# Personal Blogs

## A fear conquered; or, musings on moles

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I am no longer afraid of moles! No, not the little furry buggers that make a mess of your lawn. The once-frightening, but now benign, number used in chemistry so that your head doesn't explode due to excess zeros.

A mole - also known as Avogadro's number - is 6.02 x 10²³ "things". So, one mole of oxygen atoms contains 6.02 x 10²³ atoms. That's quite a large number. So large, that most people can't get their heads around it.

Here's an analogy: one mole of marshmallows would cover the United States of America to a depth of around 6,500 miles*. That is a LOT of marshmallows.

One mole of moles (the little furry buggers this time) would, if placed end-to-end, stretch 11 million light years, and weigh almost as much as the moon.*

Water flows over Niagara Falls at about 650,000 kL (172,500,000 gallons) per minute. At this rate it would take 134,000 years for one mole of water drops (6.02 x 1023 drops) to flow over Niagara Falls.*

Anyway, enough analogies. Suffice it to say, it's a remarkably large number. Far too large to do anything practical with. So, chemists use the mole as a form of shorthand. At school, I hated chemistry specifically because of moles; I just couldn't get my head around it.

So it was with a sense of trepidation that I approached Book 4: The Right Chemistry.

My fears, however, were unfounded. I'm really, really, enjoying this book! The maths tackled so far has really helped to beat back the terrors of Very Large Numbers, and the book is great at explaining difficult concepts in simple terms.

I do think it helps that I am reading We Need to Talk About Kelvin when I'm not studying. This, too, is a cracking book that manages to explain extremely complicated ideas in layman's terms. Doing a bit of reading around the subject definitely helps to seal ideas into your mind, and allows them to take hold.

Anyway - I digress. I was talking about the mole, and its eternal usefulness.

One mole of any substance contains 6.02 x 10²³ atoms, molecules or ions (whichever is most appropriate) of that substance. So, one mole of marshmallows contains 6.02 x 10²³ marshmallows; one mole of water contains 6.02 x 10²³ water molecules; one mole of mercury contains 6.02 x 10²³ mercury atoms.

And, one mole of any substance has a mass equal to the relative mass of that substance, expressed in grams. So one mole of oxygen atoms has a mass of 16.0 g; one mole of oxygen molecules (it's a diatomic molecule, see) has a mass of 32.0 g. With me?

The Avogadro hypothesis (named after Amadeo Avogadro, an Italian physicist who died in 1856) asserts that this is true. Actually, it asserts that equal volumes of different gases, at the same temperature and pressure, contain equal numbers of molecules. Which is beautifully simple, and has the far-reaching consequences I mentioned above.

It enables the mass of any given substance to be translated directly into numbers of molecules (or atoms) using the Avogadro constant: the mole.

Thus: the number of moles of a substance is equal to the mass of that substance divided by the molar mass of the substance.

E.g. How many moles are in 52 g of water? Well, the molar mass of water is (2 x 1.01) + 16.0 = 18.02 g mol‾¹

So the number of moles in the water = 52 g divided by 18.02 g mol‾¹ = 2.89 mol (3 significant figures). There are 2.89 moles of water molecules in 52 g of water.

Simples!

And the scariest thing? I'm quite enjoying it all! Next, I shall enthuse about covalent bonds. They are this: aces.

*I can't claim the credit for these analogies. They came from a rather cool chemistry site.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Roo N, Wednesday, 4 May 2011, 21:56)
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## An experiment to investigate light in the style of a pirate

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Tuesday, 12 Apr 2011, 21:32

I have had a lovely weekend in the sunshine, much of which has been spent outside in our garden, under the beautiful cherry tree, on our new garden furniture. I've been pottering around, weeding the vegetables, planting more seeds, and watching the cats chase motes of dust.

In between, I've been studying hard - book 3, Energy and Light. I'm almost there; I've completed most of TMA03; all I needed to do was Activity 11.1 - Investigating Light.

Joe and I liberated a cardboard document box from his offices, and I planned my experiment. It is set out below, just as it is in my folder (with perhaps just one or two embellishments, and an extra instructive illustration). Some of the details have been changed and the first-person voice has been used because the write up was part of the assessment, and so cannot be made public for fear someone may plagiarise me. So some of this may or may not be true!

Investigating light: determining the wavelengths of spectral lines from an energy-saving light bulb.

Equipment

• Diffraction grating (300 lines per mm)
• Tungsten filament light bulb (40 W)
• Energy-saving light bulb (11 W)
• Lovely stripy table lamp (for the tungsten bulb)
• Tall standard lamp (for the energy-saving bulb)
• Large cardboard document box
• Pieces of Amazon book cardboard
• Gaffer tape
• Sharp knife
• Paper protractor
• Blu-Tack
• Black cotton thread
• Red drawing pin
• Dressmaker's pin
• Eye-patch
• Table
• Dressing gown

Aim

To determine the wavelengths of blue, green and red spectral lines from an energy-saving light bulb.

Method

Having liberated the box from Joe's work in a ninja-style midnight operation, I cut a thin slit in it using the sharp knife. Joe took this off me, and did it properly with a minimum of blood spilled. I tidied the edges using gaffer tape. Gaffer tape can do anything: FACT. The table lamp containing the tungsten bulb was placed within, and Amazon cardboard was cobbled around the edges, in an attempt to prevent too much light from escaping and having a party where my spectral lines were supposed to be.

I had a gander through the diffraction grating, and this is what I saw - a continuous spectrum:

This is an actual photograph I took *proud*

Professional pirate dark-room. Eye patch provided.

Next, I needed to take a look at the spectrum produced by the energy-saving bulb. So I undid my gaffer-taped masterpiece, and fumbled the floor lamp with the energy-saving bulb under there. I couldn't quite manage to see the spectrum this time, so I created a dark-room, thus:

This created the ideal conditions to observe and photograph my diffraction spectrum - which was not continuous, and was in fact a line spectrum. Again, I photographed it:

Line spectra from an energy-saving bulb

All this was very pretty, but had to be interrupted by a trip to Charlie's to make me a longbow. You see, my marvellous husband (he of the fabulous presents) bought me A Big Piece of Wood for my birthday. Not just any piece of wood, mind; a piece of yew, laminated with maple and lemon wood. He, Charlie and I began the shaping of a (very) long bow. It's going to be grand!

Back to science.

Later, when darkness had fallen, I continued my experiment and set up my equipment. Leaving the box with the energy-saving bulb where it was, I stuck it down to prevent any disastrous movement, and placed a paper protractor about 50cm away. A drawing pin pierced the protractor, to provide an anchor point for the thread. The diffraction grating was placed upon the protractor at the axis. Thread was tied to the drawing pin and the dressmaker's pin, and all was ready. See:

Experimental set up.

This is where the eye-patch comes in. To measure the angle of diffraction for each spectral line, you have to line up the spectral line itself with the line on the grating and the thread upon the protractor. This is to be done with one eye, to prevent parallax error. I found myself unable to do this, and so had to use an eye patch.

Of course, it naturally followed that I had to conduct the rest of the experiment in the manner of a pirate. Grog was acquired, and duly consumed. Tables were swabbed, angles were swashed, and the thread was buckled. Much like my knees.

The experiment was a success! The wavelength of the blue, green and red spectral lines from the energy-saving light bulb were calculated as: 450 nm,  550 nm and 600 nm respectively. This isn't far off the actual wavelengths of light emitted by an energy-saving light bulb. Go and google it if you don't believe me.

This has been Science, by Vicky. I've enjoyed it; all that remains to be seen is how well my tutor likes the write-up... I do think that the eye patch was relevant. And the dressing gown.

Permalink 3 comments (latest comment by Alistair Dodd, Wednesday, 13 Apr 2011, 08:13)
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## Energy and problem-solving

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So, I am doing pretty well so far in S104: Exploring Science. My iCMA (interactive computer marked assignment) scores are: 80% and 100% (and the 80 was me not understanding how the system worked!) while my TMA (tutor marked assignments) scores are: 96% and 92%. I'm not so happy with the 92%... but I understand where I dropped marks!

I am two-thirds of the way through Book 3: Energy and Light and I'm really enjoying it. I'm (re)discovering a love of mathematics and equations (with the help of the fabulous ScaryCalc). However, I'm struggling a little with problem-solving.

Activity 7.1 asked us to solve a problem, using the problem-solving skills we developed in chapter 4, and using the information provided as well as relevant equations taught throughout the book.

Imagine that you are stuck in your car in bad weather, trying to boil water to make yourself a hot drink.

A cup contains 150 g of water at 19 °C. A small heater is immersed in the water and connected to a 12 V car battery. An electric current of 13 A flows through the heating element. Find the time taken to heat all of the water to 100 °C and for one-third of the water to vaporise.

The specific heat capacity of water is 4.2 ×103 J kg-1 °C-1 and the specific latent heat of vaporisation is 2.3 × 106 J kg-1. When answering the question, assume that the cup is very well insulated, i.e. that all the electrical energy supplied is transferred to internal energy in the water. Will this assumption lead to an answer that is an overestimate or an underestimate of the time taken?

We are advised to plan the problem out before doing the calculations - so I start by writing exactly what I've been asked to find out: How long does it take to heat 150g of water to 100°C and to vaporise 50g of water?

Then I make a note of all the information I have been given; followed by a list of the equations I may want to use. All well and good - I wrote down a couple of equations that turned out to be superfluous, but better too many than too few, I always say.

I attempted this last night, in a fug of exhaustion and desperation brought on by the realisation that I am falling behind a little. It did not go well, so I retired to the sofa and watched Kurt Russell attempt to save America from the terrists in 1980something.

Today, at lunchtime, the activity went better. I did achieve the correct answer, to the correct number of decimal places, and everything.

This would appear, on the face of it, to be good news - but wait! I had solved this problem in a particularly long-winded way. You may think this doesn't matter; however, part of what this chapter is trying to get us to do is rearrange and combine equations where necessary. I only succeeded partly in this quest.

I think I understand how the book got to the result; I'll have a proper look when I get home. I'll probably ask The Husband to try to explain it to me too.

Today I am not feeling quite so confident about things. I am hoping that with practise I will begin to find this aspect of the course easier, because at the moment it is not coming naturally.

The information itself is terribly interesting and about to get more so; and what's more, I have two new books to read, which are bang on topic:

"Six Easy Pieces" by Richard Feynman and "We Need to Talk About Kelvin".

Bring on the E = mc2!

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## Beautiful mathematics

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Thursday, 24 Mar 2011, 18:53

I am a well-known hater of mathematics, largely because of my (perceived) lack of ability. So it came as some surprise to me that I am very much enjoying Book 3: Energy and Light of S104: Exploring Science.

Algebra is the topic in hand, and we’ve gone right back to basics.

I would quite like this t-shirt.

I remember, as a small child, that in junior school I and several other bright (read geeky) kids were part of an algebra group. The headmaster had a little maths geek set going on, and I was IN. It wasn’t the best school in the world, and the town was... well... provincial. An ex-mining town, very working class, with fewer aspirations flying around than I or my parents would like.

However, I believe that this school (Stockingford Middle School) and this teacher (sadly I cannot remember his name) did me a great service: they stoked my interest in science, and planted in me a very deeply buried love of maths. Or at least, the beauty of maths.

I wasn’t to know, yet, that algebra could enable you to produce very cool images, such as the one on the right...

Groovy.

It stayed buried for a long, long time. Throughout senior school, I loathed maths - partly, I suspect, due to an uninspiring teacher who was convinced I’d fail my GCSE (I got a B) - and partly because I just convinced myself it was too difficult, and I couldn’t do it.

Enter the Open University, S104, Book 3. They really do start at the basics, and I remember more than I thought, so I’m powering through the work; spinning through the vast, echoing spaces in my mind with equations creating beautiful symmetry all around.

Or something similar...

In the beginning...

There is something very calming and aesthetically pleasing about rearranging equations. I like balance, and order, and that is what an equation is. Balance. Yes, it’s simple; but I’m enjoying it. And what’s more, I’m looking forward to the more complex stuff...

Maths is everywhere. Nature, science, art, beauty... Poetry, according to Betrand Russell, who said this:

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.”

He’s right, too. I’m just beginning to understand why maths is so important, how it is a part of everything in the Universe, and appreciate its purity and its sublime beauty.

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## The Nature of the Universe

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Thursday, 17 Mar 2011, 09:24

I was going to take a quick look at this video; but a quick look turned into total absorption. Lawrence Krauss is engaging, funny, and explains what he means really well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ImvlS8PLIo

I'll forgive him the few cheap jibes at religion. I dislike that as much as I dislike the nonsense spouted by the excessively religious. I know what he means, and agree with him, but his lecture could have spoken for itself without being cheapened that way. Some of the jokes made me chuckle though!

And, I have to disagree with his final statement: I think the Universe and everything in it is incredibly special! Whether it's totally random or not: the very fact of it, and the wonders it contains, are staggering.

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## Dumbing down?

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Monday, 14 Mar 2011, 12:58

Last night, the second episode of Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe was shown on BBC2. I am loving this series so far; and I really enjoyed its predecessor, Wonders of the Solar System.

Last night’s episode tied in perfectly with what I’m studying at the moment as part of S104 - Exploring Science. I’m looking at the composition of stars, how they work, how they are born, live and die. The show did a great job of illustrating and supplementing what I’ve been learning.

I am the type of person who finds it very difficult to grasp difficult ideas quickly. I can’t just read about a concept and understand it; I’m quite envious of those who can do that. So I look for all sorts of different ways to learn about a topic - and if there are pictures, diagrams and analogies, so much the better.

This series is not aimed at those who already know all there is to know about the universe; it’s aimed at people who don’t know much at all, or at those of us who devour everything they can about the subject, whether it’s simple or not.

There is plenty of other information out there on science, but much of it is not easily accessible to the masses - and some of it is a bit dated. Science is constantly evolving. We are always learning new things, constantly revising what we know and what we think we know.

Some people will say Wonders of the Universe is science-lite; dumbing down for the masses. I disagree. Simplified doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, and it certainly isn’t a bad thing. My OU course simplifies things all the time. So do scientists. I think Prof Cox is very good indeed at taking a really complicated idea and presenting it in such a way that those who have never studied science or astronomy can grasp it. His enthusiasm is a joy to see.

I can quite understand how some people would find him irritating; he’s a bit of an acquired taste, and he can be a little odd. But I like him, and I like the way he presents his subject with simplicity and enthusiasm - although, as a friend has pointed out, the series is a little like the great Michael Palin’s travel diaries in places... But who wouldn’t take that job if it were offered to them?

Accusations of being terribly trendy have been levelled at him and his fans - but is that such a bad thing? If jumping on a bandwagon gets people interested in science, surely that can only be a good thing. It’s a sad fact that many people are more interested in celebrity nonsense than in things that actually matter - so if Prof Cox is using his popularity and “trendiness” to get people to watch and learn: good for him!

Most people will get no further than this TV series - but a few will fall in love with science and knowledge because of it, and will go further, read more, perhaps even take up some science study. That’s priceless.

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## Success!

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I always stress about test results; not so much before the test, but while I’m waiting to find out how I did. You’re alerted by the OU Student site when results are in.

<F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5><F5>

I’ve worn the letters off my F5 key.

Anyway – results are in. For TMA01, the assessment for Book 1 – Global Warming, I achieved…

*drum roll*

96 per cent!

*thud*

That was the sound of my jaw dropping. I’m absolutely delighted, to be honest. I know it’s a relatively simple one, and they ease you in to these things gently, but being the perfectionist that I am, it’s great to almost achieve that perfection in my first assignment.

My tutor’s comments included: “A first class start Vicki” (I’ll forgive him the misspelling of my name) and, “You achieved all of the Learning Outcomes with a ‘Very Well Demonstrated’ judgement apart from three instances where you dropped to ‘Well Demonstrated’ primarily because there was some missing detail.

“It is work of a high standard, very well presented and easy to mark.  I hope you are finding the course interesting and remember it does get more challenging.

“Well done indeed.”

*proud*

The feedback was pretty good – I know where I dropped marks, and that’s fair enough. Part of it is learning how the OU wants you to explain and present ideas – the level of detail they’re looking for, that kind of thing. I will learn from it, and move on.

I’m well into chapter 6 of Book 2 now, but I’ve stalled. My crappy laptop won’t run any DVDs, so I’ve to wait for Joe to return with his laptop, so I can get on with a couple of activities.

In the meantime, I’ve started the next iCMA (interactive computer-marked assignment) and have had a crack at the beginning of TMA02.

Now, if only I could zap this tiredness…

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## A rock and a hard place

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I am well into Book 2: Earth and Space now. Chapters 3 and 4 talked about earthquakes and volcanoes; I used to love physical geography at school, so I was gratified to find that I remembered much of these subjects.

Fabulously, we had to take a look at a seismology website: the British Geological Society, in order to take a look at seismic activity around the UK in the last 30 days. Which can be found here. FYI, the most recent earthquake was in the Norweigan Sea on February 26, occurred at a depth of 37.4km and measured magnitude 3.6 on the Richter scale. So, just a tiny one then.

This seemed quite topical, considering the disaster that has befallen Christchurch in New Zealand. It's so unusual to see that kind of devastation in a modern, Western country - 200+ lives lost doesn't sound like many when compared to Pakistan's 2005 quake, which killed 54,000 people. That quake triggered landslides; and of course, people live in much poorer buildings in very close proximity.

That's why the scale of destruction in New Zealand is so shocking. There is a modern city, built to withstand the earthquakes that happen there on a regular basis. So why was it so destructive? The people of Christchurch had only just recovered from September's magnitude 7.2 quake - a monster, but one that killed nobody. There was damage, but not devastation. Last week's earthquake was a mere 6.3.

Well, it happened at a much shallower depth. And it caused liquefaction of the land Christchurch stands upon. Basically, it turned the soil to soaking wet mud by releasing an awful lot of water from the soil and bedrock. Double whammy...

People of Christchurch, my thoughts are with you. I wish you the very best of luck with rebuilding your city - and some respite from Earth movements.

Rock samples

Chapter 5 began with a foray into the box of goodies sent by the Open University before Christmas. There are six rock samples in there: a (really rather good) quartz crystal, sandstone, limestone (containing crinoid fossils), schist (I love that word), basalt and granite.

I might have to do some hippy-trippy stuff with the crystal at some point. And there are garnet grains within the schist. Probably not enough to make a gemstone, but you never know...

So that was practical exercise number two. It was a little time-consuming, but pretty interesting. The course gets you to see things that you wouldn't otherwise notice - and I had taken a close look at the rock samples before today.

I didn't do the Acid Test, however; we have no vinegar. This is a shame, and is testament to the fact that we rarely eat chips. I now want chips. Bit of a fail all round, really.

The course is going really well. I'm a couple of days behind, but I think this is because I start my weeks on a Monday, and the course guidelines start it on a Saturday. Which is clearly wrong. So I'm on the right track, and enjoying it immensely!

The only slight niggle I have is that I haven't received my results for TMA01 - the first tutor-marked assignment I completed. I handed it in a couple of days ahead of the deadline, and now I'm champing at the bit to find out how I did. I think I probably did quite well - but it's entirely possible I misunderstood a question or three. Apart from the one that is worded by a monkey that speaks English as a second language...

Stand by. Results will be posted when I have them, along with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Or clinking of glasses.

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## Science is complicated.

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It is, you know. Really, really complex – which may seem obvious, but it was when I was reading a Guardian article about global warming and the shrinking (or not) of the Greenland ice sheet that it struck me: there are so many interlinking processes and systems involved in climate change that it is impossible for the popular media to explain it properly in the space available, to the lay person.

That is not to say that people are too stupid to understand it; far from it. Just that it is not something that can be explained in a page; or even two pages. It is one of those subjects that, when written about in the daily press, should encourage people – not just suggest to them – to go forth and find out more. There is tons of information out there; you don’t have to be doing an Open University degree, or even buying loads of books. There is New Scientist magazine, Nature magazine, their websites, countless phenomenal bloggers (some of whom are over on the right) all scrambling to educate and inform people.

This issue isn’t about convincing everybody that the world is going to end, it’s about educating the masses on the amazing planet we all share. And how we should really be looking after it a bit better.

Climate change is a fact. It’s not something that can be denied. The climate is in constant flux, and has been since the dawn of time. We are, at present, reaching the end (if previous Earthly form is anything to go by) of an interglacial period. Yes: we are in an ice age.

This interglacial period, which is pretty pleasant, has been pottering along for around 10,000 years. Modern humans  have been around for much longer than that. (I’m not talking mp3 players and Pop Tarts here, either.) So it seems reasonable, with all we know and have achieved, that when the ice returns the human race will survive (for good or bad…) and there will be Interesting Times.

What I’m interested in is how much of the climate change that is going on at the moment is anthropogenic. I suspect that we are speeding things up a little… Here is where we look at rates of temperature increase.

Looking at ice cores, we know that the Earth’s mean temperature rose about 10°C during the past 20,000 years, and it happened over the space of about 10,000 years within that time. The rate of increase of the Earth’s mean temperature was about 0.1°C per century.

We also know that between 1850 and 2004, the Earth’s mean temperature rose by about 0.8°C. This means that over the last couple of hundred years, the rate of increase is around 0.5°C per century.

So, it appears that this recent global warming is unusual when the bigger picture is examined. But we don’t really know, yet, why this should be so. And this is were it becomes so very complicated! So far, in Book One of S104, Exploring Science, I have studied:

• The Earth’s surface temperature: how it’s measured; uncertainties; GMST (global mean surface temperature); GMST in the recent past; GMST in the distant past (and how we find out); ice ages
• What determines the Earth’s GMST? energy and power; a balance of energy gains and losses; modelling the behaviour of the GMST; rate of energy gain from solar radiation; solar radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere and at its surface; rate of energy loss from the Earth’s surface; atmospheric infrared radiation absorbed by the Earth’s surface; the greenhouse effect
• The Earth’s atmosphere: its structure and composition; greenhouse gases; processes of recycling
• The water cycle: reservoirs and transfers between reservoirs; the stability of the water cycle; feedback effects
• The carbon cycle: carbon reservoirs and transfers between reservoirs; biogeochemical cycles; the biological carbon cycle; the geochemical carbon cycle; human impacts on cycles in balance

This is a HUGE amount of information – and it’s only an overview of the processes affecting climate change! How on Earth a summary of all this can be presented to people in such a way that they understand how it works is beyond me. It’s beyond the scope of most of the daily press – they simply don’t have the room.

Part of my mission is to talk to people I know about all this. In person, and through this blog – not to preach about saving the planet, but to encourage people to open their eyes and their minds and learn about our home. Do you have an opinion? Good! What is it based upon? If it’s just based upon what you read in the Daily Mail, or the Guardian, GO AND FIND OUT MORE!

Don’t just read one side of an argument – take a look at the bigger picture, and then begin to make up your mind. Science is fantastic. It’s awesome. It is too easy, in this age of instant news, to simply be told what to think, especially when people are so busy. But a little bit of time spent reading – or watching – about a subject is enriching; being informed is being powerful.

Go forth and educate yourselves. Please!

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Niki Di Palma, Friday, 11 Feb 2011, 13:23)
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## Quiet reflection and a certain amount of pride

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Monday, 7 Feb 2011, 19:37

I have almost finished Chapter Six of Book One: The Water Cycle. Again, it is information I’m revisiting from school, but it is a welcome reminder – both of the facts, and the singular re-realisation that our planet is just incredible.

The carbon cycle comes next, and progress is good. Then I have to take a test. Two, in fact! A computer-marked assessment (which I inadvertently started the other day – I hope it hasn’t buggered up my chances of submitting it properly!) and a tutor-marked assignment, that I hope I can put into the correct format.

I’m still having trouble remembering the scientific conventions, and maths is frightening me slightly, but I’m getting there.

Quiet reflection

One of the recent activities – activity 4.3 – asked us to review our progress so far, referring back to the study plan we made at the beginning. I’m quite pleased with my progress; I’m slightly ahead of schedule and not spinning around in panic. This is Good.

The course also wants us to read “actively”. I do this anyway, or I find I retain nothing. Making notes of what I think are the salient points as I go along is my technique. Read a paragraph; summarise the main points. Draw a diagram here and there to illustrate my words.

Time management, I am beginning to find, is going to be crucial to success during this degree. At the moment, my week looks like this – and it’s going pretty well:

• Monday – an hour’s study after work (usually 6.30 – 7.30)
• Tuesday – an hour at lunchtime, and an hour after work
• Wednesday – an hour after work
• Thursday – an hour at lunchtime (yoga in the evening, d’you see?)
• Friday – two hours after work
• Saturday – 2-3 hours in the morning, 2-3 hours in the afternoon
• Sunday – 2-3 hours in the morning, 2-3 hours in the afternoon

It really helps that I’m enjoying it! I do worry slightly about the weekends I’m away – like this coming weekend, for example. We’re at a birthday party, which is likely to get raucous, on Friday night, then I’m at a hen party on the Saturday and in the evening. So Sunday is (hungover) study day. But I’m far enough ahead, I hope.

Active reading isn’t just note making – I tend to discuss what I’ve learned with Joe. He asks me questions, sometimes to clarify what I’ve said, and sometimes picking random (and obscure) facts from the book to test me on.

I think the book could do with more questions and mini-tests – I find them very useful, to check that I’ve really understood what they’re trying to teach us.

The activities have been excellent – not too taxing, and perfectly designed to make us constantly review and revisit what we’re learning.

All in all: not too shabby.

I’m looking forward to Thursday night. It’s our first tutorial. Bring on the OU student fellowship!

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## I need a ruler.

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A device for measuring lines etc. Preferably a see-through one, but at this point I’ll take anything.

I have completed the first three tasks of Book One, and I’m most of the way through Chapter Three. I need to speed up a bit, but time is fleeting, my friends. Anyway – we’re looking at past GMSTs (Global Mean Surface Temperatures). Ice cores, lake cores, and such like. And plotting temperatures on graphs, and reading graphs. For which a ruler would come in useful…

I’ve been a bit disorganised the last couple of days; I left my folder and books at work yesterday, so couldn’t do any studying last night. I did, however, tidy my study. Tidy study = err.. tidy study. So that was a win.

Tonight I’ve added my first week’s precipitation gauge results to the communal wiki table on the OU module website – I was the third person to do so *proud* and so far, conducted the experiment earliest. Early bird.

I also completed activity 3.1, which was gathering data from a table online, and plotting it on a graph. I then had to decide whether or not the overall trend for increasing GMST was, in fact, continuing through to 2010 and beyond. There’s not enough data yet. The random variations were similar to the past few years, and it’s holding steady for now. Apparently it’s expected to increase though.

I’m going to do a bit of reading about global warming, and wait until we’re a little further on in the book; then I’m planning a bit of a discussion with myself as to what I think. At the moment I think global warming is happening; but why? Probably a bit of natural warming, and a bit of us.

I want to save the planet though, and chucking less carbon into the air is definitely a good place to start.

I’m feeling like I’m still waiting for the course to properly get going, to be honest. But I am enjoying it so far. And I’m looking forward to meeting my tutor and some more of the students on February 10th at a tutorial in Coventry. Coventry! Oh, the horrors…

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## Useful Christmas presents

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Saturday, 15 Jan 2011, 15:03

My lovely and long-suffering husband, Joe, is marvellous at presents. For our first wedding anniversary, he bought me a 1940s fountain pen because I had said that I was going to revive the ancient art of letter writing. It’s beautiful, it writes smoothly, and it somehow gives weight to the words on the paper. Letters written with love, using a beautiful device.

For Christmas, he bought me a scientific calculator, because I need one for S104: Exploring Science. It’s a fabulous present, one that I really need, and that frightens me just a little bit. Because the manual resembles a medium-sized paperback novel. It’s a Casio Power Graphic fx-9750G with 32KB of memory. Apparently it can plug into a Personal Computer. Crivens.

ScaryCalc

Its name is now ScaryCalc.

So, the first thing I did with it was to write BOOBIES and SHELLOIL, then turn them into a graph. I am not twelve.

Book 1: Global Warming

I’m still working through chapter three. This is good, as I’m a week or so ahead of the schedule, and we’re going away for a week on Friday. I’d like to have begun chapter four before we leave.

I’ve just learned how to input exponentials into ScaryCalc. I actually worked this out on my own, then looked at the manual to check I was really correct. So I can calculate:

2.45 x 105 x 3.2 x 107

And the answer, incidentally, is 7.84 x 1012

This is good. I’ve not got much further than this yet though. It took me ages. This doesn’t bode well. However, I’m now learning about significant figures, and all their uses. I’m not quite sure I totally understand this yet. For example, I’m not entirely sure how you can write 543 to one significant figure. I think it would be 500, and I guess the extreme error would be a reflection of the accuracy of the rest of the data used to get that figure. I’m sure I’ll get there. I’m okay with something like 2.434 to two significant figures (2.4).

Hmm. I find maths really difficult. 1111.1 x 104 + 1.1111 x 104 equals 1.1122 x 107 which I got wrong, but I’m not really sure why. I shall revisit that question in a day or so, and see if I get it correct. I came up with 1122111.0 which is clearly ridiculous.

Anyway, I’m done for the day. We’re off to my mum and dad’s place for a chilli. But first I’m making lemon biscuits and we’re going treasure hunting.

I have a travelbug to place in a cache in the canal. Freddy the Frog is trying to get to Oxford.

And on that note, sayonara sausages.

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## On evaporation and blissful motion

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I am three quarters of the way through my two week precipitation experiment, which I have mostly been very good about recording. I totally forgot last night, which is a bit piss poor, to be honest. And my only excuse is that I was knackered. Oh, and we had to tighten the chain on my motorbike, which was the flappiest, crappiest thing ever. I’ve ordered a new one, and sprockets, because it’s pretty FUBAR’d.

Anyway – tonight’s precipitation was more interesting than of late; it’s been raining quite a lot, with the Met Office predicting floods because the ground is pretty saturated after the snow.

Vessel A (no funnel) now contains 20mm of water.

Vessel B (funnel) now contains 30mm of water. I also noted that the underside of the funnel was liberally coated with condensation. It’s been pretty breezy and dry today, so I am thinking that much of the water from vessel A upped and left. Either that, or my neighbours are playing silly buggers with my experiment (although it doesn’t smell of wee, so I should be thankful for that, I guess).

Evaporation interests me. I know how it happens, and why, but it still seems sort of magical. All that water contained in the air – a little like something into nothing. I love clouds too. Especially when viewed from above, because they look so solidly soft and inviting. I always find it difficult to believe that I would just plummet to a pancakey death, when it looks like I should be able to roll around in them…

But I digress. Evaporation and precipitation massively influence our planet’s climate, and temperatures. Water vapour is the most abundant greenhouse gas of all – I always assumed it was carbon dioxide. Clouds are a pretty efficient way to move all that water around. I also like to think of all the water that ever was just being shuffled around in different forms. A little like energy – it’s not created or destroyed, just changed.

So the experiment is almost over. I’m not sure how accurate my measurements have been – but I don’t think that’s the point. I think they want us to really think about experimental design, and observation, which I think I have done. I’ve enjoyed it, in a “back at school” kind of way. I’m already looking forward to the next one!

Blissful motion

For the first time in ages, I really enjoyed my journey to work this morning. I remembered why I love my motorbike. The freedom it engenders; the thrill and the beauty of the ride. It was much warmer and drier, and I flowed through bends and past imprisoned people half asleep in their boxes. It was just bliss.

Writing

I know some people who can write. I mean really write. They’re very good, and often very funny. I’m a little envious. Not too envious though – because they actually spend time doing it. I always think I want to, but never quite do. I have ideas, but don’t write them down (ha!) and I do my thinking on the bike, or somewhere equally unsuited to making notes. And my memory is pants.

I must do better. And I must do more reading!

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## An inability to stop eating chocolate and Professor Brian Cox

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Thursday, 17 Mar 2011, 09:24

This studying lark is bad. It’s bad. I never ate this much chocolate before. I think it’s a distraction technique to be honest. I sit down, there’s chocolate nearby, and it finds its way into my face. I don’t know how it does it. It may be of interest to science…

Speaking of science. I checked my precipitation gauges when I got home, and lo! there was 3mm of precipitation in each. The funnel had blown off, which I semi-predicted, but still. 3mm of shiny precipitation. And no pee. This is a Result. I dutifully recorded said measurement, stuck the funnel on with Blu-Tak and put them back outside. We’re forecast rain for the rest of my life, it seems, so I may actually get vaguely interesting results. Or at least different measurements.

I did have a little trouble measuring. I bent one of those metal tape measures at 10cm, so it starts from the bottom (if that makes sense), but I had trouble seeing the level. Would food colouring help perhaps? I’ll see. I might add some food colouring. Oh, and for my record, gauge 1 is the one without the funnel.

I’m blogging because Joe isn’t home yet. He’s on his way back from Leeds, but traffic is pants I think. So I can’t do an exercise vid, or yoga, because he has the computer and my yoga mat in the car. The blogging will turn into studying shortly. I finished chapter 2; chapter 3 is “The Earth’s Surface Temperature”. I’m hoping it’ll be a little more interesting…

Now. Last night we watched BBC’s Stargazing Live, which was great. I’m going to make a device to look at the sun on a piece of paper, and we saw great images of the eclipse that I missed because – again! – it was cloudy. But importantly, it was presented by Professor Brian Cox. I know he has a permanent smile, and he’s a little geeky. But there’s something about him. I want to cuddle him and keep him in my pocket. Ahem.

I do like him. He’s so obviously passionate about what he does. And passionate about introducing science to The Public too – and I guess why he’s always got that slightly knowing smile on his face. He’s got a job he loves, and he’s bloody lucky. And he knows it. It’s catching, too, that enthusiasm. I really hope that this course will take me somewhere near his plane of existence – in a slightly different direction, but really caring about what I’m doing.

This weekend I’m going to make that device for looking at the sun. And a pinhole camera. And win some poker money from my friends.

Interlude

A small rant. Sometimes I really enjoy my job. I like the people I share an office with, and the work is generally interesting enough to keep me from screaming. But why are some people SO BLOODY RUDE? One of my colleagues (from a different department) is just obnoxious sometimes, and there is no need for it. Drives me up the wall. One day he shall be told to go forth and multiply, but that day was not today.

Why are people rude though? And mean? I mean, everyone has an off-day, feels a little grumpy and out of sorts. But not everybody is bloody rude to other people. A little kindness goes a long way. A smile, a nice word, a greeting. No snapping, no shouting, no abruptness. It spreads the love, maaaan, and keeps the world spinning smoothly. A caravan of love, if you like. My resolution is to be nicer to people, especially the ones who are rude (not least because it really annoys them). Random acts of kindness, and smiling at strangers, is the way forward.

A new song

This morning I heard “I Want You” by Elvis Costello for the first time. I didn’t even realise I had it. It hit me like a hurricane; what a song. He drags you through the emotions with him whether you want to go there or not; it’s pleasure and pain, and it is stupendous.

Apparently I need the album “Blood and Chocolate” now – which is where the song is from. That sounds fine to me. More chocolate; but chocolate for the soul, this time.

Peace out.

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## Precipitation and the art of teleportation

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I’m feeling pretty virtuous. Bank Holiday Monday, and I took down the Christmas decorations, performed an exercise video, filled the green bin with bits of unwanted garden, read and made notes (or actively read if you prefer) chapter two of Book 1 – Global Warming, and set up my precipitation gauges.

I changed my mind about the type of receptacle. I went for a couple of jam jars, but used the ex-Evian funnel in one of them. And, just to overcomplicate things, I’m going to set up two more in week two. With wax in the bottom, because I’m worried that the non-flat-bottoms will distort my results.

Yes, it’s probably not that important, but if I’m going to do the thing, I may as well do it properly. Anyway – I’ll post pictures in the next few days, and you can marvel at the positioning and sophisitication of my scientific techniques. And the messiness of my front garden. I’m hoping that my neighbours won’t have pee’d in it (more on that later).

Let’s all hope for some precipitation people. Ideally, that precipitation will come in the form of snow, but anything will do. I suspect I will rapidly lose interest if I keep going out into the cold to measure nothing.

So, a good and productive day, all in all. The book is a little slow to get going, to be honest. Every now and then there’s a box explaining what a pie chart is (for example). I’m a bit of a maths spaz, but even I’m okay with pie charts. They’re starting with basics, and so far I’m not feeling at all taxed.

Still, I’m studying again, and that makes me happy. Plus, the zombies haven’t arrived yet. This can only be A Good Thing. Particularly as we haven’t finalised the Zombie Plan yet…

Joe invited our neighbours around for mulled wine last night too. The mulled wine was yum; the neighbours entertaining, with their stories of flat-faced pigs and gigantic four-foot rabbits. Seriously, this thing’s a monster. I’ve only seen a photo, but that’s quite close enough.

He has a jet engine, which he’s promised to get going in the garden this summer. When we have a barbecue. Ha ha, I said. But no! He really does have a jet engine. Apparently it caused a bit of a ruction between him and another neighbour (not the one who likes to get naked and run around the front courtyard).

I reckon we should have a go at attaching it to a bicycle – it’ll sort out that big hill going into Radford Semele when we go to the pub. It’s a very big hill.

We chattered about this and that, and discovered that they like talking to strange people, which is grand – I also like talking to strange people, but I’m a little shy, so it’s nice to have someone to take the lead. We’ve vaguely planned a canoe trip around Anglesey. I think. I was talking about a couple of days with a tent on the Wye, but somehow we got onto sea kayaking and trips around entire islands. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I’ll give almost anything a go.

So, gossip was gossiped, threats to pee in my experiment were declared, plans were made, and we were informed that we could, in fact, attend the residents’ association meetings. Which seem to be an excuse to drink wine and gossip. It’ll be a method of getting to know the neighbours better anyway, and that must be at least partly a good thing, right?

And so to bed. Which brings me on to the teleportation aspect of this entry. We had dispatched our smaller cat, Whiskey, to the living room just before retiring. Noodle was fast asleep on the sofa. (Noodle is our cow-print cat.) Lying in bed, having a read, trying to put off the horrible return to work after ten days off – and Whiskey appeared – just appeared – on the bed next to me.

I can only conclude that she has learned to teleport. She was very smug about it too. I’m intrigued as to what else she may be up to…

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## Measuring precipitation. Oh, and happy new year...

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Welcome to 2011. Goodbye to 2010; a little sadly, as it was a great year. Packed full of fun and excitement, and chopped up into little slices of human-created time. 2011 is going to be filled with learning, as well as fun. Right now, it's grey and miserable outside, but warm and cosy in here. If a little befuddled... and so we begin.

I did say that I would begin my first experiment today - and begin it I have. This is the experiment at the end of Chapter 2 - Global warming - an interdisciplinary issue. I need to measure precipitation over two weeks (I do feel a little like I'm back at school, which to be honest is not a bad thing...) so I have Started Thinking About It.

I need two rain gauges, and I'm supposed to think about how I will measure the mean daily precipitation over two weeks. Considering the following questions:

• What type of collecting vessel will you use for the rain gauge? Should it have a particular size or shape? Does it need some form of cover?

I need two gauges. One with a funnel, one without - in order to look at the effects of evaporation. I will use a jam jar for the funnel-less receptacle; an Evian bottle for the funnelly one (left behind after the new year celebrations by my best friend Emma). I've cut the top third of the bottle off, and inverted it to make a funnel. This also ensures that the opening of the gauge is the same size as the bottom. Although, Evian bottles are not straight-sided - so I may need to change this to a lemonade bottle with straight sides. The same principle applies though.

They need to be flat-bottomed and straight sided. So, at the suggestion of my lovely assistant Joe, I may melt some wax and cover the bottoms of the gauges with this, in order to create a flat bottom.

• Where will you site the rain gauge?

Well. We have a back garden, but it's pretty sheltered, with overhanging trees and shrubs. And a lot of birds on our bird feeders (which is great, but I don't want them messing with my experiment!) We are lucky enough to have a front garden too, which is pretty private, and with plenty of room to site a rain gauge. So there it shall be. To the left of the front door, between the front window and the box hedge, but not too sheltered.

• How will you measure the amount of precipitation?

I have access to rulers, which I will use. However, we also have a Vernier gauge, which will be very accurate indeed. I shall measure both inside the vessel, in the water itself, and outside the vessel.

• How often will you record the data? Should you empty the rain gauge after each measurement?

I will measure the precipitation and record the data every day at around 6.30pm (if possible). I will not empty the rain gauge after each measurement, because it is entirely possible that some days there will not be enough to physically measure with my rulers.

• What problems might you have in measuring the precipitation?

The amount collected may be too small to measure each day. This is one reason why I will not empty the gauge after each measurement. Measurements taken from the outside of the vessel may be distorted visually by the material. The meniscus will need to be taken into account.

I'm going to set up my gauges either tomorrow or the next day, depending on which receptacle I decide to use.

My other task is to start planning my studying time. I really need to print off a timetable of some sort and stick it on the wall. I also need a decent sized diary. I need lists, and things written down, as well as online calendars. It's like the difference between books and e-books. E-books have their uses - great for holidays when you don't want your luggage allowance taken up with books - but they are not tangible things. They don't smell. You can't really touch them. So they're not really real.

And an unreal study plan and calendar is no use to man nor beast. Nor intrepid voyager.

Study space preparation has begun. Tidying has happened. I need to make a blind or curtain. And a cushion. But I do have a very nice new lamp, courtesy of my best friend Emma (she who provided the Evian bottle). It's from Cornwall, and it's stripy, and it's bloody lovely. So now I have a comfortable study space.

Couple more pictures on the walls; a calendar; a diary; and we're almost ready to be off. Tomorrow will be spent studying Chapter 2 itself.

I wish you all a very happy new year. May it bring you everything you desire.

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## In the Beginning...

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...there was a Big Bang. Or something similar. And Stuff came into being. That Stuff mingled, and meandered, and heated and cooled; and amongst a lot of other things, Planet Earth emerged.

Then it was populated with plants and animals. Some of those animals were Us.

I would quite like to know how all this happened, and how it all works, and how we can stop ourselves from destroying it all.

This beautiful planet is home, and I love almost everything on it. (The exceptions being sprouts and wasps; but I do understand that they may be useful in some ways.) I think we should look after our home, and understand how it works. And marvel at it, appreciate it and cherish it.

I'm not a total yoghurt weaver (although that last paragraph somewhat contradicts this statement) but I want to Save The Planet. Through the medium of marine biology. So, having no scientific background, and little spare cash, I have embarked upon a voyage of discovery with the Open University.

S104: Exploring Science is where I begin. Which is appropriate, as that is what I want to do. Explore.

So armed with enthusiasm, wide-eyed wonder, and an array of equipment (esoteric and mundane) I wade into the myriad facts, figures and tales of the divine in my quest for knowledge.

This blog will record my learnings, my successes, my (hopefully very few) failures, and my musings on this voyage.

Good luck to all those embarking on a similar journey; and to those who are just curious - I hope this may inspire you to wander into uncharted territory also.

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