and ecological dynamics. This is one of my areas of interest because I am a tree-hugging hippy who wants to save the world, one turtle at a time.

Book 4: Landforms and Cycles. This is a more reassuringly thin book.

Part One - Landforms: A bit of physical geography, which I loved at school, and which has stayed with me throughout adulthood. The way the Earth's roots works fascinates me. So we'll start with plate tectonics and an introduction to landforms, looking at lithology, and how water shapes the landscape inland and at the coasts. Then we look at ice, and wind, and finally landforms in space and time.

Book 5:

  • Extreme weather
  • Atmospheric chemistry and pollution
  • Wetlands and the carbon cycle
  • Cryosphere

Book 6:

  • Oceans and climate (this one, I'm looking forward to)
  • Water quality
  • Eutrophication
  • Acid rain

Book 7:

  • Grasslands
  • Tropical forests
  • Biological conservation

Books 5, 6 and 7 are going to interest me particularly. This is a beast of a module, and I'm under no illusions as to how much work I'm going to need to put in. Structuring my life is going to be incredibly important over the next few months, so that I have time to spend with my husband, my friends and my family - not to mention the me-time that will be spent doing yoga and pole dancing.

But last year was fiercely busy, and I enjoyed it immensely. So I'm not fazed; and in fact, I can't wait. Bring on 2012. I'm ready for you.

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Exam results and existential crises

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The good news

The day finally arrived yesterday: we received our results for S104: Exploring Science. There was much excitement and anticipation in the land, and verily did we leap into the course website with glee.

I'm delighted actually - I got a distinction! I knew I'd done well, as I have achieved consistently high marks throughout the course - but the end of module assessment was genuinely tricky, so I'm really pleased.

  • Overall examinable score (OES): 87%
  • Overall continuous assessment score (OCAS): 93%

The self-indulgent navel gazing

The results come at a good time, actually, because I've been dipping - rather self-indulgently - in and out of an existential crisis over the past couple of weeks. It struck me, rather more forcibly than I would have liked, that I'm 32 years old and I am not where I thought I would be.

The fact that 1990 is more than 20 years ago keeps assaulting me in an unnecessarily violent manner. I shouldn't be old enough to remember 20 years ago, surely! I keep thinking of Britpop as a modern phenomenon.

My mortality and the foundations of my existence are at the forefront of my mind, which troubles me. Navel gazing is not becoming, nor - do I feel - is it particularly helpful if it lasts longer than about 15 minutes.

I should have been so much more than I feel that I am at the moment.

Having said that, I would not turn the clock back 15 years for anything; I'm wiser, happier and feel smarter and more attractive than I did when I was but a whippersnapper - I'm just not quite where I thought I was. Either that or the world moved sideways slightly when I wasn't looking.

I've always felt slightly out of time. The 1920s, 1940s or 1950s would have suited me much better than these modern times (female emancipation and general equality notwithstanding). The music, the clothes and the manners of the times delight me. But perhaps we are living in even more exciting times as we prepare to send human beings to another planet...

Getting my Open University results has given me a bit of a kick back onto the right track. It's only a level one course, but it was bloody hard work, and I really feel proud of myself. Roll on S216 - I'm ready for you.

And while I'm waiting for you, I'm diving headlong into books on science to try to get a head start. Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" is my current literary beau, and a splendid read it is too. I've been advised by a colleague to try a little Stephen Jay Gould as anathema to Dawkins, to see which evolutionary camp I fall into, so Amazon was duly visited, and Gould ordered. We'll see where I end up.

Where I want to be is saving the world, one turtle at a time.

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Explosions and loose ends

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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.

Woe.

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

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Evolution: the genesis of enlightenment

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At what point does theory become scientific fact? When the body of evidence for outweighs the body of evidence against? Or when the body of evidence supporting the theory is so overwhelming, the mere idea of counter-evidence seems vastly unlikely?

I'm not sure. Perhaps there is no clear-cut boundary between "theory" and "fact".

Many scientists, including the scientist and atheist Professor Dawkins, the naturalist and superhero Sir David Attenborough, and Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, the former president of the Royal Society, are sure that evolution is no longer a theory, but a fact.

And I agree with them.

An article in today's Daily Telegraph publicised a new campaign calling upon the Government to tackle the threat posed by creationism, or "intelligent design". The newspaper printed the word "threat" just so; with quotation marks around it. I have no compunction in calling creationism a threat, in the most worrying and real sense of the word.

Creationism is one of the more unsavoury ideas to make it over here from America - and it is truly frightening that it is becoming accepted and widely encouraged by those at the top of their political game. Not just one, but two potential presidential candidates believe that a god created the Universe in six days and rested on the seventh. This in itself is alarming; but they are encouraging the teaching of creationism in schools. Not in religious education classes, you understand; but in science classes.

New Scientist magazine calls it anti-science. I cannot think of a better term, and I see it all the time. It is not just creationism; homeopathy, chiropractors, faith healers, crystal peddlers, and those who think that AIDS can be cured by the judicious application of a cabbage are all slowly but surely getting a foothold in our day-to-day lives - occasionally such beliefs are harmless, often they are questionable, and sometimes they are downright dangerous.

There is not a shred - not one shred - of scientific evidence to support creationism. As we became more enlightened, we tried to reconcile the story of Genesis with the evidence presented by men and women of science, and that was to be commended. It led to a spectacular understanding of a spectacular Universe, made - if anything - more awesome (in the true sense of the word) the more we knew.

Evidence for the fact of evolution is everywhere: it is in the rocks in the shape of fossils; it is in biology, as we look back towards the last universal common ancestor; it is in chemistry, where we can trace molecules back to the building blocks of life. Within those enormous subject areas, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and it is the only idea that makes sense of our planet.

More insidious than the denial of evolution is the anti-science rhetoric that accompanies it. To paraphrase Paul Nurse, who shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2001 and who is president of the Royal Society, the following is disturbing:

  • Stem cell research, that promises to cure diseases and immeasurably improve the lives of many who suffer on a daily basis, is an evil practice that should be stopped immediately because it involves "the wholesale destruction of human life". Perhaps the irony of that one is lost on its detractors?
  • Variations in climate are "natural, cyclical environmental trends". This is true. But we CAN say with assurance that some weather change is anthropomorphic, and that human activity IS creating changes that may be irreversible. Climate problems in Texas are not best solved through "days of prayer for rain".
  • And that intelligent design is "a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science class".

Provide me with evidence, please, that intelligent design is worthy of discussion in a science class. I am not entirely happy with it having a place in a religious education class as anything other than a story from the Bible. But the idea of it being taught to children as a legitimate scientific theory makes me recoil in horror, and fills me with fear for what our future holds. We have done a lot of damage to our planet - and to humanity - over the recent past, and we cannot undo that damage without scientific advancement. We didn't understand what we were doing; now we do, and we have to understand how to solve the problems we have created. Going backwards is not the answer - it almost never is! This is not about mocking religion or those of faith, and it isn't about attacking others for their beliefs. It is about science, reason and evidence, and our future.

I do not have to prove that creationism is a fallacy - you can't provide evidence for something that doesn't exist. It is up to those expounding creationism as a legitimate theory - or as fact - to provide evidence to support it.

Faith doesn't exclude science and reason! The Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, the former president of the Royal Society who has put his name to the campaign mentioned above, has called evolution "God's doing". I know many people of faith who are intelligent, reasonable, reasoning and thinking human beings who have no trouble reconciling their belief in a god with the evidence presented by science. Why, then, are creationists forcing their beliefs into our schools, our media, our children?

There are some who would speed humanity towards a new dark age. Do not let this happen: embrace science and knowledge, make sure your children are enlightened and open minded, and stay reasonable in the face of the unreasoning.

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Quantum leap

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Friday, 9 Sep 2011, 14:23

 

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZGINaRUEkU

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.

 

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The end of days

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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.

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Exploring Science

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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.

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What flavour are you?

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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 banged together hard enough, 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.

Simples!

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!

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Particle wanted: dead or alive

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Book 7 - From Quarks to Quasars - is going exceedingly well. I was not quite sure what to expect from a crash course in quantum physics, as it's a subject I've long been fascinated by. However, with great fascination comes great bafflement, so I was expecting to be totally befuddled.

As the great Niels Bohr said: "If quantum physics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet."

It is a source of some pleasure that in fact, I'm not struggling with this book at all. It's heavy going, and there are some difficult concepts - not to mention some downright weird concepts - but with really thorough reading it is all making sense.

Why do some concepts come so easily, while others seem so difficult? Some people struggle with ideas that others find simple; for me, that is engineering and abstract concepts. Quantum physics, though, makes perfect sense to me. I don't know what that says about the way my brain and mind work...

According to the Book, most people find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of quantum indeterminacy, with Albert Einstein himself finding the idea abhorrent.

I can understand that: Newton's world was ordered and completely predictable. I like order; I thrive on it, in fact. Some of my favourite things are lists. But quantum uncertainty makes perfect sense to me.

One cannot say for certain exactly where an electron is in an atom and simultaneously know its velocity, so instead of the "classic" atomic model with electrons orbiting the nucleus, Schrödinger (he of the cat - and more on him later) proposed a new and improved model. The nucleus is surrounded by a fuzzy cloud of electrons, denoting the range of possible positions the electrons may occupy.

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"Classic" model of the atom

So, why can one not predict the position and velocity of an electron? Theoretically, an experiment could be devised to measure its position or velocity, but can they be measured simultaneously?

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Schrodinger's model of the atom

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle says "no". If you know the exact position of a particle, you cannot know anything about its velocity at the same time. The reason why is actually rather simple, and makes perfect sense (once you understand how energy levels work in atoms...)

To measure something, you have to "see" it. And to "see" it, you have to shine a light on it. But by shining a light on an atom (which is where the electron we're looking for is) one of two things will happen

  1. A photon from the light may be absorbed, causing the atom to change energy levels. The quantum state of the atom will have changed, and the electron will no longer have the same position or velocity.
  2. The photon may not interfere with the atom at all. In which case nothing has been measured.

This is the basis from which comes the adage that the act of observation changes the observed. This is certainly true on a quantum level, and true of a subject that knows it's being watched.

(It's a good example of how armchair psychologists and philosophers grab an idea from quantum physics and give it a little tickle, without fully digesting the concept!)

The above aside brings me neatly back to Schrödinger and his beknighted cat. It's a wee niggle of mine that much of the populace seize on Schrödinger's thought experiment and bend it to a vague philosophical notion along the same line as a falling tree making a sound when there's nobody there to hear it. Or not, as the case may be.

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Quantum cat: observation fail

It's not as simple as not knowing for sure if the cat in the box is dead or alive before you open the lid. (And if they're my cats, there's no uncertainty at all, because they'd be screeching threats through the lid.)

The cat in the box is awaiting its fate - a possible death by poison. A vial of poison is positioned in the box, along with a radioactive isotope. If the isotope decays, the poison will be released by a trigger system. However, here is where quantum uncertainty comes in: the isotope may decay immediately. It may not decay at all. And all the possibilities in between. But the point is that until the box is opened, nobody knows whether or not the isotope has decayed, and so whether or not the cat is dead or alive.

The isotope now has a wavefunction describing two states: decayed and undecayed (because we can predict the probability of its state at any time, but not its actual state).

Is this all making sense?

(Schrödinger had also had enough of quantum weirdness, which inspired him to anger animal rights activists the world over in the first place.)

He then carried the theory of quantum uncertainty a little further: the cat is also made of atoms, and is a quantum system (a huge and complicated one, but a system nonetheless). So, stretching this, the cat must then also have a wavefunction describing a live cat and a dead cat, using probabilities based upon the probability of the isotope's decay - because the cat's fate was now bound inextricably with that of the isotope.

Clearly, this is silly. And Schrödinger knew it, which is why he challenged the upstarts Bohr and Heisenberg and their quantum theories of oddness.

It is resolved though: the cat is shut in a box. We can have no knowledge at all of the real state of the cat: probability is just a string of numbers. Without measuring reality, we cannot describe it - so we do not try. When it comes time to open the box, we can use the probability of the isotope's decay to predict the probability of the cat's state, but beyond that - nothing.

There's an excellent book: "Quantum - A Guide for the Perplexed" by Jim Al-Khalili. It explains a lot of difficult concepts really well.

I hope I've made a start. It makes perfect sense to me, anyway!

Stay tuned for nuclear decay...

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Interlude

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I've been on holiday to the beautiful, wild, staggering Scottish Highlands. Achmelvich, Skye, Poolewe and Applecross, to be precise. So there has been little blogging, and a small holiday from studying.

Tomorrow, I shall be blogging about many things quantum. But for now, I shall leave you with this quote, spoken about physics and chemistry, but true of all things:

"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." Marie Curie, Polish-French chemist and physicist, and winner of two Nobel prizes.

Peace out.

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A billion billion billion billion billion times bigger...

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Thursday, 28 Jul 2011, 20:40

Book 7 of S104: Exploring Science is entitled, rather niftily, "From Quarks to Quasars". Quarks are the smallest things of all, the fundamental constituents of the Universe, measuring 10-19 m across; quasars are the most distant objects we can observe, and are around 1026 m away. There's really no way to get your head around these extremes of sizes; suffice it to say that quasars are a billion billion billion billion billion times larger than quarks. Even analogies are impossible. Imagine a marble and a... no. There's nothing big enough. Or far away enough. Imagine a marble and something MUCH further than a quasar?

"Common sense is the deposit of prejudice laid down in the mind before the age of eighteen." Albert Einstein

Well, leaving aside ludicrous quantities of billion, cosmology is the study of the very, very large and particle physics is the study of the very, very small. This aspect of the module combines both of these studies into one neat package, and that package helps to answer the fundamental questions:

  • How does the Universe behave?
  • What rules does it follow? Or is it an anarchist, breaking glasses, listening to the Sex Pistols, and throwing sofas out of hotel windows?
  • How does the Universe change with time?

I'll get back to you on those when I've worked out the answers. Quantum physics will help. In the meantime, here's a philosophical take on the very, very small by those reknowned poets, They Might Be Giants:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNT8SMlqLJA]

Looking at the nature of the Universe takes you outside of the everyday into the realm of the fascinating, the baffling, and the just-plain-weird. Particles that are in two places at once; antimatter; eleven-dimensional space-time.

"If quantum physics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet." Niels Bohr

Hang on to your hats, because Kansas is about to disappear...

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Everything must flow...

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Wednesday, 20 Jul 2011, 21:19

Everything is connected. Absolutely everything. From the more obvious water cycle, to the less obvious carbon cycle, to the frankly astounding and mind-boggling fact that we are all made of stardust.

Simple, observable, everyday phenomena tell us an enormous amount about how the Earth works. For example, I found out during my study of Book 6: Exploring Earth's History, where that yellowy-orange dust comes from. You know the stuff, it ends up on your car sometimes after it's rained. That is dust from the Sahara desert, and it only appears after a big sandstorm.

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Sahara dust makes its way to our cars

The fine, red dust is carried up into the lower atmosphere by the wind, and - if it's fine enough, and the wind is blowing in the right direction - it is transported to our little island and deposited on our cars (much to the annoyance of my dad - it's an abrasive dust, you see, and if you scrub at it the paintwork is damaged).

In the past, dust from all over the Northern Hemisphere was swept up towards Greenland and deposited on the ice cap in the fresh fall of snow. Millenia later, some of our more extraordinary adventure-scientists (I think that's a reasonable title for them) journeyed to the Arctic and took samples from the ice.

These ice cores tell us, amongst other things, how our climate has changed over the past 140,000 years. They show us the peaks and troughs of temperature, give clues as to how arid or humid the climate was, and tell us about the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

All this comes from the presence of dust in ice, and the proportion of heavy or light isotopes of oxygen (that's 18O or 16O) in the snow that fell on the ice-cap.

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The oldest-known rocks on the planet

Another use for isotopes is in radiometric dating of rocks. The oldest rocks we know about are around 4,280 million years old and occur in Hudson Bay, Canada*. That's not long after the Earth and the other planets of our solar system formed (about 4,560 million years ago). They are pretty rare; rocks tend to get recycled during tectonic activity.

Rocks are, against all probability and expectation, extraordinarily interesting. Not only do they provide humanity with gems such as diamonds and emeralds; they provide us with fossils. Look at the rocks next time you see a cutting by the side of a road. Really look at them. That layering, if you're in an area of sedimentary rocks, is giving you a snapshot of the past. You're looking into prehistory. There may even be fossils in there.

Connected to this geological time-line are deep-ocean cores - the sediments laid down by erosion and the dead organic matter in the seas. They provide another means of establishing a relative time-line - and it's all calibrated by the radiometric dating of rocks.

The study of rocks gave us the cause of the last mass extinction, that of dinosaurs (and a huge number of other families) in the K-T event about 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. It's called the K-T event because scientists are awkward so-and-so's: K comes from the Latin for chalk - "kreta" (for Cretaceous) and T comes from Tertiary (an obsolete - but still used to confuse us students - name for the Cenozoic Era. And here is where I feel old: I'm sure I remember reading in books when I were a wee lass the name Tertiary. Cenozoic is a new one on me).

So what did cause the extinction of the dinosaurs? It probably wasn't one single event (and it's pretty much agreed that the other mass extinctions were not caused by a single catastrophic event, but by a combination of changing conditions). There were two events that happened at around the same time, on opposite sides of the world: a 10km meteor smashed into Mexico (you can see the crater on topographical maps) and in India there was, over the course of a couple of million years, an episode of flood-basalt volcanism.

The consequences of a meteor impact are fairly obvious: shockwaves, quakes, but mainly the dust, debris and gases entering the atmosphere. This would only last for a few months; but a few months of starvation is all that is needed to knock a species to its knees. Or its tentacles, if it has no knees. In short, the knock-on effect would be enormous (everything is connected, you see).

Likewise, the volcanism across the world would have a similar effect in terms of gas and dust - but spread over a longer period. CO2 and SO2 levels would rise, increasing the global mean surface temperature (they're greenhouse gases) - but at the same time, the dust in the atmosphere would increase the planet's albedo (the amount of sunlight reflected back into space). So overall, the planet would cool, and the rain would be acid.

This had the devastating, but on the surface insignificant, effect of collapsing a population of plankton because it couldn't photosynthesise. Of course, everything above it in the food chain suffered as well...

Although these events were natural, they should be a cautionary tale to us humans. Every action has consequences. A change to the atmospheric composition can have far-reaching effects; alter the pH of the sea, and the consequences could be devastating. We don't fully understand how it all works yet; but we know that changing one tiny variable will alter a dozen more in ways that we can't necessarily predict.

Everything is connected, and it can tell us an enormous amount about ourselves; our past, present and future; where we came from, and where we might go.

To those who say that science takes the mystery out of life: you are so wrong - if anything, it deepens it and whets the appetite for knowledge and understanding. And you are missing out on the adventure of a lifetime.

*The image of the Hudson Bay rocks was borrowed from here:http://www.daviddarling.info/archive/2008/archiveSep08_1.html. I thank the photographer, but will certainly remove it if requested!

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Biological joviality

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Wednesday, 13 Jul 2011, 14:00

I've the afternoon off work to complete the Tutor Marked Assessment for Book 5: Life. And I haven't blogged in a while. I am also Sick with an unknown malaise of the throat. So, I give you: Biology Jokes!*

Biology is the only science in which multiplication is the same thing as division!


Did you hear about the famous microbiologist who traveled in thirty different countries and learned to speak six languages? He was a man of many cultures.


Confucius once said, "When you breathe, you inspire, and when you do not breathe, you expire."


The bad news is that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Amoebas is shrinking. The good news is that none of the amoebas has lost any of their members.


At NIH (National Institute of Health), there is a sign on the door of a microbiology lab that reads "STAPH ONLY!"


Q: What is the fastest way to determine the sex of a chromosome? A: Pull down its genes.


The teacher asks, "Jessica, what part of the human body increases ten times when excited?" Jessica blushes and says, "That's disgusting, I won't even answer that question."

The teacher calls on Johnny: "What part of the human body increases ten times when excited?" "That's easy," says Johnny. "It's the pupil of the eye."

"Very good, Johnny," responds the teacher. "That's correct."

She then turns to Jessica and says, "First, you didn't do your homework. Second, you have a dirty mind. And third, you're in for a BIG disappointment."


A man goes into a bar and asks: "Can I have a pint of energy please?" The barman pulls the pint and says: "That'll be 80p please!"


Enzymes are things invented by biologists that explain things which otherwise require harder thinking.


Did you hear about the biologist who had twins? She baptized one and kept the other as a control.


One day the zoo-keeper noticed that the orang-utang was reading two books - the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species. In surprise he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books?"

"Well," said the orang-utang, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."


It has recently been discovered that research causes cancer in rats.


I do apologise. I'll get me coat! *Shamelessly stolen from the Internet.

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Whose right to life?

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We in S104 have all been assigned a primate species to research. We are then to have a discussion and decide which of the primate species we would prioritise for conservation, and why.

The species are: Pongo abelii (the Sumatran orangutan); Colobus angolensis (the Angola colobus); Leontopithecus rosalia (the golden lion tamarin); Eulemur coronatus (the crowned lemur); and Tarsius dentatus (Dian's tarsier).

I'm not sure yet which species I would prioritise for conservation, but the discussion on the tutor group forum has raised some interesting points - scientific and philosophical.

When discussing the orangutan, in particular, mention was made of its conflict with humans. The Sumatran orangutan is classed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List with a decreasing population, and little hope for improvement at present. The major threats to the species are legal and illegal logging; a new road which, if approved, will further fragment the sparse populations; and competition with humans for resources.

One student said that the human populations have a right to live there, raise families and make money. Perhaps. "Human rights" are much talked about, and for the most part, our laws and customs are necessary and enshrined in our basic codes of behaviour for good reason.

However, human rights are a human construct: what marks us out as so special? It is difficult to view the world from a non-human-centred viewpoint, but sometimes this is worth trying. When looked at objectively and in a detached manner, it is not so simple.

Why should humanity have more "right" to resources than any other species? What about other species' "right" to existence?

It has been suggested that other species, competing with us for resources, have a case to answer as to their right to survival. "Does it really matter if tigers survive?" asked a devil's advocate? I would argue that, yes, it does matter. And not just because tigers are beautiful, majestic creatures; but because their disappearance may have far-reaching consequences for humanity. And, in any case, who are we to decide?

If we are competing in so many areas for limited resources, that does rather suggest that the problem lies within human populations. Our world is vastly over-populated - we are not just fighting other species for survival, we are fighting each other. Only by stabilising our own population growth can we begin to make any inroads into stabilising the world's ecosystems.

Education is essential: both in the West and in the developing world. If we do not control our own populations, nature has a tendency to redress the balance. By studying animal populations, we can make predictions as to what may happen in our own populations: overcrowding breeds disease; overuse of antibiotics is producing many new strains of resistant bacteria; competition for resources starts wars.

Extinction, like death, is part of life and nature; there's no denial there. Some species reach an evolutionary dead end. Some may argue that the mass extinctions we are facing are "natural"; I would disagree. Humanity is consuming resources so quickly and on such an unprecedented scale, that the world is shuddering in the face of too many changes. We are not just threatening other species - we are threatening ourselves. Perhaps this would not be such a bad thing for the planet; but people are (can be) amazing, wonderful creatures and we owe ourselves so much more.

The answer is not simple, and like almost everything else in life, the debate is not black and white. If conservation is to work - and it is a worthwhile task! - it will need to involve everyone: from governments, conservation groups and concerned individuals to the indigenous human populations themselves. Change has to come from within, and education is key here.

If we can't find a way to protect and preserve the creatures we share this world with, what hope is there for humanity to improve, grow and evolve?

If it were up to me, resources would be poured into the conservation of those endangered species that have been directly threatened by anthropogenic activity alone. We have no idea what effect mass extinctions may have on the planet, on human health and society. Even if we cannot appeal to those who care nothing for wildlife and conservation, surely there is an argument to be made regarding the potential benefits of species we are losing?

And leaving aside all that, our world is incredibly rich and beautiful. Take a look around, learn a little more about the creatures that we are on the brink of losing. That in itself is a good enough reason for conservation. And it's worth some measure of sacrifice.

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Welcome to the Dark Side...

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…we have glucose…

Well, I promised you Photosynthesis Part II, and here it is. I have to say, I was most disappointed that it didn’t involve Voldemort, or a dark lord of any kind. Not even the Sith.

Anyway. The dark reactions are so called not because they take place in the dark, necessarily, but because they take place independently of the light – and the only place they happen is within the stroma of the chloroplast.

The light reactions gave us ATP and NADP.2H, which are used to drive the dark reactions. ATP provides energy for the process, while NADP.2H reduces (adds hydrogen to) carbon dioxide to a carbohydrate – a process also known as carbon fixing. So, if you like, ATP gives a plant enough energy to get its carbon fix.

The natural world is great at recycling – REALLY great at it. As NADP.2H is reducing carbon dioxide to a carbohydrate, it is, itself, being oxidised back to NADP – ready to be reused as an electron acceptor in the light reactions.

The whole process of the dark reactions is known as the Calvin cycle, after its discoverer – Melvin Calvin, whose parents had a terrible sense of humour when it came to baby names. I find it quite astonishing that back in 1945, scientists were able to delve this deeply into a plant cell and find out exactly what was going on.

A sugar phosphate with three carbon atoms as its backbone is the first product of the Calvin cycle, and it requires quite a lot of energy to make:

3CO2 + 9ATP + 6NADP.2H → 3C sugar phosphate + 9ADP + 8Pi + 6NADP

Some of the sugar phosphate is used as energy in the cytosol of the cell; the rest is converted into glucose phosphate and fructose phosphate, both of which are 6C sugars. These then combine to form sucrose, and lose their phosphate groups. Sucrose is transported around the plant for energy.

Photosynthesis is extremely well regulated and very efficient. Not to mention the fact that the light reactions are a truly renewable energy source – scientists are looking at their mechanisms, and wondering how to use the key components in artificial, light-driven fuel cells.

This is a brilliant idea, and I would suggest that any youth with an interest in photosynthesis, plant biology, and industry should get themselves on the rung of that ladder. It’s not just a career with a future; you may well be able to save our planet. And THAT is priceless.

This has been an exercise in ensuring that I understand photosynthesis; it’s rather complicated, you see. And it doesn’t make terribly interesting reading – so I promise that is the last long, boring explanation of a biological process there will be in this blog.

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Plants are busy little things, aren't they?

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Thursday, 16 Jun 2011, 10:54

Today's topic is the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis. Now, you may think that it's all fairly straightforward, thinking back to your GCSE biology classes (or O-Level for you oldies).

A bit of light for the leaves provides energy to turn water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen. Simples, I hear you say. That is what I thought too. Just a short chapter, I imagined. How complicated can it be?

Well. Let me tell you that it's very bloody complicated. I've drawn two diagrams, and I'm still not entirely sure I've understood it. And I've only done the light-dependent reactions! The dark reactions are yet to come. I'm expecting them to involve Voldemort in some way.

Here is a short account of the principle reactions involved in this stage of photosynthesis, which I wrote as part of an activity to help us to understand the processes. I would include my diagram, but I'm not drawing it on a crappy laptop. It's not an Etch-a-sketch, you know. So I've pinched this one from my OU course book.

light-reactions2.png
The light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis

The thylakoids are part of the chloroplast in plants. I apologise for the word "thylakoid". All its consonants are in the wrong place, making it a bit of an assault course for the tongue. It reminds me of trying to learn German at school - I never was very good at German, partly because I had trouble getting my tongue around their words. I do, however, love the phrase: "Schnell, schnell, kartoppelkopf!"

They have an outer membrane, and a really convoluted internal membrane which is stacked into grana - and each little disc (or sac) in an individual granum is a thylakoid. The space inside the thylakoid membrane is called the thylakoid lumen, while the space outside the membrane is called the stroma. As illustrated above.

My summary is as follows. It's supposed to simplify the description of what's going on, and complement the diagram above. I'm not sure I've achieved that; any and all feedback is welcome!

When light strikes a chlorophyll molecule, a photochemical reaction takes place in which the hydrogen atoms of water molecules are split into their constituent protons (H+ ions) and electrons. (Oxygen is released as a by-product.) As shown above, the electrons move from the thylakoid lumen through the membrane to the stroma, by means of protein carriers within an electron transport chain (ETC). The protons are left behind, increasing the concentration of protons in the lumen. With me?

In the stroma, coenzyme NADP collects a couple of electrons and combines them with a couple of protons, reducing to NADP.2H (see above). This lowers the concentration of protons in the stroma. This will be important later.

One of the electron carrier proteins in the ETC is a little shuttle that collects protons from the stroma, bimbles across the membrane, and deposits them in the lumen, further increasing the concentration of protons in the lumen.

As a result of these processes, a transmembrane (yes, it's a word!) protein gradient is formed across the thylakoid membrane - this works much like a hydroelectric plant (think of the reservoir at the top, and all that potential energy waiting to be turned into electricity). Now there's an imbalance of proton concentration, enabling the protons to flow down the concentration gradient back into the stroma through channel proteins called ATP synthase (shown on the right of the diagram above).

The flow of electrons through these proteins enables the manufacture of ATP from ADP (adenosine diphosphate) and Pi and their transfer provides the energy required.

The products of these light reactions, ATP and NADP.2H, are used in the dark reactions of photosynthesis by the Dark Lord to reduce carbon dioxide to glucose.

I do apologise for the extreme biology - but this is the third time I've written the process in my own words, and I do believe it's finally beginning to sink in. In a manner that ensures I understand and remember it.

Stay tuned for the Dark Reactions - I suspect they may be sexier.

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Things that please me

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A list. I like lists. Here is a list of things that please me:

  • The London Underground. I'm in love with it.
  • Animals on the Underground. How could you not be pleased with this?
  • Random photographs of people. Is this you? collects them from everywhere, including passport photo booths.
  • Cheese.
  • Small things. As in miniature versions of big things.
  • The way enzymes work.
  • Tea.
  • Putting on socks outside in the wind.
  • Hugs (but only from very specific people).
  • Having my hair washed.
  • Entering a just-cleaned bathroom.
  • Hanging out the laundry.
  • Stroking a cat.
  • Ticking things off a to-do list.
  • Gathering in the laundry.
  • Radio 4.
  • Uncaged monkeys.
  • Twitter.
  • David Attenborough documentaries.
  • Random acts of kindness.

Please note: this is not an exhaustive list.

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The science of mouldy soup

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TMA04

I must start this blog post with a bit of a "hurrah!" I have received my mark for TMA04 (Book 4: Chemistry). Drum roll... I got 92% - even with the "discussion" about one of the questions, and its ludicrous wording and requirements.

So, I'm very chuffed indeed. I understand chemistry. Or at least, I understand the basics, which will stand me in good stead for Book 5: Life - and, I hope, level two of my journey.

Mould

Activity 2.1 of Book 5 required me to investigate fungal particles in the air. In my kitchen, to be precise. So an experiment was undertaken. Bear with me... it's aces.

The aim of this investigation was to estimate the density of fungal particles (spores) in the kitchen by exposing an appropriate growth medium (Sainsbury's Basics tomato soup - I'm a cheapskate!) to a known volume of air, and then seeing how many fungi grow on it.

Equipment

Small can of Sainsbury's Basics tomato soup

Rectangular plastic container

Paper and sticky tape to label container

Cling film

Ruler.

Experimental design

The container needs to be wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the soup, plus a reasonable volume of air. About half a litre should be plenty. A rectangular container will make it easier to measure and calculate the volume of air under the cling film.

By washing the container thoroughly, and drying it upside down, the likelihood of contamination will be reduced. To ensure that nothing else gets inside, the soup will be transferred to the container quickly, and then immediately covered with clingfilm. A second layer of clingfilm will be used to make the container airtight, thus preventing anything else entering the container.

The volume of air can be measured by multiplying together the length and width of the container, and then multiplying by the depth of air from the clingfilm to the surface of the soup.

It should be kept out of reach of children and animals, and where it is unlikely to be disturbed. Although I can't imagine anyone - husband or cats - would look at that and think: "Ooh yum! I'm a bit peckish" and then dive right in...

How long should I leave it? Well, how long's a piece of string? That will depend on how quickly mould forms on the soup. A week or so should be fine.

I will record the start and finish date and time, and record when fungus first begins to appear, and when it stops increasing.

What should I do with the container and its contents afterwards? Well, the OU recommends that I throw away the whole shebang - for health and safety reasons (excuse me while I stop laughing); however, I will dispose of the mouldy soup in the toilet, rinse the container into the toilet, then put it through the dishwasher for a thorough wash. I am not throwing away a perfectly good Tupperware container! That's going to have my lunch in it tomorrow.

Practical procedure

The container was thoroughly washed and left upside down to dry. When it was dry, the can of soup was opened and quickly poured into the container. The soup was immediately

covered with two layers of clingfilm, and made airtight.

The experiment was labelled "Biohazard: not to be eaten", and the date and time recorded

(May 31, 2011 at 7.30pm). The container

was placed out of the reach of the cats, and left where it was unlikely to be disturbed.

biohazard.jpg?w=300
Biohazard: mouldy soup

The volume of air in the container was measured:

Depth from clingfilm to surface of soup: 3.0 cm

Width of container: 13.5 cm

Length of container: 18.5 cm

Volume    = 3.0 cm x 13.5 cm x 18.5 cm

= 749.25 cm3

= 7.5 x 10-4 m3 (2 significant figures) Note: the corners of the container were rounded, so this figure is approximate.

The first mould began to appear on June 4 and were tiny white spots (about 1 mm in diameter), mostly around the edges of the tub.

On June 5, the white spots had grown to a diameter of around 3 mm to 4 mm, with 1 mm green/blue patches in places. More areas of growth had appeared. Condensation also appeared on the clingfilm, which made observations a little awkward.

My mould was respiring! I was so proud. My very own baby mould; they grow up so fast.

By June 9, no more spots were appearing. And it's probably a good thing, because it was getting a little crowded in there, and the patches were beginning to fight among themselves. I did NOT want to have to step in there and break anything up.

Results

fungal-particles.jpg?w=300
The Mould Boyz

Seventeen separate areas of mould were counted. Most of the mould was clinging to the edges of the soup on the container, with a few patches in the centre. The patches in the centre resembled blisters lying just on or beneath the surface. They were milky in appearance, and slightly jelly-like, measuring 0.5 cm to 1.0 cm in diameter. Delicious.

The patches around the edge were either white, or white with green/blue areas. The white patches had stalks, while the green/blue mould was furry in texture. These patches measured around 1.5 cm to 2.5 cm across. I've seen this furry mould before; it normally inhabits the bit of sandwich you've just put into your mouth. You know this, because there's half a patch of mould left when you look at your meal.

Analysis of results

Each area of growth probably represents one fungus, which arose from one fungal spore. My result was: 17 fungal spores per 7.5 x 10-4 m3 air.

To find the number of fungal spores per cubic metre of air:

= fungal spores per m3

= 2.3 x 104 fungal spores m-3 (2 significant figures)

I could work out the total number of fungal spores in the air in my whole kitchen; but frankly, I'd rather not know! I'm quite happily living in blissful ignorance, and perpetuating the dastardly rumour that I am, in fact, a great wife who cooks, cleans, maintains her rather great bottom AND makes interesting conversation that does not involve mould.

Critical thinking

The density of fungal spores I obtained is almost certainly an underestimate of the true density. This does not make me happy. I thought 22,666 spores per cubic metre was quite alarming enough.

Assumptions were made that the number of fungal spores in the air are evenly distributed throughout the room; this is unlikely to be the case, especially with movement of air. It may be that not all the spores trapped in the container grew into patches of mould. It was also assumed that all spores had grown into mould when I ended the experiment; this may not be the case.

Further investigations

We were supposed to think about what else we could investigate. But really, the only thing that came to mind was the mating habits of fungus. I suspect I've been staring at a screen for too long...

My next activity involves researching Leontopithecus rosalia. Stay tuned!

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Why I love science

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Most people who know me will know that I love science because I want to save the world. I’m horrified at what we’re doing to the planet and its beautiful animals and plants.

However, the other reason I love science is because of people like this extraordinary young lady: Krissi Fox.

I only discovered that she exists today. She has Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and blogs about it. Reading her blog may make you cry. But I’m almost positive that it will inspire you to be a slightly better person smile

Good luck Krissi. I think you’re amazing.

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Farewell, sweet chemistry, for now

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Thursday, 2 Jun 2011, 08:30

Well, I have reached the halfway point in my study of science with the Open University - farewell, Book 4. I have enjoyed you very much, and I do believe that we have surprised each other.

You surprised me by re-introducing me to The Mole, and making me love it. I surprised myself by not only enjoying chemistry, but understanding it too.

However, I must put in a complaint. Not about the chemistry, you understand; nor about the way in which it was taught (although really, some of the writers need to embrace the idea of "less is more"). No, my beef is with those who set the questions for the TMAs (tutor-marked assignments).

In this case, the person who required us to needlessly rearrange an equation, then arrange it back again, when we could find the answer quite easily using the original equation and the information in the graph - thereby confusing everyone on the course - should be punished by being locked in a room with Silvio Berlusconi and Celine Dion being played on a loop.

Failosaurus.

But apart from that little blip, the TMA is done and dusted, and is going through a checking process. I should have dispatched it by the end of the day today.

I feel I've achieved quite a lot from this module: I understand, do not fear, and in fact have grown to love Avogadro's mole; I am able to write balanced chemical equations; I understand acids, bases and equilibrium; I can find the hydrogen ion concentration of a substance from its pH; and I am beginning to understand how drugs work (and therefore, how enzymes and hormones work). It's really fascinating stuff.

Fuel, and evidence, is being added to my mini-crusade against quackery. Well, my own personal local crusade, partially inspired by Ben Goldacre (I had my doubts before I started studying science, and before I discovered his Bad Science writings).

I should clarify: the placebo effect is real, and documented, and I'm absolutely happy with that. What really grates my carrot is when people peddle something like homeopathy as "science". Some homeopathic remedies are sold at a dilution of 200C. That means that one drop of the "remedy" has been diluted in 200 drops of water - 100 times over. It has been diluted more than the number of atoms in the entire universe. (Thanks to Bad Science for this nugget!)

And that is only one of the ways in which homeopathy is quackery.

But as I said - the placebo effect is fine. I have no problem with people parting with their hard-earned cash for nonsense, or for a placebo. What I DO have a problem with is quacks encouraging seriously ill people to stop their medication, and start taking sugar pills. That is dangerous, arrogant and pretty close to evil. I saw a forum discussion, via a tweet from Le Carnard Noir, in which homeopaths were talking about how to encourage HIV and AIDS patients to stop taking their retrovirals in favour of taking sugar pills.

And then one of them demanded that everyone else stop making a link between HIV and AIDS. That's not just deluded, it's dangerous. And vulnerable people, who are desperate, will listen to them.

I've also learned that when people say that, "Natural is better; chemicals are bad, m'kay" they have not really thought about what it is that they're saying.

salicylic-acid.jpg?w=179
Salicylic acid - the active ingredient in willow bark

Take the example the OU gave us: aspirin was developed from willow bark, which has the active ingredient salicylic acid. In days of yore, willow bark was used to treat aches and pains, and was quite effective - except for the side effect of stomach irritation. Chemistry has enabled scientists to adapt the natural drug - salicylic acid - to acetylsalicylic acid, which does the same thing, but without the side-effects.

Acetylsalicylic acid - the active ingredient in modern aspirin

Another example is Ventolin (or to give it its proper name, salbutamol). It mimics adrenaline, a chemical released by our bodies in times of stress. As it happens, adrenaline is very effective at opening the airways, thus relieving asthma - but the last thing an asthmatic wants is increased heart rate, changed blood flow, and the jitters. Salbutamol was developed from adrenaline, but tweaked slightly so it only affects the lungs, without affecting the other organs.

The natural remedy was a great start; but most people forget (or likely don't think about it at all) that the plant evolved the chemicals for its own good; not for ours. Why would a natural remedy, "designed" to benefit the plant it came from, be ideal for use on humans with no tweaking?

Instead of bemoaning the work of modern chemistry, people should be celebrating it. It's an incredibly creative area of science, and has saved and improved countless lives.

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The nature of acids, and a long string of hydrocarbons

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I am charging through Book 4: The Right Chemistry, and after a shaky start, I'm enjoying it very much.

Last week I undertook an experiment to measure the acidity or otherwise of common household substances. It was just like being back at school, and I got to Make A Mess in the kitchen. Win!

I tested washing up liquid, shampoo, stain remover, laundry powder, tonic water, cranberry juice, bleach, tap water - and resisted the urge to plunder the house for anything that could have a Universal Indicator paper stuck into it. Including the cats.

I was very surprised at how acidic tonic water is - it has a pH of 3. So, what is pH?

pH stands for "potential hydrogen". I didn't know that, and don't remember being told at school (although it is entirely possible that I was setting fire to a bunsen burner at the time). This makes sense, however, as I now also know that the pH is a convenient way of describing what a substance's hydrogen ion concentration is.

So, tonic water has a pH of 3, which means that its hydrogen ion concentration is about 1.0 x 10¯³ mol dm¯³. Handy. Saves using lots of very small numbers and scientific notation.

Acids yield hydrogen ions when they are dissolved in water - so the higher the concentration of hydrogen ions, the more acidic the substance. Bases yield hydroxide ions: so the more hydroxide ions contained in a solution, the more basic that solution is.

The strength of an acid is determined by how far it dissociates in solution - hydrochloric acid, for example, is a strong acid because it dissociates almost completely. Almost all the HCl molecues dissociate to give positive hydrogen and negative chloride ions; whereas vinegar (acetic acid - or ethanoic acid, to give it its proper name) is a very weak acid as it only partially dissociates in solution.

The book then took us through the method of calculating a substance's pH from its hydrogen ion concentration - or vice versa. And very simple it is too. I can imagine it will come in very useful to you all on a daily basis - if for no other reason than to impress people in the pub.

"See that pint? It has a pH of 4.5, which means it has a hydrogen ion concentration of 0.0000316 mol dm¯³."

Anyway. I'm pleased with my progress, and have moved onto hydrocarbons. Which are pretty cool.

I am a long string of hydrocarbons. As are you. And so is almost everything, in fact. Including crude oil.

Hydrocarbons are subdivided into alkanes and aromatics. Alkanes are further subdivided into linear-chain alkanes, branched-chain alkanes, and cycloalkanes. This are all pretty good descriptions of their molecular structures.

Carbon has a valency of four, meaning that it can hang onto four other atoms. Hydrogen has a valency of one, so it can only hang onto one other atom. Linear-chain alkanes are long strings of carbon atoms attached to a maximum of two other carbon atoms, and two or three hydrogen atoms. These alkanes can also be folded over; they needn't be long, straight strings.

Branched-chain alkanes are similar to linear-chain alkanes, but instead of having two hydrogens, a carbon atom will be attached to a third carbon, forming a "branch". Hence the name.

And cycloalkanes are rings of carbon atoms, with hydrogen atoms attached. These, too, can have branches.

Aromatics are also rings of carbon atoms, but some of them have double bonds, and some of them single bonds.

All this is useful for grading petrol, believe it or not. When you're filling up your vehicle, the unleaded nozzles have "95" or "97" printed on them. These are the octane numbers; and the higher the octane number, the better the performance of the petrol. Y'see, linear-chain alkanes don't make very good motor fuel - they burn unevenly, and cause the engine to "knock" (small explosions interrupting the burn). Branched-chain and cycloalkanes are much better; and if you can add an aromatic to the mix, then it's better still.

I'm not sure why yet; I'll get back to you when I've found out.

I'm particularly enjoying hydrocarbons as I get to draw molecular structures. This pleases me: they are very regular, and appeal to my sense of neatness. This is ethane:

ethane.jpg

And this is an aromatic - napthalene - note the double bonds, and pleasant circular structure:

napthalene.jpgI've downloaded a chemistry drawing package to use for my Tutor Marked Assignment. I'll see how I get on with that...

I'm looking forward to Book 5: Life - and am hoping it will give me more of an idea of my future studying direction. I love everything so far - but I think a focused four-directional future will be time-consuming to say the least...

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