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22025 Defining Moments in Physics: Six Turning Points

Science, as per its nature, strives for the glittering ideal of truth by always reassessing, redefining its position so that it may sidle ever closer. Physics, the study of motion and interaction, is no different. Like a diligent scribe, physics duly adapts to each mumbled correction of the story dictated to it by the universe. Here, we recognise a few of those corrections which helped to untangle the plot of this wild, and ancient tale of all the matter in existence.Splitting the atom, both figuratively and later literally, changed our world. Matter, or ‘stuff’ as we call it in the business, is everything before us in our everyday lives. Take it all apart, and you get smaller things. Keep cutting and slicing away at the fragments, and you’ll get find ever smaller things. Smaller and smaller. Seemingly forever. Eventually, the tiny blob of matter on your worktop will be smaller than the blade of the knife you used to cut it. Eventually, even the fanciest, most sciencey knives won’t cut it, leaving you and your Wednesday afternoon at a bit of a loose end. At that point, the peoples living prior to the late 19th century christened the thing-too-small-to-be-cut the ‘atom’, from the Greek atomos, which means ‘indivisible’. Ernest Rutherford and his colleagues changed our view of matter, by daring to divide the indivisible.These physicists discovered the electron and the positively charged nucleus, before unearthing the proton and the neutron, which made up the latter. The resulting Rutherford-Bohr Model of the atom laid the groundwork for nuclear physics and its applications for years to come. Why is understanding atoms so important? Because everything we see and touch and smell is built of atoms. The sun’s radiation bathes us on a daily basis because of the collisions of atomic nuclei. Our very society is fuelled by the energy of electrons, deserting their nuclei to go on some cool electronic adventures. And that energy is given to those electrons, before some electromagnetic trickery, by manipulating atoms. Nuclear physics gave us nuclear power. Nuclear power could, one day, give us the capacity for near perfectly efficient energy generation. In my view, no scientific field or allied discipline would be quite the same if we didn’t understand the atom as we do. Medicine and engineering make use of nuclear decay and the subsequent radiation. Chemistry is enriched by understanding the structure of the atom, with electrons in their energy levels helping to define and predict reactions. In short, discovering that the atom is not fundamental is… Well… Fundamental.

If you’ve ever stood on top of a tall building to take in a view, you’ve probably considered dropping something over the edge. A mischievous, impish thought. Maybe you’d drop your phone, or an empty coffee cup – just to watch it spin down, out of sight. Please don’t do it. But if you were to drop both an empty, paper coffee cup and your slightly cracked, beaten smartphone, which would fall faster? Conventional wisdom would lead most of us to say “The phone, it’s heavier!” But Galileo disagreed, proposing the idea that all things accelerate towards the Earth at the same speed, regardless of their mass. It’s the shape or the objects and the air resistance caused by it that leads to different landing times. Crazy, I know. But then an astronaut dropped a hammer and a feather on the Moon, with no air to be found…

In 1971, at the end of the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon, Commander David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather at the same time. And they landed on the lunar surface at the same time, proving that Galileo Galilei had been correct four centuries earlier, after dropping balls from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and scribbling down some calculations. This seemingly trivial idea, this quirk of mechanics actually became an indispensable principle for space exploration, satellite engineering and aeronautical engineering. Basically, in any field where something is going to fall, the fact that its shape alone determines how much it accelerates is very useful information.

Today, every child knows that the Earth moves around the Sun. But back in 16th century Europe, it was widely accepted that the Earth was the centre of the universe. And who could blame them? Astronomers would look up at the sky and see the Sun and the planets moving across the sky. If everything on this planet seems still, if there’s no evidence of movement, why not suppose that we were stationary and everything else on the move? This makes Nicolaus Copernicus’ contribution, his bold proposal that the Earth and planets orbited the sun, all the more impressive. He defied established consensus and common sense, looking beyond the obvious conclusions he could have made. So radical was this model of the solar system, that our man Galileo was later persecuted as a heretic by the Catholic Church because he supported it!Nicolaus Copernicus was not the first to propose a heliocentric model of the solar system, with the planets revolving around the Sun, but his book inspired and influenced the astronomers of the Renaissance to shape the theories of today. Galileo, Kepler and Newton all penned theories influenced by Copernicus, improving our understanding of planetary motion and the way the solar system behaves. Many natural occurrences and mysteries were explained by moving the Earth away from the centre. We now understand how seasons work, why other planets appear to change direction across our sky. And these theories springing from Copernican Heliocentrism enabled astronauts, engineers and scientists of assorted fields to predict the motion of our spacecraft and any celestial bodies they may encounter. Now they can navigate the universe beyond solid Earth without flying blind.

Electrical power underpins nearly all domains in today’s society, but in the age of gas and fire, it was only a scientific curiosity. All our electrical generators today operate by creating some form of motion. We spin turbines in wind and in water, and in steam from the heat of burning coals or crumbling nuclei. But how do we translate those spinning turbines into electricity? Well, we do it the same way we always have, the way Michael Faraday discovered, followed by Joseph Henry a year later. The idea alluded to is that of electromagnetic induction, which draws on the idea that a changing magnetic field across an electrical conductor will elicit an electrical current, which can be used elsewhere. Needless to say, this principle is with us still, indispensable in our modern way of life.Faraday and Henry showed us the way to efficiently powering our day to day lives, although they had no idea of this at the time. Today, we can generate rotation in some manner of spinny thing, before hooking up the spinny thing to some wire in a tunnel of magnets, and let that rotate too. Soon, the motion and magnetic field combine and the result is an induced electrical current. Electromagnetic induction is a vital principle in electrical engineering, the distribution of electricity with transformers, as well as everything fuelled by those gleefully excited electrons.

No list of achievements in physics could ever approach completeness without a contribution from Albert Einstein. We all know his name and photograph, we can all spout a few words associated with the man. But what did he actually do to alter the fabric of physics? Funnily enough, he described the fabric of our reality, more completely and accurately than anyone before him. His theory of relativity was not perfect by any means, but in attempting to explain how energy, mass and motion relate to one another, he laid the groundwork for that fabled, unified Theory of Everything that may one day describe how matter interacts in all scenarios across the universe.I will not pretend to fully understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. But in making the physics of electromagnetism compatible with Newtonian mechanics, and then chucking in gravity for good measure, he drew physics as a whole closer towards the ideal of an overarching, coherent picture of the universe. His theory has led to better explanations of some of the everyday effects we see in our lives like light and colour, as well as the extreme phenomena of black holes and supernovae. And the work isn’t done yet! I suppose that’s the true measure of an exciting theory – it creates questions we would never have asked before. Specifically the elementary particles of the universe, the smallest of the small, don’t obey Einstein’s laws of General Relativity, requiring the use of the older equations of Special Relativity. The complete picture, the mythical ‘Theory of Everything’ still remains elusive.

Light. We all know it’s the stuff that comes in beams from bulbs and screens and suns. It keeps our pretty blue-and-green rock warm and photosynthesising. It… is actually a very complicated entity which behaves, almost paradoxically, as a wave or a particle, depending on the circumstance. This complexity, in part, illuminated a whole new field of physics. Pun proudly intended. By exploring the nature of light, physicists uncovered the startling reality that the smallest things in our universe are weird. They don’t follow the same rules as their larger cousins and we still don’t fully understand how to make these two sets of rules work together. I’m talking, esteemed fellow humans, about quantum mechanics.Beginning with Planck’s 1900 theory that light energy can be absorbed in discrete packets of energy known as ‘quanta’, a swarm of physicists began exploring and defining this new science of the very, very small. Quantum mechanics has been used to predict the existence of fundamental particles, the smallest building blocks of the universe that we know of. One day, this field could help to marry the two arms of Einstein’s theory of relativity – or do away with it all together! No candidate for a comprehensive ‘Theory of Everything’ can claim that title without a confirmatory nod from the equations of the quantum world. The problem is, however, that it’s really, really hard to appease and unite all the laws of physics! Furthermore, applied quantum mechanics has led to some cool ideas and innovations, many of which we would struggle to do without. MRI scanners, electron microscopes and many pieces of computing technology like the humble flash drive.

Physics may seem like a dry, boring field limited to crumbling chalk on weathered blackboard. But, as I hope I’ve conveyed, the Bohrs of this world have achieved some incredible feats. I believe that physics is the purest science, in what it attempts to investigate. It simply tries to describe our universe, without the trappings of life and covalent bonds. Physics asks questions which are, at once, higher concept and more basic than that which fizzes or breathes. Instead, it prods at existence itself and scribbles down its notes so that the other sciences have a governed, understood reality to stand and build on. It asks why the universe is; how it is; where it shall go. Indeed, we need only to look at the history of physics to see that it’s an inquisitive beast, but also one which changes its skin, on far more occasions than the six above!

whiteboard, physics Categories: Guide Tags: , , , 10022 10 Things I wish I’d Known Before I Applied to University

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As we all know, sending off university applications can be an experience which is both exciting and daunting in equal measure. With so many different factors to take into account – such as money, distance from home, the course you want to study, the graduate prospects afterwards, and so on – the applications process can become somewhat overwhelming and seem to take over your life outside of school, which, of course, is already busy enough with exam preparation and your social life!

However, in this article, I’m here to help. After attending two very different universities – Birmingham and Cambridge – and sending off my fair share of applications, I share my top 10 things I wish someone had told me before I applied to university, in order to make the process as enjoyable and stress-free for you as possible.

  1. Do not obsess over money

This is easier said than done, I know, but being a student is very much about learning how to manage money: it’s one of the most valuable skills you can learn, and then when you have a full-time income, you will be set for life! Being short of money at university is quite normal, and you can always work part-time to help keep your bank balance topped up (as long as it doesn’t detract from your degree or university experience).

Undoubtedly, studying a university-level degree in the UK in 2018 is an expensive thing to do, and will most likely require you to take out at least one loan to cover the costs. That said, it is healthy to think about this loan repayment as a kind of graduate tax: it will be taken out of your wages gradually, and, as of April this year, the repayment threshold will be raised from £21,000 to £25,000.

In other words, you now will not have to pay back your student loan until you are earning over £25,000 per year, and, as you hopefully already know, the debt will be cleared after 30 years if you’ve not repaid it anyway. For more information on how the loan repayment system works, check out this link. In short, don’t panic, and remember, you shouldn’t allow money worries to get in the way of taking on a university degree: there is so much help and guidance out there about how to manage your cash.

  1. It’s perfectly fine (and normal!) to take a gap year…

If you’re not ready to start university immediately, as you know, it’s a very popular option to take a year out between school and university. Whether you go and travel, work part-time, or get some valuable work experience under your belt, taking a gap year offers endless possibilities, as long as you make the most of your time out and do something you really want to do which is useful (clue: Netflix in bed for a year won’t necessarily be the best use of your time!).

  1. But it’s not a big deal if you don’t

Equally, however, if you want to dive straight into university from school – as I did – that’s also great, and means you will keep the momentum going from your A-level studies. Taking a gap year is not the only time in your life you will get to travel, so don’t panic if you pass on the year out option. You just have to do what feels right for you, so try not to be too envious of other people’s Instagram travel pictures!

  1. Go to the university you want to go to

Continuing the theme from the last point, ultimately, everyone – your mum, dad, teachers, friends, the dinner lady – will have an opinion about which universities you should apply to for your university course. These opinions are useful, of course, but you have to remember that, ultimately, it will be you who actually has to study at that institution/on that course, so you need to put your own gut feelings first: if you get a bad feeling about a place, or it just doesn’t feel right, there’s probably a reason, and you should listen to that feeling. Equally, if you love a university and your family don’t, you should remember that your opinion is by far the most important.

  1. Oxbridge isn’t everything

I wanted to put this one in as it’s very important. When I didn’t get into Cambridge for undergraduate, I was disappointed, but not hugely so, and I was delighted to study my degree at Birmingham: a choice which suited me much better. Although it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to go to Oxbridge, it’s not the be-all and end-all of your university experience, and it’s certainly not a reason to avoid going to university, unless you really feel like you would only benefit from the particular teaching style at Oxbridge and want to reapply.

  1. Go in person before you apply

A university prospectus can tell a very different story to the actual campus experience, so please, try before you buy as much as possible. This is especially important for university halls of residence where pictures can make rooms look much larger, and much nicer than the reality, so make sure you check it out before sending over any cash.

  1. Try not to be competitive or jealous

Whether your friends have received more offers than you or not is not a reflection on you, or something to be competitive over or jealous about, tempting as it may be. School can sometimes feel like a pressure-cooker environment and be very intense, but remember, your friends won’t be with you at university, so just focus on what’s best and important for you.

  1. You may have subject-specific interviews

Even in the humanities, you can end up having subject-specific interview which you might not necessarily be expecting to happen. If it does happen, it’s nothing to panic about, just make sure you’re well versed in everything on your personal statement – and, of course, that you’ve read everything you mention on there: they’ll notice if you are bluffing it! – and that you’ve thoroughly researched the course you’ve applied for, and you’ll be fine.

  1. Don’t worry about grades too much

Yes, achieving your best possible A-level grades is important, but, if recent statistics are anything to go by, it is unlikely that you’re not worrying enough about this. So, take it easy, don’t be hard on yourself, and do your best. Many universities let strong students in anyway with lower grades than they are offered, and there’s always the option of Clearing if necessary. Of course, it’s a good idea to make sure that your reserve choice of university has lower entry requirements to take some of the pressure off.

  1. Finally, offers come in at very different rates: don’t panic!

This one is the most important point I wanted to make: university offers come in at very different times throughout the year, so don’t panic if you’re waiting a while to hear back, as it takes universities some time to work through all the thousands of applications they receive every year. You will receive offers in time, and it’ll be a truly amazing feeling when you do. Good luck!

university Categories: Guide, University Advice Tags: , , , | Comments 9937 The Alternative Guide to the Gap Year

Whether it’s working a ski season in the French Alps, volunteering to teach English in Africa, or snorkelling around the Caribbean for coral reef research, the opportunities for students who want to take a gap year before starting university are endless.

According to the Guardian, as many as 230,000 young people between the ages of 18-25 decide to take a gap year annually, with 10% of those organising their trip using a member organisation of Year Out Group (YOG).

Indeed, in recent years, taking a gap year before starting university has become increasingly popular, a fact which is unsurprising given the recent rise in tuition fees. In other words, it makes sense to ensure that the course you’re studying is the right one, and not just to go to university straight from school for the sake of it.

So if you are wanting to take a gap year: you’re certainly not alone, and there are loads of potential benefits for doing this. For a start, you will have more time to really think about your future university career, boost your career prospects by completing useful volunteering and work experience, and will not end up at university just because it’s what’s expected of you, but because you truly want to be there.

On the other side of the argument, taking time out from academia could make you lose some of your momentum for academic study, making you less productive when you arrive at your first lecture in September.

Ultimately, whether taking a gap year is the right decision is completely dependent on the individual. In this guide, I give you my honest, alternative take on the gap year, to help you make the most of this precious time out if you decide to take it and to ensure it’s the best it possibly can be.

Is a gap year right for me?

If you’re wondering whether you should take a gap year, ask yourself these questions: do you think you would benefit from some time out to boost your CV through volunteering and work experience? Do you think it would provide a good opportunity to travel? Are you not sure about what/whether you want to study at university? And, finally, would a year out help you focus on finding what kind of direction you would like your life to take after school?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it is worth considering that a gap year might be right for you, so read on!

Should I work, travel or volunteer during my gap year?

Well, it’s completely up to you, of course, but, in order to not completely run out of money when financing your exciting trips around Southeast Asia, I would heartily recommend that you work as well as travel and volunteer. This will definitely keep your feet on the ground and give your CV a healthy boost for when you graduate.

Employers can be concerned that graduates do not have enough practical work experience, and showing that you have done this during your gap year – as a choice – could definitely set you apart. Many people take on retail or bar work during their gap years, which is definitely a reasonable option, but you can also take this opportunity to complete work experience/volunteering in sectors which you find particularly interesting.

A gap year is your time, so spend it how you want, but I guarantee that you will have a much better year if you are proactive, productive and make sure that you keep busy. Sitting at home watching Netflix is probably not the best idea (and you may well find time for some Netflix at university anyway…)

On that note, take advantage of your free time to contact employers and ask if they have any work experience opportunities available. Summer especially can be a quieter time for some companies (with their full-time employers taking holiday leave), so it’s worth being proactive and taking advantage of this to get some solid experience under your belt before term starts.


Can I face living with my parents for another year if I take a gap year?

This is definitely a factor worth considering. If you staying at home for your gap year, it’s worth explaining to your parents why you’re doing this, and what your plans are for the year ahead so that they feel happy with why you’ve made this decision and don’t worry about you.

Of course, they love you and will enjoy your company, but you’ll have a much happier time if they know that you’ve got it sorted. Oh and, yes, it is still acceptable to enjoy their home-cooked meals and freshly-washed laundry before the slightly more erratic university lifestyle begins!

What else could I do on my gap year?

Projects, projects, projects are the key! If you’ve considered starting your own blog, business, or taking on some volunteering, you now have the golden opportunity to have a crack at it!

You’ve got plenty of time to make mistakes this year, so it’s worth diving into something exciting (and maybe a bit risky) while you have this luxury. Plus, it will set you in good stead for thinking about what university societies you might be interested in joining when you get there.

Finally, if I don’t take a gap year, have I missed out on my opportunity for travel and exploring the world?

Although it is true that the time between school and university is a fantastic, extended period where you can get a lot of travelling done, it is certainly not the only time when you can do this. If you feel ready to start uni now and you have an offer, go for it!

Lots of students now take a year out between graduating and their first job, so you can always do your travelling then (especially if you don’t feel ready for lots of travel yet). Alternatively, applying for jobs abroad after graduation is a great way to expand your horizons by working and seeing an exciting new place. As a graduate currently working in Amsterdam, it is amazing to be able to combine work and living abroad, so I would thoroughly recommend this option.

Enjoy yourself!

A gap year is an unparalleled opportunity to take time off after school for yourself, before the intense (and amazing!) period of university life begins. So, don’t stress it if you decide to take a gap year, just plan your time effectively, make sure you have a source of income to pay for your skiing/surfing/turtle saving, and look forward to all the memories you’ll bring with you to freshers’ week.

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