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PIECING TOGETHER THE JIGSAW PUZZLE OF OUR UNIVERSE

2006 QCS Practise Test (2-)

Everything has shape. Small shapes make up bigger shapes. Some shapes support other shapes. Some
shapes represent other shapes. Some people perceive certain shapes one way, while others perceive them
completely differently. Some shapes the universe couldn’t live exist without while other shapes are
impossible. Macroscopically, shape is a very important part of our universe.

Art is one of the more obvious forms of shape and formation. Art is the use of lines and shape as well as
colour to represent parts of life that appeal to the artist. History shapes the present and childhood shapes
a person. Culture shapes society and knowledge shapes the mind. Most people can already appreciate
these concepts. So, today I want to discuss with you shapes on a more microscopic scale.

Particle Physics is the art of piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of our universe. It has so many pieces that
you could never count them all – it would simply be impossible. To put things into perspective, imagine
that you are working on an enormous jigsaw puzzle that consists of thousands of very similar but
different geometric shapes. Atoms would be represented by each puzzle piece; each node on every piece
would represent a chemical bond between the atoms; and each geometric shape would represent a
molecule. The jigsaw puzzle is so huge that it has no edges. Scientists are the people that put the pieces in
place, one at a time. Science expands so far beyond the horizon that it is predicted that we will never find
an edge piece – there will always be more to discover.

Water is one of the most important shapes in our universe. It is essential for the survival of all forms of
life on Earth, and yet it has the potential to kill you. As a liquid it has no obvious shape. However, if it
wasn’t for its molecular shape, it would not be able to exist as a liquid at all – let alone lock together the
way it does to form ice in sub-zero temperatures. Dihydrogen monoxide’s fascinating inter-molecular
forces allow it to change shape. Water can even maintain a shape as a liquid – the shape of the water
molecule allows it to form a meniscus on surfaces that it may be unattracted to. For example, water stays
as droplets on the surface of glass because each molecule is more attracted to other water molecules than
it is attracted to the molecules of silicon in glass.

Another substance with an amazing shape is carbon. Carbon can take many forms, from graphite and
diamond to carbon nanotubes. The reason why graphite appears black while diamond appears
transparent is because of the way light is reflected off the structure of the carbon atoms from which it is
made. The carbon atoms in diamond are connected in such a perfect crystalline structure that when light
passes through it, different colours sparkle from it. In carbon nanotubes, the carbon atoms are connected
so that they form tubes – literally nanoscopic tubes. The structure of these tubes is so rigid that it is the
strongest chemically engineered material that we have. Thanks to the shape of carbon, the future for
space travel (and other forms of scientific research involving extreme temperatures and pressures) is
very exciting.

So next time you drink a glass of water, use a pencil of hear about another shuttle launch, you may be able
to appreciate the microscopic structure of such important parts of our daily lives. Of course, water and
carbon are only examples. There are many other substances that give shape to our universe, including
those that we don’t yet know about. It is the job of the particle physicists to discover these yet unknown
puzzle pieces and put together the jigsaw puzzle of our universe.

© Sarah Don, Australia, 2008