School Winner: The Intricacy of Our Universe

Winning Entry bannerSchool1C Molly1 with permission

Whilst reading “A Journey through the Universe: Gresham Lectures on Astronomy” by Ian Morison it struck me how many unanswered questions, uncertainties and conflicting theories we have regarding our universe‘s composition. As science progresses with the discovery of new constraints and laws, it’s becoming much harder to cope with the intricacy of our universe as we know it. As I see it, our universe is a very complex entity and no one person could retain knowledge about its entirety. So, do our brains, a product of this universe, have the capacity to understand it?

There are many setbacks concerning our understanding of the universe, especially the conflict between highly regarded theories and laws that govern its existence. For example, one problem encountered is the fact that we cannot combine Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with the more modern Quantum Theory. The main obstacles physicists faced when combining the two theories was the difficulty of incorporating the fourth force, gravity, into the Standard model of quantum mechanics, along with the other 3 forces and all 17 of the elementary particles. The fundamental incompatibility of these areas of cosmology represented by quantum mechanics and general relativity is yet to be solved, however we should ask ourselves what if our brains have no means of ever comprehending a combination of the many theories out there? There are so many different ways of describing the totality of the cosmos so how will we ever reach the desired “Grand Unified Theory”?

Although the idea that our brain capacity limits our understanding of our universe is a bleak one, I find the concept of our universe being totally uncomprehensive very exciting. It allows the possibility that whilst humans are imprisoned in only 3 spatial dimensions, unbeknown to us, there could be millions of other dimensions out there. It offers concepts such as the Multiverse; parallel dimensions and alternate realities to our own, which is mind-blowing.

History has shown us that human limitations do not always impact great scientific discoveries, however eccentric they may have seemed at the time. Many of the far-fetched concepts that scientists proposed in the past, which were considered improbable by human logic of that time, have gone on to form the well-known scientific theories of today. For example, in 1543, Copernicus proposed the first heliocentric model of the solar system, which strongly opposed the prevailing astronomical model of the cosmos at that time – the Ptolemaic system. Even Tycho Brahe, an arguably accomplished astronomer of his time, rejected the Copernican model, thereby showing that new concepts are difficult for humans to understand.

Ultimately, we may live in a universe that is so beyond our comprehension that we shall never be able to reconcile the Theory of Relativity and the Quantum Theory into one unifying “Grand Theory”. Or maybe we are simply not quite there yet? The nature of humanity is, however, to explore and therefore I think that even if the end goal is unreachable, we must still strive to attain it.

Molly Haigh
Year 12
Maidstone Grammar School for Girls

1C Molly3 (with permission - cropped)

“My name is Molly Haigh and I am currently studying for A levels in Art, Maths, Physics and Spanish at Maidstone Grammar School for Girls. I have always had an interest in Astrophysics, which was heightened further whilst undertaking an Oxford University module titled ‘Exploring the Universe’. There are still many interesting unanswered questions regarding this subject, which is one of the reasons why I hope to study this exciting branch of physics at University.”

Science Issue: A World Waiting to be Discovered and Protected


Great Barrier Reef (image: the Catlin Seaview Survey)
Great Barrier Reef (image: the Catlin Seaview Survey)

It seems crazy that twelve people have walked on the moon and only three have made it seven miles down to the deepest part of the oceans – the Mariana Trench1. Our ocean floor has been mapped to a resolution of 5km (this is why it is so hard to detect plane wreckage in the oceans). We have maps of the surfaces of Mars, Venus and the Moon at much higher resolutions. And yet our oceans host 50-80% of all life on Earth. They are precious, mysterious and vulnerable.

Trilobite (American Museum of Natural History)
Trilobite (image: American Museum of Natural History)

Throughout the Earth’s history there have been a number of mass extinctions. We all know about the dinosaurs. However, the greatest mass extinction happened 252 million years ago, marking the end of the Permian period2. Marine species took the greatest hit, with 96% becoming extinct, especially those with calcium carbonate skeletons who rely on stable CO2 levels. 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species died out and it is the only known mass extinction of insects. It took life on Earth millions of years to resurrect itself.

In April, an article in Science was published by a group from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand3. The team leader, Matthew Clarkson, and his colleagues studied rocks in the United Arab Emirates, which were submerged in the oceans at that time. Using boron isotope data, they analysed the pH of seawater during this period. Boron exists in water in two states, depending on how acid or alkaline the water is, and so it is a good pH indicator for the period. They found chemical evidence that the oceans went from alkaline to acidic over the course of a few thousand years, which is very fast in geological terms.

Clarkson and his team suggest that during the first phase of extinction, the oceans could buffer any changes in atmospheric CO2, and so pH levels remained stable. However, during the second phase of extinction, a rapid and massive injection of CO2 caused a sudden rise in ocean acidity and so a huge loss of calcified marine biota.

The Siberian Traps4 are thought to be the source of the CO2. This was one of the Earth’s largest volcanic events, lasting for about 1 million years. It covers a landmass equal to Western Europe.

Why does this matter? Well, a consequence of increased CO2 levels in our atmosphere today means that our oceans are again at great risk of increased acidification5. The loss of coral reef communities globally is well charted and will continue.
The threat to our oceans doesn’t end with acidification. In the last 50 years we have eaten 90% of the big fish6. The natural systems cannot replenish at the rate in which we are trawling the seas. In your lifetime it is possible that the Arctic ocean may be ice-free… no more polar bears, amongst other species.

As young scientists you have the potential to make a difference within this burgeoning field. You can use your skills to explore, your insight to inform and your creativity to propose innovative ways forward.

Lisa Burke

At the Coral Reefs: secret cities of the sea exhibition, Natural History Museum
Lisa Burke at the Coral Reefs: secret cities of the sea exhibition, Natural History Museum

2. Knoll et al. Science 273, (5274): 452-457 (1996)
3. Clarkson, M. O. et al. Science 348, 229–232 (2015)
5. Barker, S. & Ridgwell, A. (2012) Ocean Acidification. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):21
6. Ransom A. Myers & Boris Worm Nature 423, 280-283 (15 May 2003)

Career Path: Valuing scientific approaches


1A Barbara photo

Young women are under-represented in science at University level in the UK, especially in Physical Sciences, Maths and Engineering (STEM). Biological Sciences and Medicine, though, have become more equal. For the STEM subjects the figures aren’t too surprising because students are often dropping these subjects at an earlier stage. For example, more than 40% of state schools have no girls in Physics in years 12 and 13 (Institute of Physics).

Compared to many other countries (in Eastern Europe and China, for example) in the UK there can be lots of assumptions made about girls from a very early age. Girls can pick up messages that girls “don’t do science” or as they start to choose subjects, the way these subjects are portrayed can make them feel “engineering isn’t for me” and yet what is being portrayed in only one part of a whole range of types of activities in the subject.

It is not just that we think studying science is for a career in science only. We need many more people to understand science, maths and the scientific approach whatever their job. I studied Natural Sciences myself at Cambridge. I started on a research track but decided early on that my skills were with people and organisations. I had a fascinating career in health sciences, for example as Regional Director of the NHS for the South East of England. I then moved and became Chief Executive of Oxfam, travelling the world to support poor people to get themselves out of poverty or to provide humanitarian aid. Never for one moment did I regret doing science at University. The way it makes me look at evidence was so important in all my roles and the knowledge I had of science allowed me to understand so much more of what was happening in clinical care when I worked on health issues.

In this blog, we want to help by giving young women interested in science a voice and also getting their slightly older peers to describe what work in science is like and to share the excitement and intriguing questions their work raises. We want to encourage young women mainly ages 14-20 to see the opportunities and excitement of being in science.

This is the first post of a year-long discussion, with an entry each week. Each 4 weeks will include a post from a woman scientist about her work and her passion for it; one describing some current news and research; a student in a STEM subject from Murray Edwards College describing what it is like to study science in Cambridge; and a school student who wants to contribute to the debate herself. So “go for it” young women, let’s hear what you have to say about science.

Best wishes
Barbara Stocking
Murray Edwards College
May 2015